Immanuel Kant (1724-1802) was born in Königsberg, and never went further than ten miles away from his hometown. Despite this, Kant made significant contributions to the theory of knowledge and ethics. His style of ethics, deontology, remains to this day the most popular challenger to utilitarianism. Still having numerous followers today, Kant stands out as one of the most accomplished and influencial philosophers in the history of philosophy.
Kant argued that committing suicide was absolutely unethical. No-one should commit suicide - the moral worth of humans cannot exist if suicide was permissible. His arguments were received by a Maria von Herbert, who wrote a letter to the ’Great Kant’, asking for help.
She had made a confession to a man who she loved, which led him to end his love for her. This brought her to despair. Suicidal, she was desperate for advice or comfort from the philosopher who had impressed her so much. She wrote to him in 1791.
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.
Von Herbert had a clash of passions. She believed that she ought to continue living. However, she found great torment in her life, which brought her to the desire to kill herself.
Kant’s reply, I think, was cold. However, it was clear that he made a strong attempt to sound sympathetic towards her. I believe he had his heart in the right place (for this letter at least), but ultimately was very much the wrong person to consult.
In Kant’s reply, he asked her if she was judging herself for making the confession, or felt guilt for lying to the person. If she was judging herself for making the confession, she was regretting the decision to perform her moral duty. It’s not explicitly stated, but he implies that she should stop worrying about the impact of her actions. She did the right thing, and shouldn’t be concerned about the consequences of her actions.
He continues. If she was concerned about her immorality about lying, this is appropriate. He wrote that he’d be a poor ethical philosopher if he told her to wipe away her guilt and concern.
He finishes with:
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.
At this point I’d like to ask the reader to consider how they’d feel about receiving a reply like this from Kant.
Von Hebert replied to Kant in 1793. In her reply, she thanked him for his words and wisdom. Her beloved, like Kant had predicted, was more interested in sex than romantic affairs. She found no satisfaction with this advance because she found it ‘pointless’.
The following paragraph I find remarkable. I can’t quite put my finger on why it is, so I’ll just quote it:
My vision is clear now. I feel that a vast emptiness extends inside me, and all around me - so that I almost find my self 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.
She continues later on in the letter:
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.
She asked Kant whether it was possible, when time permitted it, to visit him in Königsberg. She found discontent in being unable to actually speak to him face to face.
Despite her ‘vast emptiness’, she still yearned to grasp something to improve her life, and to prevent her from committing suicide. She finished her letter with:
Please fulfill my wish, if it’s not too inconvenient. And I need to remind you: if you do me this great favour and take the trouble to answer, please focus on specific details, not on the general points, which I understand, and already understood back when I happily studied your works…
I am with deepest respect and truth, Maria Herbert.
Rae Langton, a contemporary philosopher who wrote a paper on this letter exchange, offers this analysis of her desire to meet Kant:
She wonders, perhaps, whether Kant’s life is as empty as her own, and for the same reason. She discovered that love is ‘pointless’ when inclinations have withered, when you have no passions of your own and therefore no passions to share. And she wonders whether Kant’s life reflects this discovery. She wonders whether Kant’s philosophy has led him to think that it was simply ‘not worth the bother’ to marry, or to ‘give his whole heart’ to anyone. Perhaps she is right to wonder.
Kant never sent her a reply. He did, however, forward her letters to someone else as a warning ‘against the wanderings of a sublimated fantasy’. He also added a letter from another correspondent, whose letter ‘provides an explanation of the lady’s curious mental derangement’.
The letter from the other correspondent told Kant what she had confessed to the man she loved, who then onwards did not love her in return. This was the confession which later would bring her, in time, her ‘vast emptiness’, and her suicidal disposition. She confessed that in the past she had given ‘herself to a man who misused her trust’.
Maria von Herbert committed suicide in 1803.
Rae Langton’s paper on the letter exchange, including the unabridged letters, can be read here.