Dear Immanuel — Kant Gives Love Advice to a Heartbroken Young Woman (1791)

kant love advice

What to do when your love life goes south? Twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca estab­lished the tra­di­tion of seek­ing the coun­sel of an advice colum­nist, but in eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Aus­tria, with nei­ther Dear Abby nor Ann Lan­ders to whom to turn, you’d have to set­tle for the next best thing: Immanuel Kant. At least the 22-year-old Maria von Her­bert, an avid stu­dent of Kan­t’s phi­los­o­phy, felt that was her only option, and in 1791 wrote as implor­ing­ly fol­lows to the author of A Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son:

Great Kant,

As a believ­er calls to his God, I call to you for help, for com­fort, or for coun­sel to pre­pare me for death. Your writ­ings prove that there is a future life. But as for this life, I have found noth­ing, noth­ing at all that could replace the good I have lost, for I loved some­one who, in my eyes, encom­passed with­in him­self all that is worth­while, so that I lived only for him, every­thing else was in com­par­i­son just rub­bish, cheap trin­kets. Well, I have offend­ed this per­son, because of a long drawn out lie, which I have now dis­closed to him, though there was noth­ing unfavourable to my char­ac­ter in it, I had no vice in my life that need­ed hid­ing. The lie was enough though, and his love van­ished. As an hon­ourable man, he doesn’t refuse me friend­ship. But that inner feel­ing that once, unbid­den, led us to each oth­er, is no more – oh my heart splin­ters into a thou­sand pieces! If I hadn’t read so much of your work I would cer­tain­ly have put an end to my life. But the con­clu­sion I had to draw from your the­o­ry stops me – it is wrong for me to die because my life is tor­ment­ed, instead I’m sup­posed to live because of my being. Now put your­self in my place, and either damn me or com­fort me. I’ve read the meta­physic of morals, and the cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive, and it doesn’t help a bit. My rea­son aban­dons me just when I need it. Answer me, I implore you – or you won’t be act­ing in accor­dance with your own imper­a­tive.

Von Her­bert’s let­ter began a brief cor­re­spon­dence tak­en, two cen­turies lat­er, as the sub­ject of Kant Schol­ar Rae Helen Lang­ton’s paper “Duty and Des­o­la­tion.” The aged philoso­pher, writes Lang­ton, “much impressed by this let­ter, sought advice from a friend as to what he should do. The friend advised him strong­ly to reply, and to do his best to dis­tract his cor­re­spon­dent from ‘the object to which she [was] enfet­tered.’ ”

And so Kant draft­ed his thor­ough reply:

Your deeply felt let­ter comes from a heart that must have been cre­at­ed for the sake of virtue and hon­esty, since it is so recep­tive to instruc­tion in those qual­i­ties. I must do as you ask, name­ly, put myself in your place, and pre­scribe for you a pure moral seda­tive. I do not know whether your rela­tion­ship is one of mar­riage or friend­ship, but it makes no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence. For love, be it for one’s spouse or for a friend, pre­sup­pos­es the same mutu­al esteem for the other’s char­ac­ter, with­out which it is no more than per­ish­able, sen­su­al delu­sion.

A love like that wants to com­mu­ni­cate itself com­plete­ly, and it expects of its respon­dent a sim­i­lar shar­ing of heart, unweak­ened by dis­trust­ful ret­i­cence. That is what the ide­al of friend­ship demands. But there is some­thing in us which puts lim­its on such frank­ness, some obsta­cle to this mutu­al out­pour­ing of the heart, which makes one keep some part of one’s thoughts locked with­in one­self, even when one is most inti­mate. The sages of old com­plained of this secret dis­trust – ‘My dear friends, there is no such thing as a friend!’

We can’t expect frank­ness of peo­ple, since every­one fears that to reveal him­self com­plete­ly would be to make him­self despised by oth­ers. But this lack of frank­ness, this ret­i­cence, is still very dif­fer­ent from dis­hon­esty. What the hon­est but ret­i­cent man says is true, but not the whole truth. What the dis­hon­est man says is some­thing he knows to be false. Such an asser­tion is called, in the the­o­ry of virtue, a lie. It may be harm­less, but it is not on that account inno­cent. It is a seri­ous vio­la­tion of a duty to one­self; it sub­verts the dig­ni­ty of human­i­ty in our own per­son, and attacks the roots of our think­ing. As you see, you have sought coun­sel from a physi­cian who is no flat­ter­er. I speak for your beloved and present him with argu­ments that jus­ti­fy his hav­ing wavered in his affec­tion for you.

Ask your­self whether you reproach your­self for the impru­dence of con­fess­ing, or for the immoral­i­ty intrin­sic to the lie. If the for­mer, then you regret hav­ing done your duty. And why? Because it has result­ed in the loss of your friend’s con­fi­dence. This regret is not moti­vat­ed by any­thing moral, since it is pro­duced by an aware­ness not of the act itself, but of its con­se­quences. But if your reproach is ground­ed in a moral judg­ment of your behav­iour, it would be a poor moral physi­cian who would advise you to cast it from your mind.

When your change in atti­tude has been revealed to your beloved, only time will be need­ed to quench, lit­tle by lit­tle, the traces of his jus­ti­fied indig­na­tion, and to trans­form his cold­ness into a more firm­ly ground­ed love. If this doesn’t hap­pen, then the ear­li­er warmth of his affec­tion was more phys­i­cal than moral, and would have dis­ap­peared any­way – a mis­for­tune which we often encounter in life, and when we do, must meet with com­po­sure. For the val­ue of life, inso­far as it con­sists of the enjoy­ment we get from peo­ple, is vast­ly over­rat­ed.

Here then, my dear friend, you find the cus­tom­ary divi­sions of a ser­mon: instruc­tion, penal­ty and com­fort. Devote your­self to the first two; when they have had their effect, com­fort will be found by itself.

Von Her­bert’s orig­i­nal “long drawn out lie,” accord­ing to anoth­er let­ter Lang­ton quotes from a mutu­al friend of Von Hebert’s and Kan­t’s, came about when, “in order to real­ize an ide­al­is­tic love, she gave her­self to a man who mis­used her trust. And then, try­ing to achieve such love with anoth­er, she told her new lover about the pre­vi­ous one.” But by the time she picked up her pen to cast her fate to the judg­ment of her favorite thinker, the prob­lem had tran­scend­ed the state of a lovers’ quar­rel to become an all-con­sum­ing state of desire-free hol­low­ness. Only Kant­ian prin­ci­ples, she insist­ed, stood between her and sui­cide.

She lays out her sit­u­a­tion even more clear­ly in her reply to Kan­t’s reply:

My vision is clear now. I feel that a vast empti­ness extends inside me, and all around me—so that I almost find myself to be super­flu­ous, unnec­es­sary. Noth­ing attracts me. I’m tor­ment­ed by a bore­dom that makes life intol­er­a­ble. Don’t think me arro­gant for say­ing this, but the demands of moral­i­ty are too easy for me. I would eager­ly do twice as much as they com­mand. They only get their pres­tige from the attrac­tive­ness of sin, and it costs me almost no effort to resist that. […] I don’t study the nat­ur­al sci­ences or the arts any more, since I don’t feel that I’m genius enough to extend them; and for myself, there’s no need to know them. I’m indif­fer­ent to every­thing that doesn’t bear on the cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive, and my tran­scen­den­tal consciousness—although I’m all done with those thoughts too.

You can see, per­haps, why I only want one thing, name­ly to short­en this point­less life, a life which I am con­vinced will get nei­ther bet­ter nor worse. If you con­sid­er that I am still young and that each day inter­ests me only to the extent that it brings me clos­er to death, you can judge what a great bene­fac­tor you would be if you were to exam­ine this ques­tion close­ly. I ask you, because my con­cep­tion of moral­i­ty is silent here, where­as it speaks deci­sive­ly on all oth­er mat­ters. And if you can­not give me the answer I seek, I beg you to give me some­thing that will get this intol­er­a­ble empti­ness out of my soul.

“Kant nev­er replied,” writes Lang­ton. “In 1803 Maria von Her­bert killed her­self, hav­ing worked out at last an answer to that per­sis­tent and trou­bling ques­tion — the ques­tion to which Kant, and her own moral sense, had respond­ed with silence. Was that a vicious thing to do? Not entire­ly. As Kant him­self con­cedes, ‘Self-mur­der requires courage, and in this atti­tude there is always room for rev­er­ence for human­i­ty in one’s own per­son.’ ” The words of a thinker, indeed, though we can prob­a­bly see why no mod­ern-day Immanuel Kant has gone into the busi­ness of pro­vid­ing solace to the bro­ken­heart­ed.

via Crit­i­cal The­o­ry

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Immanuel Kant’s Life & Phi­los­o­phy Intro­duced in a Short Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tion

Pub­lish­er Places a Polit­i­cal­ly Cor­rect Warn­ing Label on Kant’s Cri­tiques

Man Shot in Fight Over Immanuel Kant’s Phi­los­o­phy in Rus­sia

A Racy Phi­los­o­phy Les­son on Kant’s Aes­thet­ics by Alain de Botton’s “School of Life”

What is the Good Life? Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, Niet­zsche, & Kant’s Ideas in 4 Ani­mat­ed Videos

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Tony H. says:

    ” I’ve read the meta­physic of morals, and the cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive, and it doesn’t help a bit.”

    Best tes­ta­ment to the dif­fer­ence between knowl­edge and wis­dom ever. Sad that she was­n’t able to over­come her sit­u­a­tion.

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