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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

67. Fulfilling Nature’s Aims

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1In his Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784), Immanuel Kant formulates a series of propositions he sees as having the potential to help man to understand both his individual destiny and world evolution. He ponders the notion of progress and sets out the idea of Nature’s ‘hidden plan’ which should be taken into account in order to arrive at a society of nations guided by moral rules.

2It is possible to consider the history of the human species in general as the execution of a hidden plan of Nature, intended to bring about a constitution which is perfect both internally and, for this very purpose, also externally, as the only condition in which nature can fully develop all its tendencies as they are present in mankind. […]

3The States are now already in such a delicately poised relationship with one another that not one of them can yield in inner cultivation without losing in power and influence with regard to other States; for this reason the preservation of this purpose of Nature, if not actually its progress, is more or less secured by the very ambitions of the States’ intentions. Furthermore: civic freedom can now not very well be encroached upon, without the disadvantages of this making itself felt in all industries – above all, trade – but also in a decrease in the powers of the State in its exterior relations. This freedom is in fact gradually growing. If one prevents the citizen from pursuing prosperity in any way he sees fit provided it can co-exist with the freedom of others, one inhibits the liveliness of general business and in turn, at the same time, the powers of the whole. Hence, the personal restrictions on doing as one pleases are increasingly being lifted, and universal religious freedom is given way to. Thus arises gradually, as delusion and wilfulness recede, Enlightenment, as a great good which the human race, if it only understands what is to its own advantage, must extract even from its rulers’ selfish aims of expansion. This Enlightenment, however, and with it a certain amount of sympathy which the enlightened human being cannot avoid investing in the good that he fully understands, will gradually make its way up to the thrones, and exert influence upon the very principles of government. Although, for example, our world leaders for the moment have no money to spare for State-funded education and for anything at all which pertains to that which is best in the world, because all funds have already been allocated to the coming war, they will still find that it is to their own advantage at least not to hamper the independent efforts of their people in this undertaking, feeble and slow as they are. Eventually war itself will gradually become not only such a contrived undertaking, its outcome so uncertain on both sides, but also such a hazardous one given the long-term consequences which the State suffers in the form of a constantly growing burden of debt (a new invention), which it seems will never be written off; and at the same time the influence which every shock to the State in our part of the world, which is so interconnected by its trade, has on other States will become so noticeable, that, driven by their own insecurity, though without legal standing, they will offer themselves as adjudicators, and thus from afar set everything on the path to becoming a large political body in the future, of which the world so far has no example to put forward. Although this political body is, for now, only present in rough outline, a feeling has nevertheless begun to stir in all its limbs, each of which is concerned with the preservation of the whole. This gives hope that, after several revolutions of reorganisation, that which is Nature’s highest purpose – a universal, cosmopolitan condition as the womb in which all the original tendencies of the human species may be developed – will one day come into being.

4Immanuel Kant,
Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784).

Read the free text in the original language (1784 edition):​buch/​-3506/​1


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