Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau stand at contrary poles in their assessments of the Enlightenment. As modern citizens grapple with the choice between cosmopolitan integration into the global community and a civic affection for their particular society, they will be forced to confront the arguments advanced by these thinkers almost three centuries ago.


At the crescendo of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant famously admitted his intellectual debt to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Kant praised Rousseau as a man possessing “an uncommon acuity of the mind, a noble impetus of genius, and a sensitive soul in such a high degree as has perhaps never before been possessed by a writer of any age or any people.”[1] Rousseau most served Kant by inspiring him to forge a unique and radical moral philosophy. “Newton saw for the very first time order and regularity combined with great simplicity,” Kant claimed, but “Rousseau discovered for the very first time beneath the manifold of forms adopted by the human being the deeply hidden nature of the same and hidden law.”[2] If Newton taught Kant that the natural order was governed by fixed and permanent laws, Rousseau allegedly showed him that morals themselves needed to be perceived as absolute, universal, and grounded in the human species’ common capacity to will laws that govern themselves.

Yet, while Kant’s debt to Rousseau is significant, the overarching tone of his political thought is strikingly different. Rousseau, while he hardly rejected every element of the Enlightenment, nonetheless regarded himself as a profound critic of its basic faith in progress. Rousseau wrote that the Enlightenment, far from improving morals, fostered a modern form of serfdom by turning citizens into “happy slaves.”[3] Kant, in direct contrast, praised the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” and—as will soon be demonstrated—celebrated crucial “enlightened” assumptions that Rousseau excoriated.[4] Their divergent assumptions stem from their vying political priorities. Rousseau favors a civically-minded republicanism that demands loyalty to particular places. Kant, however, prefers a liberal form of republicanism that moves the citizen’s attention away from his particular community and towards the universal needs of humanity. The profound differences between Rousseau’s civic republicanism and Kant’s classical liberalism appear most lucidly in their conflicting assessments of commercialism and cosmopolitanism. While Rousseau regards these liberal ideas as indicative of the anti-republican trend of the Enlightenment, Kant believes that their spread offers the best hope for the rise of a “Perpetual Peace.”

Rousseau on Commercialism and Cosmopolitanism in the “Fatal Enlightenment”

Rousseau expresses a profoundly republican concern for the decline of citizenship in the commercial and cosmopolitan world of the Enlightenment. His inaugural work as a man of letters, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, utterly denies the claim that “the restoration of the sciences and arts has contributed to the purification of morals.”[5] Not only does Rousseau reject the Enlightenment premise that progress in the arts and sciences necessarily corresponds with moral progress, but he even asserts that this “progress” actively corrupts morality. “Our souls have become corrupted,” he maintains, “in proportion as our Sciences and our Arts have advanced towards perfection.”[6] Rousseau avers that the corrupting effect of the arts and sciences has been experienced by nations throughout history and is not confined to the modern era: “Virtue has been seen fleeing in proportion, as [the] light [of the arts and sciences] rose on our horizon, and the same phenomenon has been observed at all times and in all places.”[7] In making these statements, Rousseau does not intend to condemn every last aspect of the Enlightenment. He praises, for instance, the decline of the religious persecution that was characteristic of the Middle Ages.[8] He looks, however, beyond this superficial benefit and perceives that the Enlightenment threatens to destroy meaningful citizenship and, with it, genuine morality.

Rousseau sometimes speaks as if he is interested in the deteriorating status of the human soul in the modern world. Such a reading, however, misunderstands Rousseau’s grievances with the Enlightenment. Certainly, Rousseau expresses concern for the “fate of morals and probity” in a world dedicated to the arts and sciences.[9] He looks with nostalgia at the ancient republican statesmen who “forever spoke of morals and virtue” and favorably contrasts them with materialistic modern politicians who consider only “commerce and money.”[10] He even attacks the Enlightenment’s conceited dismissal of the simple religion of ordinary citizens.[11] Yet, all of Rousseau’s moral concerns are fundamentally civic and political. “Every useless citizen,” he clarifies, “may be looked upon as a pernicious man.”[12] For Rousseau, commercialism and cosmopolitanism pose a threat, not because they challenge religious orthodoxy or imperil an individual’s eternal soul, but because they endanger the civic bond between citizens and erode social cohesion.

Rousseau refers to the commercial man as a “bourgeois” whose existence hinges upon the thin and shallow ethic of “politeness.” [13] Politeness epitomizes both falseness and hypocrisy. Polite citizens, Rousseau quips, possess the “appearance of all the virtues without having a single one.”[14] The polite, bourgeois individual desires to get ahead, so he pretends to care about the needs of others, even if he harbors contempt for them in his heart. He is not truly social, for he has no concern with genuine friendship or community. Nor is he truly individualistic, for his whole success as a person depends upon how society perceives him. The conflicted nature of this individual living in society demolishes the patriotic attachment necessary to preserve civic unity.

“Politeness” flows naturally from the commercialist vision that the self-interested exchange of goods and services can produce peace and security. Rousseau observes that, as enlightenment spread, “the major advantage of commerce with the muses began to be felt, namely of rendering men more sociable by inspiring in them the desire to please one another with works worthy of their mutual approbation.”[15] Commerce may render people more social, but it also destroys man’s natural independence by binding him to others in economic relationships. These relationships are, in turn, about calculated self-interest, not about companionship as fellow citizens of the Fatherland. Rousseau observes that commerce, “by tightening the social ties among men through self-interest, [places] them in a position of mutual dependence, [imposes] on them mutual needs and common interests, and [obliges] everyone to contribute to everyone else’s happiness in order to secure his own.”[16] Because commercialist, self-interested individuals seek only to get ahead, people live together in a state of perpetual acrimony. Success in the commercial society demands that citizens “obstruct, supplant, deceive, betray, and destroy one another.”[17] Although commercial politeness prides itself on its peacefulness, Rousseau insists that this is a ruse. In commercial society, there will be “no more sincere friendships; no more real esteem; no more well-founded trust.”[18] Instead, “suspicions, offenses, fears, coolness, reserve, hatred, betrayal” will lurk under the surface in all social relationships.[19] Far from improving morals, the commercial order of the Enlightenment actively destroys them by pitting citizens against each other in a perpetual state of competition.

Commercial individuals only live together in society incidentally and share no common attachment to their Fatherland. Indeed, Enlightened commercialists possess more loyalty to their specialized profession than to their country. “We have Physicists, Geometricians, Chemists, Astronomers, Poets, Musicians, Painters,” Rousseau complains, but “we no longer have citizens.”[20] In the absence of a fatherland, these pseudo-citizens turn their gaze to all of humanity. Rousseau posits that this attention to “humanity” is a thinly veiled effort on the part of individualists to dispense with any meaningful civic duties that may threaten their private pursuits. “Distrust the cosmopolitans,” he admonishes, “who go to great lengths in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them. A philosopher loves the Tartars so as to be spared having to love his own neighbors.”[21] A principal issue with the Enlightenment, Rousseau proclaims, is its institutionalization of this very cosmopolitanism: “National hatreds will die out, but so will the love of the Fatherland.”[22] A healthy political society would recognize the unique habits, customs, morals, and beliefs that make its regime distinctive. Cosmopolitanism, in contrast, makes “for a mixture of all peoples that must inevitably have destroyed the morals and customs of each of them.”[23] There are certain morals, Rousseau cautions, that are “appropriate to the climate of each [nation] and to the constitution of its government.”[24] Cosmopolitans, committed to an abstract humanity that bestows no tangible duties onto them, do not offer progress to the Enlightened West. Rousseau suggests that cosmopolitanism, by decimating loyalty to country, contributes to the destruction of morality itself.

Kant and the Commercial, Cosmopolitan Character of the Perpetual Peace

While Rousseau viewed the commercial and cosmopolitan characteristics of the Enlightenment world as a cause for comprehensive despair, his would-be disciple, Immanuel Kant, welcomed them with euphoric glee. Kant represents the zenith of Enlightenment optimism in reason, individual liberty, and human rights. Kant, unlike liberals such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, grounds his liberal doctrines in a universal theory of moral duty, not simply the passion for self-preservation. He fears that any effort to ground moral duties in natural desires would destroy an individual’s “good will.”[25] Morals must, in fact, be “purified” from the corrupting influence of natural inclinations.[26] Where prior philosophers as different as Aristotle, Hobbes, and Locke had turned to nature for guidance about moral considerations, Kant radically separates nature from morality. Kant’s commitment to a universal morality based upon pure reason leads him to embrace the Enlightenment project that Rousseau had so strongly rebuked.

Central to Kant’s moral framework is his strict distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Too often, he suggests, moral philosophers have never transcended the self-interested hypothetical imperative. Hypothetical imperatives follow rules merely to obtain some benefit.[27] Christians, Kant alleges, reduce moral activity to compliance with the Word of God but he insists that this is an insufficient basis for morality. Christians obey because they desire salvation, not because they have a good will and possess a pure reverence for the law apart from its consequences. In seeking to identify moral actions that are good for their own sake, Kant turns instead to the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is good unconditionally, apart from the consequences, because it is grounded in man’s unique capacity for universalization of his will. In contrast to the instinct-driven animals, man alone has the ability to make his will his law. The moral law of the categorical imperative is self-imposed by every individual in the world, simply by virtue of their common humanity. “Can you will,” Kant asks, “that your maxim should become a universal law? Where you cannot, it is to be rejected… because it cannot fit as a principle into a possible enactment of universal law.”[28] To perform their duties, an individual would need to universalize their will and live under moral laws that they themselves have made.

Kant’s categorical imperative is a deepened and radicalized iteration of Rousseau’s theory of the General Will. Both Rousseau and Kant consider obedience to self-imposed law to constitute the essence of freedom.[29] Yet, where Rousseau confines this obedience to the political context of a small, republican polis, Kant extends the theory to the human species. The political implications of Kant’s universalism are massive. As the universal law-making animal, humans possess the ability to define the rights of man, not just the constitutional rights of the citizen. For Kant, human rights demand protection, not because they are “natural” in any real way, but because man is a “kingdom of ends.”[30] Human rights ensure that each individual’s absolute moral autonomy will be protected even in the face of efforts by communities to treat individuals as mere means to an end. For instance, Kant lambasts the notion of punishing criminals with a view towards “some extraneous good for the criminal himself or for civil society.”[31] If punishment is directed towards the improvement of an individual’s character, then the state would be sanctioning a single conception of the good life, such as Christian character or classical virtue ethics.[32] This would endorse a particular moral framework rather than the universal law given by all humanity.[33] Kant’s understanding of the moral autonomy of each individual leads him to banish any particular and exclusionary conception of the good life from political discussions. He thus proclaims: “Woe to the legislator who wishes to establish through force a polity directed to ethical ends! For in so doing he would not merely achieve the very opposite of an ethical polity but also undermine his political state and make it insecure.”[34]

Not only does the categorical imperative sweep away high-minded, religious efforts to legislate morality, but it equally decimates a parochial emphasis on particular political societies. By virtue of their rationality, all individuals—wherever they are in the world—possess a common capacity to will moral laws into existence. Kant shifts the gaze of politics away from “mortal individuals” and towards the “immortal species.”[35] Thus, in Perpetual Peace, Kant outlines a cosmopolitan roadmap for a global federation of independent republics. While he does not favor a one-world state, he nonetheless expands the scope of man’s political duties from the sphere of the nation-state to the global community.[36] Where earlier liberals such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke operated under the assumption that individuals leave the state of nature by contracting together to form a national political society, Kant extends the idea of social contract to the entire globe. “People who have grouped themselves into nation-states,” he remarks, “may be judged in the same way as individual men living in a state of nature, independent of external laws.”[37] To escape this state of nature, Kant proposes that each nation contract with each other for the liberal end of securing individual rights.[38] Kant hopes that his world federation of republics can put an end to a variety of practices associated with the politics of nationalism, including exploitative colonialism, military buildups, and immigration restriction.[39] By applying social contract theory to the international arena, Kant’s philosophy deepens the Enlightenment commitment to universalism and cosmopolitanism.

Kant believes that this new cosmopolitan order is only possible because of a profound moral awakening among Enlightened peoples to the rights of man. Where Rousseau had attacked the idea that the Enlightenment had resulted in moral progress, Kant presupposes it to formulate his proposals for the new international order. In a conscious repudiation of Rousseau’s doctrine that savage man was happier than modern man, Kant lauds the fact that modern enlightened citizens view the “savages” of both the past and the present with “profound contempt” for their “lawless freedom.”[40] Savages debase humanity by preferring “the freedom of folly” to the “freedom of reason,” which alone allows men to enter into a social contract with each other.[41] The spread of reason does not, as in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, make man more unhappy. In fact, it results in a greater awareness of the rights of man and binds states together in a common purpose. Kant explains that, in the modern world, every state pays “homage… to the concept of right” and this “proves that man possesses a greater moral capacity” than he ever has before.[42] “The peoples of the earth,” he emphasizes, have “entered in varying degrees into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere.”[43] Kant proposes that his cosmopolitan federation of republics is nothing more than the political culmination of the moral progress derived from the Enlightenment.

Kant argues that the moral progress towards cosmopolitanism is being brought about by the spread of commercialism. This introduces a paradoxical element into Kant’s political thought. For, while commerce is based upon the notion of enlightened self-interest, the categorical imperative disregards all concerns for self-interest and focuses only on the notion of pure duty. Kant himself admits that there is no “duty” or “good will” involved in a commercial marketplace since the profit-incentive prevents people from treating each other as ends rather than as means.[44] What, then, accounts for Kant’s belief that the amoral self-interest of commercialism translates into the progression of man towards morality and cosmopolitanism? The answer is found in Kant’s historicism. In his essay, “The Idea of a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” he outlines his doctrine that history wields individual self-interest in the short-term to bring about a more moral and cosmopolitan existence in the future. “The history of the human race as a whole,” Kant surmises, “can be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about [a]… perfect political constitution… within which all natural capacities of mankind can be developed completely.”[45] History, therefore, is teleological. When individuals pursue their own ends, they do not realize that they are “unwittingly guided in their advance along a course intended by nature.”[46] Selfish commercial engagements “unconsciously promote” the “definite plan of nature” towards cosmopolitan morals and rationality.[47]

Kant refers to this tendency of the Enlightenment to promote moral awakening through self-interest and commerce as “unsocial sociability.”[48] Man gravitates towards social life to resolve his desire to obtain “honour, power, or property.”[49] Concomitantly, he wishes for the life of the autonomous individual who isolates himself and considers only his own needs.[50] As he explains:

Nature should… be thanked for fostering social incompatibility, enviously competitive vanity, and insatiable desires for possession or even power. Without these desires, all man’s excellent natural capacities would never be roused to develop. Man wishes concord, but nature, knowing better what is good for his species, wishes discord. Man wishes to live comfortably and pleasantly, but nature intends that he should abandon idleness and inactive self-sufficiency and plunge instead into labour and hardships, so that he may by his own adroitness find means of liberating himself from them in turn. The natural impulses which make this possible, the sources of the very unsociableness and continual resistance which cause so many evils, at the same time encourage man towards new exertions of his powers and thus towards further development of his natural capacities.[51]

Unsocial sociability suggests that man’s desire for self-aggrandizement leads to enormous cultural, technological, and even moral benefits. Interestingly, while Rousseau regarded the individual living in society as the ultimate indication of modern decadence, Kant considers the individual living in society to be the source and foundation of moral progress.

The commercialism instigated by “unsocial sociability,” Kant suggests, is gradually directing man to a more fulfilling, cosmopolitan existence. It is true enough that self-interestedness incites states to pursue crass warfare and exploitative colonization. Nonetheless, Kant insists that these experiences serve as “the means by which nature drives nations to make initially imperfect attempts… to take the steps which reason could have suggested to them even without so many sad experiences.”[52] Though Kant regards war as a great evil that should be and will be eventually abolished, he believes that history has often utilized war to awaken in man a sense of his responsibilities as a global citizen.[53] Additionally, low and self-interested commercial motives actually make the nations more dependent upon each other for their livelihoods. “War itself,” Kant explains, is gradually becoming “not only a highly artificial undertaking” but also a “very dubious risk to take, since its aftermath is felt by the state in the shape of a constantly increasing national debt.”[54] Kant optimistically surmises that commercial self-interest is leading mankind away from nationalism and towards cosmopolitanism. “However wild and fanciful” this idea seems, Kant sanguinely muses, “it is nonetheless the inevitable outcome of the distress in which men involve one another.”[55]


Rousseau and Kant offer fundamentally divergent assessments of the Enlightenment dogmas of commercialism and cosmopolitanism. Rousseau regards these characteristics with abject horror. He decries commercialism for burying human authenticity under the hollow ethic of politeness and for destroying any genuine attachment between the citizenry. For Rousseau, the threat posed by the Enlightenment is deepened by its vain insistence that political association can itself be transcended by a more cosmopolitan concern for the needs of humanity. With Rousseau firmly pessimistic about the capacity of commercialism and cosmopolitanism to lead to moral progress, it was left to Kant to reinvigorate the most optimistic dreams of the Enlightenment. Notwithstanding the debt that Kant’s categorical imperative owed to Rousseau’s notion of the General Will, Kant’s overarching analysis of politics is radically distinct from his teacher. Due to the universal nature of the categorical imperative, Kant believes that it is impossible to think only about the needs of a particular nation-state without abandoning morality. A cosmopolitan, he proposes that individuals should recognize their status as citizens of the world by joining their nations together in an international federation. Simultaneously, he believes that liberal commercialism can be a premier means of awakening the cosmopolitan sensibility by binding states together in market relationships. In a radical contrast to Rousseau, Kant believes that cosmopolitanism and commercialism indicate the profound progress of man away from the backwards parochialism of the ancient world.

It is perhaps no surprise that, for all of his praise of Rousseau, Kant nonetheless acknowledged his “bewilderment” at Rousseau’s “strange and absurd opinions” on fundamental political issues.[56] Kant and Rousseau ultimately stand at contrary poles in their assessments of the Enlightenment. Their philosophical dispute, in turn, poses urgent questions for modern man. Rousseau and Kant disagreed profoundly over whether moderns needed to prioritize particular political societies or the universal needs of humanity. As citizens grapple with the choice between cosmopolitan integration into the global community and a civic affection for their particular society, they will be forced to confront the arguments advanced by Rousseau and Kant almost three centuries ago.

Republished with gracious permission from VoegelinView (December 2020).

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Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by H. J. Paton. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings. Edited by Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2011.

Kant, Immanuel. Political Writings. Edited by H.S. Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. Translated by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson. New York: Harper & Row, 1960).

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. Vol. 13. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941-1945. New York: Harper, 1950.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile, or On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings. Edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings. Edited by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, ed. Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2011), 95.

[2] Ibid, 104.

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 7.

[4] Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” in Political Writings, ed. H.S. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.

[5] Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” 4.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 9

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Ibid., 17-18.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” 7.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Rousseau, “Reply to the First Discourse,” in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, 100.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” 8.

[19] Ibid., 8.

[20] Ibid., 24.

[21] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 39.

[22] Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” 8.

[23] Rousseau, “Reply to the First Discourse,” 96.

[24] Ibid., 96.

[25] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 61.

[26] Ibid., 57.

[27] Ibid., 82.

[28] Ibid., 71.

[29] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 53.

[30] Kant, Groundwork, 74.

[31] Immanuel Kant, “The Metaphysics of Morals,” in Political Writings, ed. H.S. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 154.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 87.

[35] Kant, “Idea of a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Political Writings, 43.

[36] Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” in Political Writings, 102. Kant explicitly denies that “a federation of this sort [would be] the same thing as an international state.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 106. Among his articles, Kant proposes an end to standing armies. He also seeks to institutionalize friendly relationships between nations. The “right to universal hospitality” prevents exploitation of other states for commercial gain and also prevents nations from refusing to allow foreign strangers to enter into their borders. Kant denies, however, that resident aliens must be allowed to exercise all of the rights of citizenship.

[40] Ibid., 102.

[41] Ibid., 102.

[42] Ibid., 103.

[43] Ibid., 107.

[44] Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, 65.

[45] Kant, “Idea of a Universal History,” 50.

[46] Ibid., 41.

[47] Ibid., 41.

[48] Ibid., 43.

[49] Ibid., 44-45.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 45.

[52] Ibid., 47.

[53] For an excellent illustration of the Kantian liberal attitude about the direction of history, see Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fourth Inaugural Address,” in Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941-1945 (New York: Harper, 1950), 13:524. “We have learned [through World War II] that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away… We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”

[54] Kant, “Idea of a Universal History,” 51.

[55] Ibid., 47-48.

[56] Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, 95.

The featured image is a combination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (c. 1753) by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788) and of Immanuel Kant from the “Masters of Achievement” text. Both images are in the public domain, have been modified for color, and appear here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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