I'm currently working through an anthology of essays by philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. I've just finished "A Philosophical Hermeneutics of Religion: Kant", in which Ricoeur summarizes Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.
Tough slogging? Yes, easily the most difficult of the four Ricoeur essays I've studied so far.
In this post, I'd like to call attention to Kant's view of Church and state, as summarized by Ricoeur. The Church's raison d'être is to effect what the state cannot: the liberation of human beings' bound will.
No political institution can satisfy the requirements of a community devoted to the regeneration of the will. …I agree with Kant's view of the state. I would sum it up in the following propositions:
Historical action can engender only a relative state of public peace, motivated by the antagonism Kant calls our "unsociable sociability." The civil peace we call a state of law is not virtue, but rather an armistice in the war among interests. …
Kant even goes so far as to say in his essay "Perpetual Peace" that "the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils." Establishing peace "does not require that we know how to attain the moral improvement of men but only that we should know the mechanism of nature in order to use it on men … in such a way that they must compel themselves to submit to coercive laws."
For this reason, no political philosophy, and more generally no philosophy of culture, can satisfy the requirement of a community that aims at the regeneration of the will through specific public means.1
- The state cannot accomplish what the Church sets out to achieve: namely, the regeneration of humankind's corrupt will (= the liberation of humankind's bound will).
- The state has a lesser, but still significant (and, I would add, God-ordained) role: to establish social order despite the evil that is always present everywhere among human beings.
- The state employs unethical, coercive means to achieve its end.
The best we are capable of, Kant observes, is an armistice of interests. When we arrive at that modest achievement, we call it "the rule of law".
Kant sums up the state's limited role in his remark about a race of devils. The state does not have the capacity to effect an improvement in humankind's morals. The human will remains corrupt but still the state manages to establish (relative) peace.
The state does so by using the "mechanism of nature" on human beings in such a way that they are compelled to submit to coercive laws. It isn't clear, from Ricoeur's essay, what precisely Kant means by the phrase "mechanism of nature". But I think the gist of the statement is clear: the state assumes wickedness on the part of human beings, and establishes institutions (laws, police forces, courts, jails) to contain wicked conduct within tolerable bounds.
Thus the state is not a benign institution: it employs coercive tactics. Nor, on the other hand, is the state absolutely evil: it responds to a real need (the need to contain human wickedness) and accomplishes a significant good (social order).
The state is a human institution, corrupted by the evil that is always present everywhere among human beings. (So is the Church, as I argued in my earlier post.)
The state may be relatively good or relatively evil; in exceptional cases, it may be extremely good or (more likely) extremely evil; but it is never absolutely good or absolutely evil. Hence Paul could instruct us to submit to the state "not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience" (Ro. 13:5).
[For the crucial importance of the Church as a check on state totalitarianism, see my post on Outside the Box.]
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1Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 89.