Sapere aude

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Sapere aude is a Latin phrase meaning “dare to know”; also loosely translated as “dare to be wise”. Originally used in the First Book of Letters (20 BC), by the Roman poet Horace, the phrase sapere aude became associated with the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), after Immanuel Kant used it in the essay, “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784). As a philosopher, Kant claimed sapere aude as the motto for the entire period of the Enlightenment, and used it to explore his theories of the application of reason in the public sphere of human affairs.

In the 20th century, in the essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1984) Michel Foucault took up Kant's formulation in an attempt to find a place for the individual man and woman in post-structuralist philosophy, and so come to terms with the problematic legacy of the Enlightenment. In the essay The Baroque Episteme: the Word and the Thing (2013) Jean-Claude Vuillemin proposed that sapere aude be the motto of the Baroque episteme.[1]


1st century[edit]


The original use of the phrase sapere aude appears in the First Book of Letters (20 BC), by the Roman poet Horace; in the second letter, addressed to Lolius, in line 40, the passage is: Dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet; sapere aude, incipe. (“He who has begun is half done; dare to know, dare to begin!”).[2]

The phrase is the moral to a story, wherein a fool waits for a stream to cease flowing, before attempting to cross it. In saying, "He who begins is half done. Dare to know, dare to begin!", the Roman poet Horace suggests the value of human endeavour, of persistence in reaching a goal, of the need for effort to overcome obstacles. Moreover, sapere aude also can be loosely translated to English as the phrase “dare to be wise”.

18th century[edit]

Immanuel Kant

With the essay, “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant describes the Age of Enlightenment as “Man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”; and, with the phrase sapere aude, the philosopher charges the reader to follow such a program of intellectual self-liberation, by means of Reason. The essay is Kant's shrewd, political challenge to men and women, suggesting that the mass of "domestic cattle" have been bred, by unfaithful stewards, to not question what they have been told about the world and its ways.

Kant classifies the uses of reason as public and private. The public use of reason is discourse in the public sphere, such as political argument and political analysis; the private use of reason is rational argument, such as that used by a person entrusted with a duty, either official or organizational. Skillfully praising Frederick II of Prussia (r. 1740–86) for his intellectual receptiveness to the political, social, and cultural ideas of the Enlightenment, the philosopher proposes an enlightened prince as one who instructs his subjects to: “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, only obey!”

It is the courage of the individual man to abide the advice sapere aude that will break the shackles of despotism, and reveal, through public discourse, for the benefit of the mass population and of the State, better methods of governance, and of legitimate complaint.[3]

20th century[edit]

Michel Foucault

In response to the Enlightenment propositions of Kant, Foucault’s essay, also titled “What is Enlightenment?” (1984), rejects much of the hopeful politics of a people ruled per the advice of the phrase sapere aude. Instead, Foucault looks at the critical resources inherent to the person's innate reason, and disputes Kant's other arguments, by reinforcing the value of sapere aude with “faithful betrayal”. Foucault's formulation uses the term “critical ontology” as a synonym for the concept.

Foucault, too, however, based his interpretation of sapere aude in a definite practice. Instead of theory or doctrine, the practice advised in the phrase is an individual "attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which [is] the critique of what we are". That individual attitude applies reason in effort to start historical criticism of "the limits that are imposed on us", to be exercised in "an experiment with the possibility of going beyond" those limits, the limit-experience that is both an individual act, and an act that breaks apart the concept of the individual person.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jean-Claude Vuillemin, Epistémè baroque: le mot et la chose, Paris, Hermann, coll. "Savoir Lettres," 2013.
  2. ^ "Horace ''Epistulae'' 1.2.40 from". The Latin Library. Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Foucault's Essay, What is Enlightenment?". Retrieved 2012-03-08. 

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of sapere aude at Wiktionary