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Post details: Can't beat Kant

Can't beat Kant

A friend of mine recommended this book about human soul, so I started reading it. At first it was intriguing - human psyche is indeed a universe of its own. But after a few pages the arguments started to loiter, going in circles and kicking the same cans and musts. Phrases like "moral imperative", "unobstructed flow of love", "larger frame of reference" flitted copiously around the narration in an ill-fated attempt to rustle up some new-agey metaphysics. But they weren't anchored in authentic experiences and soon I reached a point where I could not take it any more. So in the middle of chapter II, as I aborted the self-uplifting mission, I realized that when it comes to discussing morality, the fewer words, the better.

In 1822, shortly after finishing his Missa Solemnis, Beethoven scribbled in his diary the following quote from Kant: "Das Moralische Gesetz in uns und der gestirnte Himmel uber uns" (the moral law within us and the starry heavens above us). There! Just a hint, a parable, a glimpse of a beautiful lady caught from a speeding train. In one simple sentence Kant captured it all: like the Universe itself, we know the morality is out there somewhere, but we have little hope of ever understanding it. Forever hidden in the vast reaches of the soul, it stretches through our inner space without an obvious center of gravity.

Dealing with morality has always been a tricky issue. The consequences of our actions are not always obvious and sometimes not even immediate. Yet since antiquity people have worried about them. Critical reflection became part of being a human. You always have to wonder what trace you are leaving behind. Unless you are a member of some well connected cult, of course, in which case you are eternally exempt from all the worrying duties by the powers vested in the rubber stamp that is attached to your leader's forehead. But the rest of the human race does keep pondering what is the origin of that undertow which draws us towards right behavior. That nearly subconscious nagging feeling which redflags all our wrong doings, and given enough time can turn our attitudes around like a strayed oil tanker.

Maybe Kant has the answer to that. Maybe our morality comes from watching the starry heavens. From bathing in its quiescent timelessness. I bet you 50 pounds of Sugar Coated Enron Proceedings that hard core criminals and fraudulent accountants never lied underneath the night sky, wondering what there is and letting it plow their crusting conscience. They may have lied underneath the oath...but hey - that's not quite the same.

Watching the starry heavens nurtures our sense of continuity in time. And with it the respect for our forefathers and for the past in general. For it is the past that nurses the balancing consequences. And I think that's all that is needed. A link to the living past, to the unwavering statistics of generations. Sometimes when I walk around the old Czech castles, amidst stones assembled centuries ago, I can almost feel the taproot in my spine stir.

And I'd like to think that Beethoven felt the same way. It cannot be a coincidence that the Credo motive of his Missa Solemnis bears an uncanny resemblance to his earlier canon "Gott is eine Feste Burg" (God is a mighty fortress). And that is the verdict of the most in depth treatise on morality that I know of.



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