“The last absurdity of the eighteenth century”
March 23, 2010
Kant’s great rediscovery was that of the Primacy of the Practical Reason, as he called it. It is not in the realm of sense, he believed, that we are all really in touch with absolute objective reality, and certainly not in the realm of the supersensible objects of scientific and metaphysical speculation, but only in the realm of the practical claim that is made upon our wills by the Good. Ultimate reality meets us, not in the form of an object that invites speculation, but in the form of a demand that is made upon our obedience. We are confronted not with an absolute object of theoretical knowledge but with an absolute obligation. We reach the Unconditional only in an unconditional imperative that reaches us. There is here, as it seems to me, most precious and deeply Christian insight. But where Kant erred, and where his eighteenth-century education was too much for him, was in his analysis of this experience into mere respect for a law. The eighteenth century had its obvious limitations — limitations which could not, in fact, be better exemplified than in this proposal to make law at once the primary fact in the universe and the prime object of our respect. Something of this respect for law we can still conjure up as we stroll through the well-ordered palace and gardens of Versailles, or again as we wander at will through the equally well-ordered couplets of Alexander Pope’s poetry; yet between us and both of these experiences stands that Romantic Revival which, in spite of all its regrettable extravagances, has taught us a delight in fera natura of which we shall never again be able entirely to rid ourselves. The reduction of the spiritual life of mankind to the mere respectful acceptance of a formula was, in fact, the last absurdity of the eighteenth century. It is no mere formula with which the sons of men have ever found themselves faced as they approached life’s most solemn issues, but a Reality of an altogether more intimate and personal kind; and respect or Achtung is hardly an adequate name for all the fear and the holy dread, the love and the passionate self-surrender, with which they have responded to its presence. …Kant’s religion remained to the end a mere legalistic moralism plus a syllogism that allowed him to conceive of an eighteenth-century Legislator behind his eighteenth-century law. ‘Thus’, as — to take only one example — he himself most cogently concluded, ‘the purpose of prayer can only be to induce in us a moral disposition….To wish to converse with God is absurd: we cannot talk to one we cannot intuit; and as we cannot intuit God, but can only believe in him, we cannot converse with him.’ [Lectures on Ethics, trans. L. Infield, p. 99.]
Now it seems to me that it is precisely such a sense of converse with the Living God as Kant thus clearly saw to be excluded by his own system that lies at the root of all our spiritual life.