Kant’s Guardians and their Contemporary Counterparts

Immanuel Kant's shoes

Immanuel Kant’s shoes (Photo credit: KAPOOKA BABY)

Guardians are representatives of social structure who try to keep individualism down in order to preserve the status quo. They are people who “take up the oversight of mankind” by setting themselves up as guardians for immature individuals in order to ensure that society at large views further steps toward maturity as difficult and dangerous (Kant 58). Kant argues that guardians make immature individuals stupid domestic animals by instilling fear and incompetence into the people’s hearts and minds (58). They use rules and formulas as tools for facilitating “an everlasting immaturity” (59). Guardians convince others that they are incapable of proceeding on their own. While dangers are not that great, the fears that guardians propagate make immature individuals timid and frightened. As a result, people become “placid creatures” who do not dare “to take one step out” beyond the cart to which they are tied (Kant 58 – 59). Fear makes it difficult for them to escape their immaturities, and this timid state becomes their natural state of existence (Kant 59).

Kant uses pastors and doctors as examples of guardians: a pastor acts on the behalf of an individual’s conscience by supplementing his conscience for the individual’s conscience, and a doctor tells the individual what he should and should not eat (Kant 58). Using this definition that guardians are people who contribute to the intellectual immaturity of the masses, other examples of guardians would be monarchs, nobles, and aristocrats. On a smaller level, guardians can also refer to family patriarchs who make decisions for the women and children, though Kant does not address these groups of society in particular.

Today’s counterparts of Kant’s guardians hold similar positions. Society still has doctors who make diet recommendations; pastors who make religious recommendations; attorneys who make legal recommendations; congressmen who write laws; and presidents who govern. In America, these guardians have a lot less influence than the guardians of Kant’s society. Kant views guardians as individuals who are hired by others to take care of certain affairs. In general, Kant is not very optimistic of the entire Enlightenment process. In particular, he points out that “a public can achieve enlightenment only gradually. A revolution may perhaps bring about the fall of an autocratic despotism… but it can never bring about the true reform of a way of thinking” (59). Instead, new prejudices will replace the old, “as the leading strings of the faultless masses” (Kant 59). Therefore, the free public use of reason is the only way that enlightenment among men can be achieved. Though Kant’s attitude toward guardians is laced with contempt, he admits their importance. He sees no way around having leaders and rulers, and instead hopes that these leaders give the masses freedom of thought so that they could achieve individual growth and maturity.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 58-64.

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