Note on "Perpetual Peace"

What makes Kant’s short essay remarkable is the light it sheds on Rousseau’s “general will.”

For Kant, reason is the general will – hence, Rousseau’s talk of a legislator begins to make more sense. There can be one person who understands what is best for the many; the trick is to bring the many to that state of Enlightenment, where they can be truly free, and avoid demagoguery.

To this end, classical and Machiavellian notions of how statecraft should proceed are rejected. The classical is rejected as it does not sufficiently take in to account how self-centered man is, and posits happiness as something to do with contemplation of ends. The problem with having “ends” in this life, for Kant, is that such sorts of goals must of necessity be material. Freedom lies in the purely formal principle, which is not unlike the categorical – you want to act in such a way that one’s action can be reproduced publicly.

The Machiavellian notions are rejected based on an appeal to “publicity” (nations should have open-ended dealings and declarations of policy so that the world, the cosmopolis, can judge), and an appeal to “trade” as something that can soften the harsher in man.

The criticism I placed against Kantian thought in the last post is that it does not take politics seriously – for Kant, politics is about persuasion, which I agree with, but a persuasion that is so complete it can only happen on a personal level. He wants sentiments to change, and when he talks about incentives and how they will affect a people’s reasoning, I wonder if he realizes that sentiments are harder to change than reasons.

Where “reason” as the general will gets a peculiar strength is in its treatment of Revelation. A footnote in the appendices implies that if one believes in a particular religion, one really believes in a universal religion. Your God, after all, has to be able to account for all the false gods around; they must have been part of His providential plan. Reason as the general will can actually, then, gain strength via belief. Kant uses the issue of Providence very skillfully – he does not argue for progress as much as use progress as a lead-in to what is objective. What is objective is not love or virtue, but literal respect for another’s right. That respect for right, when fully realized, unites the Kantian concept of politics with morality completely.

And if you buy into this stuff, I think what you can see is Kant saying to me that I’m a pessimist, and that I discount the possibility of a truly moral politics for no “reason,” and thus discount the possibility of a truly workable democracy.


  1. Good post. I do not know if you would be pessimistic in these regards, maybe by Kant. Even there though, I am not sure if he would say that. But it is easy to see why he would dislike politics, and the persuasion that it needs. Maybe for Kant sentiment and reason are closer to being the same. But sentiments don’t need “reasons.”


  2. I am working on response to the “God and Land use” question. On the surface I would say that even here land use and regime are one and the same. The theocracy is granted the land by God, Gods law gaurantees the continual and peaceful use of the land. The people as a whole are granted the land rights.

    I am looking for good specific examples to help clarify and demonstrate the point. Didn’t want you thinking I was ignoring it, just been busy, and i wanted to give you as good an answer as I am capable.


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