A conversation with Immanuel Kant

Paulo Pasta, Untitled, 2017, oil on canvas back, 120x1725cm
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By NIKOLAI KARAMZIN*

A brief account of the most interesting of conversations between a Russian aristocrat and a German thinker

[Königsberg, June 19, 1789]

Yesterday, after dinner, I visited the illustrious Kant, the wise and profound metaphysician who disputes as much with Malebranche and Leibniz as with Hume and Bonnet; Kant, whom the Jewish Socrates, the late Mendelssohn, called "give all of them zermalmende Kant,” that is, “Kant the great demolisher.” I had no letter of recommendation to submit. But if it is possible to take a city with daring, behold, the doors of his office opened for me. An elderly man, short, thin, particularly pale and delicate, received me.

My first words were: “I am a Russian aristocrat. I admire great men and wish to pay my respects to Kant.”

He immediately invited me to sit down and said: “I wrote in a way that is not likely to please everyone. Few like the subtleties of metaphysics.”

For about half an hour we talked about different things: travel, China, discovering new lands. I could not but marvel at his knowledge of history and geography, which would be sufficient to fill the storehouse of an average mind. But that was, for him, just an “incidental thing”, as the Germans are wont to say. Gradually I steered our conversation towards human nature and morals, and what follows below is the account of what I was able to recall from his observations.

“Activity is the lot of man. He is never completely satisfied with what he has, he is always striving for more. Death surprises us on the way to something we still want. Give a man everything he wants and yet at that very moment he will feel that everything is not everything. Because we fail to see the point or purpose of our struggle in this life, we assume that there is a future life in which the knot will be undone. This thought is the most attractive for man, because here there is no balance between joy and sadness, between pleasure and pain. I am comforted by the fact that I am already sixty years old and that I will soon reach the end of my life, as I hope to start another, a better one.”

“When I think of the joys I have experienced, I feel no pleasure, except when I remember the times when I acted in accordance with the moral law written in my heart, then I rejoice. I speak moral law. We can call it conscience, the sense of good and evil – but it exists. I lied. No one knows about my lie, and yet I feel ashamed. When we speak of the future life, probability is not certainty; but when we ponder everything, reason commands us to believe it.”

“Suppose we could see it with our own eyes, just as it is. If we were too absorbed by this vision, we would no longer be interested in the present life, and we would enter a state of continuous despondency. And, in the opposite case, could we not, amidst the trials and tribulations of the present life, comfort ourselves by saying, 'perhaps it would be better there!' But when we speak of destiny, a future life and the like, we assume the existence of an Eternal Creative Reason that created everything with some purpose and that created everything good. What? As? But even here the wisest of men admits his ignorance. Here reason extinguishes its light and we are left in the dark. Only the imagination can roam in this darkness and create fictions”.

Estimable man! Forgive me if, in these lines, I have distorted your thoughts!

Kant was familiar with Lavater and corresponded with him: “Lavater is extremely kind because of the great kindness of his heart,” he said, “but because he has an exceedingly vivid imagination, he is commonly blinded by his dreams. He believes in magnetism and stuff like that.”

We touched on the subject of Kant's enemies: "You will meet them," he said, "and you will see that they are all fine people."

He wrote me the titles of two of his works that I have yet to read: Kritik der praktischen Vernunft e Metaphysik der Sitten. I will keep that note as a precious memento.

When I wrote my name in his notebook, he expressed his hope that one day all my doubts would be resolved. So I went on my way.

Here, my friends, you have a brief account of what was for me the most interesting of conversations, which lasted about three hours. Kant speaks quickly, very softly, rather indistinctly, which made me have to listen to him with increased attention. His house is small and has little furniture. Everything is simple—except your metaphysics. [I]

*Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826) was a Russian historian, writer and poet.

Translation: Mariana Lins Costa.

Originally posted in Karamzin, NM Letters of a Russian Traveler, 1789-1790. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957, pp. 39-41.

Translator's note


[I] This small translation was originally made with the aim of presenting my kind friend the somewhat unusual Professor Antônio Paim (1927-2021). I met Professor Paim at his residence in a nursing home for the elderly in São Paulo, shortly before his 92nd birthday, in 2019, and we immediately bonded given our immense love for Russian history and culture that despite all its criticisms abundantly present in books and interviews, I am a witness that, at the end of his life, he was still burning – and burning hard. Our conversations always revolved around his experiences in the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Brazil, and the reasons for his turn to liberalism – to which, according to him, his studies over more than XNUMX years had contributed in a special way. twenty years of Critique of Pure Reason of Kant, in addition to the “Kruschev Report”. With this unpretentious translation, even direct from the Russian original, I thought, at the time, that it could perhaps comfort him in the face of the imminence of death, given his advanced years, as it was a reverent and enthusiastic account of what I understood as a kind of of Kant’s confession to Karamzin of a certain moderate nihilism (“Here [regarding the existence of God] reason extinguishes its light and we are left in the dark”), paradoxically, linked to a rational theism moved, above all, by irrational necessity of having faith (“reason commands us to believe [in the future life]”). I miss my friend and countryman, who I couldn't say goodbye to. We understood each other so well as much of what we loved that it was almost as if we didn't disagree at all. Here I make Kant's wishes for you my wishes for him: that he is now in a new and better life.


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