SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. PERFECTIONISM
  4. II. PURE LOVE
  5. III. GOOD WILL
  6. IV. HAPPINESS
  7. V. DISINTERESTEDNESS

Two philosophers, Robert Spaemann and Henri Gouhier, have identified a similarity between Fénelon and Kant in the prominence of motive in their thought: disinterestedness in Fénelon's pure love and in Kant's good will. Spaemann emphasizes their common detaching of the ethical in terms of motivation from the context of happiness. In this article I explore further similarities and differences under the topics of perfectionism, pure love, good will, happiness, and disinterestedness, as these are pertinent to their thought. On perfectionism there appears a stark contrast; on pure love over against good will, on happiness, and on disinterestedness, however, there seems a balance between likenesses and differences. Finally I point out a qualification set on pure love by Fénelon and on the good will by Kant.

Both Robert Spaemann and Henri Gouhier connect Francois Fénelon (1651–1715) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) on the point of disinterestedness.1 Fénelon espoused holy indifference, detachment, disinterestedness. Pure love was disinterested love. Immanuel Kant says that even the supreme being as ‘sole absolute lawgiver would … have to be represented as appraising the worth of rational beings only by their disinterested conduct’.2 The good will is a disinterested will.

Disinterestedness is the absence of partiality to the self and the self's interest, including a detachment from seeking personal happiness. Spaemann thinks that Kant's detaching of the ethical in terms of motivation from a eudaimonistic context is related to Fénelon's detaching of the love of God in terms of motivation from a eudaimonistic context.3

This article studies Fénelon's idea of pure love and Kant's idea of the good will for similarity and difference. It is divided into the following sections: I. Perfectionism II. Pure Love III. Good Will IV. Happiness V. Disinterestedness.

I. PERFECTIONISM

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. PERFECTIONISM
  4. II. PURE LOVE
  5. III. GOOD WILL
  6. IV. HAPPINESS
  7. V. DISINTERESTEDNESS

A recent challenge to contemporary ethical studies is the revival of perfectionism. Hurka's Perfectionism in particular has attracted the attention of philosophers and others. Hurka's is not the perfectionism of Aristotle, in which virtue plays a prominent part in one's overall flourishing. He says that ‘perfectionism should never be expressed in terms of well-being’.4 Yet Hurka counts his version of perfectionism as a moral ideal and an ideal that ought to be pursued, an ‘ought’ that is a categorical not a hypothetical imperative.5 Hurka characterizes this perfectionism as follows:

Starting from the general perfectionist idea, and identifying nature with living essence, we have arrived at a perfectionism with three intrinsic goods: physical perfection, which develops our physical nature, and theoretical and practical perfection, which develop theoretical and practical rationality.6

We should at the outset be able to assume that Fénelon's perfectionism is an expression of Christian perfectionism. Moralism is present in references to the Law, but Fénelon's is most notably a perfectionism of the interior life of the soul and is identified with indifference or distinterestedness. In Article VII of The Maxims of the Saints Fénelon writes: ‘The perfection of interior paths only consists in a path of true love and loves God without any interest and of pure faith wherein one only walks in shadows, without any light save that of the same faith that is common to all Christians’.7

Hurka objects to what he calls moralism in the perfectionism of others, for example, Aristotle and Aquinas. He says that in Kant's perfectionism moralism dominates.8

While one can accept Hurka's view on Kant if he means that Kant's doctrine requires that developing a morally good character or virtue takes precedence over the development of our theoretical and practical rationality, Rawls shows that Kant rejects perfectionism as this is usually understood. Rawls says that perfectionism is of two kinds: theoretical and practical. The first is transcendental and the second metaphysical. Theoretical perfection is the perfection of anything as a thing of its kind or the perfection of a thing generally. But these are not relevant to practical perfection. Practical perfection is the fitness of things to all kinds of ends. The perfection of a human being resides in the development of skills and talents that enable us to attain our ends. Here the ends are given, and so the concept of perfection helps to determine the will. But what ends are appropriate to developing a moral character? Without a criterion for choosing the ends, perfectionism is as indeterminate as happiness. Heteronomy follows just as surely.9

Rawls makes the point that even if the correct ends could be found, Kant would still reject perfectionism. For Kant it is not acceptable that the conception of a given object should determine the will; the object, such as the realm of ends, has to be developed from principles originating in our practical reason. Rawls outlines Kant's doctrine of autonomy:

It [the autonomy doctrine] says that there neither exists nor subsists any such object [outside our practical reason], whether the Supreme Being, or a given moral order of values (as exemplified, say, by the relations between Platonic Ideas, or by ideas lying in divine reason), or an order of nature, or the constitution of human nature, or the psychic economy of our natural feelings and the laws of harmony of our inclinations and needs.10

Rawls adds that Kant must think that even if we could know what is moral from any or all of the accesses mentioned, which Kant thinks we cannot, our own pure practical reason has to be the originator of its own principles.11

We can say then that Fénelon and Kant are not alike with regard to perfectionism. Fénelon wrote a book entitled Christian Perfection. As Kant understood perfectionism, his moral doctrine had to reject the heteronomy that perfectionism required.

II. PURE LOVE

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. PERFECTIONISM
  4. II. PURE LOVE
  5. III. GOOD WILL
  6. IV. HAPPINESS
  7. V. DISINTERESTEDNESS

The love of God is expressed in an imperative: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole mind, and with your whole soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.12 Fénelon writes about the perfection of the love of God.

Fénelon thinks that pure love requires an ‘interior destruction of amour-propre, the egotistical, self-centered desires that resist our abandoning ourselves by an act of pure love to God's will’.13 Obedience to God's Law is not left out. Rather ‘this selfless love [amour désintéressé] is always inviolably attached to the written law … and provokes all the distinct virtues as selfish love [amour intéressé]’.14 It is a ‘love born of pure charity, without any mingling of motive of self-interest’.15

Fénelon was versed in the study of the mystical tradition of the Catholic Church. He was an admirer of Saint Francis de Sales (1562–1622) and also of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), both of whom wrote treatises on the love of God. A common touchstone for theology, including spiritual or mystical theology, even by those theologians who were disaffected with Scholasticism and Thomism and wanted a purer Augustinianism, would have been Saint Thomas Aquinas. A brief review of salient points in the teachings of these three will offer points of reference for an understanding of Fénelon's views.

De Sales was influenced by the French school of spirituality, whose spokesman was Pierre de Bérulle. Bérulle's Discours de l'état et des grandeurs de Jésus Christ (1623) and his Opuscules emphasize three aspects of the idea of God: (1) from Aquinas, God's essence is his existence (2) from Denys the Areopagite, God's being is subordinated to his unity so that going beyond being, God also goes beyond our understanding (3) most important, God is infinite, and so incomprehensible.16 De Sales, although his view is modified by his humanism, still belongs to this Dionysian tendency. His Treatise on the Love of God has recourse to many names for God because one name is defining. God's infinity overdetermines and modifies his other attributes. Every attribute is infinite; incomprehensibility follows, and such incomprehensibility is accessible only to love. The understanding gives place to the will, that is, either our love for God, or God's omnipotent will.17

Bernard's Treatise on the Love of God presents four degrees of the love of God. The first degree of love is the love of self for self; the second degree is the love of God for what he gives; the third degree is the love of God for what he is; the fourth degree is the love even of self only for God's sake.18

But Bernard doubts if this last degree is reached while we are on this side of eternity. He says,

I think myself that the command to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength will not be perfectly fulfilled until the mind no longer needs to think about the flesh, and the soul ceases having to maintain the body's life and powers.19

Bernard thinks that this fourth degree is not reached until the general resurrection, since the souls in heaven only then will get what they await with regard to themselves: they will get their bodies back. In other words, until then, as Bernard says, ‘Something of their own will remains in them …’.20

Aquinas holds that charity or the love of God is infused, for although there is a natural love of God, we need God's grace for supernatural love.21 Aquinas distinguishes three degrees of charity or the love of God and neighbor in God: beginning, progress, and perfection. The first degree is the avoidance of sin; the second degree is aiming at progress in the good; the third degree is to aim chiefly at union with and enjoyment of God.22 Pure love then would be the third stage of the love of God, union with God.

In a review of Gouhier's Fénelon Philosophe, Patrick Riley says that Gouhier shows Fénelon arguing for ‘five degrees of ‘purity’ or ‘disinterestedness’ in human love of God'. The first is ‘purely servile love’, the love of the good which depends on God's power and which we hope to have; the second is the love of God for the goods he gives as instruments of our salvation; the third and fourth are a mixture of self-love and true love of God; the fifth is the pure love of God that we find in the saints. This love is without any self-interest. It excludes the fear of punishment and the desire for reward.23

At this point, we should note that Aquinas says that ‘the third degree is to aim chiefly [italics mine] at union with and enjoyment of God’. Bernard clearly evinces doubt that we can lose all self-interest before we receive back our bodies at the resurrection of the just. De Sales too is cautious. Chapter XI of The Treatise on the Love of God is entitled ‘The Motives We Have of Holy Love'. There are five. The first motive and the greatest is the divine goodness considered in itself. The second motive is God's natural providence over all that he has created and preserves. The third motive is God's supernatural providence and his redemption of us. The fourth motive is reflection on how God effects his providence and redemption, giving all the graces needed. The fifth motive is the eternal glory that the divine goodness has provided for us.24 (TLG, pp. 551–552) Fénelon seems to have believed that he goes no further than De Sales and other spiritual writers in his explication of pure love. Saint Bernard, who thought that the measure we use to love God is to love him without measure, nevertheless has doubts concerning how far we can go to divest ourselves of self-interest.

III. GOOD WILL

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. PERFECTIONISM
  4. II. PURE LOVE
  5. III. GOOD WILL
  6. IV. HAPPINESS
  7. V. DISINTERESTEDNESS

We should distinguish between Wille and Willkür in Kant. Wille is practical reason, what gives rational commands. Willkür is the faculty of choice, the capacity to choose with or against the commands of Wille. Joshua Glasgow writes:

To privilege one's inclinations against what reason, or Wille, dictates is to have a bad Willkür. Thus, when Kant says at the beginning of the Groundwork that the only unconditional good is the good will, we can take this to mean that the only unconditional good is a good Willkür. Accordingly, one has a good will when (1) one's faculty of choice, or Willkür, chooses in accordance with the commands of Wille, and (2) does so from duty, and not because Wille's commands contingently happen to converge with one's inclinations.25

Rawls brings out Kant's emphasis on the purity of the moral law, on the fact that it is an a priori principle that originates in our free reason. The best protection against breaking the law is our awareness that the law originates in us, insofar as we are free and autonomous agents. We therefore already have a knowledge of right and wrong. Rawls also suggests that because of his Pietist background Kant may also seek a form of reflection that will check the purity of our motives.26

Kant, however, wants a moderate self-scrutiny. He finds this check in the categorical imperative. This is the moral law.27 The law of nature formulation of the categorical imperative reads: ‘…act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature’.28 The second formulation reads: ‘So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’.29

Kant in the Preface to the Groundwork distinguishes his understanding of the pure will from Christian Wolff's account of willing. He would also reject Hume's psychological naturalism and Leibniz's metaphysical perfectionism.

Kant says the following of Wolff's Philosophia Practica Universalis (1738–9):

Just because it was to be a universal practical philosophy it took into consideration, not a will of any special kind, such as one that would be completely determined by a priori principle without any empirical motives and that could be called a pure will, but rather volition generally, with all the actions and conditions that belong to it in this general sense ….30

Kant objects that for Wolff the actions and conditions of human volition generally are for the most part drawn from psychology. Moreover, that Wolff and others discuss moral laws and duties in such works is just because ‘they do not distinguish motives that, as such, are represented completely a priori by reason alone and are properly moral, from empirical motives …’.31

Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature bears a subtitle that indicates that Hume intends to subject the study of human nature to empirical criteria. The natural philosophy that de-anthropomorphized (Copernican) plus the one that discredited an everything-in-its-place and with its end, that is, a teleological view of nature (Galileo), reduced the status of moral qualities (as well as the other qualities). Since nature could be understood better by studying its mathematical structures, other qualities were not ‘real’.32

Hume found the foundation of moral qualities in the constitution of the human mind. Moral sentiments are impressions of reflection. It is our reaction to the actions, but specifically, to the motive of others that makes us call the ‘quality’ virtue or vice. Hume thought of the will itself as an ‘effect’ and as such simply what we feel when we become conscious of some motion of our body or impression on our mind. We are not free in the sense that we enjoy ‘liberty of indifference’, the power to choose this or that.33

For Hume, the analysis of reason removes it from being the sole motive of the will. The passions or feelings or emotions are movers or motives (desires) and these can be good (virtuous) or not. Reason is the slave of the passions, and this is calculative reason.34

Kant holds that if we start from the good as prior, the moral will be heteronomous. Pure practical reason will not be its own sovereign authority as the supreme maker of law. Leibniz's metaphysical perfectionism suffers from heteronomy since it posits a prior moral order given to and known by our reason. In this sense it is no better off than the psychological naturalism at the bottom of Hume's doctrine of sympathy as the foundation of morals. What determines the will in these cases is the conception of a given object, whereas for Kant what determines the will is an object developed from principles originating in practical reason.35

The pure love of God according to the Commandment meant for Fénelon the ‘interior destruction of amour-propre, the egotistical, self-centered desires that resist our abandoning ourselves by an act of pure love to God's will'. The good will meant for Kant choosing according to the commands of reason, and from duty, not because reason's commands happen to agree with our inclinations.

For Fénelon God's will gives the command; we have to obey the command from the motive of love and obedience toward God. To do so we have to leave aside our selfish desires, including our desire for happiness. For Kant our reason gives the command; we have to obey the command from the motive of obedience to duty. To do so we have to leave aside our inclinations. In both thinkers we have a specification of the ethical that is outside of a eudaimonistic context.

IV. HAPPINESS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. PERFECTIONISM
  4. II. PURE LOVE
  5. III. GOOD WILL
  6. IV. HAPPINESS
  7. V. DISINTERESTEDNESS

Fénelon wrote a book entitled Treatise on the Existence of God, a work unmistakably marked by the influence of Descartes, although also of Augustine and Aquinas. A brief review of Descartes's and Aquinas's understanding of happiness should give a fair notion of Fénelon's concept of it.

Descartes in letters to Princess Elizabeth advises that happiness is contentment, and he thinks of ‘each person's contentment as the full satisfaction of all his desires regulated by reason’.36 What makes a life happy can be divided into two classes: those things which depend on us, like virtue and wisdom; those that do not, like honors, riches, health. We are responsible for our own contentment, which involves (1) always trying to use our minds to find out what we should or should not do under the circumstances of life (2) being resolved to follow reason in the face of distracting passions and appetites (virtue) (3) remembering that the good we do not possess is outside of our power.37

The chief truth useful to us is that there is a God. His perfection is such that when we think of him, we are naturally inclined to love him. The second thing we must know is that our soul is nobler than our body, and its satisfactions are not to be found in this life.38 Happiness presupposes the supreme good; that is, it presupposes the end we should set for ourselves. The end of our actions is the supreme good, and the end is also the resulting contentment of mind that comes from reaching the end, since this contentment or happiness is the attraction that draws us to seek the supreme good.39

Aquinas in his Treatise on Happiness discusses earthly happiness in the context of eternal happiness. For Aristotle, happiness is the imperfect happiness that we can attain in this life; for Aquinas, who views ultimate happiness as what we cannot help striving for and as what will satiate us, in order to avoid senseless striving there must be the possibility of attaining happiness. Aquinas holds that perfect good is reached by the highest activity of the mind; he thus rejects the following answers given to the question of happiness: wealth, honor, power, health, pleasure. Aquinas observes that for the limited happiness of this earth we have to continue to secure the following: good bodily condition, some external goods, friends, but always in such a way that the enjoyment of these does not incur the loss of ultimate happiness The imperfect happiness that we can attain is a kind of preparation for the perfect happiness that earthly happiness makes us want.40

Although people do not agree on what good will bring them perfect happiness, those with a well-educated will should be able to show us where our real happiness lies.

The quest for happiness has a cosmic dimension in that all things strive to assimilate themselves to God as their First Cause; man is ordained to know God; this basic structure of his being is the background for his supernatural vocation.41

When Fénelon says that happiness as the motive behind our choices is put aside for those who practice disinterestedness and the pure love of God, he is denying that Cartesian contentment, Thomistic imperfect happiness, or eternal beatitude can drive the perfect fulfillment of the Commandment.

Kant specifies the moral by placing it outside the concept of happiness. If the imperative of prudence, the hypothetical imperative, could work as well with happiness as it does with skill, to will the end, happiness, would mean to will the means, and we would know certainly what to do to achieve happiness.42

But it is a misfortune that the concept of happiness is such an indeterminate concept that, although every human being wishes to attain this, he can still never say determinately and consistently with himself what he really wishes and wills.43

This situation is because everything that belongs to happiness is empirical; all its elements have to be borrowed from experience. But the idea of happiness requires ‘an absolute whole, a maximum of well-being in my present condition and in every future condition’.44

No finite being can frame for himself a determinate concept of what he wills here. He would have to be omniscient and omnipotent. Cognition and insight, a long life, health, etc., all have some possible outcomes that would not be happy ones. Finite beings have to settle for the counsels of prudence, merely hypothetical commands to themselves, subject to alteration. Kant gives as examples of practices, not moral but merely natural, that have worked in this regard for many – regimen, frugality, courtesy, reserve.45

Kant does not think that the good will, a life of duty, or single dutiful actions guarantee happiness. In fact, he thinks that doing one's duty and being happy are often in conflict. Thus virtue as understood by Kant is not a part of happiness.46

Just as we are obligated to perfect ourselves, we are obligated to others' happiness – and it is also rational to want to be happy ourselves. Since happiness is the highest good in Kant and it should be a reward for virtue or doing one's duty, and yet this good will is often not rewarded by happiness, Kant thinks that it is necessary to postulate (1) immortality of the soul (2) the existence of God (if even for experimental reasons only, he says), (1) because the supreme good, our own self-perfection, is an ongoing project and thus needs more work than mortal beings can give it; (2) because happiness should be the reward of the virtuous and we have to have an adequate cause, one with perfect volition and perfect power. Kant also holds that we must postulate freedom for otherwise we would not have morality. For Kant reason tells us all of this.

Fénelon holds that the pure love of God is so disinterested that the lover has the will to love only God's will, even to the extent of being prepared for an impossible scenario, one in which the lover is willing to give up God out of love for him. He would forego even eternal beatitude, the perfect happiness of seeing the face of God.

Kant does not in fact see it this way. As essential to morality as is the disinterestedness of doing the good only for the sake of the good, Kant says, we nevertheless have to postulate the existence of God, freedom, and the immortality of the soul because the reward of happiness has to be bestowed for goodness in a life unlike this one, where it is often not given. The highest good is postulated for the sake of the supreme good. Fénelon's spiritual theology culminates in a religious despair that is paradoxically union with God, and Kant's moral philosophy culminates in religious hope that is paradoxically interested.

V. DISINTERESTEDNESS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. PERFECTIONISM
  4. II. PURE LOVE
  5. III. GOOD WILL
  6. IV. HAPPINESS
  7. V. DISINTERESTEDNESS

Disinterest has to do with motivation. To see the similarities and differences between Fénelon and Kant on the question of disinterestedness, two questions must be answered. First, what are the contexts of Fénelon and Kant's emphasis on disinterestedness? Fénelon is arguing for the necessity of disinterest as a requirement for the pure love of God. Kant is arguing for its necessity as a requirement for the moral. Second, what is the interrelationship among maxims, intentions, and motives, as these are understood by Fénelon and by Kant?

Maxims as general, supposedly evident and necessary propositions were popular in the seventeenth century, and their repetition and memorization were often seen as techniques to control the passions and advance the virtues. Among Christians, a number of how-to manuals were composed, including manuals on the spiritual life.47 Fénelon's Maxims of the Saints falls into this genre.

Fénelon considered himself at one with a long line of commentators on the spiritual life, specifically on mysticism, from the Alexandrian Fathers to Francis de Sales. But his writings eventually received a rebuke from the Catholic Church. Leaving aside personal, religious, and political tensions between Fénelon and other prominent Churchmen of his day on the question of his alleged quietism, especially Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bishop of Paris, one-time mentor and friend, and with a focus on the content of the Maxims, we see that we are dealing with mystical phenomena or the desire for them.48

Fénelon's Maxims of the Saints carries the complete title Explanations of the Maxims of the Saints on the Interior Life (1697). It is a composed of forty-five articles, each one arranged with paragraphs marked true, followed by paragraphs marked false. Twenty-three articles were condemned by Innocent XII in the apostolic brief Cum alias. Most of these have to do with the question of whether Fénelonian pure love excluded Christian hope in eternal happiness and salvation.49 Following article XLV of the Maxims is a conclusion that contains the following condemned proposition:

The most essential and immediate transformation and union are no more than the habit of this pure love that alone makes up the inner life and that becomes the only principle and the only motive of all deliberate and meritorious acts.50

We can expect that Fénelon would adhere to ordinary Catholic meanings of intention and motive. An intention is an act of the will directed to an end which must be reached with the help of certain means. The goodness of the will depends on the end one pursues.51

A motive or purpose is distinguished from the object of the action, the latter being what the action is concerned with as seen by reason in the light of our obligations.52 In the stealing of money in order to buy a car, or a horse, the stealing is the object of the action, the intention is the end pursued by the will, that is, to steal, and the ‘in order to’ (buy …) is the motive.

For Fénelon, the end is the pure love of God, and the means to reach it is indifference to reward of any kind; an example of an action taken and its motive might be giving up efforts to achieve the perfection of the virtues for the purpose of ridding oneself of the complacency of achievement.

According to Richard Popkin, the quietism of the seventeenth century is a form of skepticism, which is a manifestation of a distrust of reason. Here the distrust leads to a variety of mysticism.53

Kant later took up the questions raised by rationalism and empiricism from Descartes onward, and attempted to reconcile the two, and indeed to reconcile science with religion by imposing reason's sobriety on religion.

These two quite different perspectives nevertheless come together in their insistence on strictures against self-interest, whether in the pursuit of the highest spiritual goals (Fénelon), or in the pursuit of perfecting oneself as a moral being (Kant).

Kant calls a maxim ‘the objective ground of volition’ to distinguish a maxim from an incentive, which is ‘the subjective ground of desire’.54

Mark Timmons says that for Kant maxims are mental states that involve an agent's intention with regard to an action under consideration. Motives are psychological states which serve to explain in some deep or ultimate way an agent's choice and action.

Timmons puts the matter thus:

… if motives are psychological states that represent ultimate ends of action for which one acts, and if, for Kant, having an end is a matter of adopting a maxim of ends (thus setting oneself to bring about some state of affairs that is the end), then, since maxims are intentions, it follows that motives are, for Kant, ultimate intentions.55

The formulation of the categorical imperative known as the universal law formulation, that we must adopt only that maxim which we could will at the same time that it become a universal law, a law of nature, functions as a decision making procedure.

The formulation of the categorical imperative known as the humanity as an end in itself formulation, that we are to treat human beings as ends in themselves and never as merely means, functions as a moral criterion of action.56

The universal law formulation carries with it tests for consistency: the contradiction in conception test and the contradiction in willing test. A false promise fails the contradiction in willing test – briefly, because the phrase ‘false promise’ and the meaning that it entails is incoherent, or contradictory. Thus it fails to pass a rationality test. The contradiction in willing test, when applied to the maxim never to help others, fails also, and on the rationality ground, since the ‘others’ might include the one who has ‘never helped others’ as a maxim, and we cannot consistently will such a maxim and also be rational.

The humanity as an end in itself formulation expresses the most fundamental right- and wrong-making characteristics of an action.

Although Kant, in order to distinguish a maxim as the principle of volition, from an incentive, the principle of desire, says that a maxim is ‘the objective ground of volition’ and an incentive is ‘the subjective ground of desire’, a maxim is also a ‘subjective principle of volition’ to distinguish it as ‘my maxim’, and as such it can be mistaken.

It is the aspect of intention called pure that distinguishes the intention to love God for the sake of God and the intention to do one's duty for the sake of duty, from other intentions, whether mixed or bad. Questions arise about the possibility of such pure intentions occurring. We can certainly deceive ourselves. But the view that all we do is from self-interest is a self-fulfilling one. If pure love and good will are both about a good thought or act done for the goodness of the act – love of God for the sake of God, for himself, honesty for the sake of honesty, giving back correct change because it is right to do so, that is, if there is such a thing as charity itself, justice itself, then not only are we in the Christian tradition, but we are in the realm of the eternal, changeless, and incorporeal.

The following sums up the similarities and differences between Fénelon and Kant on disinterestedness and the topics related to it:

On perfection they are different: Fénelon pursues Christian perfection, which he strictly interprets as detachment; Kant rejects the heteronomy that perfectionism requires.

On pure love and good will they are directed to different objects: for Fénelon it is God's will and for Kant it is his own reason; they are similar in their specification of the spiritual/ethical as outside a eudaimonistic context.

On happiness they are similar, since Fénelon sees it as outside the spiritual, and Kant sees it as outside the moral; they are different in that in the pursuit of union with God, Fénelon's faculty of imagination postulates the impossible supposition of the soul's eternal damnation, if God so willed, and, on the other hand, in pursuit of the supreme good of a moral life, Kant's faculty of imagination postulates the reward of eternal happiness for the free, immortal soul.

On disinterestedness they are similar in that they view motive and intention as decisive: in the spiritual life, in the case of Fénelon, pure love; and in the moral life, in the case of Kant, good will. They are different, however, since although for both thinkers the will is enlightened by reason (Fénelon has natural reason and the Commandments of God and Kant has the categorical imperative), Fénelon is hardly an adherent of Kant's religion within the limits of reason.

Saint Bernard doubts if anyone reaches such disinterested love while still living, even speculating that our departed souls will be waiting for our bodies until the two are united at the resurrection of the body. Kant postulates the immortality of the soul so that the work of moral perfection can be continued beyond the grave; mortal beings are too weak to attain moral perfection in a lifetime. Fénelon himself realizes the difficulty. In the final article of the Maxims, he writes: ‘He who would speculate about having achieved this love would tremble right to the marrow of his bones if God were to put him to the tests to which this love becomes purified and is achieved in Christian souls’.57

Footnotes
  1. 1 Robert Spaemann, Happiness and Benevolence, trans. Jeremiah Alberg, S.J. (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), p. 78; Patrick Riley, Review of Fénelon Philosophe by Henri Gouhier, Paris, Librairie Vin, 1978, in The Philosophical Review, Volume 90: Number 2, April 1981, p. 288. Riley disagrees with Gouhier on the connection between Fénelon and Kant on ‘disinterestedness’. He writes, ‘There is no doubt that Kant prized disinterestedness; but he never advocated the radical self-abnegation that Fénelon sometimes recommends'.

  2. 2 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals, trans., ed. Mary Gregor (Cambrige, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 46.

  3. 3 Spaemann, p. 78.

  4. 4 Hurka, Perfectionism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 17.

  5. 5 Ibid.

  6. 6 Ibid., p. 51.

  7. 7 Fénelon: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality), trans., ed., and intro. Chad Helms (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2006), p. 234.

  8. 8 Hurka, p. 19.

  9. 9 John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Modern Philosophy, ed. Barbara Herman (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 228.

  10. 10 Ibid., pp. 228–29.

  11. 11 Ibid., pp. 229–30.

  12. 12 Deuteronomy 6:4–6.

  13. 13 Fénelon, p. 68.

  14. 14 Ibid., p. 104.

  15. 15 Ibid., p. 103.

  16. 16 Jean-Luc Marion, ‘The Idea of God’, in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Philosophy, Volume 1, ed. Daniel Garber and Michael Ayres (Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 272.

  17. 17 Ibid., pp. 272–73.

  18. 18 St. Bernard on the Love of God (Fleur de Lys Series), trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V. (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co. Limited, 1961), pp. 39–46.

  19. 19 Ibid., p. 46.

  20. 20 Ibid., p. 47.

  21. 21 St.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981), q. 23, a. 2.

  22. 22 Ibid., q. 24, a. 9.

  23. 23 Riley, p. 288.

  24. 24 St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey, O.S.B. (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1949), pp. 551–52.

  25. 25 Joshua Glasgow, ‘Kant's Conception of Humanity’, Journal of the History of Philosophy Volume 45: Number 2 April 2007, p. 293.

  26. 26 Rawls, pp. 147–48.

  27. 27 Ibid., pp. 148–49.

  28. 28 Kant, Groundwork, p. 31 (4: 421).

  29. 29 Ibid., p. 38 (4: 429).

  30. 30 Ibid., p. 4 (4: 391).

  31. 31 Ibid.

  32. 32 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, Second Edition, revised by P.H. Nidditch (Oxford, London, Glasgow: Oxford University Press, 1978, Bk. I, Pt. IV, Sec. III; Bk. III, Pt. III, Sec. IV.

  33. 33 Ibid., Bk. II, Pt. III, Sec. I–II.

  34. 34 Ibid., Bk. II, Pt. III, Sec. III.

  35. 35 Rawls, p. 227.

  36. 36 The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, Anthony Kenny (Cambridge, England, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 257.

  37. 37 Ibid., pp. 257–58.

  38. 38 Ibid., pp. 265–66.

  39. 39 Ibid., p. 261.

  40. 40 Leo J. Elders, The Ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas (Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 35–45.

  41. 41 Ibid.

  42. 42 Kant, Groundwork, p. 28 (4: 418).

  43. 43 Ibid., p. 28 (4: 418).

  44. 44 Ibid.

  45. 45 Ibid., pp. 28–29 (4: 418–19).

  46. 46 This paragraph and the two following are based on notes from Seminar in Ethical Theory, Fall,1998, Mark Timmons, University of Memphis.

  47. 47 Susan James, ‘Reasons, the Passions, and the Good Life’, in Garber and Ayres, Volume II, pp. 1380–81.

  48. 48 Chad Helms in the Introduction to Fénelon refers to Ronald Knox's study of heterodox doctrines, Enthusiasm (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950) on the subject of quietism: ‘… Quietism is less a heresy or school of thought than a ‘tendency’, a ‘direction of the human mind’ to exaggerate concepts that otherwise could be considered perfectly orthodox'. The leading figure of seventeenth century quietism was Miguel de Molinos (1628–96). Helms lists from Cardinal Bassuet, a nineteenth century Fénelon scholar, three points of Molinos's teaching on quietism: (1) the permanent state of perfect contemplation (2) apatheia or lack of desire (3) dispensation of Christian obligation. Helms notes that Knox extends the list: ‘According to him [Knox], Quietism may be defined not only by concepts of passive contemplation, lack of concern for one's salvation, and disengagement from normative Christian morality, but also by an instinctive rejection of ‘reflection’ or intellectual considerations in prayer and the tendency to de-emphasize devotion to Christ's sacred humanity'. (Helms, pp. 85–87) In the Maxims Fénelon disavows teaching anything other than what had been taught in the mystical tradition that he inherited.

  49. 49 Fénelon, p. 108.

  50. 50 Ibid., p. 297.

  51. 51 Elders, pp. 58–59; 87.

  52. 52 Ibid., pp. 72–73.

  53. 53 Richard Popkin, ‘The Religious Background of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy’, in Garber and Ayers, Volume I, p. 403. Popkin writes: ‘The movement called ‘quietism’ swept the Catholic world and turned up in Protestantism as pietism and in Judaism as Hassidism'.

  54. 54 Kant, Groundwork, p. 36 (4: 428).

  55. 55 Mark Timmons, ‘Motive and Rightness in Kant's Ethical System’, in Kant's Metaphysics of Morals: Interpretative Essays, ed. Mark Timmons (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 265.

  56. 56 This paragraph and the three following are based on notes from Seminar in EthicalTheory, Fall, 1998, Mark Timmons, University of Memphis.

  57. 57 Fénelon, p. 295.