Kant, Burke, and the French Revolution

“Liberty Leading the People” by: Eugène Delacroix, 1830

It is by now a cliche that “ideas have consequences.” That notwithstanding, the thinking Christian knows too well that in order to understand ideas, it is not enough to analyze them only a priori. Due to the noetic effect of Adam’s disobedience, as well as the natural limits of reason, some ideas are better exposed and “analyzed” by the test of time. Putting Kant’s politics in context is what Reidar Maliks has done, and whose book this short essay borrows from. Hopefully, the analysis of hindsight provides some insight into Kant for the philosophizing theologian.

The French Revolution was the political background to Kant’s political work. Excited about the French Revolution, it was personal for Kant. For, he knew that his own “Enlightenment” principles were embedded in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which emboldened the revolutionaries’ spirits.

France was, for the Prussian philosopher, a “laboratory” according to Maliks, “that would be the true test of an ideal constitution. He surveyed the events like a scientist with a hypothesis, eagerly awaiting news about the revolution and bringing it up in conversation with friends.” Many of those friends were former students. However, several students turned critics once they came under the “direct influence” of the great orator and father of conservatism, Edmund Burke.

Yet, initially, his former students were content. In fact, Maliks tells us that:

Friedrich Gentz’s December 1790 letter to Christian Garve contained a typical statement: ‘the Revolution constitutes the first practical triumph of philosophy, the first example in the history of the world of the construction of government upon the principles of an orderly, rationally constructed system.’

Not the only former pupil to do so, Gentz switched sides, doing a complete Burkean turn-around.

In fact, Gentz, Rehberg and Herder, “came under the direct influence of Burke,” so much so, in fact, that Gentz later wrote,  that “the philosopher create systems, the rabble forges a murderous weapon from them.”

In the earlier years of Kant’s political theorizing, he was seeking to provide a non-theological justification for political freedom. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that the concept of moral freedom necessarily entails the concept of an external political freedom. This likely may have been connected to the fact that Kant saw the state government as the primary institution that creates and enables our moral freedom. But is the move from metaphysical freedom to political freedom legitimate? Is it (morally) necessary? Suppose that it was, say, before the Fall. Would the loss of moral freedom due to the Fall (which Kant denied) then have consequences in the political sphere?

Maliks explains that “Kant defended freedom as an equal juridical status of independence from the choices of others grounded in an a priori concept of right.” The Burkeans, however, held that the a priori can only provide the form of right, not the content of right. Therefore, the a posteriori must also be involved. It is helpful to see how Kant reasoned, as follows (loosely, since this is based on Robert S. Taylor’s slight development and interpretation of Kant).

       Moral Autonomy      (necessitates)    Political Autonomy
(leads to)                                                        (leads to)
Personal Autonomy   (necessitates)   Civil Autonomy

This is all enthralling. It is clear, therefore, that both egalitarian-liberalism and libertarian-liberalism both find their birth in Kant. The former students turned Burkean-critics responded by rejecting Kant’s rationalism as “a mistaken application of metaphysics to the political domain.”

If this is critique is true, then this is fascinating since Kant himself wanted adamantly to separate practical reason from pure reason (metaphysics) when it came to matters of, say, theology. But at any rate, Gentz and other Burkean conservatives held that Kant’s mistake was a categorical mistake. That is, a non-sequitor; moral freedom does not necessarily entail, either an is or an ought, in the realm of political freedom.

Now we understand more of the liberal-conservative divide. Unlike his students, Immanuel Kant argued that equal political freedom is an “innate human right,”  and that this principle is not necessarily anarchistic, though it means the erosion of old power structures that God created providentially.  Therefore, I submit the following breakdown for public consideration:

Kantians Burkeans
Political principles derived ONLY a priori Political principles derived both/and
Moral freedom entails political Moral freedom does NOT entail political
Political freedom is a universal human right Political freedom is a localized privilege
Government enables moral autonomy and moral self-realization Government’s job is law and order, (justice and continuity) all else flow as by-products of this

For Further Discussion:

Edmund Burke on Compassion on: The Reformed Conservative


The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.

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