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Below is an excerpt of Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens by Immanuel Kant as translated by Ian Johnston. To preview the book in pdf format, you can do so via our "Preview This Book" page here.





Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens
An Essay on the Constitution and the
Mechanical Origin of the Entire Structure of the Universe
Based on Newtonian Principles


To the most serene, the mightiest king and master
King of Prussia
Margrave of Brandenburg
Lord Chamberlain and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire
Sovereign and Highest Lord of Silesia, etc. etc.
My most all-honoured King and Master,
Most serene and mighty king,
Most All-honoured King and Master

The feeling of my own lack of worth and the radiance from the throne cannot make my foolishness so timid, when the honour which the most gracious monarch dispenses with equal magnanimity among all his subjects gives me grounds for hope that the boldness which I undertake will not be looked upon with ungracious eyes. In most submissive respect I here lay at the feet of your eternal kingly majesty one of the most trifling samples of that eager spirit with which your highness’s schools, through the encouragement and the protection of their illustrious sovereign, strive to emulate other nations in the sciences. How happy I would be if the present endeavour could succeed in making the efforts with which the humblest and most respectful subject constantly tries to make himself in some way of service to the Fatherland win the highest possible feeling of goodwill of his king. With the utmost devotion until my dying day,

Your eternal majesty’s most humble servant

The author

Königsberg14 March, 1755



I have selected a subject which, both in view of its inherent difficulty and also with respect to religion, can right at the very start elicit an un-favourable judgment from a large section of readers. To discover the systematic arrangement linking large parts of creation in its entire infinite extent and to bring out by means of mechanical principles the development of the cosmic bodies themselves and the cause of their movements from the first state of nature, such insights seem to overstep by a long way the powers of human reason. From another perspective, religion threatens with a solemn accusation about the presumption that one is allowed to be so bold as to attribute to nature left to itself such consequences in which we rightly become aware of the immediate hand of the Highest Being and worries about encountering in the inquiry into such views a defence of the atheist. I do perceive all these difficulties, and yet I do not become fainthearted. I feel all the power of the obstacles ranged against me, and nevertheless I am not despondent. On the basis of a slight assumption I have undertaken a dangerous journey, and I already see the promontories of new lands. Those people who have the resolution to set forth on the undertaking will set foot on these lands and have the pleasure of designating them with their very own names.

I made no commitment to this endeavour until I considered myself secure from the point of view of religious duties. My enthusiasm has doubled as I witnessed at every step the dispersal of the clouds which behind their obscurity seemed to hide monsters and which, after they scattered, revealed the majesty of the Highest Being with the most vital radiance. Since I know that these efforts are free of all reproach, I will faithfully introduce what well‑meaning or even weak‑minded people could find shocking in my proposal and am candidly ready to submit it to the strict inspection of a council of true believers, which is the mark of an honest disposition. The champion of the faith, therefore, may be allowed to let his reasons be heard first.

If the planetary structure, with all its order and beauty, is only an effect of the universal laws of motion in matter left to itself, if the blind mechanism of natural forces knows how to develop itself out of chaos in such a marvellous way and to reach such perfection on its own, then the proof of the primordial Divine Author which we derive from a glance at the beauty of the cosmic structure is wholly discredited, nature is self‑sufficient, the divine rule is unnecessary, Epicurus lives once again in the midst of Christendom, and an unholy philosophy treads underfoot the faith which proffers a bright light to illuminate it.

If I found this criticism had a firm basis, then the conviction which I have of the infallibility of divine truths is for me so empowering, that I would consider everything which contradicts it sufficiently refuted by that fact and would reject it. But the very agreement which I en-counter between my system and religion raises my confidence in the face of all difficulties to an unshakable composure.

I recognize all the value of those proofs which people derive from the beauty and perfect organization of the cosmic structure to confirm the most eminently wise Author. If we do not obstinately deny all conviction, then we must agree with such incontrovertible reasons. But I maintain that the people who defend religion in this way, by using these reasons badly, perpetuate the conflict with the naturalists, because they present an unnecessarily weak case.

People are accustomed to take note of and to point out the harmonies, beauty, purposes, and a perfect interplay of means and ends in nature. But while they, on the one hand, extol nature, on the other hand, they seek to diminish it again. This fine arrangement, they say, is foreign to nature. Left alone to its universal laws, it would bring forth nothing  but disorder. The harmonies demonstrate a foreign hand, which knew how to force material left without any regularity into a wise design. But I answer that if the universally efficient material laws were established equally as a result of the highest design, then they could presumably have no purposes except to strive to act on their own to fulfil the plan which the Highest Wisdom has set out for Itself or, if this is not the case, should we not be drawn into the temptation of believing that at least matter and its general laws were independent and that the most eminently Wise Power, which knew how to make use of them so splendidly, may indeed be great, but not infinite, certainly powerful, but not totally self‑sufficient?

The defender of religion fears that the harmony which can be explained by a natural tendency of matter would demonstrate the independence of nature from divine providence. He clearly confesses that if people can discover natural reasons for all the order in the cosmic structure, reasons which can bring this into existence from the most universal and essential characteristics of matter, then it may be unnecessary to invoke a highest Ruling Power. According to the natural scientist’s calculations, he finds nothing to quarrel with in this claim. He acquires examples which establish the fertility of general natural laws for perfectly beautiful consequences and brings true believers into danger through reasons, which in their hands could become invincible weapons. I wish to cite examples. People have al-ready often proposed, as one of the clearest proofs of a benevolent providence solicitous of human welfare, that in the hottest parts of the earth the sea winds, right at the very time when the heated soil most requires their cooling, spread over the land and refresh it, as if they had been summoned. For example, in the island of Jamaica, as soon as the sun has climbed sufficiently high to heat the soil most strongly, just after 9 in the morning, a wind begins to rise from the sea and blows from all sides over the land. Its strength increases proportionally with the elevation of the sun. Around 1 in the afternoon, when it naturally is the hottest, the wind is at its strongest. It gradually decreases again with the setting of the sun, so that in the evening the very same stillness reigns as at the start. Without this welcome arrangement, the island would be uninhabitable. All coastal lands lying in the hot places on the Earth enjoy this same benefit. Moreover, it is most essential for them, because, since they are the lowest places on dry land, they also suffer the greatest heat. For the higher regions in the country, which this sea wind does not reach, are also in less need of it, because their higher location places them in a region of cooler air. Is not all this beautiful? Are there not clear purposes which have been realized by judiciously applied means? However, by way of a counterargument the natural scientist must find the natural causes of this in the most general characteristics of air, with no need to assume any special arrangements for the phenomenon. He observes correctly that these sea winds have to go through such periodic movements, even if no human beings lived on the island, thanks to no property other than the elasticity of air and gravity, without having any purposeful intention in the matter, even if it is indispensably necessary merely for the growth of plants. The sun’s heat upsets the air’s equilibrium by thinning out the air over the land, thus allowing the cooler sea air to rise from its position and take its place.

What benefits generally advantageous to our planet Earth do the winds not possess? And what uses does the keen intelligence of human beings not make of them? However, no other arrangements were necessary to create them except these same general properties of air and heat, which also had to occur on the Earth without reference to these purposes.

At this point the freethinker says: if you concede the point that when people can derive useful and purposeful arrangements from the most general and simplest natural laws, then we have no need for the special rule of a Highest Wisdom and thus you see here proofs which will catch you by your own admission. All nature, especially inorganic nature, is full of such proofs, which permit us to recognize that matter, which organizes itself through the mechanical operation of its own forces, has a certain correctness in its effects and without compulsion satisfactorily acts by rules of what it appropriate. When, in order to come to the rescue of the worthy cause of religion, a well‑meaning person wishes to contest this capacity of general natural laws, then he will embarrass himself and by a poor defence give atheism a chance to triumph.

However, let us see how these reasons, which we fear in the hands of our opponents as injurious, are, by contrast, strong weapons to use in the fight against them. Matter, which organizes itself according to its most general laws, produces through its natural behaviour or, if we prefer, through a blind mechanical process, good consequences, which appear to be the design of a supremely High Wisdom. When we ob-serve air, water, and heat left to themselves, they produce wind and clouds, rain, streams which moisten the lands, and all the useful consequences without which nature would have had to remain sad, empty, and barren. However, they produce these results not through mere chance or accident, which could just as readily have resulted in something detrimental. But we see that these consequences are limited by its natural laws so as to work only in this way. What should we then think of this harmony? How would it really be possible that things with different natures should strive to work in cooperation with one another for such perfect coordination and beauty, even with purposes in such matters which are to a certain extent beyond the range of lifeless material stuff, namely, for the benefit of human beings and animals, unless they recognized a common origin, that is, an Infinite Understanding, in which all things were designed with reference to their essential properties? If their natures were necessarily isolated and independent, what an astonishing contingency that would be, or rather, how impossible it would be that with their natural efforts they should mesh so exactly together, as if an overriding wise selection had united them.

Now, I confidently apply this concept to my present enterprise. I summon up the material stuff of all worlds in a universal confusion and create out of this a perfect chaos. According to the established laws of attraction, I see matter developing and modifying its motion through repulsion. Without the assistance of arbitrary fictions, I enjoy the plea-sure of seeing a well‑ordered totality emerge under the influence of the established laws of motion, something which looks so similar to the same planetary system which we see in front of us, that I cannot pre-vent myself from believing that it is the same. This unanticipated unfolding of the order of nature on a grand scale I find at first suspicious, because it establishes such a well‑coordinated and correct system on such a meagre and simple foundation. Finally, on the basis of the previously outlined observation, I advise myself that such a natural development is not something unheard of in nature but that its fundamental striving necessarily brings such things with it and that this is the most marvellous evidence of its dependence on that Primordial Essence which has within Itself the source of being and the first laws by which nature operates. This insight doubles my trust in the proposal I have made. The confidence increases with each step I take as I continue on, and my timidity disappears completely.

But the defence of your system, it will be said, is at the same time a defence of the opinions of Epicurus, to which it has the closest similarity.[1] I will not completely deny all agreement with him. Many people have become atheists through the apparent truth of such reasons which, with a more scrupulous consideration, could have convinced them as forcibly as possible of the certain existence of the Highest Being. The consequences which a perverse understanding infers from innocent basic principles are often very blameworthy. Although his theory was what one would expect from the keen intelligence of a great spirit, Epicurus’s conclusions were also of this kind.

1[Translators Note: Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC), Greek philosopher, founder of the school of Epicureanism, who taught that natural phenomena are based on the motions and interactions of atoms in empty space].


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