Kant was never content with his hesitant as if theology. In 1791, in a little book On the Failure of All Philosophical Attempts at Theodicy, he repeated that “our reason is altogether incapable of giving insight into the relation between the world … and the highest Wisdom.” He added a caution, perhaps to himself: “The philosopher should not play the part of a special pleader in this matter; he should not defend any cause whose justice he is unable to grasp, and which he cannot prove by means of the modes of thought peculiar to philosophy.”58

He returned to the problem again in a series of essays which brought him into open defiance of the Prussian government. The first of them, “On Radical Evil,” was printed in the Berliner Monatsschrift for April, 1792. The censor allowed its publication on the ground that “only deep-thinking scholars read the writings of Kant,”59 but he refused to allow the second essay, “On the Contest between the Good and Evil Principles for the Control of Man.” Kant resorted to a stratagem. German universities had the privilege of sanctioning books and articles for publication; Kant submitted the second, third, and fourth essays to the philosophical faculty at the University of Jena (then controlled by Goethe and Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar, and having Schiller on its staff); the faculty gave its imprimatur; and with this all four essays were printed at Königsberg in 1793 under the title Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone).

The first lines announce the pervading theme: “So far as morality is based upon the conception of man as a free agent, who, just because he is free, blinds himself through his reason to unconditioned laws, it stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him for him to apprehend his duty, nor of an incentive, other than the law itself, for him to do it. … Hence for its own sake morality does not need religion at all.”60 Kant promises obedience to the authorities, and admits the need of censorship, but he urges that censorship “shall create no disturbance in the field of the sciences.”61 The invasion of science by theology, as in the case of Galileo, “might arrest all the endeavors of human reason. … Philosophical theology … must have complete freedom so far as its science reaches.”62

Kant derives the problems of morality from man’s twofold inheritance of good and evil tendencies. “That a corrupt propensity must indeed be rooted in man need not be formally proved in view of the multitude of crying examples which experience … puts before our eyes.”63 He does not agree with Rousseau that man is born good or was good in a “state of nature,” but he concurs with him in condemning the “vices of culture and civilization” as “the most offensive of all.”64 “Indeed, it is still a question whether we should not be happier in an uncivilized condition … than we are in the present state of society”65 with all its exploitation, hypocrisy, moral disorder, and wholesale homicide in war. If we wish to know the real nature of man we need only observe the behavior of states.

How did the “radical evil in human nature” begin? Not through “original sin”; “surely of all the explanations of the spread and propagation of this evil through all members and generations of our race, the most inept is that which describes it as descending to us as an inheritance from our first parents.”66 Probably the “evil” propensities were strongly rooted in man by their necessity to his survival in primitive conditions; only in civilization—in organized society—do they become vices; and there they require not suppression but control.67 “Natural inclinations, considered in themselves, are good, that is, not a matter for reproach; and not only is it futile to want to exterminate them, but to do so would be harmful and blameworthy. Rather let them be tamed, and instead of clashing with one another they can be brought into that harmony in a wholeness which is called happiness.”68

Moral good is also innate, as evidenced by the universal moral sense; but it is at first only a need, which must be developed by moral instruction and arduous discipline. The best religion is not one that excels in the careful observance of ritual worship but rather one that most influences men toward a moral life.69 A religion of reason bases itself not upon a divine revelation, but upon a sense of duty interpreted as the divinest element in man.70 Religion may legitimately organize itself into a church,71 it may seek to define its creed through sacred scriptures, it may rightly worship Christ as the most Godlike of men, it may promise heaven and threaten hell,72 and “no religion can be conceived which involves no belief in a future life.”73 But it should not be necessary for a Christian to affirm faith in miracles, or the divinity of Christ, or the atonement, by Christ’s crucifixion, for the sins of mankind, or the predestination of souls to heaven or hell by divine grace given with no regard to good or evil works.74 It is “necessary carefully to inculcate some forms of prayer in children (who still stand in need of the letter)”;75 but petitional “prayer … as a means of [winning divine] grace is a superstitious illusion.”76

When a church becomes an institution for compelling belief or worship; when it assumes to itself the sole right to interpret Scripture and define morality; when it forms a priesthood claiming exclusive approaches to God and divine grace; when it makes its worship a magic ritual possessing miraculous powers; when it becomes an arm of the government and an agent of intellectual tyranny; when it seeks to dominate the state and to use secular rulers as tools of ecclesiastical ambition—then the free mind will rise against such a church, and will seek outside of it that “pure religion of reason” which is the pursuit of the moral life.77

This last major work of Kant was marked with the vacillation and obfuscation natural to a man who had no passion for imprisonment. There is much scholastic verbiage in it, some wondrous logic-chopping and fantastic theology. The wonder remains that a man of sixty-nine should still display such vigor of thought and speech, and such courage in combat with the united powers of church and state. The conflict between the philosopher and the King came to a head when (October 1, 1794) Frederick William II sent him the following “order in council.”

Our Most High Person has for a long time observed with great displeasure how you misuse your philosophy to undermine and debase many of the most important and fundamental doctrines of the Holy Scriptures and Christianity; how, namely, you have done this in your book, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. … We demand of you immediately a most conscientious answer, and expect that in the future, toward the avoidance of our highest disfavor, you will give no such cause for offense, but rather, in accord with your duty, employ your talents and authority so that our paternal purpose may be more and more attained. If you continue to resist you may certainly expect unpleasant consequences to yourself.78

Kant gave a propitiatory reply. He pointed out that his writings were addressed only to scholars and theologians, whose freedom of thought should be preserved in the interest of the government itself. His book had admitted the inadequacy of reason to judge the final mysteries of religious faith. He concluded with a pledge of obedience: “I hereby, as your Majesty’s most faithful servant, solemnly declare that henceforth I will entirely refrain from all public statements on religion, both natural and revealed, either in lectures or in writings.” When the King died (1797) Kant felt released from his promise; moreover, Frederick William III dismissed Wöllner (1797), abolished the censorship, and repealed the Religionsedikt of 1788. After the battle Kant summed up its issues in a booklet,Der Streit der Fakultäten (The Conflict of the Faculties, 1798), in which he repeated his claim that academic freedom was indispensable to the intellectual growth of a society. Essentially the little professor in a far-off corner of the world had won his battle against a state having the strongest army in Europe. That state was soon to collapse, but by 1800 Kant’s books were the most influential in the intellectual life of Germany.

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