Kant by Max Egremont


I first saw Immanuel Kant in 1992, during my first visit to Kaliningrad, a short time after the Soviet Union had come to an end. It was, alas, not the great man himself but his tomb, a miraculous survival after conflict, destruction and rebuilding – an evocation of the past alongside what was then the ruined cathedral and other reminders of the city’s fractured history.  How much had changed in the philosopher’s home city since his death in 1804.  Even the name is different.  For Kant, from his birth there in 1724, had lived in Königsberg, not Kaliningrad.  What he could not foresee was that they are now the same place.


That first day, almost thirty years ago, I walked from the Kaliningrad hotel, past the shattered medieval cathedral, once one of the largest brick buildings in Europe, to the pillars of Kant’s mausoleum, a survival of Königsberg.  The philosopher seemed to have reached beyond the grave to ensure its protection from Soviet rebuilding, even from the huge 1944 air raids. For much of the historic city centre had been wrecked by British bombs.  The new Kaliningrad was built on the ruins of the old Königsberg.


Enveloped by the post-war Soviet city, the tomb has become a gathering place for Russians.  Newly married couples are photographed there and it is one of the most visited sites by tourists.  For Kant had reached east, to be admired by Lenin and have his The Critique of Pure Reason studied as a set text in Soviet universities.  It’s said that respect for the philosopher’s tomb had even prevented a complete demolition of the adjoining cathedral – which has now been rebuilt in the new Russia that emerged after 1991.


Although Immanuel Kant died in 1804, the present tomb was not built until 1924, designed by the German architect Friedrich Lahrs.  Kant had been buried inside the cathedral, then in the 1880s moved to a chapel which fell into a bad state, reburial taking place in 1924, only six years after Germany’s defeat in the First World War.  The ceremony brought earlier German intellectual achievement back through the fog of contemporary humiliation and doubt.      


In addition to being a citizen of Königsberg, the old capital of East Prussia, Kant was also briefly (from 1758 to 1762) a Russian when the city was part of Russia.  His lectures during those years were attended by Russian officers, at the university that had been founded by in the sixteenth century by the Hohenzollern Duke Albrecht.  Although offered jobs in other universities such as Jena, Kant never left the city, dedicating himself to work and teaching yet showing a sociability in his table companions who included the British merchants Joseph Green and Robert Motherby.    


The neo-classical monument that I saw in 1992, the grave of one of Europe’s – or the world’s - greatest philosophers symbolises intellectual immortality.  For Immanuel Kant crosses frontiers.  I experienced this when standing there some twenty years later with a Professor from Tokyo who wept to see the burial place of his hero.


Nietzsche, the romantic, declared that his predecessor’s moral philosophy was “pale, northern, Königsbergian”.  Kant has been accused of being cold - but this seems a strange view of what emerged from Königsberg, not only in his own thought but in that of his pupils, Herder and Hamann.  Did Kant not say that you had only to look into the eye of a swallow to see heaven?  His most famous work is The Critique of Pure Reason, a cautioning against complete acceptance of the Enlightenment - or French – determinism.  With his emphasis on the will, Kant points to the nineteenth century romantic revolution.


I’ve often met Kant on my journeys across the eastern Baltic.  The Critique of Pure Reason was first published in Riga (then part of imperial Russia), the philosopher’s brother was a pastor in Courland (now part of Latvia) and there are Kant manuscripts, and a cast of his death mask, in the Estonian university of Tartu.  Tartu is near Lake Peipus and the Russian frontier where in 1242 Alexander Nevsky’s forces defeated the Teutonic crusading knights at the great battle on the ice, stopping western Christianity’s march east.


Kant, however, shows the spread of German culture east into the Baltic lands. For years, swathes of these were dominated by the descendants of Baltic German settlers who came after the Northern crusades.  They controlled the indigenous people, as English and Scottish settlers did for centuries in Ireland.


Kantian ethics include the concept of duty, the power of will and the value of the individual.  Although he disliked organised religion, Kant thought that without God we are condemned to despair.  Kant’s God needed no churches or prayer or even intellectual definition.  Kant thought that certain concepts were beyond human understanding.


He had faith in human moral equality and disliked colonialism or conquest.  You should judge each action that you take, Kant thought, in terms of a universal moral law.  How would it be if what you did was applied to everyone?  He welcomed the Enlightenment yet thought reason had its limitations which, paradoxically, only reason could define.  Reason, however, was limited by its grounding in experience.  Kant welcomed the French revolution.  Its terror, he thought, showed how progress could come through strife and individual suffering.  Is this cold or simply realistic?  It is certainly chilling, particularly after the horrors of the 20th century.


As citizen of the world, Kant reached beyond nationalism to international peace.  He was, however, undoubtedly Prussian: the 4th of 9 children of a poor harness maker, from a background of Pietism, an offshoot of Lutheranism that disliked worldly clerics, exalted individual conscience, work, duty and prayer and was important for the spread of education in 17th century Germany.   A religion of the heart was what the Pietists sought.  Their creed might not have greatly influenced Kant’s intellectual development, he disliked their pride in being of the elect and the inflexibility of the Pietist education that he’d endured as a boy.  But the virtue of duty is central to his thought. 


Kant looked out from Königsberg, although he never left it.  His friends included Motherby and Green, he admired the Scottish philosopher David Hume and the English Poet Alexander Pope and he knew the work of the French philosophers and their relentless rationalism.  When Kant died in 1804, the romantic movement was making a new intellectual landscape.  Yet people queued to see his corpse, its burial having to wait for the frozen East Prussian winter earth to thaw.


On the grave today are the philosopher’s own words, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”  They are inscribed, appropriately, in two languages, German and Russian, reflecting his city’s changing identity and the timelessness of his thought.  Although Königsberg has become Kaliningrad, Kant still reaches across nationality to universal wisdom.


© 2021 Max Egremont