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  1. Culture
29 February 2008

Kant and friends

In his final posting, our Kantian reflects on outstanding riddles...

By Dan Harkin

Epicurus died due to a problem with his bladder and so would have done so in great pain. Oddly he didn’t try to find a real point or purpose to his existence. Rather, he thought that humans should be ready to die at any time and consider their lives complete. Kant, however, had a different view. Consider, he said, a man in a repressive society who is forced to take part in a show trial to condemn an innocent man to death. He could either lie and have happiness or he could lie and end up being tortured and properly killed. Morality – doing the right thing – couldn’t consist in people’s individual happiness.

What was his solution to this? He thought the only way we could deal with these problems was for our reason to postulate our endurance and unending existence beyond death. We need this postulate in order to maintain our “moral faith” in a life-long endeavour. Kant is now in a problematic area because he obviously still wants to prioritise reason. So, he squares the circle by saying that traditional beliefs in God coerce individuals to behave morally. His idea of God is simply something that free individuals rationally assent to, so as to sustain their moral efforts throughout their lives.

I appreciate the motivation, but I’m not all that convinced. I do, however, believe that there is something in what Kant is saying. We do need a particular perspective through which we can view our lives and help us in our life-long moral project, giving us succour during the dark times. To close these articles I would like to explain where my thoughts have travelled over the past couple of years, but in order to do so I shall have to leap between two different ideas: Kant’s approach to the sublime and Nietzsche. I do not pretend that everyone with find these ideas satisfactory or easy. None of my sixth formers did. But here goes.

Kant pulls a similar trick with the aesthetic experience of “the sublime” as we’ve just seen him do with God and the soul. For those of you who did more important and useful things at university than some arts degree I will quickly outline: the sublime is the experience of awe and terror humans experience when they encounter things that sublimate them or remind them how tiny they are. Think of huge cliff faces or stormy oceans; think of big and scary things. (Not always big however, I experience the sublime when I think of the genetic tangle that makes a gnat a gnat, because it reminds me of our tininess.) Kant appreciated the sublime but was uncomfortable with the implication that humans lose their sense of reason when confronted with it.

So he argued there were two types of “sublime” experience. There were those where we lose all sense of reason because we’ve just been physically reminded of our own insignificance. And there was another kind of sublime, a rationally induced experience where we deliberately make ourselves experience the sublime to pursue certain goals (namely, morality and beauty). This type of sublime was fine because we have already rationally decided to live a moral life and we have rationally decided to experience something that we help sustain our moral existence.

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I’m going to take a sideways hop now, to Nietzsche. Just as a quick disclaimer, I once made a badge that said, ‘I Don’t Agree with Nietzsche.’ However, he does put forward an idea for why humans still have responsibility in a Godless universe, called “the eternal recurrence”. The most useful way of thinking about the eternal recurrence is to consider whether or not you’d be happy to live your life over again. If you could freely affirm that the shape of your life is one that you would have eternally repeated then you should be ready to die at any moment.

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There are many complexities to this interpretation of the eternal recurrence. In a sense it is a metaphorical “eternal life” because you consider yourself as an ontological construct that exists forever. Because in a sense you are. There will always have been a Daniel Harkin who will have done the things that he did. Am I happy to accept that Daniel Harkin will be so written across eternity? And what I feel when contemplating my existence in this way is an example of the sublime and, futher, the type of sublime Kant thought more than acceptable to rational person.

Drawing together these two ideas, although I haven’t anywhere near solved these riddles yet, I would suggest that you do not need God to provide existential sustenance for the moral project of your life. If God-talk or contemplation of God is any use, then I accept Kant’s basic argument: it cannot be the case that you act morally out of the “fear of God”, rather God-talk and contemplation is useful to provide you with sublime support on your moral journey. But if that is the only use of God-talk and contemplation, why not replace it with something more rationally acceptable. In Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence I see the possibility for a genuine replacement of God.

Contemplating my life in this way has begun to help me take a firm hold of my life-long moral endeavour. And, like Epicurus, I think I am not afraid to die. I consider my life as always complete and yet I do not find its continuation pointless or without meaning. Like Nietzsche, perhaps, I’m happy to consider that I am the poet of my life and the author of my existence; I can affirm my past and look towards my future with joy.

I would like to thank the (simply sublime) Jon Barfield for his significant contribution to these thoughts and for providing me with continuing intellectual sustenance day in and day out.