If there’s ever a second edition of What is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (University of California Press, 1996), I’d like to make two changes in my translation of Kant’s answer to the question What is Enlightenment? The first is simple enough: my boneheaded use of “free reign” on p. 60 when I ought to have written “free rein.” The second is more interesting. Kant may have thought that he could gloss Horace’s Sapere Aude! as “Have the courage to make use of your own understanding.” But as Sean Goodlett was kind enough to point out in an email several years ago, what Horace was saying in Epistles I;ii wasn’t (as I have it in footnote 2 on p. 64) “Dare to know!” It was “Dare to be wise!”
The passage Kant was quoting goes like this:
Sapere aude: incipe!
qui recte vivendi prorogat horam,
rusticus exspectat dum defluat amnis;
at ille labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.
The words are addressed to Lollius Maximus, a young man beginning studies in rhetoric in Rome. Horace compares an individual who postpones the “hour of right living” to a rustic bumpkin who waits for a river to run out — “yet on it flows, and on it will flow, rolling its flood forever.” Hence Horace’s advice: stop hesitating: “Dare to be wise: begin!’
Kant appears to have been fond of the passage in question. A year before his essay in response to the question “What is Enlightenment?”, he’d used the last two lines of the passage in the Preface to his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, arguing that there no reason to put off a “radical reform” of metaphysics any longer. And, as Franco Venturi noted, the Horace quote had turned up a year earlier in the prize question posed by the Munich Academy of Science (and who among us does not love those eighteenth-century prize questions?): “How should the motto of Horace: Sapere aude be brought into practice, so that not only the well-being of individual men, but rather the well-being of the entire state, would arise from it?” The popularity of the phrase stretches back at least as far as the 1736 medal adorning this blog, struck under the direction of Ernst Christoph von Manteuffel, the driving force behind the “Société des Aléthophiles” — “The Society of the Friends of Truth” — a Berlin society of churchmen, lawyers, and civil servants dedicated to the dissemination of truth in general and the philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff in particular (more on them in a later post).
It’s possible that Kant was doing nothing more than repeating a catch-phrase (his friend Hamann liked to close letters with it). But, then again, the connection it suggests between wisdom and moral reform has an affinity with Kant’s conception of enlightenment as a “reform of a way of thinking [Denkungsart].” In both cases, insight is married to moral regeneration. I’d missed that connection when translating the essay because the importance of the role of the concept of Denkungsart for Kant didn’t become clear to me until I read Felicitas Munzel remarkable Kant’s Conception of Moral Character (University of Chicago Press, 1999), which provides an exhaustive reconstruction of the role of the notion in Kant’s moral philosophy. Particularly important is her discussion of the sudden “crystalization” of moral character that Kant associates with a transformation of one’s Denkungsart (287).
What is peculiar here is how this way of using Horace’s motto cuts against the idea that wisdom is the result of a laborious process of study that must foreever be extended (one can never be rich enough, thin enough, wise enough). For Kant and Horace, wisdom ultimately involves a sort of leap: there’s no point in waiting for a better moment to begin to be wise — the river will never stop flowing. So, Sapere aude: incipe!