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Enlightenment in Western secular tradition

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Enlightenment broadly means wisdom or understanding enabling clarity of perception. However, the English word covers two concepts which can be quite distinct: religious or spiritual enlightenment (German: Erleuchtung) and secular or intellectual enlightenment (German: Aufklärung). This can cause confusion, since those who claim intellectual enlightenment often reject spiritual concepts altogether.

In religious use, enlightenment is most closely associated with South and East Asian religious experience, being used to translate words such as (in Buddhism) bodhi or satori, or (in Hinduism) moksha. The concept does also have parallels in the Abrahamic religions (in the Kabbalah tradition in Judaism, in Christian mysticism, and in the Sufi tradition of Islam).

In secular use, the concept refers mainly to the European intellectual movement known as the Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason referring to philosophical developments related to scientific rationality in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Enlightenment in Eastern traditions


Lotus Nelumbo nucifera Flower Large 3264px

Nelumbo nucifera, commonly known as the Lotus.

The lotus flower is sometimes used as a symbol of enlightenment.

The lotus has its roots in the mud,
Grows up through the deep water,
And rises to the surface.
It blooms into perfect purity and beauty in the sunlight.
It is like the mind unfolding to perfect joy and wisdom.


In Buddhism, a Buddha is one who has attained to buddhahood, which is the state of perfect enlightenment.

Falun Dafa



Enlightenment in Western secular tradition

In the Western philosophical tradition, enlightenment is seen as a phase in cultural history marked by a faith in reason, generally accompanied by rejection of faith in revealed or institutional religion.

Kant's definition of "enlightenment"

In his famous 1784 essay What Is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant described it as follows:

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such tutelage is self-imposed if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another.

Kant reasoned that although a man must obey in his civil duties, he must make public his use of reason. His motto for enlightenment is Sapere aude! or "Dare to know."

Adorno's and Horkheimer's definition of "enlightenment"

In their controversial analysis of the contemporary western society, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944, revised 1947), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer developed a wider, and more pessimistic concept of enlightenment. In their analysis, enlightenment had its dark side: while trying to abolish superstition and myths by 'foundationalist' philosophy, it ignored its own 'mythical' basis. Its strivings towards totality and certainty led to an increasing instrumentalization of reason. In their view, the enlightenment itself should be enlightened and not posed as a 'myth-free' view of the world.

Enlightenment and the understanding of good and evil

In Human, All Too Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had this to say about enlightenment and the understanding of good and evil:

The man who wants to gain wisdom profits greatly from having thought for a time that man is basically evil and degenerate: this idea is wrong, like its opposite, but for whole periods of time it was predominant and its roots have sunk deep into us and into our world. To understand ourselves we must understand it; but to climb higher, we must then climb over and beyond it. We recognize that there are no sins in the metaphysical sense; but, in the same sense, neither are there any virtues; we recognize that this entire realm of moral ideas is in a continual state of fluctuation, that there are higher and deeper concepts of good and evil, moral and immoral. A man who desires no more from things than to understand them easily makes peace with his soul and will err (or "sin," as the world calls it) at the most out of ignorance, but hardly out of desire. He will no longer want to condemn and root out his desires; but his single goal, governing him completely, to understand as well as he can at all times, will cool him down and soften all the wildness in his disposition. In addition, he has rid himself of a number of tormenting ideas; he no longer feels anything at the words "pains of hell," "sinfulness," "incapacity for the good": for him they are only the evanescent silhouettes of erroneous thoughts about life and the world.

Enlightened Figures in History

Many individuals have claimed to reach a state of enlightenment, including many famous yogis and meditation masters from well-known spiritual traditions. Mahatma Gandhi was said[Wayne Dyer] to be an enlightened seeker of truth. Mahavira is believed by Jains to have attained Kevala Jnana or Omniscience that is the highest state of enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, is believed by Buddhists to have reached the "ultimate state of enlightenment" or "pari-nirvana."

Nārāyana Guru (1856–1928), the prolific poet, philosopher, and social reformer is believed to have attained enlightenment (i.e., an absolute state of wisdom) after his several years of education in languages, the scriptures of the different religions, yoga, and experiences with ascetic life, culminating in his long and meditative recluse in Maruthwamala hills in South India. Nārāyana Guru’s philosophical masterpiece “Atmopadeśa Śatakam” (100 verses of self-instruction) is primarily the Guru’s poetic expression of his philosophy of universal love, emanating from his experienced state of primordial knowledge of the Universe, and his consequent ability to view the human race as one of a species, in unqualified equality and without any racial, religious, caste, or other discriminations whatsoever.

Dr. Richard Bucke, in his 1901 book Cosmic Consciousness[1], names a few dozens of people who, in his studied opinion, had experienced some degree of enlightenment, including Walt Whitman and Blaise Pascal. Bucke also attempted to analyze what commonalities these personalities shared. His study has become part of the foundation of transpersonal psychology. There are some thinkers such as U. G. Krishnamurti, who refute any existence of the very concept of enlightenment (despite being considered enlightened by his followers).

Spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle is said to have attained enlightenment at age 29 after suffering long periods of depression.

Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba is said to have become enlightened after defending himself from the attacks of an exceptional swordsmen with only his bare hands.

See also

Notes and references

als:Erleuchtungja:啓蒙思想pt:Iluminação (conceito)

ru:Просветление sk:Osvietenie fi:Valaistuminen

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