“Dicy Transformation” (from Theodicy to the Obligation to Formulate an Anthropodicy)

By “Dicy Transformation” we understand a displacement of the onus of justification: the transition from the obligation to formulate a Theodicy to the obligation to formulate an Anthropodicy. Although the “Age of Enlightenment” involved, not least, enlightenment as to the untenability of theodicies, the belief in some sort of Creator remained, generally speaking, intact. Even Voltaire considered atheism to be something harmful to society and famously formulated the proposition: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’ (Implosion of God). Kant too, due to certain moral-philosophical considerations, would gladly have held to the notion of a Creator God but was obliged by the structure of his own philosophical system, strongly critical of all metaphysical claims, to relegate this notion to the status of a “postulate of pure practical Reason”, i.e. an idea to which nothing that actually existed could be demonstrated to correspond. In the following remarks we want to trace out, on the one hand, how Kant’s re-examination of the classical question of theodicy – “how could a God both entirely good and all-powerful possibly have permitted all those ills and evils to exist by which human beings in the world are so affected?” – culminates in an obligation to formulate an anthropodicy which remains, by Kant himself, unrecognized and unexpressed.

Then, in a second consideration of this “dicy transformation”, we trace out, by use of examples, the reaction which ensued in many literary works of the modern period on this failure and collapse of the “theodicy” idea. This reaction took the form of the ascription of various negative attributes to a God no longer conceived of as essentially good and eventually, with the ever more rapid decline in belief in a God of any shape or nature, in the transposition of these negative attributes from the human-being-creating deity to human-being-creating human beings (parents), thus giving rise to an obligation to form, in place of a theodicy, an anthropodicy. In literature, all these negative attributes of God’s which resulted from the collapse of theodicy were asserted and represented[1] in the form of those mythologemes of the “bored”, the “wicked”, or even of the “sadistic” Creator which reflect back upon all the natalistically enlightened parents who failed to live up to that obligation to an anthropodicy which is implicit in every act of procreation.

There counted, for Kant, as established already from the time of the “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781) onward, the truth that he sums up as follows in his 1790 “Critique of Judgment”: that no theoretical proof is possible of “the existence of a Prime Being, in the sense of a Godhead, or of the existence of the soul, in the sense of an immortal spirit” (Kant). If Kant, then, even after that “critical turn” in his philosophy which affected the status, in his eyes, of all metaphysical propositions held fast to the notions of God and the immortality of the soul as “postulates”, this is to be explained not in terms of the theoretical but rather in terms of the practical-ethical aspects of his thinking. Kant’s views about the history of humanity up to the time of his writing are of crucial relevance here: without these postulates the horror of this history would be so overwhelming and unadulterated that one could only turn away from it in horror. Kant says as much explicitly in his 1784 essay “Idea for a Universal History With Cosmopolitan Purpose”, in which the tone he adopts seems curiously uninhibitedly metaphysical:

“For what good does it do to praise the glory and wisdom of Creation in the reasonless realm of Nature and to recommend this latter to our contemplation if that part of this great theatre of the highest wisdom which contains the end and purpose of all this – namely, the history of the human race – is to remain a ceaseless reproach to all this wisdom and glory the sight of which forces us to turn our eyes away from it with indignation?” (Kant, Schriften zur Geschichtsphilosophie)

If Providence is to be justified (theodicy), then an especial “viewpoint from which to observe the world” (ibidem) must be selected. If one considers history as if there were some “rational intent” (ibidem) underlying it, one must not despair about the course it is taking and feel impelled to avert one’s gaze from it but may rather hope that one day things will be better: “One may look, broadly speaking, upon the history of the human species as the execution of a hidden plan of Nature intended to bring to realization an internally – and, to this end, also externally – perfected state constitution, this being the only condition in which Nature can carry to full development all those talents and predispositions which it has implanted within Man.”[2]

In his 1786 essay “On the Conjectural Beginning of Human History” Kant explicitly expounds this “hidden plan” and speaks (using once again a language which bears little trace of that turn toward the critique of all metaphysics which characterized his philosophical breakthrough of this decade) of “the extreme importance of being content with Providence”: “The reflective human being feels a sorrow, one that can even become a moral corruption…He feels dissatisfaction with Providence, which governs the course of the world as a whole, when he considers the ills that so afflict the human race without, as it seems, there being hope for something better.” (ibidem) Kant names here, as the greatest of these evils, war and the preparation for war. Nevertheless, he adds, at our present stage of culture “war is an indispensable means of bearing culture onward; and only after the complete perfection and consummation of culture (to occur God knows when) would an eternally-enduring peace be something salutary, indeed only then would it be something possible for us. Thus, as regards this matter, we are surely guilty ourselves of causing those evils over which we so bitterly lament.” One cannot fairly deny that there is something monstrous about such a line of argument. On the one hand, all history up to the day of Kant’s writing is supposed to be subject to some divine Providence or some secret plan (which, however, for Kant, who had already long since made his “metaphysics-critical turn”, ought to have been obsolete notions already, or at best postulated “as if”s); on the other hand, human beings are supposed, since they are endowed with freedom, to be themselves at fault for not having yet succeeded in achieving a “complete perfection and consummation of culture” and thus having to continue to make war on one another. The “perpetual peace”, then, to which Kant was later to devote an essay that bore its name, proves to be something that must be earned and indeed something which is not even, at every stage of culture, “salutary” for Man.

A “second cause for human dissatisfaction” which is registered by Kant concerns the brevity of human life, a fact with which every begotten human being finds himself confronted. But Kant invests no hope in an “extension of a game that struggles constantly with toils and labours” and portrays what states of things the “unsociable sociability” that applies at our present low stage of culture would lead to if the average human lifespan were increased to, say, 800 years. He arrives at the conclusion that “the vices of a human race that would enjoy such long life would increase to such a point that they would no longer deserve anything but to be eradicated from the earth in another Great Flood.”

Even in the above-mentioned essay on “Perpetual Peace”, from 1795, Kant still holds to this conclusion that the human species is, at our present stage of culture, well nigh morally worthless. It would be impossible, he argues, to justify God’s ever having created such creatures. A theodicy, then, would be impossible if it were certain that no higher culture than our present one is possible. Since, however, there is no such certainty, hope exists:

“Yet the process of Creation, by which such a brood of corrupt beings has been put upon the earth, can apparently be justified by no theodicy or theory of Providence if we assume that it never will be better, nor can be better, with the human race. But such a standpoint of judgment is really much too high for us to assume, as if we could be entitled, theoretically, to apply our notions of wisdom to the supreme and unfathomable power.” (“Perpetual Peace”)

Kant puts himself here, clearly, in a position of stalemate: If there is a God, there is no way to justify his creating such miserable beings as we, in our present state, are. What remains, however, is the vague hope of a better future for humanity, never entirely to be excluded as a possibility. Certain remarks of Kant’s in his 1791 essay “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy”. This essay is of especial significance because the reflections contained in it carry Kant closer to an historically-informed antinatalism than does any other of his many writings. In this essay too, indeed, Kant holds true to the principles established by his “metaphysical-critical turn” and makes it clear that, in speaking of God, we are speaking of an object “which is not attainable by way of knowledge (theoretical insight)”. Since, however, the postulate of God’s existence is indispensable for the “moral economy” of human beings, Kant constructs his text on the “Miscarriage of Theodicy” as if argument about the actions and omissions of God (even despite the existence/non-existence of this latter’s not being, for him, matters susceptible of proof or disproof) were possible before the court of human reason. Kant advances arguments typical of God’s defenders, only to refute them in such way that the failure of all theodicy is pointed up.

A defender of God, for example (so Kant argues) might advance before the court of reason the claim that life is not so bad and so filled with pain as those accusers of God, who demand a theodicy, maintain.  Kant formulates this position as follows: “the assumption that evil and misfortune tend to outweigh, in the fates that befall human beings, the pleasant enjoyment of life is surely a false one because each man, no matter how badly it is going for him, will tend to prefer going on living rather than dying.” To this defence of God Kant opposes the following argument:

“The reply to this sophistry may be left to the sentence of every human being of sound mind who has lived and pondered over the value of life long enough to pass judgment, when asked, on whether he had any inclination to play the game of life once more, I do not say in the same circumstances, but in any other he pleases (provided they are not of a fairy world but of this earthly world of ours).”  

Whereas, then, the defenders of God advance the argument that whoever has once entered into existence will not willingly leave it even if it becomes an existence full of pain, Kant believes he can cite as a decisive counter-argument to this the fact that no one would ever want to live through his existence once again – or even through a modified version of this existence – once they had gained a thorough knowledge of life and had reflected upon it in its reality. Whoever is inclined to dismiss this as just a personal opinion of Kant’s should take into account the fact that Kant’s contention here is clearly the superior one from the point of view of the logic of argumentation. Whoever already finds themselves in the midst of existence is held fast there, bionomically, by a biological imperative remote from all considerations of reason and largely immune to any philosophical “enlightenment”; were someone able really to reflect on the existence that he is held in (so argues Kant) he would certainly not choose to begin to exist and to live once again. Whether Kant is right in this assumption could only be established through taking a representative opinion survey.

Kant also has the defenders of God advance one further argument, namely the following: “the preponderance of painful feelings over pleasant ones cannot be separated from the nature of an animal creature such as the human being”. Which is as much as to say that the presence of human beings on earth is not to be imagined without considerable physical pain. But here Kant poses the decisive counter-question, one which carries him very close to the position of historically-informed antinatalism: He writes: “The retort to this is that, if that is the way it is, then another question arises: namely, why the Creator of our existence called us into life when this latter, in our correct estimate, is not desirable to us?” Here Kant distances himself very significantly from that presupposition that it is right and good for human beings to exist which is otherwise so rarely examined and questioned. If one strips the transcendental-theological superstructure away from the problem that Kant poses here there remains – in the place of that “Creator of our existence” who is, in any case, within Kant’s system nothing any longer but a “postulate” – self-procreating Man himself, who is unable either to prove or disprove God and immortality. Where we emphasize, therefore, how fundamentally questionable this “Creator”, who persists together with all his salvationary requisites only as a “postulate”, must be considered to be, we suddenly find that it is no longer God who stands accused before the “court of reason” convened by Kant but rather those human beings that procreate their species.   

Implicit in Kant’s remarks here is the notion that there exists an obligation, if one is to beget other human beings, to provide a justification or legitimation for doing so (anthropodicy). Moreover, the reproach, directed to all appearances to God, that He would have done better to create no human beings at all than to create suffering human beings in fact applies more trenchantly to Man than it does to God, since the human parents who create children are not able, as the divine Creator is supposed to be able, to assure their children a compensation for their lived sufferings in some “life after life”. Although of course, to repeat this yet again, just this “compensation by the after-life” is something that stands, in Kant’s philosophy, very much open to question. According to the “Critique of Practical Reason” of 1788 the “after-life” is not to be conceived of in the form of a paradise that would function as an institution of compensation for earthly travails but rather as an opportunity for further fulfilment of duties and obligations in the “endless progress of immortal souls from the lower to higher degrees of moral perfection”  (see “Critique of Practical Reason”, Dialectic, Part 2, IV: The Immortality of the Soul as a Postulate of Pure Practical Reason).

But if those human souls which have hitherto been brought into existence really are to have this opportunity to “progress from lower to higher degrees of moral perfection” after the deaths of their bodies, then the question naturally arises of why Kant at the same time insists on the necessity of prolonging our earthly “vale of tears”, with its wars and preparations for war supposedly serving the cause of the progress of culture, until the advent of some nebulous “perpetual peace”. Is it not enough, on Kant’s assumptions, to hope that those souls which have already entered into existence will achieve this progress toward perfection posthumously, after they have left it?

Although Kant never explicitly formulated and proposed the idea, his critical philosophy in combination with his harshly realistic view on the course of history up to the present day strongly suggests that what is needed is not a theodicy but rather an anthropodicy: i.e. a justification of the creation of human beings by human beings in view of the course that human history has hitherto taken and can be expected to take. Kant’s thoughts on child-rearing and education might also be brought into play here as a building block for such an anthropodicy. On the one hand, Kant argues that it is morally incumbent upon parents to do everything within their power to see to it that their children, up until their coming of age, remain so content with the existence which these parents have decreed for them that they would have chosen this existence, in preference to non-existence, if they had had the choice (Inversion of Natal Guilt (Retrospective Absolution of Parents)). On the other hand, however, one would have also, in order to be consistent with Kant, to advise these “pre-existential” children not to choose existence in the world, since Kant himself says that no one who had once gotten to know what existence in the world is would ever opt to enter into it over again!

In his essay “On the Common Saying: ‘This May Be True in Theory But It Does Not Apply in Practice’” from 1793 Kant bases his argument upon “my inborn duty of influencing posterity in such a way that it will make constant progress (and I must thus assume that progress is possible) and that this duty may be rightfully handed down from one member of the series to the next. History may well give rise to endless doubts about my hopes and, if these doubts could be proved, they might persuade me to desist from an apparently futile task. But so long as they do not have the force of certainty I cannot exchange my duty (as a liquidum) for a rule of expediency which says I ought not to attempt the impracticable (i.e. an illiquidum, since it is purely hypothetical). And however uncertain I may be, and remain, as to whether we can hope for anything better for mankind, this uncertainty cannot detract from the maxim I have adopted, or from the necessity of assuming for practical purposes that human progress is possible.”

Here, Kant opposes to that historically-informed antinatalism which will seem a very convincing stance to anyone taking a clear look at human events as they have unfolded up to the present day (see, in particular, his formulation that doubts arising from history “might persuade (him) to desist from an apparently futile task”) the thought that one should not allow the chain of human procreation to be broken because there exists, for parents, the vague prospect of influencing, through their raising of their children, some better “posterity” and because no one can say, apodictically, that better times will not come some day.

But even this thought does not suffice to eliminate from the world the fundamental question that Kant poses in his essay on theodicy: Why is it that we are made to begin to exist in the first place? Why should hastening, for example by the proper raising of our children, the arrival of that hypothetical “point in time so happy for our posterity” be of any importance at all if, on the way to this point in time, billions of human beings must suffer and die without any reason being able to be given for their begetting other than an egotistical one?

By taking up the standpoint that Man’s “unsociable sociability”, along with the interminable series of wars and conflicts that it causes, reveals rather “the organizing hand of a wise Creator than the destructive hand of some malevolent spirit” Kant oversteps those limits which he himself had drawn, at least once he had progressed in his thought to the stage of the “Critique of Pure Reason”, and which dictate that we can know nothing of God and may not even suppose His existence to be knowable. On these terms, however, it appears just as justifiable to proceed on the assumption of a malevolent Creator as upon that of a benevolent one. Thus, it is rather with his talk of a “malevolent spirit” that Kant strikes the note that we want to develop below.


“Dicy Transformation” in Literature: Disguised Antinatalism in the Diabolicization of God

The mythologeme of the “evil God” acts, so to speak, as the rearguard of that ideology of a “Creator deserving of our worship” which was driven out of the human race’s self-understanding by the foundering of theodicy on critical rationality. As we shall show below by citing various examples, this rearguard has continued, long after the end of Man’s “theological epoch” as a bulwark which allows human beings to block out from view an obligation to develop an anthropodicy which is nonetheless taking ever clearer form as an historical necessity.

Enlightenment, indeed, displaced God from that central position within the intellectual and emotional economy of the human species which He had occupied for so long. But this displacement did not, for all that, do away with the reproach that had been made to this God of having placed Man in a badly-ordered world.  This reproach continued to be present, objectively, in the world; it only found new addressees: namely: procreating human beings. In the same measure as Man rid himself more and more entirely of God there increased, objectively, the obligation to justify the creation of human beings by human beings – that is to say, to provide an anthropodicy. The objective obligation that has emerged from this “dicy transformation” has hardly, if ever, been recognized as such, let alone the attempt made to put it into practice. Although talk of “the death of God” has become a commonplace in our culture in the last two hundred years, we have continued (as we are able, from the necessary hermeneutic distance of the present day, to recognize) to cast against God those reproaches which really ought to be cast against procreating human beings. Even atheists, like Thomson cited below, have done this.

The assaults of reason made it plausible that the “good God” was nothing but a product of human culture, thus pushing Him into the background as a figure who could be held responsible for the world as it exists; but the reproach that had formerly been directed at Him as the Creator of human beings now fell upon human beings themselves: if it had been a bad thing for God to create human beings and place them in this world, it must also be a bad thing for human beings to beget other human beings. It would be a peculiar sort of speciesism to say that putting human beings into this world was a bad thing when God did it but becomes a good thing when human beings do it. Looked at in this way, the blasphemous diabolicization of God grounds an obligation to create an anthropodicy and gives rise to a certain antinatalist impetus. Below, we shed light on these connections and implications by reference to certain selected testimonies from literature regarding “the evil God”.

Let us begin by looking at a passage from George Eliot’s (1819–1880) novel “Adam Bede”, in which this authoress – while being fully aware of the real facts of procreation – gives expression to the dominant, and not merely vulgar, notion belonging to an intact Christian religiosity whereby each individual owes his or her existence, at least in the last instance, to God (more than to their own parents). A leading character in this novel, the Methodist lay preacher Dinah Morris, states:

“We know very well we are altogether in the hands of God: we didn’t bring ourselves into the world, we can’t keep ourselves alive while we’re sleeping.” (Eliot, Adam Bede)

In intensified form, even if in a form that displays more markedly a Reticence in Accusation, the – paradoxical – question is posed by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) in his “Anactoria” of what terrible crime human beings could have committed that has merited their being created by God and placed in such an intolerable world, furnished with a body whose pulsebeat measures the passage of time and announces thereby the constant approach of death[3]:

“Him would I reach, him smite, him desecrate, / Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath, / And mix his immortality with death. / Why hath he made us? what had all we done / That we should live and loathe the sterile sun, / And with the moon wax paler as she wanes, / And pulse by pulse feel time grow through our veins?“ (Swinburne, Anactoria)

If one substitutes for the diabolicized God of these lines (the “zero point”, or the husk, of what had once been believed to be a God essentially good) the figure of human parents (the actual “creators” of new human beings) it is these latter who become the ones reproached with having brought their progeny into existence and thereby exposed them to the pains of fugacity.

In his collection of poems “Romanzen und Jugendlieder” Platen (1796–1835) performs, indeed, no actual diabolicization of God; he touches more clearly, however, even than Bürger does on the God Taboo inasmuch as he envisages us all, quite generally, as damned to the condition of human beings:
“[…] O seek to sleep away each night / The pain and sorrow of each day; / For who can punish God, / For having damned and condemned us to be human beings!” (Platen, Romanzen und Jugendlieder, Werke Bd. 1, Lyrik)

A secular heir of the spirit of these lines would find himself having to declaim: “For who would feel able to accuse or punish his or her own parents?” The notion is already tangibly present here – even if it is not explicitly articulated – that the quarrel is not with divine providence but it is rather one’s own parents omission to Assess the Consequences of Procreation that must be deplored and regretted.

Once the notion of theodicy had essentially collapsed, we see the emergence in the literary tradition of something that can be called – inasmuch as it extends far beyond that disputatious wrangling with the divine which was already known from the legacy of antiquity – a genuine “mythology of evil”. The deity is henceforth represented as an entity motivated by boredom, or as wicked or blind, so that moral reproaches are now heaped upon it. As this artificial myth of the “evil God” gradually becomes more and more porous, these reproaches begin to attach and adhere rather to procreating human beings themselves.

[1] The remarks made here have benefited greatly from Karl S. Guthke‘s important work Die Mythologie der entgötterten Welt (1971)

[2] The objection of  Seume (1763–1810), however, seems as if tailor-made to be brought against Kant: “If human beings do finally one day become reasonable, the earth will perhaps die thereby from Marasmus senilis” (Apokryphen)

[3] This recalls Jean Paul‘s of Time as Death with ever thinner crescents (Death àPaul).

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