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The Light of the Past Essay

Reason is the mental powers needed to form conclusions.

During the Enlightenment appeals to reason were made in order to combat authority. This authority had been passed down through the ages and imposed on people but never justified.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment thought reason was opposed to authority. In particularly any authority based on revelation, superstition, and fanaticism. They attacked Church authority in order to undermine every other sort of authority.

The Enlightenment never thought reason unlimited; you couldn’t know everything. But nor should the limits of what you could know be set by others.

Your ability to learn from experience means you have the ability to question experience. This means you can also imagine a different one.

This process is so basic we seldom notice it: when called to your attention, you may conclude it is automatic. In fact it is free. The Enlightenment always connected reason and freedom.

Knowledge liberated people from superstition and prejudice; thinking from poverty and fear.


Recognizing reality and negotiating our way within it are two of reason’s crucial tasks. Yet any animal can do them. It is the imagining of goals beyond any immediate task that makes us human and free.

One of the greatest achievements of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not actually exist. It is this ability that allows us to think about the future.

Immanuel Kant had this in mind when he concluded that reason is what makes us human. It is not biology that dictates human beings ends to them. Because they can think about the future, imagine things not as they are, but as they could and should be, they can posit ends (goals) of their own.

This makes them what Kant called ends in themselves. Beings that are able to create their own ends (goals) should not become means for others. You should not be used just to achieve others goals.


Is and Ought

Happiness and virtue would be properly balanced if the world is the way it ought to be. People who are good for the sake of goodness should lead long, happy lives; people who are persistently wicked should not.

This basic assertion is the basis of all your anger when corrupt and brutal people flourish, and when righteous people suffer. It’s a premise that is hard to deny. A world in which good people suffer while wicked people prosper is a world that makes no sense.

It is, of course, the world we often inhabit.

The Light of the Past Essay


Kant said reason was born when we left the Garden of Eden. A world where everything is not as it ought to be is the space where questions begin. And while they may stop for many reasons – loss of patience or energy or funding – they only really cease when the world as a whole makes sense.

Reason moves you to ask: What accounts for the discrepancy between is and ought? You seek an explanation.

If reason could run its course, we would keep asking why the gap between the way things are and the way they should be exists at all. Eventually we would reach a point where no gap exists. This point would be the best of all possible worlds. However, a world where everything makes sense would be a world without desire – in any case, without desire that is distinctly human.



This is not just a problem for political activists who might be bored or lost if they found themselves in the utopia they devote their time to achieving. In the best of all possible worlds, any creative activity is hardly conceivable. If everything is as it should be, why add anything to it at all? Reason leads us to seek a place we could not actually inhabit without becoming unrecognizable to ourselves.

Kant used the metaphor of the horizon when talking about reason to signify a point that only children think you can get to. Ideals are ideas of what the world should be and they function precisely because they lead us past all that we know. After they become real they are just one more bit of the world we take for granted. This leads to recurring ingratitude.

Once you live in a culture where healthcare is not a benefit but a right, you consider it trivial, it’s built into the logic of ideals. If what they do is urge us to go beyond our present experience, they will only work as long as they are not present.


Growing Up

Reason became the focus of the central Enlightenment goal, which Kant called growing up.

It’s easier to be passive than active, which is why we often let other people run the world that restricts our lives, while we play, more or less, on the margins. Growing up means taking our lives out of others hands and into our own; doing it right requires head and heart and everything in between.


This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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