Curatorial Initiatives
Kant's Essay

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The Idea of Perpetual Peace

By Gregg Lambert, Aaron Levy, and Martin Rauchbauer
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Goethe once commented that Immanuel Kant was a philosopher who has "woven a certain element of sly irony into his method." Similarly, Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace has been noted for its ironic tone. It takes the form of a treaty composed of preliminary and definitive articles, including secret articles and appendices, which is ironic in that it is drafted by a philosopher and does not issue from any conference and does not respond to any war. (It is written in response to the Treaty of Basil in 1795 that supposedly inaugurated a new era of peace in Europe, one which Kant earlier called a "chimera.")

The essay begins ironically with reference to a sign that appears above the door of a public inn bearing the inscription "perpetual peace," whose rooms offer a view of the cemetery of the adjoining churchyard. It is also ironic that the treatise begins in a public inn, an institution of hospice to strangers, since this appears in the third definitive article of the second section of the treatise, which stipulates "the rights of all men in a cosmopolitan system [are] restricted under the conditions of universal hospitality." The inn, like any surface of the globe, attests to the principle that all strangers are guaranteed by the right of universal hospitality to be treated as guests. The public that Kant addresses in this document is thus a cosmopolitan public, which is to say a public of strangers.

And yet, such a right to hospitality is in no way natural, since our state of nature is a state of war. Universal hospitality, much like a state of perpetual peace, must be "established" by non-natural means such as law. The specific kind of law Kant envisions is international law, which foregrounds the historical relationship of this text to the subsequent "establishment" of the League of Nations. If the public inn or hospice for strangers is the paradigm for civil society in a cosmopolitan state, the United Nations becomes its corollary political institution on the international stage. It is, according to this reading, an institution for housing representatives of "stranger" nations and the establishment of international law.

A third irony is that Kant already predicts the failure of this establishment in 1795 as he outlines the imperfections in international law at the time. In the second definitive article, immediately preceding the article of universal hospitality, Kant specifically prophesies the establishment of "an ever-growing STATE OF NATIONS, such as would at last embrace all of the Nations of the Earth (100)." But then he immediately goes on to outline the conditions of its failure, and prophecies with regard to the current institution of the United Nations in the following way:

    But as the Nations, according to their ideas of international Right, will not have such a positive rational system, and consequently reject in fact (in thesi) what is right in theory (in hypothesi), it cannot be realized in this pure form. Hence, instead of the positive idea of a Universal Republic--if all is not to be lost--we shall have as result only the negative surrogate of a Federation of the States averting war, subsisting in an external union, and always extending itself over the world. (100)

The accuracy with which Kant portrays the failure of the current United Nations to fulfill the cosmopolitan ideal in establishing a Universal Republic is uncanny and remarkable. But this is the case only if we ignore that fact that Kant already determines this failure from the beginning. This failure is specifically accorded to the Nations and their current "ideas of International Right," which brings about a contradiction between theory and practice.

Kant is referring to the famous contradiction that he expounded upon in his "principle of Progress," namely, what works in theory may not always work in practice. Kant strenuously argued against this sentiment, held by pessimists and realists alike, which is invariably held up like a judgment of fate against any human progress in the arena of international law. In fact, Kant revises the maxim as follows: "what is right in theory ought to be possible in practice, even if it is not presented in reality." To bring about the conditions for a Universal Republic, nations first need to change their ideas of International Right. These nations would have to relinquish their right to independent sovereignty and submit themselves to a system of international laws that would be conjoined with real political power, and that would coercively enforce limitations on the freedom of nations. This would be done in the same manner in which the nations themselves coercively enforce restrictions on the individual freedoms of their own subjects.

Here, Kant's irony turns into sarcasm towards the statesman and politicians who hold such an idea with contempt. They publicly make a mockery of it, he writes, as "a childish and pedantic idea fit only for the schools from which it takes its rise" (Principles of Politics, 75). This immediately leads to the basis of Kant's argument: in order for a positive system of international law to be established, first the nations must transform their ideas of International Right. Before this can happen, we must first change the mind of politicians and statesmen. The idea of perpetual peace is therefore not an object of sarcasm and ridicule to be condemned as completely impractical.

The final and perhaps great irony of Kant's own treatise is set forth in the only secret article contained in the second supplement. It is detached from the main body of the public treatise that outlines the preliminary and definitive articles, and offered as a secret pact. This secret article reads: "The maxims of the philosophers regarding the conditions of the possibility of a public peace shall be taken into consideration by the States that are armed for war. (116)"

The reason for this secret article is that it may not be compatible with the dignity of certain Persons to publicly acknowledge the origins of the idea of perpetual peace. The Person that Kant is referring to is not himself, since the philosopher is nowhere capable of dictating anything into law, but rather the Statesmen, who, as we noted above, hold the very idea with such contempt that they would never claim to be associated with it, much less take responsibility for it as an idea that originated with them. In a climate of outright scorn and mockery, one in which the mention of the idea of perpetual peace would not be entertained in the public courts of power, Kant's secret article creates the conditions for the idea to be considered silently. "Making a secret of the matter" in closed sessions and the adjacent rooms of power, statesmen can take the idea seriously because it will never be publicly associated with them.

The strategic purpose of the secret article relating to perpetual peace is therefore to allow statesmen to disassociate themselves from an idea that in fact originates with them. This is the final irony performed by Kant's treatise, and points to the fact that the idea of perpetual peace originates with the Person of the State. It only becomes associated with the Person of the Philosopher in the current situation where the statesman "cannot be publically announced as originating with him." Kant's solution to this situation is to allow this final irony to persist, to create a compromise formation in which the statesman will be allowed to entertain the idea in secret as long as it continues to be publicly ascribed to the philosopher, who will suffer public derision and mockery by the politicians themselves.

The secret article in Kant's essay thus enables the idea of perpetual peace to persist in public political discourse under the condition that it can be disavowed by the statesman. Peace is, after all, a purely practical idea for Kant, one that must be disguised as theoretical and speculative and assigned to the philosopher, in part due to the statesman's limitations for realizing this idea in human affairs. The philosopher thus functions simply as a historical surrogate whose purpose is to preserve the idea of perpetual peace under the "false" representation of its impossibility. Perhaps the institutionalized partition between the two faculties of the philosopher and statesman is itself a false distinction, and the result of a secret conspiracy between the two faculties.

Nevertheless, this compromise guarantees that the idea of perpetual peace will continue to exist, even though the true origin of the idea will remain a secret that is closely guarded by the philosophers who continue to publicly profess it, and by the politicians who continue to proclaim it an impossible ideal. As Kant writes at the end of the secret article, "That 'kings will philosophize or philosophers become kings' is not to be expected" (118). Today, the only way we can determine whether this historical compromise formation is still working is to believe that politicians and the statesmen are still silently considering the idea of perpetual peace in secret. Because there would be no evidence of this fact in the public statements or political briefs published by politicians and diplomats today, one of the projects of this curatorial intervention on the question of perpetual peace is a closed session in the conference rooms of the United Nations where theorists and practitioners can secretly meet to renew or revise this 200 year old agreement drafted by Kant in 1795. Another objective of our intervention is to get both parties to acknowledge the existence of this historical conspiracy--i.e. it is our intention that the Perpetual Peace Project enables practitioners to acknowledge the idea of perpetual peace as their own, but also enables theorists to realize that they have no right to claim the idea of perpetual peace as their exclusive property.

One obvious question is why Kant would create a secret article and then immediately violate the conditions of secrecy by publishing the article in a public tract. The conspiracy described above concerning the idea of perpetual peace is shared between the philosopher and the statesman, and the terms are that the philosopher will be allowed to publicly speak of the idea as long as the statesman does not have to acknowledge the idea as his own, and can continue to consider the matter silently (i.e., privately). In a certain sense, even the publication of the secret article doesn't violate the terms of secrecy, since the existence of the conspiracy between philosophy and politics would still have to be detected and publicly exposed. By all accounts, this secret has remained safe for the last two centuries and no one has spoken of it on either side. Philosophers continue to be berated by politicians for their childish talk of peace and other-worldly ideas, just as we can only imagine that statesmen continue to consider perpetual peace as something more than a "sweet dream" in their private apartments.

We should not forget that Kant's publication of the secret article does not just violate the objective conditions of the secret by making it an "open secret," but also involves the public as third party to the conspiracy. In diplomacy, the sudden revelation of a secret article in a public treaty is usually understood as a weapon that can be used by the weaker party to enforce the terms of the agreement. The stronger party could see this as a violation of the treaty, and choose to suppress the entire document through an official act of censorship. In The Conflict of the Faculties, published just three years later, Kant lays out this option to the State and advises against censorship for two reasons. First, "That kings, or king-like nations, who govern themselves according to laws of equality, should not allow philosophers as a class to disappear, or to be silenced"; and second, "That the philosopher's talk of perpetual peace should not be understood as a kind of Propaganda, since the class of philosophers are incapable of forming themselves into a political party" (118). There is a third reason for revealing the existence of the secret article without the threat of censorship: any attempt to censor Kant's treaty could turn an otherwise innocuous "process of communicating enlightenment" into a powerful weapon, one that could cause the heretofore secret conflict between philosophy and politics to break out in the public.

A fourth and final level of irony exists in Kant's essay, as well as his late writings on politics. Even if we accept that the idea of perpetual peace actually refers to the subject of a certain historical conspiracy between philosophy and politics at the end of the 18th century, there is nevertheless another deeper a conspiracy at work in what Kant refers to here and in the "Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View," as "the secret design of Nature." One formulation of this design is that Nature uses war as a means of achieving a lasting, if not, perpetual peace. But how precisely does nature, which Kant describes as a "great artist" (Natura Daedala rerum), accomplish this?

First of all, by restricting Humanity to occupy only one surface, and forming this surface into a globe so that all points must inevitably converge and meet at some point; second, by using war to disperse and thus populate all of the surface of the earth, even the formerly uninhabitable parts such as arctic oceans and vast deserts; third, by using horses and elephants to carry war more swiftly into even the most remote of places and putting all portions of the globe under the constant threat of war by foreigners; fourth, by creating a species of Humanity that serve to glorify war and who make war-like behavior into the most noble of moral virtues (whether that of martial courage or chivalry) and, therefore, as the condition of luxury and wealth for kings and nations; fifth, by increasing the cost of this luxury, the cost of maintaining a standing army, so that it becomes a constant source of national debt--"a modern infliction"--that weakens the sovereignty and security of the nation itself, forcing it to either spend this luxury in war and risk the consequences that cannot be known in advance, or increase taxation of its own subjects and risk revolutions and public revolt, including despotic calls for democratic reforms; sixth, by making the nature of war so inflationary and artificial a scourge that interrupts the circulation of communication and commerce even the most remote nations are forced by a common danger "to offer themselves, without any legal authority, as arbiters" in the conflicts between foreign nations; finally, seventh, to find the absence of international law as a means to prevent future wars between foreign nations as the very condition for the establishment of "a universal Cosmopolitan Institution" that will gather all nations under one form of sovereignty, or as Kant says, under one Master (since he remarks elsewhere that Humanity always needs a Master). Accordingly, the first act of this "great future political Body" would be to sue for peace, but the party to the suit would not be other nations, but Nature herself (the Absolute Master).

According to Kant's seven-point outline of Nature's secret design, today our global society is somewhere between the sixth and seventh steps. However, the future is certain and perpetual peace is even guaranteed as the End of History:

    It seems, at first sight, a strange and even absurd proposal to suggest the composition of a History according to the world must proceed, if it is to be conformable to certain rational laws. It may well appear that only a Romance could be produced from such a point of view. However, if it is to be assumed that Nature, even in the play of human freedom, does not proceed without a plan and design, the idea may well be regarded as practicable; and, although we are too short sighted to see through the secret mechanism of her constitution, yet the idea may serve as a clue to enable us to penetrate the otherwise planless Aggregate of human actions as a whole, and to represent them as constituting a System. (25-26)

The final word in this passage, system, implies a scientific point-of-view, which Kant opposes to a Romantic point of view. Romantic refers here not only to a literary genre of fictionalizing, but also to any theological or mythic view of History as anything other than a rational system of laws. We also find here Kant's revision of the maxim concerning the aforementioned opposition between theory and practice, or between philosophy and politics ("What is right in theory ought to be possible in practice.") Here, what is right is the idea of perpetual peace as the ultimate end of History, which ought to serve as a useful maxim for determining practical knowledge of this end.

There is a certain "cosmic irony" in Kant's idea of perpetual peace: war is natural by design, but peace does not come from nature, only from reason. The irony is that the design that nature carries out through war ends up leading to a state that is beyond Nature, as well as beyond all natural history. And yet, Kant also paradoxically claims that this final state, a peace which is not a state of nature but rather a state of reason, does not come about through any act of will on the part of Humanity. In fact, Humanity is shown to be dragged to this inevitable and insurmountable truth kicking and screaming, a truth which Kant refers to as Fate and Providence (thereby uniting both Hellenic and Christian world-views on the final cause of all creation). In other words, it is only at the final stage in the process of enlightenment that Humanity is capable of achieving a state of peace that is perpetual and not merely a temporary cessation of war. We would thus be compelled to agree with the politician that this still remains a "sweet dream," and yet, according to Kant, this would only attest to our lack of practical knowledge concerning the idea, since for us peace still remains a theoretical and speculative idea. Its reality is, in truth, only a "secret" that we are still incapable of apprehending due to our short-sightedness and our "unsocial sociability."

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