Kant, The Contest of Faculties

The most influential German philosopher of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), set the foundations for much of modern philosophy. He lectured on a wide variety of topics, from astronomy to economics. In this short statement from 1798, he captures much of the significance of the French Revolution for his time.

An occurrence in our own times which proves this moral tendency of the human race: The occurrence in question does not involve any of those momentous deeds or misdeeds of men which make small in their eyes what was formerly great or make great what was formerly small, and which cause ancient and illustrious states to vanish as if by magic, and others to arise in their place as if from the bowels of the earth. No, it has nothing to do with all this. We are here concerned only with the attitude of the onlookers as it reveals itself in public while the drama of great political changes is taking place: for they openly express universal yet disinterested sympathy for one set of protagonists against their adversaries, even at the risk that their partiality could be of great disadvantage to themselves. Their reaction (because of its universality) proves that mankind as a whole shares a certain character in common, and it also proves (because of its disinterestedness) that man has a moral character, or at least the makings of one. And this does not merely allow us to hope for human improvement; it is already a form of improvement in itself, in so far as its influence is, strong enough for the present. The revolution which we have seen taking place in our own times in a nation of gifted people may succeed, or it may fail. It may be so filled with misery and atrocities that no right-thinking man would ever decide to make the same experiment again at such a price, even if he could hope to carry it out successfully at the second attempt. But I maintain that this revolution has aroused in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm, although the very utterance of this sympathy was fraught with danger. It cannot therefore have been caused by anything other than a moral disposition within the human race. The moral cause which is at work here is composed of two elements. Firstly, there is the right of every people to give itself a civil Constitution of the kind that it sees fit, without interference from other powers. And secondly, once it is accepted that the only intrinsically rightful and morally good constitution which a people can have is by its very nature disposed to avoid wars of aggression (i.e., that the only possible constitution is a republican one, at least in its conception), there is the aim, which is also. This does not mean, however, that a people which has a monarchic constitution can thereby claim the right to alter it, or even nurse a secret desire to do so, for a people which occupies extended territories in Europe may feel that monarchy is the only kind of constitution which can enable it to preserve its own existence between powerful neighbors. And if the subjects should complain, not because of their internal government but because of their government's behavior towards the citizens of foreign states (for example, if it were to discourage republicanism abroad), this does not prove that the people are dissatisfied with their own constitution, but rather that they are profoundly attached to it; for it becomes progressively more secure from danger as more of the other nations become republics. Nevertheless, slanderous sycophants, bent on increasing their own importance, have tried to portray this innocuous political gossip as innovationism, Jacobinism and conspiracy, constituting a menace to the state. But there was never the slightest reason for such allegations, particularly in a country more than a hundred miles removed from the scene of the revolution.

A duty, of submitting to those conditions by which war, the source of all evils and moral corruption, can be prevented. If this aim is recognized, the human race, for all its frailty, has a negative guarantee that it will progressively improve or at least that it will not be disturbed in its progress.

All this, along with the passion or enthusiasm with which men embrace the cause of goodness (although the former cannot be entirely applauded, since all passion as such is blameworthy), gives historical support for the following assertion, which is of considerable anthropological significance: true enthusiasm is always directed exclusively towards the ideal, particularly towards that which is purely moral (such as the concept of right), and it cannot be coupled with selfish interests. No pecuniary rewards could inspire the opponents of the revolutionaries with that zeal and greatness of soul which the concept of right could alone produce in them, and even the old military aristocracy's concept of honor (which is analogous to enthusiasm) vanished before the arms of those who had fixed their gaze on the rights of the people to which they belonged, and who regarded themselves as its protectors. And then the external public of onlookers sympathized with their exaltation, without the slightest intention of actively participating in their affairs.

It may be said of such enthusiasm for asserting the rights of man: postquam ad arma Vulcania ventum est,—mortalis mucro glacies ceu futilis ictu dissiluit—Why has no ruler ever dared to say openly that he does not recognize any rights of the people against himself? Or that the people owe their happiness only to the beneficence of a government which confers it upon them, and that any pretensions on the part of the subject that he has rights against the government are absurd or even punishable, since they imply that resistance to authority is permissible? The reason is that any such public declaration would rouse up all the subjects against the ruler, even although they had been like docile sheep, well fed, powerfully protected and led by a kind and understanding master, and had no lack of welfare to complain of. For beings endowed with freedom cannot be content merely to enjoy the comforts of existence, which may well be provided by others (in this case, by the government); it all depends on the principle which governs the provision of such comforts.

Source: Immanuel Kant, The Contest of Faculties, in Hans Reiss, ed., Kant: Political Writings, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) (Der Streit der Fakultäten [1798]), 182–83. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.