Theory And Practice by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

Review of Kant’s Essay on the Common Saying, that such and such a thing may be true in theory, but does not hold good in practice.

What was the value of Kant’s essay upon this popular saying? Did it do much to clear up the confusion? Did it exterminate the vice in the language by substituting a better formula? Not at all. Immanuel Kant was, we admit, the most potent amongst all known intellects for functions of pure abstraction. But also, viewed in two separate relations: first, in relation to all practical interests (manners, legislation, government, spiritual religion); secondly, in relation to the arts of teaching, of explaining, of communicating any man’s meaning where it happened to be dark or perplexed (above all, if that meaning were his own)–this same Kant was merely impotent; absolutely, and ‘no mistake,’ a child of darkness. Were it not that veneration and gratitude cause us to suspend harsh words with regard to such a man, who has upon the greatest question affecting our human reason almost, we might say, revealed the truth (viz., in his theory of the categories), we should describe him, and continually we are tempted to describe him as the most superhuman of recorded blockheads. Would it be credited, that at this time of day, actually in the very closing years of the eighteenth century, a man armed with some reading, but not too much study–and sixty years’ profound meditation should treat it as a matter of obvious good sense that crowns and the succession to mighty empires ought to travel along the line of ‘merit’; not exactly on the ground of personal beauty, or because the pretender was taller by the head than most of his subjects–no, that would be the idea of a barbarous nation. Thank God! a royal professor of Koenigsberg was above that. But on the assumption of an appropriate merit, as if, for instance, he were wiser, if he were well grounded in Transcendentalism, if he had gained a prize for ‘virtue,’ surely, surely, such graces ought to ensure a sceptre to their honoured professor. Especially when we consider how readily these personal qualities prove themselves to the general understanding, and how cheerfully they are always allowed by jealous and abominating competitors! Now turn from this haughty philosopher to a plain but most sensible and reflecting scholar–Isaac Casaubon. This man pretended to no philosophy, but a sincere, docile heart, much good sense, and patient observation of his own country’s annals, which in the midst of belligerent papists, and very much against his own interest, had made him a good Church of England Protestant, made him also intensely attached to the doctrine of fixed succession under closer and clearer limitations than exist even in England. For a thousand years this one plain rule had been the amulet for liberating France (else so constitutionally disposed to war) from the bloodiest of intestine contests. The man’s career was pretty nearly concurrent as to its two limits with that of our own Shakespeare. Both he and Shakespeare were patronized, or, at least, countenanced by James the First, and both died many years before their patron. More than two centuries by a good deal have therefore passed away since he spoke, but this is the emphatic testimony which even at that time, wanting the political experience superadded, he bore to the peace and consequently to the civilization won for his country by this divine maxim, this lex trabalis (as so powerfully Casaubon calls it) of hereditary succession, the cornerstone, the main beam, in the framework of Gallic polity. These are the words: ‘Occidebant et occidebantur‘ (i.e., in those days of Roman Caesars) ‘immanitate pari; cum in armis esset jus omne regnandi‘–in the sword lay the arbitration of the title. He speaks of the horrid murderous uniformity by which the Western Empire moved through five centuries (for it commenced in murder 42 years B.C. and lasted for 477 after Christ). But why? Simply by default of any conventional rule, and the consequent necessity that men should fall back upon the title of the strongest. For that ridiculous plausibility of Kant’s superscribed with Detur meliori, it should never be forgotten, is so far from having any pacific tendencies, that originally, according to the eldest of Greek fables, it was [Greek: Eris], Eris, the goddess of dissension, no peace-making divinity, who threw upon a wedding-table the fatal apple thus ominously labelled. Meliori! in that one word went to wreck the harmony of the company. But for France, for the famous kingdom of the Fleur-de-lys, for the first-born child of Christianity, always so prone by her gentry to this sword-right, Nature herself had been silenced through a long millennium by this one almighty amulet. ‘Inde’ (that is, from this standing appeal made to personal vanity or to ambition amongst Roman nobles)–‘inde haec tam spissa principatuum mutatio: qua re nulla alia miseris populis ne dici quidem aut fingi queat perniciosior.’ So often, he goes on to say, as this dreadful curse entailed upon Rome Imperial comes into my mind, so often ‘Franciae patriae meae felicitatem non possim non praedicare; quae sub imperio Regum sexaginta trium (LXIII)–non dicam CLX annos’ (which had been the upshot of time, the ‘tottle,’ upon sixty-three Imperatores) sed paullo minus CIO (one clear thousand, observe) ‘et CC–rem omnibus seculis inauditam!–egit beata; fared prosperously; et egisset beatior, si sua semper bona intellexisset. Tanti est, jura regiae successionis trabali lege semel fixisse.’ Aye, faithful and sagacious Casaubon! there lies the secret. In that word ‘fixisse‘–the having settled once and for ever, the having laid down as beams and main timbers those adamantine rules of polity which leave no opening to doubt, no licence to caprice, and no temptation to individual ambition. We are all interested, Christendom to her very depths is interested, in the well-being and progress of this glorious realm–the kingdom of the lilies, the kingdom of Charlemagne and his paladins; from the very fierceness and angry vigilance of whose constant hostility to ourselves has arisen one chief re-agent in sustaining our own concurrent advancement. Under the torpor of a German patriotism, under the languor of a sensus communis which is hardly at all developed, our own unrivalled energy would partially have gone to sleep. We are, therefore, deeply indebted to the rancorous animosity of France. And in this one article of a sound political creed we must be sensible that France, so dreadfully in arrear as to all other political wisdom, has run ahead of ourselves. For to what else was owing our ruinous war of the Two Roses than to an original demur in our courts of law whether the descendant of an elder son through the female line had a title preferable or inferior to that of a descendant in the male line from a son confessedly junior? Whether the element to the right hand of uncontested superiority balanced or did not balance that element to the left hand of undenied inferiority? How well for us English, and for the interests of our literature so cruelly barbarized within fifty years from the death of Chaucer (A.D. 1400), had we been able to intercept the murderous conflicts of Barnet, Towcester, Tewkesbury, St. Albans! How happy for Spain, had no modern line of French coxcombs (not succeeding by any claim of blood, but under the arbitrary testament of a paralytic dotard) interfered to tamper with the old Castilian rules, so that no man knew whether the Spanish custom or the French innovation really governed. The Salic law or the interested abrogation of that law were the governing principle in strict constitutional practice. To this point had the French dynasty brought matters, that no lawyer even could say on which side the line of separation lay the onus of treason. We have ultimately so far improved our law of succession by continued limitations, that now even the
religion of a prince has become one amongst his indispensable qualifications. But how matters once stood, we see written in letters of blood. And yet to this state of perilous uncertainty would Kant have reduced every nation under the conceit of mending their politics. ‘Orbis terrarum dominatio’–that, says Casaubon, was the prize at stake. And how was it awarded? ‘In parricidii praemium cedebat.‘ By tendency, by usage, by natural gravitation, this Imperial dignity passed into a bounty upon murder, upon treasonable murder, upon parricidal murder. For the oath of fealty to the sacra Caesaria majestas was of awful obligation, although the previous title of the particular Caesar had been worth nothing at all. And the consequent condition of insecurity, the shadowy tenure of all social blessings, is described by Casaubon in language truly forcible.

Kant’s purpose, as elsewhere we shall show, was not primarily with the maxim: that was but a secondary purpose. His direct and real object lay in one or two of the illustrative cases under the maxim. With this particular obliquity impressed upon the movement of his own essay, we can have no right to quarrel. Kant had an author’s right to deal with the question as best suited his own views. But with one feature of his treatment we quarrel determinately. He speaks of this most popular (and, we venture to add, most wise and beneficial) maxim, which arms men’s suspicions against all that is merely speculative, on the ground that it is continually at war with the truth of practical results, as though it were merely and blankly a vulgar error, as though sans phrase it might be dismissed for nonsense. But, because there is a casual inaccuracy in the wording of a great truth, we are not at liberty to deny that truth, to evade it, to ‘ignore’ it, or to confound a faulty expression with a meaning originally untenable. Professor Kant, of all men, was least entitled to plead blindness as to the substance in virtue of any vice affecting the form. No man knew better the art of translating so wise and beneficial a sentiment, though slightly disfigured by popular usage, into the appropriate philosophic terms. To this very sentiment it is, this eternal protest against the plausible and the speculative, not as a flash sentiment for a gala dinner, but as a principle of action operative from age to age in all parts of the national conduct, that England is indebted more than she is to any other known influence for her stupendous prosperity on two separate lines of progress: first, on that of commercial enterprise; secondly, on that of political improvement. At this moment there are two forces acting upon Christendom which constitute the principles of movement all over Europe: these are, the questions incident to representative government, and the mighty interests combined by commercial enterprise. Both have radiated from England as their centre. There only did the early models of either activity prosper. Through North America, as the daughter of England, these two forces have transplanted themselves to every principal region (except one) of the vast Southern American continent. Thus, to push our view no further, we behold one-half of the habitable globe henceforth yoked to the two sole forces of permanent movement for nations, since war and religious contests are but intermitting forces; and these two principles, we repeat, have grown to what we now behold chiefly through the protection of this one great maxim which throws the hopes of the world, not upon what the scheming understanding can suggest, but upon what the most faithful experiment can prove.

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