Kant’s Political Philosophy II

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Source: Preface to Kant’s Principles of Politics, including his essay on Perpetual Peace. A Contribution to Political Science, trans. W. Hastie (Edinburgh: Clark, 1891).


Immanuel Kant, viewed in his manifold relations and influences, is now very generally regarded as the greatest philosopher of the modern world. He was certainly the most profound and constructive thinker of the Eighteenth Century, and all the higher speculation of the Nineteenth Century has been more or less occasioned or modified by him. There were great thinkers before Kant who variously exhibited the independent insight and power of the modern self-consciousness—Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, Bacon and Locke, Berkeley and Hume—but none of them reached the universality of his conceptions, the subtlety of his analysis of the higher forms of thought, or the fertility of his principles of knowledge. There have been great thinkers since Kant who have striven to give expression to the continued movement and aspiration of the purified reason—Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, Krause, Herbart, and Lotze, Rosmini and Gioberti, Comte, Mill, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer—but they have at the most only unfolded his seminal ideas, simplified his multiplicity, or applied in a one-sided way at the best the empirical side of his method. It is to the sceptred sovereigns of thought in the ancient world that we must return for the few who may justly be regarded as his peers. ‘Immanuel Kant,’ says a distinguished Italian writer, ‘holds in the German Philosophy the place which belongs to Socrates in the Greek Philosophy. Just as all the philosophical systems of Greece were only the development of one or other aspect of the thought of Socrates, so all the philosophical systems of Germany, from the idealism of Hegel to the contemporary experimental philosophy, seem to start from Kant, and when they believe they have surpassed him, they are constrained to turn back and seek their inspiration in him again.’* Like Socrates, Kant created an epoch in the speculative history of the world, and even more than the ‘Preceptor Germaniæ’ became the first teacher of Europe. And all this, extravagant as it still may seem, is no mere partial foreign estimate, but has now come to be generally acknowledged by our own literary critics and historians of thought. ‘Measured by one test of power,’ says De Quincey, who was himself the best judge for his time of that test,—‘namely, by the number of books written directly for or against himself, to say nothing of those which indirectly he has modified—there is no philosophic writer whatsoever, if we except Aristotle, Descartes and Locke, who can pretend to approach Kant in the extent or in the depth of influence which he has exercised over the minds of men.’* ‘There can be no doubt,’ says Dr Hutchison Stirling, ‘that at this moment the place of Kant as generally estimated is that of the greatest German philosopher, greatest modern philosopher, greatest philosopher of all, with only the usual exceptions of Plato and Aristotle. Nor can there be any doubt that the like estimate will continue for some considerable time yet.’

This relative supremacy as a thinker Kant owes mainly to the exceptional development in his own thinking of the pure Reason. By long years of assiduous discipline and a devotion to truth which had all the loftiness of a religious consecration, Kant attained the completest self-mastery and clarified his mind until it became a pure mirror of the universal Reason which is involved in all our knowing. Descartes was not more thorough in his rejection of prejudice, or in his questioning of first principles; Spinoza did not reflect with more passionless purity or deeper intellectual love on the ultimate substance of things; nor did Locke or Berkeley or Hume scan with keener vision the working and changes of the individual consciousness. This perfection in the development of his philosophical genius and character was accompanied with a corresponding completeness of technical training and equipment for his task. He probably knew more than any other man of his time of the common material of knowledge, and he certainly controlled it by the highest intellectual mastery. Far from being a mere dreamer of transcendental visions, he kept more than any thinker before him ever did on the solid ground of positive reality and within the practical requirements and limitations of common life. This is seen all through his philosophical work and may be proved by reference to every part of it. His philosophical development was singularly natural, harmonious, and complete. It obviously passed through three periods—the scientific, the speculative, and the practical; and any right understanding of Kant, or indeed of any side of his work, must be founded upon reference to all the three. Like other great thinkers he has suffered much from partial and one-sided interpretation, and his fulness and many-sidedness can only be reduced to unity by taking into view his philosophical development as a whole.*

Kant undoubtedly owed much to the fact that he was a thorough scientist before he became a speculative metaphysician. His own development was typical of the revolution in the method of thought which has produced modern philosophy: that certain knowledge of the real world must be the basis of all true knowledge of the ideal world, or that Physics must precede Metaphysics. He happily began his work by appropriating all the mathematical and physical science of his age, and he made it the stable foundation and criterion of all his subsequent thinking. He was a faithful disciple of Newton to whose principles and method he owed most of his formative power. He even applied the Newtonian mathematics to new physical problems with important new results. By mathematical speculation he confidently predicted the condition of Saturn’s rings as afterwards verified by Sir W. Herschel, in the same way as the discovery of Neptune was calculated out by Adams and Leverrier. He investigated anew the laws of motion; and he outlined the cosmogony of Laplace. The retardation of the rotation of the earth by the tides, the periodicity of the trade winds, the elasticity of the ether, the causes of earthquakes, the volcanoes in the moon, the origin of heat in the universe, and all the questions of Physical Geography and Anthropology, were eagerly studied and elucidated by him. With that divining insight which is only attained through patient service and ministration in the Temple of Nature, he saw deep into the struggle of the Cosmic Forces, and even formulated the Darwinian theory of the Origin of Species and the evolution of the Human Race. Had he never written anything but his ‘Universal History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens,’ he would have ranked as the first of the modern evolutionists and the founder of scientific cosmology. No great philosophical thinker was ever more entirely at home with the phenomena and laws of empirical science than Immanuel Kant.*

But, as all know, it was during the speculative period of his development that Kant achieved his most original and epoch-making work. He had hitherto rested all his knowledge and faith upon the traditional conceptions formulated in the Leibniz-Wolffian metaphysics, when, as he tells us his ‘dogmatic slumber’ was interrupted by the sceptical doubt of David Hume, as to the validity of the accepted idea of causality. Hume assumed with his immediate predecessors that the idea is not innate, and he seemed to shew that it was neither necessary, nor universal, nor objective, but only a contingent, particular and subjective product of our associated sensations. If so we have no right to carry the notion of causality outward beyond the inner play of our own individual minds. The idea that one thing causes another to be is merely an illusion begotten by custom, or ‘a bastard of the imagination,’ as Kant puts it; and we have therefore no real knowledge of objective causation in itself, or of any essential connection of things with each other, or of any being transcending mere appearances or phenomena. Kant at once generalised Hume’s doubt; and so he saw that it undermined all the old metaphysical assumptions, and that unless a new metaphysic were found to meet it the whole structure of human knowledge would crumble to pieces. Like Reid, Kant felt deeply the disappointment and pain of this position, and he girded himself with all his power and knowledge to deal with it. Hume thus became negatively to him in the second period of his development what Newton had been to him positively in the first; and it was Newton’s science that carried him victoriously through the doubt of Hume. Kant was compelled to investigate anew the whole problem of the origin and extent of human knowledge, a problem which had been incidentally suggested to Locke but which, as Hume had proved, had been imperfectly solved by him. Kant thus put again to himself the question: ‘What can I know?’ in its deepest and widest sense, and the result was the Critical Philosophy.* The question ‘What can I know?’ is identical with the question ‘What can Reason know?’ and this question at once resolved itself into a Criticism of the capability of pure Reason as a faculty of knowledge. Kant, like all great thinkers, was the truest child of his age, and his greatest philosophical work ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’ (1781) was the philosophical culmination of the critical spirit of the Eighteenth Century, in its effort to turn upon and determine by inner scrutiny the conditions of Reason itself as the highest factor of knowledge. In prosecuting his task Kant had a twofold purpose in view: to secure, on philosophical grounds, the certain knowledge already realised by the Understanding in Mathematics and Physics, and to ascertain whether pure Reason was capable of attaining similar real knowledge of its proper objects in the higher sphere of thought. Kant did not directly answer Hume, but he indirectly repelled the application of his doubt to the sphere of knowledge cultivated by the Mathematicians, and so remarkably extended by Newton; and in doing so he not only systematised philosophical Criticism as a new department of science, but laid the basis of a new Metaphysic. He had already laid it down that ‘the genuine method of Metaphysics is one and the same in principle with that which Newton introduced into physical science,’* and he never lost sight of this criterion and point of view. In the possession so far of certain knowledge, he thinks as a Mathematician and Physicist, all through his criticism of the pure Reason, from beginning to end, and from his primary certainty to his final result. In the first part of this Critique he established the validity of pure Mathematics by basing them upon the à priori forms of space and time as necessarily and universally inherent in the faculty of Sense, and as thus furnishing the conditions for the indefinite extension of mathematical science. In the second part he logically vindicates the validity of Physical Science on the ground of the universal and necessary categories or thought-forms, such as causality, inherent à priori in the Understanding, and combined with the material of sense through the plastic function of the imagination. Above and beyond the faculties of Sense and Understanding is the higher faculty of Reason proper; and the crucial problem of the Critique was to determine whether the pure Reason, i.e. Reason viewed as the highest intellectual faculty and taken by itself, could attain objective knowledge in its own sphere akin or analogous to the scientific knowledge realised through the function of the lower faculties in mathematics and physics. Such knowledge would evidently constitute real scientific metaphysics. It is impossible to enter here on Kant’s most ingenious and elaborate discussion of this the highest question of intellectual philosophy. The result of his discussion is familiar to all who know anything of modern speculation and need not be dwelt on; but it still needs to be pointed out that Kant even here strictly adheres to the presuppositions and results of his mathematico-physical Science. Reason has three à priori Ideas or supreme forms, but it cannot apply them to the objects of which it is in search, namely, the Soul, the World, and God, because they are not directly presented as objects to it; and it only feeds itself upon illusions when it takes its formal transcendental Ideas for these real objects. All its attempts to make any speculative or transcendental use or application of those ideas only involve it in insoluble contradictions and paralogisms, as it has really nothing before it but the activity of the Understanding, evolving forms in which mere subjective processes are treated as objective realities. In dealing with these fictitious and self-destructive speculations, Kant displays all the methodical rigour and practical realism of the trained scientist. Nothing can be evolved out of the pure Reason which could be fitted into a scientific system of knowledge of real things, or which could positively supplement the actual discoveries of the mathematician and the physicist. All real positive knowledge of existing things is thus limited to the objects of experience by the demonstrated sterility of reason in its own special activity, and reason struggles in vain to escape from the inner vacancy in which she is imprisoned, or to manufacture a world of reality out of the projections of her own empty spectral forms. This limitation of human knowledge, this negation of all higher rational speculation regarding supersensible objects, this confinement of science to the phenomenal and finite, is the rigorous result of Kant’s Critique; and he only tempered its humiliation by conceding a certain regulative function to the ideas of pure Reason in the conceptional shaping and guiding of the rational life. But with all this taken at its utmost, it is evident that Kant did not really pass beyond the Natural Philosophy of Newton, nor did he scientifically vindicate the rational Ideas of God, Freedom, and Immortality, which he had always in view; and hence the results of his criticism, although differing in form and incomparably more deeply grounded, were thus far practically identical with the more recent positions of Positivism and Agnosticism.

What then did Kant achieve by his criticism of pure Reason? He swept away the old abstract Metaphysics, and he cleared the ground for the new rational Realism; and in this latter respect he made an advance on Hume. For he vindicated knowledge as such, gave it a positive basis, and even in limiting it established its deepest principle of certainty by representing it as conscious participation in reality. It is now easy to criticise the manner in which he did this: to point out how largely his method was still infected by the antiquated metaphysical formalism; to show that he borrowed most of his weapons from the old scholastic armoury; to prove that his psychology and logic were fundamentally medieval and unscientific; and to refute his own assumptions by the issue of his own refutations. But with all this his merit remains; and the irrefutable proof of it is supplied by the enduring work of the third period of his development in which he concentrated his maturest power on the more practical problems of human life and action.

It is with Kant’s work in this practical period that we are here specially concerned, and more particularly with his contributions to Political Philosophy. No department of his work has, however, been so much misunderstood, or at least has been so imperfectly represented. This has arisen from the fact that a right estimate and understanding of it can only be found by taking it in connection with the method and work of the two former periods, and this has been too frequently overlooked. The concluding work of the practical period of Kant’s development really completes and crowns the efforts of the two former periods. It is their positive complement, their constructive consummation, their harmonious synthesis in a higher unity. There is no essential inconsistency, no artificial intellectual somersault, no unnatural dialectic introduced into the intellectual process of his philosophising as it moves to its ultimate goal. Kant thinks straight on, the results he had already attained being kept firmly and clearly before him as permanent conquests and points of vantage; and so he passes as by natural and necessary continuity from science and theoretical criticism into the moral world as the living realm of practice. He admitted that speculative philosophy could never under any method work out a system of knowledge that should be fit as one says ‘for gods;’ and the limits within which he was reluctantly compelled to confine the speculative ambition of pure Reason, only threw him with intenser earnestness into the exploration of the practical sphere. Like all great thinkers—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—he came to see that knowledge is not the highest end of man; and that even at its highest, knowledge is only a means to a higher end in practice. His patient and elaborate investigation of the function of the pure theoretical Reason had only yielded an unsatisfied Ideal which yet necessarily hovers before man as his highest Good; and he saw that it was only on the side of the practical Reason that the significance, as well as the satisfaction, of that Ideal could be truly realised.

In the prosecution of his problem Kant came upon a new position, which is at once the most original, the most universal, and the most enduring conception of his philosophy. Disentangling himself from the fruitless abstractions of the ‘mere vain dialectic art’ in which the Critique of the pure Reason terminates, he grasps all the more firmly the profound conception of Humanity which was implicitly involved in all his former thinking, and he stands before its majesty and infinity with a new sense of awe. He now sees the whole purpose of the universe in the light of the practical Reason, and finds the order of the primary creation in nature (which had been the first subject of his scientific investigation), consummated by the creative function of man through the moral causality of his rational will. According to Kant the cosmic evolution of Nature is continued in the historic development of Humanity and completed in the moral perfection of the Individual. This is the largest, the most pregnant, and the most valuable thought in Kant’s philosophy. It combines all the parts of his system into unity; it enables us to distinguish the essential from the accidental in his development and expression; and it furnishes the criterion by which his place is to be determined as the founder of a new epoch in the philosophical history of the world.

Kant’s work during his third period consisted mainly in the elucidation and application of this thought on its various sides and in its highest relations. It is the determining principle of his whole ethical philosophy. It receives its first clear expression in his essay entitled Idea for a Universal History in cosmo-political reference (1784); it underlies his Foundation for a Metaphysic of Morals (1785); and it obtains systematic expression in his Critique of the practical Reason (1788). It is subtly interwoven in his Critique of the Judgment (1790); it is consecrated in his Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason (1794); it is practically embodied in his Perpetual Peace (1795); and it is finally formulated in his Metaphysic of Morals (1797). In all these works Kant shows himself to be the universal philosopher of Humanity, the greatest of the modern moralists, and the initiator of a new era of political science.

It is essential to note that during the third period of his development Kant was again stimulated by the influence of another great outstanding thinker. What Newton was to him in his scientific period, and what Hume was to him in his abstract speculative period, Rousseau was to him in this third practical period.* The fiery Prophet of the French Revolution stirred Kant to the very depths of his nature; the theory of education so enthusiastically expounded by Rousseau in his Emile fascinated him like a spell; and the bold assertion of the natural rights of man roused his deep moral energy as Hume’s doubt had awakened his free intellectual activity. Kant dealt with the position of Rousseau very much as he had done with that of Hume. He generalised it, and he rectified it. Although he adopted the idea of the ‘Social Contract’ as a convenient mode of formally representing the rationality of the State, Kant saw clearly that it was a historical fiction, and with deeper insight he found the justification of history in its progressive elaboration of right. Kant overcame the historical pessimism of Rousseau and his hatred of civilisation by a profounder apprehension of the purpose and method of the social struggle. The ceaseless antagonism, the apparent failures, and the forbidding unsociality of mankind, did yet, according to Kant, work out that ideal of perfection which Rousseau vainly dreamed of as pre-existing under conditions of barbarism. It was in the light of Rousseau’s despair that Kant’s hope of a better humanity was kindled, and that he became reconciled to the pain and suffering of the historic process. He clearly saw that the highest human condition can only be attained through the struggle for life, and that the worst historical state is better than soft idyllic ease and enjoyment where there is no assertion of right. Man is what he makes himself to be; he must rise through social conflict out of mere natural capacity to moral reality; and the condition of this, both in the individual and the species, is progress. It is really to Kant that the world owes the first scientific conception of human Progress.* Plato, Seneca, Augustine, Bacon, Pascal and Turgot, had caught glimpses of the historical Ideal, and the whole spirit of the Eighteenth Century was striving to grasp it; but it was only faintly, waveringly and vaguely realised until Kant gave it definite and rational expression. It was the logical consequence of his profound conception of the development of the world as a whole, and of the purposive realisation of the moral Ideal in the form of history. The idea of historical progress was thus the necessary outcome of Kant’s teleology, and it reduced the apparently irrational conflict and instability of the moral world to the harmony and permanence of the rational Ideal. Kant thus gave universal scientific form and validity to the conceptions of Order and Progress in the moral sphere. As Newton, following Copernicus and Kepler, had reduced all the seeming irregularities of the physical world to the order of one fundamental law, so Kant following Rousseau and the English and Scottish moralists,* aimed at reducing all the seeming anomalies of the moral world to unity in accordance with law. His System of Morals which deals with the moral world as ‘a second supersensible nature,’ aim at formulating and demonstrating its highest laws, as the Principia of Newton had already done with regard to the primary sensible nature. Kant thus clearly recognised the universality of moral law for the first time on scientific grounds, as Newton had done in the case of physical law, and he set himself to formulate and demonstrate it after the example of his great master in Natural Philosophy.

The truth which Kant found in Rousseau was the Principle of Freedom as the inalienable essence of the rational will. Rousseau’s error lay in apprehending this truth as antagonistic to the organic conditions of human society and putting it into a negative relation towards these conditions. Kant set himself to correct that error and to show that, on the contrary, the freedom which constitutes the true nature of man can only become actual in society, and fulfil its purpose through the historical mediation of all the rational wills. ‘The freedom that struggles against social necessity,’ it has been well said, ‘must ultimately discover that it is only in the social organism that the individual can be really free.’* The true Ideal of man, according to Kant, is realised in the progressive unification of Reason and Nature, ‘till perfect Art again becomes Nature, which is the ultimate goal of the moral destination of the human species.’ The resulting society is at any time incomplete and imperfect; and in any case it can only approach the realisation of the Ideal of freedom through a slow and toilsome process of antagonism and unsociality. Kant was painfully conscious of the dualism that constantly asserts itself between the empirical impulses of Nature and the rational ideality of the pure will, the ‘heteronomy’ of the other law in the members warring against the law of the mind; and he perceived that it was only through the objective principle of development that the ‘autonomy’ of the subjective will could be brought into harmony with the universal order. The historical synthesis of Nature and Reason seen in the progressive actualisation of that autonomy is, according to Kant, the fulfilment of the highest purpose of Nature, and at the same time the advancing creation of the rational moral world and the realisation of freedom. The working out of civilisation is a discipline which consists in ‘the liberation of the will from the despotism of the desires.’ Kant thus adopts and applies the law of development in its widest range, and by it he binds the physical and moral worlds into one. He does not shrink even from entertaining the possibility of the evolution of life from the mechanism of Nature, and the descent of all existing species from the lowest primordial germs.* Ignoring the idea of miraculous interferences with the order of Nature, and recognising the principle of continuity as holding throughout the whole sphere of finite modified existence, he virtually resolves the twofold order of Being into the primary process of Nature becoming Reason and the secondary process of Reason again becoming a transformed Nature,—‘a new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.’ Nature is thus perfected by the practical activity of Reason, and Reason consciously realises itself in all its relations through the spiritual product of this activity. Its causality is the creative principle of a new world of intelligible Being, whose conditions and relations are the objects of the new Metaphysic. Had Kant prosecuted this idea into a detailed investigation of the origin and development of Reason itself, he would have removed the many misunderstandings that have gathered around his Philosophy and made his doctrine of a priori cognition intelligible in the light of the primordial relations of Reason to Nature. For, as the great poet, under reference to the fairest products of Nature, puts it:

  • ‘There is an Art which in their piedness shares
  • With great creating Nature.
  • Say there be;
  • Yet Nature is made better by no mean
  • But Nature makes that mean: so o’er that Art
  • Which, you say, adds to Nature, is an Art
  • That Nature makes. . . You see we marry
  • A gentle scion to the wildest stock,
  • And make conceive a bark of baser kind
  • By bud of nobler race: This is an Art
  • Which does mend Nature, change it rather, but
  • The Art itself is Nature.’*

If Kant only indicated the solution of this cardinal problem of modern thought, he at least showed that the Science of Physics is in fact completed and crowned by the Philosophy of History as the moral Science of Humanity; while by his definite conception of universal progressive development as determined by inherent necessary conditions, he put the method of the Philosophy of History on a scientific basis. But his first attempt to formulate the Law of History could hardly be expected to be more than an empirical description of its elements or conditions. Thus he refers the whole movement of History to the ‘unsocial sociality’ of man, a phrase which suggests analogy with the forces of attraction and repulsion in Nature, but makes no approach to the mathematical definiteness of the formula of the Law of Gravitation. At most it only points out the reality of the struggle for existence in the human world, and its analogy with the order of the lower world. Kant, however, definitely grasped the ultimate purpose of Nature in the moral struggle, and formulated it generally. He represents it in a remarkable and novel way as the development of all the capacities implanted in man, and the establishment of a Universal Civil Society regulating through its perfect constitution the rightful relations of men to each other in their realisation of these capacities. It was by this profound and pregnant conception of historical development and social organisation that Kant overcame the abstract universality and the social pessimism of Rousseau, and laid the basis of a new Political Philosophy inspired and animated by the optimism of eternal hope.

Without further prosecuting his view of the historical process, and, unfortunately, thereafter leaving it almost entirely out of sight, Kant passed to the metaphysical formulation of the law of practical reason in its ideal state of development. It was certainly not Kant’s view that reason is always present in the same completeness and potency in all men and at all stages, from the lowest barbarism to the highest civilisation; but while his Anthropology deals with its empirical modifications his Metaphysic rises to the highest point of view, and deals with the formal perfection of pure reason in its idea and principle. As is well known Kant formulates the fundamental law of the pure practical reason, or the categorical imperative, in three forms: 1. Act so that the maxim of thy will may be capable of being made a universal law: 2. Act so that thou mayest use the humanity in thy own person, as well as in the person of every other, always as an end and never as a means: and 3. Act according to maxims which at the same time may be objectified as natural laws in a system of universal legislation. These three laws of moral action, like the three laws of motion in the physical system, are the fundamental principles that regulate the free will of man as autonomous, or as giving a law to itself, in the application of its activity to the sensible world. In so far as the material of the sensible world is embraced in the free activity of the will acting in accordance with these laws, it is lifted up into a higher sphere, and is gradually transformed into a higher world, which is the kingdom of nature transfigured into the Kingdom of Man. Although these three laws are only modified expressions of the one fundamental principle of freedom, the centre of gravity, the που̑ στω̑ of Kant’s moral system, yet they express it in different formal relations, and it is no straining of Kant’s meaning to regard them as respectively furnishing the fundamental canons of the three practical moral sciences, Jurisprudence, Ethics and Politics. Jurisprudence founding upon the principle of the universality of the rational will, explicates the rights of man as free persons. Ethics founding upon the principle of the infinite worth of humanity in all its members, explicates the virtue of man in relation to the deepest ends of human life. Politics founding upon the principle of the organic relations of all human wills in the social life, explicates the conditions under which human rights are to be realised and the freedom of the individual secured in working out his essential ends. Hence Politics crowns and completes the system of morals by securing the objective realisation of right through a system of universal legislation.

Kant thus made Politics a definite science by clearly determining its relations to the other moral sciences and precisely defining its subject. To Kant, as to Plato, Politics was the crown of the whole philosophical system, ‘the royal art,’ ‘man written large,’ the highest practical wisdom. But Kant based his political philosophy on a principle of Right which was very imperfectly apprehended by Plato, which was the outcome of the whole historical development, and which authenticates its own universality by reconciling the relative utility of public justice with the absolute morality of the individual. The great word in the Politics of Kant, the Alpha and Omega of his political thought, is Right. His system is distinguished from all previous systems by the precision with which he has formulated the doctrine of Right, and made the sphere of Politics coextensive with its application. ‘What characterises the philosophy of Kant,’ says Janet with excellent historical discrimination, ‘is to have attached Politics to Right and Right to Morals.’ More definitely, it may be said that, according to Kant, Politics is the Science of the State as the objective organ of Right, its function being to regulate the rightful realisation of liberty in what Vico calls ‘the world of the nations.’ Kant’s Politics is simply the carrying out of the modern principle of Natural Right in the light of the criticised Reason: his Republic being the highest moral order, and his Laws the embodiment of the universal rule of justice in accordance with the essentially human purpose of Nature and the moral ends of the individual. By this conception Kant raised the Science of Politics to its highest dignity and importance by making it directly relative to the whole terrestrial work of Nature, the whole progressive movement of history, and the whole moral interest of man. The fierce struggle of natural existence, the wild war of the social forces, ‘the groaning and travailing in pain of the whole creation,’ are consummated, pacified, and stilled in the highest political Good, which is Perpetual Peace realised in a universal Federation of Humanity within which all other human goods—Sociality, Religion, Art, Science—come to perfect flower and fruit. This doctrine was not only the highest outcome of the political reflection of the Eighteenth Century, but of all prior political systems and movements. Socrates, indeed, grasped the universal idea of Freedom in an abstract way, and Plato unfolded it in a speculative and dialectical form; Aristotle traced its empirical manifestation in the different States, and the Stoics gave it its most universal expression in the ancient world; but neither in Greece, nor in Rome, nor any where else in antiquity, was the principle of a free organic State embodying the essential idea of Humanity clearly realised. Nor did the Middle Ages, with much profound reflection on the political problem in Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and others, reach the independence of thought and the consciousness of freedom necessary for its apprehension. But as the result of the whole development of history, and especially of the Christian civilisation of Europe, it has become the living principle of the modern world. The Reformation practically realised it in the religious sphere, and thus gave an immense impetus to the new spirit of political effort and speculation. In England where freedom had ‘slowly broadened down from precedent to precedent,’ after the apparent anarchy of the ‘Great Rebellion,’ the Restoration, and the theoretical absolutism of Hobbes, the Revolution of 1688 gave it permanent political guarantees, and the generous spirit of the new time found its reflection in the liberal politics of Locke. Montesquieu formed the transition from Locke to Rousseau, the fulness and convergence of his historical analyses showing only the more clearly the need of a rational and synthetic system of Right. The popular struggle for right in the political world culminated in the Revolutions of the eighteenth century, and through them the modern principle of liberty found practical expression and embodiment in the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man: ‘two acts,’ says Janet, ‘at once philosophical and political, in which all the thought of the Eighteenth Century, or rather let us say, the political science of all the centuries, is found resumed and condensed.’ Yet, while this may be said generally, it is no less true that the one thinker who completely understood the purpose and end of the whole movement and who was capable of giving it its profoundest and largest expression, was Immanuel Kant.

But, notwithstanding his earnest intention and endeavour, Kant’s exposition of the political ideal was destined to remain fragmentary and incomplete. We know how patient and prolonged was his study of the previous political systems, how watchful and penetrating was his observation of the great political developments of his time, and how impartial and enlightened was his attitude towards all political questions and problems. We also know that it was his intention to crown his whole philosophical achievement by a ‘System of Politics’ worked out in accordance with the principles of the Critical Philosophy, and that he was reluctantly compelled in his 77th year to abandon the long cherished intention.* The loss to political philosophy is irreparable; but it is perhaps not so great after all, as Kant’s metaphysical method of formulating his moral conceptions by carrying them up to their most abstract and universal expression had been already sufficiently exemplified, and hardly any advance could have been made upon the expositions of his political principles which he had already given. These expositions are happily sufficient to furnish us with a complete knowledge of Kant’s political philosophy. They consist of the formal outline of the principles of ‘Public Right,’ contained in the second part of his ‘Philosophy of Law,’ and of occasional essays and contributions to the subject of a more popular kind, ranging over the whole period of his practical philosophising.

It is these more popular expositions of the Principles of Politics that are presented in translation in the following pages. They are designed to supplement and complete the translation of Kant’s ‘Philosophy of Law’ already published;* but they are so independent, complete and valuable in themselves that they may be taken entirely apart and studied as a popular summary of the system. They will be found to be most intelligible throughout, and even surprisingly lucid and simple both in thought and expression. Kant here lays aside his technical phraseology, his heavy panoply of philosophical words and forms, and his thought moves easily and gracefully in the lighter vesture of the common speech. He employs the popular language of Locke and Montesquieu whom he studied carefully, rather that the metaphysical terminology of Plato and Aristotle and the Schoolmen. It would have been well had Kant conveyed more of his thought in such simple form; but the adoption of it here at least makes misunderstanding inexcusable, and renders other aid than that of mere translation unnecessary.

A few words will suffice to indicate the literary relations and interest of the Four Essays here translated.

I. The first Essay entitled ‘Idea for a Universal History from a cosmopolitical point of view’ contains Kant’s exposition of what may be called the Natural Principle of Politics. It was written in 1784, as a contribution to the Philosophy of History, the year in which appeared the first part of Herder’s epoch-making work, ‘Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind.’ Kant mentions that this essay was drawn from him by a statement which appeared in the Gotha Times concerning his view of the subject; but it is manifest from its title and contents that it was occasioned by the speculations of Herder who owed the impulse and inspiration of his principal ideas to Kant. It has been justly celebrated as one of the most profound and suggestive of all Kant’s writings, and it has received the high commendations of all the historians of the Kantian Philosophy and of the Philosophy of History. It was highly appreciated by Auguste Comte; and in France ‘has been translated, condensed or summarised at least a dozen times.’ Its value as a contribution to the Philosophy of History has been carefully estimated by Professor Flint, and its relation to the development of the Critical Philosophy of Kant, has been discussed by Professor E. Caird. It seems to have been rendered into English by Richardson in 1798, and again by Thomas de Quincey. It is here translated independently for the third time. This essay will be found well deserving of careful study as the key to Kant’s view of the natural and historical basis of political science. (See Kant’s ‘Werke’ by Rosenkranz and Schubert, B. vii., xii., 264; Kirchmann’s ‘Erläuterungen zu Kant’s Kleine Schriften;’ Flint’s ‘Philosophy of History in France and Germany,’ 263, 388; Caird Op. cit. ii., 548; Kant’s ‘Essays and Treatises,’ 2 vol. 1798; De Quincey’s Works; and Schubert’s Article above referred to.)

II. The second Essay discusses the Principles of Political Right in connection with the Relation of Theory to Practice in politics. It was written in 1793, as the second part of an essay on ‘the saying: that a thing may be right in theory, but may not hold for practice.’ In opposition to Hobbes, Kant maintains the practical validity in politics of the theoretical principles of right; and he gives a clear and concise exposition of the principles as the rational basis of the civil state of society. This exposition should be compared with the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as their philosophical counterpart and ultimate expression. It will be observed that Kant substitutes the principle of individual Independence for the French sentiment of Fraternity. The essential rights of the people and the sacredness of the political organisation were never more courageously or more rationally formulated.

III. The third Essay contains a short discussion of the Principle of Progress, in opposition to the view of Moses Mendelssohn. It formed the third and concluding part of the discussion to which the last Essay belonged, and it presents one of Kant’s favourite points of view, which was then really novel, although it has now become an almost universally received commonplace of philosophical history. In these pessimistic days, the human spirit cannot be too frequently refreshed with this inspiring and sustaining thought.

IV. The Essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’ is a practical exhibition of Kant’s principles of politics in the sphere of International Right. This celebrated and remarkable sketch was published in 1795, after the peace of Basel had recognised the French Republic, which seemed to inaugurate a new era of peace in Europe. The tractate was received with great interest, 1500 copies being sold in a few weeks, and a second edition appearing the following year. Rosenkranz says it was ‘only a further carrying out or rather a transforming of the idea’ contained in the Essay of 1784. It is, in fact, a formal, if somewhat artificial, exposition of Kant’s political Ideal. The phrase which Goethe has applied to another part of Kant’s system manifestly holds here, that the philosopher has ‘woven a certain element of sly irony into his method.’ He proceeds to draw up the conditions of a formal Treaty of Peace on a philosophical basis with all the gravity of Preliminary, Definitive and Secret Articles, as if they were about to be formulated by a Congress of Plenipotentiaries from all the civilised States of the world. This ingenious form bears the impress of the unflinching faith and deep earnestness of the philosophical thinker, and it gives point and definiteness to his thought, however it may excite the smile of the so-called practical Statesman. Kant could not forego ‘the sweet dream of peace,’ and he applied his earnest thought to work out the conditions under which the horrors of war may be brought to an end. Sympathising with the object of the schemes of St Pierre and Rousseau, he overcomes their weakness by basing his own scheme, like all his other political speculations, on the principle of Right. War is an accident of the imperfect development of Right, and can only be brought to an end by a better political organisation for securing its realisation. In this connection he expounds and applies the principle of International Federation and the idea of a Universal Federation of the human race, in the most original and fertile way. His exposition has commanded the interest of the most distinguished expounders of International Law of all schools, including Wheaton, Bluntschli, Lorimer, and many others, and it was never of greater practical importance than at present. The most cursory readers cannot fail to see how largely Kant’s ideas have been realised and how they are becoming more and more accepted in international relations. (See Kant’s ‘Werke,’ vii., S. xiii., xi., 144, xii., 266, and especially Kehrbach’s careful edition. For accounts of the various Schemes for securing Perpetual Peace, see particularly Wheaton’s ‘History of the Law of Nations,’ 750; Lorimer’s ‘Institutes of the Law of Nations,’ vol. ii., 217; Lioy’s ‘Philosophy of Right,’ vol. ii., p. 320; and F. von Holtzendorff’s ‘Die Idee des ewigen Völkerfriedens,’ 1882).

Such, then, are the most important of Kant’s occasional contributions to political science, and the least that can be claimed for them is that study of them is indispensable to a right understanding of the development and issues of the Critical Philosophy. But while this may be admitted it may still be asked: What can be the practical interest or value at the present time of Kant’s Politics to the English student of political science? In briefest, we answer: Much every way. In fact Kant’s doctrines are peculiarly relevant and important to our present English wants. From every point of view it is manifest that the English mind is at present greatly in need of such light and leading. It does not require the exceptional penetration and prescience of an Arthur Young to discover the manifold weaknesses and dangers of our contemporary social and political life. These are even greater and more threatening than were their antecedents of a hundred years ago, because they are both more widely diffused and more deeply rooted in the popular mind. At the same time the traditional political doctrine—that conventional utilitarianism which has been the natural child of individual selfishness and the step-mother of socialistic discontent—is no longer capable of satisfying the growing political needs or of solving the more drastic political problems of the time. As a political theory its formula of ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ furnishes neither a rational doctrine of Government, nor a principle of equal right, nor a criterion of just administration. At the best, happiness is a particular and variable element in individuals which cannot be secured in a universally satisfying degree by any form of public legislation, or by any political wet-nursing of majorities; and the utmost that a Government can really do for the people is to enable every individual to realise his liberty and to seek his happiness in his own way through the actualisation of his own rights. Carlyle’s ‘one shoe-black, whom the whole finance ministers, and upholsterers and confectioners of modern Europe, could not undertake in jointstock company to make happy’—to say nothing of the misery of millions—is the sufficient refutation of the mere happiness scheme. In truth the utilitarian Ideal, while arrogating to itself the supreme quality of practicalness, is the most impractical and visionary ideal of all in assigning an indefinite subjective end to the political function, and reducing the principles of the political order to the moral level of the nursery. Its practical failure is to be read everywhere in the increasing masses of discontented population found at all the great centres; in the social war now carried on in new forms between capital and labour, and the divided interests of the several classes of the community; in the growing disregard of the sanctions and authority of law; in the exaggerated and unreasoning claims made on the Government for the means of enjoyment and of an easy existence; in the propagation of revolutionary, socialistic, communistic, and anarchic schemes; and generally in the decadence of the old patriotic and religious ideals. We live, indeed, in an ‘Age of Discontent.’* The new democracy is rushing after false ideals without insight or self-restraint; and a hundred despairing voices are openly proclaiming, or unconsciously confessing, the bankruptcy of political speculation, and the inadequacy of the current theories to meet the contemporary wants. Our chief need, then, is wise political thinking, ‘systematic politics,’ the exercise of the highest reason in methodic dealing with the great historical realities of civil society and the inalienable rights of the human personality. And to meet this great, urgent, admitted want, we say in brief, Back to Kant: back from the confused, selfish, despairing politics of the time, to what Professor Lorimer has wisely called, ‘The fountain-head of all sound speculation since the French Revolution.’*Back to Kant has of late become the cry in almost all departments of thought; in pure speculation, in Theology, in Psychology, in Ethics and even in Natural Science. ‘The very cry of the hour,’ says Dr Hutchison Stirling, ‘is, Fichte and Schelling are dead, and Hegel, if not clotted nonsense, is unintelligible; let us go back to Kant. See, too, in other countries, what a difference the want of Kant has made.’ This cry comes from all sides. ‘Within the last ten years,’ says Professor E. Caird, ‘many voices have been heard both in this country and in Germany, bidding us return to Kant, as to that which is alone sound and hopeful in philosophy, that which unites the prudence of science with the highest speculative enterprise that is possible without idealistic extravagances.’* Echoing these voices as expressive of the general movement of thought, the cry back to Kant may well be raised in the sphere of politics too. For Kant is here likewise supreme in principle, as in other departments of thinking, in the light of the pure practical reason, the very Newton of politics, the rational critic of the historical development, the most exact thinker in social science. Let no one be deterred from returning to him for light and leading by Comte’s outcry against ‘metaphysical politics;’ for Kant’s metaphysic is nothing but the highest science, the science that is both after and above physics, the science of the ultimate principles of things. Let no one allege that Kant’s Politics have not been verified by the experience of his own country; for Germany has only prospered in so far as she has followed the doctrines of her greatest teacher, while her errors and failures have been conspicuous deviations from them. Nor, after all our recent light on the subject, let any one longer cherish the false imagining that Kant’s doctrines are alien to English practice and habit of thought; for it was from England that Kant received his deepest and strongest stimulus, and during this century England has been increasingly receiving and appropriating much of his best thought in return.*

By returning to Kant the English student of politics will actually find in rational expression the principles of all that is great in the political history of England; for Kant would have said with Bancroft that ‘Reason and Natural Right are the fundamental principles of the British Constitution.’ In truth England has acted out the principles which Kant has thought out and held up for universal imitation and embodiment; and this holds even more literally of the New England of America. In Kant the student will find the fundamental principles of all the best Political and Social Science of the Nineteenth Century, the soundest exposition of Constitutional Government, and the first clear adumbration of the great doctrines of Federation and Universal Right which are now stirring in the hearts of the peoples and taking visible and practical form in society. No political writer has ever expounded more emphatically than Kant, the necessity of social order, the harmony of true politics and morals, the sanctity of law, the wrong of insurrection, the duty of political obedience, and the rightful conditions of free individualism and of just coercion; nor has any advocate of the Rights of Man ever upheld a loftier ideal of liberty before the people, or limned more clearly the ultimate conditions of all true progress, or cherished a deeper faith in the universal perfectibility of human nature. So far from Kant being here antiquated, or superseded, or unintelligible, his Political Principles present the most practical, progressive and luminous lines of political thought which we yet possess. It is to him we owe the clearest definition of the nature and limits of the State, the deepest rationale of individual liberty, the loftiest conception of the purpose of the political organism, and the most philosophical correction of socialistic and communistic error and excess. He has laid down principles which are still capable of solving all our political problems, for he resolves all political problems into questions of Right for which he furnishes a universal solution. He gives dignity to the strife of political parties by making it the culmination of the whole effort of Nature, and he consecrates the form of political life by making it sacred in itself and not from any mere accidental or external religious association. For, in its ultimate sense, the purpose of Nature is only another name for the will of Providence, and the order of the State is none other than the growing organisation of the Kingdom of God. Let the great thinker then be reverently heard in this department too, in which his universal genius has not only consummated the totality of his System of Philosophy, but has amply vindicated his right to guide us in what is most practical and immovable in individual life and most essential to the stability and well-being of all Civil Society.

But, in a last word, be it said that return to Kant is here advocated in no servile or uncritical spirit, which would be entirely contrary to his own example and teaching; nor is it meant that his Principles as here expounded are to be taken as straightway applicable, without further elaboration or mediation, to the practical solution of our contemporary problems. The political development of a hundred years and the evolution of the political schools of the Nineteenth Century lie between Kant’s thoughts and our day, and they must be taken into account in finally summing up the political teaching of the great thinker. This continuation and completion of the subject cannot, however, be attempted here, but must be reserved for another occasion.

Meanwhile, in the firm belief that Kant’s own expositions cannot fail to stimulate to deeper reflection on fundamental principles, this Introduction may be closed with these words of Montesquieu which exactly describe the method and form of the following Essays: ‘Mais il ne faut pas toujours épuiser un sujet qu’on ne laisse rien à faire au lecteur; il ne s’agit pas de faire lire, mais de faire penser.’ ‘Ici, bien des vérités ne se feront sentir qu’après qu’on aura vu la chaine qui les lie à d’autres. Plus on réfléchira sur les détails, plus on sentira la certitude des Principes.’

W. H.

Edinburgh,February, 1891.

[*]Prof. Carle of Turin, ‘La vita del diritto,’ p. 374.

[*]‘The Last Days of Kant.’ Works, iii. p. 101.

[]Text-Book to Kant, p. xxviii.

[*]See above all Rosenkranz’s Geschichte der Kant’schen Philosophie (in Kant’s ‘Werke,’ Bd. xii. 1841) in which Kant’s philosophical development is divided into 1, The Heuristic Epoch (1746-1770); 2. The Speculative-systematic Epoch (1770-1790); and 3, The Practical Epoch (1790-1804). But this is not an absolute division, nor does it indicate the predominantly scientific character of the first period.

[*]See specially his ‘Untersuchung der Frage ob die Erde in ihrer Umdrehung um die Achse einige Veränderungen seit den ersten Zeiten ihres Ursprunges erlitten habe,’ 1754; ‘Allgemeine Naturgeschichte u. Theorie des Himmels,’ 1755; ‘Meditationum quarundum de igne succincta delineatio,’ 1755; ‘Von den Ursachen der Erderschütterungen,’ 1755; ‘Zur Erläuterung der Theorie der Winde,’ 1756; ‘Neuer Lehrbegriff der Bewegung u. Ruhe,’ 1758; ‘Ueber die Vulcane im Monde,’ 1785; and cf. Dr K. Dietrich, Kant und Newton, Tübingen 1876, and F. Shultze, Kant und Darwin, Jena 1875. Kant’s merit as the originator of the Nebular Theory is now recognised by all scientific writers on Astronomy.

[*]The immense and ever growing literature on this subject in all the European languages cannot be referred to here, but too much praise could hardly be given to the latest and completest exposition of it in ‘The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant,’ by Professor Edward Caird, LL.D., 2 vols., 1889.

[*]Werke, I. 92.

[*]See Kant’s ‘Werke,’ vii., 374; ‘Anthropologie,’ 268, etc. Kant not only pays homage to the acuteness of Rousseau’s intellect, ‘the noble soaring of his genius,’ and ‘the magic power of his eloquence,’ but he says explicitly: ‘By inclination I am myself an enquirer. I feel all the thirst for knowledge and the eager unrest of striving to advance, as well as satisfaction with every kind of progress. There was a time when I thought all this could form the glory of mankind, and I despised the rabble who know nothing. Rousseau has brought me to the right view. This blinding superiority vanished; I learned to honour men, and I would regard myself as much more useless than the common labourers did I not believe that this way of thinking could communicate a value to all others in establishing the Rights of Mankind.’ Cf. Dr K. Dietrich, Kant und Rousseau, 1878.

[*]Janet has given a good account of the development of the idea of Perfectibility and Progress among the French thinkers of the Eighteenth Century. The merits of Turgot in his ‘Discours sur l’Histoire Universelle,’ 1750, are undoubtedly great. Ample justice has been done to them by Prof. Flint in his ‘Philosophy of History in France.’ Condorcet in his ‘Esquisse d’un Tableau Historique des Progrès de l’Esprit Humain,’ 1795, follows Turgot apparently without knowledge of Kant, although Siéyès had tried to draw the great philosopher into the vortex of the French discussions.

[*]Kant refers to Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume as having carried farthest the attempts to investigate ‘the first principles of all morality,’ ‘Werke’ i, 297. Hume’s Utilitarianism had a relation to Kant’s ethics somewhat similar to that of the sceptical theory of causality to his Metaphysics.

[]Cf. Stahl ‘Philosophie des Rechts,’ i. 210.

[*]Prof. E. Caird, Op. cit. ii, 561.

[]‘Werke,’ vii, 376.

[*]‘Werke,’ vi, 210, ‘Anthrop.’ 270, etc., ‘Kritik der Urtheilskraft,’ 83.

[]This is the point of view developed by Schleiermacher in his Philosophical Ethics.

[*]‘The Winter’s Tale,’ iv, 4, 85.

[*]Full and interesting information on these points is given by Schubert in his Article on ‘Immanuel Kant, and his attitude towards Politics in the last half of the Eighteenth Century,’ in Raumer’s ‘Hist. Taschenbuch,’ 1838.

[*]‘The Philosophy of Law; an Exposition of the Fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence as the Science of Right,’ by Immanuel Kant. Translated by W. Hastie, B.D., 1887. The Preface to this Translation may be referred to as also relevant to the present work.

[*]See Professor Bryce’s able and vigorous Article under this heading in the Contemporary Review, Jan. 1891.

[]Thus Mr John Morley, in a work just published, has well said: ‘There is not, in fact, a body of systematic political thought at work in our own day. Yet it cannot be pretended that we are less in need of systematic politics than our fathers were sixty years since, or that general principles are now more generally settled even among members of the same party than they were then. The perplexities of to-day are as embarrassing as any in our history, and they may prove even more dangerous. The renovation of Parliamentary government, the transformation of the conditions of the ownership and occupation of land, the relations between the Governments at home and our adventures abroad in contact with inferior races, the limitations on free contract, and the rights of majorities to restrict the private acts of minorities, these are only some of the questions that time and circumstances are pressing upon us.’ (Studies in Literature, 1891. So he wrote in 1882). The most abundant illustration of Mr Morley’s admission of the lack of systematic political thought in our own day might be drawn from the history of recent legislation and from the political creed professed by the Parliamentary orators. Of the latter let one recent instance taken at random suffice. A learned and distinguished legal Member of the House of Commons—Mr Asquith, Q.C.—addressing his constituents in Fife recently, is reported to have defined the function of the Government in these terms: ‘The Government as it now exists,’ he said, ‘was nothing more or less than an organisation to carry out the wishes, interests and desires of every class and section of the community.’ No wonder he added that ‘the machinery of Parliament was inadequate and unfit for the duties expected from it.’ (Scotsman, Oct. 6, 1890). It is almost impossible to get further from Kant’s Practical Reason and Doctrine of Right, but this is the professed creed of the great majority of our legislators.

[*]Sir Frederick Pollock in his recently published ‘Introduction to the History of the Science of Politics,’ closes with the suggestion: ‘Back to Aristotle.’ This cry may receive practical illustration for a time on account of the remarkable discovery of Aristotle’s work on the Polity of the Athenians; but, except for historical and comparative purposes, no return to the political principles of the ancient world can meet the wants of our time. In Sir Frederick’s able and attractive sketch, Kant is—alas! conspicuous by his absence.

[*]These quotations might be illustrated by references to Lange, Helmholtz, and even Häckel.

[*]The whole movement of English Philosophy, during the last half century especially, might be referred to in illustration. The following remarkable statement by the late Lord Bulwer Lytton written in 1824, but only recently published, is more than ever relevant to the reciprocal relation between the practical English mind and the great German thinkers: ‘If we are less inclined than the French to political Utopias, and than the Germans to metaphysical problems, still the most valuable political axioms have come from us. From us every sound thinker desirous of founding a free State (whether the form of it be Monarchical or Republican) borrows the groundwork of his plan. With us the ideas which retain the most enduring sway over the widest range of intelligence have either originated or borne their most substantial fruit. Nay, if no Kants, or Schellings, or Hegels, agitate the intellect of our Universities, still the leading conceptions and most valuable propositions, even of these philosophers, are perhaps less generally taken up into the actual life and working intelligence of the ordinary German Public than into those of large numbers of Englishmen, who, in all probability, have never surmised the existence of their systems, or heard of their names. Through their influence upon the minds and works of the few English writers who have taken them into their own theories or sentiments about human destinies and relations, these ideas work indirectly over a wider field of social activity, and I have heard an English mechanic talk pure Kantian philosophy without the least suspicion of the sources whence it had flowed into his mind.’ (The Life, Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton, vol. i, p. 264-5, 1883).