Kant's "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch" states that democracy is a despotic form of government, because the laws are made and executed by the same power.

This was published in 1795, after the US Constitution implemented a clear separation of powers. Did Kant fail to notice this, or did he still view all branches of government as essentially the same, and therefore (by his definition) despotic?

It seems a curious claim to make at the exact point in history, and I wonder if it was one he ever addressed? Or was challenged on?

  • 1
    And we've had perpetual peace in the states ever since :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 28, 2017 at 20:56
  • @JosephWeissman So the civil war never happened? Also all the other wars abroad?
    – Braydon
    Sep 28, 2017 at 23:11
  • @Braydon lol, He was being ironic.
    – Geoffrey
    Sep 29, 2017 at 0:48
  • @Geoffrey Damn, I can't tell anymore. I thought there was a chance he was a civil war denier. . .
    – Braydon
    Sep 29, 2017 at 1:47
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    According to his definition, no democracy is to be found in modern times. It is the despotism of majority as the majority vote of the ballot can decide literally everything as unchecked sovereign. All modern 'democracies' are as a matter of fact republican, representative systems with division of powers and parliament as the sovereign, which is not really sovereign as it has to bow to the constitution, in turn decided upon by the Supreme Court. A fact Carl Schmitt stressed first: These judges are the true sovereign in modern times.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 29, 2017 at 21:18

1 Answer 1


What you are dealing with is an evolution of the meaning of words. Kant, in his essay on Perpetual Peace, refers to the Roman republic and rule mob, which he assimilated to tyranny. To him, that was the definition of democracy. Today, that would be called ochlocracy.

In his First Definitive Article, Kant gives the three cumulative criteria for what he considers republican:

  1. Freedom of the members of society
  2. Dependence of all on a common law (rule of law)
  3. Equality of the citizen.

If we look carefully, a republic could have any of the three mode of representation: autocratic, aristocratic or democratic -- but since in practice Kant rejects the third one, it is easy to understand that to him a republic would be either aristocratic or monarchic. An "aristocratic monarchy" would mean that the represenatives of the people would be selected to criteria of adequacy. It may be strange for us that a constitutional monarchy would qualify as a autocratic republic in Kantian terms, but it appeared perfectly logical.

On the other hand, it is still perfectly acceptable today to designate a political system as a aristocratic republic, i.e. the Republic of Venice of the Middle Ages; in Europe most republics were so (notably Switzerland), until well into the 19th century.

I would say that once this is clarified, his thought appears quite consistent.

Indeed, Napoleon I was Emperor of the French Republic and this was not particularly shocking at the time, since he was simply reconnecting to an old Roman tradition. But in Kantian terms, we can imagine that he would have called his regime a despotism, because there was no separation of powers any more.

Now to clarify your assumption, at the time of the foundation of the USA, the term democracy did not have always have an excellent connotation either. The Founders did not officially present themselves as "democrats" and the word democracy does not appear in the US constitution. It is only in the 1820s that the term lost its negative connotations and progressively acquired its modern meaning (essentially one man one vote). This change is reflected in Webster's definition. Indeed the Democratic Party was founded in 1828.

The US Constitution, when it was conceived, was thus republican. In the US and Europe, the question was still hotly debated whether all citizens (male) would be or not allowed to vote, possession of property being often a key criterion (race being another one). Hence saying that the phrase "we the people" is representative of "democratic" ideology is an ex-post reconstruction that uses a modern word in an inappropriate context.

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