Kantian Eschatology

In his essay on “The End of All Things,” Kant analyzes the “pious language” that speaks of “a person who is dying as going out of time into eternity.” Kant finds no comfort in the thought. On the contrary there is “something horrifying” about it.

The end of time must mean the end of all experience. We cannot conceive a life that does not involve temporal succession; we doubt whether it counts as life at all: “that at some point a time will arrive in which all alteration (and with it, time itself) ceases—this is a representation which outrages the imagination. For then the whole of nature will be rigid and as it were petrified: the last thought, the last feeling in the thinking subject will then stop and remain forever the same without any change.” For human beings, who are conscious of “existence and the magnitude of this existence (as duration) only in time,” a timeless existence “appears equivalent to annihilation, because in order to think itself into such a state it still has to think something in general, but thinking contains a reflecting, which can occur only in time.”

Timeless eternity is not only inconceivable; it is self-contradictory, for bliss and punishment depend on meeting conditions of possibility for experience, one of which is temporality. An atemporal bliss or punishment cannot be experienced at all, and so the thought of the afterlife leads to a speculative impasse, an aporia.

Faced with speculative nonsense, Kant moralizes. He is the master of tropology.

The afterlife as timeless eternity is impossible to theorize, but we can draw some moral consequences. Kant distinguishes between “unitists” who believe that all shall be saved and “dualists” who believe that only some select group will enter eternal happiness. Neither of these is theoretically justifiable, but the latter has a moral advantage.

On the one hand, universalism requires a degree of self-knowledge that is beyond our capacity:

Who knows enough to decide whether if we subtract from the causes of a presumably well-led course of life everything which is called the merit of fortune—such as an innately kind temperament, the naturally greater strength of his higher powers (of the understanding and reason, to tame his drives), besides that also his opportunity, the times when contingency fortunately saved him from many temptations which struck another who knows if he separates all these from his actual character (from which he must necessarily subtract them if he is to evaluate it properly, since as gifts of fortune he cannot ascribe them to his own merit)—who will then decide, I say, whether before the all-seeing eye of a world-judge one human being has any superiority over another regarding his inner moral worth?

That is, who can siphon off fortune and moral luck to isolate the moral quality of whatever good and evil actions he is actually responsible for? No one. And since our conscience is the only possible judge of our moral condition, the fact that conscience is stymied must mean that we can have no certainty of our moral merit.

Better to live “as if” the dualists were right, as if it were possible to end up in a lake of fire. This is especially the case for public morality. Heroic standards of virtue fail “to have such a generally powerful influence for converting people’s minds as a scene accompanied by terrors, which is thought of as preceding the last things.” What high-minded virtue cannot accomplish, horror can. Practical reason dictates that “it is wise to act as if another life – and the moral state in which we end this one, along with its consequences in entering on that other life is unalterable. Thus from a practical point of view, the system to be assumed will have to be the dualistic one—especially since the unitistic system appears to lull us too much into an indifferent sense of security.”

Kant wonders why people are inclined to believe in an “end of all things” in the first place. There is a certain aesthetic appeal. Without any sense of an ending “creation itself appears purposeless to them, like a play having no resolution and affording no cognition of any rational aim.” And that aesthetic appeal is also a moral appeal: That our lives will come to an end gives urgency to our moral efforts, and the prospect of the end of all things universalizes that urgency.

Kant no doubt believed he was sketching a grown-up way to think about the end of all things. He wanted to face death, the prospect of future punishment, and even the end of all things, without the childish comforts of faith, a loving Father, justification by faith, or the literal terrors of hell. Me, I am quite content to remain a child, here and elsewhere.


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