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:
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.
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.