No Cant in Immanuel

by Theodore Dalrymple (April 2013)

My late friend, the development economist Peter Bauer, had the most beautiful manners: so beautiful that I took them for my model. Alas, I could never equal them for, though not particularly ill-mannered, I have always to remember to behave well. Just as style in prose should be imperceptible, as the uniquely perfect vehicle for what is said and indissoluble therefrom, so manners should be unconscious, not added to conduct but intrinsic to it. They should not arise from reflection but from a habit so deeply ingrained that, however much they might once have been instilled or learned, they are now entirely natural and normal to the person who has them. And since their purpose is to ease social intercourse and make it agreeable, they should not be carried to the point of making anyone uncomfortable, turning them into mere etiquette in order to distinguish those who know how to behave from those who do not.

Peter Bauer used to say that Mrs Thatcher had two great achievements to her name (and only two): that she destroyed the power of the trade unions and that she raised him to the peerage. It was a matter of pride to him, tinged by ironical amusement, that he, the son of a Budapest bookmaker, should now sit in the British House of Lords; but the fact that he did so confirmed one of his most deeply held convictions, that a class society was not at all the same thing as a closed society. Social hierarchy is perfectly compatible with social mobility, as the maliciously misunderstood history of his adopted country amply demonstrated.

My friend was by no means an unequivocal admirer of Mrs Thatcher, and neither am I. He used to say that she spoke too much and did too little; and her somewhat strident tone, that was capable sometimes of cutting glass, gave even her best ideas a bad reputation, as if they had actually been put into practice when in fact they had not. Thus she set back her own cause by generations and made impossible the very reforms that she vaunted so rhetorically. I would go much further in my negative assessment of her: by naively believing in management as a science in itself, that could somehow be applied in the public sector to make it more efficient, she introduced the legalised corruption that is now so characteristic of her country, a legalised corruption that was (as the Soviets used to say) creatively developed by her follower and disciple, Anthony Blair, and that created the nomenklatura class that was and is largely responsible for the country’s disastrous situation. In retrospect, Mrs Thatcher was just another political figure wrestling unsuccessfully with her country’s inexorable, century-long decline and slide into sub-mediocrity. But one should not blame her too much: no one could have done better and she was, after all, the greatest reformer in Argentinian history.

To my knowledge, Peter Bauer made only one great speech in the House of Lords, remarkable for its power and brevity. A bill had been introduced to allow the prosecution of alleged war criminals who had taken up residence in Britain after the Second World War. Bauer said (and here I quote from memory, which I realise with sorrow is highly fallible):

My Lords, I am of Jewish extraction. Some of my relatives died in Auschwitz. I am opposed to this bill because it is against the Rule of Law.

Then he sat down. There may be greater speeches of fewer than thirty words; if so, I do not know them.

But it is of Peter Bauer’s manners that I speak, not of his opinions. Once my wife and I visited him in hospital after he had had open heart surgery. He was then in his mid-eighties. He liked champagne and we took him four quarter bottles as an aid to recovery as soon as he was fit to drink them. As is often the case of someone so old immediately after heart surgery, he was a little confused, though he recognised us perfectly and said nothing foolish. When we made to go he, who was in a large armchair but still connected to a plethora of tubes, struggled to his feet. His instinct to stand up when a lady left the room was stronger than his confusion or his weakness after his operation.

I thought of Peter Bauer when recently I read (for the first time) Thomas De Quincey’s long essay, The Last Days of Immanuel Kant. As with Mrs Thatcher, I am no unequivocal admirer of De Quincey. In the past I have awarded his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the following marks: 8 out of 10 for literary quality, 1 out of 10 for veracity, and 10 out of 10 for pernicious influence on subsequent generations. But The Last Days struck me as one of the greatest and most humane essays that I have ever read; never mind that it is actually a translation and composite of German sources of the great philosopher’s declining years.

De Quincey addresses at the outset the question of whether Kant’s decline was a suitable subject for a literary work:

Perhaps the reader will be disposed to complain,  that some of the notices [of his decline] are too minute and circumstantial, so as to be at one time undignified, and at another unfeeling.

To this he replies:

With respect to the first objection, it may be answered, that biographical gossip of this sort, and ungentlemanly scrutiny into a man’s private life, though not what a man of honour would allow himself to write, may be read without blame; and, where a great man is the subject, sometimes with advantage. As to the other objection, I should hardly know how to excuse Mr Wasianski [one of De Quincey’s primary sources, and Kant’s close friend] for kneeling at the bedside of his dying friend, in order to record, with the accuracy of a short-hand reporter, the last flutter of Kant’s pulse, and the struggles of nature labouring in extremity, except by supposing that his idealised conception of Kant, as one belonging to all ages, seemed in his mind to transcend and swallow up the ordinary restraints of human sensibility…   

The first reply is curious and ambiguous, for it implies that what should never have been written may nevertheless be read with propriety. Was De Quincey himself dishonourable for having translated what no man of honour would have written, thereby having given it wider currency? If so, I can say only that I am glad there are dishonourable men sometimes willing to do such work; but in fact it is clear to me that Mr Wasianski wrote from a profound sense of love and admiration for his friend. The result is a work not of titillation or of salacity, but of piety. One is astonished to learn, incidentally, that Kant (who died in 1804) was a celebrity in Königsberg; such was the press of people who wanted to pay their respects that he laid in state for days after his death; his funeral was the largest the city had ever known. One is tempted to say that by its celebrities shall ye know a culture. 

The essay is profoundly moving and all doctors who have to deal with the old, the decaying and the dying ought to be enjoined to read it. Wasianski describes the night before he died, and it is worth quoting him in extenso:

Though he had passed the day in a state of insensibility, yet in the evening he made intelligible signs that he wished to have his bed put in order; he was therefore lifted out in our arms, and the bedclothes and pillows being hastily arranged, he was carried back again. He did not sleep; and a spoonful of liquid, which was sometimes put to his lips, he usually pushed aside; but about one o’clock in the night he himself made a movement towards the spoon, from which I collected that he was thirsty; and I gave him a small quantity of wine and water sweetened; but the muscles of his mouth had not strength enough to retain it; so that, to prevent its flowing back, he raised his hand to his lips, until with a rattling sound it was swallowed.

He seemed to wish for more; and I continued to give him more, until he said in a way that I was just able to understand, “It is enough.” And these were his last words. It is enough! Sufficit! Mighty and symbolic words.

And here De Quincey adds a beautiful footnote:

“It is enough:” – The cup of life, the cup of suffering, is drained. For those who watch, as did the Greek and the Roman, the deep meanings that oftentimes hide themselves (without design and without consciousness on the part of the utterer) in trivial phrases, this final utterance would have seemed intensely symbolic.

Here I must add that I had a similar experience with my own father. He had bravely decided to refuse the operation that might have prolonged his life by six months from the cancer that was killing him. He was now very weak, so weak that he could not take off his own socks before getting into his bed. I removed them for him and helped him under the bedclothes. When there, he said the last words he ever said to me, words that I had never heard him utter before: ‘I’m sorry.’

What did he mean by them? That he was sorry to be a nuisance, to be so helpless? Or was he apologising for the fact that, despite his great gifts, he brought nothing but unhappiness to those around him? Was he apologising for my unhappy childhood, in which moments of happiness illuminated the landscape of misery as a flash on lightning illuminates a night-time landscape enshrouded in darkness? I will never know.

But to return to manners. Here is the passage from The Last Days that reminded me of Peter Bauer. It describes a visit by Kant’s doctor to the dying and now almost imbecilic man:

Nine days before his death, the following little circumstance occurred, which affected us both, by recalling forcibly to our minds the ineradicable courtesy and goodness of Kant’s nature. When the physician was announced, I went up to Kant, and said to him, “Here is Dr A-.” Kant rose from his chair, and, offering his hand to the doctor, murmured something in which the word “posts” was frequently repeated, but with an air as though he wished to be helped out with the rest of the sentence. Dr A-, who thought that, by posts, he meant the stations for relays of post-horses, and therefore that his mind was wandering, replied, that all the horses were engaged, and begged him to compose himself. But Kant went on, with great effort to himself, and added, “Many posts – then much goodness – then much gratitude.” All this was said with apparent incoherence, but with great warmth, and increasing self-possession.

I meantime perfectly divined what it was that Kant, under his cloud of imbecility, wished to say, and I interpreted accordingly. “What the professor wishes to say, Dr A-, is this, that, considering the many and weighty posts which you fill in the city and in the university, it argues great goodness on your part to give up so much of your time to him” (for Dr A- would never take any fees from Kant); “and that he has the deepest sense of this goodness.” –

“Right,” said Kant, earnestly – “right!” But he still continued to stand, and was nearly sinking to the ground. Upon which I remarked to the physician, that Kant, as I was well convinced, would not sit down, however much he suffered from standing, until he knew that his visitors were seated. The doctor seemed to doubt this; but Kant, who heard what I said, by a prodigious effort confirmed my construction of his conduct, and spoke distinctly these words – “God forbid I should have sunk so low as to forget the offices of humanity.”

My father believed that manners followed or expressed a good heart; where a good heart existed, good manners were sure to become habitual. (The trouble is that he did not himself have a dependably good heart.) My mother believed the opposite, that behaving well as a matter of habit would lead to a good heart, or at least ameliorate the effects of a bad one.

Of course good manners may disguise the utmost villainy; and an unmannerly man may be good-hearted. And yet, in the cases of Immanuel Kant and Peter Bauer, there does seem to be a connection between their general goodness and their refined manners. Besides, good manners should be valued for themselves; I am inclined to adapt de Tocqueville’s famous dictum about liberty, that he who seeks in manners anything other than manners themselves is destined for crudity. 


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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