Broken Heart? Immanuel Kant is Here to Help
Sometimes, the Best Advice Comes From an Old Dead German
It’s 4:24 pm. You’re jumping up and down with excitement. You feel like you’re back in high school sitting through one of those boring classes that seemed to last for centuries. It’s as if time has stepped in chewing gum and has stopped moving forward. You literally can’t wait. You haven’t seen him for ten days. You each went on separate vacations. It was the longest time you’ve been deprived of each other’s company since you started dating. During your vacation, you couldn’t stop thinking about him. You bought an absurd number of silly souvenirs for him to ease the pain of being apart, and now, finally, you’re going to be reunited. You feel jittery. You pace around your apartment and call friends to distract yourself. You arrange and rearrange the dishes in your cabinets to try to pass the time. You feel like a child overwhelmed at an amusement park.
You can’t concentrate. You can’t think about anything but the moment when you’ll see him.
At 5:00 pm you decide you will explode if you wait any longer, so you start walking to the coffee shop where you’ve planned to meet him. As you stride down the sidewalk, you replay your favorite romantic moments with him over the past month—the late nights, running out of your offices to steal a moment together, laughing for no reason, deep discussions over dinner. The two of you make even the most romantic of romantic comedies seem dull. Your relationship is the perfect love story. You’re living the cliché that people think is unrealistic, if they have never been in love like this. Your friends complain that you never go out with them anymore and you have your head in the clouds. They say this relationship is getting in the way of other parts of your life, but they don’t understand.
Your parents worry that it’s moving too fast. Other friends say that he’s a bad person, that they don’t like the way he treats you. Your sister keeps telling you he’s not the one. You’re convinced they’re all just jealous and bitter. They’re used to you always being the single one, and they can’t understand your incredible bond. You don’t listen to any of them. You’re blinded by his gorgeous face, his wit and charm. It doesn’t matter what people say; you would follow him anywhere. You want to do everything he wants to do. You don’t care that his lifestyle pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you do things that used to be against your morals. You feel more powerful with him by your side than you have ever felt before. You admit that he’s like a hurricane, but you love being caught in the storm, and you want to be a part of this meteorological chaos forever, for better or for worse.
You arrive at the coffee shop. You’re way too early, of course, but you don’t mind. You’re just happy to be there. The décor is cozy. It’s perfect for a romantic date. You can’t stop imagining those first glorious seconds when you will be reunited. It will be a moment to remember forever—a moment when relief, desire, and excitement all mix together. Thinking about it makes your heart beat faster than any cardio workout. You meticulously planned your outfit for this date. You don’t want to look too dolled up, you want to look nonchalant and cool, but you also want to floor him when he walks in and sees his gorgeous partner. Even the barista notices how happy you are. Nothing can shake your confidence in the future. And then eventually, off in the distance, you see him. He pushes past the other people in the café to get to you. You’re overjoyed and ready to throw yourself into his arms, Julia Roberts style.
But as he gets closer to the table, you realize he is in no mood to be Richard Gere. He must be tired, which is understandable, but still, you wish he would hug you. It’s the first pang—a little, disappointed electroshock. But it’s nothing compared to what happens next. He doesn’t pick you up or twirl you around. He just looks at you coldly. He mutters something about how he needs to take some time for himself right now. “It’s not you. It’s me.” The language of breaking up is as banal as the language of love at first sight.
What was supposed to be a romantic comedy has turned into a tragedy. The people around you are the audience—some look embarrassed; others eye you with sympathy. Your boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend, decides to leave you at the table. He stands up and walks away without even paying for your coffee. You’re completely crushed. You hold out hope that he’ll come back, which just makes it worse. Finally, you realize he’s never coming back. Your heart beats slowly. It’s sad and confused.
By 6:30 pm you’re devastated. Your heart is heavy and your eyes are wet. You feel like the last few months of your life have been some elaborate, nasty trick. How could he have changed his mind so quickly? How could he have seemed so sincere? You can’t call your friends because they’ll just tell you they were right all along. You don’t know what to do or what to think. You don’t know anything except that you’re going to need a shot of vodka and some solid philosophy to help you calm down.
What would Kant have to say about all of this?
Immanuel Kant probably wasn’t too familiar with the trials and tribulations of love. His life was pretty drama-free. Most of his days were identical—all he did was meditate and teach. Nothing, not crushes or breakups or other matters of love, got in the way of his intellectual life. His existence was centered on reason and how to best make use of it. However, you can draw inspiration from this way of thinking to heal your broken heart and protect it from the next romantic crisis.
Kant praised reason and condemned passion. He also described how each of them works. He defined reason as everything that comes from reflection and not from lived experience. This means that we don’t need to be confronted by something—we don’t need to live it, touch it, and feel it—to be able to think about it. Reason is a beacon of light, a tool that gives us the power to analyze, to zoom out, to reflect—to better understand situations and react to them in calm, reasonable ways. Passion, on the other hand, is a feeling that no amount of rational thought or action can control. Reason has no power over passion. According to Kant, passion is not simply an emotion but a disease of the soul. This passion, this spiritual gangrene that flares up when we start falling in love, makes us crazy—we hope and wait and idealize everything. Our reason crumbles when this fever spikes. We lose any ability to think clearly. We’re removed from reality.
In his book Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Kant takes these ideas a step further. In addition to explaining his definition of passion, he explains all of the risks we take when we yield to passion. He says that passionate love is dangerous because it inevitably leads to us acting in immoral ways. But what is the connection between passion and immorality? It’s pretty simple: passion prevents all reflection. When we are in love, we lose the ability to hear the reasonable voice in our head or the advice of our parents and friends. We lose our ability to compare, measure, choose, confront, or question anything. We are caught in a storm. We frantically count the minutes until the next time we will see our beloved. When we’re not with the person we love, we feel fragile. This conflagration eats away at every part of our lives. We are deprived of the tools we need to exercise our morals, because, according to Kant, moral law’s only base is reason. To be moral is to act in such a way that our actions could be emulated universally.
Basically, this means that before we do something, we should ask ourselves if the act we are about to perform will be good for everyone involved. To do this, we need to be able to put our reason to work. We can’t just listen to our heart beating like crazy when someone kisses us and says they love us. We have to be reasonable. Reason and morality go hand in hand. If we lose track of one, we can’t expect to keep the other.
But that’s not all. When we are completely overtaken by passion, unable to reason and to take a step back from situations, we forget what is good for us. We find ourselves attached to another person without really having the opportunity to rationally think about whether or not our actions make sense. Passion makes us slaves to something that is outside ourselves. Kant explains that when we are consumed by passion for another person, we are letting ourselves be cheated by a feeling that is not based on anything stable. Once the honeymoon phase is over and the relationship starts to feel normal, the passion falls away and we’re at risk of crying alone in a coffee shop after being dumped. Passion gives us a kind of vertigo. It makes us lose ourselves in another person. The idea of doing anything to separate ourselves from our reason is inconceivable for Kant.
However, even though he encourages us to break up with passion, Kant is not saying that we should be eternally single. Actually, he draws an interesting distinction between passion and love, which is very comforting. He says that passion is false, unhealthy, and ephemeral. But love is real. Love is a product of a relationship that’s reasonable and lasting. Love is not something negative or something to be afraid of. A person who loves another person can stay clear-sighted and can support their feelings of love with free will instead of just imagined, perfect ideas. Real love is less turbulent and more solid than passion. Not recognizing that there is a difference between love and passion, and renouncing both to avoid suffering, is depriving yourself of the opportunity to create harmony between your reason and your heart.
It’s time to stop being controlled by passion. You need to dry your tears, gather your strength, and stop expecting your life to follow the plotline of a romantic comedy. No more giddiness, no more passion. It’s time to strive for love. And the journey will be more beautiful, longer lasting, and stronger than any fleeting infatuation.
From When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask A Philosopher: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Dilemmas. Copyright © 2019 by Marie Robert translated by Meg Richardson. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.