The Dinner Parties of Immanuel Kant
Mis à jour : janv. 24
Portrait of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) ; by J. G. Becker, 1768
"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.
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.
So keen was his penetration into the interior of political events, and the secret policy under which they moved, that he talked rather with the authority of a diplomatic person who had access to cabinet intelligence, than as a simple spectator of the great scenes which were in those days unfolding throughout Europe.
At the time of the French Revolution, he threw out many conjectures, and what then passed for paradoxical anticipations, especially in regard to military operations, which were as punctually fulfilled as hisown memorable conjecture in regard to the hiatus in the planetary system between Mars and Jupiter, the entire confirmation of which he lived to witness on the discovery of Ceres by Piazzi, and of Pallas by Dr Olbers. These two discoveries, by the way, impressed him much; and they furnished a topic on which he always talked with pleasure;though, according to his usual modesty, he never said a word of his own sagacity in having upon a priori grounds shown the probability of such discoveries many years before.
It was not only in the character of a companion that Kant shone, but also as a most courteous and liberal host, who had no greater pleasure than in seeing his guests happy and jovial, and rising with exhilarated spirits from the mixed pleasures — intellectual and liberally sensual — of his Platonic banquets. Chiefly, perhaps, with a view to the sustaining of genial hilarity, he showed himself somewhat of an artist in the composition of his dinner parties.
Two rules there were which he obviously observed, and I may say invariably: the first was, that the company should be miscellaneous; this for the sake of securing sufficient variety to the conversation: and accordingly his parties presented as much variety as the world of Konigsberg afforded, being drawn from all varieties of life — men in office, professors, physicians, clergymen, and enlightened merchants.
His second rule was, to have a due balance of young men, frequently of very young men, selected fromthe students of the university, in order to impress a movement of gaiety and juvenile playfulness on the conversation; an additional motive for which, as I have reason to believe, was, that in this way he withdrew his mind from the sadness which sometimes overshadowed it, for the early deaths of some young friends whom he loved.
Immediately after the termination of his dinner party, Kant walked out for exercise; but on this occasion he never took any companion; partly, perhaps, because he thought it right, after so much convivial and colloquial relaxation, to pursue his meditations, and partly (as I happen to know) for this very peculiar reason — that he wished to breathe exclusively through his nostrils, which he could not do, if he were obliged continually to open his mouth in conversation.
His reason for this wish was, that the atmospheric air, being thus carried round by a longer circuit, and reaching the lungs, therefore, in a state of less rawness, and at a temperature somewhat higher, would be less apt to irritate them. By a steady perseverance in this practice, which he constantly recommended to his friends, he flattered himself with a long immunity from coughs, hoarsenesses, catarrhs, and all modes of pulmonary derangement.
On returning from his walk, he sat down to his library table, and read till dusk. During this period of dubious light, so friendly to thought, he rested in tranquil meditation on what he had been reading, provided the book were worth it; if not, he sketched his lecture for the next day, or some part of any book he might then be composing.
During this state of repose, he took his station winter and summer by the stove, looking through the window at the old tower of Löbenicht; not that he could be said properly to see it, but the tower rested upon his eye as distant music on the ear — obscurely, or but half revealed to the consciousness. No words seem forcible enough to express his sense of the gratification which he derived from this old tower, when seen under these circumstances of twilight and quiet reverie.
The sequel, indeed, showed how important it had become to his comfort; for at length some poplars in a neighbouring garden shot up to such a height as to obscure the tower, upon which Kant became very uneasy and restless, and at length found himself positively unable to pursue his evening meditations. Fortunately, the proprietor of the garden was a very considerate and obliging person, who had, besides, a high regard for Kant; and, accordingly, upon a representation of the case being made to him, he gave orders that the poplars should be cropped. This was done; the old tower of Löbenicht was again exposed; Kant recovered his equanimity, and once more found himself able to pursue his twilight meditations in peace."