Written by Vladimir Moss



    The eighteenth century was an age of great creativity in western philosophy. Following the dictates of reason so-called, the great philosophers of the age went to the very edge of irrationality and insanity. They looked over the edge, but - determined to remain sane and enlightened whatever their thoughts might lead them to conclude - stepped back. But western man has never forgotten the dreadful dark abyss it once peered into. He is still suffering from vertigo, and, being still unenlightened by the Word of God, he has been on the edge of falling into madness ever since… 

     The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), writes Sir Alistair MacFarlane, “is usually represented as completing an ‘empiricist’ movement started by John Locke (1632-1704) and continued by George Berkeley (1685-1753), but their approaches were very different. Locke made a valiant attempt to establish that all knowledge derived from experience. He regarded the mind as a ‘blank slate’ on which experience somehow inscribed knowledge. To articulate this idea, Locke differentiated between the primary qualities of objects, such as their solidity, shape and extension, and their secondary qualities, such as colour, taste, or other sensations they induce. Berkeley went further, claiming that there was no need to invoke the existence of matter at all, only experiences and the minds that perceived them. Finally Hume, the supreme sceptic, argued that we had no more warrant for believing in minds continuing through time than for believing in the existence of matter. From this intellectual ferment and upheaval, modern philosophy began to emerge via the work of Immanuel Kant…”[1]

     Hume was unique among the rationalist philosophers of the eighteenth-century in claiming to prove, by the method of “experimental philosophy”, or reductionism, the irrationality of reason itself – that is, considered on its own and without any other support. His conclusion was that in real life reason is always buttressed and supplemented by faith. But then he went on to try and “demonstrate” that faith – faith not only in God, but in any enduring, objective reality – is itself irrational…

     Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature was written in 1739-40, shortly after he had had a nervous breakdown. It was subtitled ‘An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects’. This indicated the final end of the Enlightenment Programme: to subdue absolutely everything, even religion and morality, to the “experimental method”.

     Hume first disposes of the idea of substance. Since our idea of the external world is derived entirely from impressions of sensation, and since we can never derive from sensation alone the idea of an object existing independently of our sensations, such an idea does not really exist at all. Instead, “the idea of a substance… is nothing but a collection of simple ideas that are united by the imagination and have a particular name assigned to them, by which we are able to recall, either to ourselves or others, that collection.”[2]

     Following the same reasoning, Hume also disposes of the idea of the soul or self. There is no sense-impression which corresponds to the idea of a permanently existing self. For “self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ides are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable… and consequently there is no such idea.”[3]

     The most famous example of Hume’s method of reductive method is his analysis of causation. When we say that A causes B, the word “causes” does not correspond to any impression of sensation. All that we actually see is that events of the class A are constantly followed by events of the class B. This constant conjunction of A and B predisposes the mind, on seeing A, to think of B. Thus a cause in nature “is an object precedent and contiguous to another, and so united with it that the idea of the one determines the mind to form the idea of the other, and the impression of the one to form a more lively idea of the other.”[4]

     Bertrand Russell analysed Hume’s teaching into two parts: “(1) When we say ‘A caused B’, all that we have a right to say is that, in part experience, A and B have frequently appeared together or in rapid succession, and no instance has been observed of A not followed or accompanied by B. (2) However many instances we may have observed of the conjunction of A and B, that give no reason for expecting them to be conjoined on a future occasion, though it is a cause of this expectation, i.e. it has been frequently observed to be conjoined with such an expectation. These two parts of the doctrine may be stated as follows: (1) in causation there is no indefinable relation except conjunction or succession; (2) induction by simple enumeration is not a valid argument… 

     “If the first half of Hume’s doctrine is admitted, the rejection of induction makes all expectation as to the future irrational, even the expectation that we shall continue to feel expectations. I do not mean merely that our expectations may be mistaken; that, in any case, must be admitted. I mean that, taking even our firmest expectations, such as that the sun will rise to-morrow, there is not a shadow of a reason for supposing them more likely to be verified than not…”[5] 

     Thus empiricism is shown to be irrational. As Copleston writes, “the uniformity of nature is not demonstrable by reason. It is the object of belief rather than of intuition or demonstration.”[6] We cannot help having such beliefs; for “whatever may be the reader’s opinion at this present moment,.. an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and internal world.”[7]. However, such belief cannot be justified by reason; for it “is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.”[8] 

     Hume’s attitude to belief in God was predictably agnostic, if not strictly atheistic. We cannot say that God is the cause of nature because we have never seen a constant conjunction of God, on the one hand, and nature, on the other. Also, “I much doubt,” he says, “that a cause can be known only by its effect.”[9] At most, Hume concedes, “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence.”[10] 

     In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779, Hume wrote: “For aught we know a priori, matter may contain the source, or spring, of order originally, within itself, as well as the mind does.” As Edward Skidelsky points out, “This is the seed from which the various 19th-century theories of evolution – of which Darwin’s is only the most famous – spring… After Hume, it is only a matter of time before agnosticism reigns supreme. The perseverance of belief is attributed to mere ignorance or else to a wilful ‘sacrifice of the intellect’. Unbelievers, on the other hand, are congratulated for their disinterested pursuit of truth ‘wherever it may lead’.”[11]

     Morality is disposed of as thoroughly as the idea of God. “Reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will”; it “can never oppose passion in the direction of the will”. For “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”[12] And “the life of a man is of no greater important to the universe than that of an oyster.”[13]

     Reason can oppose a passion only by directing the mind to other passions tending in the opposite direction. For “it is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object.”[14] Hume’s conclusion is that “reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”[15] 

     Nor is this necessarily a bad thing, according to Hume… “In delineating the workings of propensities integral to human existence, Hume noted that Christian theologians and Platonists alike had condemned the appetites, the former deploring them as sinful, the latter demanding their mastery by reason. For Hume, by contrast, feelings were the true springs of such vital social traits as the love of family, attachment to property and the desire for reputation. Pilloried passions like pride were the very cement of society. Dubbing its denigrators ‘monkish’, Hume defended pride when well regulated; indeed, magnanimity, that quality attributed to all the greatest heroes, was ‘either nothing but a steady and well-establish’d pride and self-esteem, or partakes largely of that passion’. Besides, ‘hearty pride’ was essential to society, whose hierarchy of ranks, fixed by ‘our birth, fortune, employments, talents or reputation’, had to be maintained if it were to function smoothly. A person needed pride to acquit himself well in his station – indiscriminate humility would reduce social life to chaos. Much that had traditionally been reproved as egoistically immoral he reinstated as beneficial.”[16]

     Hume’s essential idea was that, in Edwin Burt’s words, “Reason is a subjective faculty which has no necessary relation with the ‘facts’ we seek to know. It is limited to tracing the relations of our ideas, which themselves are already twice removed from ‘reality’. And our senses are equally subjective, for they can never know the ‘thing in itself’, but only an image of it which has in it no element of necessity and certainty – ‘the contrary of every matter of fact is still possible’.[17] 

     Hume’s significance lies in his rational demonstration of the impotence of reason, of the fact that it can prove the existence of nothing – not only of God, Providence and the immortal soul, but even of material objects and causality, the bedrock of empirical explanation. But a dead-end for rationalism can only mean an opening for irrationalism. If reason can only serve passion rather than rule it, then the last moral barrier to the overturning of all traditional values is removed. And indeed, in Paris, where Hume was fêted much more than in his native Scotland, the revolution against eighteenth-century rationalism was only a few years away…

     Hume’s hard-headed empiricism extended also to his political philosophy, which at least had the virtue of exposing the weak foundations on which the theory of the social contract was based. Thus for Hume there never was any such thing as a “state of nature” – “men are necessarily born in a family-society at least.”[18] The initial bonds between men are not contractual, but sexual and parental: “Natural appetite draws members of the two sexes together and preserves their union until a new bond arises, their common concern for their offspring. 'In a little time, custom and habit operating on the tender minds of the children makes them sensible of the advantages which they reap from society, as well as fashions them by degrees for it, by rubbing off those rough corners and untoward affections which prevent their coalition.’ The family, therefore (or, more accurately, the natural appetite between the sexes), is ‘the first and original principle of human society’. The transition to a wider society is effected principally by the felt need for stabilizing the possession of external goods.”[19]

     Men could continue living in primitive societies like those of the American Indians without the formal structure of government if it were not that quarrels over property led to the need for the administration of justice. “The state of society without government is one of the most natural states of men, and must subsist with the conjunction of many families, and long after the first generation. Nothing but an increase of riches and possessions could oblige men to quit it.”[20] 

     Later, quarrels between tribes lead to the emergence of war leaders. Then, during the peace, the war leader continues to lead. And so an ad hoc arrangement dictated by necessity and the need to survive would generate a permanent government. This is a gradual, organic process propelled by “necessity, inclination and habit” rather than an explicit, rational agreement.

     Indeed, not only are governments not formed on the basis of consent: “’almost all the governments which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally, either on usurpation or conquest or both, without any pretence of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people… The face of the earth is continually changing, by the increase of small kingdoms into great empires, by the dissolution of great empires into smaller kingdoms, by the planting of colonies, by the migration of tribes. Is there anything discernible in all these events but force and violence? Where is the mutual agreement or voluntary association so much talked of?’ Even when elections take the place of force, what does it amount to? It may be election by a few powerful and influential men. Or it may take the form of popular sedition, the people following a ringleader who owes his advancement to his own impudence or to the momentary caprice of the crowd, most of whom have little of no knowledge of him and his capacities. In neither case is there a real rational agreement by the people.”[21] 

     English political liberalism arose from the need to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Protestant William of Orange usurped the throne. William’s rule was tacitly consented to as being more in accord with natural law and reason than the despotism of James II, who was deemed to have broken some kind of contract with his citizens. But Hume undermines both the contractual and the rational elements in this justification, reducing the whole duty of allegiance to naked self-interest. In this way he is closer to Hobbes than to Locke – and to Marx than to J.S. Mills….

     “Granted that there is a duty of political allegiance, it is obviously idle to look for its foundation in popular consent and in promises if there is little or no evidence that popular consent was ever asked or given. As for Locke’s idea of tacit consent, ‘it may be answered that such an implied consent can only have place where a man imagines that the matter depends on his choice’. But anyone who is born under an established government thinks that he owes allegiance to the sovereign by the very fact that he is by birth a citizen of the political society in question. And to suggest with Locke that every man is free to leave the society to which he belongs by birth is unreal. ‘Can we seriously say that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners and lives from day to day by the small wages which he acquires?’

     “The obligation of allegiance to civil government, therefore, ‘is not derived from any promise of the subjects’. Even if promises were made at some time in the remote past, the present duty of allegiance cannot rest on them. ‘It being certain that there is a moral obligation to submit to government, because everyone thinks so, it must be as certain that this obligation arises not from a promise, since no one whose judgement has not been led astray by too strict adherence to a system of philosophy has ever yet dreamt of ascribing it to that origin.’ The real foundation of the duty of allegiance is utility or interest.

     ‘This interest I find to consist in the security and protection which we can enjoy in political society, and which we can never attain when perfectly free and independent.’ This holds good both of natural and of moral obligation. ‘It is evident that, if government were totally useless, it never could have a place, and that the sole foundation of the duty of allegiance is the advantage which it procures to society by preserving peace and order among mankind.’ Similarly, in the essay Of the Original Contract Hume observes: ‘If the reason be asked of that obedience which we are bound to pay to government, I readily answer, Because society could not otherwise subsist; and this answer is clear and intelligible to all mankind.’ 

     “The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this view is that when the advantage ceases, the obligation to allegiance ceases. ‘As interest, therefore, is the immediate sanction of government, the one can have no longer being than the other; and whenever the civil magistrate carries his oppression so far as to render his authority perfectly intolerable, we are no longer bound to submit to it. The cause ceases; the effect must also cease.’ It is obvious, however, that the evils and dangers attending rebellion are such that it can be legitimately attempted only in cases of real tyranny and oppression and when the advantages of acting in this way are judged to outweigh the disadvantages. 

     “But to whom is allegiance due? In other words, whom are we to regard as legitimate rulers? Originally, Hume thought or inclined to think, government was established by voluntary convention. ‘The same promise, then, which binds them (the subjects) to obedience, ties them down to a particular person and makes him the object of their allegiance.’ But once government has been established and allegiance no longer rests upon a promise but upon advantage or utility, we cannot have recourse to the original promise to determine who is the legitimate ruler. The fact that some tribe in remote times voluntarily subjected itself to a leader is no guide to determining whether William of Orange or James II is the legitimate monarch. 

     “One foundation of legitimate authority is long possession of the sovereign power: ‘I mean, long possession in any form of government, or succession of princes’. Generally speaking, there are no governments or royal houses which do not owe the origin of their power to usurpation or rebellion and whose original title to authority was not ‘worse than doubtful and uncertain’. In this case ‘time alone gives solidity to their right and, operating gradually on the minds of men, reconciles them to any authority and makes it seem just and reasonable’. The second source of public authority is present possession, which can legitimize the possession of power even when there is no question of its having been acquired a long time ago. ‘Right to authority is nothing but the constant possession of authority, maintained by the laws of society and the interests of mankind.’ A third source of legitimate political authority is the right of conquest. As fourth and fifth sources can be added the right of succession and positive laws, when the legislature establishes a certain form of government. When all these titles to authority are found together, we have the surest sign of legitimate sovereignty, unless the public good clearly demands a change. But if, says Hume, we consider the actual course of history, we shall soon learn to treat lightly all disputes about the rights of princes. We cannot decide all disputes in accordance with fixed, general rules. Speaking of this matter in the essay Of the Original Contract, Hume remarks that ‘though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy or astronomy, be deemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard by which any controversy can ever be decided. To say, for example, with Locke that absolute government is not really civil government at all is pointless if absolute government is in fact accepted as a recognized political institution. Again, it is useless to dispute whether the succession of the Prince of Orange to the throne was legitimate or not. It may not have been legitimate at the time. And Locke, who wished to justify the revolution of 1688, could not possibly do so on his theory of legitimate government being founded on the consent of the subjects. For the people of England were not asked for their opinion. But in point of fact William of Orange was accepted, and the doubts about the legitimacy of his accession are nullified by the fact that his successors have been accepted. It may perhaps seem to be an unreasonable way of thinking, but ‘princes often seem to acquire a right from their successors as well as from their ancestors.’”[22]

     Thus just as Hume had argued that there was no rational reason for believing in the existence of objects, or causative forces, or the soul, or God, or morality, so he argued that there was no rational reason for believing that a given government was legitimate. Or rather, governments are legitimate for no other reason than that they survive, whether by force or the acquiescence of public opinion. Legitimacy, according to Hume, is a matter of what the people, whether individually or collectively, consider to be in their self-interest. But since there is no objective way of measuring self-interest, it comes down in the end to a matter of taste, of feeling. And since there is no arguing about tastes, there is also by implication no arguing with a revolutionary who wishes to destroy society to its foundations. For that is what Hume was – probably the most subversive thinker in history before Nietzsche… 

     Hume’s demonstration of the irrationality of rationalism had one very important result: it aroused the greatest philosopher of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, from what he called his “dogmatic slumbers”. Kant sought to re-establish some of the beliefs or prejudices that Hume’s thoroughgoing scepticism had undermined.

     To that end, he determined to subject “pure reason itself to critical investigation”, answering the question: “what and how much can understanding and reason know, apart from all experience?”[23] He established that empirical reason can indeed know certain things, but that the use of reason itself presupposes the existence of other things which transcend reason. Thus “I think” must accompany all our experiences if they are to be qualified as ours, so that there must be what Kant calls a “transcendental unity of apperception” which unifies experience while being at the same time beyond it. And so, apart from the “phenomenal” realm of nature, which the mind can understand only by imposing upon it the categories of substance, causality and mutual interaction, there is also the “noumenal” realm of spirit and freedom, which transcends nature and causality. “There is thus a being above the world, namely the spirit of man”.[24] 

     Man himself is noumenally free while being at the same time empirically (phenomenally) determined. His spirit is not a substance in the empirical sense, nor subject to the empirical causal nexus. But it is the seat of that which is greatest and truly rational in man, indeed the whole world: his sense of duty, his will to do good. Hence the famous words: “It is impossible to conceive of anything in the world, or indeed out of it, which can be called good without qualification, save only a good will.”[25] A good will acts neither out of some psychological sympathy or passion pushing it from behind, nor in order to attain some end or goal in front of it. It acts out of a pure duty, in answer to a “categorical imperative”. The criterion of whether an act is truly good and moral in this sense is the following: I am never to act otherwise than so that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law, in other words, that every other rational being in the same circumstances should make the same decision. An important corollary of this criterion is that all men should be treated, not as means, but as ends. Indeed, it is from the existence of a “kingdom of ends”, of men who ideally treat each other as rational beings and ends in themselves, that Kant derives, if not the existence of God and immortality, at any rate the possibility and reasonableness of their existence: for a kingdom of ends encourages belief in a rational being who legislates for all other rational beings while not having any limitations on his will, and who, in the life to come, brings virtue its due reward in happiness…

     In this way, Kant seeks to restore faith in those objects of belief – God, the soul, immortality – that Hume’s scepticism had undermined. We may also see in his idea of the individual will acting in such a way that his maxim should become a universal law an attempt to give a rational basis to Rousseau’s essentially irrational idea of the general will. But from our point of view it is his arguments in favour of man’s freedom that are particularly important…

     The whole development of western thought from the Renaissance onwards centres on the idea of freedom, of human autonomy and especially the autonomy of human reason. However, this development has led, by the second half of the eighteenth century, to a most paradoxical dead-end: to the conclusion that man, being a part of nature, is not free, but determined, and that the exercise of human reason is based on the most irrational leap of blind faith in substance and causality, without which we could not be assured of the existence of anything external to our own mind – which is in any case just a bundle of sensations. Kant, by a supreme exercise of that same free reasoning faculty, stanches the flow of irrationalism. But at a price: the price of making man a schizoid creature living on a razor blade between the noumenal and phenomenal realms. Yes, he says, man is a part of nature and determined, otherwise the science of man and the whole Enlightenment project would be impossible (and Kant remains an Enlightenment figure to the end). And yes, he says, man is free and uncaused, otherwise Christianity and morality would be impossible (and Kant remains a devout Lutheran to the end). But the balance and synthesis he achieves between the two is hard to express and difficult to maintain. And succeeding generations preferred to go in one direction or the other: some down the Enlightenment path of seeking a Utopia on earth through science and rational social organisation, and others down the Romantic path of irrational, unfettered self-expression in both the private and the public spheres. 

     Thus “in his moral philosophy,” writes Sir Isaiah Berlin, Kant lifted “the lid of a Pandora’s box, which released tendencies which he was among the first, with perfect honesty and consistency, to disown and condemn. He maintained, as every German schoolboy used to know, that the moral worth of an act depended on its being freely chosen by the agent; that if a man acted under the influence of causes which he could not and did not control, whether external, such as physical compulsion, or internal, such as instincts or desires or passions, then the act, whatever its consequences, whether they were good or bad, advantageous or harmful to men, had no moral value, for the act had not been freely chosen, but was simply the effect of mechanical causes, an event in nature, no more capable of being judged in ethical terms than the behaviour of a an animal or plant. If the determinism that reigns in nature – on which, indeed, the whole of natural science is based – determines the acts of a human agent, he is not truly an agent, for to act is to be capable of free choice between alternatives; and free will must in that case be an illusion. Kant is certain that freedom of the will is not illusory but real. Hence the immense emphasis that he places on human autonomy – on the capacity for free commitment to rationally chosen ends. The self, Kant tells us, must be ‘raised above natural necessity’, for if men are ruled by the same laws as those which govern the material world ‘freedom cannot be saved’, and without freedom there is no morality.

     “Kant insists over and over again that what distinguishes man is his moral autonomy as against his physical heteronomy – for his body is governed by natural laws, not issuing from his own inner self. No doubt this doctrine owes a great deal to Rousseau, for whom all dignity, all pride rest upon independence. To be manipulated is to be enslaved. A world in which one man depends upon the favour of another is a world of masters and slaves, of bullying and condescension and patronage at one end, and obsequiousness, servility, duplicity and patronage at the other. But whereas Rousseau supposes that only dependence on other men is degrading, for no one resents the laws of nature, only ill will, the Germans went further. For Kant, total dependence on non-human nature – heteronomy – was incompatible with choice, freedom, morality. This exhibits a new attitude to nature, or at least the revival of an ancient [supposedly] Christian antagonism to it. The thinkers of the Enlightenment and their predecessors in the Renaissance (save for isolated antinomian mystics) tended to look upon nature as divine harmony, or as a great organic or artistic unity, or as an exquisite mechanism created by the divine watchmaker, or else as uncreated and eternal, but always as a model from which men depart at their cost. The principal need of man is to understand the external world and himself and the place that he occupies in the scheme of things: if he grasps this, he will not seek after goals incompatible with the needs of his nature, goals which he can follow only through some mistaken conception of what he is in himself, or of his relations to other men or the external world…. 

     “Man is subject to the same kind of causal laws as animals and plants and the inanimate world, physical and biological laws, and in the case of men psychological and economic too, established by observation and experiment, measurement and verification. Such notions as the immortal soul, a personal God, freedom of the will, are for them metaphysical fictions and illusions. But they are not so for Kant. 

     “The German revolt against France and French materialism has social as well as intellectual roots. Germany in the first half of the eighteenth century, and for more than a century before, even before the devastation of the Thirty Years War, had little share in the great renaissance of the West – her cultural achievement after the Reformation is not comparable to that of the Italians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of Spain and England in the age of Shakespeare and Cervantes, of the Low Countries in the seventeenth century, least of all of France, the France of poets, soldiers, statesmen, thinkers, which in the seventeenth century dominated Europe both culturally and politically, with only England and Holland as her rivals. What had the provincial German courts and cities, what had even Imperial Vienna, to offer? 

     “This sense of relative backwardness, of being an object of patronage or scorn to the French with their overweening sense of national and cultural superiority, created a sense of collective humiliation, later to turn into indignation and hostility, that sprang from wounded pride. The German reaction at first is to imitate French models, then to turn against them. Let the vain but godless French cultivate their ephemeral world, their material gains, their pursuit of glory, luxury, ostentation, the witty trivial chatter of the salons of Paris and the subservient court of Versailles. What is the worth of the philosophy of atheists or smooth, worldly abbés who do not begin to understand the true nature, the real purpose of men, their inner life, man’s deepest concerns – his relation to the soul within him, to his brothers, above all to God – the deep, the agonising questions of man’s being and vocation? Inward-looking German pietists abandoned French and Latin, turned to their native tongue, and spoke with scorn and horror of the glittering generalities of French civilisation, the blasphemous epigrams of Voltaire and his imitators. Still more contemptible were the feeble imitators of French culture, the caricature of French customs and taste in the little German principalities. German men of letters rebelled violently against the social oppression and stifling atmosphere of German society, of the despotic and often stupid and cruel German princes and princelings and their officials, who crushed or degraded the humbly born, particularly the most honest and gifted men among them, in the three hundred courts and governments into which Germany was then divided.

     “This surge of indignation formed the heart of the movement that, after the name of a play by one of its members, was called Sturm und Drang. Their plays were filled with cries of despair or savage indignation, titanic explosions of rage or hatred, vast destructive passions, unimaginable crimes which dwarf the scenes of violence even in Elizabethan drama; they celebrate passion, individuality, strength, genius, self-expression at whatever cost, against whatever odds, and usually end in blood and crime, their only form of protest against a grotesque and odious social order. Hence all these violent heroes – the Kraftmenschen, Kraftschreiber, Kraftkersl, Kraftknaben – who march hysterically through the pages of Klinger, Schubart, Leisewitz, Lenz, Heinse and even the gentle Carl Philipp Moritz; until life began to imitate art, and the Swiss adventurer Christoph Kaufmann, a self-proclaimed follower of Christ and Rousseau, who so impressed Herder, Goethe, Hamann, Wieland, Lavater, swept through the German lands with a band of unkempt followers, denouncing polite culture, and celebrating anarchic freedom, transported by wild and mystical public exaltation of the flesh and the spirit. 

     “Kant abhorred this kind of disordered imagination, and, still more, emotional exhibitionism and barbarous conduct. Although he too denounced the mechanistic psychology of the French Encyclopaedists as destructive of morality, his notion of the will is that of reason in action. He saves himself from subjectivism, and indeed irrationalism, by insisting that the will is truly free only so far as it wills the dictates of reason, which generate general rules binding on all rational men. It is when the concept of reason becomes obscure (and Kant never succeeded in formulating convincingly what this signified in practice), and only the independent will remains man’s unique possession whereby he is distinguished from nature, that the new doctrine becomes infected by the ‘stürmerisch’ mood. In Kant’s disciple, the dramatist and poet Schiller, the notion of freedom begins to move beyond the bounds of reason. Freedom is the central concept of Schiller’s early works. He speaks of ‘the legislator himself, the God within us’, of ‘high, demonic freedom’, ‘the pure demon within the man’. Man is most sublime when he resists the pressure of nature, when he exhibits ‘moral independence of natural laws in a condition of emotional stress’. It is will, not reason – certainly not feeling, which he shares with animals – that raises him above nature, and the very disharmony which may arise between nature and the tragic hero is not entirely to be deplored, for it awakens man’s of his independence.”[26]

     Thus to the thesis of the godless worship of reason was opposed the antithesis of the demonic worship of will – with no synthesis in sight. Dissatisfied with the dry soullessness of the Enlightenment, western man would not go back to the sources of his civilization in Orthodox Christianity, but only forward to – the Revolution, and the hellish torments of the Romantic hero. For, as Francisco Goya said, “the sleep of Reason engenders monsters”…


August 24 / September 6, 2017.

[1]MacFarlane, “David Hume (1711-1776)”, Philosophy Now, 119, April/May, 2017, p. 38.

[2] Hume, in Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, New York: Image Books, 1964, volume 5, part II, p. 74.

[3]Copleston, op. cit., p. 106.

[4]Copleston, op. cit., p. 88.

[5]Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Allen & Unwin, 1946, p. 693.

[6]Copleston, op. cit., p. 92.

[7]Russell, op. cit.., p. 697.

[8]Russell, op. cit.., p. 697.

[9]Copleston, op. cit., p. 112.

[10]Copleston, op. cit., p. 113.

[11]Skidelsky, “England’s doubt”, Prospect, July, 1999, p. 34.

[12]Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book II, section 3.

[13]Hume, On Suicide.

[14]Copleston, op. cit., p. 130.

[15]Copleston, op. cit., p. 123.

[16]Porter, op. cit., p. 178.

[17]Burt, The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill, pp. 593-594.

[18]Copleston, op. cit., p. 148.

[19]Copleston, op. cit., p. 147.

[20]Copleston, op. cit., p. 149.

[21]Copleston, op. cit., pp. 150-151.

[22]Copleston, op. cit., pp. 151-153.

[23]Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, first edition, XVII.

[24]Kant, Opus Postumum, XXI.

[25] Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.

[26] Berlin, “The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will”, in The Proper Study of Mankind, London: Pimlico, 1998, pp. 561-564.

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