Jeder derselben will immer seine Freiheit mißbrauchen, wenn er Keinen über sich hat, der nach den Gesetzen über ihn Gewalt ausübt. Das höchste Oberhaupt soll aber gerecht für sich selbst, und doch ein Mensch sein. Diese Aufgabe ist daher die schwerste unter allen; ja ihre vollkommene Auflösung ist unmöglich; aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden. Nur die Annäherung zu dieser Idee ist uns von der Natur auferlegt.
Each of them will always abuse his freedom if he has none above him who exercises power in accord with the laws. The highest ruler should be just in himself, and still be a human. This task is therefore the hardest of all; indeed, its complete solution is impossible, for from such crooked wood as a human is made can nothing quite straight ever be fashioned. Only the approximation of this idea is imposed upon us by nature.
—Immanuel Kant, Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht, 6. Satz (1784) in Sämtliche Werke in sechs Bänden, vol. 1, p. 230 (Großherzog Wilhelm Ernst ed. 1921)(S.H. transl.)
There was a time when philosophers walked in the woods and saw there a metaphor for the development of humanity. Kant’s view of the “crooked timber” of humankind has gotten a good deal of mileage since Isaiah Berlin popularized it, taking it as the name for one of his most interesting collections of essays, and cleaning up the translation of a passage which is awkwardly structured (above my own effort, with a few more refinements). The phrase is actually close to a throw-away contained in the sixth thesis of the Idea for a General History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective. The key notion of the thesis is actually better reflected in the prior sentence: Kant believes that humans need a master; that the species itself benefits from this model. To balance this he points to the need for political institutions to check the assertion of excessive powers by those in authority. (Only five years later, James Madison makes the same essential points in Federalist No. 51. “If men were angels,” he writes, “no government would be necessary.”) But Berlin is right about the importance of the image of crooked wood—it shows us that Kant may be an idealist in a sense but he is very skeptical about the perfectability of individual humans. At some points he looks suspiciously like a utopianist, but examined more closely, he is not. Perfection is not, by his thinking, for individual humans. It may be something aspirational for the human species, over a vast expanse of time, perhaps. This view is very effectively presented by the image of trees as the essence of human potential. Call it the arboreal theory of human development.
Certainly this image isn’t just Kant’s; in fact I suspect he borrowed it from a writer he loved (and loved to criticize), Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He opens Émile, his book on education, with these words: “Tout est bien, sortant des mains de l’auteur des choses: tout dégénére entre les mains de l’homme. Il force une terre à nourir les productions d’une autre, un arbre à porter les fruits d’un autre… Il ne veut tel que l’a fait la nature, pas même l’homme… il le faut contourner à sa mode comme un arbre de son jardin.” (“Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of all things; everything degenerates in the hands of man. He forces one soil to nourish the products of another, one tree to bear the fruit of another… He wants nothing as nature made it, not even man; for him … man must be fashioned in keeping with his fancy like a tree in his garden.”) A little later, Rousseau is quoting Fontenelle’s discussion of the progress of humanity from classical antiquity to modern times—the question, Fontenelle writes, is whether the trees are the same. So Rousseau is quite taken with the metaphor—humanity as timber. And even after Kant’s piece ran, his critics picked it up. Herder, a Kant student and admirer, was disturbed by the sixth thesis, and its suggestion that man was born to a yoke, but he was taken by the metaphor of timber. In the eighth book of his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1785), Herder takes Kant’s arboreal metaphor and throws it back at him: “Kein Baum soll, so viel möglich, dem andern die Luft nehmen, damit dieser ein Zwerg bleibe oder um einen freien Atembruch zu genießen, sich zum elenden Krüppel beuge. Eignen Platz soll er finden, damit er duch eignen Trieb Wurzelaus in die Höhe steige und eine blühende Krone treibe.” (“As far as it may be, no tree is permitted to deprive another of air, so as to render it a stunted dwarf, or force it to become a crooked cripple, that it may breathe with more freedom. Each has its place allotted it, that it may ascend from its root by its own impulse, and raise its flourishing head.”) Herder’s forest is a beautiful thing, of course–but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with nature.
Listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) (1741) in a 1982 recording by Glenn Gould. Bach presents an aria for keyboard with thirty variations, but his variations do not follow the melody originally presented. Rather he builds from the bass line, following the style known as a “ground” or a chaconne. Bach pursues perfection in thirty steps, but perfection is not achieved with the final step—it is the entire process which constitutes the patient approximation of an idea, as Kant writes in the quoted passage. The inimitable Glenn Gould has approached this work as an act of devotion. Listen carefully to the recording, and you will hear Gould speaking to himself as he winds his way through the variations. My apologies for the abrupt starts and stops that come from forcing the material into YouTube segments in mid-variation.