Curatorial Initiatives
Kant's Essay

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The Idea of Perpetual Peace

By Gregg Lambert, Aaron Levy, and Martin Rauchbauer
Click here for an unabbreviated version

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.

Ironically, 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. 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.

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.

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