Master of the Categorical Imperative: Kantian Doctrines of History and Religion in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

Elizabeth M. Sheynzon, Northwestern University

The Master and Margarita contains a text written by the protagonist that stands out both in terms of the role it plays and its physical presence, occupying almost as much space as the main narrative. The fundamental intrigue of the novel in its entirety is constituted by the striving to create a true account of what happened in Jerusalem nineteen hundred years ago. Atheistic and evangelical interpretations are both rejected by the omniscient authorities, Woland and Yeshua. The first denies the truthfulness of Bezdomnyi’s poem, and the second says of Levi Matthew’s records, “I did not say a word of what is written there.”

They only accept the Master’s version. The reason for this preference, as well as for the structure of the book, lies in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whose name is introduced in the opening pages of The Master and Margarita. In Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent (1784), Kant speculates on how the recording of past events may determine the further development of history. Creating the right accounts advances humanity on the path to the moral cosmopolitan state, whereas wrong accounts hinder this development. Bulgakov builds into his novel the idea that anti-religious narratives lead to corrupt societies, such as the Moscow of 1929. He also rejects the tradition of the Gospels, as did Kant. In his 1775 letter to J. C. Lavater, Kant says that the Gospels, when they indulge in the worship of Christ, obscure the moral essence of Jesus’ teachings.

All major elements of worship commonly associated with Jesus are explicitly denied in the Master’s text: Yeshua is not followed by crowds or reverend disciples, and he does not perform miracles. Of all Jesus’ sayings only “the kingdom of truth is coming” and “all people are good” remain. These statements correspond to the Kantian ideal moral-cosmopolitical state and the Categorical Imperative, which requires everyone to “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:421). The Master, a historian by education, a writer by vocation, manages to depict this moral and Kantian essence of the past.

To present these Kantian concepts, Bulgakov creates a special literary form. In the First Critique Kant warns against fictional depiction of an ideal because it will render it unrealistic and ridiculous. Bulgakov resolves this problem through the structure of his book: the Moscow narrative serves as the primary realm, which is a realistic world with realistic characters (with the exception of the devils). The ideal is presented as a fictional creation within this primary domain. Thus readers are not compelled to apply criteria of realism to Yeshua and therefore cannot castigate the image as unbelievable. The presence of the two realms also allows Bulgakov to show the past, its interpretations, and the effects they have on the present.