The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

5
THE POLITICAL THEORY
OF KANT, FICHTE AND
HEGEL

Dean Moyar


Modern political philosophy

The cloud of suspicion that hung over the political philosophy of German Idealism for much of the twentieth century has almost fully dissipated. The connections, real and imagined, to communism and to German nationalism no longer stand in the way of a sober assessment of the texts of these thinkers. I focus in this essay on the major works of the three most important idealists, Kant, Fichte and Hegel, and on the extent of their continuity with the classical liberal tradition. Their ideas are developed from the tradition of modern political philosophy, and each of them critiques and extends that tradition. In this introductory section I lay out four of the main themes of modern political philosophy. This will allow me in the rest of the essay to analyze the moves in the idealists’ texts as appropriations and transformations of these themes.

One of the defining moves of modern political philosophy is to separate political right from morality. Machiavelli tried to separate the question of political freedom from a Christian morality that urges people to care more for their souls in the afterlife than their freedom in this life. In The Prince he wrote that politics should be oriented by how we actually live, and by the general unreliability of humans to do the right thing, rather than by philosophical theories or religious teachings of how we ought to live. This is not only advice to rulers who want to secure their power, but it is also an assumption Machiavelli thought necessary for securing republican freedom. He writes in the Discourses on Livy, “it is necessary to whoever disposes a republic and orders laws in it to presuppose that all men are bad, and that they always have to use the malignity of their spirit whenever they have a free opportunity for it” (Machiavelli 1996; 15). Rather than basing politics on trust and morality, a political order should instead be based on coercive laws and the motives of self-interest and fear of punishment. In Hobbes and Locke, the separation of political right from morality is less oriented by an antipathy to religion in general (though one can certainly detect that in Hobbes), and more from a concern that religious differences make orderly

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