Philosophy Political Philosophy

Immanuel Kant: On Perpetual Peace

Among Immanuel Kant’s famous essays is his essay “To Eternal Peace” (alternatively titled “On Perpetual Peace”).  In this essay, published in 1795 right at the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars, Kant follows up on his philosophy of history by offering deep contemplation on the nature of unfolding history and constitutions to peace among nations.  As I mentioned in my explanation of Kant’s philosophy of history, if we can call it that, many liberals are torn between the Hobbesian and Lockean-Kantian strands of liberalism in historicism and international relations.

Kant situates himself in a unique position insofar that his metaphysics and epistemology, and anthropology (ontology) are decidedly different than those philosophers whom are generally regarded in the liberal tradition: Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, La Mettrie, Baron d’Holbach, and so forth (all monists, materialists (or functionally materialists, e.g. Locke), and mechanistic physiologists who are empiricists).  But Kant’s philosophy of history and political theory, at least in international relations, fits well within the liberal tradition—positioning Kant in the realm of Lockean internationalism and federalism rather than world state unionism and homogeneity as in Hobbes and Spinoza.


The essay begins with a reflection as to whether a gravestone marked with the phrase “to eternal/perpetual peace” is satirical or a dream that can become reality.  Kant argues that it is indeed a dream becoming a reality.  At the beginning of the essay, which is quite important, Kant distinguishes between truce and peace.  Truce is a temporary halt to fighting.  Peace implies something lasting, or the hope is that peace is lasting.  Peace treaties have mostly been truce treaties, but there is coming a rational attainment in man that will bring about lasting peace among nations.

The first part of the essay establishes some quintessential moments of consequential ramifications and concerns for deep reflection.  Kant argues that peace comes from war—and again, it is only from these sad and sorry trials and experiences that peace can consummate itself.  Men, in the savage state of nature—which is a state of war—will exhaust itself into peace.  This is the end of nature, and man, having a nature, is in the process of realizing this nature.

Secondly, Kant argues that a state is simply a society of men under constitutional laws.  Particular as they may be with unique traditions and customs, nations are not rooted in land (or territoriality).  Nation states are simply societies of men in union with each other under law.  This does leave the door open for the universal state, which is the universal society, but as Kant argues, this is not the proposition that he articulates—Kant’s world of federal unionism and perpetual peace, much like his philosophy of history, explicitly details particular nations under the bonds of political federalism.  It is a world composed of de facto sovereign states under the de jure unity of a federal constitution and union which binds states together—thereby binding all societies (all men) together.  The distinctive difference in Kant than with the classical liberals is twofold: first, Kant’s human is a social animal and men really do seek these unions rather than resign themselves to such unions out of fear or violent death and competition in the state of nature; second, there is still a degree of control over sovereignty in the form of hospitality as Kant makes clear in his section on hospitality which I will explain at the end of this post.

Third, Kant distinguishes between standing armies and national guards or national militias.  According to Kant, standing armies drive nations to war and are the instrumental expression of humanity’s evil side—the libido dominandi (lust for domination and conquest).  Standing armies drive competition between states for greater military power and glory.  This will eventually exhaust itself in war.  National guards, on the other hand, are citizens trained and prepared to defend their society from aggressors.  Kant believes this to be perfectly legitimate—and it also reflects a less aggressive society insofar that its citizens hold down day jobs and only occasionally train for wars of self-defense which Kant believes are the only legitimate wars to be fought.  Standing armies exist for exploitation and conquest.  National guards (or militias) are merely for the protection of a society against possible aggressors—and there are aggressors who threaten states; Kant may have a rosy-eyed utopian end of history, but he does not have a utopian and rosy-eyed view of humanity.

Fourth, Kant argues that debt economics is a form of conquest and enslavement.  Debts between nations should not be accrued because this is a form of national conquest and absorption.  As Kant writes, societies premised on the importance of money, debt, and commercial interests create “dangerous money power” which can corrupt states and be used as weapons of enslavement and conquest of others.

Fifth, and rather straightforward, constitutional states should not interfere with the constitutions of other states.  In more modern language we can say that Kant is opposed to the idea of regime change through use of economic, or military, leverage (or force).  Rather, what will bind nations together apart from unfortunate conflicts between them, is law.  Law will unite men together as law helps to lead to a world, and society, that men are attempting to build and desire.

Sixth, Kant also lays out conduct for how wars should be conducted when such events occur.  Murders, assassinations, and violation of human treatment of the wounded and prisoners of war, should never occur.  This leads to grievances between states and the resulting “peace” is really only ever a truce as the aggrieved side will want revenge.  War should be civilized insofar that when war ends the parties involved really do seek perpetual peace with one another.

Over the course of history Kant believes this will be the course taken between nation-states.  The eternal peace that will come about over the world will be because of war exhausting into a state of permanent peace.  Standing armies will slowly dissolve and be replaced (if they are replaced) by national militias meant only for self-defense against possible aggressors.  States will cease to interfere with the constitutions of other states.  And states will also cease to use economic leverages against one another (which constitute a form of enslavement).  If these things are not happening, we may nevertheless surmise from Kant the implications of what he has articulated, especially in the realms of political economies, constitutional interference, and what a state (and society) are (e.g. if they are simply societies of men bound by laws and customs or whether there is a component of territoriality involved with the notion of states).


The proceeds to explain the constitutional and societal parameters that would be necessary for perpetual peace to consummate in the world.  Once again, we see the paradox of Kant’s apologetics of war to peace:

The state of peace among men who live alongside each other is no state of nature (status naturalis).  Rather it is a state of war which constantly threatens even if it is not actually in progress.  Therefore the state of peace must be founded; for the mere omission of the threat of war is no security of peace, and consequently a neighbor may treat his neighbor as an enemy unless he has guaranteed such security to him, which can only happen within a state of law.

For Kant, the starting point of human existence, and history, and state of nature, is one of war.  But this state of war is giving way to a state of peace.  This is the rational course of things as men become their natures: peaceful, rational, social, and pleasant beings.  Competition, or war, advances man’s rational faculties.  He comes to terms with his neighbors.  He becomes sociable and amiable with them.  He comes to help them.  That state of war is transcended into the state of peace which is founded by law.

In one of the most important and thought-provoking sections of the essay, Kant argues why republican governments, or republican states (republican societies) are necessary for the state of perpetual peace to commence.  Unlike like many illiterate commentators today, Kant draws a sharp distinction between republics and democracies.

Republican constitutions are balanced, they have separated powers between legislature, executive, and judicial.  This is not merely the separation of powers but the equal checks of power (which have atrophied in many de jure republican states which have become de facto democracies at present).  Insofar that republics have subjects who are citizens and these citizens have input into the direction of their states (hence the “public thing” in a republic), republics are best suited to gauge the real wants of their citizens and act accordingly.  Men instinctively want peace so will not vote to go to war.  The vote is necessary in the legislature, so while the executive may seek war for vainglorious and other such reasons, republican legislatures and citizens can effectively block such temptations.  Other governments, including democracies, cannot (or are less likely).

Kant argues that democracies are inherently despotic.  States based on the idea of “ruleship” (forma imperii in Latin) are exceedingly powerful and lead to oversized executives.  Linguists will note that ruleship: forma imperii, has the cognate imperial—imperialism—within it.  As Kant writes, “Among the three forms of state (or ruleship), that of democracy is necessarily a despotism in the specific meaning of the word, because it establishes an executive power where all may decide regarding one and hence against one who does not agree, so that all are nevertheless not all—a situation which implies a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom.”  Because democracy simply means “rule of the people,” democracies can, and will, always result in the tyranny of the majority over the minority, or the tyranny of plurality over the majority (in multiparty democracies, for instance).  Furthermore, democracies are based not on checks and balances; they may have de jure separated powers, but they have de facto dictatorships in the form of the executives.  These dictators may be term limited (like the American Presidency) but then this is what traditional dictators were all along (especially in the Roman republican era).  Democracy is where the executive runs things.  Because the executive becomes the instrumental force of the rule of the people which sidesteps legislatures and judicial forces.  Those of us alive today, who have been spoonfed the propaganda of liberal democracy, should reflect openly and honestly if Kant is right about this possibility of democracies being inherently despotic and imperialistic in nature.  One can read Raymond Aron’s The Imperial Republic for a more formal philosophical treatise on this subject or Arthur Schlesinger’s The Imperial Presidency for a political take on the subject.

Furthermore, Kant’s world of perpetual peace is a world of nations united under the banner of federalism.  Federalism is the union of nations, rather than a state of nations.  A state of nations, as Kant tells us, is a contradiction.  A state is always singular and particular because it is attached to a specific nation (or society of men).  A union of nations preserves distinctiveness, particularity, and customs and traditions, but these nations agree to bind themselves under a higher law than that of their own nation: the federal union.  Kant argues that this federalism of nations would be a pacific union (as in pacifistic).

Here also critiques Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf in particular, and Kant’s primacy of law and duties over rights is also a worthwhile subject of reflection.  Hugo Grotius, one of the preeminent early liberals (early seventeenth-century writing around the same time as Francis Bacon), published a work generally translated into English as The Rights of Nations.  Kant argues that “rights” leads to war—people go to war over assertions of rights.  Law, which is superior to rights, keeps everything in order and allows for peace to come about.  Law is greater, and more important, than rights.  Law is what establishes viable rights, (for in the unrestricted state of nature we can be said to have all the rights in the world but this is meaningless as it is a state of war without personal, or collective, restraint) but insofar that laws establish our rights that means rights are subservient to law.  When rights are placed above law we essentially return to that unrestricted liberty of the state of nature which is a state of war because no one has restraint.

Lastly, Kant’s world of perpetual peace is dependent upon universal hospitality.  This hospitality must include extension to the foreigner, but this does not mean the foreigner is off the hook so to speak.  Kant makes clear that foreigners also are included in the burden of hospitality, insofar that they must not treat their hosts with hostility, respect standing laws and customs in the societies that they now find themselves in.  The hosts of foreigners should not confuse travelers and guests as invaders.  As long as they are not hostile the hosts should extend as much courtesy and hospitality to foreigners as possible.  In Kant’s own words, “Therefore hospitality (good neighborliness) means the right of the foreigner not to be treated with hostility when he arrives upon the soil of another.  The native may reject the foreigner if it can be done without his perishing, but as long as he stays peaceful, he must not treat him hostilely.”  Because man is a social animal, the burdens of hospitality fall on both sides.  Native populations should not regard visitors or foreigners with hatred and hostility.  But foreigners should be peaceful and respect the laws and ways of the different societies they find themselves; if foreigners do not comply then native populations have every permission to exclude them from their hospitality, but if foreigners are not doing anything wrong and remaining peaceful and pleasant, then the burden is on the native populations to treat foreigners with dignity and hospitality.

Seeing that men are becoming more sociable, and therefore peaceful, and because the world (at least in Kant’s time) was republicanzing (Dutch Republic, United States of America, French Republic, etc.), Kant felt perpetual peace was not a wild fantasy but a very real possibility.  Perpetual peace has cosmopolitan intent.  It is the consummation of universal nature through particular nations in the form of a federal union.

Whether we feel Kant to be right, partly right, or completely wrong, concerning the possibility of perpetual peace, the essay also highlights many additional philosophical questions that should concern us.  Kant’s reflection on the nature of democracy is one.  His reciprocal ethic of hospitality is another: a good host is obliged only insofar as he has a good guest.  Is it true that standing armies are inherently aggressive in nature and that only citizen militias or similar national guards are defensive in nature?  Are republics, that is, the union of citizen power with the separated checks and balances of legislature, executive, and judicial, really the best form of government?  Kant’s essay may be an extension of his philosophy of history made more manifestly clear, but many of his side commentary and concerns therein, are still deeply relevant outside of the realm of international relations and the philosophy of history.

In summary, Kant’s world historical movement towards perpetual peace is founded on several key premises.  First is the proliferation of law and republican government and with it, manageable freedom which produces conducive, relatively peaceful, and pleasant lives.  Second, the rise of states (societies) is making humans more sociable.  Third, though an unfortunate necessity, humanity and human reason is learning from the sorry experiences of war which are bringing people closer and closer together in union with one another in lasting friendship, hospitality, and peace.  Fourth, the closer union of nations (the closer nations are becoming) is transforming the relationships of states under law; the new growth of these socio-political changes being federalism and federalism will be the end of history state of political governance.  Fifth, standing armies will decrease in size and be replaced—if replaced—by national militias.  Sixth, people are being transformed from subjects to citizens wherein citizenship—the highest expression of human relationality, ethics, and sociability in society and under the law—is creating lasting bonds between peoples and nations.  Kant’s world heading toward perpetual peace is a world federalist union of nations under a universal (federalist) system of law.  The heart of Kant’s philosophy is the philosophy of rational law.  Written nearly a decade after his short essay on the philosophy of history, one can see how Kant’s “Idea of Universal with Cosmopolitan Intent” is clearly serving as a foundation for this essay.

This essay was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 11 June 2018.


Support Wisdom:

My Book on Plato:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: