The Dinner Parties of Immanuel Kant

Dernière mise à jour : 24 janv. 2021


Portrait of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) ; by J. G. Becker, 1768





Thomas de Quincey


The Last Days of Immanuel Kant

(1827)




(P9)


"This revival of my intimacy with Kant coincided pretty nearly, in point of time, with a complete change in his own domestic arrangements. Up to this period it had been his custom to dine at a table d'hôte. But he now began to keep house himself; and every day invited a few friends to dine with him, so as to fix the party (himself included) at three for the lower extreme, and at nine for the upper, and upon any little festival from five to eight.


He was, in fact, a punctual observer of Lord Chesterfield's rule — that his dinner party, himself included, should not fall below the number of the Graces, nor exceed that of the Muses. In the whole economy of his household arrangements, and especially of his dinner parties, there was something peculiar, and amusingly opposed to the conventional usage of society; not, however, that there was any neglect of decorum, such as sometimes occurs in houses where there are no ladies to impress a better tone upon the manners.


The routine, which under no circumstances either varied or relaxed, was this : no sooner was dinner ready, than Lampe, the professor's old footman, stepped into the study with a certain measured air, and announced it. This summons was obeyed at a pace of double-quick time — Kant talking all the way to the eating-room about the state of the weather, a subject which he usually pursued during the earlier part of the dinner.


Graver themes, such as the political events of the day, were never introduced before dinner, or at all in his study. The moment that Kant had taken his seat, and unfolded his napkin, he opened the business of the hour with a particular formula —"Now, then, gentlemen !". The words are nothing; but the tone and air with which he uttered them proclaimed, in a way that nobody could mistake, relaxation from the toils of the morning, and determinate abandonment of himself to social enjoyment.



The table was hospitably spread; a sufficient choice of dishes there was to meet the variety of tastes; and the decanters of wine were placed, not on a distant sideboard, or under the odious control of a servant, but anacreontically on the table, and at the elbow of every guest. Every person helped himself; and all delays, from too elaborate a spirit of ceremony, were so disagreeable to Kant, that he seldom failed to express his displeasure with anything of that sort, though not angrily.


For this hatred of delay Kant had a special excuse, having always worked hard from an early hour inthe morning, and eaten nothing until dinner. Hence it was, that in the latter period of his life, though less perhaps from actual hunger than from some uneasy sensationof habit or periodical irritation of stomach, he could hardly wait with patience for the arrival of the last person invited.


There was no friend of Kant's but considered the day on which he was to dine with him as a day of festal pleasure. Without giving himself the air of an instructor, Kant really was such in the very highest degree. The whole entertainment was seasoned with the overflow of his enlightened mind, poured out naturally and unaffectedly upon every topic, as the chances of conversation suggested it; and the time flew rapidly away, from one o'clock to four, five, or even later, profitably and delightfully.



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Kant tolerated no lulls, which was the name he gave to the momentary pauses in conversation, when its animation languished. Some means or other he always devised for rekindling its tone of interest; and in this he was much assisted by the tact with which he drew from every guest his peculiar tastes, or the particular direction of his pursuits; and on these, be they what they might, he was never unprepared to speak with knowledge, and with the interest of an original observer.


The local affairs of Königsberg must have been interesting indeed, before they could be allowed to usurp attention at his table. And what may seem still more singular, it was rarely or never that he directed the conversation to any branch of the philosophy founded by himself. Indeed he was perfectly free from the fault which besets so many savans and literati, of intolerance towards those whose pursuits might happen to have disqualified them for any special sympathy with his own.


His style of conversation was popular in the highest degree, and unscholastic; so much so, that any stranger acquainted with his works, but not with his person, would have found it difficultto believe, that in this delightful and genial companion hesaw the profound author of the Transcendental Philosophy.


The subjects of conversation at Kant's table were drawn chiefly from natural philosophy, chemistry, meteorology, natural history, and, above all, from politics. The news of the day, as reported in the newspapers, was discussed with a peculiar vigilance of examination. With regard to any narrative that wanted dates of time and place, plausible as it might otherwise seem, he was uniformly an inexorable sceptic, and held it unworthy of repetition.