DURANT 1926: On Politics and Eternal Peace

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 6 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

.

On Politics and Eternal Peace

The Prussian government might have pardoned Kant’s theology, had he not been guilty of political heresies as well. Three years after the accession of Frederick William II, the French Revolution had set all the thrones of Europe trembling. At a time when most of the teachers in the Prussian universities had rushed to the support of legitimate monarchy, Kant, sixty-five years young, hailed the Revolution with joy; and with tears in his eyes said to his friends: “Now I can say like Simeon, ‘Lord, let now Thy servant depart in peace; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.’” [Wallace, p. 40.]

Kant hailed the French revolution with joy.

He had published, in 1784, a brief exposition of his political theory under the title of “The Natural Principle of the Political Order considered in connection with the Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitical History.” Kant begins by recognizing, in that strife of each against all which had so shocked Hobbes, nature’s method of developing the hidden capacities of life; struggle is the indispensable accompaniment of progress. If men were entirely social, man would stagnate; a certain alloy of individualism and competition is required to make the human species survive and grow. ‘Without qualities of an unsocial kind . . . men might have led an Arcadian shepherd life in complete harmony, contentment, and mutual love; but in that case all their talents would have forever remained hidden in their germ.” (Kant, therefore, was no slavish follower of Rousseau.) “Thanks be then to nature for this unsociableness, for this envious jealousy and vanity, for this insatiable desire for possession and for power. . . . Man wishes concord; but nature knows better what is good for his species; and she wills discord, in order that man may be impelled to a new exertion of his powers, and to the further development of his natural capacities.”

According to Kant, struggle is the indispensable accompaniment of progress. It is nature’s method of developing the hidden capacities of life. A certain alloy of individualism and competition is required to make the human species survive and grow.

The struggle for existence, then, is not altogether an evil. Nevertheless, men soon perceive that it must be restricted within certain limits, and regulated by rules, customs, and laws; hence the origin and development of civil society. But now “the same unsociableness which forced men into society becomes again the cause of each commonwealth’s assuming the attitude of uncontrolled freedom in its external relations, i.e., as one state in relation to other states; and consequently, any one state must expect from any other the same sort of evils as formerly oppressed individuals and compelled them to enter into a civil union regulated by law.” [Eternal Peace and Other Essays; Boston, 1914; p. 14.] It is time that nations, like men, should emerge from the wild state of nature, and contract to keep the peace. The whole meaning and movement of history is the ever greater restriction of pugnacity and violence, the continuous enlargement of the area of peace. ‘The history of the human race, viewed as a whole, may be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about a political constitution, internally and externally perfect, as the only state in which all the capacities implanted by her in mankind can be fully developed.” [Eternal Peace and Other Essays; Boston, 1914; p. 19.] If there is no such progress, the labors of successive civilizations are like those of Sisyphus, who again and again “up the high hill heaved a huge round stone,” only to have it roll back as it was almost at the top. History would be then nothing more than an endless and circuitous folly; “and we might suppose, like the Hindu, that the earth is a place for the expiation of old and forgotten sins.” [P.58.]

The struggle for existence is not an evil but it must be restricted within certain limits, and regulated by rules, customs, and laws. It is time that nations, like men, should emerge from the wild state of nature, and contract to keep the peace.

The essay on “Eternal Peace” (published in 1795, when Kant was seventy-one) is a noble development of this theme. Kant knows how easy it is to laugh at the phrase; and under his title he writes: “These words were once put by a Dutch inn-keeper on his sign-board as a satirical inscription, over the representation of a church-yard” cemetery. [P. 68.] Kant had before complained, as apparently every generation must, that “our rulers have no money to spend on public education . . . because all their resources are already placed to the account of the next war.” [P. 21.] The nations will not really be civilized until all standing armies are abolished. (The audacity of this proposal stands out when we remember that it was Prussia itself which, under the father of Frederick the Great, had been the first to establish conscription.) “Standing armies excite states to outrival one another in the number of their armed men, which has no limit. Through the expense occasioned thereby, peace becomes in the long run more oppressive than a short war; and standing armies are thus the cause of aggressive wars undertaken in order to get rid of this burden.” [P. 71.] For in time of war the army would support itself on the country, by requisitioning, quartering, and pillaging; preferably in the enemy’s territory, but if necessary, in one’s own land; even this would be better than supporting it out of government funds.

Nation’s resources are usually earmarked for war and little is left for public education. According to Kant, the nations will not really be civilized until all standing armies are abolished.

Much of this militarism, in Kant’s judgment, was due to the expansion of Europe into America and Africa and Asia; with the resultant quarrels of the thieves over their new booty. “If we compare the barbarian instances of inhospitality . . . with the inhuman behavior of the civilized, and especially the commercial, states of our continent, the injustice practiced by them even in their first contact with foreign lands and peoples fills us with horror; the mere visiting of such peoples being regarded by them as equivalent to a conquest. America, the negro lands, the Spice Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, etc., on being discovered, were treated as countries that belonged to nobody; for the aboriginal inhabitants were reckoned as nothing. . . . And all this has been done by nations who make a great ado about their piety, and who, while drinking up iniquity like water, would have themselves regarded as the very elect of the orthodox faith.” [P. 68.] The old fox of Konigsberg was not silenced yet!

Much of this militarism, in Kant’s judgment, was due to the expansion of Europe into America and Africa and Asia; with the resultant quarrels of the thieves over their new booty.

Kant attributed this imperialistic greed to the oligarchical constitution of European states; the spoils went to a select few, and remained substantial even after division. If democracy were established, and all shared in political power, the spoils of international robbery would have to be so subdivided as to constitute a resistible temptation. Hence the “first definitive article in the conditions of Eternal Peace” is this: “The civil constitution of every state shall be republican, and war shall not be declared except by a plebiscite of all the citizens.” [Pp. 76-77.] When those who must do the fighting have the right to decide between war and peace, history will no longer be written in blood. “On the other hand, in a constitution where the subject is not a voting member of the state, and which is therefore not republican, the resolution to go to war is a matter of the smallest concern in the world. For in this case the ruler, who, as such, is not a mere citizen, but the owner of the state, need not in the least suffer personally by war, nor has he to sacrifice his pleasures of the table or the chase, or his pleasant palaces, court festivals, or the like. He can, therefore, resolve for war from insignificant reasons, as if it were but a hunting expedition; and as regards its propriety, he may leave the justification of it without concern to the diplomatic corps, who are always too ready to give their services for that purpose.” [Pp. 76-77.] How contemporary truth is!

Kant attributed this imperialistic greed to the oligarchical constitution of European states; the spoils went to a select few, and remained substantial even after division. Kant suggested that the civil constitution of every state shall be republican, and war shall not be declared except by a plebiscite of all the citizens.

The apparent victory of the Revolution over the armies of reaction in 1795 led Kant to hope that republics would now spring up throughout Europe, and that an international order would arise based upon a democracy without slavery and without exploitation, and pledged to peace. After all, the function of government is to help and develop the individual, not to use and abuse him. “Every man is to be respected as an absolute end in himself; and it is a crime against the dignity that belongs to him as a human being, to use him as a mere means for some external purpose.” [In Paulsen, p. 340.] This too is part and parcel of that categorical imperative without which religion is a hypocritical farce. Kant therefore calls for equality: not of ability, but of opportunity for the development and application of ability; he rejects all prerogatives of birth and class, and traces all hereditary privilege to some violent conquest in the past. In the midst of obscurantism and reaction and the union of all monarchical Europe to crush the Revolution, he takes his stand, despite his seventy years, for the new order, for the establishment of democracy and liberty everywhere. Never had old age so bravely spoken with the voice of youth.

According to Kant, the function of government is to help and develop the individual, not to use and abuse him. Kant therefore calls for equality: not of ability, but of opportunity for the development and application of ability; he rejects all prerogatives of birth and class, and traces all hereditary privilege to some violent conquest in the past.

But he was exhausted now; he had run his race and fought his fight. He withered slowly into a childlike senility that came at last to be a harmless insanity: one by one his sensibilities and his powers left him; and in 1804, aged seventy-nine, he died, quietly and naturally, like a leaf falling from a tree.

.

FINAL COMMENTS

Individualism arises from struggle amongst individual ideas and not people. Kant’s are powerful ideas. Kant is not against struggle but any struggle must be regulated to ensure peaceful evolution.

Militarism has been due to the expansion of Europe into America and Africa and Asia to acquire resources by force. The greed has come from the few in power who take advantage of even their general population.

Kant, therefore, suggests a republican constitution where the public has a say in declaring war. According to Kant, the function of government is to help and develop the individual, not to use and abuse him. Kant therefore calls for equality: not of ability, but of opportunity for the development and application of ability; he rejects all prerogatives of birth and class, and traces all hereditary privilege to some violent conquest in the past.

.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: