He retired from lecturing in 1797 (aged seventy-three), but till 1798 he continued to issue essays on vital themes. Despite his isolation he kept in touch with world affairs. When the Congress of Basel assembled in 1795 to arrange peace among Germany, Spain, and France, Kant took the occasion (as the Abbé de Saint-Pierre had done with the Congress of Utrecht in 1713) to publish a brochure Zum euoigen Frieden (On Perpetual Peace).
He began modestly by describing “eternal peace” as a fit motto for a cemetery, and assuring statesmen that he did not expect them to take him as anything more than a “scholastic pedant who can bring no danger to the state.”79 Then, setting aside as temporizing trivia the articles of peace signed at Basel, he drew up, as a committee of one, “six preliminary articles” outlining the conditions prerequisite to a lasting peace. Article I outlawed all secret reservations or addenda to a treaty. Article II forbade the absorption or domination of any independent state by another. Article III called for the gradual elimination of standing armies. Article IV held that no state might “interfere by force with the constitution of another.” Article VI required that no state at war with any other should “permit such acts of hostility as would make mutual trust, in case of a future peace, impossible, such as the employment of assassins or poisoners, … and the instigation of rebellion in the enemy state.”
Since no durable peace can be made between states that acknowledge no limits to their sovereignty, persistent efforts must be made to develop an international order and so provide a legal substitute for war. So Kant drew up some “definite articles” for a lasting peace. First, “the constitution of every state must be republican.” Monarchies and aristocracies tend to frequent wars, because the ruler and the nobles are usually protected from loss to their lives and property in war, and so engage in it too readily as “the sport of kings”; in a republic “it rests with the citizens to determine whether war shall be declared or not,” and they will bear the consequences; hence “it is not likely that the citizens of a state [a republic] would ever enter on so costly a game.”80 Second, “all international right must be grounded upon a federation of free states.”81 This should not be a superstate; “indeed, war is not so incurably bad as the deadness of a universal monarchy.”82 Each people should determine its own government, but the separate states (at least of Europe) should unite in a confederation empowered to govern their external relations. The ideal never to be abandoned is the practice by states of the same moral code that they require of their citizens. Could such a venture possibly produce more evil than the perpetual practice of international deceit and violence? In the end, Kant hoped, Machiavelli would be proved wrong; there need be no contradiction between morality and politics; only “morals can cut the knot which politics cannot unloose.”83
Kant obviously had delusions about republics (which have joined in the most terrible wars of all); but we should note that by “republic” he meant constitutional government rather than a complete democracy. He distrusted the wild impulses of unchained men,84and feared universal suffrage as the empowerment of unlettered majorities over progressive minorities and nonconforming individuals.85 But he resented hereditary privilege, class arrogance, and the serfdom encompassing Königsberg. He welcomed the American Revolution, which, as he saw it, was creating a federation of independent states along the lines that he had proposed for Europe. He followed the French Revolution with almost youthful enthusiasm, even after the September Massacres and the Terror.
But, like nearly all followers of the Enlightenment, he put more faith in education than in revolution. Here, as in so many fields, he felt the influence of Rousseau and the Romantic movement. “We must allow the child from his earliest years perfect liberty in every respect, … provided that … he does not interfere with the liberty of others.”86 Soon he hedged on this perfect liberty; some measure of discipline, he admitted, is necessary in the formation of character; “neglect of discipline is a greater evil than neglect of culture, for this last can be remedied later in life.”87 Work is the best discipline, and should be required at all stages of education. Moral education is indispensable, and should begin early. Since human nature contains the seed of both good and evil, all moral progress depends upon weeding out the evil and cultivating the good. This should be done not through rewards and punishments, but by stressing the concept of duty.
Education by the state is no better than education by the church; the state will seek to make obedient, pliable, patriotic citizens. It would be better to leave education to private schools led by enlightened scholars and public-spirited citizens;88 hence Kant applauded the principles and schools of Johann Basedow. He deplored the nationalistic bias of state schools and textbooks, and hoped for a time when all subjects would be treated impartially. In 1784 he published an essay, Ideen zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürger-licher Absicht (Ideas for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Standpoint) ; it sketched the progress of mankind from superstition to enlightenment, allowed only a minor role to religion, and called for historians who would rise above nationalism.
Like the philosophes, he warmed his heart with faith in progress, moral as well as intellectual. In 1793 he chided Moses Mendelssohn for saying that every advance is canceled by retrogression.
Many proofs may be given that the human race on the whole, and especially in our own as compared with all preceding times, has made considerable advances morally for the better. Temporary checks do not prove anything against this. The cry of the continually increasing degradation in the race arises just from this, that when one stands on a higher step of morality he sees further before him, and his judgment on what men are, as compared with what they ought to be, is more strict.89
As Kant entered his last decade (1794) his early optimism suffered darkening, perhaps because of reaction in Prussia and the coalition of the powers against Revolutionary France. He retired into himself, and secretly wrote that gloomy Opus postumum which was to be his last testament to mankind.