Tatiana Rumyantseva. The Hegelian idea of moral significance of wars versus the Kantian idea of perpetual peace

In my speech, I would like to focus your attention on the alternative ideas of Kant’s project of “eternal peace” and to show how and why his closest followers, beginning from Fichte, abandoned the ideal of perpetual peace, and came to a conclusion about the legality of wars, and not only those which are conducted in order to achieve the national independence and to protect the people from the outside expansion, but also to establish the “natural boundaries of the State.” It is not accidental that the Soviet philosopher

M. Mamardashvili wrote about this fact the following: after Kant “the epoch of German philosophy has begun, which is, in fact, the ugly epoch of the so-called “National philosophers”, that is, the ideologists” (Mamardashvili, 1991, s. 121).

Of course, this fact refers mostly to Hegel, rather than to Fichte. The latter in his famous speeches advocated mostly the idea of the liberation war in the besieged Germany. What concerns Hegel, he actually understood the Kantian perpetual peace as “completely unrealistic” and criticized it already in his early work of 1802 “On the methods of scientific investigation of natural law”, then in “Phenomenology of Mind”, “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences” and, of course, in “Philosophy of Right”. This German philosopher proposed his own idea of the legality, necessity and moral value of wars, considering them as an “irreplaceable means of preserving the spiritual substance and moral health of na¬tions”, as a tool that protects them “from decay, which is certainly a consequence of the prolonged and more eternal peace”.

1. Let’s start with “Phenomenology of Mind”. In the section on morality: (Sittlichkeit) (Government, War, Negative power) Hegel tried to reveal the deep roots of wars. He does this by identifying the “needs of the real mind reflected into himself”. Being in a state of the government this real mind gives, on the one hand, the personal and economic independence to the isolated individuals and their families, and, on the other hand, it tends to subordinate them to the universal. “To prevent the latter from being rooted in the isolation, and to prevent the whole from falling apart, the government has to shake people from time to time by means of the war, which would break and upset the established order and the right to independence”. In this way “spirit wards off its descent out of ethical life and into merely natural existence, and it sustains and elevates the self of its consciousness into freedom and into its force” (Gegel, 1992, § 454). All in all, already in this work the war becomes one of the principal presumptions of the whole Hegelian philosophy — the encroachment on the intrinsic value of individuality that he without hesitation sacrifices in the name of the universal. Love towards the universal and comprehension of the State as “an independent force, in which individuals are just small parts of it” resulted with the necessity in Hegel’s understanding of the role and importance of war, making him “a hostage of his own system.” However, one can find no slightest hint at the Kant’s idea of eternal peace in the “Phenomenology of Mind”. What concerns the theme of the war, Hegel devotes to it just a couple of lines of the text at all.

2. I do not discuss here separately the third part of “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences,” in which Hegel also brings out a number of quite notorious statements about the war. Since mostly all of them are presented in a more detailed form in his “Philosophy of Right”, I suggest that we should proceed to the consideration of this Hegel’s work. It is here that Hegel tries for the first time to disprove Kant’s idea of an eternal peace.

As in “Phenomenology of Mind,” Hegel deploys here his dialectics of the universal and the individual. This dialectics is closely connected to the doctrine of a State and its sovereignty, where the State being ideal, free and moral entity acquires the status of the absolute power over the whole individual and the final — life, property and the rights of individual citizens. Out of this he deduces the position of the high “moral moment of war”, because “war is not to be regarded as an absolute evil and as a purely external accident.” Only an “the finite — property and life” can be accidental, “everything is mortal and transient” (Gegel, 1990, § 324). By the “agency” of war, “the ethical health of peoples is preserved in their indifference to the stabilisation of finite institutions… corruption in nations would be the product of prolonged, let alone ‘perpetual’, peace” (Gegel, 1990, § 324).

Thus, it is almost in the Nietzsche’s manner that Hegel identifies the true ethic with the health, morality with political hygiene, and the right with force. So, according to Hegel wars can be identified as:

a) a necessary tool to protect the sovereignty of the State;

b) a necessary tool to preserve the moral health of the citizens, for the wars are in the very nature of things, they establish an accidental nature of all the final and temporary and only due to them a separate human life is capable to rise to a high cause of freedom and morality;

c) wars, finally, prevent internal troubles and strengthen the State power by relieving nations from the internal contradictions.

Hegel outputs the right of States to go on the warpath from the absolute sovereignty of the State, ignoring any principles of international law or any settled treaties. Unlike Hegel Kant proposed the establishment of permanent Congress of States or the Federation, where each individual state would recognize the presence of the supreme authority. This very supreme authority would have solved all disputes by the arbitral tribunal and prevented therefore the war. Hegel denies the possibility of the existence of such an international body. That’s why all the disputes are often resolved only by war (Gegel, 1990, § 333). The external right has the character of requirements or imperative, which takes place until the States themselves want it. Hegel thus strongly rejects any opportunity to realize the idea of peace. In his opinion, the only thing that becomes possible is to reduce the costs of war. He calls upon States to prosecute the war according to international law and to avoid barbarous and cruel methods that can damage unarmed citizens. Hegel believes that despite of the fact that the war always brings the conditions of lawlessness and violence, there must be still the principles of mutual recognition between states as well as the transient nature of war and the possibility of peace. However, such appeals sounds utopian, for the only supreme governor in the settlement of relations between states remains, according to Hegel, “the universal world spirit being in itself and for itself”. The only arena of this spirit becomes the world history, which determines the fate of nations.

There was a time when a Soviet researcher A. Gulyga insisted that Hegel’s ideas about the war expressed in the “Philosophy of Right” were not his final word. Indeed, a few years before his death Hegel devoted a number of paragraphs on the peace treaties between states in the second, revised edition of “Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences” (§ 545—547), “which should have an “eternal significance”. He wrote that it was international law that had to limit the actions of some people against others establishing thus possible peace. But taking into consideration his previous notorious judgments, these statements would not receive a wide circulation in the philosophical literature about Hegel; they would hardly be mentioned while discussing his socio-political doctrine.

It is much more difficult to show the reasons for such a significant difference between Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophical views on this point than to show just the opposite sides of their views. Very often one can find the explanation of Hegel’s so-called antipacifism and his statements about a “high moral significance of wars” in his “servility”, i. e. in serving the interests of the militaristic spirit of the Prussian Kingdom. However it does not mean, that we should reject the “great affinity and the internal agreement of the Prussian State with the Hegel’s philosophy” (Gajm, 2006, s. 294). Unlike Kant, Hegel lived in the epoch of the “great wars” and many European thinkers, including Hegel, understood the war as a liberation point in which, as they believed, could not but manifest itself the “moral force of the spirit in all its energy”. The war destroyed the old world order and scheduled a certain progress in history. In his youth works one can observe Hegel (“The first program of German idealism”, 1796) still advocating the “disappearance” of the State and criticizing the attitude to people as to “mechanical gears”, considering the idea of eternal peace as a “subordinated to a higher idea of freedom”. However, after the defeat of Napoleon, when the period of restoration in Prussian State had started, Hegel changed his views. He tried to justify philosophically the validity of State intervention into the free initiative of citizens in the private relationships. Moreover, he started to explain the nature of wars in a different light. Unlike Kant, who looked far into the future, Hegel seemed to “come down” to the earth constructing his absolute idealism in the “concrete concepts” of the Prussian reality. The origins of Hegel’s interpretation of war can be found not only in the peculiarities of the historical epoch but also in his dialectical method. Looking upon the honorable father of the ancient dialectics, who understood the war as a “father and king of all things,” Hegel spread the idea of the unity and struggle of the opposites on the whole world, understanding it as a driving force of the history. It is the war that became a kind of manifestation of this struggle of the opposites, the instrument of the progressive development by which the State maintains its true sovereignty.

Today, many people believe that the development of mankind (what Hegel would call its “empirical history”) was largely consonant with his political philosophy, implementing his ideas about the role of wars in the age of assertion of the absolute spirit.

A number of trends in the modern era witnesses that the processes of globalization may well be described in terms of his political philosophy. As an example one can observe the events of two World Wars and the recent history of the XXI century — Iraq, Libya, and now Syria and Iran. The elimination of the conflicts, that is in Hegel’s language an “objectification of forms of law and liberty”, are carried out by the same “power” means or in other words by military ones.

Of course, this speech was not intended to protect the Hegelian understanding of the war and peace, for every reasonable mind will always choose the point of view of Kant’s “eternal peace”. However, in my opinion, it would still be appropriate to understand the essence of the so-called “Hegel’s alternative”, its origins, subsequent dissemination and influence, because many of his ideas (identification of morality with the health and hygiene policy, the right with the force, etc.) have found, alas, their supporters in the nineteenth and twentieth century. They made their way much further than Hegel, claiming the war as the highest manifestation of the spiritual power of the people, as a more perfect form of a state activity, etc., where the nation and the state would constitute themselves as something united by the common enemy threat including the military one.

The bibliography

  • Gajm R. 2006: Gegel’ i ego vremja. SPb.
  • Gegel’ G. V. F. 1972: Pervaja programma sistemy nemeckogo idealizma, in: Raboty raznych let. V 2 t. Т. 1. М
  • Gegel’ G. V. F. 1978: О naučnych sposobach issledovanija estestvennogo prava, in: Političeskie proizvedenija. М.
  • Gegel’ G. V. F. 1992: Fenomenologija ducha. SPb.
  • Gegel’ G. V. F. 1990: Filosofija prava. М.
  • Mamardašvili М. К. 1991: Kantianskie variacii, in: Kvintessencija: Filosofskij al’manach. М.: Politizdat. S. 120—158.
  • Rumjanceva Т. G. 2009: Fenomen globalizacii v kontekste političeskoj filosofii Gegelja, in: Sovremennoe russkoe zarubež’e: Antologija.
  • Т. 6: Filosofija. М. S. 525—531.

This text was firstly published in collected articles «Kant’s project of perpetual peace in the context of contemporary politics” (2013):

Rumyantseva Tatiana. The Hegelian idea of moral significance of wars versus the Kantian idea of perpetual peace// Kant’s Project of Perpetual Peace in the Context of Contemporary Politics : proceedings of international seminar/ ed. by A. Zilber, A. Salikov. — Kaliningrad : IKBFU Press, 2013. P. 45 – 50.