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Review of M. Zachary Johnson’s “Emotion in Life and Music” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Review of M. Zachary Johnson’s “Emotion in Life and Music” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

G. Stolyarov II


Everyone intuits an emotional substance to music, yet few can explain its nature and origins. According to some, it is merely subjective; a piece evokes feelings that are personal to the listener but have no basis in the actual structure, melody, and harmonies of the composition itself.  According to others, emotion in music can only be explained if anchored to a particular story or the historical context of the composer’s life and motivations. Still others disdain talk of musical emotion altogether and prefer a pure formalism, sometimes seeking to explain why music that feels jarring, discordant, or no way in particular can still be great because of some convention-flouting thing it does. M. Zachary Johnson, a teacher and historian of music and himself an accomplished composer, differs from all of those commonplace views and, in Emotion in Life and Music: A New Science, sets forth a framework by which the mathematics inherent in musical relationships and the feelings to which music gives rise are not only reconciled but shown to be inextricably linked, providing “connection of the emotion with the exact mathematical ratios which measure pitch distance and explain our qualitative affective experience” (p. 163).

Johnson’s concept of the psychological signature of a piece based on three measurable dimensions of intensity, speed, and affect provides a rubric for discerning which basic emotions a musical passage will elicit in the listener. As Johnson points out, these are generalized emotions such as pride or anguish, not anchored to a particular context (e.g., the feeling of accomplishment at having run a marathon or the feeling of having been betrayed) – although other media, such as the storyline of an opera, and even the listener’s personal experiences can provide such a context, which is indeed why different listeners may have different subjective associations with a piece of a particular, objective psychological signature. Even though musical tastes do vary widely among individuals, Johnson convincingly articulates that these tastes are still in reference to something in particular and that an individual’s response to the objective psychological signature of a piece tells more about the listener than about the piece itself. This is a welcome, refreshing contrast to the often militantly intolerant subjectivism of those who proclaim that there are no distinctions of quality or even nature to music or even art in general – that it is all up to the arbitrary preferences of the composer and/or listener, and that anyone who dares challenge this dogma deserves condemnation in the most strident terms. Perhaps contemporary Western culture, or at least the occasional oasis of rationality within it, is beginning to turn away from such absurdity, and Johnson contributes theoretical support to the view most articulately (in our era) espoused by Alma Deutscher that music should be beautiful.

Why is it desirable for dissonance to be resolved? Johnson explains that “Feelings such as pleasure, joy, serenity, inner harmony and balance – these are settled, complete states of mind. They are self-sufficient rewards, forms of satisfaction and contentment. They are ends in themselves. Feelings such as pain, suffering, fear, anger, restlessness, emotional distress and chaos – these are unsettled, incomplete, resolution-demanding states of mind. They motivate us to take some form of productive or corrective action. In respect to psychology, these are a propulsion to satisfy a need, to resolve a clash, to soothe oneself and heal, to strengthen, to gain adaptive flexibility, to stabilize the psyche and bring order to it” (p. 65). Wholesome, constructive music does not merely exist for its own sake but can greatly assist individuals in this task of achieving emotional integrity and strength. This includes music which expresses the darker or incomplete emotions, as long as this expression offers the listener an effective laboratory of the mind to work through such emotions without the risks and harms that would give rise to them in one’s personal life. Johnson notes that “Music rewards you for successful cognitive action, not for successful existential action. And when it gives you darker emotions, the function is not to indicate loss and failure, but to provide a means of sensually enjoying and studying and contemplating the states of consciousness, independently of the issue of actual material loss or gain – which is a form of self-knowledge, an affirmation of the value of one’s own faculties, and therefore itself a spiritual gain” (p. 110). However, there is a difference between a healthy, structured, rational exploration of the darker emotions with the intent of achieving resolution and completeness and the self-destructive embrace of those emotions, which certain types of “music” attempt to inculcate.

I consider myself to be within the same broad Apollonian musical and esthetic tradition as Johnson – as contrasted with the Dionysian revelry in the shocking, debased, and unrestrained. Yet perhaps my most significant difference with Johnson is the scope of what I would encompass within the Apollonian milieu and the latitude which I would allow to certain composers whom Johnson portrays rather harshly. Yes, Richard Wagner had his long, moody, meandering passages – but when his music becomes focused, determined, and structured, it is truly majestic. Yes, Dmitri Shostakovich was often despondent, but he could also write a fugue without any dissonance – and, besides, who would not be despondent when responding to the atrocities of the Stalin regime, but needing to do so in a veiled, indirect manner to create plausible deniability? (Shostakovich, too, had his heroic moments, as in the ending to his Seventh Symphony, which is about as optimistic as one can reasonably be in the midst of the devastation of World War II.) Nor would I agree with Johnson’s portrayal of the Second Movement of Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat as conveying a message of hopelessness or futility; I would rather characterize it as expressing mild, reflective melancholy. As for Arnold Schoenberg – well, Schoenberg deserves all of the criticism that Johnson has in store for him; he had no excuses for the misguided rebellion against tonality.

Yet, more generally, it is perhaps a misdirection of effort to focus on criticism of singular figures in musical or intellectual history. The massive departure of “high” music from tonality in the early 20th century certainly could not have been solely Schoenberg’s doing – nor could the intellectual seeds for this trend have been planted a century and a half in advance by Immanuel Kant (whom Johnson characterizes, following many similar assertions by Ayn Rand, as the mastermind of the end of the Enlightenment and the decline of the West). Kant had his errors, to be sure (though Rand always somehow overlooked the redeeming aspects of his immense humanism and political classical liberalism, especially in the context of his time), and Schoenberg’s music is simply not pleasant to the ear – but one could have a civilized and interesting conversation with either Kant or Schoenberg over a cup of coffee. No – the rebellion against the Enlightenment was more the doing of the rabble who cheered when the guillotine fell during the Reign of Terror. The widespread descent of music into atonality could not have occurred were it not for the slaughter of World War I, a crime of millions against millions – and against themselves. Johnson’s criticism of rock music (perhaps itself a bit harsh – but I offer my evaluation as one who has only heard the music separately from its typical “scene”) is better leveled at the ordinary revelers at Woodstock and Altamont – not the music itself (which is rather harmonious and innocuous compared to what commonly passes for popular “music” today). The tendency toward dissipation and destruction is not orchestrated by a handful of avatars of particular movements – but, rather, it lurks within the masses of people because of regrettable cognitive biases and irrational emotional urges that are the unfortunate inheritance of humankind’s deeply flawed evolutionary origins. In certain eras these destructive inclinations are subdued due to general prosperity and the proper incentives within social, political, and technological systems – whereas in other eras, arguably including our own (though not always or everywhere), they are encouraged by widespread norms of (mis)conduct, cultural portrayals, and everyday attitudes to become acted out by masses of people to great personal and societal toll. This is, in many regards, an ancient and recurring problem, sometimes taking on bizarre manifestations such as the pathological dance epidemic of 1518.

Accordingly, it is more important to advocate the Apollonian mindset in general in opposition to the Dionysian proclivities in general than to seek to single out particular instances of the latter. As long as humans continue to contend with our flawed evolutionary inheritance – which may not and should not always be our lot – and as long as some humans also retain aspects of nobility of character and aspiration for a better life, there will always be some exemplars of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian to point to. A more salient question, though, is, “Which of these paradigms is proportionally predominant?” Furthermore, how can the proportions among cultural creations be shifted in favor of the Apollonian?  The more immediate problem we contend with is that there are vast quantities of people who would understand nothing in Johnson’s book and would have no knowledge of anything he praises or criticizes; they would be equally ignorant of Mozart and Beethoven, Aristotle and Kant, Schoenberg and Shostakovich, Brahms and Ayn Rand, and yet they would hate everything about any mention of them (in whatever light) – or about my review of Johnson’s book, or about a review from a critic with views diametrically opposite mine. The problem of anti-intellectualism in contemporary Western societies (particularly the United States) runs that deep, and it is evident that Johnson is gravely concerned about this predicament.

But perhaps good music can offer us a path toward a brighter future. If anti-intellectualism is the predominant cultural malaise of our time, then the inoculation against it may be found in Johnson’s articulation of the purpose of the best music as expressing the love of intelligence: “The essence of our humanity, the linchpin integrating reason and emotion, the special theme of the good life, the hallmark of virtue, the root of justice, the core of idealism and aspiration and heroism, the fundamental guardian of political freedom, and the root of all human love, is the love of man’s intelligence. […] The essence of music is precisely the love of human intelligence. Music, as nature’s reward for cognitive fitness, is the greatest medium in existence for expressing that theme” (pp. 179-180). Could exposure to great music – simple exposure, without even the theoretical explication which is accessible only at a much higher level of erudition – instill a love of intelligence in sufficiently larger numbers of people so as to turn the cultural tide? This is at least worth including as a tactic in the great, ongoing endeavor of civilizing the human mind and ensuring that the nobility of sentiment can grow to keep pace with material and technological advances.

This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here

Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Knowledge, Science, Morality, and Rational Free Will (2002) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Knowledge, Science, Morality, and Rational Free Will (2002) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 23, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published in three parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 23,000 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  The essay should be read as a factual exposition, not an endorsement, of Kant’s views.***
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 23, 2014

Immanuel Kant’s Early Life and Ideas on Knowledge


Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg (modern Kaliningrad, although the post-Communist leadership of the Russian Federation is considering an alteration of its name to “Kantgrad”), in the middle-class family of a manufacturer of saddles. He lived on a moderate income, sufficient for him to attend the university within the city and display the reputation of a formidable student.

Kant was a man of rather fragile health and a “late bloomer”, and thus spent the better portion of his youth slowly obtaining knowledge sufficient to gradually ascend the hierarchy within the university. His early years were spent constantly engaging in social activities and exposing himself to both the mundane and the ideological worlds. However, his contemporaries perceived that despite his insightful mind and abundance of ideas, Kant would never emerge as a leading philosopher due to the worldly distractions that he faced.

The young Kant became determined to prove his doubters wrong. He altered his routine, beginning in his late twenties and intensifying as he neared old age, into a rigid, nearly mechanical working discipline, forfeiting most interpersonal interactions other than those with his students (he was a private tutor earning a meager income prior to having earned his doctorate in 1755). He resolved never to marry nor acquire a family that would divert him from the task of becoming the prominent thinker who revolutionized Western thought.

Kant’s first work was composed in 1746, and titled Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces. His ideology developed from that point into the formidable and thought-provoking philosophical doctrine that one would encounter in Critique of Pure Reason (First Edition published in 1781, the Second Edition in 1787).

Kant argues that there exists a difference between individual perception of the world and the absolute reality in which the human species dwells. He refers to the external world as “things-in-themselves,” of which every person possesses a varying and inaccurate understanding due to the unique manner in which an individual’s mind would process this information. This activity is known as synthesis, and involves the assimilation of data into the mind, after which it is blended with and connected to previous experiences to thus add to one’s perception.

Kant rejects the existence of a priori intuitive postulates within the human mind, claiming that so-called “intuition” is a product of having received information, then engaged in discourse on or analysis of the topic that the information concerns, and, at last, forged a conclusion, a point where synthesis forms the understanding that becomes a portion of our perception. Kant divides intuition into two categories, “sensible,” which is presented with material after which it undergoes synthesis and extracts an “insight” from it, and “intellectual,” which actually “creates” truth. Only God, according to Kant’s doctrine, would possess intellectual intuition.

Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Science and Morality


According to  Immanuel Kant, no person may possess inherent wisdom about reality. This is best summarized in the philosopher’s famous expression, “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without data are blind.”

Indeed, Kant believes that in order for us to utilize our sensible intuition, we must possess two stimuli, “physical sensation” and “moral duty.” The first of the two addresses a portion of Kantian thought known as “empirical realism,” a reasoning that defines that absolute reality as the entire universe in which all human beings dwell. Every time we acquire external data from that absolute reality, our perception of it assumes a greater degree of accuracy. And what would be the optimal way of acquiring such data with only minimal if any contact with other persons’ perceptions (which are, like ours, inaccurate, only in different ways, since each human being possesses a unique arsenal of experiences)?

Scientific exploration is, therefore, the key to an ultimate comprehension of things-in-themselves. Kant was a fervent admirer of Newtonian thought and the Scientific Method, which permitted scientists to ascend to unprecedented heights in their understanding of and control over nature.

The second stimulus to action, moral duty, provides the explanation for the purpose of all human actions toward the comprehension of the universe. This portion of Kant’s doctrine has been dubbed by the philosopher as “transcendental idealism,” since it establishes a framework outside the natural world upon which correct actions are based. Kant sees the ultimate virtues to be the attempts to reach three goals which are not yet found in reality, God, freedom, and the immortality of individuals. God, the Creator and Supreme Being of the universe, must be fathomed, properly interpreted, and obeyed in accordance with his true desires. Freedom, the individual liberty to act as one wishes and to grant all others this right, must be instituted through societal reforms and a development of ideology to understand the proper order that would establish such an atmosphere. And, at last, every human being must rise to possess the right to exist for an indefinite length of time that he may obey the commandments of God and practice his freedoms. Kant states that all which is right and moral must be based upon those three principles.

As such, Kant separates the scientific realm (which describes what is) from the moral realm (which explains what ought to be), but he considers these two realms to go hand-in-hand — ultimately advocating putting the scientific realm in service to moral one.

Immanuel Kant’s View of Rational Free Will and Its Implications for Criminal Justice


In the view of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), all individuals possess a “rational free will” and are capable of recognizing the three pillars of morality – God, freedom, and immortality – and acting accordingly with them. Kant recognizes that every intended deed is purposeful and selected by the person who commits it.

According to Kant, no set of circumstances, no matter how great their severity, can force a person to abandon the three moral virtues unless the individual himself selects to do so. And this selection, then, permits for punishment to be distributed to an individual based on the action undertaken. Thus, every deed committed with the intention of being so done implies a moral accountability within the human responsible.

This model of thought is of immense help to understanding what actions Kant saw as necessary for the creation of justice within the real world, since, once again, every individual’s worldview is based upon that individual’s own set of experiences. Thus, any judgment by one individual of another’s set of “data” will be subjective and skewed, which perverts any prospect for objective justice. That is, unless an objective framework such as one of “God, freedom, immortality” is used to evaluate a deed and not the person responsible, while properly rewarding or punishing the latter.

A Kantian justice system would thus solely focus on what was done, rather than on the character of the person who did it. No excuses regarding a criminal’s genome, upbringing, history of mental illness, or socioeconomic status can exonerate him from receiving punishment for the criminal act. The fact that a man was abused during his childhood does not justify his infliction of similar abuse on others later in life. The fact that a mother who drowned her five children was suffering from post-partum depression does not nullify her responsibility for the act and the need to punish her to the utmost extent possible.

Indeed, a court organized on Kantian lines might be able to exercise its functions using purely objective, factual considerations. Evaluating the evidence in a specific case, the court could conclusively determine what was done, and who did it, from which the punishment for the perpetrator would follow algorithmically, being already stipulated in the law. Whether the criminal is a “nice person” or has a history of past troubles would have no bearing on the outcome – thus eliminating the need for subjective opinions entering the analysis. Neither aloof nor passionate behavior on the part of the defendant in the courtroom would have the ability to sway the court’s decision one bit.

Morality Needs Immortality to Live – Article by Franco Cortese

Morality Needs Immortality to Live – Article by Franco Cortese

“In Order to be Go(o)d, We Can’t Die!” Says Kant

The New Renaissance Hat
Franco Cortese
May 2, 2013

Dead Immortalist Sequence –  #1: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Kant is often misconstrued as advocating radical conformity amongst people, a common misconception drawn from his Categorical Imperative, which states that each should act as though the rules underlying his actions can be made a universal moral maxim. The extent of this universality, however, stops at the notion that each man should act as though the aspiration towards morality were a universal maxim. All Kant meant, I argue, was that each man should act as though the aspiration toward greater morality were able to be willed as a universal moral maxim.

This common misconception serves to illustrate another common and illegitimate portrayal of the Enlightenment tradition. Too often is the Enlightenment libeled for its failure to realize the ideal society. Too often is it characterized most essentially by its glorification of strict rationality, which engenders invalid connotations of stagnant, statuesque perfection – a connotation perhaps aided by the Enlightenment’s valorization of the scientific method, and its connotations of stringent and unvarying procedure and methodology in turn. This takes the prized heart of the Enlightenment tradition and flips it on its capsized ass. This conception of the Enlightenment tradition is not only wrong, but antithetical to the true organizing gestalt and prime impetus underlying the Age of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment wasn’t about realizing the perfect society but rather about idealizing the perfect society – the striving towards an ever-inactualized ideal which, once realized, would cease to be ideal for that very reason. The Enlightenment was about unending progress towards that ideal state – for both Man as society and man as singular splinter – of an infinite forward march towards perfection, which, upon definitively reaching perfection, will have failed to achieve its first-sought prize. The virtue of the Enlightenment lies in the virtual, and its perfection in the infinite perfectibility inherent in imperfection.

This truer, though admittedly less normative, interpretation of the Enlightenment tradition, taking into account its underlying motivations and projected utilities – rather than simply taking flittered glints from the fallacious surface and holding them up for solid, tangible truth – also serves to show the parallels between the Enlightenment gestalt and Transhumanism. James Hughes, for one, characterizes Transhumanism as a child of the Enlightenment Tradition [1].

One can see with intuitive lucidity that characterizing the Enlightenment’s valorization of rationality goes against the very underlying driver of that valorization. Rationality was exalted during the Age of Enlightenment for its potential to aid in skepticism toward tradition. Leave the chiseled and unmoving, petty perfection of the statue for the religious traditions the Enlightenment was rebelling against – the inviolable God with preordained plan, perfect for his completion and wielding total authority over the static substance of Man; give the Enlightenment rather the starmolten fire-afury and undulate aspiration toward ever-forth-becoming highers that it sprang from in the first place. The very aspects which cause us to characterize the enlightenment as limiting, rigid, and unmolten are those very ideals that, if never realized definitively – if instead made to form an ongoing indefinite infinity – would thereby characterize the Enlightenment tradition as a righteous roiling rebellion against limitation and rigour – as a flighty dive into the molten maelstrom of continuing mentation toward better and truer versions of ourselves and society that was its real underlying impetus from the beginning.

This truer gestalt of the Enlightenment impinges fittingly upon the present study. Kant is often considered one of the fathers of the Enlightenment. In a short essay entitled “What is the Enlightenment?” [2], Kant characterizes the essential archetype of Man (as seen through the lens of the Enlightenment) in a way wholly in opposition to the illegitimate conceptions of the Enlightenment described above – and in vehement agreement with the less-normative interpretation of the Enlightenment that followed. It is often assumed, much in line with such misconceptions, that the archetype of Man during the Age of the Enlightenment was characterized by rational rigour and scientific stringency. However, this archetype of the mindless, mechanical automaton was the antithesis of Man’s then-contemporary archetype; the automaton was considered rather the archetype of animality – which can be seen as antithetical to the Enlightenment’s take on Man’s essence, with its heady rationality and lofty grasping towards higher ideals. In his essay, Kant characterizes the Enlightenment’s archetype of Man as the rebellious schoolboy who cannot and shall not be disciplined into sordid subservience by his schoolmasters. Here Kant concurs gravely from beyond the grave that Man’s sole central and incessant essence is his ongoing self-dissent, his eschewing of perverse obligation, his disleashing the weathered tethers of limitation, and his ongoing battle with himself for his own self-creation.

It is this very notion of infinite progress towards endlessly perfectable states of projected perfection that, too, underlies his ties to Immortalism. Indeed, his claim that to retain morality we must have comprehensively unending lives – that is, we must never ever die – rests crucially on this premise.

In his Theory of Ethics [3] under “Part III: The Summum Bonum, God and Immortality” [4], Kant argues that his theory of ethics necessitates the immortality of the soul in order to remain valid according to the axioms it adheres to. This is nothing less than a legitimation of the desirability of personal immortality from a 1700’s-era philosophical rockstar. It is important to note that the aspects making it so crucial in concern to Kant’s ethical system have to do with immortality in general, and indeed would have been satisfied according to non-metaphysical (i.e. physical and technological) means – having more to do with the end of continued life and indefinite longevity or Superlongevity in particular, than with the particular means used to get there, which in his case is a metaphysical means. Karl Ameriks writes in reference to Kant here: “… the question of immortality is to be understood as being about a continued temporal existence of the mind. The question is not whether we belong to the realm beyond time but whether we will persist through all time…Kant also requires this state to involve personal identity.” [5]. While Kant did make some metaphysical claims tied to immortality – namely the association of degradation and deterioration with physicality, which when combined with the association of time with physicality may have led to his characterization of the noumenal realm (being the antithesis of the phenomenal realm) as timeless and free from causal determination – these claims are beyond the purview of this essay, and will only be touched upon briefly. What is important to take away is that the metaphysical and non-metaphysical justifications are equally suitable vehicles for Kant’s destination.

Note that any italics appearing within direct quotations are not my own and are recorded as they appeared in the original. All italics external to direct quotations are my own. In  the 4th Section, The immortality of the soul as a postulate of pure practical reason, of the 3rd Part of Theory of Ethics, Kant writes: “Pure  practical reason postulates the immortality of the soul, for reason in the pure and practical sense aims at the perfect good (Summum Bonum), and this perfect good is only possible on the supposition of the soul’s immortality.” [5]

Kant is claiming here that reason (in both senses with which they are taken into account in his system – that is, as pure reason and practical reason) is aimed at perfection, which he defines as continual progress towards the perfect good – rather than the attainment of any such state of perfection, and that as finite beings we can only achieve such perfect good through an unending striving towards it.

In a later section, “The Antinomy of Practical Reason (and its Critical Solution)” [6], he describes the Summum Bonum as “the supreme end of a will morally determined”. In an earlier section, The Concept of the Summum Bonum [7], Kant distinguishes between two possible meanings for Summum; it can mean supreme in the sense of absolute (not contingent on anything outside itself), and perfect (not being part to a larger whole). I take him to claim that it means both.

He also claims personal immortality is a necessary condition for the possibility of the perfect good. In the same section he describes the Summum Bonum as the combination of two distinct features: happiness and virtue (defining virtue as worthiness of being happy, and in this section synonymizing it with morality). Both happiness and virtue are analytic and thus derivable from empirical observation.

However, their combination in the Summum Bonum does not follow from either on its own and so must be synthetic, or reliant upon a priori cognitive principles, Kant reasons. I interpret this as Kant’s claiming that the possibility of the Summum Bonum requires God and the Immortality of the Soul because this is where Kant grounds his a priori, synthetic, noumenal world – i.e. the domain where those a priori principles exist (in/as the mind of God, for Kant).

Kant continues:

“It is the moral law which determines the will, and in this will the perfect harmony of the mind with the moral law is the supreme condition of the summum bonum… the perfect accordance of the will with the moral law is holiness, a perfection of which no rational being of the sensible world is capable at any moment of his existence. Since, nevertheless, it is required as practically necessary, it can only be found in a progress in infinitum towards that perfect accordance, and on the principles of pure practical reason is nonetheless necessary to assume such a practical progress as the real object of our will.” [8]

Thus not only does Kant argue for the necessitated personal immortality of the soul by virtue of the fact that perfection is unattainable while constrained by time, he argues along an alternate line of reasoning that such perfection is nonetheless necessary for our morality, happiness and virtue, and that we must thus therefore progress infinitely toward it without ever definitively reaching it if the Summum Bonum is to remain valid according to its own defining attributes and categorical-qualifiers as-such.

Kant decants:

“Now, this endless progress is only possible on the supposition of an endless duration of existence and personality of the same rational being (which is called the immorality of the soul). The Summum Bonum, then, practically is only possible on the supposition of the immortality of the soul; consequently this immortality, being inseparably connected with the moral law, is a postulate of pure practical reason (by which I mean a theoretical proposition, not demonstrable as such, but which is an inseparable result of an unconditional a priori practical law). This principle of the moral destination of our nature, namely, that it is only in an endless progress that we can attain perfect accordance with the moral law… For a rational but finite being, the only thing possible is an endless progress from the lower to higher degrees of moral perfection. In Infinite Being, to whom the condition of time is nothing… is to be found in a single intellectual intuition of the whole existence of rational beings. All that can be expected of the creature in respect of the hope of this participation would be the consciousness of his tried character, by which, from the progress he has hitherto made from the worse to the morally better, and the immutability of purpose which has thus become known to him, he may hope for a further unbroken continuance of the same, however long his existence may last, even beyond this life, and thus may hope, not indeed here, nor in any imaginable point of his future existence, but only in the endlessness of his duration (which God alone can survey) to be perfectly adequate to his will.” [9]

So, Kant first argues that the existence of the Summum Bonum requires the immorality of the soul both a.) because finite beings conditioned by time by definition cannot achieve the absolute perfection of the Summum Bonum, and can only embody it through perpetual progress towards it, and b.) because the components of the Summum Bonum (both of which must be co-present for it to qualify as such) are unitable only synthetically through a priori cognitive principals, which he has argued elsewhere must exist in a domain unconditioned by time (which is synonymous with his conception of the noumenal realm) and which must thus be perpetual for such an extraphysical realm to be considered unconditioned by time and thus noumenal. The first would correspond to Kant’s strict immortalist underpinnings, and the second to the alternate (though not necessarily contradictory) metaphysical justification alluded to earlier.

Once arguing that the possibility of the Summum Bonum requires personal immortality, he argues that our freedom/autonomy, which he locates as the will (and further locates the will as being determined by the moral law) also necessitates the Summum Bonum. This would correspond to his more embryonically Transhumanist inclinations. In the first section (“The Concept of Summum Bonum”) he writes, “It is a priori (morally) necessary to produce the summum bonum by freedom of will…” I interpret this statement in the following manner. He sees morality as a priori and synthetic, and the determining principle which allows us to cause in the world without being caused by it – i.e., for Kant our freedom (i.e., the quality of not being externally determined) requires the noumenal realm because otherwise we are trapped in the freedom-determinism paradox. Thus the Summum Bonum also vicariously necessitates the existence of God, because this is necessary for the existence of a noumenal realm unaffected by physical causation (note that Kant calls physicality ‘the sensible world’). Such a God could be (and indeed has been described by Kant in terms which would favor this interpretation) synonymous with the entire noumenal realm, with every mind forming but an atom as it were in the larger metaorganismal mind of a sort of meta-pantheistic, quasi-Spinozian conception of God – in other words, one quite dissimilar to the anthropomorphic connotations usually invoked by the word.

Others have drawn similar conclusions and made similar interpretations. Karl Ameriks summarizes Kant’s reasoning here thusly:

“All other discussions of immortality in the critical period are dominated by the moral argument that Kant sets out in the second critique. The argument is that morality obligates us to seek holiness (perfect virtue), which therefore must be possible, and can only be so if God grants us an endless afterlife in which we can continually progress… As a finite creature man is incapable of ever achieving holiness, but on – and only in – an endless time could we supposedly approximate to it (in the eyes of God) as fully as could be expected… Kant is saying not that real holiness is ever a human objective, but rather that complete striving for it can be, and this could constitute for man a state of ‘perfect virtue’…” [10]

The emphasis on indefinity is also present in the secondary literature; Ameriks remarks that Kant ”…makes clear that the ‘continual progress’ he speaks of can ultimately have a ‘non-temporal’ nature in that it is neither momentary nor of definitive duration nor actually endless”. Only through never quite reaching our perfected state can we retain the perfection of lawless flawedness.

Paul Guyer corroborates my claim that the determining factor is not the claim that mind is an extramaterial entity or substance, but because if morality requires infinite good and if we are finite beings, then we must be finite beings along an infinite stretch of time in order to satisfy the categorical requirements of possessing such an infinity. He writes that ”..the possibility of the perfection of our virtuous disposition requires our actual immortality…” [11] and that ”…God and immortality are conditions specifically of the possibility of the ultimate object of virtue, the highest good – immortality is the condition for the perfection of virtue and God that for the realization of happiness…[12]

In summary, it doesn’t matter that Kant’s platform was metaphysical rather than technological, because the salient point and determining factors were not the specific operation or underlying principles (or the “means”) used to achieve immortality, but rather the very ends themselves. Being able to both live and progress in(de)finitely was the loophole that provided, for Kant, both our freedom and our morality. Kant said we can’t die if we want to be moral, that we can’t die if we want to gain virtue, and that we can’t die if we want to remain free.

Franco Cortese is an editor for, as well as one of its most frequent contributors.  He has also published articles and essays on Immortal Life and The Rational Argumentator. He contributed 4 essays and 7 debate responses to the digital anthology Human Destiny is to Eliminate Death: Essays, Rants and Arguments About Immortality.

Franco is an Advisor for Lifeboat Foundation (on their Futurists Board and their Life Extension Board) and contributes regularly to their blog.


[1] Hughes, J. J. (2001). The Future of Death: Cryonics and the Telos of Liberal Individualism. Journal of Evolution &  Technology, 6 .

[2] Kant, I. (1996). In M.J. Gregor Practical Philosophy, Cambridge University Press.

[3] Kant, I. (1957). In T. M. Greene Kant selections, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[4] Ibid,. p. 350.

[5] Ameriks, K. (2000). Kant’s  Theory of Mind: An Analysis of the Paralogisms of Pure Reason: Oxford University Press.

[6] Ibid., p. 352.

[7] Ibid., p. 350.

[8] Ibid,. p. 358.

[9] Ibid,. p. 359.

[10] Ameriks, K. (2000). Kant’s Theory of Mind: An Analysis of the Paralogisms of Pure Reason: Oxford University Press.

[11] Freydberg, B. (2005). Imagination of  Kant’s critique of practical reason: Indiana University Press.

[12] Guyer, P. (2000). Kant on Freedom, Law,  and Happiness: Cambridge University Press.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

Reflections on Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” – Article by Edward W. Younkins

Reflections on Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” – Article by Edward W. Younkins

The New Renaissance Hat
Edward W. Younkins
February 18, 2013

This essay is not a review of Tom Hooper’s recently released film of the tremendously popular 1980s stage musical. However, the release of this film has given me the occasion to read and to reflect upon the original text of Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic, Les Misérables, a mosaic of social indictment, history, social philosophy, sentimentality, and spirituality.

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) is the great prose epic of the nineteenth century. Interweaving the social and spiritual threads of human life, the novel has been influential in making people desire a more just world. In Les Misérables the author condemns the unjust class-based social structure in nineteenth-century France for turning good people into criminals and beggars. He makes a case that crime and poverty can be eliminated through universal education, a criminal justice system that is flexible and focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and the more equal and humane treatment of women. Despite these broad recommendations, Hugo offered no practical solutions for reforming schools, the police, the courts, and the prisons. Les Misérables is a call for a wiser and nobler civilization. When it was released, it inspired a great deal of sympathy for hapless people oppressed by the state. It was also viewed as a celebration of revolution against tyranny.

Les Misérables is an epic novel focused on characters fighting against their exploitation and oppression. We see the injustices and disproportionate sentences piled upon Jean Valjean, the abuses suffered by Fantine, the brutality foisted on Cosette, the maltreatment of Enjolras  and his fellow revolutionaries, the plight of homeless children, and so on. All of these are examples of society’s injustice toward the lower classes. Through these stories, the novel exudes sympathy from the reader for the most wretched in society. The message is that, if men murder and steal and women fall from grace out of desperation, it is not their fault because they can find no honorable path to sustainability within the constructs of society. Rather, it is the fault of society and its creations, the state and the law. The state and its legal system are shown to be disinterested in the conditions of the dangerous classes. Society is thus culpable for dehumanizing the poor and for the crimes committed by the dregs of society. Les Misérables chronicles the corruption of police power, shows that society gives the convict no chance for redemption, and illustrates how France’s prison system not only continues, but also accelerates, the downward spiral of criminals. On the one hand, Valjean represents suppressed and destitute people whose place in life is determined by positive laws created by society’s elite in order to perpetuate their own superiority. On the other hand, Valjean illustrates that it is possible for men to rise above their circumstances.

Bishop Myriel is not a typical bishop or even a conventional Christian. He operates on his own innate sense of morality—it is not provided by Christianity. True morality is higher than, and separate from, any particular religion. Religions pass away but God remains. Myriel acts out of genuine sympathy and caring for the weak and the downtrodden. The Bishop has chosen a consistent belief system and life path and has dedicated his life to the active service of humanity by performing good deeds and engaging in heartfelt charity. Myriel believes that it is each man’s duty to perform good acts despite the fact that he may never know if the good acts he has performed for people will lead them to change their lives for the good. His religious humanism is far from orthodox Christianity.

When Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, forgives Jean Valjean for the theft of the silver, he offers him his initial opportunity for redemption. After this incident, Valjean has a choice to make. He could either continue on a path of crime or he could follow the example set by the Bishop. Having learned from his past, Valjean goes on to help the poor and the wretched. He adopts a new life, identity, and mentality. His new life includes honesty, love of neighbor, love of enemy, and love of God. Throughout his life, the Bishop is always with him as symbolized by the candlesticks. Myriel acts as a model and an inspiration for Valjean for the rest of his life. Throughout the novel, Valjean imitates more and more the Bishop’s asceticism, renunciation of worldly pleasures, and emphasis on sacrifice.

The moral duty to help the poor that Valjean accepts does not come from any social institutions. Rather, it flows from an expansive notion of God. Valjean illustrates that reason is inadequate in the resolution of moral problems. However, thought does direct Valjean toward the consideration of a dilemma, but at every decision point his emotions serve as the guide to right behavior. The hero performs good deeds intuitively as if he is acting in response to an inner voice. This Kantian perspective is that each person has an inner voice (perhaps his conscience), the source of moral laws, that tells him what his duties (i.e., moral obligations) are. The message seems to be that faith can transform one’s life. For Valjean, merely believing in God is not enough. He does not just contemplate the divine. Having learned from his experiences, he goes on to act to help people by his own initiative. For him, God, fulfillment, and salvation are attainable without the help of any organized religion.

Choice is difficult for Valjean who has a double nature—he has the experience of a convict and the instincts of a saint. He is a product of the social conditions that led him to steal a loaf of bread for his sister’s family and his prison time for punishment of that crime. Despite that, he still has the potential for good in him. Over and over he has to choose between doing what is right and doing what is safe and secure. At virtually every turn Valjean doubts and questions himself before making the morally correct choice. Les Misérables is very much a story of a man’s conscience at war with itself. After meeting the radiantly spiritual Bishop Myriel, Valjean’s life becomes a continuing struggle between his activated moral sense and his life-long criminal tendencies.

As Monsieur Madeleine, Jean Valjean redeems himself by becoming an innovative entrepreneur who creates a successful manufacturing business that brings about progress and prosperity for an entire region. This successful and kind person voluntarily does good deeds to help the less fortunate. Valjean’s actions exhibit justice to individual people rather than observance of the requirements of some abstract legal order. In addition to providing a reasonable standard of living for his employees, he builds schools and hospitals with his own money and distributes a large share of his wealth to the poor. Then, of course, he takes care of Fantine and rescues, raises, and protects Cosette. Ironically, the tolerant Valjean sympathizes with others but is unable to sympathize with himself. He understands that, although a person can repent of a crime, he can never escape the dishonor from committing it.

Inspector Javert cannot accept transgressions of the law regardless of circumstances. He represents the idea of punitive secular justice and is solely concerned with detection and retribution. Javert is absolutely committed to rules and to their administration. As a defender of France’s legal system, he is dedicated to following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. The well-intentioned, rigid, and dogmatic Javert wants to protect society from the criminal element and has total faith in the system of laws that he represents. Javert, the personification of public authority, contends that theft is wrong regardless of mitigating factors. Myriel, representing morality, would say that theft should be forgiven in the case when one acted to keep people from starving. Of course, our hero, Valjean, is caught between these two worldviews. Toward the end of the novel, Javert comes to understand that Valjean is concerned with a moral law higher than positive state law. At the end he empathizes with Valjean and comprehends that divine law has supremacy. Javert commits suicide because this realization disaffirms everything in his life that he believed in. The story of Javert provides a lesson about the limitations of the law of men. At the end of his life, Javert understands that Jean Valjean’s resistance to Javert’s tyranny is rooted in a belief in a higher power and law than the laws of men.

Enjolras and his diverse band of revolutionaries have a dream of a better world and do all they can to make that world a reality. They love man, tend to reject organized religions (including Christianity), and attempt to overturn the existing social order. Enjolras, the leader of the ABC (the Abaissé or the abased) Society wants to elevate men. The ABC’s 1832 revolt demanded legislation that would make possible liberty, justice, equal education, equal opportunity, and so on. Enjolras is a devoted, purposeful, political idealist who inspires others with his utopian vision of future progress. The other revolutionaries turn to Enjolras for the meanings behind their actions.

The novel teaches that individual men are dignified, honorable, and benevolent, but that social institutions are not, the result being the corruption of individual human beings. Like Rousseau and Turgot, Hugo subscribes to the idea of the natural goodness of man. All three believed in progress and in the perfectibility of man. They viewed progress as a basic law of the universe. Created by God, man has the capacity to become a civilized moral person if he is not corrupted by society. It is the corrupting influence of society that is responsible for the misconduct of the individual. If individuals are properly educated then they would not want to do evil.

Hugo maintains that society must be changed, but also that it is individuals who must first be transformed. It is these transformed individuals who can then foster the advancement of society. Accepting the Platonic idea that the individual’s soul is noble but the body is degraded, the author of Les Misérables teaches that one must achieve spiritual grandeur and a virtuous character in order to battle for justice in the here and now. Some individuals have the ability to triumph over evil both in themselves and in society and its institutions if they are willing to actively respond to the divine. In Les Misérables the life of each character influences others. It follows that, if each individual comprehends and accepts his influences on other persons, then society may become more just, caring, and merciful. Hugo contends that the requisite love of humanity can only come from faith in the divine. Faith in God is thus placed at the heart of this work. For Hugo, belief in God by acting people of good will is necessary to instill the social order with kindness and to make society more humane. Like Pascal, Hugo urges his readers to bet in favor of the existence of God and perhaps even in the possibility of an afterlife for the soul. In Les Misérables there are only a few exceptional virtuous individuals such as Myriel, Jean Valjean, and Enjolras, who can attain this level of existence. It follows that rehabilitation and elevation of the social order is most likely impossible given the above requirement and reality.

The novel’s ethic of social service emphasizes the alleviation of poverty. It portrays poor people being helped by the charitable works of a private individual (Valjean) rather than by government. Depicting the abject poverty of the poor, Les Misérables questions the morality of a political and economic system that permits children to be orphaned and homeless, mothers dying in the streets, and good men imprisoned for minor transgressions committed to feed their families. Hugo’s goal was to elicit his readers’ compassion and to stimulate their moral sensibilities by portraying how poverty brutalizes and dehumanizes people and how strict and relentless law enforcement creates the savages that it wants to eliminate. He wanted to educate the bourgeois and to awaken their consciousness and concern for France’s social problems. Hugo wanted people to take action to ease the burden of the less fortunate through good deeds and through changes in the social system. Les Misérables is Hugo’s plea for social change that vacillates between human and institutional reality and his hope for, and vision of, a better world.

In Les Misérables Hugo depicts that society is nothing more than the collection of individuals whose lives affect one another. For example, it is clear that Jean Valjean is concerned only with the individuals who make up society. In the novel, the circumstances and conduct of various seemingly randomly introduced characters converge and become intertwined with the struggles of Valjean. From the beginning of the story, there is a web of influence that builds as characters affect one another. Early on we see G______, a representative of the assembly during the French Revolution that dissolved the monarchy, humbling Bishop Myriel who recognizes his moral devotion to humanity and progress prompting the Bishop to redouble his own tenderness and love for the weak and the suffering. The network of interconnections grows as characters such as Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Javert, Fauchelevant, the Thénardiers, Marius, M. Gillenormand, Colonel Pontmery, Champathieu, Enjolras, and others appear. The author brings many of these characters together toward the climax of the novel.

Les Misérables illustrates that in every idea, and that for every person, perspective is partial and, therefore, insufficient by itself alone. Hugo shows that the complexity of life requires that no one philosophy, perspective, emotion, tradition, or behavior is capable of providing a total picture of what it means to be human. Like Kant, Hugo laments the fact that a person can only perceive and comprehend things through his own consciousness. According to Kant, man’s knowledge lacks validity because his consciousness possesses identity. For Kant, knowledge, to be valid, must not be processed in any way by consciousness. Hugo, like Kant, seems to be looking for knowledge that could be called absolute, unqualified, pure, or diaphanous. Kant maintains that identity, which itself is the essence of existence, invalidates consciousness. To know what is true, a man would have to abandon his own nature, which is an absurd impossibility. It follows that for both Hugo and Kant, reason must be forsaken and the emotions must be embraced, if one wants to deal with the fundamental concerns of existence. Hugo does seem to imply that knowledge can be enhanced by dialectically relating each perspective with opposing viewpoints. However, he realizes that, even with this dialectic interaction, one’s knowledge would still be limited. Even when many angles of perspective can be coordinated simultaneously, one’s understanding of a process, experience, or event is still limited.

Les Misérables is a fascinating maze of characters, emotions, ideas, paradoxes, and antitheses. The novel co-mingles ever-shifting and blurred shades of criminality, heroism, misery, resilience, good, evil, irony, pathos, poetry, free will, providence, action, the social, the spiritual, and much more. Hugo thus deals with the emotions, hopes, fears, passions, and doubts that are reflective of people’s common humanity. Les Misérables is a detailed reporting of men’s feelings and ideas that transcend time and place. It follows that this great novel is as relevant today as when it was published more than 150 years ago.

Dr. Edward W. Younkins is Professor of Accountancy at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce: Conceptual Foundations of Free Enterprise [Lexington Books, 2002], Philosophers of Capitalism: Menger, Mises, Rand, and Beyond [Lexington Books, 2005] (See Mr. Stolyarov’s review of this book.), and Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society: Toward a Synthesis of Aristotelianism, Austrian Economics, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism [Rowman & Littlefield Pub Incorporated, 2011] (See Mr. Stolyarov’s review of this book.). Many of Dr. Younkins’s essays can be found online at his web page at You can contact Dr. Younkins at