Sapere aude

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Sapere aude (pronounced sah-per aud) is a Latin phrase meaning "dare to be wise", or more accurately "dare to know". Originally used by the Roman poet Horace, it has become closely associated with the Enlightenment after being cited by Immanuel Kant in his seminal essay, What is Enlightenment?. Kant claimed it was the motto for the entire period, and used it to explore his theories of reason in the public sphere. Later, Michel Foucault took up Kant's formulation in an attempt to find a place for the individual in his post-structuralist philosophy and to come to terms with the problematic legacy of the Enlightenment. In Epistémè baroque: le mot et la chose, Jean-Claude Vuillemin proposes to make "Sapere aude" the motto of the Baroque episteme.[1]

Horace's use[edit]

The original use seems to be in Horace's first book of Epistles: dimidium facti qui coepit habet: sapere aude, incipe ("He who has begun is half done: dare to know, dare to begin!").[2] It can also be translated as "Dare to be wise". The phrase forms the moral to a story where a fool (naive person) waits for the stream to stop before crossing it. "He who begins is half done. Dare to be wise. Make a beginning." is a loose translation. Horace's words suggest the value of human endeavour, of persistence in reaching a goal and of the need for effort in overcoming obstacles.

Kant's use[edit]

Kant's essay describes the Enlightenment as "man's release from his self-incurred tutelage". "Sapere Aude" is his charge to readers to follow this program of intellectual self-liberation, the tool of which is Reason. The essay is a shrewd political challenge, suggesting that the mass of "domestic cattle" have been bred by unfaithful stewards not to question what they've been told. Kant classifies the uses of reason as public and private. Public use is use in discourse in the public sphere, such as in political argument or analysis; private use is such use of reasoned argument that a person entrusted with official or organizational duties might reasonably make in that capacity. Skillfully praising Frederick II of Prussia for his receptiveness to Enlightenment ideas, Kant imagines his enlightened prince instructing subjects, "Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, only obey!" It is the courage of individuals to follow Sapere Aude that will break the shackles of despotism, and reveal through public discourse, for the benefit both of the population and the state, better methods of governance, or legitimate complaints.[3]

Foucault's use[edit]

Foucault, in his response to Kant, also entitled "What is Enlightenment?", rejects much of the hopeful political content of a people ruled by Sapere Aude. Instead, Foucault looks at the critical tools of using one's own reason, and how disputing Kant's other arguments only serves to reinforce the value of Sapere Aude (Foucault uses the term critical ontology as a synonym for his concept) with a sort of faithful betrayal.

Foucault too, however, roots his vision of Sapere Aude in a definite practice. Instead of a mere theory or doctrine, it becomes an individual "attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are". This attitude uses reason as a tool, to start a 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 one that breaks apart the concept of the individual all together.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jean-Claude Vuillemin, Epistémè baroque: le mot et la chose, Paris, Hermann, coll. "Savoir Lettres," 2013.It is the motto of Tiffin girls school.
  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