Beyond Justice by Agnes Heller (1987)

Beyond justice, or the anthropological revolution

Both Kantianism and utilitarianism are philosophies beyond justice. We know that all kinds of justice must be of a nature that permits the application of the formal concept of justice. Kant himself did not dismiss the concept of justice, but kept it within the framework o the doctrine of law. In moral philosophy, rational humankind (intelligible humankind) is not a social cluster to which the formal concept of justice applies. ‘To be just’ does not figure among the norms which qualify for the maxim of the categorical imperative, and for good reason. Only absolutely concrete obligations qualify for ‘duty as such’. If moral commandments stipulate, ‘You should not murder’, ‘You should not lie’, ‘You should not embezzle’, and the like. we all know what we should not do. If a commandment stipulates, ‘You should not be unjust’, we must first know what justice or injustice is. And indeed we do know: being just means applying the norm which constitutes a social cluster to each and every member of this cluster. However, according to the categorical imperative we must first test the very norm which applies. And, if the latter cannot be willed to be natural law, we obviously ought to be unjust, because we are not permitted to apply that norm. But to repeat: Kant goes beyond justice: we ought to act such that the maxim of our action could become the universal law; that is to say, the law for all intelligible beings. What Kant formulates thereby is the universal criterion for a non-existent justice. We ought to act as if this criterion existed, though it does not exist (empirically). We could even add that the formula according to which no man should be used as mere means by another man is the ultimate concretization of the criterion. You should use no man in this way, the commandment prescribes. In other words, each and every man belonging to the intelligible world of humankind should equally be treated also as an end-in-itself. On the other hand, utilitarianism remains ‘below justice’, as it does not suggest any universal criterion of justice either. The greatest happiness is to be achieved for the greatest number, not the same happiness for each and every member of any society or humankind, not even a happiness proportionate to something under the guidance of any idea of justice.

The great enigma of all moral philosophies, summed up in the celebrated statement that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, seemingly disappears for good. In utilitarianism the dilemma is easily (too easily) solved, whilst in Kant it is seriously faced and then dismissed. ‘Phenomenal men’, driven by the thirst for power, fame and possessions, obviously prefer to commit Injustice than to suffer it, and their unjust acts may even benefit the public and accelerate material progress. ‘Nuomenal men’, on the other hand, cannot commit injustice, for this would be ethically self-contradictory. The moral law ‘In us’ hurts, it causes pain, in so far as it smashes the concept of self-love, desires and particularistic goals. Given the dual character of human beings, we cannot be simultaneously good and happy. But the righteous man, and the righteous man alone, is worthy of happiness. And Kant’s argument does not stop here. If it did, the unification of supreme moral good and supreme natural good could not have been posited. Righteousness in Kant is not a mere subjective option: to apply a modern term, it is resoluteness (Entschlossenheit), resoluteness for autonomy, for freedom, for rational humankind; and, because of this, the universal, the end (supreme good) constituted by morality, cannot stop at the stage of a mere wish (as only phenomenal men wish). Since the possibility of supreme good cannot be deduced empirically, it must be deduced transcendentally, in the form of a postulate. Kant circumvented both the paradox of reason and the paradox of faith in an ingenious manner. The attempt to prove theoretically the unity of the supreme moral and the supreme natural good would have led to the paradox of reason. But it is Kant’s point of departure that such an attempt cannot be undertaken. The paradox of faith is the result of belief in a hidden God (God is the fountainhead of justice but we do not know his ways). But, again, it is Kant’s point of departure that we do not know and cannot know whether God exists at all. The transcendental deduction of the postulate of the existence of God avoids the traps of both paradoxes. ‘Therefore, the highest good is possible in the world only on the supposition of a supreme cause of nature which has a causality corresponding to the moral intention.’[42] The postulate of the supreme original good backs the postulate of the supreme deduced good – of the best world. But we have no duties towards God (whose existence we only postulate): ‘All that here belongs to duty is the endeavour to produce and to further the highest good in the world, the existence of which may thus be postulated....[43]

Thus Kant finally posits the possibility of the best possible moral world. But what is it like? The only theoretically possible way to conceive of this world, Kant conclusively argues, is to posit it as the unity of the realm of nature and the realm of morality. Thus the best possible moral world presupposes an anthropological revolution.

The solution, which only emerges on the horizon in the Critique of Practical Reason, is elaborated in full in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. The most serious problem of the categorical imperative becomes explicit here. Kant, who found the proper balance on the tightrope between the paradox of reason and that of faith, plunges headlong into the paradox of freedom.

The ‘best possible moral world’, and the possibility of it, must always be argued for anthropologically. One of the fundamental statements of any ethico-political concept of justice has always been that human nature does not resist reform. But no ethico-political concept of justice posits an anthropological revolution. Man, as he is, can change for the better, philosophers argue, and how better this ‘better’ might be depends on the end, the ‘good society’ posited by them as possible. Very little is required from people in Hobbes, or even in Hegel. No anthropological change was envisaged by Aristotle, and even Plato described a second-best possible state where recommended reforms in human nature were of a modest nature. We know that the members of the ‘network’ in Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse often blundered, carried away by unruly passions, but they were able to correct each other’s blunders with friendly criticism. Although some kind of anthropological revolution (the second denaturalization) was required in The Social Contract, the paradox of freedom (constraining people to accept their freedom) implied that this revolution cannot be fully achieved. We all know that Rousseau’s model of freedom was not viable for Kant. However, when Kant rid himself of one paradox of freedom, he ended up grappling with a version of it of no lesser gravity. If righteousness is absolute morality, pure intelligibility, absolute freedom, then the supreme good posited by it, the best possible moral world, must be the world of absolute morality, pure intelligibility and absolute freedom. The whole of human nature must become intelligible, every necessity must become freedom, no Particularity can remain in this best possible world. In short, the Kantian ‘best possible world’ presupposes the absolute perfectibility of human nature. This is indeed an extravaganza, but one that follows from the disintegration of the ethico-political concept of justice, given that (a) supreme natural good (happiness) is not abandoned, (b) the ‘city on earth’ is still posited, (c) freedom is absolutized, and (d) supreme moral good is unified with the notions of freedom and reason.

It is to the merit of Kant that, although the best possible world is conceived as the world of pure intelligibility, absolute freedom and absolute morality, he did not dwell at length on the realization of the ‘city on earth’, where establishment he sees as pertaining to a remote future. [44] But Kant’s ‘perfectibilism’ does indeed rest on the postulate of the best possible world, and not on the image of its final realization. To paraphrase Marx, the Kantian ‘first stage of communism’, the establishment of the ‘Invisible Church’, this precondition of his ‘second stage of communism’, the best possible moral ‘city on earth’ already presupposes an anthropological revolution, the revolution of intention (Gesinnung). As far as morals are concerned, the good civil state is still the ‘state of nature’:

But if a man is to become not merely legally, but morally, a good man (pleasing to God) ... this cannot be brought about through gradual reformation . . . but must be effected through a revolution in the man’s disposition (a going over to the maxim of holiness of the disposition). He can become a new man only by a kind of rebirth, as it were a new creation and a change of heart.[45]

In the ‘first stage of communism’ – that is to say, after the revolution in disposition – evil is still present in the senses. People still belong to two distinct states; the ‘ethical-civil’ (ethisch-bürgerlich) and the ‘legal-civil’ (rechtbürgerlich). All people must belong to both states, because the senses must undergo a reform after the revolution in disposition has taken place.

Accordingly, the result of the process is as follows. To the degree that we are imperfect, we belong to the ‘legal-civil’ society. To the degree that we are perfect, we belong to ‘ethical-civil’ society. in ‘ethical-civil’ society, or the ethical community, we are free, but above all we are virtuous, in so far as we have no choice between good and evil, not even between the good and the better. In short, we have no choice at all.

The ‘ethical state on earth’ envisaged by Kant is not a state at all, for obvious reasons. Angels do not need states. The member of Kant’s ‘invisible Church’, who already live in the realm of freedom, resemble Kierkegaard’s ‘knights of faith’. Even the notion ‘incognito’ can be applied to them, for it is extremely difficult (if it is possible at all) to tell the members of this Church from people who only act dutifully. But, even if the end (supreme deduced good) casts Its shadow on the categorical imperative itself, the post-Kierkegaardian existentialist solution and the Kantian solution of the moral problems are still worlds apart. As long as we live in both spheres (natural and intelligible), torn between the freedom of the moral law and the ethical arbitrariness of our natural inclinations, we are still moral human beings.” And we are human moral beings not because we are absolutely free, but because we are not so. And, even if we have no moral choice, we still have a choice between resoluteness (Entschlossenheit) and lack of resoluteness towards the moral law. It must not be forgotten that in Kant the concept of absolute freedom as absolute autonomy was meant to rescue morality after the fragmenting of the ethico-political concept of justice. But absolute freedom as absolute autonomy destroys human morals completely. This is the paradox of freedom, if freedom is interpreted as autonomy.

The idea of the anthropological revolution did not free Kantian philosophy from the paradox of freedom; just the contrary. It was Nietzsche who left behind this paradox by disclosing its hidden dimensions. Indeed, absolute harmony via the anthropological revolution destroys morality: so let it be destroyed. Once this step is taken. the paradox disappears. Although it is difficult to assess Nietzsche’s aphoristic witticism in any coherent way, one does not err greatly if one views his philosophy as the most radical attempt at eliminating the paradox of autonomy, by pledging to smash the moral heritage of the biblical ‘slab of stone’.

The Marxian project was even more ambitious. Marx did not simply piece together what had been torn asunder – namely, the socio-political and ethical components of the ethico-political concept of justice – but he did want to connect them in an indivisible whole. However, after separation, both these facets had already undergone substantial changes. The socio-political component had increasingly lost its ethical basis. Socio-political inquiry had become first and foremost the science of economy, where the ‘invisible hand’ reigned supreme. Social philosophy of justice concentrated on the problem of distributive justice under the alternative conditions of abundance or scarcity. The development of needs was seen as a self-perpetuating process (as it was also in Kant). Interest, as the motive force of socio-political action, was taken for granted. Liberated from the ‘ought’ and ‘should’ of supreme moral good (or supreme natural good), social inquiry had become ‘positive’ science. Simultaneously, the ethical component of the ethico-political concept of justice had also been ‘liberated’ from the obsolete task of assessing real possibilities, from the responsibility to search for ‘ought’ in ‘Is’, to speculate about the substantive features of a good social order. Consequently, absolute autonomy and the extravaganza of the anthropological turn towards ‘perfection’ had been conceived, and the religious idea of the ‘Kingdom of God’ had been secularized. The task that presented itself was to combine the socio-political and the anthropological-ethical components of the ethico-political concept of justice, now worlds apart. And Marx succeeded, almost completely, in achieving this.

Marx’s point of departure is the idea of absolute freedom, formulated as early as his dissertation on Epicur. Absolute freedom is equivalent to no authority and no constraint. All norms, rules and values external to individuals are authorities; all socio-political necessities and determinations are constraints. The Kantian distinction between phenomenal and nuomenal man is historicized. Nuomenal man is ‘species essence’ (Gattungswesen), alienated in history. Hitherto, history has progressed via alienation. But now the time has come for this trend to be reversed. The most alienated stage of history is also the last. Capitalism has already cleared the way for the historical change in so far as it has dismantled all traditional ethical authorities and institutions (norms, rules, values, duties). Economic constraint is now the only obstacle left. Should this obstacle be removed, the path to absolute freedom will lie clear. Capitalism also produces the social agent to remove the economic constraint, the proletariat, which cannot liberate itself without simultaneously liberating all humankind. With the removal of economic constraint, the real, the genuine history of humankind, begins. This history, communism, leads to an anthropological revolution, to de-alienation; that is to say, the unification of the individual and the species. Absolute freedom as the unification of individual and species, essence and existence, phenomenal and nuomenal man, reminds us of Kant (and Kantian Marxism did pay tribute to this resemblance). However, Kant’s and Marx’s methods of argumentation have nothing in common. In Marx, theoretical reason (critical science) performs a double task: the task of reconstructing history, and the task of deducing absolute freedom as a necessary future from a history already reconstructed. Practical reason is not a moral agency. It is identified with socio-political practice (class struggle). Revolution is not a revolution in intention (Gesinnung, maxims), but a socio-political revolution. True enough, interest cannot be the motivation for liberation in Marx either. But he distinguishes between needs and interests, and identifies radical needs as the true motive force. Radical needs exist but cannot be satisfied in the existing order, and this is why they motivate the bearer of social practice (the proletariat) to crush this order in the final act of liberation.

The traditional ethico-political concept of justice – good men create good society but only good society can make all men good is thus transformed as follows: the liberation of humankind creates free society, and only in free society can all men be free. In societies of unfreedom all ethics are alienated because moral concepts are ‘superstructures’ of an alienated economic order. It is useless to preach morals’ because there cannot be true morality where there is no freedom. Under the condition of de-alienation (or the end of alienation), where species essence and individual coalesce, everyone will be a moral being precisely for this reason. In the realm of absolute freedom, authority (species essence) is within and not above the individual. Marx thus eliminates ‘ought’ from both prehistory (where it is futile) and from real history (where it is redundant).[47] The ethical idea of justice (to each according to his merit), which draws its legitimation from the claim of righteousness to happiness, is completely absent from Marx.

But this is not the whole story. The absolute juxtaposition of unfreedom and freedom (realm of necessity – realm of freedom), together with the absolutization of freedom itself, makes all regulative ideas of justice irrelevant for Marx’s project. For Marx, the only sensible concept of justice is the formal concept. In each society, the norms and rules of a social cluster are to be applied to each and every member of that cluster. In this sense, Marx reasons, all societies are just, capitalism included. In capitalism, the rules of the market are, indeed, applied consistently and continuously to all members of society. And, since all societies have been alienated and unfree, but at the same time just, justice is an empty value, and therefore irrelevant. In a de-alienated society, after the anthropological revolution, where no external rules and norms are left, and no constraint remains, all ideas and notions of justice will become irrelevant; but, then, abstract justice too will disappear for good. The society of ‘associated producers’ is a society beyond justice. We know that Marx later added certain qualifications to this concept, such as ‘In the first phase of communism the form concept of justice still applies’ (for we are not yet completely free), and ‘the sphere of production will remain the realm of necessity even in communism, and this is why duty (and justice) cannot be eliminated here. But, whatever the specifications, the fundamental pattern remains intact. Freedom is absolute: where there is freedom, there are no duties or constraints; where there is freedom, individual and species coalesce; where there is freedom, there is no justice. Absolute freedom is beyond justice.

Without analysing the historical changes in the concept, it should be remarked here that the emphasis on the anthropological revolution, so forceful in the ‘Paris Manuscripts’, was later diminished, though it never completely disappeared. Marx later relied more and more on the liberal concept of freedom. This is why the notion of abundance became a central category in his work. To relate absolute freedom to the condition of absolute abundance is indeed an alternative to the theory of an ‘anthropological revolution’, although it is, philosophically at least, an inferior version. However, even this scenario excludes justice, because the idea ‘to each according to his needs’ is not an idea of justice. To be more precise, it might be an idea of justice in one interpretation (the needs of each and every person are recognized), but then it excludes absolute freedom. One cannot have absolute freedom and justice (of any kind) simultaneously.

Marx, like Nietzsche, succeeds in circumventing the paradox of freedom, though in an entirely different manner. Instead of positing the superman, he posits the supersociety, a society purely rational, intelligible (transparent) and absolutely free. Absolute freedom is a state without moral norms and moral choice (between good and evil, or even between good and better). Men are unique and different, yet their difference resides not in their morals (as all individuals share ‘species essence’) but in their abilities and capacities, which they fully develop. Thus individual uniqueness and singularity is aesthetic and not ethical in character. (When Marx considers what people will do in a communist society, he always mentions artistic activities.) Righteous persons are not considered to be the repositories of the supreme good; no moral claim is realized in the realm of freedom. The all-embracing category of alienation stands for the alienation of the process of individual objectification into a cumulated social wealth the individual cannot appropriate. Those who cannot develop their own selves, whose abilities are crippled, whose desires are trampled underfoot, are the ones who raise the claim to absolute freedom. In short, it is not righteousness but suffering that raises this claim. Absolute freedom is the end of human suffering (though not the end of human pain), and not the promised land of the righteous. This is a grand idea and it is rooted in a religious tradition to the same extent as the Kantian image of the ‘ethical state’. The conception is very close to a ‘theodicy of suffering’ in that the promise pertains not to those who do not commit injustice but to those who suffer the greatest injustice. The proletariat suffers most, and consequently it is the bearer of the promise. The people of Redemption are chosen not on the grounds of their righteousness but on the grounds of their suffering. It is in this way that the paradox of freedom is circumvented.

However, the reconstruction of the complete ethico-political concept of justice falls. The end of suffering is not to be the dawn of justice, but the end of justice. The idea of absolute freedom hinges either on the extravaganza of the anthropological revolution (the coalescence of all individuals and the species essence) or on the self-contradictory concept of absolute abundance. [48] Putting aside the theoretical fallacies incumbent upon the Marxian philosophy of history which I analysed in A Theory of History) – namely, the obvious transcensus of theoretical reason of which Marx is guilty, and the neglect or misrepresentation of the political domain, cultural value patterns, and the like – the Marxian solution does not hold water for other reasons. Hegel was right: the edifice of the ethico-political concept of justice can only be built upon the idea of an already existing moral order (Sittlichkeit). In so far as it is built on this idea, the theory presupposes a change in society to match the idea, and a change in human nature to live up to it. If the concept is built upon morality, the posited ‘macrocosmos’ must be already present in the ‘microcosmos’ of the ‘city in the soul’. Human nature, being what it is, must have all the propensities of the ‘good’, and by virtue of a certain ‘original’ goodness or the ‘laws of reason’. The assertion, ‘It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it’, must be argued for. Marx designs his ‘city on earth’ without reference to the ‘city in the soul’; there is no place for the latter in his theory. Consequently, it Is not only the extravaganza of the anthropological revolution that is built on sand; in terms of this theory, not even the betterment of an existing human nature can be envisaged. One Could, in principle, make a case for ‘radical needs’ as the main constituents of, or at least the motivations for, the ‘city in the soul’, but Marx does not consider this option. Had he done so, he should have substituted a democratic concept of freedom for the liberal notion o absolute (and empty) freedom. But he subsequently substituted the development of forces of production for the ‘city in the soul’. he ethico-political concept of justice in Marx does not separate into its ethical and socio-political components, because the latter absorbs the former. However, it does separate into a reconstructive (critical) component and a prophetic component, in a manner whereby the two can never meet on a rational plane. Marx’s failure to combine necessity and absolute freedom, critical science and an anthropological revolution, can be viewed as an Indicator of the demise of the complete ethico-political concept of justice, and as a warning against any attempt to revive it.

Towards an incomplete ethico-political concept of justice

In a work of Diderot’s unpublished in his lifetime, A Refutation Following the Work of Helvetius Titled ‘On Man’, we find the following important passage:

We all are born with a just spirit! But what is a just spirit? ... A commonly well-organized man is capable of everything. Believe this, Helvetius, if it suits you.... I have not found justice, and I have looked for it with more effort than you demand.... For example, I am convinced that even in such a badly organized society as ours, where successful vice is often applauded and failed virtue is almost always ridiculed, I am convinced, I say, that all in all one cannot do better here for one’s own happiness but by being a good man.... This is a question upon which I have meditated a hundred times and with all the spiritual intensity I am capable of; I had, I think, the necessary gifts: shall I confess to you? I would not even have dared to seize the pen to write the first line otherwise. I said to myself, if I do not emerge victorious from this attempt, I will become the apologist of malevolence; I would have betrayed the cause of virtue, I would have encouraged man to commit vice. No, I do not feel myself sufficient for this task. I would dedicate in vain my life to it.... Do you want a most simple question? Here it is. Is or is not a philosopher who is summoned to a court of law obliged to confess his feelings and put his life thereby at peril? ... What is the best government for a great empire, and by what solid precautions would we succeed in limiting sovereign authority? ... What are the circumstances in which a simple individual might believe himself to be the interpreter of all wills? Is eloquence a good or a bad thing? Do we have to sacrifice to the hazards of a revolution the happiness of a present generation for the happiness of a coming generation? Is a savage state preferable to a police state? These are not childish questions, and you believe that every, man received from nature the ability to solve them? Without false modesty., please give me dispensation.”

This passionate statement carries a triple message:

1 The problems worthy of philosophical reflection are the ones that were raised, and eventually solved, by various ethico political concepts of justice.

2 The solutions presented by the ethico-political concepts of justice are wrong. (And here Diderot has Rousseau in mind as well.) They are wrong because philosophers do not delve into the depths of the problems they address. Even if the courage to do so is there, one inevitably runs into contradictions. To solve these on a philosophical level is not tantamount to solving the problems themselves. Ethico-political concepts of justice fall to make this distinction. This is why philosophy can become a dangerous and even a demonic enterprise, and can make a case for evil in its quest for truth. Modern philosophy carries the burden of an enormous responsibility. It is preferable, for it is more responsible, simply to raise the questions, without making a hasty attempt to solve them. It is preferable, for it is more responsible, to live together, along with those same contradictions we cannot overcome in our actions and decisions, in our capacities as human beings and citizens. Yes, it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. We can live according to this principle, but we cannot prove it. And we should not pretend that we can. The philosopher must forgo construing a complete ethico-political concept of justice.

The solution of the supreme philosophical problems is possible. Resignation should not, therefore, be final. To raise the questions, to face the contradictions, to penetrate the depths of the issues, presupposes the regulative idea that such issues can be solved. But it is indeed a regulative and not a constitutive idea. Philosophy must remain unfinished, incomplete, if life does not provide the solid basis of its completion.

If we cast only a cursory glance at the works of Diderot, we see how many paths he embarked upon. He experimented with several solutions. We can recognize Rousseau, Goethe, Kant and Hegel, and sometimes even Burke and Kierkegaard, in his invariably brilliant ideas. He anticipated or influenced many of these figures, but is identical with none of them. The multifaceted character of Diderot’s inquiry does not stem from an inability to systematize. Diderot searched for answers in many directions. He did not restrict himself to any particular avenue of enquiry. He was the first to formulate the programme of a deliberately incomplete philosophy, which remains incomplete not because it turns away from the supreme (and traditional) issues of philosophy but precisely because it addresses them, and only them.

The advocate of activity in the public sphere never published his most original manuscript. Diderot’s contributions to the Encyclopaedia were written in the spirit of the mainstream Enlightenment, which he believed in and represented with such a pure conscience. The fear of retribution cannot explain his reluctance to publish (he outdid all his contemporaries in his displays of civic courage). The fear of harming his allies is not a sufficient explanation either. (Rameau’s Nephew did not hit any of them.) We simply must accept that the reasons he gives in the above passage were the decisive ones.

Moreover, we must bear in mind that the most novel and pioneering works of Diderot (except for the criticism of Helvetius) are written in the form of dialogue (entretien). At the time when philosophy made the last adequate attempts to systematize its sublime issue in a complete ethico-political concept of justice, as well as its first attempts to go beyond this concept, literature could make headway in the presentation of problems as problems. After all, Rousseau’s fuite en avant (the first part of La Nouvelle Héloïse is also a literary work. So is the satyr play of Enlightenment, Sade’s Justine. German literature perfected this tendency. Of course. both Lessing and Goethe were greatly indebted to Diderot. Lessing followed in the footsteps of Diderot in working out his incomplete ethico-political concept of justice,” and Rameau’s Nephew first appeared in Goethe’s translation. The Wise Nathan, on the one hand, and Wilhelm Meister and even Faust, on the other, raise the problems of Diderot’s spirit. The distinction between a regulative and a constitutive idea, so strict in philosophy, can be overcome in fiction, as it was overcome in Faust’s last daydream, where the wager was won by God.

In Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, a philosophical work par excellence, there is neither winner nor loser. The dialogue differs substantially from the Platonian, and even more from the Renaissance dialogues (for instance, those of Giordano Bruno). Plato’s dialogues were timeless, for truth was believed to be timeless. Renaissance dialogues were time-bound: the clash depicted in them took place between the new and the real, and the old and outdated truth. Whether it was in the complex and sophisticated manner of Plato, or the simple and one-sided manner of Bruno, true knowledge always won, and won by argumentation. Diderot’s dialogue has an affinity with the Renaissance dialogues in that it is time-bound. However, here it is not the old truth that clashes with the new, but two interpretations of the new and the modern that clash with each other. Diderot’s dialogue has an affinity with Plato in a decisive way: the protagonists do not simply mouth ideas; they also stand for ideas, they lead a life in harmony with their ideas. They not only have characters, they are characters. The representative of ‘good’ is in both cases the philosopher who is committed to the principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, the incorruptible ethical principle of all moral philosophies. However, the representatives of ‘evil’ in Plato and Diderot have nothing in common but the propositional element of their arguments. In Plato, every character is a rational agent. The tyrant, the sophist, the rhetor are successful, wealthy and powerful, and they defend their way of life. However, Rameau’s nephew makes a plea for evil in a non-rational way, for living up to his theory makes him utterly unhappy and despondent. It is Socrates who plays the comic in Plato, whereas his adversaries ‘are serious and pompous. The cast is reversed in Diderot: Rameau is the clown, stating, ‘I don’t know anything’, whilst the philosopher remains serious, like B in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. To avoid any misunderstanding, the ‘F of the dialogue is not a solemn preacher who censures laughter, gaiety or human weaknesses. But the ironic attitude is only ethical if it clears the way for the new ‘city in the sky’, so he cannot be ironical and still keep his human dignity intact. Rameau becomes a master of irony and self-Irony, and he uses irony not as a means of clearing the way for the insight into truth, but as a form of life, and, as such, a mode of self-abasement and frivolity. Diderot divided the personality of Socrates into two parts, the moralist and the ]ester, and made both problematic, even if not to the same extent.

In all probability, the discussion between Rameau’s nephew and Diderot did take place. Diderot was known as a great causeur. He loved discussing matters of life with everyone, as well as translating seemingly banal issues into philosophical problems. The fact that Diderot committed to paper exactly this conversation indicates his deep concern not only for the topic of the dialogue but also for the way the discussion was conducted. Diderot’s visionary eyes transform the real character of Rameau into a ‘prophetic character’, to use Lukacs’ term. Indeed, Rameau is a figure befitting Dostoevsky’s pen a century before Dostoevsky. Diderot puts himself (the ‘I’ of the dialogue) into an unusually weak position (unusual in philosophical dialogues). He improves this weak position not via the argumentative reaffirmation of his own propositions but by arguing in line with Rameau’s fundamental proposition against Rameau. This is what I had in mind when I mentioned Diderot’s concern for the way the argument was conducted.

Had Rameau only repeated the ideas of Trasymachos or Mandeville (which he did), Diderot could have proceeded on a well-worn path and proved the superiority of virtue. But Rameau’s trump ,card was the assertion that he had ‘chosen himself’, to which ‘Diderot could only answer that he too had chosen himself (‘I am an honest man and your principles are not mine’);[51] the result is thus a stalemate. Yet the problem goes even deeper. Although Diderot despises Rameau, the two men have one thing in common: they put the genius at the pinnacle of the human race. The Achilles heel of the moralist is laid bare by Rameau at the very beginning of the discussion when he states that the moral man and the genius rarely coincide. Rameau resents men of genius because he is not a genius. Had he (Rameau) only Diderot’s talents, he would have been like Diderot. But Rameau wants to be a genius at all costs, and so he chooses himself as the genius of evil: ‘If it is important to be sublime in anything, it is specially so in evil.... What you value in everything is consistency of character.’ It is here that Diderot makes a new move. One cannot choose oneself as the genius of evil, because being a genius is not a matter of choice. Rameau’s claim to have chosen to be a genius is therefore self-contradictory. What he had in fact chosen was mimicry; he is everyone else but himself. ‘And yet there is one person free to do without pantomime, and that is the philosopher who has nothing and asks for nothing’ – and Diderot refers to Diogenes. But this switching of the trump card is not particularly convincing. If the philosopher is the only person who can choose himself, and can do so without pantomime, and if we cannot choose to be a genius, then choosing ourselves without pantomime is also a gift of nature, and not a choice open to all. Once again, the result is a stalemate. And the finale of the dialogue registers this stalemate. ‘Goodbye, Mr Philosopher. Isn’t it true that I am always the same? – Alas, yes, unfortunately. – So long as I have that misfortune for another forty years! He laughs best who laughs last. [54] And, indeed, who laughs last?

The problem is raised, but not solved. Yet there is no doubt to which position the author is committed. The interpretation that Diderot divided himself into two parts is untenable. The relation of ‘I’ to ‘He’ is not only explicitly accompanied by negative accents; it is also detached: Diderot despises Rameau but finds him amusing. (The lack of hatred, which might be problematic in respect of this point, is due to this detachment.) The roles are not only cast between virtue and vice, but also between the sublime and the base, between human dignity and the lack of it. Yet the arguments are not convincing, though I must repeat that it is Diderot who made them unconvincing, and he did so not because good became problematic in his philosophical universe, but because truth did.

Diderot went to the extreme in scrutinizing the paradox of reason (‘Is eloquence a good or a bad thing?’). Argument serves evil as well as good. Good will be no less good because evil can equally be proved by reason. However, we have not yet found the philosophical means to ascertain the superiority of good, and we should not pretend that we have. We have seen how close Plato came to the same conclusion. But Plato had his protagonist, Socrates, who died for the true and the good. His martyrdom was put on the scales as ,V the final proof. Diderot does not fall to refer to this proof either ‘I: Who is disgraced today, Socrates or the judge who made him drink the hemlock? – He: And a fat lot of good it has done him! ... Because he despised a bad law, did that do anything to prevent his encouraging fools to despise a good one?’[55] This argument is not pushed further, because Diderot himself did not believe that the gesture of dying for a cause can prove the truth of it. And, indeed, almost every position, faith or knowledge would prove true if we ,accepted voluntary death on its behalf as the single proof of truth.

What speaks for the morality of a person does not necessarily speak for the truth of the cause the person advocates. That is why Diderot listed among the unsettled questions the one of whether or not a modern philosopher should act as Socrates did.

Diderot arrived at the historical distinction of theoretical and practical reason. We cannot and we should not accept the :separation of the two attitudes, but we must live with this – separation. We must act as moral agents, despite the ambiguity of theoretical reason. But we cannot give up the claim for the reunification of theoretical and practical reason. Had Diderot known Kant, he would have rejected him. Had he known Hegel, he would have rejected him as well. Keep raising and discussing the problems. Keep living an honest life, and exclude solutions which might conceivably play into the hands of the devil. Philosophy as a perpetual ‘dialogue’ (entretien) conducted from the standpoint of practical reason – this was Diderot’s legacy. It is this legacy that I termed the ‘incomplete ethico-political concept of justice’.