Immanuel Kant and a Young Woman's Turmoil

In 1791, Maria von Herbert, a keen student of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, wrote to the great philosopher "for help, for comfort, or for counsel to prepare me for death", reporting that she had lost the love of a man to whom she was deeply devoted and for whom she lived.

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 have 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.

Kant replied to her in the manner of "a physician who is no flatterer", arguing that because she had lied, she deserved to lose her man's love and her torment was appropriate. A lie might be harmless, he told her, but it is not innocent.

It is a serious violation of duty to oneself; it subverts the dignity of humanity in your own person, and attacks the roots of our thinking... I speak for your beloved and present him with arguments that justify his having wavered in his affection for you.

Kant told his young correspondent that all she could hope for is that her genuine remorse and changed attitude would eventually transform her gentleman's current coldness into "a more firmly grounded love." And if it didn't? Well, then it probably wasn't a love worth having anyway.

Kant didn't hear from Herbert again until January 1793, when she wrote to him that despite having been forgiven by the man she had loved, she felt utterly empty and longed for death.

I only want one thing, namely to shorten this pointless life, a life which I am convinced will get neither better nor worse... each day interests me only to the extent that it brings me closer to death.

She begged Kant to say something that would help get "the intolerable emptiness" out of her soul, and asked for permission to visit him in Konigsberg. 

Kant, the great champion of the moral necessity of duty, of the requirement to treat people as ends and not merely means, did not reply. Rather, he parceled up Herbert's correspondence, and sent it to a friend under the title, "Example of Warning". He included a letter from a mutual acquaintance which disclosed that Herbert's secret was that she was not a virgin:

...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.

In 1803, having never heard again from Kant, Maria von Herbert killed herself.

(Source: Rae Langton, "Duty and Desolation")

Submit to DeliciousSubmit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to Twitter