In 1784, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote down his hope for his age and all those that followed. In a famous essay titled “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?,” he urged men and women to think for themselves instead of relying on the minds of kings, priests, and other “self-appointed guardians of the multitude.” Although critical in tone, Kant’s views were optimistic: It’s not an inability to think clearly and feel deeply that prevents the common person from embracing his or her autonomy, he argued, but rather a matter of overcoming laziness and cowardice. As an official motto for the Enlightenment, Kant offered the following: “Have the courage to use your own understanding.”
In modern times, the challenge of thinking for one’s self persists. Except now, it seems, pressure to conform comes less and less from the guardians of the multitude than it does the masses themselves.