Peace among states from Providence?

Modern God-talk in Kant’s political treatises on perpetual peace and cosmopolitan world order.

By Anna Wera Wilms

Immanuel Kant tried to make sense of war and embedded his conception of perpetual peace among states deeply into his system of thought (Katzer 1915). Eventually, he became a key reference in contemporary liberal peacebuilding. However, most international relations’ scholars withdraw from Kant’s metaphysics (Cavallar 2017; Molloy 2017). Anchoring the guarantee for peace in human rationality alone, they ignore that Kant considers the morally compromised human species incapable of serving as the foundation for its own salvation. Kant needs to make room for belief in providence beyond human knowledge. Recalling this leap of faith, the following paper explores the theological dimensions of Kant’s vision for perpetual peace and a cosmopolitan world order.

In the first part of this essay we will review the terms on which Kant argued that human action alone is insufficient to establish perpetual peace. Molloy observes that “[t]he problem [of establishing peace] is revealed to be anthropological, and the putative solution to be theological in nature” (Molloy 2017, p. 20). In the second part, we will therefore discuss Kant’s solution to human insufficiency: What may be hoped regarding mankind’s reformation? This will enable us to assess the elements in which Kant breaks with previous theological thought and sets new grounds for theology in modern times. The relationship between theology and philosophy in Kant is complex as he attempts to delimit theological influence albeit inheriting its discursive power (Weidner 2007). This paper is an attempt to shed light precisely on Kant’s discourse on providence, ultimately supporting his otherwise rather utopian project for international politics.

Kant makes in his three critiques and moral theory a sharp distinction between human nature and humanity (Molloy 2017), in other words between human beings as they appear to bein their deep abasement with limited autonomy and human beings as they ought to be as autonomous and moral agents. Whereas the ideal humanity derives its principles for moral action a priori from pure reason, human beings derive their principles from technical-practical reason a posteriori. Human beings are subject to ambivalent moral development due to their natural propensity to evil (RBR 6:32). Transposing this conceptualisation to the international sphere, Kant writes:

[Peoples can] expect the circumstances required for peace among states from providence, which will provide an outcome for the end of humanity as a whole species, to reach its final destination by the free use of its powers as far as they extend, to which end, the ends of human beings, are directly opposed. (Kant 2006, p. 308f.)

In analogy to the individuals’ duty to submit themselves to pure practical laws and become responsible members of humanity, states need to abide to pure cosmopolitan laws and form a world federation of states (foedes pacificum) (Kant 1796). War is merely the “sad resource” employed by states in their natural state (status naturalis)to prove themselves right in a violent manner (Kant 2008, p. 7). Initially powerful technical-practical incentives, such as commercial interests, will push states to develop some negative peace. Peaceful coexistence, so Kant trusts, will teleologically converge with morality, so that genuine peace may be established in the future. According to Kant, the juridical-political system of global peace provides humanity with a framework for the achievement of the highest good (summum bonum). Kant here develops a noumenal idea of humanity’s end-in-itself (Flikshuh 2006, p. 395), what Taylor calls an ethical community of the afterlife (Taylor 2010). Repeatedly, Kant argues that what ought to be necessarily can be (CpR 5:125; RBR 6:45), or, put differently, to set something as an end we must at least suppose the conditions under which it can be achieved (CpR 6:47). The cosmopolitan society of peoples can thus be considered a “realistic utopia” (Rawls, quoted in Andersen 2016, p. 29) for humanity’s moral development.

We have seen that Kant resolves his pessimistic account of human beings (or else realpolitik) in optimism about the ideal humanity (or else cosmopolitanism). A gap however persists between both: there are no compelling incentives in the political sphere to act other than according to pure self-interest. Flikshuh recognises that “[n]ature … does what Kant thinks human agents should do, but what he also acknowledges they will not do” (Flikshuh 2006, p. 383). The most essential question then becomes: How does nature guarantee that mankind will comply with its duty and establish perpetual peace?

Conscious of the de facto state of affairs and historical records, Kant had already stated in the Groundwork that the final end of rights doctrine of perpetual peace is unachievable, but that forming political alliances striving for continual approximation to it is not: it is “incumbent upon us … to act in conformity with the idea of that end, even if there is not the slightest theoretical likelihood that it can be realised” (Kant 2011). The alternative proposed by Hume’s notion of natura bruta and Mendelssohn’s notion of cyclical history would imply the meaninglessness of human existence – which is intolerable (Kant 2013). Instead, Kant proposes the following in the first supplement of Towards Perpetual Peace:

[T]he great and ingenious artist nature … announces the grand aim of producing among men, against their intention, harmony from the very botom [sic] of their discords. Hence call it destiny, viewing it as a cause absolute in its effects, but unknown as to the laws of its operations. But the regular order which we observe in the course of the events of this world, makes us call it Providence, inasmuch as we discern in her the profound wisdom of a superior cause, which predetermines the course of fate, and makes it tend to the final purpose of human existence (Kant 1796, p. 31f.).

One could misread this providence as a salvific restoration to initial human goodness and thus the establishment of peace by divine concursus [1] (Molloy 2017; Lilla 1998). Rather, Kant argues against effects of grace (RBR 6:53): peace must be promoted by humans (Beförderung) and hoped to be realised by God (Verwirklichung) (Kant 1796, p. 42). Kant thus posits a necessary belief in a Creator-God as he can only make sense of a mechanical march towards peace by supposing an ultimate end given by the world’s author (Welturheber) (Kant 2008, p. 24). This God-claim is consistent with Kant’s general understanding of morality. Our faculty of understanding gathers empirical knowledge from which our faculty of reason then derives moral principles. Those moral principles make sense only if our power of judgement assumes some regularity and coherence in the things we understand. Even more so, so that the principles derived are moral, one needs to posit a purpose in nature. Kant calls it “morally believing acceptance” (moralischgläubige Annehmung) [2] of God (RBR 6:138).

To sum up, progress towards peace occurs both because of and despite human action (Williams et al. 2011, p. 228; Fergusson 2013, p. 662f.) and “the way to advance is not from grace to virtue but rather from virtue to grace” (RBR 6:202). Clearly, Kant’s leap of faith in God and the purposiveness of nature is necessary for practical, not ontological reasons: “[i]t is not essential, and hence not necessary, that every human being knows what God does, or has done, for his salvation; but it is essential to know what a human being has to do himself” (RBR 6:52). To put it in Simon Critchley’s terms, ‘Kant is not simply secularising but transforming the Sacred’ (Critchley 2012, p. 84). What does that mean for subsequent theological discourse?

Kant retains classical Christian language yet does not give a Christian account of politics. He names his foedes pacificum an “all unifying Church triumphant”, to be understood as a moral commonwealth bringing about the gradual transition from ecclesial to pure religious faith in the coming kingdom of God (RBR 6:131-132). His political treatise calls to “religiously respect” the rights of men so that they may “shine with an immortal glory” (Kant 1796, p. 65). Moltmann convincingly argues that by describing the French revolution as signum prognosticum for the advent of cosmopolitanism, Kant consciously echoes Aquinas’ sacramental terminology of eschatology (Moltmann 2004, p. 188). Despite these references, Kant’s perpetual peace is not the grace the believer seeks (erbeten) from God (Psalm 85 [3]), but a duty of mankind towards itself. Malter summarises: “the problem of establishing peace lies not on the side of nature of which we do not dispose, but humans which have the duty of choosing to act in freedom” (Malter 2008, p. 78). Similarly Katzer states that “men came first for Kant” (Katzer 1915). Such an anthropocentric focus is confirmed when Kant calls to “[s]eek first the reign of pure practical reason, and its justice, and your end [the blessing of perpetual peace] will necessarily follow” (Kant 1796, p. 60). However, this call also is a reformulation of Matthew 6:33 [4] illustrating how Kant’s philosophy might be conceived “both as theology’s antagonist, against which it must defend its autonomy, and its inheritor, claiming to take over […] its vocabulary and functions(Weidner 2016, p. 1326 emphasis added).

To conclude, Towards Perpetual Peace can be read as a precise account for the possible outplay of general human evolution towards ideal humanity on the international level. But instead of creating a theology for international politics, Kant’s perpetual peace and cosmopolitan order are an idiosyncratic moral interpretation of Christian metaphysics. Conceptions of God in these sketches may be sufficient or not – more drastically, God may or may not exist. We cannot have any certainty about divine existence, as any theoretical judgement beyond our sphere of wisdom is impossible to us (Kant 1796, p. 65). Nonetheless, perpetual peace must be posited as the final purpose of Creation. Ultimately, we can only hope that perpetual peace will be established; its guarantee remains a mystery, “i.e. something holy, which can indeed be cognized by every individual, yet cannot be professed publicly” (RBR 6:137). We think of God giving purpose to our own existence in the natural world, so that we may not succumb to the intolerable perspective of the possibility of wars erupting everlastingly. As an object of reason in Kant’s thought, God becomes of internal practical use to the individual, but not someone to be communicated universally. Nevertheless, Kant does not simply subordinate religion and God to ethics; rather, belief in God is necessary to hold together his moral system. Moltmann comprehensively reads Kant’s cosmopolitanism when summarising: 

The kingdom of God is coming, but it will not be the result of an apocalyptic revolution brought about by God; it will come through the growth of reason and morality among human beings. It will have no effect on natural life but will take place exclusively in the life of the human being (Moltmann 2004, p. 189).

Kant’s anthropocentric focus and his practically motivated faith in God together with his ontological uncertainty about actual divine existence are the key points that differentiate Kant’s philosophical chiliasm (RBR 6:34) from theological chiliasm, “but the underlying assumptions about the unified and planned course of history, its progress and its ultimate goal of completion, are the same” (Moltmann 2004, p. 189). In that sense, Kant’s vision of ending the current natural world (manifest in negative, unstable, and ultimately human-made peace) by completing the next pure, practical world (manifest in genuine, perpetual, and ultimately providential peace) can be read as eschatological philosophy. This idea only works out if Kant applies the theological concepts of ‘Creator-God’, ‘Creation’, and ‘creature’ to his philosophy, which then is theologically permeated.

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Mendelssohn, Moses (author); Arkush, Allan (editor), Jerusalem. Or on Religious Power and Judaism. Lebanon: Brandeis University Press (2013 : 1783).

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Andersen, Svend, “Kant, Kissinger, and Other Lutherans. On Ethics and International Relations.” In Studies in Christian Ethics 20 (1), (2016), pp. 13–29.

Cavallar, Georg, “Cosmopolitanisms in Kant’s philosophy.” In Ethics & Global Politics 5 (2), (2017), pp. 95–118.

Critchley, Simon, The faith of the faithless. Experiments in political theology. London: Verso Books (2012).

Fergusson, David, “Divine Providence.” In Nicholas Adams, George Pattison, Graham Ward (editors): The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2013).

Flikshuh, Katrin, “Reason and Nature: Kant’s Teleological Argument in Perpetual Peace.” In Graham Bird (editor): A Companion to Kant. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd (2006), pp. 383-296.

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Weidner, Daniel, “The political theology of critical philosophy: Reading Kant’s ideas of religion.” In Modern Language Notes 131 (5), (2016), pp. 1325–1346.

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[1] In Towards Perpetual Peace, Kant metaphorically criticises the “established schools” and their ideas of deification (a doctor and God curing the ill together) and of deism (a doctor created by God but then curing the ill on his or her own). Both schools of thought according to Kant claim insight into the supernatural (the doctor’s remedy) which is however not cognizable to us (cf. Kant 2008, p. 26).

[2] All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

[3] “…righteousness shall look down from heaven.Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.” (Ps. 85,11b-12 NKJV).

[4] “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Mt 6:33, NKJV).

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