“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” It is the emblematic opening of Kant’s letter “What is Enlightenment,” published in 1784. He expounds that “tutelage” means man’s “inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.” Kant further clarifies that the prime condition for using one’s reason is freedom: “If only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”
But where does the origin of freedom lie? Surely the capacity to choose, to select between options. If there are no options to choose between, there is no possibility for freedom. Christianity tells the story of Adam and Eve, who were given the choice to eat from all the trees in Eden, but were forbidden to eat from the one tree—the tree of knowledge. In his relatively little-known—and within his magnum opus, certainly marginal text—“Conjectural Beginning of Human History,” Kant examines what exactly this ‘freedom’ consists in. He expounds a thought experiment triggered by his reading of the story of the Fall. And Kant’s reading of the ‘picking the apple’ is unusual, to say the least. Contrary to the traditional reading (and arguably its intended meaning), Kant presents the picking of the apple not as dissent from God and breaking of his commandment (what Christians call ‘original sin’), but rather as the first moment of the true use of man’s free will and the discovery of it.
In picking the apple, man extends himself beyond the ‘call of nature,’ hitherto obeyed, and “sought to extend his knowledge of foodstuffs beyond the bounds of instinct.” The outcome of this “first experiment” was man’s comprehension of his “reason as faculty which extends beyond the limits to which all animals are confined.” In short: it was man’s first use of his will “in free choice.” The effect of this choice was twofold, as proposed by Kant: man discovered in himself an ability “to choose his own way of life without being tied to any single one like other animals.” But this ‘freedom’ also triggered anxiety; it dawned on man that by using his free choice separately from “instinct” he stood at the “edge of an abyss.” It was the ‘infinity’ of possibilities at his grasp that made man gasp in fear. But since he had made the decisive step, there was no return to a state under the “rule of instinct.”
Doubtlessly, this text contains constructive speculation about the nature of free will, the use of reason, and man’s almost divine capacities. Kant’s idea of nature, providence, reason, freedom, and the basis of man’s moral obligation to other rational beings, which ought to be treated as ‘ends in themselves,’ can be found within it. The use of his free choice represents for Kant the epitomal passage “from the guardianship of nature to the state of freedom.” Moreover, man’s discovery opens the path of progress towards perfection and embarks him on his path to Utopia, clearly outlined in Kant’s text Perpetual Peace: A philosophical sketch (1795).
In addition to Kant’s willingness to reinterpret Scripture in a somewhat biased manner (“[b]efore reason awoke, there were no commandments or prohibitions, so that violations of these were also impossible”), we are faced with an odd state of affairs proposed by the chief Enlightenment author in Germany when contrasted to the traditional interpretation of the passage in Genesis: The picking of the apple is in reality not a proper use of freedom but indeed the contrary—it is the first time that man submits his own reason and will to a higher power that does not have his best interest in mind: Satan himself. In a certain sense, these two readings are emblematic of two worldviews.
In the classical reading, the serpent challenges Eve to rethink the commandment given by God, which Eve recites to him in her own words: “God hath commanded us that we should not eat [of the tree in the midst of paradise] … lest perhaps we die” (Genesis, 3:3 Douay-Rheims Bible). Satan challenges the divine commandment by an alternative reading of reality and proposes a different effect that will follow picking the fruit: “Your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.” The Serpent does a variety of things here: it reinterprets God’s Words to fit its own agenda and, more significantly, challenges God’s commandment by tempting Eve to break it. Eve listens to the Serpent’s insinuations. While contemplating the serpent’s devious temptation, Eve’s perception of reality changes: She reinterprets what she sees in a distorted way, factoring in these ‘new facts:’ “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit.” (Genesis, 3:6).
Ironically, what Kant hails as the discovery of freedom is in truth enslavement: a submission to the rule of sin, of vice, and of Satan himself.
True freedom in the Christian sense is encapsulated in the original state of innocence: man lives in harmony with God, in a beautiful garden with countless trees to eat from. He was created by love, for love, and to reach happiness by following his natural vocation instituted by God. To not make him a slave, God had to put in a tree that gave man ‘another choice.’ God wanted to be loved, not to be followed slavishly. But the very presence of the tree, along with God’s original plan, was true freedom for man. He was in a perfect society.
By eating the fruit, man left this state of original innocence. Ironically, he lost exactly what the Serpent promised him: the discernment of good and evil. Instead of learning to use his free will well—liberum arbitrium, as in the more classical understanding—and live a virtuous life, man, after the fall, is enslaved by a tumultuous mix of passions, desires, and rational arguments. Instead of living true freedom in possession of himself, fully aware of what he is in his created, human state, man has surrendered to the serpent’s influence and strives to be a god himself. Pain and death abound. Human history ensues. By submitting himself to the Great Deceiver, man loses his true spiritual and corporeal freedom that was bestowed upon him by his creator. Instead, he is surrendering his discerning capacity to the serpent which pursues its own agenda.
By wanting to decide what is good and evil, man has lost the capacity to discern what is good and evil. Instead of accepting what God destined to be good for him, man wants to decide for himself and thus falls prey to deception and false gods. By his arrogant presumption, man lost effectively what was proper to him: his rational discernment. By trying to free his rationality from its final end—the openness to receive divine truth—he enslaved himself to the snares of the devil.
Mankind, from our original parents to today, overlooks the devious actions of Satan who preys upon this desire to be free from a “self-incurred tutelage.” As noble an aspiration as this is, man left to his own powers will fail in his desire to free himself until he recognizes just that: that he is freed by someone else, i.e. God. Such faulty anthropology is the source of much despair and has confined man to the illusion that only by following his reason can he achieve absolute self-perfection.
A re-discovery of true freedom and liberum arbitrium as classically understood invites us to define man within the greater context of creation: his strengths, his excellence, his reason, but at the same time his weakness, his selfishness, and ultimately, his fallenness. Man cannot save himself. He relies on God to deliver him; he relies on this reality to resist the temptation to create utopias.
It is a truth about the human condition worth rediscovering.