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Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion
By Chris L. Firestone, Stephen R. Palmquist
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2006 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
The Tree of Melancholy
Kant on Philosophy and Enthusiasm
Gregory R. Johnson
Kant is commonly regarded as a partisan of the Enlightenment and an opponent of religious and philosophical enthusiasm (Schwärmerei). I wish to argue, however, that Kant's attitude toward enthusiasm throughout his philosophical career is better described as ambivalent fascination rather than unalloyed hostility. My case is based upon two considerations regarding Kant's account of enthusiasm's basis in human nature. First, Kant held that the enthusiast possesses the same melancholic temperament as the fanatic, visionary, crank, hypochondriac, and philosopher. So on Kant's account of temperament, philosophy and enthusiasm are close kin. Both are fruits of the tree of melancholy. Of all of the fruits of melancholy, I will establish furthermore that philosophy and enthusiasm are the closest to one another, because they are both motivated by the drive to attain absolute knowledge of the supersensible. Second, Kant did not just recognize the kinship of philosophy and enthusiasm in the abstract; he recognized it in the degenerations his own melancholic character was prone to exhibit — degenerations that included crankiness, hypochondria, and a morbid fascination with the grotesque, pathological, and paranormal. These degenerations, along with Kant's understanding of the melancholic temperament of the philosopher, point to the fascinating possibility that, as I will argue, Kant's critical philosophy can be seen as a philosophical therapy for his own melancholy nature.
A proper understanding of Kant's view of enthusiasm helps bring the critical project into focus. There was, and still is, a prominent secularizing strain of Enlightenment thought that is categorically hostile to and dismissive of religion, mystical experience, and metaphysical speculation. Such thinkers are attracted to Kant's arguments in the Critique of Pure Reason against the possibility of knowledge of the supersensible, particularly knowledge of God and the immortality of the soul. They are also attracted to Kant's case for the limitation of reason's employment to the realm of sense experience. These philosophical conclusions are seen as necessary steps toward a completely secular, this-worldly culture.
But confining reason to the sensory realm was not Kant's ultimate goal. Nor did Kant think mankind's highest aim is the "mastery and possession of nature." Instead, as Kant famously said in the first Critique, he found it necessary to limit reason in order to make room for faith — not necessarily traditional religious faith, but a moral faith based in practical reason — in the very things the philosophers claimed to demonstrate and the enthusiasts claimed to perceive, namely, the existence of a provident God and the immortality of the human soul. To see Kant's project properly, we must appreciate that, while his mind may have belonged to the Enlightenment, his heart belonged with the enthusiasts.
What Is Enthusiasm?
According to Kant, "Enthusiasm," a term he associates with mysticism and illuminism, "is ... a pious arrogance, and is induced by a certain pride and quite excessive self-confidence to get nearer to heavenly natures and to elevate itself by an astonishing flight over the usual and prescribed order. The enthusiast speaks only of immediate inspiration [Eingebung] and of contemplative life." Kant does not use Schwärmerei to refer merely to religious enthusiasm, for the desire to know "heavenly natures" is a philosophical as well as a religious concern — hence Kant's references to the contemplative, that is, philosophical life. For Kant, enthusiasm refers to all attempts to achieve immediate, intuitive knowledge of the supersensible, including those of such philosophers as Plato and Spinoza, who appeal to mystical or intellectual intuition (OBS 108–109).
Unfortunately, the enthusiast's direct knowledge of the supersensible is not available to the rest of us. In Kant's words, "there is no longer any public touchstone of truth." But Kant holds that reason cannot work unless there are common, publicly available standards of truth and falsehood. Thus Kant branded all claims of direct knowledge of the supersensible "the death of all philosophy." Furthermore, Kant regarded enthusiasm as not only bad for philosophy, but bad for the public, for conflicting claims about religion that cannot be settled by reason tend to be settled by force. Thus it would be natural to conclude that Kant was an implacable enemy of enthusiasm.
But this is not the whole story, for as Arnulf Zweig notes, "Kant did not always use this word [Schwärmerei] abusively." First of all, Kant maintained friendly relations with people whom he described as enthusiasts, such as Johann Georg Hamann, Maria von Herbert, Johann Caspar Lavater, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, and Heinrich Jung-Stilling. Still more to the point, Kant claimed Schwärmerei was a weakness that men with "greater genius" (grosser Genie) and "good minds" (gute Köpfe) are prone to exhibit. He admitted that enthusiasts "may one and all have genius, be full of sensibility [Empfindung] and spirit [Geist], even some taste [Geschmack]." Kant even described Plato, Spinoza, and Rousseau, philosophers for whom he had enormous respect, as enthusiasts; hence Giorgio Tonelli claims that Kant's apparently "indiscriminate indictment of enthusiasm seems to have been attenuated in respect to some personalities whom Kant wished not or dared not disavow, and only accentuated in respect to some inexcusable 'black sheep.'"
Furthermore, in contrasting enthusiasm and superstition (Aberglaube), Kant states a clear preference for enthusiasm. Kant claims that enthusiasm is most frequently found in Germany and England, which are predominantly Protestant, whereas superstition is widespread in Italy, Spain, and France, which are predominantly Catholic. Kant then claims that enthusiasm is a perversion of "the noble feeling that belongs to the character of these peoples [the English and the Germans]." He asserts, moreover, that enthusiasm
is on the whole far less pernicious than the superstitious inclination even though it is violent at the outset, because the inflammation of the enthusiastic spirit gradually cools and by its nature must finally reach an orderly moderation, whereas superstition unnoticed takes deeper root in a quiet and passive constitution and completely takes away from the enchained man the confidence ever to free himself from a pernicious delusion.
The Melancholic Temperament
Kant's earliest discussion of enthusiasm appears in his 1764 book Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. The book's title seems to classify it as a work of aesthetics, but most of the book is devoted to anthropological observations organized in terms of the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. Chapter 2, "Of the Attributes of the Beautiful and the Sublime in Man in General," is an essay in moral psychology. In Plato's language, it is an essay in "erotics," the study of the different types of souls, the different "temperaments."
Kant classifies four moral traits in terms of the beautiful and the sublime: (1) virtue (Tugend), (2) goodheartedness (Gutherzigkeit) (which divides into sympathy [Mitleidens] and complaisance [Gefälligkeit]), and (3) love of honor (Ehrliebe). A fourth spring of action which Kant thinks important but not strictly moral is self-interest (Selbstsucht). Kant then relates these traits to the four temperaments: the melancholy temperament is conducive to virtue; the sanguine temperament is conducive to goodheartedness; and the choleric temperament is conducive to the love of honor. The phlegmatic temperament is not correlated with any moral characteristic, but with the relative lack of moral sensibility. It, therefore, may be correlated with the principle of acting from self-interest, although Kant does not explicitly say so.
Kant claims that "among moral attributes true virtue alone is sublime" (OBS 57). The other moral attributes — goodheartedness and honor — though not sublime, can be called beautiful insofar as they harmonize with virtue. Virtue is distinguished from the other moral attributes because it is grounded in principle:
[T]rue virtue can be grafted only upon principles such that the more general they are, the more sublime and noble it becomes. These principles are not speculative rules, but the consciousness of a feeling that lives in every human breast and extends itself much further than the particular grounds of compassion and complaisance. I believe that I sum it all up when I say that it is the feeling of the beauty and the dignity of human nature. (OBS 60)
Virtue is sublime because respect for the beauty and dignity of humanity as such leads us to identify the good with the common good, and to value our own selves and our own interests only insofar as they harmonize with the common good. Such a broadened view inevitably requires that we struggle to suppress and transcend all particular inclinations that do not harmonize with the common good. The struggle for self-transcendence means the moral life will always contain an element of unease, even pain. This accords perfectly with Kant's description of the sublime: "The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm, or Milton's portrayal of the infernal kingdom, arouse enjoyment [Wohlgefallen] but with horror [Grausen]" (OBS 47; emphasis added). "The sublime is ... sometimes accompanied with a certain dread, or melancholy [Schwermut] ... I call [this] the terrifying sublime [Schreckhaft-Erhabene]" (OBS 47–48). "Bold acceptance of danger for our own, or country's, or our friends' rights is sublime" (OBS 56). "Subduing one's passions through principles is sublime" (OBS 57). Were virtue free of the struggle between inclination and right, then we could describe it as beautiful: as "a pleasant sensation ... joyous and smiling" (OBS 47), not alloyed with pain and dread, melancholy and terror, as is the sublime.
Kant holds that "genuine virtue based on principles has something about it which seems to harmonize most with the melancholy [melancholischen] frame of mind" (OBS 63). Kant claims that the melancholic "is not so named because, robbed of the joys of life, he aggrieves himself into dark dejection" (OBS 64). Melancholy is not a state of sadness, even an enduring sadness, but something far more fundamental than particular feelings; melancholy is a kind a character, a predominant style of feeling. The melancholy person feels all the normal passions, but they are sluggish and not easily roused; they are reticent and not easily displayed; but when they are stirred, they are deep, powerful, and long-lasting. Kant describes melancholic emotions as "earnest" (ernsthaft), "gentle" (sanften), and "noble" (edlen). The melancholic finds his well-being in deep "satisfaction" (Zufriedenheit) stirred up slowly and savored long, becoming internalized, rather than in shallow "pleasure" (Lustigkeit), pleasures that depart as quickly as they come, leaving their patient relatively unmarked by their passage.
The melancholic style of feeling is the ideal emotional foundation for virtue, because the melancholic finds his emotions far easier to master and subordinate to principle than do sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic types. Thus Kant claims that virtue "draws close to melancholy [Schwermut]" insofar as virtue is "grounded upon the awe that a hard-pressed soul feels when, full of some great purpose, he sees the danger he will have to overcome, and has before his eyes the difficult but great victory of self-conquest" (OBS 63). "He [the melancholic] is resolute [standhaft]. On that account he orders his sensations under principles" (OBS 64). Given the melancholic's facility for self-mastery, he "has above all a feeling of the sublime" (OBS 64).
Melancholy and Philosophy
Hans Vaihinger and Hannah Arendt, among others, see Kant's description of the melancholic as a self-portrait.10 It is certainly unlikely that Kant would have classified himself as sanguine, choleric, or phlegmatic — if only because his descriptions of these types are so unflattering. But Kant's image of the melancholic is less a portrait of any particular melancholic than it is of a type of melancholic. Kant's melancholic is concerned above all with truth — and not just with any truth, but with the truth about permanent things. In short, Kant offers us a portrait of the most exalted type of melancholic: the philosopher.
Ever since Aristotle, melancholy has traditionally been regarded as the temperament of the thinker. Book 30 of the pseudo-Aristotelian work Problems begins with the question "Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?" The answer is that any great achievement — intellectual, artistic, moral, or political — requires self-discipline, and the melancholic finds his emotions far easier to master than do others.
According to Kant, the melancholic philosopher tends toward inwardness, reflection, and therefore toward autonomy, individuality, and personal integrity; hence he "cares little for what others judge, what they consider good or true; he relies in this matter simply on his own insight." Because he finds it relatively easy to subordinate the particular to the universal and passion to reason, "his grounds of motivation take on the nature of principles, he is not easily brought to other ideas ... He looks on the change of fashions with indifference and their glitter with disdain."
This propensity toward the settled and contempt for change is not, however, unproblematic for Kant: "occasionally his steadfastness degenerates into self-will." Elsewhere Kant remarks that melancholic men of principle are very rare, "which is extremely good, as it can so easily happen that one errs in these principles, and then the resulting disadvantage extends all the further, the more universal the principles and the more resolute the person who has set it before himself" (OBS 74).
The philosopher is practiced in the ascent from the particular to the universal, from the accidental to the necessary, from evanescence to permanence; he is therefore capable of rising above parochiality and prejudice and subordinating his private interests to identify himself with humanity as such. But the philosopher does not just know common humanity; he esteems it, as he esteems all universals over particulars. Hence the philosopher has "a high feeling of the dignity [Würde] of human nature. He values himself and regards a human being as a creature who merits respect [Achtung]."
Because the philosopher esteems common humanity over particularity and parochiality, he has a strong sense of human equality and solidarity and regards all merely artificial distinctions with suspicion. Kant alludes to Terence's beautiful expression of the extensive benevolence that springs from the Stoic recognition of the dignity of common human nature: "He is a human being; nothing human is foreign to me" (OBS 65). Because the philosopher sees reason and freedom as distinctly human characteristics, he holds autonomy, liberty, and the rights of man to be sacred: "He suffers no depraved submissiveness, and breathes freedom in a noble breast. All chains, from the gilded ones worn at court to the heavy irons of galley slaves, are abominable to him."
Excerpted from Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion by Chris L. Firestone, Stephen R. Palmquist. Copyright © 2006 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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