Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Unsocial Kant: The Philosopher and the Un-Regarded War Dead

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Unsocial Kant: The Philosopher and the Un-Regarded War Dead

Article excerpt

  The license to kill is fortified by the assumption that, the
  life of a single servant of God is worth the life of a thousand
  citizens of otherness.
--Balachandra Rajan (9)

Although Immanuel Kant's Toward Perpetual Peace is critical of all wars, and deeply suspicious of what is too quickly called "peace," its immediate historical occasion is the withdrawal of Frederick William II from the War of the First Coalition. Having secured "more territory for his kingdom than any other sovereign in his dynasty's history" (Clark, Iron Kingdom 292), the Prussian king was anxious to abandon the anti-French alliance. In an unprecedented diplomatic move, he signed a separate treaty with France at Basle on April 5, 1795, bringing hostilities with the revolutionary armies momentarily to an abrupt close. A regicide peace was at hand, much to the disgust of Prussia's former allies, for whom the endgame of the Holy Roman Empire was now in sight. Kant may well have hoped that the treaty would affirm republican France as the nation at the forefront of the cosmopolitan federation of states to come. Yet the human and material costs of this scheme had proven to be as enormous as its outcome was uncertain. Was this peace or a mere hiatus in the fighting? Prussia had given up all of its territories west of the Rhine, the plan being to join Austria and Russia in partitioning what remained of Poland in the east. As Bohman argues, the treaty was therefore an example of "the 'pure illusion' of the balance of power [that] does nothing to change existing conditions between states or to create new conditions that would permit peace to become more than the temporary silence of weapons" (1-2). For Kant, the truce with France represents not a sabbatical Iron: thought but the occasion for a robust interrogation of both the nature of war and the limits of peace.

With the controversy and uneasy expectations swirling around the Treaty of Basle in mind, and with the streets of Prussian towns once again brimming with returning and discharged soldiers, Kant uses his modestly subtitled "philosophical sketch" to ask a series of very immodest questions. The philosopher is careful to abstain from naming specific countries or principalities, perhaps to evade the Prussian censors but more likely to underline that his primary motivations for intervening in the public sphere at this vexed historical moment are moral and universal as much as they are political and particular. What shall we do when the war is over? If by an accident of history and by sheer superiority of force, we have succeeded-succeeded?-in killing our enemies, destroying their armies, and incapacitating their ability to resist or attack, if we have razed their towns, bankrupted their economies, and ruined their lands and animals, if we have humiliated their leaders, conscripted their men, and laid waste to their families, if we have prevailed or survived, more or less intact, for this moment at least, what then? What will there be left to say and how shall we think of ourselves and of the vanquished others when the deed is finally done? What comes after? What forms of remembrance and sociality will be permitted or required in the wake of war? If we proclaim ourselves victorious (and who but the victorious name themselves as such?), how will we comport and define ourselves? What new or supplemental forms of community coalesce at the instant that the war is declared to be at an end, regardless of whether it is in fact at an end? Does the end of war mean peace? For what is peace? Nothing seems less certain at this moment when we, the victors, are told and tell each other that everything is certain, that the mission is accomplished. What does peace look like and what does it feel like both to the victors and to the state philosopher who is in the pay of the victors? What is peace to us, the happy, happy few, who raise our voices together in triumph, but with the blood of thousands, and of tens of thousands, on our warring and on our war-weary hands? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.