As proposed by Immanual Kant, the Enlightenment consisted of having “the courage to use your own understanding,” and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Descartes’ Meditations, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote collectively provide instances that both affirm and subvert Kant’s proposition. Paradise Lost’s Lucifer embodies Kant’s idea of intellectual independence—fighting against God’s authority in order to make his own decisions and arrive at his own conclusions. In Meditations, Descartes argues against intellectual conformity yet attempts to impose his own on others. In Don Quixote our knight errant questions self-imposed nonage with his own form of self-imposition. Together, these works exemplify the diversity of ideas that resulted from the courageous decisions of people to use their own understanding.
In Paradise Lost, Lucifer believes that the Son’s exaltation above him by The Father is unjust and illegitimate, and Lucifer refuses to surrender his personal freedom to Him. As one-third of the angels join his rebellion, Lucifer criticizes the loyal angels: “I see that most through sloth had rather serve” (V.166). Lucifer believes that the loyalist angels suffer from a self-imposed nonage, not thinking for themselves but rather submitting their minds to the predilections of the Almighty. Most famously, the Fallen Angel states: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” (I.263). Throughout the epic poem, Lucifer treasures and idolizes his free will, which he interprets as freedom from another’s authority or even guidance. Referring back to his perception of the unjust exaltation of the Son over himself, while in Hell, Lucifer exclaims: “Here we may reign secure, and in my choice to reign is worth ambition though in Hell” (I.261-62). As seen here, Lucifer abides by a much more idealistic set of values than practical ones, which fuels his willingness to make bold, even courageous, decisions. In this way, Milton’s Lucifer embodies some traits of the Enlightenment; however, he hardly represents the Enlightenment as a whole, at least in a purist sense.
In many ways Lucifer’s mind still operates in a self-imposed nonage, confusing free will with freedom and forging his hellish kingdom in a perverted image of God’s. His rebellion against God was only possible because of the free will God gave him and the other angels; in a sense, the Almighty gave Lucifer the ability to use his own understanding without another’s guidance. The loyalist angels understand the consequences of rebellion and choose to accept the authority of the Son, a display of their own intellectual independence. Lucifer, however, believes that in submitting to authority, he gives away his ability to reason and exert self-determination. By allowing his own pride to cloud the difference between free will and freedom, Lucifer imposes a form nonage on himself, with his pride guiding his understanding of the situation. Additionally, in his pursuit of establishing his own reign in hell, Lucifer parodies Hell off of Heaven, hosting intricate palaces, a demonic hierarchy of authority, and a satanic throne to reign from. Lucifer states: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n” (I.254-55), and in order to accomplish this, he literally attempts to make a “heav’n of hell.” Just as Lucifer is flawed in a Hellenic sense, he is also a flawed representation of the Enlightenment. As Lucifer became Satan—or “tempter”—his fatal flaws become his means of misguiding humanity.
Descartes’ Meditations seems to encourage man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage, but in fact, Descartes encourages his own form of self-imposed nonage for mankind, becoming the very guider referenced by Kant. In order to obtain understanding, Descartes says that we must first clear away our prior beliefs and henceforth rely on reason alone—our clear and distinct perception. By clearing away our prior beliefs, we then can use our own understanding without another’s guidance. Despite Descartes’ argument for objective, non-partisan reasoning, the very intention of his argument is motivated by his own prior beliefs—to prove the existence of God. This assumption can be seen in this argument: “There must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause” (Meditation III), which argues that because the material world is finite, only something infinite could have caused it. When applied to true knowledge, Descartes claims that if you do not understand knowledge’s ultimate cause—God—then you cannot be sure of anything, and thus do not know anything. This rationalist perspective rejects the relevance of one’s personal observations in discovering knowledge, which seems to run contradictory to Kant’s declaration “to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” Ironically, Kant is also a rationalist, yet seems to be justifying empiricism’s central precept: attaining knowledge through the senses, not reason alone. Therefore, the relationship between Meditations and Kant’s claim becomes complicated by our preconceptions of what Kant is actually saying about self-imposed nonage, muddying our perception of what is and is not.
In Don Quixote, rather than self-imposing nonage onto himself, our knight errant self-imposes madness—a denial of our commonly accepted reality—upon himself as a means of self-determination instead of submitting to another’s guidance. While self-imposed nonage relies on a complying with the conscious of another, Don Quixote seeks only to satisfy his own wants and needs, and self-imposed madness is the means he uses to accomplish this. Our ingenious hidalgo stubbornly retorts: “I am mad, and mad I shall remain until you return with the reply to a letter that I intend to send by you to my lady Dulcinea” (208). Here, Don Quixote reveals his level of self-awareness and yet his intent to remain “mad”—mad in the sense of insanity. Elsewhere in his adventures, our knight errant believes windmills to be giants, and he imposes this falsity upon reality: “He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were” (VIII). Upon realizing the windmills indeed are not giants, he claims: “Moreover I think, and it is the truth, that that same sage Friston who carried off my study and books, has turned these giants into mills in order to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them” (VIII). Rather than confronting reality, Don Quixote rationalizes his own version of reality with a fictional character born from his self-imposed madness. Ultimately, his purpose is to fulfill his dream of becoming a true knight, of escaping his menial lifestyle and achieving greatness, the same greatness he has read of in his chivalrous books. Don Quixote, therefore, would fully embrace Kant’s claim and turn his attention to self-determination instead of encountering reality through someone else’s eyes.
Each Enlightenment work has a unique relationship to Immanual Kant’s claim. Paradise Lost’s central character, Lucifer, is a flawed representation of the Enlightenment as a whole. In Meditations, Descartes agrees with the philosophy of Kant, yet he simultaneously enables the very thing Kant warns against. Finally, in Don Quixote, our knight errant manifests the opposite extrema to self-imposed nonage. In spite of their differences, all of these works are united under the banner of Enlightenment: courageously displaying a new way of thinking rather than living in the nonage of the past.