Immanuel Kant and his Man-Servant Lampe

by Justin E. H. Smith

I’ve been reading Thomas de Quincey’s 1827 essay, The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, which is really little more than a massively long quotation, in English translation, of Ehregott Andreas Wasianski’s 1804 work, Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren. In fact, Wasianski’s entire work is cited, after a few paragraphs of framing from de Quincey, and with a few additional footnotes here and there. I am not really certain why this work is attributed to the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater at all. De Quincey is at most the editor.

Wasianski had been Kant’s friend of long standing, and the account he gives of the philosopher’s life, and his ultimate decline, is precious. It is, I suppose, the source of many of the legends we hear about Kant the personality, as that he took a regular constitutional stroll at the same time every day. But many of the details offered by Wasianski never attained to the status of legend. This for example:

Kant never perspired, night or day. Yet it was astonishing how much heat he supported habitually in his study, and in fact was not easy if it wanted but one degree of this heat. Seventy-five degrees of Fahrenheit was the invariable temperature of this room in which he chiefly lived; and if it fell below that point, no matter at what season of the year, he had it raised artificially to the usual standard. In the heats of summer he went thinly dressed, and invariably in silk stockings; yet, as even this dress could not always secure him against perspiring when engaged in active exercise, he had a singular remedy in reserve. Retiring to some shady place, he stood still and motionless–with the air and attitude of a person listening, or in suspense– until his usual aridity was restored. Even in the most sultry summer night, if the slightest trace of perspiration had sullied his night-dress, he spoke of it with emphasis, as of an accident that perfectly shocked him.

The most delightful scenes of Wasianski’s work describe Kant’s relationship with his manservant Martin Lampe (delightful to me anyway, who am perhaps overly fascinated by this particular sort of interpersonal relationship, enough so to have invented one from my very imagination. Kant’s relationship to Lampe is different from that of Dr. Smith to Isaac –Isaac is smart but subversive, while Lampe is dumb and loyal–, but both strike me similarly as both unhealthy and singularly touching, and in these respects as very much like marriage).

Here is how Wasianski first introduces Lampe:

Precisely at five minutes before five o’clock, winter or summer, Lampe, Kant’s servant, who had formerly served in the army, marched into his master’s room with the air of a sentinel on duty, and cried aloud in a military tone, — ‘Mr. Professor, the time is come.’

Wasianski pauses to describe the relationship between the two in some detail. He considers it important to do so, since Kant and Lampe had a falling out two years before the philosopher’s death. The nature of the dispute is not entirely clear from what Wasianski is willing to report of it, but it leads to the servant’s dismissal, in 1802, and inaugurates the period of Kant’s decline and eventual death two years later:

It was a great misfortune for Kant, in his old age and infirmities, that this man also became old, and subject to a different sort of infirmities. This Lampe had originally served in the Prussian army; on quitting which he entered the service of Kant. In this situation he had lived about forty years; and, though always dull and stupid, had, in the early part of this period, discharged his duties with tolerable fidelity. But latterly, presuming upon his own indispensableness, from his perfect knowledge of all the domestic arrangements, and upon his master’s weakness, he had fallen into great irregularities and neglect of his duties. Kant had been obliged, therefore, of late, to threaten repeatedly that he would discharge him. I, who knew that Kant, though one of the kindest-hearted men, was also one of the firmest, foresaw that this discharge, once given, would be irrevocable: for the word of Kant was as sacred as other men’s oaths. Consequently, upon every opportunity, I remonstrated with Lampe on the folly of his conduct, and his wife joined me on these occasions. Indeed, it was high time that a change should be made in some quarter; for it now became dangerous to leave Kant, who was constantly falling from weakness, to the care of an old ruffian, who was himself apt to fall from intoxication. The fact was, that from the moment I undertook the management of Kant’s affairs, Lampe saw there was an end to his old system of abusing his master’s confidence in pecuniary affairs, and the other advantages which he took of his helpless situation. This made him desperate, and he behaved worse and worse; until one morning, in January, 1802, Kant told me, that, humiliating as he felt such a confession, the fact was, that Lampe had just treated him in a way which he was ashamed to repeat.

We know that, in spite of the falling out, Kant felt obliged to include Lampe in his will, and as a result the former servant received a comfortable pension beginning the year Kant died.

Elsewhere in his éloge, Wasianski describes the routines of the philosopher and his servant in comic detail, the one comically haughty and exigent, the other comically dim-witted and devoted:

For the space of more than thirty years, during which he had been in the habit of reading the newspaper published by Hartung, Lampe delivered it with the same identical blunder on every day of publication. — ‘Mr. Professor, here is Hartmann‘s journal.’ Upon which Kant would reply — ‘Eh! what?– What’s that you say? Hartmann’s journal? I tell you, it is not Hartmann, but Hartung: now, repeat it after me– not Hartmann, but Hartung.’ Then Lampe, looking sulky, and drawing himself up with the stiff air of a soldier on guard, and in the very same monotonous tone with which he had been used to sing out his challenge of – Who goes there? would roar- – ‘not Hartmann, but Hartung.’ ‘Now again!’ Kant would say: on which again Lampe roared — ‘not Hartmann, but Hartung.’ ‘Now a third time,’ cried Kant: on which for a third time the unhappy Lampe would howl out– ‘not Hartmann, but Hartung.’ And this whimsical scene of parade duty was continually repeated: duly as the day of publication came, the irreclaimable old dunce was put through the same manoeuvres, which were as invariably followed by the same blunder on the next.

Towards the end of their decades together, Kant grew more irrascible, but Lampe continued to do what he could to placate him. And so, more comedy:

the expressions of his impatience, though from old habit still gentle, were so lively, and had so much of infantine naivete about them, that none of us could forbear smiling. Knowing what would happen, I had taken care that all the preparations should be made beforehand; the coffee was ground; the water was boiling; and the very moment the word was given, his servant shot in like an arrow, and plunged the coffee into the water. All that remained, therefore, was to give it time to boil up. But this trifling delay seemed unendurable to Kant. All consolations were thrown away upon him: vary the formula as we might, he was never at a loss for a reply. If it was said — ‘Dear Professor, the coffee will be brought up in a moment.’ Will be!’ he would say, ‘but there’s the rub, that it only will be: Man never is, but always to be blest.’

The most touching part of the essay comes when Wasianski describes his own effort to help maintain the daily routines around the Kant residence after Lampe’s dismissal:

One part only there was of the daily ceremonial, where all of us were at a loss, as it was a part which no mortal eyes had ever witnessed but those of Lampe: this was breakfast. However, that we might do all in our power, I myself attended at four o’clock in the morning. The day happened, as I remember, to be the 1st of February, 1802. Precisely at five, Kant made his appearance; and nothing could equal his astonishment on finding me in the room. Fresh from the confusion of dreaming, and bewildered alike by the sight of his new servant, by Lampe’s absence, and by my presence, he could with difficulty be made to comprehend the purpose of my visit. A friend in need is a friend indeed; and we would now have given any money to that learned person who could have instructed us in the arrangement of the breakfast table. But this was a mystery revealed to none but Lampe.

Wasianski concludes his treatment of Lampe by mentioning “an affecting instance of Kant’s yearning after his old good-for-nothing servant in his memorandum-book”:

Other people record what they wish to remember; but Kant had here recorded what he was to forget. ‘Mem.: February, 1802, the name of Lampe must now be remembered no more.’

Lampe is gone, and Kant will mention him no more. He is in decline, and more irrascible than before. He is an old, dying man, but one who can still be made to perk up, like most old men, by a good friend who knows how to coax out his old passions. In Kant’s case, significantly, these are not, at the very brink of death, the deep questions of metaphysics and epistemology, but rather the trivia of geography:

[W]hen he became perfectly incapable of conversing with any rational meaning on the ordinary affairs of life, he was still able to answer correctly and distinctly, in a degree that was perfectly astonishing, upon any question of philosophy or of science, especially of physical geography, chemistry, or natural history. He talked satisfactorily, in his very worst state, of the gases, and stated very accurately different propositions of Kepler’s, especially the law of the planetary motions. And I remember in particular, that upon the very last Monday of his life, when the extremity of his weakness moved a circle of his friends to tears, and he sat amongst us insensible to all we could say to him, cowering down, or rather I might say collapsing into a shapeless heap upon his chair, deaf, blind, torpid, motionless, — even then I whispered to the others that I would engage that Kant should take his part in conversation with propriety and animation. This they found it difficult to believe. Upon which I drew close to his ear, and put a question to him about the Moors of Barbary. To the surprise of everybody but myself, he immediately gave us a summary account of their habits and customs; and told us by the way, that in the word Algiers, the g ought to be pronounced hard (as in the English word gear).

Within the week, Kant would be dead, and he would die as he lived –as the ancients believed great men do–, which in his case means that he would die without sweating:

About ten o’clock in the forenoon he suffered a remarkable change; his eye was rigid and his face and lips became discolored by a cadaverous pallor. Still, such was the effect of his previous habits, that no trace appeared of the cold sweat which naturally accompanies the last mortal agony… Soon after his death the head of Kant was shaved; and, under the direction of Professor Knorr, a plaster cast was taken, not a masque merely, but a cast of the whole head, designed (I believe) to enrich the craniological collection of Dr. Gall.

I also wanted to get, in this post, to the question that comes down to us from the ancients: why, namely, should we take an interest in the manners of the deaths of the philosophers? Of course today we suppose that we should not take an interest, that to do so is to do bad philosophy, or to lapse into mere ‘philosophical biography’ or ‘philosophical journalism’. But from Diogenes Laërtius’s point of view anyway, philosophical biography, the genre of the bios, was philosophy par excellence. To know a philosopher’s views fully, and to grasp how successfully they were implemented, one had to wait to see how he died. This was a corollary to the adage that no man must be called happy until he dies, which held that a man’s wisdom too can only be adequately judged post-mortem. Sometimes, of course, the manner of approaching death does indeed show something about character, and character may well be grounded in philosophical commitments. Yet death strikes in many ways, most of which signify nothing. And in any case Kant’s not sweating at the time of death does not seem to reveal any more about his philosophy than Kant’s not sweating during life.

Yet, contrary to what we usually suppose, Diogenes Laërtius’s project died out much later than we tend to think. Leibniz’s amanuensis Eckhart gives us a stunning account of his master’s demise from gout in 1714, while Wasianski, seeing that his friend did not end his days with a servant up to the task, took it upon himself to document the medical condition of his equal. His presumption seems to have been that this work must be written, simply in view of who Kant had been in life, and in view of the greatness of his thought.

Wasianski included details about interpersonal relations that are missing in Eckhart’s account of Leibniz, and in Diogenes Laërtius’s summaries of sundry philosophical luminaries in antiquity. He thought it fitting to devote much of this short biography to the relationship between the philosopher and the manservant. Perhaps apart from his relationship to Wasianski himself, which remains surprisingly opaque in Wasianski’s account, the relationship Kant had with Lampe appears to be the most significant and interesting one in his entire life, the one that tells us, much more than the manner of his death, who Kant was.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website