Sapere Aude: Incipe!

cropped-minervahead3.jpgTo begin, let’s go back to Kant again.

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!

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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11 Responses to Sapere Aude: Incipe!

  1. Fournier Denis says:

    You wrote: “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: (…)”.
    Can I know where Venturi quoted that?
    Thanks!

    • Ha! It looks like you caught a mistake. Looking through my notes, it appears that I must have gotten this from Norbert Hinske’s collection of articles from the Berlinischer Monatsschrift, Was ist Aufklärung? p. 515. Thanks for keeping me honest!

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  4. noir-realism says:

    How refreshing to have come upon your blog. Already I enjoy the forthrightness and detailed breadth, both anecdotal and full of that esprit de corps for the Enlightenment. I look forward to reading through from the beginning. I have yet to have the pleasure of reading you books but have already located some volumes in the local library which will be read forthwith.

    Thanks for being so honest and open, clarifying and bringing out the nuances for us amateurs.

  5. Sean C. Goodlett says:

    Your translation of Kant’s “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” is both exacting and invaluable. I use it every time I teach the text, and more often than not I pair it with your articles on the Mittwochsgesellschaft (1989 and 1992). Now, of course, I will also have my students read your blog posts from May and June of this year.

    I should add that when we originally discussed the translation of the phrase from Horace’s epistle, I believe I mentioned that I drew a connection between Kant’s “Beantwortung” and moral philosophy because of the Francophone Enlightenment context. I particularly had in mind the stress that Rousseau placed upon the distinction between knowledge and wisdom in his several answers to critics of his first and second Discourses.

    Now that I read about the epistle being “addressed to Lollius Maximus, a young man beginning studies in rhetoric in Rome,” I’m reminded again of Rousseau’s insistence on the distinction. In answering his critics, he was at pains to demonstrate that he was no mere rhetorician. After all, rhetoricians were principally concerned with the art of persuasion (“ce grand véhicule de toutes nos sottises,” as he says in the so-called Lettre de J.-J. Rousseau à Monsieur Philopolis), not ethical principle or wisdom.

    Thanks for your gracious note, by the way, on this inaugural post. I had missed it until just the other day.

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  10. TMRuss says:

    Thank you for starting this blog, now the newest addition to my RSS feed. My favorite translation of Horace’s lines are from Abraham Cowley’s essay On the Danger of Procrastination. He gives both the Latin original and his paraphrase:

    Sapere aude;
    Incipe. Virendi qui recte prorogat horam
    Rusticus expectat dum labitur amnis; at ille
    Labitur, et labetur is omne volubilis aevum.

    Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise;
    He who defers the work from day to day,
    Does on a river’s bank expecting stay,
    Till the whole stream which stopped him should be gone,
    That runs, and as it runs, for ever will run on.

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