Derzhavin’s “Bessmertie Dushi” And Kant

Aaron Beaver, Indiana University

The religious and philosophical odes of Gavrila Derzhavin frequently attest to his belief in the immortality of the soul. These attestations, however, are more than simply pious expressions of accepted religious doctrine. They are also more than merely odic formulations of devout belief, the aestheticization of religious creed. Derzhavin instead puts forward a philosophically nuanced position on the immortality (extratemporality) of the soul, and he consistently does this by reference to concepts of morality. This confluence of ideas (religious, moral and temporal) is remarkably similar to that found in the writings of Derzhavin’s German contemporary, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argues that the immortality of the soul must be taken as a “postulate” of moral law.
Proceeding in three stages, this paper will use Kant’s clear line of reasoning to explicate Derzhavin’s complex neglected masterpiece “Bessmertie dushi” (1797). First (briefly) I will provide some background on Derzhavin’s moral stance in poetry, his assertions, characteristic of the Enlightenment, of the immortality of virtue. Next (also briefly) I will outline Kant’s argument for the immortality of the soul, as given in the Critique of Practical Reason and the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Finally (the bulk of the paper) I will turn to “Bessmertie dushi,” where Derzhavin’s beliefs in the immortality of virtue and the immortality of the soul become intertwined in a manner which suggests that Derzhavin, like Kant in a different medium, had developed a sophisticated “metaphysics of morality.” I will conclude the paper with a few words about how this metaphysics of morality affects the developing scholarly reception of Derzhavin.