On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Practical Reason’​: Music at Midnight -part one


by George Herbert (1593–1633)

But that thou art my wisdome, Lord,

And both mine eyes are thine,

My minde would be extreamly stirr’d

For missing my designe.

Were it not better to bestow

Some place and power on me?

Then should thy praises with me grow,

And share in my degree.

But when I thus dispute and grieve,

I do resume my sight,

And pilfring what I once did give,

Disseize thee of thy right.

How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,

That I should then raise thee?

Perhaps great places and thy praise

Do not so well agree.

Wherefore unto my gift I stand;

I will no more advise:

Onely do thou lend me a hand,

Since thou hast both mine eyes.

What does the word ‘duty’ suggest to you?

As I have covered in my last three articles, On Kant’s ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’: Good will hunting parts one — three Immanuel Kant’s, (1724–1804), theory of ethics marked something of a radical break from his predecessors. For instance, Baruch Spinoza, (1632–1677), and David Hume, (1711–1776), for all their differences regarded the notions of good and evil as being primary, the notions of right and wrong derive from them, whilst the notion of duty or obligation gets barely a mention in their ethical theories. A right action or intention is simply one that leads to or is likely to lead to a good consequence and yet for Kant the notion of duty or obligation and the notions of right and wrong are fundamental whereby a good person is one who habitually acts rightly and a right action is one that is done from a sense of duty. And furthermore, ethics for Hume is concerned simply with humankind and deals with the purely contingent fact that men and women have a disposition to feel emotions of approval and disapproval plus the equally contingent fact that in men and women this disposition is excited by contemplating the happiness or misery of human beings. But for Kant the fundamental laws of morality are the same for every rational being, whether man, woman, angel, or God, in virtue of the ultimate criterion of rightness being deducible from the concept of a rational being as such. Kant and Spinoza do agree upon one thing then, both, albeit in very different ways, thought that the dual nature of human beings as being partly instinctive and partly rational was of vital significance in human ethics.

Kant’s ethical theory in a nutshell is this. Nothing is intrinsically good but a good will, the proof of which is to take other putative intrinsic goods such as happiness, intellectual eminence, and so on, and demonstrate that each may be worthless or positively evil when not combined with a good will. (But even were we to accept the alleged facts don’t they prove merely that a good will is a necessary constituent of any whole which is intrinsically good but it does not follow, albeit it may of course be true, that a good will has itself any intrinsic value?) A good will is one that habitually wills rightly. The rightness or wrongness of a volition depends wholly upon the nature of its motive, it does not depend upon its actual consequences, and it does not depend upon its intended consequences except in so far as the expectation of these forms part of the motive. For a mere idle wish is of course of no moral worth but provided that we genuinely endeavour to carry out our intention and provided that our motive is right then the volition is right no matter what its consequences may be.

A question arises: What is the criterion of rightness of motive? Kant’s second ‘Critique’, the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’, was intended to clear up some of the obscurities of the ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’, covering a wider scope and situating his ethical views within the larger framework of his system of critical philosophy. So let us see how well it does.

The principal ideas advanced in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ are as follows:

1. Morality can claim objectivity and universality only by being founded on peace and reason itself.

2. Moral laws are universal and categorical because of their form, not their empirical content.

3. The fundamental law of the pure practical reason is to to act that the maxim of the will could always function as a principle establishing universal law.

4. Were it not for the moral law man nor woman could never know him or herself to be free, for man and woman ‘thou ought’ implies ‘thou canst’.

5. The rational postulates of the practical reason are that man and woman is free, that the soul is immortal, and that God exists.

‘The Wise and Foolish Virgins’, Charles Ricketts, (1866–1931). Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh’. (‘Matthew’ 25:1–13). How does encouraging one to do what one ought fare within a moral perspective if it comes with a threat?

Little of Kant’s writings can be understood without a clear understanding and appreciation of the ‘Copernican revolution’ (which was really a ‘Ptolemaic revolution, see part one of the previous series)in philosophy effected by his first critique, the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. Previously the predominant rational tradition in Western philosophy was founded upon the assumption of reason’s capacity for discovering the forms or essential structures characterising all things, whether the form of ‘treeness’ was an innate aspect of every existent tree (as Aristotle, (384–322 BC), held) or a transcendent form in which each existent tree participated (as Plato, (c. 429–347 B.C), held), the capacity of reason for perceiving such forms was not doubted. The medieval controversy over ‘universals’ centred not in reason’s ability for such perception but in the nature of this rational activity. From the first questioning of the nominalists, however, (nominalism: from nominalis (Latin) meaning ‘of or pertaining to names, is the ontological theory (concerned with what exists) that reality is only made up of particular items and denies the real existence of any general entities such as properties, species, universals, sets, or other categories), through the break between self and ‘exterior world’ in René Descartes, (1596–1650), doubt as to the precise authority of rational apprehension increased. Human error and empirical deception began to be seen as intervening between perceiver and perceived, thus raising forcefully the question of the criteria for truth. The Aristotelians, especially from the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, (1225–1274), on affirmed that knowledge begins with sense perception, however, because of reason’s capacity for extracting forms, human knowledge possessed not only the qualities of necessity and universality, but made possible an inductive knowledge of trans-empirical realities. It was the empiricists, especially Hume, who provided the most serious challenge to this rationalist claim, centering his attack upon the problem of universal causality (cause and effect as universally operative), Hume raised the question of necessity. On what grounds, he asked, can one insist that, of necessity, all ‘effects’ have causes, and similarly, that such causes necessarily produce identical effects? Hume’s conclusion was that the category of causality, like all human ideas, is derived from sense impressions, having the status simply of a habitual assumption and expectation, human ideas are forever bereft of necessity.

It was Kant who saw the seriousness of this empiricist challenge, for reason was bankrupt as an agent of knowledge if it could no longer claim necessity and thus universality for its findings. Humanity and the world had been severed, and scepticism seemed the inevitable result. The answer provided by Kant’s first critique was a revolution, a complete reversal of the previous conception of the knowing process. If human knowledge cannot claim a necessity which is resident within the empirical world itself, it is possible, nevertheless, to claim universality for it if the locus of necessity is within the universal operations of human reason. With this new conception of rational necessity and universality, Kant proceeded to exhibit what he conceived to be the necessary operations of rational apprehension, the manner in which the understanding, by its very structure, has and of necessity will always perceive and organize whatever realities encounter it.

As Kant interpreted it, Hume’s error was in seeing subjective necessity as grounded only in habit instead of being a result of the a priori structure of reason. If the latter is the case, rational necessity and universality are guaranteed, although on a far different basis from before. For Kant, the forms perceived through sense experience are the products of the categories of the human mind, but now the externality so encountered is never known as it is in itself (as ‘noumenon’) but only in its relation to human beings (as ‘phenomenon’). While reason endeavours to complete this knowledge by bringing it into a comprehensive unity, it is barred from success in this speculative operation by certain antinomies, both sides of which are in harmony with man’s phenomenal knowledge. In the area of speculative psychology, these antinomies make it impossible to affirm a soul existing apart from the physical, in the area of speculative cosmology, the consequence of the antinomies centres in the impossibility of establishing human beings as free of the determined processes of cause and effect. And in the area of speculative theology, the antinomies negate the possibility of proving the existence of God. In all cases, the antinomies defy resolution of these questions either positively or negatively.

As a consequence reason, in its theoretical function, is barred from any cognitive penetration into the noumenal. This does not mean that the noumenal realm is necessarily unlike humanity’s phenomenal knowledge of it and that human categories do not apply there, rather, the problem is that pure reason can provide no guarantee of any correspondence. What is most significant about the first critique is that while Kant revives the old Platonic distinction between noumenon and phenomenon, in exploring reason along the narrowly Aristotelian lines of his day (as a strictly cognitive activity), the Platonic distinction became a severe human limitation. Plato had stressed the noetic (relating to mental activity or the intellect) aspects of reason, which was deeply imbued with an intuitive or mystical quality. But in the preface to the second edition of the first ‘Critique’ Kant gave indication that he was moving toward a broader, or more Platonic, conception of reason. ‘I have found it necessary to deny knowledge (of super-sensible reality) in order to make room for faith’, he portentously said. Although ‘faith’ for Kant was to be understood largely in moral terms (stemming from his background in Pietism, a Lutheran movement combining an emphasis on biblical doctrine and on individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life, oh what fun, see my article On Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’: A Dilemma), we have a beginning indication of his recognition of modes of human apprehension far broader than simply discursive or cognitive reason, and much of the impetus for exploring the possibility came from Kant’s tremendous interest in ethics, made importunate by the apparently undermining effect of his first ‘Critique’ upon this realm. His understanding of the experience of the form of duty, like Plato’s experience of the form of the Good, has about it a near mystical quality, (and hence of little practical value, in my humble opinion, despite the title of his second ‘Critique’).

‘The Widow’s Mite’, 1886/94, (‘Le denier de la veuve’), James Tissot. ‘And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: Which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation. And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living’. These parables never seem to work quite as they should. Shouldn’t the widow’s first duty have been to her child? And furthermore: ‘But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more’. (‘Luke’ 12:48).

The ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ is of major importance not only as the attempt to create a purely rational ethic but also as a defence of a non-discursive mode of apprehension, as an insistence that the ‘rational’ is not restricted in meaning to the ‘cognitive’. It is this point which Kant develops further in the third critique, the ‘Critique of Judgement’, (which I will get around to once I have finished this series), in terms of beauty and the purposiveness of nature. In order to understand these points one must beware of the misleading title of the second ‘Critique’ for in distinguishing between pure reason and practical reason Kant is not speaking of two human agents or loci of activity, in both Critiques he is speaking of pure reason as such, but in the first he is concerned with its theoretical or speculative function, in the second with its practical or ethical function. For Kant, this second function is the activity known as will and it is his purpose to show that will is not divorced from reason, controlled internally by drives or impulses, or externally by pleasure stimuli. In its fulfilled operation it is a purely rational enterprise, it is pure reason in its practical operation which must control drives and determine external ends.

Likewise, in this realm it was Hume who haunted Kant, for Hume understood reason as being the pawn of the passions, (‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’), he said, and morality as being rooted in subjective feeling. Just as Kant’s answer in the cognitive realm depended upon exhibiting the a priori or categorical laws of man’s cognitive activity, so is answer in the second critique depending on discovering the a priori or categorical laws of the rational will. Morality could claim objectivity and universality only by being founded not on experience, but on pure reason itself. The task of the second ‘Critique’, then, is to discover the a priori or necessary principles of the practical reason.

At the heart of the problem of ethics is the problem of freedom, without freedom, morality is an impossibility, but according to the first ‘Critique’ since all things are seen, of necessity, under the category of causality, all things are seen as determined. Yet, Kant insists, the same noumenon-phenomenon distinction applying to the object of such knowledge also applies to the subject as well. It is human being as phenomenon who is seen under the category of necessity, but the nature of the noumenal human being remains unknown (how can we know about it if it is unknowable). Although the speculative function of reason aspires towards an understanding of the human ‘soul’, the antinomies left the matter of freedom for the noumenal self as ‘problematic but not impossible’. If Kant can exhibit the will as free, he believes, he can also show the capacity of pure reason to determine the will’s total activity.

If there is to be an objective ethic, an ethic based upon freedom, the only possibility for it can be reason presupposing nothing else but itself, for a rule can be objective and universal only if it it is not subject to any contingent, subjective conditions. Thus, moral laws cannot be based upon the pleasure principle for the objects of pleasure and pain can only be identified empirically, thus having no objective necessity. Furthermore, hedonism (only pleasure has worth or value and only pain or displeasure has disvalue or the opposite of worth) can make no legitimate distinction between higher and lower pleasures, only if reason is able to determine the will can there be a higher faculty of desire than base feeling. Likewise, there is no objective, universal basis for an ethic of happiness, for happiness is simply the general name for satisfaction of desire.

Consequently, maxims (subjective, personal principles), of humanity’s commonplace activity can claim the ethical status of law not according to their ethical content, which is always empirically gained, but only according to their form. Every maxim can be tested for such universality of form by inquiring whether that maxim, if made a universal law, would negate itself. For example, all men and women seeking only their own happiness would soon render happiness impossible, thus, the goal of individual happiness is judged to be lacking the universality required of a moral law. And since it is only the form of the maxim which makes objective claim upon the will, the will must be seen as independent of the natural law of cause and effect, that is to say, what we have here is a case in which the will operates in isolation from the phenomenal realm. The act is rooted totally in reason itself. This is he heart of Kant’s ethic, ‘freedom and unconditional practical law imply each other’. Since freedom cannot be known through the theoretical function of reason, its objective reality is discovered by experiencing the moral law as duty, as a rational necessity, and this means that the purely practical laws are discovered in the same manner as the purely theoretical laws, by observing what reason directs in indifference by empirical conditions. Without the moral law, Kant insists, a human being would never know him or herself to be free, ‘thou ought’ implies ‘thou canst’.

For Kant, the fundamental law of the pure practical reason is this: ‘So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law’. Such rational control of the will is objective, for the legislation is made in indifference to any contingencies. Yet a distinction must be drawn between a pure will and a holy will, although the moral law is a universal law for all beings with reason and will, because the free man and woman has wants and sensuous motives, he or she is capable of maxims which conflict with the moral law. Thus, the law comes to man and woman as a ‘categorical imperative’. It is categorical because it is unconditioned, it is an imperative because it is experienced as ‘duty’, as an inner compulsion provided by reason. Holiness is above duty, but in this life it remains the ideal to be striven for, but never reached. Each maxim must strive for unending progress toward this ideal, it is such progress that deserves the name ‘virtue’.

Kant’s formulation of the moral law is, in effect, a philosophical statement of the ‘Golden Rule’. ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself’. (‘Leviticus’ 19:18). As Kant says, the moral law of universality alone, without the need of any external incentive, arises as duty ‘to extend the maxim of self-love also to the happiness of others’. Or, put on a common-sense level, Kant’s moral formula is rooted in the integrity required by reason. It is self-evident that reason, to be rational, must operate in complete self-consistency, since the rational is the universal, reason qua reason must consent to will only that which can consistently be willed universally. For Kant, the demand of duty is unmistakeable and can, without difficulty, be perceived by the simplest person, where the difficulty arises is in following the imperative. Kant’s estimate of humanity is such that he goes so far as to maintain that the good act is done only when duty and inclination are in conflict, and what he really means here is that aversion is a sign that the individual has gone beyond self-interest to real duty. It is necessary to insist, Kant maintains, that satisfaction follows but does not precede awareness of the moral law, there is certainly a ‘moral feeling’ that should be cultivated, but duty cannot be derived from it.

Kant’s rejection of all ethical theory but his own formal principle provides a helpful summary of alternative ethical systems. He sees six types. Of the subjective type, there are two kinds, external and internal. In the former Michel Eyquem, Sieur de Montaigne, (1533–1592), rooted ethics in education while others such as Bernard Mandeville, (1670–1733), saw its basis in a civil constitution. Of the internal variety, Epicurus, (341–270 BC), saw physical feeling as central, while Frances Hutcheson, (1694–1746), grounded ethics in ‘moral feeling’. There are likewise internal and external types within the objective ethical systems. The former is the ethic of perfection, held by Christian von Wolff, (1679–1754), and the Stoics, the latter is the ‘will of God’ ethic of theological morality. The subjective group Kant quickly discards as empirically based, thus, by definition, failing to meet the requirements of universal morality. Also, the objective types, though rational. depend upon the content which, within the confines of Kant’s first ‘Critique’, can be gained by empirical means only, consequently, these two must be disqualified as being neither universal nor necessary.

Humanity’s capacity for obeying the moral law in independence of empirical conditions establishes, for Kant, the objective fact of humanity’s free, super-sensible (noumenal) nature. As Kant puts it, the necessity of the practical reason makes freedom a rational postulate. Freedom is not known, in the theoretical sense, but it must be subjectively affirmed as necessary. This does not mean that freedom is simply subjective, but that its objectiveness is perceived through reason’s practical rather than theoretical operation. Moral need has the status of law, while the antinomies render the completion of speculative reason hypothetical or arbitrary. Thus, the former provides the certitude which the latter lacks, establishing the factuality of freedom as valid for both the practical and pure reason. Kant’s conception of reason cuts a broad swathe, such a moral postulate is both objective and rational, even though it is not cognitive.

Since it is Kant’s concern to show that it is pure (speculative) reason itself which is practical, the postulates of reason in its practical function become objective for reason as such. In actuality, the practical function is prior and the speculative function must submit to it, for ‘every interest is ultimately practical, even that of speculative reason being only conditional and reaching perfection only in practical use’. The result of this insight is that the agnosticism of the first ‘Critique’ is transcended by the second, for whilst still insisting upon his former severe limitations upon speculative reason Kant here provides an alternative mode for metaphysical affirmation. This is most apparent in the two additional moral postulates that Kant draws from the postulate regarding freedom. What is required by the moral law is complete ‘fitness of the intentions’, which would be holiness, but since this is impossible for finite man, the practical reason requires that one affirm an ‘endless progress’ in which such fitness can be completed. And since such progress requires the immortality of the soul, this affirmation becomes an objective postulate of the practical reason. Such a proposition is not demonstrable, but is an ‘indispensable corollary of an a priori unconditionally valid practical law’. Thus the second antinomy of speculative reason is practically resolved.

Likewise, a third postulate is involved. The postulate of immortality can be made only on the supposition of a cause adequate to produce such an effect, thus, one must affirm as an objective postulate the existence of God, an affirmation sharing the same necessary status as the other two moral postulates. A further basis for this postulate rests in the fact that although finite existence supports no necessary connection between morality and proportionate happiness, such a connection is morally necessary. The affirmation of such postulates Kant calls the activity of ‘pure rational faith’, for although they are objective (necessary), freedom, the soul, and God are not known as they are in themselves. This, he affirms, is in truth the essence of ‘the Christian principle of morality’. It is from morality that religion springs, for religion is nothing more than ‘the recognition of all duties as divine commands’.

Since morality has to do with the moral law, with the form of an action, it follows that no ‘thing’ is good or evil, such designations properly apply only to an acting will. Good and evil are defined only after and by means of the moral law, to reverse this procedure is to develop an empirical, subjective ethic. It is the practical judgement which determines the applicability of a universal maxim to a concrete act. To make an application such as this is very difficult, for it is here that the laws of freedom (the noumenal realm) are applied to the laws of nature (the phenomenal realm). Such a meeting is possible because the moral law is purely formal in relation to natural law. That is, it raises this question: if this proposed act should take place by a law of nature of which you were a part, would your will regard it as possible? The centre of the moral act thus rests in one’s intentions, not in consequences. If the right act occurs but not for the sake of the moral law, it is not a moral act. The only incentive which is valid is the moral law itself.

For man or woman as he or she is, his or her natural feeling of self-love are ever at war with the moral law. The very fact that morality resides in law reveals the severe ‘limitation’ of man. The moral law is victorious only if all inclinations and feelings are set aside out of respect for the moral law, in and of itself. An act not performed out of such a sense of duty is inevitably tainted with the self pride of believing goodness to be a spontaneous reflection of one’s nature (and we can’t have that).

‘The Hidden Treasure’ (‘Le trésor enfoui’), James Tissot. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it’. (‘Matthew’, 13:44–46). ? I don’t get this one at all. Very odd similes. ‘If thou art rich, thou’rt poor; For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows, Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey, And death unloads thee’. (William Shakespeare’, ‘Measure for Measure’, Act 3, Scene 1.

Perhaps the major difficulty in Kant’s ethics is the problem of application,there are few acts which a performer would not defend as universally valid if the hypothetical performer and situation were in every way identical with those of the actual performer, and every evil has been defended for the exigencies of person and circumstance. Kan’t moral formula is designed to eliminate all such individualised decisions,yet to the degree that the formula is interpreted, not in such a particularised fashion but in an absolutely universal sense, its inadequacy becomes evident. Total truth-telling, total promise-keeping, and the like, all have obvious moral exceptions,and likewise, how is one to resolve conflicts between these objective duties? And furthermore, law for its own sake tends to be elevated above the individual men and women between whom moral relations arise.

Kant’s moral position has of course stimulated generations of heated conflict. For certain theologians, Kant’s ethic seems to be only an ethic of the Fall and not a redemptive ethic, for others it is a classic Protestant ethic, judging human pretension and incapacity. For philosophers, the difficulty, as with Anselm’s ontological argument, rests in its deceptive simplicity (despite the difficulty of its expression). Such a position is uncomfortable in its rather wholesale rejection of consequences, moral incentives, absolute good, and the like. Well Kant does display a certain realistic appraisal of human capacity, the absolute quality of moral activity together with the relatively concrete ethical situations. It may well be that Kant’s ethic is too simple and discards too much, and is too uncompromising, but consequent ethicists have found it difficult merely to bypass this second ‘Critique’.

In regard to their larger ramifications, Kant’s Critiques have been seen as putting a powerful dampener on speculative metaphysics (not by me though) and philosophically they have stimulated an exploration of non-cognitive modes of human apprehension, while theologically they have stimulated exploration of the moral dimensions of religion and of theological method in general.

‘The Parable of the Mote and the Beam’, c. 1619. Domenico Fetti. ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (‘Matthew’, 7:3–5). Isn’t that seeing the beam in someone else’s eye? Søren Kierkegaard, (1813–1855), once said that ‘the religious individual can never use direct communication’. Why not? Because the religious individual is ‘constantly in process of becoming inwardly’, and ‘direct communication presupposes certainty .. and certainty is impossible for anyone in process of becoming. Well, there is a lot at stake in getting it right with your Christian faith, a bit of direct communication would not come amiss.

But I still ask though: what does the word ‘duty’ suggest to you?

‘The consciousness of duty performed gives us music at midnight’.

- George Herbert, quoted in ‘Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers’, (1895, hopefully I may feature in any updated editions).


Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen!

Ha, Sir John, said I well?


We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.


That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith,

Sir John, we have: our watch-word was ‘Hem boys!’

Come, let’s to dinner; come, let’s to dinner:

Jesus, the days that we have seen! Come, come.

- Shakespeare, ‘Henry IV’, part two, Act 3, Scene 2.

‘We have heard the chimes at midnight’? What does that mean? Well most prosaically it probably just means we have stayed up late in times past drinking and carousing and wenching. But I rather fancifully want to connect it to Herbert’s quote. An objective ethical theory centring upon duty and grounded upon rationality and universality indeed. In what way can morality ever be objective? May not the delightful music you entertain yourself with so to speak upon the self-satisfaction of fulfilling your ‘duty’ rather not be pleasant to yourself while just a discordant noise to someone else?

We can learn a few things about duty from Falstaff.


Why, thou owest God a death.



’Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ’Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

— Shakespeare, ‘Henry IV’, part one, Act 5 scene 1.

‘Shimmyrag’s upperturnity, if that is grace for the grass what is balm for the bramblers, as it is as it is, that I am the catasthmatic old ruffin sippahsedly improctor to be seducint trovatellas, the dire daffy damedeaconesses, like (why sighs the sootheesinger) the lilliths oft I feldt, and, when booboob brutals and cautiouses only aims at the oggog hogs in the humand, then, (Houtes, Blymey and Torrenation, upkurts and scotchem!) I’ll tall tale tell croon paysecurers, sowill nuggets and nippers, that thash on me stumpen blows the gaff offmombition and thit thides or marse makes a good dayle to be shattat. Fall stuff’.

— James Joyce, (1882–1941), ‘Finnegans Wake’

To be continued …



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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.