For many of us, the question “War, what is it good for?” has only one possible answer: “Absolutely nothing.” 1 You might be surprised, then, to learn that Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment, had a distinctly different opinion.
Anthony Pagden (THE ENLIGHTENMENT and Why It Still Matters) explains:
Kant was not in the conventional sense a pacifist. War had sometimes served mankind well in the past and might continue to serve it well, under certain very specific conditions, in the future.
What did Kant consider to be the benefits of war? According to Pagden:
It had been war that had driven the first men out of their original habitats and around the globe. Without war humans would, like all other animals, still be huddling together on the small patch of land where they had first emerged….It had been warfare, “however great an evil it might be,” that had motivated “the transition from the brutish state of nature into a state of civil society.” At a later stage it had been wars, all wars, which “amount to attempts…not in the intentions of humanity, but indeed in the intentions of nature,” that had compelled more socialized humans to establish relationships between states and create new ones…And it is war, and fear of future war, that demands “even of the heads of states” a certain “respect for humanity.”
Necessity being the mother of invention, war necessitated more invention, social and technological, than pretty much anything else:
War is an instrument of what Kant calls “culture” (Kultur), the willful social and moral improvement of the human species, which alone makes it finally fit to “pursue any ends whatsoever.” It was, after all, the “Saracens, the Crusades, and the conquest of Constantinople” that, between them, had spread “science, taste, and learning to the West.” Thus, “only after culture has been perfected (God alone knows when this will be) would a lasting peace be salutary for us, and only through such culture would it become possible.”
War, then, “is a deeply concealed, perhaps intentional attempt of the most supreme wisdom, if not to establish then at least to prepare lawfulness along with the freedom of states and thereby the unity of a morally grounded system of states.”
Freedom, and from freedom progress, is only possible for man in the face of persistent anxiety. Without war the whole of mankind would have remained like those happy but ineffectual Tahitians who could not give any adequate explanation as to why they bothered to live at all.2
In the end, however, it is warfare that drives man, inexorably and despite himself, and if only to avoid the actual destruction of the species, toward the development of the “universal cosmopolitan condition…the final end of human existence, the end…which nature has as its aim…” 3
1 We might perhaps make an exception for Randolph Bourne’s helpful reminder that “War is the health of the state.”
2 To borrow from St. Paul, we might ask, “O foolish Tahitians, who has bewitched you?”
3 It’s the teleology, stupid.