Rousseau And Kant - Partners In Crime
by Lindsay Perigo
"Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history."
That startling statement by Ayn Rand about someone who sometimes spoke like a classical liberal, and who to this day on this forum is hailed as a "proto-Objectivist" and "Enlightenment hero" by a supporter of Rand, has delighted her enemies for its seeming outlandishness, and perplexed not a few of her admirers. Orthodox Randroids parrot the claim unthinkingly, as is their wont; rational Objectivists not averse to critical thinking are prepared to subject it to scrutiny. Some perhaps too readily assume that she said it in the heat of a moment as heated as only a heated Randian moment can be. Lest anyone be in any doubt that she meant it, consider the words that preceded it:
"I’ve chosen a special mission of my own. I’m after a man whom I want to destroy. He died 167 years ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. What man? Immanuel Kant. … You will find that on every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. You may also find it hard to believe that anyone could advocate the things Kant is advocating. … Do not seek to escape the subject by thinking, ‘Oh, Kant didn’t mean it!’ He did! Dr. Peikoff’s essay [Kant And Self-Sacrifice] will help you to understand more fully why I say that no matter how diluted or disguised, one drop of this kind of intellectual poison is too much for a culture to absorb with impunity—that the latest depredations of some Washington ward-heelers are nothing compared to a destroyer of this kind—that Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history." (Italics mine.)
That of which all trace must be wiped out is, of course, the idea that the reality we perceive is not the real one, which is forever concealed from us—while at the same time we must act with dutiful obedience to commandments that we somehow know emanate from the real reality; we must never act out of personal inclination, and the best way to be sure we don’t act out of personal inclination is to act out of personal disinclination.
What is so bad about this, that it should trump the advocacy of mass murder or erection of concentration camps in the most-evil-man-in-history stakes? According to Rand, that it leads to mass murder and concentration camps, of course.
Two things are problematic here. First, such a judgement assumes a deterministic link between one man’s ideas and the acceptance and actioning of those ideas by other men. It exonerates the latter—or at least attenuates the blame that is their due—while excessively demonising the former, as if to say: "Hitler couldn’t help it. Once Kant’s ideas were unleashed into the mainstream, Hitler was inevitable. It was all Kant’s fault." Well, no one was forced—by Kant at least—to accept Kant's ideas. Are we to treat those who did accept them (whether realising from whom they came or not), and put them into practice, as helpless, blameless automatons? Now that wouldn’t be very Objectivist, would it?
Second, the judgement assumes that such an outcome was what Kant desired. It wasn’t. As far as we can tell, in his epistemology he thought he was reconciling empiricism and rationalism–assuredly a more benign project than laying the foundation for concentration camps. In his ethics he thought he was offering a prescription for universal peace (though it’s also true that he believed that much violent sacrifice in war, out of duty, would be necessary to attain such a state). So the question is, regardless of his purportedly benign intent, is there still some reason we are entitled to say that he was actually rotten, to the point of being the most rotten man ever?
Certainly, Rand doesn’t shrink from such a pronouncement:
"The widespread fear and/or resentment of morality—the feeling that morality is an enemy, a musty realm of suffering and senseless boredom—is not the product of mystic, ascetic or Christian codes as such, but a monument to the ugliest repository of hatred for life, man and reason: the soul of Immanuel Kant."
Now we get a crucial clue as to what Rand considered it took to be adjudged "the most evil person in mankind’s history"—and why she could bestow that award on someone who never murdered, never stole, never coerced, never defrauded (in fact specifically forbade such things as being contrary to his universifiability principle). For her, that dishonour is synonymous with, or at minimum subsumes, the ugliest soul in history—as evidenced by his "hatred for life, man and reason"; it relates to what she inferred was going on inside Kant’s head and heart, something so bad that no amount of talk about peace and harmony, no accidental cross-over into liberalism, could camouflage or redeem it.
To be sure, a devout religionist who attributes to man a "radical, innate evil" is likely to harbour an ugly soul, especially when his own antidote culminates in something like this:
"It is a duty to preserve one’s life, and moreover everyone has a direct inclination to do so. But for that reason the often anxious care which most men take of it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of doing so has no moral import. They preserve their lives according to duty, but not from duty. But if adversities and hopeless sorrow completely take away the relish for life, if an unfortunate man, strong in soul, is indignant rather than despondent or dejected over his fate and wished for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it and from neither inclination nor fear but from duty—then his maxim has a moral import."
This is indeed revolting, and suggests a singular nastiness on the part of its proponent. To say, however, that he is the most evil person in history requires one to spell out all one’s criteria, and the extent to which those criteria take in thought, deed, motive and consequence, the extent to which "psychologising" is permissible, etc.—and then to compare him with other contenders. Rand never did that.
In any event, my present purpose is not to undertake that exercise, which I believe to be pointless and incapable of resolution, but to concur with Rand to this extent—that we are fully entitled to treat Kant’s teachings as essentially and seminally vicious irrespective of comparisons—and then to throw the spotlight on an idol of Kant whose teachings were uniformly vicious and whom we may regard as being right up there in the history's villains stakes. I refer, of course, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). We may see him as Kant’s inspiration and partner-in-crime.
Rousseau eschewed conventional morality and replaced it with amoralism in his personal life. He was a liar, a cheat, and a whim-worshipper writ large. He once stole a ribbon from his then-patroness and allowed a maid to take the blame and be punished. When a friend with whom he was taking a walk had an epileptic fit, he took advantage of the crowd that then gathered to abandon his friend and disappear from the scene. In his writings he glorified as irreducible and admirable primaries the impulses of the "Noble Savage" to whose way of life humanity ought to repair—at least to the extent feasible given the enormity of humanity’s backsliding from its original "noble savagery."
According to Rousseau, the rot set in when man began to reason instead of listening to his heart. Reason enabled man to produce more than was needed for his bare survival, giving rise to such corruptions as science and the arts, and that woeful monstrosity, the printing press. Worse, reason spawned the notion of that ultimate abomination, private property: "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, bethought himself of saying, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society." Salvation lay in forcibly overthrowing the existing order and abandoning the civilisation that reason had wrought. People en masse should repair to their passions–raw, unbridled, unchecked, unexamined—only the collective had the right to tame them. All people should participate in the selection of rulers, but once those rulers were elected their authority should be untrammelled—a mark of the Noble Savage was his attunement and obedience to the "general will" as embodied in the chosen rulers. A crucial task of the rulers was to enforce religious belief, whose truth would be apparent in the hearts of men once the barrier of reason had been removed. Those who dissented should be exiled or executed:
"While the state can compel no one to believe, it can banish, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, his life to his duty [italics mine. Unsurprisingly, a picture of Rousseau hung in Kant’s study, directly above his desk]. If, after having publicly recognised these dogmas, a person acts as if he does not believe them, he should be put to death."
Rousseau’s antipode, Voltaire, ridiculed him thus:
"I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages in Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves."
While one has to dig a little to trace the influence of Kant on subsequent history, in Rousseau one sees it directly, right on the surface. He was the hero of Robespierre, perpetrator of the Reign of Terror just a few years after Rousseau's death. He was the pin-up boy of later French intellectuals who in turn influenced the likes of Pol Pot, whose "killing fields" were in part a giant agrarian mortuary for intellectuals banished to the countryside in a murderous orgy of anti-reason. As Bryan Magee observes:
"With Rousseau the individual has no rights at all to deviate from the general will, so this democracy is compatible with a complete absence of personal freedom. Here was the first formulation in Western philosophy of some of the basic ideas underlying the great totalitarian movements of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism—which likewise claimed to represent the people, and to have mass support, and even to be democratic, while denying individual rights; and which also allotted a key role to charismatic leaders; and which waged both hot and cold war against the Anglo-Saxon democracies who based themselves on Lockean principles."
Magee might have added to Communism and Fascism the modern Green movement, whose democratic/totalitarian Gaia-worship and anti-industrial Back-to-Nature-ism could hardly replicate Rousseau more exactly.
For Rousseau, passion trumps reason and ought to be indulged blindly. For Objectivism, and Enlightenment thought generally, passion is born of reason, reason informs passion; passion is reason’s expression, fulfilment and reward. Objectivists looking to promote a renaissance of Enlightenment values may legitimately identify Kant’s teachings as pernicious; let us not, however, overlook the influence of his partner-in-crime, Rousseau.
For a much fuller account of the influence of both Rousseau and Kant, the reader is referred to Stephen Hicks’ illuminating, thought-provoking and generally excellent work, Explaining Postmodernism—Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.