The Theology of War: Bastille Day Reflections on Kant and Maldonado-Torres
Posted on July 15, 2017
Yesterday I finished reading Nelson Maldonado-Torres’ excellent book Against War, and it seems appropriate that on Bastille Day I should gather together some thoughts about its resurrection of the ideal of fraternity, the continually neglected term of the famous trinity of values of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. As Maldonado-Torres points out, liberty and equality are typically posed as mutually exclusive terms, and this incompatibility informs the deadlock of our two main political ideologies, the defenders of individual liberty (and therefore social inequality) against the defenders of social equality (and therefore individual unfreedom). While people have been having it out vociferously about which value is more fundamental, fraternity has been forgotten, and along with it, liberty and equality. This is to say: liberty, equality, and fraternity represent a true trinity, an indivisible triad. This suggests that by articulating the true nature and function of fraternity we will achieve a fresh perspective on what really counts as liberty and what really counts as equality.
Among the many promising arguments Maldonado-Torres makes in this book is the claim that colonialism represents the ultimate ossification of a false understanding of fraternity: colonialists conceive of themselves as a community of masters, at the expense of those they dominate, and appear justified precisely because they mutually reassure one another that this arrogation of godlike supremacy is rational. They are able to do so through what Maldonado-Torres calls “the paradigm of war,” that is, the idea that war is the natural way of the world, and since to the victor go the spoils, the winners of history get to construct the history of modernity as a story of successive kinds of conquistadors bringing successive kinds of civilization to the uncivilized. Peace, and those civilizations that have figured out how to maintain it, do not count as belonging in the “legitimate” human brotherhood, the pseudo-fraternity of the masters.
Using an analysis by Levinas, Maldonado-Torres spells out how Hitler’s warmongering on the basis of the cockamamie idea of an Aryan master race is just the logical conclusion of classical bourgeois liberalism, which up to that point had the good manners to colonize people outside of Europe. I would argue that this finds clear confirmation in the way many French revolutionaries reacted to their Haitian slaves asserting their own independence: with hypocritical lip service, frosty indifference, and outright intimidation. Initial support for the Haitians against “the aristocracy of the skin” gave way to military suppression. The issue of racial hierarchy is no accident here, for close historical analysis shows that medieval xenophobia rested upon the baptized/pagan distinction, but modern Eurocentric “progress” came about through the transformation of this discrimination into terms of race (which, unlike baptism, came to be thought of as innate, irreversible, and irredeemable).
Race emerges within a permanent state of exception where forms of behavior that are legitimate in war become a natural part of the ordinary way of life. In that world, an otherwise extraordinary affair becomes the norm and living in it requires extraordinary effort. In the racial/colonial world, the “hell” of war becomes a condition that defines the reality of racialized selves, which Fanon referred to as the damnés de la terre (condemned of the earth). The damné (condemned) is a subject who exists in a permanent “hell,” and as such, this figure serves as the main referent or liminal other that guarantees the continued affirmation of modernity as a paradigm of war. The hell of the condemned is not defined by the alienation of colonized productive forces, but rather signals the dispensability of racialized subjects, that is, the idea that the world would be fundamentally better without them.
As I read Maldonado-Torres here, I cannot help but think of a particularly repugnant passage in one of Kant’s minor works, one that is often overlooked, but that reveals quite a great deal about his idea of inequality as the motor of historical progress. I will have to condense a lot of it here, but Kant’s basic idea is this: since individuals can only achieve so much moral progress before they die, it falls to the human species to make progress, and what drives us to make it is our competition with one another—the very thing that compels us to deceive, cheat, exploit, dominate, humiliate, enslave, and wage war on one another. Kant calls this phenomenon “unsociable sociability”—a phrase he borrows from Montaigne to mean that we cannot do without each other and yet we keep trying to outdo each other. Unsociable sociability, however much it reeks as a corruption in our souls, drives us on to great feats of economic, cultural, and geopolitical derring-do.
The interconnectedness that colonialism and capitalism gradually produce will eventually tie each individual’s economic self-interest up so thoroughly in every other person’s around the globe that it will simply not be profitable to wage war anymore, and we will enjoy perpetual peace throughout a cosmopolitan world-whole. In case you missed it, Kant is arguing that while it isn’t pretty, we will achieve peace through war. “The human being wills concord; but nature knows better what is good for his species: it wills discord. He wills to live comfortably and contentedly; but nature wills that out of sloth and inactive contentment he should throw himself into labor and toils, so as, on the contrary, prudently to find out the means to pull himself again out of the latter.”
The first thing I’d like to note about this is how much Kant’s philosophy of history is at odds with his moral theory: for Kant, no end, not even one as noble as world peace, could justify the mistreatment of a single individual. As Kant bases his “rational faith” on his moral theory, and even at one point calls human rights “the apple of God’s eye,” it is flagrantly self-contradictory for him to praise the plan of “Nature” (= divine Providence) for ingeniously manipulating individuals to work for peace through war. What can explain such a systematic thinker’s inconsistency on this point? Part of the story, I think, has to be Kant’s view of non-Europeans, a view that comes out in his response to a book by one of his former students, Johann Gottfried Herder’s Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity. Even though Herder’s book and Kant’s review of it came out before the Groundwork’s celebrated categorical imperative to never treat a human being merely as a means to an end, it is precisely this sort of instrumentalization of individuals for the progress of the human species that Herder finds morally and theologically objectionable:
Is it possible that thousands were created merely for the sake of one? That all past generations were created merely for the last? That all individuals were created merely for the species, that is, for the image of an abstract name? The omniscient Creator does not play games in this way! God does not create abstract, shadowy illusions. God loves and cares for each of his children with paternal affection, as if each creature were the only one in the world. All of his means are ends. All of his ends are means to higher ends whereby the infinite most richly reveals himself.
Herder went on to take issue with Kant’s defense of social inequality as a necessary feature of the antagonism that drives human progress, for Kant said “the human being is an animal which, when it lives among others of its species, has need of a master.” Herder called this denial of freedom an evil thing to say. Completely ignoring Herder’s moral critique that his philosophy of history instrumentalizes the individual, Kant took issue with Herder’s view of all human cultures and peoples as essentially equal:
Does the author [Herder] really mean that if the happy inhabitants of Tahiti, never visited by more cultured nations, had been destined to live for thousands of centuries in their tranquil indolence, one could give a satisfying answer to the question why they exist at all, and whether it would not have been just as good to have this island populated with happy sheep and cattle as with human beings who are happy merely enjoying themselves? That principle is therefore not as evil as the author thinks.
I think I speak for everyone when I say this was not Kant’s proudest moment. The implications are revealing once explicated: Kant’s answer to the charge of justifying domination was to say that some people, specifically people of color, require domination by Europeans in order to rise above the level of the subhuman. Herder sees nature as fundamentally beneficent, a view Kant finds overly sanguine (perhaps with some reason), and so we can see continuity between this passage’s emphasis on self-cultivation and Kant’s contention elsewhere that we do not exist primarily to be happy but to be virtuous.
What is puzzling is Kant’s denial that the Tahitians have any moral dealings with one another, for if they are moral agents who have figured out how to have a society of happiness and peace, then Europeans might have something to learn from them. After all, a pathway to centuries of peace is what Kant is after, or claims to be after, yet he thinks and continues to think that the path to peace is through war, which is simultaneously for him “the destroyer of everything good” and the force that drives people out of savage simplicity and into far-flung corners of the globe to kick-start the process of world-history. Kant thinks the Europeans must dominate the peace of the Tahitians and use them as mere means in order to teach them how to treat themselves merely as means to an end, eventually becoming cultured enough to enter the cosmopolitan world-whole the Europeans are at the forefront of, each individual being a mere means to the end of peace, which the Tahitians already had. This circularity would be comical if the violence it justifies didn’t actually happen, and if Kant didn’t develop a scientific theory of races to justify white supremacism. In any case, it speaks to the numerous self-contradictions Kant tangles himself in for the sake of upholding a racist philosophy of world-history.
Here I think it helps to return to Maldonado-Torres’ point about “the dispensability of racialized subjects, that is, the idea that the world would be fundamentally better without them.” When we read Kant’s bizarre remarks about the Tahitians through this we cannot help but see a clear dovetailing between Kant’s philosophy of historical progress through antagonism and the paradigm of war. Kant thinks that unless the Tahitians suffer in the hell of colonialism and antagonism, their existence would be superfluous, disposable—never mind that it is this unfree social dynamic of inequality that renders them disposable. Only through inhumanity will they become truly human, apparently; apparently, only through their condemnation to the hell of servitude will their descendants attain the enlightenment about the heavenly kingdom of ends. In other words, Kant seems to be predicating the kingdom of ends upon the pseudo-fraternity of the community of masters, which is a strange thing to insist upon for an egalitarian and non-utilitarian like Kant. Above all, Kant treats it as inconceivable that a Tahitian could have anything to teach or offer to Europeans, which dovetails with Maldonado-Torres’ reconstruction of Fanon’s critique of Hegel’s account of recognition in the “master-slave dialectic”:
In contrast to conceptions of the struggle for recognition articulated in terms of cultural identity or in terms of claims for possession and access to goods, Fanon discovered in his exploration of the lived experience of the black that one of the main challenges confronted by blacks in a racial society is not only that they are not recognized as people who can possess things, but that they are not recognized as people who can give things. Demands to be able to give are, in this respect, more radical than demands for possession. The master, under pressure, can allow the slave to have ‘things,’ but he will not recognize that he needs what the slave has. For the master, whatever the slave touches decreases in quality and value. Thus, even if he enters into commerce with the slave, the master will devalue the extent of the slave’s contributions.
In a talk about some of these ideas that I gave at St. John’s College recently, I explored how Kant’s justification for colonialism falls into the trap of reconstructing the very kind of Leibnizian theodicy he criticizes in his moral religion. In Kant’s ethicotheology, much as in Herder’s complaint, God does not treat individuals like puppets or pawns to be shuffled around on a cosmic chessboard with maximal ingenuity. Indeed, I think Kant’s immortality postulate speaks against the utilitarian logic he uses to defend colonialism—there, individual moral progress retains its unconditional value and cannot be collapsed or totalized into the progress of posterity or the human species generally—and I am trying to develop the positive potential of Kant’s moral religion to speak against colonialism and the paradigm of war. I’m still formulating what would be involved in such a disentangling, but surely part of it has to be fleshing out the connection between unconditional individual worth (dignity, as opposed to price) in Kantian immortality and a kingdom of ends defined through genuine fraternity. On this last point, it seems instructive that Kant’s view of the church as an “ethical community” emphasizes how people can interact without unsociable sociability, or at least, the church adheres to its proper role to the degree that it practices sociality without antagonism. Further tasks involved in fleshing this out would be looking deeper into:
- Kant’s account of the social vices of envy, ingratitude, and malice, as well as the apposite social virtues of beneficence, gratitude, and sympathy
- how the duty to self-perfection can and ought to be reframed through these intersubjective virtues so that cultivation of talents cannot justify social establishments defined by the social vices
- how this perpetual process of perfection is possible without war, without slavery, and how it would therefore be impossible to postulate perpetual moral progress without perpetual peace, and vice-versa, postulate perpetual peace without postulating perpetual moral progress
- how the holiness that forms this asymptotic ideal of moral progress in the postulated afterlife is not asocial or antisocial, but in fact fraternal—marked by generosity, gratitude, and sympathy
- how the peace of soul (blessedness) that forms the flipside of holiness is an individuality that is not threatened by the happiness of others (as Kant clearly was with the Tahitians), but builds them up
- how Kant’s famous statement in §59 of the Third Critique that “beauty is the symbol of morality” could be a way of working toward cultivation of amoral and moral potential within human beings without the paradigm of war (sensus communis)
- how Kant’s synergistic conception of grace is necessary to conceive of this progress without the twin pitfalls of discouragement or delusion
I wish to pull out one last point from Maldonado-Torres, on the subject of grace. Maldonado-Torres provides a compelling reconstruction of Enrique Dussel’s identification of Hernán Cortés’ “ego conquiro” rather than Descartes’ “ego cogito” as the fulcrum upon which modernity swings into acquisitive action. It was not in Descartes’ stove-heated room in 1642 that modern individualism and the overthrow of all traditional authority began, but over a century earlier in Cortés’ exploits amidst the tropical heat of Santo Domingo (on the same island we know as Haiti):
For Todorov, the birth of the modern self is dependent upon the awareness of a fundamental difference between the metropolitan country and the colony. The colony is the place where laws are suspended and the warring subjectivity can fully unfold, and where the conqueror even has more freedom than the king himself. Indeed, in a sense, the conqueror’s position was more similar to that of a god than that of either of the two emperors, Charles V or Moctezuma. The conqueror faced an entirely new world, and thus had more freedom in how he would proceed. He did not owe his new position to tradition, nor was he bounded by it as strongly as were the emperors. There was a new margin of freedom and detachment from tradition, accompanied by a power that was not given by God but which originated in an encounter with someone regarded as inferior. This new situation prefigures the idea of a self who is in control of his own destiny and whose authority resides in his own power rather than in the will of an omniscient and all-powerful god. The “I conquer” exhibits key elements of modern subjectivity: a certain distance from established customs, a new sense of freedom, and a particular ambiguity toward God that comes from recognizing him as Lord but at the same time knowing that new earthly lordship does not ultimately rely on His authority.
Lord all that he surveys, the conquistador sees the colonial world as a terra nullius, and himself as godlike in being able to treat the native people as unreal, as a nothingness in which he can create order ex nihilo. If this is not a Satanic usurpation of godhood, I don’t know what is. From an ethicotheological perspective, the “I conquer” of Cortés is like what Christians describe as the Fall. While a defense of Kantian principles of reason and autonomy from their association with Cortés above would be a project in its own right, here I can point out that Kant (as least in his theological mode) would critique Cortés’ do-it-yourself apotheosis and his arrogant refusal of any need for divine help or grace as “moral fanaticism.” The idea of God as the moral law in personal form—in Kant’s Christology, the moral law being personal with us and pulling us up to who we ought to be as persons—retains its morally transformative and socially liberating force, as an ideal transcending all false equivalences and flat equivocations. Nelson Maldonado-Torres sees, much as Enrique Dussel does in his incorporation of Latin American liberation theology into his philosophy, that the thing keeping us down or inculcating us to keep others down is not God per se, but “Imperial Man”:
Along with the concept of Man, ideas of nation, race, and the system or market have also come to fill the space left by God. It is not incidental that general skepticism of God, along with ideas about the “death of God,” emerged precisely when Europe came to be more consistently formed by nation-states in the nineteenth century. ….The nation and the race become central for the identity of Imperial Man as Man, and for the idea of superiority. Then eugenics, phrenology, and the social sciences take the place of religious ideals and creeds in the legitimization of empire. The divinization of the system and the theological dimensions of the market also help to sustain relations of slavery in a world without God. Ideologies such as conservatism and neoliberalism, with their respective beliefs in the preservation of the system or the sustained increase of the market, offer justification to sacrificial modes of relations that assure the position of the master as the one and only lord. To the “egolatrous” projection of Imperial Man to abstract man, the idolatrous relation with the system or market is added as another form of sustaining power and recognition after the “death of God.” In the contemporary world, economy becomes the new theology. The logic of the market likewise becomes a new form of theodicy. It is from here that the life and hunger of millions sustain an inhuman system unconditionally defended by imperial humanity.
As you reflect on the heritage of the French Revolution this Bastille Day, take care that you do not set up an idol of rationalization (“the goddess of Reason”). Instead, reflect on how we can better understand liberty and equality by understanding what fraternity really is—or better yet, by practicing it.
 Immanuel Wallerstein, quoted in Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Against War, p. 71: “If we are to clarify our options and our utopias in the post-1968 world-system, perhaps it would be useful to reread the Trinitarian slogan of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. It has been too easy to pose liberty against equality, as in some sense the two great interpretations of the French Revolution have done, each interpretation championing if you will one half of the antinomy. Perhaps the reason the French Revolution did not produce either liberty or equality is that the major power holders and their heirs have successfully maintained that they were separate objectives. This was not, I believe, the view of the unwashed masses. Fraternity, meanwhile, has always been a pious addition, taken seriously by no one in the whole long post-1789 cultural arena, until in fact 1968…. Fraternity or, to rename it in the post-1968 manner, comradeship is a construction to be pieced together with enormous difficulty, and yet this fragile prospect is in fact the underpinning of the achievement of liberty/equality.” Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 2008.
 Maldonado-Torres capitalizes the “t” in trinitarian even though he is not speaking theologically, but nonetheless we can add from Augustine the point that all trinities can be symbols for the Trinity.
 Maldonado-Torres 63-64.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, p. 139
 Maldonado-Torres 218
 Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim, 8:21, in Anthropology, History, and Education, p. 112
 Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, in Practical Philosophy, 8:353n, 325.
 Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideas Toward a Philosophy of History, in Against Pure Reason: Writings on Religion, Language, and History, trans. and ed. Marcia Bunge. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 1993. P. 53.
 Kant, Universal History, 8:23, 113.
 Kant, Review of J.G. Herder’s Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity, in Anthropology, History, and Education, op. cit. 8:65, 142.
 Kant, Conflict of the Faculties, in Religion and Rational Theology, 7:91, 306.
 Kant, Perpetual Peace, 8:363, 332-333.
 Maldonado-Torres 218
 Maldonado-Torres 149. Much could be done to develop Kant’s account of the social virtue of gratitude along these lines. Kant thinks it is immoral to refuse morally permissible gifts out of the anxiety that doing so will make one “indebted” to the giver; such an anxiety views morality as a zero-sum game, a competition, an antagonism, which fits hand in glove with the other two triplet disorders, envy and malice.
 Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Against War, p. 215
 I’ll have to do more work to reflect on the fact that in Kant’s first reading of the Fall in Conjectural Beginnings of Human History, it is the realization of human dignity as a free being, and of the equal worth of all free beings, that constitutes Adam and Eve’s eyes being “opened” after eating the forbidden fruit. Tellingly, his description of the pastoral beauty and peace of Eden as being on a par with the easygoing lifestyle of rustic peoples matches what he says to Herder, down to the comparison of peaceful people to the subhuman level of sheep. His second reading of the Fall in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is more compatible with the egalitarian potential of his moral philosophy.
 Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Against War, pp. 119-120