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Modern Intellectual History, 14, 1 (2017), pp.

C Cambridge University Press 2015

fiat iustitia, pereat mundus:

immanuel kant, friedrich gentz,
and the possibility of prudential
jonathan green
Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge

Since the early twentieth century, historians of political thought have read Immanuel
Kants interventions into debates over the French Revolutionhis essay on Theory and
Practice (1795), and his tract on Perpetual Peace (1793)against Edmund Burkes
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Kant is said to have upheld the
sovereignty of pure reason for political practice, over and against Burkes stubborn
traditionalism. What this dichotomy ignores, however, is that Kants first public
comments on the Revolution were directed not against Burkes Reflections, but against
a heavily edited German version of the text published in 1793 by Kants former student,
Friedrich Gentz (17641832). The central thrust of Gentzs translation was that while
Kants normative theory of politics was admirable, it needed to be complemented with
a prudential grasp of statecraft in order to be made practicable. Without prudence,
the rights of man would remain an empty ideal. In responding to Gentz, Kant entered
into a debate over whether philosophical reason and political prudence are mutually
compatible. His dogmatic refusal to endorse such an alliance, even in the face of the
Terror, places his political thought in an unfavourable light.

To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power, teach
obedience, and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to
guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government, that is, to temper
together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires
much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France1

I am grateful to Richard Bourke, Christopher Meckstroth, Isaac Nakhimovsky, Joachim
Whaley and the two anonymous referees of Modern Intellectual History for their helpful
comments on earlier drafts of this article.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. C. D. Clark (Stanford, CA,
2001), 41213.
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36 jonathan green

At the turn of the twentieth century, Paul Wittichen solved a riddle. He
was a historian of ideas and, like many of his peers in fin de siecle Germany,
had long puzzled over Immanuel Kants (17241804) curious relation to the
French Revolution. Though Kant was an admirer of the Revolutionaries from the
beginning of their campaignat the proclamation of the First French Republic
he is said to have effused, Lord let thy servant depart in peace, for I have seen
the day of salvation!2 he was reluctant to endorse the movement publicly in its
early years. When powerful men of affairs are drunk with rage, he told a friend,
a soft-skinned pygmy should not insert himself into their fray, even if persuaded
gently and reverently.3 In 1793, however, Kant broke his silence and published
On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory but Does Not Apply
in Practice in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, in which he confirmed his respect
for the Revolutionaries ideals but raised doubts about their violent tactics.4
Two years later, he reiterated his support for the republican cause in Perpetual
Peace (1795).5 It was this abrupt volte-face, and its odd timing in particular,
that vexed Wittichen. Why would Kant remain silent at the beginning of the
Revolutionduring the optimistic years of liberte, egalite, and fraterniteonly
to offer the movement his imprimatur as it descended into the anarchy and chaos
of Robespierres Terror? Why would he defend the principles of a crusade now
associated with the spectre of the guillotine, the barbarism of the sans-culottes,
and regicide?
Reflecting on these questions a century later, Wittichen speculated that shortly
before Kant wrote Theory and Practice, some opponentan interlocutor in
Konigsberg, perhaps, or in printgoaded him into abandoning his silence. When
Wittichen turned to the text of Kants article, he found apparent confirmation
of this thesis. In his essays introduction, Kant complained about a certain
worthy gentleman who blamed philosophers for the violence of the Revolution.
According to Kant, this gentleman and his allies relish

Quoted in Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, Denkwurdigkeiten und vermischte Schriften,
9 vols. (Leipzig, 184359), 7: 427. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted. The
exceptions to this rule are Kants Theory and Practice and Perpetual Peace, where I have
generally relied on Mary Gregors renderings in The Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical
Philosophy, ed. Allen Wood (Cambridge, 1996).
Kant to Carl Spener, 22 March 1793, in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Koniglich-
Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 29 vols. (Berlin, 1902), 9: 417.
Immanuel Kant, Uber den Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt
aber nicht fur die Praxis, Berlinische Monatsschrift, 22 (Sept. 1793), 20184; repr. in Kants
Gesammelte Schriften, 8: 273313 (hereafter Theorie und Praxis).
Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden (Konigsberg, 1795); repr. in Kants Gesammelte
Schriften, 8: 34386.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 37

attacking the academic, who theorizes on their behalf and for their benefit; presuming
that they understand things better than he, they seek to confine him to his school (illa se
iactet in aula!) as a pedant who, useless in practice, only stands in the way of their more
experienced wisdom.6

Such philistinism was both theoretically misguided and dangerous in practice,

Kant argued. In order to judge the moral status of existing regimes, statesmen
require a universal, absolute standard of justice. But if this gentleman were
rightif political norms were not accessible via pure reason, but instead
resided in the realm of phenomenal experienceit would not be possible to
differentiate just governments from unjust ones, and the Revolutionaries attempt
to theorize and then implement a just constitutional order would be futile.
And so in Theory and Practice Kant set out to prove that philosophical
reason does, in fact, furnish universal principles to guide the practice of
But who was this enigmatic interlocutor? How did he induce Kant to enter
the debate over the Revolution? According to Wittichen, Kant placed a clue
in his essay that, upon close inspection, revealed his gentleman as none
other than the British statesman Edmund Burke. In 1790, Burkes Reflections
on the Revolution in France attacked philosophical speculatists who indict
governments that do not quadrate with their theories. These men, Burke
despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men . . . they have wrought underground
a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents,
charters and acts of parliament. They have the rights of men. Against these there can
be no prescription, against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament
and no compromise . . . I have nothing to say to the clumsy subtilty of their political
metaphysics. Let them be their amusement in the schools. Illa se jactet in aula Aeolus, et
clauso ventorum carcere regnet. But let them not break prison to burst like a Levanter to
sweep the earth with their hurricane and to break up the fountains of the great deep to
overwhelm us.7

As Wittichen noted, the same Latin verse that Burke cited in his critique of
metaphysics also appeared in the introduction to Kants essay.8 Burke used it
to insinuate that just as Neptune imprisoned Aeolus for insubordination in
Virgils Aeneid, speculative political philosophers should be quarantined, lest their
idealistic proselytizing incite rebellion beyond the borders of France. Wittichen

Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 2767, translation mine.
Burke, Reflections, 217.
In that hall let Aeolus lord it / and rule within the barred prison of the winds. See Virgil,
Aeneid, trans. H. R. Fairclough, Bk 1, ll. 14041.

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38 jonathan green

reasoned that just before Kant wrote Theory and Practice, he must have read
the Reflections, taken offence at Burkes scorn for political metaphysics and
resolved to rescue his own philosophical system from exile. In 1904 Wittichen
submitted a brief, excited note to the Historische Zeitschrift to announce his
To characterize the opinions of this gentleman, . . . Kant cited a strange half-verse: illa
se iactet in aula. This citation only becomes intelligible in light of its complement: aeolus
et clauso ventorum carcere regnet. Together, these comprise a familiar verse from Virgil,
one which the greatest opponent of the French Revolutionindeed, one of the great
political thinkers of the modern eraEdmund Burke, directed against propagandistic
natural rights theorists in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.9

Circumstantial evidence lent weight to this interpretation, too. In January 1793,

eight months before Kant published Theory and Practice, his former student
Friedrich Gentz (17641832) released a new translation of Burkes Reflections in
Berlin (see Fig. 1).10 Wittichen reasoned that since Burkes arguments threatened
the public authority of political philosophy, Kant was hesitant to attack him
directly. For this reason Kant eschewed an explicit critique of the Reflections
and resigned himself to a terse, opaque gibe.11 A century later, the only
evidence of this esoteric argument was Kants indirect nod to his unspoken
For Wittichen, this debate between Kant and Burke inaugurated a broader
nineteenth-century struggle between the opposing forces of rationalism
and traditionalism. Kant stood as a veritable embodiment of the German
Enlightenment, a principled philosopher who sought to bring regimes into
alignment with the normative demands of reason. Burke, contrariwise, argued
that political norms are not accessible through abstract theoretical analysis
but inhere in the mores, customs and traditions of particular nations. As
such, he revered and sought to preserve the same timeworn institutions that
Kant scorned. According to Wittichen, Kants attack on Burke marks the
arrival of an antagonism that has framed Prussian politics into the modern era
[die Neuzeit].12

Paul Wittichen, Kant und Burke, Historische Zeitschrift, 93/2 (1904), 2535, at 254.
Friedrich Gentz, Betrachtungen uber die franzosische Revolution nach dem Englischen des
Herrn Burke, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1793); partially repr. in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, ed.
Gunther Kronenbitter, 12 vols. (Zurich, 19972004), 6: 6262. Where possible, I have cited
the Gesammelte Schriften edition of this text.
Wittichen, Kant und Burke, 2545.
Ibid., 255. The poles of Wittichens antagonism between Kantian reason and tradition
were captured in the title of Friedrich Meineckes widely read Weltburgertum und
Nationalstaat (Munich, 1908).

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 39

Fig. 1. The title page of the second edition of Gentzs translation of Burkes Reflections.
Friedrich Gentz, Betrachtungen uber die franzosische Revolution, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (Berlin,

In the years since Wittichen named Burke as Kants worthy gentleman, his
reading of Theory and Practice has exerted a strong influence among Kant
scholars. While not all historians are persuaded that Kant had the Reflections in
mind while penning his argumentthe conservative writers Justus Moser and
August Wilhelm Rehberg have also been aired as potential opponentsthere
nevertheless exists a broad consensus that Kant intended this essay as a defence of
political rationalism against the scepticism of his traditionalist critics. According
to Reidar Maliks, what united these conservative critics was their shared desire

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40 jonathan green

to dethrone the primacy of reason in politics: they defended the existing order,
partly from fear of social dissolution and partly from a conviction that morals
result from traditions.13 Scholars as diverse as Allen Wood, Dieter Henrich and
Frederick Beiser have all offered similar appraisals of this debate.14
But what this simple dichotomy overlookswhat Wittichen missed in his
analysis, and what scholars have continued to neglect sinceis the crucial role
that Gentz played as a mediator between Kant, his erstwhile teacher, and Burke. If
Kant did, in fact, write Theory and Practice after encountering Gentzs edition
of the Reflections, then his understanding of Burke would have been contingent
on the accuracy of Gentzs translation. So how faithful was it? How did it colour
Kants arguments? And why did Gentzs translation, in particular, prompt him
to come to the Revolutionaries aid? On the assumption that Gentzs critique of
the Revolutionaries was identical to Burkes, generations of scholars have ignored
these questions.15 But as a close reading of at Gentzs version of the Reflections
shows, this text presented a case against the Revolution that was, in principle,
Kantian. Far from offering a sceptical critique of political rationalism or the rights
of man, Gentzs translation articulated a critique of the Revolutionaries that was
essentially distinct from, and far more nuanced than, the conservatism defended
in Burke, Rehberg or Moser.16
In his version of the Reflections, Gentz explicitly rejected Burkes nonsensical
idea that normative political principles might be located in the realm of
phenomenal experience.17 With Kant he insisted that only a priori reason,
unsullied by the dictates of tradition, custom or precedent, could describe
the conditions of a rightful constitution. Where Gentz diverged from Kant,
howeverand where he agreed quite emphatically with Burkewas in arguing

Reidar Maliks, The State of Freedom: Kant and His Conservative Critics, in Quentin
Skinner and Martin van Gelderen, eds., Freedom and the Construction of Europe, 2 vols.
(Cambridge, 2013), 2: 188207, at 198. See also Maliks , Kants Politics in Context (Oxford,
2014), esp. 3979.
See Allen Wood, Introduction [to Theory and Practice], in The Works of Immanuel
Kant: Practical Philosophy, 2756; Dieter Henrich, Uber Theorie und Praxis (Frankfurt,
1967), 916; and Frederick Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution and Romanticism: The Genesis
of Modern German Political Thought (Cambridge, MA, 1992), 3848.
According to Maliks (The State of Freedom, 190), Gentzs conservatism was rooted in
skepticism about theorists in general. Henrich (Theorie und Praxis, 21), sees it as simple
Humean pragmatism, and Beiser (Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism, 326),
has denounced it as the greatest intelligence in the service of the greatest stupidity.
For Gentzs political thought see Gunther Kronenbitter, Wort und Macht: Friedrich Gentz
als politischer Schriftsteller (Berlin, 1994), and Raphael Cahen, La pensee politique de
Friedrich Gentz: Penseur post-Lumieres et acteur du renouveau de lordre europeen au
temps des revolutions (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Provence, 2014).
Gentz, Betrachtungen, 1: 89.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 41

that just principles are not, in and of themselves, sufficient for political practice.
What was most absurd in the proceedings of those who sought to root
the new French constitution in the so-called rights of man was not their
search for these rights and their respect for them, he argued, but that they
thought these rights sufficedthat they hoped to build a state with these
mere rights when, in fact, it calls for different materials as well. To make
normative rights concrete in the contingent world of historical particularity,
statesmen must possess not only sound principles, but also more practical
tools: they must respect the universal rules of morality and attend to
the situational demands of prudence [Klugheit].18 Because the Revolutions
leaders ignored such practical considerations, their movement was doomed to
Gentz, in other words, articulated a modified Kantian strategy for the
rationalization of politics. His version of the Reflections charted a via media
between a naive, impractical idealism and a dogmatic, anti-metaphysical realism.
Revisiting his critique of the Revolution offers, in turn, a new lens for tracing
the evolution of Kants politics throughout the 1790s. It seems incontrovertible,
as others have noted, that the traditionalism of Rehberg and Moser was
on Kants mind while writing Theory and Practice. Against these sceptics,
Kant had to show that a priori reason could, in fact, furnish normative
principles for political practice. But if Wittichen were correctif Gentzs
Reflections were the text, or even one of the texts, that provoked Kant in
1793then another, perhaps more interesting, debate can be uncovered in
the pages of Theory and Practice. Kants debate with Gentz was a debate
within the German Enlightenment: a debate not over whether to enlighten, but
At stake in this debate was whether theoretical reason and political prudence
should, or even could, work in concert. In Theory and Practice, Kant voiced
scepticism about such a union. If the Revolution had faltered, he argued, the
fault lay not in its leaders imprudence, but in their misapprehension of reasons
demands; as he saw it, they had not enough theory.20 Upon reading this rebuttal,
Gentz set out to convince his teacher otherwise. Over the next two yearsin a
response to Kant published in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, and in two in-depth
analyses of the RevolutionGentz argued that an empirical approach to politics

Ibid., 1: 8990, 95.
For the extent to which Gentzs edition of the Reflections reinterpreted Burkes arguments
through a Kantian paradigm see Jonathan Green, Friedrich Gentzs Translation of Burkes
Reflections, Historical Journal, 57/3 (Sept. 2014), 63959.
Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 275, italics in original.

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42 jonathan green

was a prerequisite for the realization of Kantian Enlightenment.21 Without a

practical means of implementation, a sole concern for principle is stillborn and
indeed dangerous, threatening to engender resentment and undermine public
order. Philosophers, therefore, have a duty to consider both the ends and the
means of political progress:
We have debated specific aspects of government . . . and illuminated what was flawed in
the old anciens regimes. But this was just half of our task. In addition, we must establish
the real (not merely ideal) possibility of better constitutions, and provide tools for their

When Kant responded to this argument in Perpetual Peace, he remained

intractable. While he admitted that an alliance of reason and prudence was
conceivable in principle, Kant was reluctant to endorse Gentzs more pointed
claim that a priori political theories are, of themselves, insufficient in practice.
Reading Kant vis-a-vis Gentz, therefore, leads to a perhaps more critical view of his
mature politics than scholars have traditionally offered. Given the choice of theory
or practice, Kants intransigent defence of reason has seemed principled and
noble. But for Gentz, this dichotomy presupposed a false choice. Throughout the
early 1790s, he beckoned Kant to a moderated vision of prudential Enlightenment,
one that sought to unite theoretical reason and practical statesmanship into a
coherent programme for real, tangible progress. But even as France smouldered,
Kants response was unflinching: fiat iustitia, pereat munduslet justice be
done, though the earth should perish.23

Like Kant, Gentz greeted initial news of the French Revolution with
anticipation. The spirit of the age stirs strong and quick within me, he told his
friend Christian Garve in 1790. Now is the time for the human race to awake
from its long slumber. I am young, and the universal striving for freedom that
has overcome our age fills me with sympathy and warmth.24 Like most of his
peers, Gentz saw the Ancien Regime as sclerotic and corrupt, and welcomed

Gentz presented his analyses of the Revolution in two annotated translations of French
histories of the movementFriedrich Gentz, Mallet du Pan uber die franzosische Revolution
und die Ursachen ihrer Dauer (Berlin, 1794), and Gentz , Mouniers Entwicklung der Ursachen
welche Frankreich gehindert haben zu Freiheit zu gelangen, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1795)both of
which have been partially reprinted in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 263536.
Gentz, Betrachtungen, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 18081.
Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 378.
Gentz to Garve, 5 March 1790, in F. P. Wittichen, ed., Briefe von und an Gentz, 3 vols.
(Berlin, 1909), 1: 1589.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 43

the apparent willingness of Louis XVI to reform his nations constitution.

Gentzs faith in what he called the good cause was further reinforced by
the publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in
1789.25 This document, he believed, held the potential to liberate France from
its heteronomous obedience to the demands of tradition, setting out a rational
framework for the construction of a just constitution.26 From his education
under Kant in the mid-1780s, Gentz was convinced that all men possess inherent
dignity as self-governing moral agents, and that this unique status confers on
them certain intrinsic rights that all governments must respect. I would regard
the failure of this revolution as one of the worst disasters ever to befall the human
race, he told Garve. It is the first practical triumph of philosophy, the first
example of a government that is based on principles and a coherent, consistent
Gentzs view of the Revolution soon soured, however, as the once-noble
movement degenerated into a maelstrom of violence and disorder in the early
1790s. The confiscation of private estates and church properties, the factionalism
of the Assemblee nationale, the rise of seditious revolutionary cabals in Parisall
of these developments convinced him that the Revolutionaries had broken faith
with the true cause of Enlightenment. Instead of encouraging concrete moral
progress, their crusade had given rise to a new and strange fanaticism which,
like the religious enthusiasms of earlier eras, furnished a pretext for savage acts
of barbarism. Gentzs disillusionment was so profound that in the aftermath
of the September Massacres of 1792 he was describing active resistance to the
Revolution as a holy duty for the enlightened friend of mankind [aufgeklarten
Since the early nineteenth century, the ex post facto alignment of Enlightenment
and the Revolution has made it difficult for readers to see the force of
Gentzs claim. But given the vision of progress that Kant sketched in What
Is Enlightenment?published in 1784, while Gentz was his student in
KonigsbergGentzs notion of an anti-revolutionary Enlightenment had a
certain prima facie plausibility.29 Kant had described Enlightenment as a slow
process that must be undertaken with care and moderation. A public can only
reach enlightenment over time, he wrote:

Gentz to Garve, 5 Dec. 1790, in Wittichen, Briefe von und an Gentz, 1: 179.
See Gentz, Uber den Ursprung und die obersten Prinzipien des Rechts, Berlinische
Monatsschrift, 18 (April 1791), 37096; repr. in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 7: 733.
Gentz to Garve, 5 Dec. 1790, in Wittichen, Briefe von und an Gentz, 1: 178.
Gentz, Betrachtungen, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 29.
Immanuel Kant, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklarung?, Berlinische Monatsschrift,
12 (Dec. 1784), 48194; repr. in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 8: 3542.

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44 jonathan green

A revolution might put an end to despotism or an acquisitive and domineering oppression,

but it will never lead to true reform in mens ways of thinking; instead, new prejudices,
like the old, will serve as the controlling leash of the great unthinking mob.30

According to Kant, men are best able to free themselves from their self-imposed
immaturity and achieve moral self-government in a robust public sphere,
infused with a spirit of rational respect for the worth of each man.31 But
rational civil discourse is impossible in an chaotic state of nature. It followed,
therefore, that the prospects for Enlightenment are dependent on the existence of
stable political order. Statesmen must balance the flowering of public reason with
the need for state stability. When this tension is deftly managedas was the case,
Kant argued, in Frederick the Greats Prussiathen as subjects slowly become
capable of rational self-government, the need for a paternalistic regime will wane.
But if this balance is upset, if emancipated subjects begin to question the authority
of their governments and embrace sedition or rebellion, then the flourishing of
public rationality will undermine the state and, ipso facto, destabilize the public
sphere. Enlightenment, in other words, would dissolve the conditions of its own
But how, precisely, could this transition from despotism to liberalism be
facilitated? How should a just constitution be structured? And what fundamental
rights should it protect? Though Kants preference for orderly progress was clear,
What Is Enlightenment? gave little attention to these practical questions of
implementation. After Gentz left Konigsberg in the 1780s for a post in the civil
service in Berlin, they came to dominate his thinking. He befriended many of
the luminaries of the German Enlightenment in the citys famed salonsmen
such as Alexander and Wilhelm Humboldt, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Schlegel,
Moses Mendelssohn and Johannes von Mullerand, at Kants behest, began
attending the public lectures of Johann Gottfried Kiesewetter, one of Berlins
leading reformers.32 Though Gentz shared this coteries vision of a liberalized
Prussia, he grew worried that neither Kant nor his allies were attuned to just how
complex the mechanisms of eighteenth-century government were, and just how
fraught the path to Enlightenment would be. At the suggestion of his friend Garve,
he turned to foreign sources for guidanceto Montesquieu, Hume, Ferguson and
Smith.33 Gentzs initiation into this Anglophilic tradition led him to appreciate the
ways in which the rise of commerce, the refinement of manners, the development

Ibid., 8: 36.
Ibid., 8: 356.
See Gentz to Garve, 5 March 1790, in Wittichen, Briefe von und an Gentz, 1: 155; see also
Kronenbitter, Wort und Macht, 324.
In 1790 Gentz told Garve that he was reading the Wealth of Nations for a third time; see
Gentz to Garve, 5 Dec. 1790, in Wittichen, Briefe von und an Gentz, 1: 181.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 45

of statesmanship and the science of constitutionalism had helped bring about

the ordered liberty that modern Britain enjoyed.34 He came to see the Glorious
Revolution of 1688 as a paradigm for successful political reform, and the British
constitution as a model for the enlightenment of mankind.35
In 1789, Gentz was hopeful that the French would follow the example of the
British, reviving their long-dormant representative institutions and crafting a
balanced constitutional monarchy. As he argued in the preface to his edition of
Burkes Reflections, the prospects for such reforms were auspicious in the years
leading up to the Revolution:

In this period of regeneration, every step along the path of learning was a decisive gain
that sooner or later permeated all social classes. The powerful were made gentle and mild
through the increase of knowledge, while the small became self-sufficient and corrigible.
That which pleased citizens also strengthened governments [Regierungen]. The scourge
could rest as reason gripped the sceptre, and enlightened citizens [aufgeklarte Burger] were
truer subjects than unknowing slaves.36

Before the Revolution, in other words, the slow diffusion of public reason across
Europe had conduced to a process of a gradual, yet real, liberalization. Gentz
lamented that as a result of the Revolution, the public sphere had been politicized
and the fragile moral progress of the eighteenth century had been swept away in
a torrent of fanaticism. Just as Kant warned, new prejudices simply eclipsed the

The despotic synod of Paris, upheld internally by its inquisitorial courts and externally
by its thousands of willing missionaries, has denounced each and every departure from
its maxims as heresy and anathema, with an intolerance not witnessed since the doctrine
of papal infallibility . . . Rather than careful systems of government, slowly infused with
wisdom and experience, liberte and egalite have now taken up the sceptre of the world,
and tyrants and their allies, along with all religion, science and art . . . have been banished
into the night of an eternal oblivion.37

The Revolutionaries had commandeered and perverted the idea of

Enlightenment. Rather than non-partisan reason, moral improvement and

For this tradition see J. G. A. Pocock, Clergy and Commerce: The Conservative
Enlightenment in England, in R. Ajello, ed., Leta dei Lumi: Studi Storici sul Settecento
Europeo in onore di Franco Venturi, 2 vols. (Naples, 1985), 1: 52362; for Burkes place within
it see Richard Bourke, Burke, Enlightenment and Romanticism, in David Dwan and
Christopher Insole, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke (Cambridge, 2012),
Gentz, Betrachtungen, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 212.
Ibid., 6: 910.
Ibid., 6: 267.

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46 jonathan green

public order, Kants vision was now associated with paranoid fanaticism, civil
insurrection and political violence.38
Gentz took it upon himself to distinguish Kants true, reformist Aufklarung
from the false imitation espoused by the Revolutionaries.39 Using his translation
of Burkes Reflections as a platform, he outlined a strategy for political
liberalization that differed radically from the Jacobinsone that, he claimed,
could successfully reconcile the demands of reason with the exigencies of
political practice. Gentz called this programme his complete theory of the
anti-revolutionary system.40 As he saw it, Burkes central argument was not
his scepticism about the Revolutionaries metaphysics.41 For Gentz, rather, Burke
was prescient because he saw that in the day-to-day arena of political decision-
making, a solely philosophical grasp of what is right will be insufficient for
practice. Augmenting his translation with an extensive apparatus of interpretive
essays and exegetical notes, Gentz held up Burkean statesmanship as the epitome
of an enlightened political practice.
The philosophical crux of Gentzs interpretation came in a footnote inserted
towards the middle of the Reflections, some eleven pages after Burkes suggestion
that speculatists should be quarantinedthe same passage to which Kant
alluded in Theory and Practice. In the original version of his text, Burke
complained that the philosophes were more concerned with philosophical rigour
than with the practical realities of governing. The pretended rights of these
theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true,
they are morally and politically false.42 In a note attached to this sentence,
Gentz fixed upon Burkes threefold distinction between metaphysics, morals
and politics. There are three discernible gradations that pervade all Burkean
reasoning but that are never distinguished with adequate sharpness: principles of
right, questions of moral warrant [moralische Befugnisse] and rules of prudence.
Gentz explained that Burke used the term metaphysical right to denote what
we Germans . . . are accustomed to calling strict right [strenge Recht]that
is, moral injunctions derived from synthetic a priori precepts. But what Burke
called moral and political right did not, in fact, denote normative claims, but
referred rather to the tools needed to implement reasons demands in everyday

For Gentzs distinction between reformist and radical wings within the German
Enlightenment see Ian Hunter, Rival Enlightenments (Cambridge, 2001).
Gentz, Betrachtungen, 1: 2.
According to Gentz, Burkes critique of rationalism belied a lack of secure first principles;
see Gentz, Betrachtungen, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 11415.
Burke, Reflections, 221.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 47

practice.43 The point of Burkes sentence, according to Gentz, was that although
the Revolutionaries may have been principled, their movement was neither moral
nor prudent and failed for these reasons. This insight was the hinge upon which
Gentzs theory of the anti-revolutionary system turned. And it was the same
claim to which Kant responded in Theory and Practice some eight months later.
Gentz elucidated his point with a metaphor. Just as the captain of a ship must
set his course vis-a-vis the North Star, political movements require normative
orientation in order to make progress.
But if [the captain] ends his preparation here, if he begins his trip around the world in
an empty boat with nothing but a foolish faith in his preliminary knowledge, without
a rudder or compass or oars or charts, he will be scorned as an idiot and chastised as a
reckless adventurer.

Likewise, though just principles are vital in politics, they must be coupled with
moral virtue and political prudence to be successfully enacted. The rights that
these theorists chimerically take for everything are nothing but extremes, Gentz
argued. Since there are many other important considerations in the moral
world and many other rules in the political world, these rights are insufficient
[unzureichend] for him who wishes to erect a constitution, and will produce bad
results when taken as his sole principle.44
Gentzs understanding of the relation between metaphysics, morals and
politics was rather technical, and he included a diagram to help readers see the
logical dependencies that pertain between them (see Fig. 2). A sound theoretical
grasp of what is right is a prerequisite for moral action, he argued. One cannot
enact a just state of affairs without understanding, at a conceptual level, what
justice is. Second, a rightful aim and a moral plan of action are both preconditions
for the exercise of circumstantial prudence. Thus, as Gentzs diagram indicated,
the logical spheres of these three concepts become progressively smaller:
Every conceivable action that accords with the rules of prudence . . . must be compatible
with the laws of moral order and with the principles of strict right . . . But the converse
does not holdthat everything that transpires in line with the principles of right also
complies with the demands of morality or, far less, the rules of prudence; or that all
actions that satisfy the moral law also satisfy the rules of prudence.45

Gentz explained that the rules of morality are normative and universally binding,
regardless of circumstance. An actor is moral if his means are congruent with his

Gentz, Betrachtungen, 1: 89, 93.
Ibid., 1: 923, 95. Gentz may have borrowed this image from Kant; see Immanuel Kant,
Was heit: Sich im Denken orientieren? (1786), in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 8: 13347, at
Ibid., 1: 93.

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48 jonathan green

Fig. 2. Gentzs illustration of the whole realm of the concept of permissiveness. Gentz,
Betrachtungen, 2nd edn, 1: 86.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 49

(just) ends, and he is immoral if he seeks to bring about a just world through
unjust means. Such an incongruence between means and ends often stems from
excessive zeal, Gentz argued. The Revolutionaries were an ideal case in point. If
begun with the arrogance of Icarus, mans loftiest flights into unexplored regions
will end with the downfall of Icarus. The human race can only progress toward
the attainment of that which is sublime gradually, step-by-step.46
Like morality, Gentzs notion of prudence was also practicalthat is,
concerned with the implementation of right. But whereas moral considerations
are rational and universal, the demands of prudence are contingent and historical,
dependent on the unique circumstances in which an actor is imbedded. Since
prudence is a situational concept, it demands an empirical grasp of ones
immediate surroundings. Before a statesman sets out to reform an institution,
he must apprehend how it is interwoven with the habits, mores, customs and
traditions of the nation it governs. Therefore, Gentz argued, if a particular nation
invited a wise statesman to assemble a plan for the expansion of its political liberty
and vested him with great power, he would not consent to their wishes at once:
He would first observe the character, customs, passions, degree of education,
circumstances, needs and history of the people for whom he is legislating; he would
compare the results of his investigation with the degree of freedom that they have hitherto
enjoyed, and the amount that they now demand . . . It is just as unreasonable to hope
that in an instant, a people can be converted from the slaves of a Sultan into a state of
British enlightenment . . . as it is foolish to seek to transform a Turkish constitution into
a British one at once.47

Similarly, Gentzs notion of prudence required that statesmen have a sound

understanding of history. Unlike the principles of justice, one cannot learn
the demands of prudence through a priori reflection. Echoing Aristotle, Gentz
defined prudence as a practical skill that can only be learned by emulating the
examples of wise, judicious statesmen throughout history. The prudent politician
will, in a moment of crisis, compare his potential course of action to similar
situations in the past. If the lessons of experience indicate that his plans are
feasible, he can pursue them with confidence; if not, he can revise his strategy,
or abort it altogether. This comparative form of reasoning thus ensures a high
likelihood of success. If ever a constitution of pure reason [reinen Vernunft]
should be realized somewhere, then it will be time to depart from the wisdom
of experience, Gentz argued. But until then . . . reason and duty both dictate
that the safest path lies along the well-travelled coast of experience.48

Gentz, Betrachtungen, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 182.
Ibid., 6: 66.
Ibid., 6: 181. Though Gentz did not cite Kant, there was precedent in Kants corpus. In
his Grundlegung fur Metaphysik der Sitten, Kant defined anthropology as a series of

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50 jonathan green

Whereas morality demands congruence between ends and means, prudence

demands consonance between means and context. When these three factors are
brought into alignment, the gap between theory and practice becomes passable.
Such was the case, Gentz explained, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and, more
recently, the American Revolution of 1776.49 But as the example of the French
Revolution demonstrated, principles without morality and prudence are of little
practical use. Because the Revolutions leaders were unable to enact the rights
outlined in their Declaration, this document only engendered resentment and
violence. As a result, the rights of men have never, in any age of history, been so
terribly, obscenely, and thoroughly disgraced as in the last three years, in a nation
where they should have been respected and venerated.50

In the months after Gentz released his translation, the situation in France
deteriorated further. In January 1793 a Revolutionary tribunal ordered the
execution of Louis XVI, prompting Austria and Britain to join the Prussian
war against France. In Paris, Robespierre assumed power, instituting martial law
and ushering in the horrors of his infamous Terror. These developments shocked
the German reading public, and propelled Gentzs Reflections to a position of
prominence in political discourse. Throughout 1793, his translation provoked a
heated debate over whether the normative demands of pure reason are compatible
with the practical exigencies of politics.51 Gentz defended a moderate position,
arguing that reasons dictates are indeed practicable if coupled with morality and
prudence. But the debate quickly radicalized. August Wilhelm Rehberg insisted
that philosophical reason has no place in politics.52 Johann Gottlieb Fichte took
up the opposite position, arguing that all regimes be brought into alignment with
reason, no matter the cost.53

practical investigations into ones phenomenal circumstances, and argued that it was a
prerequisite for making morality effective in concreto in the conduct of ones life; see
Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 4: 387463, at 3889. Kant would later echo this sentiment
in his Metaphysik der Sitten of 1797, claiming that morality requires anthropology for its
application to human beings; see Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 205493, at 412.
For Gentz on America see Gentz, Betrachtungen, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 6: 9098.
Ibid., 6: 144.
See Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism, 2878; and Reinhold Aris, History
of Political Thought in Germany (London, 1965), 2518.
A. W. Rehberg, Untersuchungen uber die Franzosische Revolution, 2 vols. (Hannover, 1793).
J. G. Fichte, Beitrage zur Berichtigung der Urteile des Publikums uber die Franzosische
Revolution (Danzig, 1793).

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 51

Kant was not insulated from the turmoil that Gentzs translation provoked.
In March, the bookseller Carl Spener wrote to him from Berlin, begging him to
respond to the growing scepticism about the Revolution. Is it not your duty
to alleviate with a small drop of oil this terrible friction that threatens to crush
hundreds of thousands? he asked.54 Similar petitions continued to arrive over
the coming months.55 Kiesewetter wrote to Kant in June, noting that there is
much to be said about the principles of the French Republic and their agreement
with reason and urging him to come the Revolutionaries aid.56 In September,
Kant relented, submitting Theory and Practice to the Berlinische Monatsschrift
as a contribution to the debate that now raged over the political authority of a
priori reason.
In all likelihood, Kant knew that his former student had incited this debate.
Gentzs letters from the mid-1780s suggest that the two men forged a close personal
relationship in Konigsberg.57 They were in direct correspondence as late as 1790,
when Kant asked Gentz to edit a draft of his Critique of Judgement.58 And Kant
was attentive to Gentzs rising political fortunes throughout the 1790s as well.59
It seems almost certain, then, that Kant would have read Gentzs translation of
Burke in 1793, and would have been alert to its effects on German public opinion.
At the same time, however, Kant would also have known that Gentzs edition of
the Reflections had attracted the praise of Prussias monarch regnant, Friedrich
Wilhelm II, and that Gentz had been named to the kings council of advisers in
mid-1793. Kant had good reason to pen an esoteric argument against Gentz, one
that his student would recognize but that granted him plausible innocence before
the Prussian censors.60 When all this evidence is placed alongside the textual clue
that Wittichen uncovered in Kants essay, a neat prima facie case emerges to
suggest that Gentzs Reflections was, in fact, the source that inspired Kant to write
Theory and Practice.
Kant framed his appraisal of the Revolution generally, vis-a-vis the common
saying that an idea may be correct in theory but does not apply [taugt . . .

Spener to Kant, 9 March 1793, in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 11: 41516.
See ibid., 11: 40131.
Kiesewetter to Kant, 15 June 1793, in ibid., 11: 422.
See, for instance, Gentz to Garve, 8 Oct. 1784, in Wittichen, Briefe von und an Gentz, 1:
See Gentz to Garve, 5 Dec. 1790, in ibid., 1: 182.
See Johann Biester to Kant, 4 March 1794, and Kiesewetter to Kant, 25 Nov. 1798, in Kants
Gesammelte Schriften, 11: 490 and 12: 266.
In 1792, the censor had reprimanded Kant for the heterodoxy of his Die Religion innerhalb
der Grenzen der bloen Vernunft, and forbade him from printing sections of it in the
Monatsschrift; see Biester to Kant, 18 June 1792, in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 8: 32933.

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52 jonathan green

nicht] in practice.61 In one sense, this was a plausible restatement of Gentzs

argument. In order to implement an ideal theory of justice, Gentz argued,
statesmen must possess a moral plan of action and pay prudent attention to their
circumstances; otherwise, what is correct in theory will be impracticable. With
this schematic argument, Gentz meant to vindicate Kants pre-Revolutionary idea
of Enlightenment: to show how, precisely, the transition from despotism to self-
government could be achieved without falling into the anarchy of the Revolution.
But when Kant encountered this argument in 1793, it worried him. Gentzs
emphasis on prudence, especially, seemed little more than a shrewd attempt to
rationalize a bankrupt Ancien Regime and to provide intellectual cover for the
Revolutions critics. At the prodding of his radical allies Kant decided to push
back against Gentzthe would-be expert who admits the value of theory for
teaching purposes . . . but argues that matters are quite different in practice
and set out to prove that a priori reason was, in fact, wholly sufficient for the
practice of politics.62
Kants introduction contained a precis of this argument. He conceded that,
sometimes, theory and practice seemed incongruent. But could circumstantial
prudence reconcile them? Kant acknowledged that between theory and practice
there is required . . . an act of judgement through which the practitioner decides
whether . . . something is a case of the rule. But such situational judgement
could not guarantee a successful implementation of right, Kant argued. Assume
that a statesman possessed perfect judgement: in every situation presented to
him, he would be able choose a set of principles appropriate to his context.
Even with such prudence, this statesman would not be able to make all theories
practicable, for the obvious reason that even where this natural talent is present,
there can still be a deficiency in premises; that is, a theory can be incomplete.
If this wise statesman chose a theory that was underdeveloped, his aims would
be unrealizable. In such cases it is not the fault of theory if it was of little use in
practice, but rather of there having been not enough theory.63 Kant elaborated
this point with a metaphor from Newtonian physics:
Now if an empirical engineer tried to disparage general mechanics, or an artilleryman
the mathematical doctrine of ballistics, by saying that whereas the theory of it is nicely
thought out it is not valid in practice since, when it comes to application, experience yields
quite different results than theory, one would merely laugh at him (for if the theory of
friction were added to the first and the theory of the resistance of air to the second, hence
if only still more theory were added, these would accord very well with experience).64

Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 273, translation mine.
Ibid., 2756, translation mine.
Ibid., 275, italics in original.
Ibid., 276.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 53

To reconcile the expected and actual results of these experiments, prudential

judgement would be of no use; rather, more theory was needed. Kant intimated
that just as it would be premature to abandon mathematical physics after one
failed ballistics experiment, it would be unwise to reject a priori reason as the
final source of political norms, or to infer that its dictates are impracticable, after
the Revolutionaries halting attempts to enact them. Theory and Practice, in
other words, inverted Gentzs argument: if the Revolution had faltered, it suffered
from a dearth, not an excess, of theoretical reason.
Kant divided his argument into three parts, and the substance of his response to
Gentz appeared in his second section, on the relation of theory to practice in the
right of a state.65 He began by registering his enthusiastic support for the rights
defended in the Revolutionaries Declaration, outlining three conditions in
accordance with which alone the establishment of a state is possible in conformity
with pure rational principles of external human right:
1. The freedom of every member of the society as a human being.
2. His equality with every other as a subject.
3. The independence of every member of a commonwealth as a citizen.66
When Kant spelled out the implications of these rights, his Revolutionary
sympathies became clear. He defined freedom as the right of each citizen to
pursue his own vision of happiness, and censured paternalistic governments
that seek to impose their own ideas about flourishing onto their subjects. It is
immoral, Kant argued, to treat grown adults like minor children who cannot
distinguish between what is truly useful or harmful to them. Second, Kants
notion of equality demanded the end of aristocratic privileges and the formation
of a meritocratic society. Every member of the commonwealth must be allowed
to attain any level of rank . . . to which his talent, his industry and his luck can
take him; and his fellow subjects may not stand in his way by means of a hereditary
prerogative. Finally, his concept of independence entailed a right to political
representation. Under absolutist governments, subjects rights are contingent on

Ibid., 289. Kants notes to this section of his essay suggest that he wrote it in mid-1793; that
is, after the publication of Gentzs Reflections. See Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 23: 12544.
Ibid., 290. Because Kant asserted these rights rather than deducing them from his more
basic metaphysical commitments, there exists a long-standing interpretive debate about
the relation between political freedom and moral autonomy in his thought. In this context,
it is perhaps helpful to note that Gentz provided a Kantian derivation of political right
from the pure concept of humanity in an article printed in the Monatsschrift in 1791,
entitled Uber den Ursprung und die obersten Prinzipien des Rechts. This might explain
why Kant was content to assert his preferred catalogue of rights in Theory and Practice,
rather than making their theoretical grounding explicit. For Gentzs essay see Gentz,
Gesammelte Schriften, 8: 733; see also Green, Gentzs Reflections, 6458.

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54 jonathan green

the benevolence of their sovereigns. Only under a constitution grounded in the

general (united) will of the people, therefore, are the rights of man secure.67
In its original context, Kants catalogue of rights amounted to a clear
endorsement of the French vision of a nation conceived in liberte, egalite, and
fraternite. At the same time, however, he was still sensitive to the dangers that
political tumult posed to the enlightened public sphere, and was reluctant to
endorse the worst tactical excesses of the Revolution:

If a people now subject to a certain actual legislation were to judge that in all probability
this is detrimental to its happiness, what is to be done about it? Should the people not
resist it? The answer can only be that, on the part of the people, there is nothing to be
done but to obey.68

Yet it was unclear how Kant could hold this position. If revolutions were
categorically barredif peoples had no right to cast off their existing governments
in order to create better onesthen what practical use were his republican
principles? This objection could be turned around and posed from a conservative
angle. Earlier in his essay, in a rejoinder to Christian Garve, Kant suggested that a
theoretical grasp of what is right necessarily compels moral action.69 If this were
so, and if the principles of the Revolution were just, then was Kant not committed
to the radical claim that Revolutionaries violent tactics were, in fact, permissible?
To circumvent this dilemma, Kant might have turned to Gentzs concept of
prudence. He could have argued that the French people were not suited for
republican self-government, or that the Revolutionaries faltered because they
were not sufficiently attuned to their unique circumstances. But he did not. Kant
saw that if he were to fall back onto what he would later call enlightened concepts
of political prudence, he would have to acknowledge that what is true in theory
is, in certain circumstances, impractical.70 If this were so, moral norms would be
conditional, not universal:

All is lost when empirical and therefore contingent conditions of carrying out the law
are made conditions of the law itself, so that a practice calculated with reference to an

Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 29092, 295.
Ibid., 2978.
Garves charge was that Kants rationalism is not able to inspire moral conduct in practice,
since all human action assumes a eudemonistic idea of moral flourishing. In his response
(ibid., 27980), Kant argued that in the moment that the will acknowledges the sovereignty
of moral duty, it postulates a conceptual end a priori (which it then pursues, of necessity).
This response to Garve might therefore be read as a tacit rejection of Gentzs claim that in
the pursuit of just ends, human actors often resort to immoral means. Insofar as one truly
submits to the authority of reason, Kant argued, moral action will follow in due course.
Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 344.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 55

outcome probable in accordance with previous experience is given authority to control a

self-sufficient theory.71

Circumstantial prudence, therefore, was incompatible with the concept of right. If

politicians could rightfully invoke mitigating empirical conditions to rationalize
their own inaction, the whole force of the moral law would be suspended. Justice
would be a mirage.
Rather than turning to prudence, Kant argued that the Revolutionaries
principles were partially deficient. Their defence of human rights was laudable,
but their concept of the state was misguided. Even in the most favourable
conditions, prudence could not render certain revolutions permissible, since
the very concept of a rightful revolution was nonsensical. If subjects had a
right to overthrow their governments, this right would have to be grounded
in a universalizable maxim. This would be equivalent to a law that licenses
lawlessness, which is absurd.72 Thus for Kant, any resistance to the supreme
legislative power, any incitement to have the subjects dissatisfaction become
active, any insurrection that break out in rebellion, is the highest and most
punishable crime within a commonwealth, because it destroys its foundation.73
In an essay On the Morality of Political Revolutions included in his edition of
the Reflections, Gentz had argued that in certain narrow circumstances nations
have recourse to an extra-constitutional right of resistance; such was the case
in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, for instance.74 When Kant answered Gentz
in Theory and Practice, he used the same example to arrive at the opposite

If those uprisings by which . . . Great Britain won its constitution . . . had failed, those
who read the history of them would see in the execution of their now celebrated authors
nothing but the deserved punishment of great political criminals . . . The people did
wrong in the highest degree by seeking their rights in this way; for this way of doing it
(adopted as a maxim) would make every rightful constitution insecure and introduce a
condition of complete lawlessness (status naturalis), in which all rights cease . . . to have

Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 277.
Kant had been making this argument consistently since the mid-1780s against the natural
law resistance theory of Gottfried Achenwall: see Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 27: 1319
94. For an interpretation of Kants politics that places central emphasis on it see Jeremy
Waldron, Kants Legal Positivism, Harvard Law Review, 109 (1996), 153566.
Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 299.
See Gentz, Uber die Moralitat in den Staatsrevolutionen, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften,
6: 74100.
Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 301.

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56 jonathan green

Gentzs suggestion that in certain circumstances revolution might be a moral,

even wise, course of action was therefore confused.
In the constitution of Great Britainwhere the people carry on about their constitution
as if it were the model for the whole worldwe nevertheless find that it is quite silent
about the authorization belonging to the people in case the monarch should transgress
the contract of 1688 . . .

The reason for this silence was obvious. That a constitution should contain a
law for such a case authorizing the overthrow of the existing constitution . . . is
an obvious contradiction.76
For Kant, then, the Revolutionaries problem was not that they were impru-
dent; rather, like the engineers in his metaphor, they had not enough theory.
They had strayed past the limits of reason, presuming a right to overthrow their
government that they did not, in fact, possess. This fundamental theoretical error
led them to embrace the same political paradigm as their Ancien Regime nemeses:
The cause of their actions is, in part, the common mistake . . . of substituting the principle
of happiness for [the principle of right] in their judgments . . . Here it is obvious what
evil the principle of happiness . . . gives rise to in the right of a state, just as it does in
morals, despite the best intentions of those who teach it. The sovereign wants to make the
people happy in accordance with his concept and becomes a despot; the people are not
willing to give up their universal human claim to their own happiness and become rebels.
Had it first been asked what is laid down as right (where principles stand firm a priori
and no empiricist can bungle them), then the idea of the social contract would remain in
its incontestable authority . . . as a rational principle for appraising any public rightful

For Kant, the Revolutionaries occasional missteps did not prove reasons
inadequacy; instead, they illustrated the terrible results that follow when its
sovereignty is ignored. And if what is true in theory is necessarily true in practice,
prudence need not be brought into account.

When Gentz encountered Theory and Practice in the Monatsschrift, he
must have felt dejected. The strident rationalism that Kant used to evaluate the
Revolution must have seemed wholly separate from the moderate, reformist
vision of Enlightenment that he defended in the 1780s. Why, he wondered,
would Kant reject the prudentialist agenda for political progress outlined in
his Reflections? Gentz reasoned that Kant must have misread his argument, and

Ibid., 303.
Ibid., 285, 3012.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 57

decided to restate it in a Response to Herr Prof. Kants Reasoning on the Relation

between Theory and Practice, which he submitted to the Monatsschrift in late
1793.78 Prudence, he hoped to show, did not threaten the authority of pure reason
but was consonant with, and indeed presupposed by, Kants normative theory of
Gentz began his article by distancing himself from the anti-theoretical
scepticism of Rehberg and his allies:
If the saying that may be true in theory but does not apply in practice is intended to
mean that something could be true in theory but nevertheless false in practice, then it is
a thoroughly wrongheaded notion and deserves the full severity with which Prof. Kant,
in his noteworthy and profound essay on the subject, reveals its emptiness.Sometimes,
however, it only means that may be true in theory but is not sufficient [zureichend] for
practice . . . Pure logic and well-constituted reason argue that what has been proven and
established in theory cannot be overturned in practice. But there is another, much more
complicated, interesting and fruitful question to be asked. At what point does practice
cease to be a mere echo of theory? At what point does it earn the right to speak for itself,
and indeed for theory as well?79

Kant had shown that philosophical reason was necessary for politics. But had
he proven that it was sufficient? As Gentz observed, the argument of Theory
and Practice was ambiguous. Sometimes Kant objected to the strong claim that
what is true in theory is invalid (ungultig) in practice. But elsewhere he seemed
concerned to refute the more limited claim that what is true in theory is not
suited (taugt nicht) for practice.80 These statements are not equivalent. While
Gentz was unwilling to defend the former, he thought that the latter was plausible
and deserved further consideration.
At first glance, he explained, one might be tempted to think that all theories
that are grounded rationally upon a priori principles must be counted among
those that are sufficient in and of themselves.81 But further examination proves
that this is not the case. In the sphere of interpersonal moral dutiesor what
Gentz called relations of pure obligation (bloen Pflichtbegriff)pure reason
is wholly sufficient. Neither historical knowledge nor situational prudence is
needed in order to recognize and follow the demands of morality. But matters
are essentially different in politics: the relation between the sovereign and his
subjects is not one of reciprocal moral obligations. What is essential about the

Friedrich Gentz, Nachtrag zu den Rasonnement des Herrn Professor Kant uber das
Verhaltnis zwischen Theorie und Praxis, Berlinische Monatsschrift, 22 (Dec. 1793), 51854;
repr. in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 7: 3572.
Gentz, Nachtrag, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 356.
Kant, Theorie und Praxis, 273.
Gentz, Nachtrag, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 37.

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58 jonathan green

civil condition . . . is that it secures the rights of men through compulsory public
laws.82 As Kants own critique of the Revolution showed, the rights of man
cannot be made effective in an anarchic state of nature. If they are to be realized
in practice, there must exist stable, well-ordered governments that can compel
subjects to respect their neighbours rights. Yet as Gentz pointed out, pure reason
is not able to explain how constitutions should be organized, how sovereign
power is best wielded, or how state stability can be best preserved. In order to
enact the rights of man in practice, statesmen need an empirical account of how
order is constructed and maintained. In a Europe littered with failed and failing
states, simply decrying rebellion was not enough.
Gentz was prepared to meet Kant halfway. In his rendering of Burkes
Reflections, he depicted prudence as a practical virtue learned through habituation
and historical observation. But if, as Kant suggested, this sort of Aristotelian
judgement could not span the gap between theory and practice, then perhaps
prudence might be reconceived as a series of generalizable maxims, gleaned
from empirical observation, that explain how state order is best maintained.
Returning to Kants ballistics metaphor, Gentz explained that just as a pure
theory of mathematics cannot be made practicable unless it is augmented with
a second, derivative theory formed by observing the resistance that projectiles
encounter as they pass through air, so, too, Kants normative theory of right
must to be paired with a practical account of politics, or what Gentz called his
new empirical theory.83 Just as scientific experiments cannot bring the laws
of mathematics into question, Gentz was quick to insist that empirical maxims
about how to preserve state order cannot undermine reasons dictates. Rather, his
empirical theory aimed to secure the necessary conditions for the enactment
of Kantian principles:
In order to create a just constitution, an understanding of the rights of man is indispensable,
but merely preliminary. If the statesman is to uncover a way to realize these rights, he
must go beyond his theory. The best-developed system of rights will always remain only
a noble ideal without the practical substance [Stoff] that experience alone . . . offers. In
every just constitution, sovereignty must be vested somewhere. Where should this power
be located? How should it be wielded? What are its limits? How should it be safeguarded?
To these exceedingly important questions, a pure theory of right can offer no answers.
An understanding of men, of individuals and groups; a knowledge of human abilities,
inclinations, passions, and weaknesses; prolonged observation; a comparison of mans
many climates and circumstances; investigation of his social relations; a prolonged series
of trial and erroronly these can provide answers.84

Ibid., 36, 43.
Ibid., 57.
Ibid., 56.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 59

If reason furnishes the ends of politics, experience teaches its means. Because
Theory and Practice offered only an ideal account of justice, Kant had
ignored essential questions about how to reconcile order and liberty. If he
only meant to establish the principles upon which rational constitutions must
be founded, this oversight would be unproblematic, Gentz wrote. But it is
curious that Kant neglected [the lessons of experience] in an essay on theory and
This oversight led Kant to misjudge the Revolutionaries, according to Gentz.
Liberty, equality and independence are indeed foundational principles of the
social contract. But this contract is a mere norm, a guide for legislative reason,
not a practical plan for how to build a stable polity.86 Just as projectiles do not
fly through air at the speed predicted by physicists, the normative rights of man
cannot be enacted unconditionally without casting nations into a state of anarchy.
But this is what Kant had recommended. Theory and Practice defined liberty,
for instance, as the antithesis of paternalism. But while a nation undergoes the
slow process of Enlightenment, is not a well-intentioned paternalistic regime vital
for the orderly expansion of subjects rights? Indeed, was this not Frederick the
Greats central achievement? Similarly, Kant argued that since all men must be
equal before the law, feudal honours and privileges must be abolished. But look
to the example of modern Britain, Gentz countered. Here, in the most liberal
nation in Europe, a virtuous nobility was necessary for maintaining public order
and keeping royal authority in check. If the relation between a sovereign and
his subjects was rightfully unequal (as Kant admitted), why could the sovereign
not delegate his authority to the vassals and allies who helped him uphold the
peace? Was this not the rationale behind aristocracies? Though Gentz posed these
questions rhetorically, his point was clear. Theories of justice are meaningless in
a pre-political state of anarchy. To ignore the empirical question of order, then,
is to consign philosophy to irrelevance.
As if to describe what, exactly, his empirical political approach entailed, Gentz
spent the next two years compiling an in-depth account of the rise and fall of the
Revolution. He centred his efforts on two French sources, which he translated
and annotated for his German readersJean Joseph Mouniers Investigations into
the Causes which Prevented the French from Becoming Free, and Jacques Mallet du
Pans Considerations on the Nature of the Revolution in France.87 Gentz admired
these authors because, unlike his peers in Berlina learned class which has

Ibid., 578, emphasis mine.
Ibid., 545.
Jacques Mallet du Pan, Considerations sur la nature de la Revolution en France et sur les
causes qui en prolongent la duree (Brussels, 1793); Jean Joseph Mounier, Recherches sur les
causes qui ont empeche les Francais de devenir libres (Geneva, 1792).

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60 jonathan green

remained loyal to the Revolution from a position of order, comfort and peace,
and which longs for the success of a movement that has decimated the moral
progress of the past three centuriesMounier and Mallet du Pan witnessed
the Revolution first-hand, and rooted their non-partisan judgements in an
empirical grasp of its course rather than in an ideal vision of its promise.88 Like
Gentz, both men were moderates who initially cheered the RevolutionMallet
du Pan as editor of the reformist Mercure du France, and Mounier as the deputy of
the monarchien faction within the tiers etat. But when the Revolution fell under the
control of radical democrats in late 1789, they were forced to flee. While in exile,
Mallet du Pan and Mounier published their analyses of the Revolution, seeking to
explain how a movement that began with such promise could have ended in such
As Gentz translated their histories of the Revolution, he underscored their
lessons in comments scattered throughout his translations. Broadly, he identified
three precepts that all prudent statesmen will heed. First, simple forms of
government are intrinsically unstable and inevitably devolve into chaos. This
was the case, according to Gentz, in Louis XVIs regime and the Revolutionary
government that succeeded it. As the enlightened Montesquieu knew, only a
mixed constitution (Staatsverfassung des Gleichgewichts) can effectively check
the destabilizing effects of concentrated power and guarantee a durable liberty.89
Second, Gentz observed that if subjects have a duty to obey their sovereigns,
then rulers must have an equal duty to prevent revolutionary turmoil by
addressing their subjects legitimate concerns. With Mallet du Pan, he faulted
the intransigence of Louis XVI for exacerbating the Revolutionary crisis. Instead
of negotiating a moderate settlement with the tiers etat, the king and his allies
simply ignored the character of the age and pored over old adages.90 Finally,
Mounier and Mallet du Pans analyses illustrated how ill-prepared for republican
self-government the French people were in 1789. Whereas prudence demands
gradual reform, the Revolutionaries demanded radical liberties that were entirely
incommensurate with their compatriots moral development. Reason, wisdom
and virtue always follow a middle path, but foolishness and wickedness call
from beyond this middle path, towards an unhappy alternative.91 Because the
Revolutionaries hoped to condense the slow process of Enlightenment into a

Friedrich Gentz, Mallet du Pan uber die franzosische Revolution, in Gentz, Gesammelte
Schriften, 6: 267, 284.
Gentz, Mouniers Entwicklung, 2: 9.
Mallet du Pan, Considerations, 1415; cf. Gentz, Mallet du Pan uber die franzosische
Revolution, 546, 166.
Gentz, Mallet du Pan uber die franzosische Revolution, 272.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 61

single instant, their principles became self-defeating. As Mallet du Pan put it,
the Revolution, like Saturn, devoured its own children.92
With his essay in the Monatsschrift and his translations of Mounier and Mallet
du Pan, Gentz hoped to vindicate the reformist vision of Enlightenment that Kant
had defended in the 1780s. Wise political leadership; a well-balanced constitution;
a moral, self-governing peoplethese, Gentz insisted, are prerequisites for
implementing the rights of man in practice. Throughout the mid-1790s, reports
from abroad seemed to prove his point. In Paris, the toll of guillotined ennemis du
peuple continued to rise, while across Europe Revolutionary armees du liberation
wrought havoc upon Frances neighbors. The Revolutionaries conquest of the
Netherlands in early 1795 intimidated the Prussian government, and prompted it
to agree to an armistice with France at the Peace of Basel in April. Kant saw this
entente as a chance to clarify his stance on the Revolution, and responded to his
critics in a tract entitled Perpetual Peace. As in Theory and Practice, Kant did
not explicitly cite Gentz as his interlocutor in this essay, but the surviving evidence
indicates that Gentz was among his chief targets. It is certain that Kant read Gentzs
Response to Herr Prof. Kant, which the editor of the Monatsschrift mailed
him in 1794.93 Just as Theory and Practice contained an allusion to Gentzs
translation of the Reflections, Kant placed a conspicuous reference to Mallet du
Pans Considerations in Perpetual Peace.94 Perhaps most tellingly, however, he
dedicated a substantial portion of his essay to the relation between philosophical
reason and political prudence. Throughout the 1790s, none of his interlocutors
made this relation more central to their political thought than Gentz.95
In Perpetual Peace, Kant reiterated his support for the revolutionaries
principlesa constitution based upon the principle of the freedom of the
members of a society . . . their common dependence upon a shared legal authority
. . . and their mutual equality [is] the only constitution that proceeds from the
pure idea of the original contractand applauded their attempt to craft a
rational constitution for their nation.96 But his essay also made an important
concession to Gentz. In 1793, Kant had rejected Gentzs case for a union of pure
reason and prudential statecraft as self-contradictory. But in the aftermath of the
Terror, he was prepared to admit the possibility of a moral politician . . . who
takes the principles of political prudence in such a way that they can coexist with
morals. With clear reference to the Revolutionaries, he voiced concern about
despotizing moralists whose principles are just but who offend in various ways

Mallet du Pan, Considerations, 63.
See Johann Biester to Kant, 4 March 1794, in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, 9: 49092.
See Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 353; for discussion see below.
For Kants other interlocutors see Maliks, Kants Politics, passim.
Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 34950, translation mine.

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62 jonathan green

against political prudence.97 These passages mark the first positive references to
prudence (Klugheit) in Kants corpus. With Gentz, he was now willing to admit
that since severing the bond of civil . . . union even before a better constitution
is ready to take its place is contrary to all political prudence, statesmen must be
allowed to wait to reform their nations constitution until the people [is] fit to
legislate for itself.98 It is rational, in other words, to act prudently.
Kant contrasted the idea of a moral politician with the image of a political
moralist who frames morals to suit the statesmans advantage and who invokes
sophistical maxims to elide his moral duties.99 This distinction reflected almost
verbatim a passage from Gentzs article in the Monatsschrift. Here, Gentz had
decried empirical charlatans who appeal to prudence to excuse injustice. No
constitution, he wrote, can contradict [Kants] theory of politics, which is
wholly rooted in the concept of duty:

The statesman who renounces this theory . . . is not only a despicable politician, but
also consigns himself to grasp eternally at unstable, superficial and elusive precepts of
governance, since he has foolishly abandoned the one idea that can offer him safety on his
dangerous path.100

Kant and Gentz agreed, in other words, that if the purpose of the state is the
protection of its subjects rights, the exigencies of political prudence cannot
override the normative demands of reason: the state must be preserved so that
subjects rights can be upheld. But how, exactly, were the dictates of prudence to
be determined? On this question, Gentz and Kant diverged. For Gentz, prudence
demands a historical understanding of how, in practice, political order functions.
The lessons that such historical study generates will, in turn, dictate the conditions
under which the normative rights of men can be enacted: a nations constitution
must be well balanced, its people must be morally responsible, the transition to
liberty must be gradual, and so on. For Gentz, in other words, pure reason requires
an empirical, external check on its normative, totalizing demands in order to be
made practicable. Blindly following reasons dictates will only undermine the
state and lead to anarchy.
As Kant made clear in Perpetual Peace, this was a vision of reason that he would
not endorse. Morality is . . . a sum of laws commanding unconditionally . . .
how we ought to act. It would be absurd to grant this concept of duty its rightful
authority, but then claim that we cannot fulfil it. That would remove the concept

Ibid., 373.
Ibid., 372.
Ibid., 372, 374.
Gentz, Nachtrag, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 53.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 63

of duty from morality altogether.101 What role, then, did Kant afford prudence
in his political thought? As in Theory and Practice, he sidestepped Gentzs
historicism by arguing that the basic lessons of prudence are not derived from
experience, but are accessible to all rational agents a priori. Embedded in the
structure of moral reason, he explained, there exist permissive laws of reason
that allow a situation of public right afflicted with injustice to continue until
everything has either . . . become ripe for a complete overthrow or has been
made almost ripe by peaceful means. Is it not obvious, he argued, that some
form of a rightful constitution . . . is better than no constitution at all, which is
the inevitable result of premature reforms?102 Though Kant said little about how
statesmen should distinguish between mature and premature conditions for
reform, he was confident that recognizing this difference did not require the
comprehensive historical study that Gentz demanded. Moderation, for Kant, was
rooted in a conceptual grasp of the demands of reason. Political wisdom urges
itself upon us of its own accord, so to speak, is clear to everyone, and puts all
artifices to shame, he wrote; moreover it leads straight to the end, but with
the reminder of prudence not to draw toward it precipitately by force but to
approach it steadily as favourable circumstances arise.103 Unlike Gentz, Kant
saw prudence as a principle internal to reason, not one that needed to be foisted
upon it from outside. This gave him a convenient rationalization of the Terror:
if Robespierre and the Jacobins had been acting rationally, the republicanization
process in France would have been considerably more moderate and judicious.
This faith in the inherent moderation of reason helps explain Kants dismissive
stance toward Gentzs version of Mallet du Pans Considerations. In this work,
Gentz had expended considerable effort to show that state order can only be truly
secured by wise rulers who are sensitive to their subjects needs. But in Kants
mind, this argument was self-evident a priori. Was it really necessary to observe
the course of the Revolution, he asked sarcastically, to see that good states will be
guided by good statesmen?

In his pompous but empty language, Mallet du Pan boasts of having at last, after many
years of experience [Erfahrung], discovered the truth of Popes famous saying: For forms
of government let fools contest; whateer is best administered is best. If this means that the
best-administered government is the best-administered, Mallet du Pan . . . has cracked a
nut that rewarded him with a worm. If he means that the best-administered government
is also the best governmenti.e., the best constitutionthen it is entirely false . . . 104

Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 370, translation mine.
Ibid., 374, translation mine.
Ibid., 378.
Ibid., 353, translation mine.

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64 jonathan green

At the same time, Kants attempt to sublimate prudence up into his rationalist
political vision helps explain his announcement, at the end of Perpetual Peace,
that the final touchstone of a just political practice is the adage fiat iustitia, pereat
mundus.105 Since the early nineteenth century, Kants detractors have cited this
passage as evidence of his idealistic, utopian and ultimately destructive approach
to politics.106 While there is a kernel of truth in this argumentKant clearly
intended this citation as a provocative statement of his political rationalismin
its original context, his intended meaning was less polemical than ironic. If
statesmen are truly pursuing justice, Kant believed, the contingent world of
politics will not, in fact, perish. Regressing into an anarchic state of nature
contradicts the most basic demands of reason. This meaning is clear from his
odd, non-literal translation of the Latin maxim: let justice reign, even if all
the rogues [Schelme] in the world should perish.107 These rogues, and only
these rogues, would perish, according to Kant, because prudence is intrinsic
to a rational approach to politics. In order to realize the demands of justice in
practice, all that is necessary is fidelity to principle.

In one sense, Kant saw Enlightenment as a necessarily prudential process. At
a deeper level, however, his facile understanding of prudence ignored the thrust
of Gentzs critique. Gentzs point was simple: Kants a priori account of right
presupposed state order, but it offered him few resources for explaining how such
order could be constructed and maintained in practice. In the happy years of
Frederick the Greats reign, this incongruity was inconspicuous. But in the early
1790s, as Kants worries about the destabilizing potentialities of Enlightenment
were vividly realized, the practical impotence of his theory became more
pronounced. For Gentz, the very survival of Enlightenment depended on the
preservation of state order. This meant that political theorists needed to turn their
attention away from abstract questions of right, towards the empirical conditions
for political stability. Absent such a turn, the rights of man would remain at best
an empty ideal, and at worst a goad to further violence and suffering.

Ibid., 378. Kants slogan does not have ancient roots; Manliuss Loci Communes (1563) cites
it as the motto of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (r. 155864), which seems the
likely antecedent for Kants usage.
See, for instance, Heinrich Heine, Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in
Deutschland (1835), trans. Terry Pinkard as Concerning the History of Religion and
Philosophy in Germany (Cambridge, 2007), 79.
Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 378, translation mine. Kant had other reasons for trusting
that his principles would ultimately lead to a more just world; these include his rational
theology, his belief in historical progress, and his account of the unsocial sociability
inherent in human nature.

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kant, gentz, and enlightenment 65

What Gentz perceived, in other wordsand what made Kants endorsement

of the Revolutionaries naive republicanism so disconcerting to himwas
that Enlightenment is a process that is necessarily more complex than simply
deducing, then enacting, a normative catalogue of rights. Such a moralized
political practice will lead not to a just state, but to the injustice of a stateless
anarchy. Political theorists, therefore, must balance the demands of justice
against the need for order. As Gentz put it in his Response to Herr Prof. Kant,
To combine a steadfast commitment to respect the sovereigns authority, even if this
power should be found in the worst possible hands, with a diligent and steadfast zeal for
the improvement of ones nation, a zeal that does not falter . . . even after unsuccessful
attempts at reformthis is the true character of enlightened patriots [aufgeklarten
Patrioten] in every nation, in every age, and in every stage of civilization.108

In the wake of Kant and Gentzs debate, the challenge of reconciling liberty
and order came to occupy a central place in early nineteenth-century political
thought. Even Fichte, perhaps Kants most radical student, would concede
by 1807 that while the doctrine of the rights of man and liberty and natural
equality are the eternal and immutable foundation of all [just] social order,
a mere grasp of these principles hardly licenses a political theorist to found
or administer a state.109 A century later, Weimar political theorists turned to
Gentz for an antidote to the excesses of liberalism in their own day. Hannah
Arendt, for instance, admired him as an exponent of the conservative wing
of the Prussian Enlightenment. Carl Schmitts Political Romanticism offered
a similarly positive review of Gentz, painting him as a critic of both naive,
idealized liberalism and effete, reactionary sentimentalism.110 As both Arendt
and Schmitt recognized, Gentzs vision of a prudential Enlightenment amounted
to an attempt to disentangle Kants political vision from the tainted legacy of
the Revolution, and to overcome the gap between morality and politics that the
Terror had so shockingly exposed. Yet sadly, this was a vision of Enlightenment
which, in the last analysis, Kant left Gentz to defend alone.

Gentz, Nachtrag, in Gentz, Gesammelte Schriften, 667.
J. G. Fichte, Uber Machiavelli als Schriftsteller (1807), in Fichte, Gesamtausgabe der
Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 42 vols. (Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt, 1962
2012), 9: 245. For Fichtes own attempt to harmonize the principles of right with
the harsh realities of eighteenth-century power politics see Isaac Nakhimovsky, The
Closed Commercial State: Perpetual Peace and Commercial Society from Rousseau to Fichte
(Princeton, 2011).
Hannah Arendt, Friedrich von Gentz: Zu seinem 100. Todestag am 9. Juni, Kolnische
Zeitung, 8 June 1932; repr. in Arendt, Reflections on Literature and Culture, ed. Susannah
Gottlieb (Stanford, CA, 2007), 317; Carl Schmitt, Politische Romantik (1919), trans. Guy
Oakes (Cambridge, MA, 1986).

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