Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, May 30, 2016

KANT: Conscience (Kurtz: A Case Study)

In our last reading (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, GB1) we learned that “Kurtz was a remarkable man.  He had something to say.  He said it… He had summed up; he had judged. ‘The horror!’”  Kurtz was dying and “the horror” were the last words Marlow heard him say.  It’s up for debate what Kurtz was talking about.  Did the darkness of the world horrify him?  Or was “horror” a term used to describe the state of Kurtz’s own soul when he knew he was dying?  If it’s his own soul, was he sorry for what he had done?  Immanuel Kant would say no.  Even if Kurtz was sorry, it wouldn’t have done him any good because Kant thinks “repentance which manifests itself for the first time on the death-bed has no moral worth.  Its motive is the nearness of death.  If the approach of death were not feared there would probably be no repentance.” 

Marlow said Kurtz “had summed up; he had judged.”  This falls in line with Kant’s definition of conscience.  He says “conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws.”  Under Kant’s theory Kurtz had been overwhelmed in the end by the sheer weight of the judgment of his own conscience.  He had passed judgment upon himself.  Up to that point Kurtz had been dictator and even demigod of the whole region.  He did whatever he wanted to do and was able to justify killing his opponents and sticking their heads on poles because these men were rebels and this is what happens to rebels.  It was meant to serve as a warning to others and enforce obedience from the surrounding tribes.  But was it the right thing to do?  Was it “in accordance with moral laws” as Kant says?  Far away from civilization Kurtz didn’t have to answer that question.  He wasn’t answerable to anyone but himself.  Kurtz may have thought it necessary to set himself up as a terrible tyrant to support his claim as ruler and he may have believed what he was doing was proof of his strength of character as a leader.  But Kant says “the capacity to dismiss the accusation of a remorseful conscience is not evidence of strength of character, but rather of wickedness and religious impenitence.”

Kurtz dismissed the instinct of his conscience and followed another instinct instead, the instinct to power.  We learn more about this instinct to power in Freud (GB1) and Nietzsche (GB5).  In his soul Kurtz was wrestling with two powerful instincts, conscience and power.  This may have been what Marlow was talking about when he said, “Oh, he struggled!  He struggled!  The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images; images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression.”  One side of Kurtz wanted power, wealth and fame while his conscience wanted him to be noble and lofty.  This was his struggle, to choose between them.  There were no police stations around and no courtrooms to provide external checks on his lust for power. There was only the inner voice of his own conscience summoning him to stay within the boundaries of the universal moral law of humanity.  Kant says “This law, which is based on reason and not on sentiment, is incorruptible and incontestably just and pure; it is the moral law, established as the holy and inviolable law of humanity.”  Kurtz left police stations and courtrooms far behind him when he went deep down the Congo River.  But he couldn’t leave his conscience behind because, as Kant put it, “Conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgement-seat.  It weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure.  We cannot deceive it, and, lastly, we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence it is always with us.”  Kurtz could neither deceive nor escape his conscience.  It followed him all the way to his grave.  He was a cultivated man but Kant warns that “a cultivated mind need not be followed by a cultivated conscience.”  Kurtz spent a great deal of time and effort cultivating power.  Kant thinks he should have been cultivating his conscience.    


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