Archive for the ‘Søren Kierkegaard’ Category


Robert Alter And The King James Bible 2 – James Wood

November 26, 2013
Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Robert Alter has written some twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. Frequent New Yorker contributor James Wood turns his attention to Alter’s translations in contrast to the King James Bible.


To read the Pentateuch right through is an extraordinary education in early theology. These five books revert obsessively to questions of fertility, rebellion, and polytheism, and the three concerns are tightly linked. Again and again, Yahweh tells his people that they must worship no other gods but him, and that the consequences for failing this charge will be death and destruction.

God’s chosen people repeatedly failed to keep this law, most famously at Sinai, when Aaron persuaded them to worship the golden calf, saying: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt.” The five books are anxiously shadowed by the threat of polytheism, which surrounded the Israelites in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and which provided some of the mythic texts that Genesis and Exodus seem to remember.

God goes by several names in the Torah, some of the differences having to do with different Bible writers working in different centuries. He first appears in Genesis as Elohim, but is switched to Yahweh Elohim (usually translated as “the Lord God”). When he appears in chapter 17 of Genesis to tell Abraham that he will be “a father to a multitude of nations,” he announces himself as El Shaddai, an archaic name used five times in the Pentateuch that may have associations with fertility or mountains.

In Numbers, the word El seems to be used as a synonym for Yahweh: El is a Hebrew word meaning God, but it is also the name of the chief of the Canaanite gods. And after the parting of the Red Sea, when the Israelites give thanks in their Song of the Sea, the following verses occur (in Alter’s translation):

You blew with Your breath — the sea covered them over.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters:
Who is like You among the gods, O Lord,
who is like You, mighty in holiness?

At times like these, and in its insistent warnings against worshipping other gods, the Pentateuch reflects the effort of wrenching monotheism out of the polytheistic context: monotheism is known nowhere else in antiquity and is, on the face of it, a peculiar notion (so peculiar, perhaps, that one chosen god must be matched by or chosen people). It cannot have been easy to have renounced — if indeed such a renunciation took place — the comforting cosmogony wherein various parts of the natural world were represented by different all-powerful gods, and junior “personal” deities looked after one’s daily interests.

Frank Moore Cross and Jean Bottero, among many others, have shown the Pentateuch’s indebtedness to Egyptian and Babylonian mythic narratives. In Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Bottero gives an account of the Atrahasis, a Mesopotamian poem written, most likely, before 1700 B.C. In it, the gods meet in council and agree to follow the god Enki’s plan to create human man beings out of clay. In these early years, as in the days of Noah, people live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But mankind multiplies so effectively that its noise disturbs the sleep of the irascible king of the gods, Enlil, who decides to destroy the pesky humans.

He sends epidemic, illness, and famine, but each time the humans escape, aided by Enki, their “inventor.” Enlil, still enraged, sends a flood, but Enki saves the race by placing one man, Atrahasis and his family in an unsinkable boat. After the flood, in order to appease Enlil, Enki reduces the life span of each person to the length we know today, and introduces sterility and infant mortality to keel the numbers down.

Clearly, this is an ancient account not just of the origin of the world but of the origin of evil, of human suffering and death, in which the mark of man’s rebelliousness is in part his sheer fertility It is like peering into the crucible of theodicy. Notwithstanding the enormous difference of monotheism, we see something very similar in the early chapters of Genesis (the Israelites would have shared with the Mesopotamian Semites a traditional Semitic culture).

In the first chapter of Genesis, God (Elohim) creates man in his own image and charges him to be fruitful and multiply. But in the second chapter — thought to be a different narrative strand — the Lord God (now called Yahweh Elohim) threatens Adam and Eve with death if they eat of the tree of good and evil. They fail the test, and mortality and sin enter the world.

Sin is palpable: in Alter’s wonderful phrase, God warns the disgruntled Cain that “at the tent flap sin crouches,” and in the very next verse Cain rises up and slays his brother. Man “began to multiply over the earth” and to sin, and the Lord repents of his decision to create humans, and sends a flood to eliminate all but Noah and his family.

After the Flood, he makes a covenant never to destroy his creation, and human life spans are reduced to 120 years. The stories of the patriarchs now begin, but God cannot cede what seems an anxious desire to control human fertility: men must be circumcised, and the wives of the early patriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) are barren until the Lord chooses to permit them to breed.

He will threaten his people again with complete destruction when they follow Aaron’s encouragement to worship the golden calf. Promiscuous fertility and polytheism seem to be connected menaces, captured in Yahweh’s command in Exodus that the Israelites make no covenant with any of the peoples they vanquish and displace, who “whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods.”

There is an ironic Midrashic commentary, mentioned by Emmanuel Levinas in his book Nine Talmudic Readings, in which the Talmudists placed demons — spirits without bodies — inside Noah’s Ark. “These are the tempters of postdiluvian civilization,” Levinas remarks, “without which, no doubt, the mankind of the future could not be, despite its regeneration, a true mankind.” Evil has entered the earth forever and cannot be expunged, even by flood: but how did it get there?

What is so fiercely at stake in Genesis and Exodus is the old question best phrased by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy: “If there be a God, whence cometh so many evils? And if there be no God, whence cometh any good?” Much has been canonically laid at the feet of Adam and Eve, who were, so said the early Christian fathers, created free, and freely chose to rebel, thus inaugurating the calamity of original sin. But this merely pushes on the argument by one easy increment, for God gave them their freedom, and as the seventeenth-century skeptic Pierre Bayle comments in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, why would God bestow on mankind a capacity — free will — that he knows in advance man will abuse, even to his eternal doom?

Around the biblical writings themselves hovers the heretical notion that evil proceeds from God. An “evil spirit from God” is said to descend upon Saul in 1 Samuel 16:23, and in the book of Isaiah the Lord says: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil. I the Lord do all these things.” Even the early church father Origen, a staunch opponent of such thinking, seems flummoxes by this verse, and casts around for a suitable metaphor:

Now God has not created evil if by this is understood evil properly so called: but some evils, though really there are few by comparison with the order of the whole universe, followed as a secondary consequence upon his primary work, just as spiral shavings and sawdust follow as a consequence upon the primary activity of a carpenter, and as builders seem to “make” the waste stone and mortar which lie beside their buildings. It may be granted that God sometimes creates some of these “evils” in order that he may correct men by these means.

But this leaves the problem exactly where it was, so that various dualisms, like Gnosticism and Manicheanism — wherein God is opposed by and does battle with a separate, satanic source of evil, or is rivaled by a false god, a demiurge — do indeed seem to be the best explanations of the problem. The Bible itself, of course, uses a kind of dualism to explain Job’s suffering: it is Satan who puts God up to the game of testing his righteous servant.

Some of the early Jewish commentators were so perturbed by Abraham’s various trials — the famine, Sarah’s barrenness, his nephew Lot, the command to sacrifice Isaac — that they conjectured that God, as with Job, might have received a challenge from Satan or some other envious angel. In an extraordinary moment in Genesis, Abraham pleads with God to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Would God wipe out the city and not spare fifty innocents? God agrees to spare the entire city for the sake of fifty. How about forty-five? asks Abraham. God agrees to spare the city for the sake of forty-five. And forty? Yes. And thirty? Yes. And so on, down to ten.

What is striking is how openly Abraham cajoles Yahweh: “Far be it from You! Will not the judge of gill the earth do justice?” Abraham seems, here, to be holding God accountable to an ethical standard independent of God himself, I Tying to force his creator to accept the radical idea of sparing even lie guilty in order to protect the innocent.

It is interesting to note those cruxes, those moments of stress, when God’s ethical incomprehensibility makes the early biblical commentators and rewriters anxious. God’s activity in Egypt is one such case. The Lord has promised to lead his people out of Egypt, but first he must teach the Egyptians that “there is none like Me in all the earth … so as to show you My power, and so that My name will be told through all the earth.”

To this end, God says, he will “harden Pharaoh’s heart” against releasing the Israelites, and send horrid plagues. Again and again, Moses appeals to Pharaoh to let his people go, yet each time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and another plague descends. Only when every firstborn of Egypt, from Pharaoh’s firstborn to “the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones,” has been slaughtered do the Israelites escape.

But why would God institute a lengthy stubbornness that only inflicts suffering on those who might freely have avoided it? Ancient writers and annotators conjectured that God had not impelled Pharaoh to resist Moses, but had only kept him in a state of ignorance. Or perhaps, went another line of inquiry, this was proper punishment for all that Egypt had done to the Israelites? Either way, sense had to be made of the impossible.

The best example of the incomprehensible in the Pentateuch is God’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice his son Isaac. The brevity of the account is searing, as if the text itself flinches from the unreason, is shocked into wordlessness. Alter’s version is terrifying:

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him: “Abraham!” And he said: “Here I am.” And He said: “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the Land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar.

Auerbach rightly noted that the phrase “On the third day Abraham raised his eyes” is the only indication we have that time has passed the journey is frozen. One can add to Auerbach that Abraham’ gesture, of raising the eyes, though a formulaic one in biblical narrative, takes on here a great power of dread, as if Abraham cal hardly bear to look upon the chosen site.

Kierkegaard’s inspired appalled rewriting of this scene in Fear and Trembling emphasize its unspeakability. The tragic hero, he says, renounces himself in favor of expressing the universal. He gives up what is certain for what is more certain; he gives up the finite to attain the infinite; and so he can speak publicly about it, he can weep and orate, secure that at least someone will understand his action.

But Abraham “gives up the universal in order to grasp something still higher that is not the universal,” because what he is obeying, what he is grasping for, is barbarously incomprehensible. So Abraham is utterly alone and cannot speak to anyone of what he is about to do, because no one would understand him.

It is suggestive, then, that one of the major early rewriters of this scene, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, labors to turn Abraham precisely into a tragic hero. In Jewish Antiquities, his enormous history of the Jews from earliest times, Josephus inserts long speeches in which Abraham eloquently apologizes to his son before binding him, and moreover promises him that his death will not really be death: “Accordingly, you, my son, will not die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by your own father, in the nature of a sacrifice.”

Isaac, in Josephus’s account, is of such a “generous disposition” that he willingly offers himself up, and then to cap this warm little drama, God, intervening to save Isaac, speaks to Isaac tip make clear that “it was not out of a desire of human blood” that Abraham “was commanded to slay his son … but to try the temper of his mind.” Kierkegaard seems admiringly terrified of God’s command, but Josephus, ornamenting the unspeakable with explanation, seems merely terrified, and at pains to moisten the hard ground of God’s behavior by ensuring that everyone involved, human and divine, is at least pleasant.

The Pentateuch ends with Moses’death. On the brink of the promised land, he addresses his people, and reminds them that they were chosen not for their righteousness but because other nations were wickedly following strange gods. Thus “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” If they follow the Lord, then blessings will flow; but if they swerve away from the Lord, then curses will flow. Alter writes appreciatively in his introduction of the majesty of the Hebrew of Deuteronomy, and his English cascades into foul brilliance, as Moses, speaking on behalf of the Lord, threatens a hell in which the Israelites will not even be competent slaves:

And it shall be, as the Lord exulted over you to do well with you and to multiply you, so will the Lord exult over you to make you perish, to destroy you, and you will be torn from the soil … And your life will dangle before you, and you will be afraid night and day and will have no faith in your life. In the morning you will say, “Would that it were evening,” and in the evening you will say, “Would that it were morning,” from your heart’s fright with which you will be afraid and from the sight of your eye that you will see. And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, on the way that I said to you, “You shall not see it again,” and you will put yourselves up for sale there to your enemies as male slaves and slavegirls, and there will be no buyer.

God takes Moses up a mountain to see the land he himself will not live in: “I have let you see with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Because God several times seems to prepare for Moses’ death, the surmise later arose in commentaries that Moses did not want to die; Josephus has him weeping before his death, though the typically terse biblical account makes no mention of such theatrical inflammations.

James Kugel, in The Bible as It Was, reproduces an extraordinary medieval poem, now in the Bodleian, in which Moses’ death marks not the serene triumph of the longed-for possession of Canaan, but the scene of an anguished lament for the great impossible questions of the entire Pentateuch. Why are you afraid to die? God asks of Moses, and Moses goes to Hebron and summons Adam from the grave and cries:

Tell me why you sinned in the Garden
[Why] you tasted and ate from the tree of Knowledge.
You have given your sons over to weeping and wailing!
The whole garden was before you, yet you were not satisfied.
Oh why did you rebel against the Lord’s commandment?


Søren Aabye Kierkegaard — Hee Kyung Kim

July 4, 2013
Kierkegaard wrote: “Socrates stakes his whole life on this “if”; he dares to die, and with the passion of the infinite he has so ordered his whole life that it might be acceptable -- if there is an immortality.” Thus, Kierkegaard poignantly asks, “Is there any better demonstration for the immortality of the soul?”

Kierkegaard wrote: “Socrates stakes his whole life on this “if”; he dares to die, and with the passion of the infinite he has so ordered his whole life that it might be acceptable — if there is an immortality.” Thus, Kierkegaard poignantly asks, “Is there any better demonstration for the immortality of the soul?”


This is taken from the The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology. The articles contained there are written mainly by students of Boston University Modern Western Theology seminars. This one is a good overview of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855).


Biographical Details
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (S.K.) was born in a wealthy merchant family in Copenhagen on 5, May, 1813. He was the youngest of the seven children of Ane Lund and Michael Kierkegaard. It is relevant to look at S.K.’s father Michael Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard family because of their deep influence on S.K.’s melancholy, religiosity and existential anxiety.

His father, Michael Kierkegaard was a very melancholy person who had deep sense of guilt. He had an experience of cursing God during his impoverished childhood, and he took this as an unforgivable sin. To his own contriteness, Michael Kierkegaard also seduced his servant Ane Lund, who became his second wife and eventually S.K.’s mother only four months after the death of his first wife.

The five siblings of S.K. and his mother died one by one before S.K. turned 21 years old and Michael Kierkegaard took this as God’s punishment. Only S.K. and his elder brother Peter Christian Kierkegaard survived. Peter was also a very melancholy man, who perhaps was more influenced than S.K. by their father’s melancholy. Later Peter grew almost insane and had to resign his office as a bishop.

When S.K. was 17 years old, he entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology (1830), almost as a way of redeeming his father. His father, who raised his children in a stern religious atmosphere and rural pietism, wanted him to be a minister. S.K., however, was more interested in liberal studies and philosophy rather than theology. The University’s liberal atmosphere compared favorably to his almost suffocating religious home, and S.K. enjoyed himself there, acting as an aristocratic-conservative spokesman of the time. He also grew more detached from home and God, living as a popular man of the town.

When S.K. turned 25 years old, he reconciled with his father and also had a powerful conversion experience. Out of deference to his father who died in 1838, S.K. made progress in his theological examinations. He also started to write with seriousness. In 1840, S.K. passed the examinations, and in 1841, he also earned Master’s degree, which corresponded then to doctoral degree, with a dissertation, The Concept of Irony. After graduation, the fortune S.K. inherited from his father, although gradually diminished, made it possible for him to write as an independent writer for his whole life.

S.K. never married although he engaged for a year (1840-1841) to Regine Olsen, a young lady from a wealthy bourgeois family. Although S.K. testified that he loved Regine very deeply (or, as he said, maybe because he loved her too much) S.K. broke off the engagement. But the reasons behind it were never clearly revealed.

Later in his journal, S.K. mentions a “thorn in the flesh” as one of the reasons, and most scholars view this as his melancholy. The broken engagement affected S.K. deeply. S.K.’s poetic phase was soon followed by vigorous philosophical work. His Either/Or uses a method of indirect communication which S.K. claims to learn from Regine. Fear and Trembling and Repetition also reflect S.K.’s thoughts developed from the relationship with Regine.

After breaking up with Regine, S.K. left for Germany in October 1841. In Berlin, S.K. attended Schelling’s lectures, enthusiastically expecting to hear a successful refutation of Hegelian systems. S.K. returned home in March 1842 disappointed with Schelling, on the one hand, and with a considerable pile of manuscript pages, on the other hand. From 1843 to 1846 S.K. published many edifying discourses and seven major works, including Either/Or (1843), Repetition (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Anxiety (1844)–this work was later complemented by Sickness unto Death in 1849–, Philosophical Fragments (1844), Stages of Life’s Way (1845), and Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846).

The first six works were written under pseudonyms, and showed what S.K. calls “aesthetic authorship,” although the aesthetic author was a religious author at the same time (Kierkegaard, 1962). The Postscript is the last work written under pseudonym and is situated in between the aesthetic writings and religious writings such as Edifying Discourses in Divers Spirits, The Works of Love, and Christian Discourses. Usually the early group of writings gains most of the attention from scholars, but the later religious works, including “Attack on Christendom,” deserve serious attention since they reveal S.K.’s view of religion, politics, society, and culture (Krimmse, 263).

S.K.’s career as an author was not a great success when he was alive. He devoted his short life to expounding on the meaning of Christian life and critiquing Hegelian philosophy, but his works did not receive much response. When his work, especially the articles on the attack upon the established church of Denmark, received some responses, they were harsh or cold ones that put him in a lonely place. But S.K. was a person of resolution and integrity, and was not ashamed of his thoughts. In 1855, November 11, S.K. died in a hospital, forty days after he fell in the street unconscious. A large crowd, many of them shabby-looking, including many students, attended his funeral.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846)
One of the distinctive literary styles of Kierkegaard is a philosophical humor, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments reveals it very well. One can find S.K.’s humor not only in the content but also in the seemingly strange fact that the Postscript which is a thick volume (more than 600 hundred pages) is an addendum to the little book Philosophical Fragments, that runs less than 50 pages also (Krimmse, 263). Along with humor and irony, indirect communication is S.K.’s another typical literary style, and S.K. uses this method in many of his writings under various pseudonyms. Fragments and Postscripts are written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, and Postscript is the last work which is written in the method of indirect communication.

According to S.K., direct communication is a “fraud” toward God, the author, and readers because it is related merely to objective thinking, which does not properly express the importance of subjectivity (Kierkegaard, 1978, 75). S.K. asserts that only indirect communication, which is a “doubly reflected subjective thinking”  can effectively render an “existing subject’s own relation to the idea”  under discussion. What S.K. wants through indirect communication is to be a Socratic midwife who aids readers in bringing their own inwardness and to form a personal relation with the idea he is presenting.

The method of indirect communication, however, is not mere literary style aiming effective communication. It is another form of attack against Hegelian philosophy which is intimately intertwined with the central theme of Postscript. Merold Westphal thus says; “The theory of indirect communication as explicated in terms of maieutic [vocab: Maieutics is a pedagogical method based on the idea that the truth is latent in the mind of every human being due to innate reason but has to be "given birth" by answering intelligently proposed questions (or problems)] is a form of social critique directed against Hegelian Christendom that views itself as a linguistic or cognitive totality, self-sufficient and thereby immune from anything outside it” (Westphal, 63).

The crux issue of Postscript, as S.K. states, is “‘the Problem’ which is the problem of the whole authorship: how to become a Christian” (Kierkegaard, 1962, 13). According to S.K., this problem can never be properly addressed by the objective study of Christianity, especially the Hegelian sort. S.K. believes that Hegelian theology fails to grasp the genuine paradoxical message of Christianity. Critiquing Hegel, S.K. claims the central theme of Postscript as following: what is important is not the objective truth of Christianity (philosophical and historical truth of Christianity) but subjective truth (the individual’s relation to Christianity) (Kierkegaard, 1978, 21-22).

According to him, historical and critical searches for truth including dialectical speculation are only “approximations” at best, and never guarantee a “person’s eternal happiness” . Objective study of the Bible, for example, will never lead one to the genuine truth of Christianity. Such study will suffer continuous frustration over its failure of method, ever-arising new issues, and contradictions. More importantly, critical study and speculation will not lead one to faith. In his own words,

faith does not result from straightforward scholarly deliberation, nor does it come directly; on the contrary, in this objectivity one loses that infinite, personal, impassioned interestedness, which is the condition of faith, the ubigue et nusquam [everywhere and nowhere] in which faith can come into existence .

S.K. asserts that the objective approach will inevitably deprive one of passions toward the subject matter since one cannot be interested in what is only an approximation . But why does objective study continues ever more? S.K. answers that it is because individuals become less passionate and more aloof toward Christianity.

According to S.K., Christianity can be best understood when approached with passion and inwardness, which is essentially subjectivity. Subjectivity includes decision, but objectivity is incapable of decision. Here, S.K. again has Hegelian philosophy in his mind. According to S.K., Hegel’s philosophy claims truth as “continuous world-historical process” which turns back on itself infinitely. Thus, the movement itself becomes a “chimera,” producing no decisive result for individuals’ eternal happiness anywhere.

Another flaw of Hegelian system, according to S.K. lies in the fact that the Hegelian system insists upon the identity of thinking and being. When this identity of thinking and being is applied to human subject, it is wrong because it does not acknowledges two facts: “the knowing spirit is an existing spirit” and to exist is to be “in the process of becoming.” The unity of thinking and being is an illusion because, as soon as speculative abstraction identifies the two, the being who asks about the truth, by its virtue of existence, moves away becoming something else.

The alleged union of subject and object in the Hegelian system is not real either. S.K. says, “the fantastical I is not infinitude and finitude in identity, since neither the one nor the other is actual; it is a fantastical union with a cloud, an unfruitful embrace, and the relation of the individual I to this mirage is never stated” .

Moreover, the Hegelian world-historical idea that turns individuals into mere observers is problematic since it “makes a person incompetent to act.” One becomes ethical when s/he puts his/her own effort to “become a world-historical figure” rather than being a mere observer.

S.K. also critiques the Hegelian claim that God needs human beings. It is simply not true for S.K. Neither is the assertion that history will prove Hegel’s point. S.K. regards the Hegelian system as a futile “teleology that renders existence meaningless.” According to S.K., Hegel claims to know more than any human can know. Humanity cannot know as God can. We are also unable to see history in its totality. Thus, S.K. asserts that “world history is a royal stage” where God is the “only spectator.”

S.K.’s attack on speculation, however, does not mean that he renounces speculative thought altogether. Indeed, S.K. thinks that conceptions, Greek philosophy, and scholarly perseverance are necessary (55-6). S.K. is also not unaware of the danger of being subjective nor does he deny all objective knowledge. Truth as subjectivity rather applies to “essential knowing” or “all ethical and all ethical-religious knowing” that relates knower to the existence (197-198).

Truth as subjectivity, for instance, does not apply for mathematical truth, since it belongs to accidental knowing that is indifferent to the knower. Although S.K did not deny the usefulness of speculative thought in some areas, he was more than certain that speculative thought ultimately failed to grasp the truth of Christianity. For Christianity leads one “to the ultimate point of his subjectivity,” which speculative thought taboos . Thus, speculation makes it more difficult for one to understand the truth of Christianity which is subjectivity.

But what exactly does it mean to become subjective? Isn’t S.K.’s claim about subjectivity itself objective in that the subjectivity is the object of his reflection? The answer is negative. S.K. says that issue here is not the subjectivity per se but “the decision” that is “rooted in subjectivity,” which embraces the “pain and crisis of decision.” According to S.K., Christianity is about how individuals appropriate the truth of Christianity in the midst of “remaking of the subjectivity.”

Thus, S.K. encourages us to turn away from objective reflection that disregards the subject and to move instead toward subjective reflection, in which “truth becomes appropriation, inwardness, subjectivity.” According to S.K., when one genuinely relates oneself to the subject matter with passionate inwardness, it becomes truthful .

Instead of being obsessed with the objectivity of world history and the human future, as was the case with many people in his time, S.K. affirms that we need simply to admit the finitude in our understanding, and become simple-minded. Thus he says that it is easier for a simple minded person to become a Christian than a cultured person .

The example of immortality and one’s reflection on it described by S.K. well contrasts the truth as sophisticated objectivity and the truth as simple and passionate subjectivity. Critiquing some philosophers in his time who tried to prove immortality with three demonstrations, S.K. asserts that their metaphysical reflections ultimately fail, since one cannot “speak from the standpoint of the infinite and of the finite and think the two together in the one moment.” S.K. also claims that the metaphysical conception of immortality is in vain and does not transform one’s life since the concept “swallows existence,” being ethically unimportant at the same time.

Contrasting Socrates with the philosophers who tried to prove immortality with metaphysical demonstrations without existential passion, S. K. states, “[Socrates] stakes his whole life on this “if”; he dares to die, and with the passion of the infinite he has so ordered his whole life that it might be acceptable — if there is an immortality.” Thus, S.K. poignantly asks, “Is there any better demonstration for the immortality of the soul?”

In this story, Socrates serves as “an analogue to faith,” except the fact that the inwardness of Christian faith is deeper. The story also illuminates the notion of “paradox,” which is very important for S.K. He defines paradox as “the objective uncertainty that is the expression for the passion of inwardness that is truth.” The Socratic paradox, i.e., the soul is immortal, is not paradoxical in itself. But it becomes paradoxical when it relates itself to the existing person. Different from this, the paradox of incarnation is in itself paradox because “the eternal truth has come into existence in time,” and this absurdity demands “more risk, the more faith,” and the more intense passion .

Although speculative thought does not deny the truth of Christianity, in its search for a perfect comprehension of the paradox, it ultimately conveys something else than the truth of Christianity. For speculative thinkers know “how to cancel the paradox,” and when they do so, what remains does not belong to the truth of Christianity.

According to S.K., to be a Christian depends not on “what” one knows but on “how” one knows . And this “how” to live out the Christian message is not a simple matter. Becoming a Christian indeed involves incomprehensibility, hardship, risk, and sadness. This is why S.K. thinks that “the childhood (literally understood) is not the true age” to become Christians.

According to S.K. the message of Christianity is not a childlike or friendly one. Neither is it recognized easily. In fact, anything that is commensurable and recognizable belongs to paganism. But orthodox Christianity made it as such, and thinks a child is most close to the kingdom of God, thus baptizing little ones. S.K. thinks that orthodox Christianity turns the paradox into child-like perception, which he finds quite humorous and foolish. Instead of starting from “being a Christian” as in childish orthodoxy, S.K. asserts that one needs to strive to “become” a Christian . In his rejection of infant baptism, his claims that the genuine truth of Christianity is attained by mature and passionate faith is again revealed.

The significance of Postscript is especially great in that it launched a bold and strong attack on rational theology which lost sight for the existential aspect of Christian message in favor of certainty and objectivity. Along with S.K.’s influence on existential philosophy and theology, one can also say that his emphasis on truth as subjectivity and the rejection of the totalitarian rationality foresaw the coming of postmodern philosophy. S.K.’s own life that showed intellectual and religious integrity also gives precious lessons.


Second Thoughts on Kierkegaard by W.H. Auden

March 22, 2012

Perhaps more than any other philosopher, Kierkegaard reflected on the question of how to communicate the truths that we live by -- that is the truths about ethics and religion. In the process, he devised a method of indirect communication, which involved the use of pseudonyms. Writing in “The Concept of Anxiety” under the guise of Vigilius Haufniensis (watchman of the harbor), Kierkegaard observes that anxiety “is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite.” He continues, “Anxiety is a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy,” a simultaneous feeling of attraction and repulsion. Kierkegaard explains: “In observing children, one will discover this anxiety intimated more particularly as a seeking for the adventurous, the monstrous, and the enigmatic.”
Deeper into this text, it becomes plain that the ledge that we both want and do not want to look over runs along the abyss of our own possibilities. In some of his most immortal lines, the watchman of the inner world notes: “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss . . . Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Gordon Marino, The Danish Doctor of Dread, NY Times article March 17, 2012

A Knight Of Doleful Countenance
Sooner or later it was bound to happen, though for an “Existentialist” writer it is a slightly comic fate: Kierkegaard has become a Classic, to be published in a definitive edition with full scholarly apparatus.
The English translation of his Papirer (Journals and Papers) is to be issued in five volumes, of which the first has now been published by the Indiana University Press [From the New Yorker in 1968]. The translators and editors, Howard and Edna Hong — their translation, by the way, reads very well indeed — have decided to group the entries by subject matter instead of printing them in their chronological order.

This decision seems to me wise for two reasons. In the first place, the journal is a chronicle of ideas, not of events; in the second, it is of enormous length and frequently repetitive. For this we have no right to blame Kierkegaard, since he did not write it for publication, but I cannot imagine any human being reading straight through it without skipping. Classification by subject matter is a question of editorial judgment, which must to some extent be arbitrary. For example, this volume begins with “Abstract” and ends with “The Exception.” Under the “C” entries expected to find some devoted to what Kierkegaard himself always calls “Catholicism,” but found none; I presume they will appear in a later volume, under “R.”

Like Pascal, Nietzsche, and Simone Weil, Kierkegaard is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality (they speak in a voice one has never heard before) and by the sharpness of their insights (they say things which no one before them has said, and which, henceforward, no reader will ever forget). But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn into an equally exaggerated aversion.

Of all such writers, one might say that one cannot imagine them as children. The more we read them, the more we become aware that something has gone badly wrong with their affective life — a derangement which, though it may, and probably does, include some kind of sexual neurosis, extends far beyond the bounds of the sexual; it is not only impossible to imagine one of them as a happy husband or wife, it is impossible to imagine their having a single intimate friend to whom they could open their hearts.

It is significant, surely, and sad, that though Kierkegaard was the most brilliant Dane of his time and a famous, even notorious, figure, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no references to him in the memoirs of his contemporaries, no descriptions, friendly or hostile, of what he seemed like to others. All we know about Kierkegaard is what he tells us himself.

I hope that someone will soon write a fully documented history of the Corsair affair. All I know about it is that Kierkegaard challenged its proprietor, Meyer Goldschmidt, who had hitherto praised his writings, to attack him, which Goldschmidt thereupon proceeded to do, and my only information about the nature of the attack comes from the account given by David Swenson in his Something About Kierkegaard:

For several months thereafter, there appeared little articles in the Corsair satirizing one or another feature of the pseudonymous writings. The articles were illustrated with pictures of Kierkegaard walking through the streets, his umbrella under his arm, and one trouser leg depicted as considerably longer than the other. The result of this campaign was that Kierkegaard could not show himself on the streets without being followed by a gaping and howling mob of boys and young men. So deeply did the attack sink into the popular consciousness of Copenhagen that we have from Brandes a narrative of how his nurse used to bring him back from the error of his ways, whenever his clothes were not properly put on, by pointing at him a warning finger and saying reprovingly, “Soren, Soren!”

This must have been very disagreeable, but can it really be considered, as Kierkegaard himself considered it, an example of a righteous man’s being martyred for the sake of the truth? As a scandal sheet, the Corsair was clearly a social evil, and Kierkegaard was not alone in thinking so. For a writer, the normal way of trying to abolish a social evil is to write attacks on it, demonstrating by quotations and facts the kind of evil it represents and does. Such attacks are likely to be the more effective the less the writer draws attention to himself and the more he seems to speak as the voice of public conscience.

But instead of attacking, Kierkegaard demanded to be attacked, and this. I must confess, I find distastefully egotistic. Goldschmidt, incidentally, must have been a stupid man: a moment’s thought should have told him that if he really wished to torment Kierkegaard he should ignore the challenge and go on praising his work to the skies.

If I, suffering, were to have become an object of attack by mob-vulgarity, admiration for me would have increased. But the fact that I myself demanded it shocked men. They felt alienated by anything that went over their heads.

Thus Kierkegaard in his Journals. But was it so unnatural that they should be shocked? Further, is there any evidence, outside his own testimony, that nobody sympathized with him in the persecution to which he was subjected?

Then there is the question of the persecution itself. When a newspaper proprietor has it in for somebody, his usual procedure is to publish innuendos (or facts, if he can get them) about the private or public morality of his victim: it is suggested that he has a taste for young girls or has been involved in some shady financial or political deal. All that Goldschmidt was able to do was to make fun of Kierkegaard’s writings — one would be curious to know if these criticisms were at all funny — and to make fun of his physical appearance.

Caricature exaggerates, but it is only possible if there is some peculiarity to exaggerate. If the Corsair caricatures showed one of Kierkegaard’s trouser legs considerably longer than the other, then it seems certain to me that he must have been somebody, like myself, who was careless about the way he dressed. One would have expected him to laugh and say, “Yes, I am a careless dresser, but I don’t care.” On the other hand, if his feelings were seriously hurt, as it seems they were, he had only to dress more carefully in the future for the caricatures to lose their sting. If the vulgar laughed at him on the streets, it was because they could recognize him as the original of the caricatures. His second attempt to get himself persecuted for the Truth’s sake — his polemic against Bishops Mynster and Martensen–was even less successful.

The public may have been shocked and thought his articles in bad taste, but they read them. Nobody tried to silence him. For all his contempt for the press, he made use of it, and the editors of Fædrelandet were perfectly willing to publish what he wrote. Far from getting stoned or imprisoned, he made the headlines. One has to draw attention to this failure to get martyred not as a personal reproach, which would be cheap and unjust, but because Kierkegaard was continually attacking the Danish clergy of his time for failing to achieve something which, under the circumstances of his time, he was unable to achieve himself.

Of what he calls the “wilting” of Christianity, Kierkegaard says:

It will appear most easily in a Protestant country that does not have the counterweight of Catholicism in the same country. Furthermore, it will appear most readily in a small country, which by being small is only too close to pettiness, mediocrity, spiritlessness; and, again, it will appear most readily in this little land if it has its own language entirely by itself and does not even through its language participate in possible movements elsewhere. It will most readily appear in such a small country if the people are prosperous, have no great differences in life, and have a common and regularized abundance, which is related all too easily to secular security. It will most readily appear in or show itself as the fruits of good days of peace.

Leaving aside the first sentence for later consideration, let us examine the rest of this passage. To condemn a society for being small and provincial is to condemn it not for being worldly, but for not being worldly enough: a provincial society lacks the worldly virtues of broad-mindedness and cynical tolerance exhibited by more cosmopolitan societies. As someone who had to write in Danish, Kierkegaard could reasonably complain that this severely limited the size of his potential audience, but this is a worldly objection.

Further, I cannot believe that the cultural situation in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s day was radically different from what it today there or in any other country, like Holland or Sweden or Hungary, where few strangers can be expected to understand its mother tongue: in such countries both intellectuals and businessmen are obliged, like Kierkegaard himself, to learn the more cosmopolitan languages. I should be extremely surprised, for example, to hear that Bishop Martensen or any other members of the Danish Ecclesiastical Establishment could only read and speak Danish.

Kierkegaard then goes on to reproach Denmark for qualities which common sense surely would regard as blessings — the absence of serious poverty, the freedom from sharp class distinctions, the lack of involvement in war; for being, in other words, a society without gross and obvious social evils. Whether this was really the case I do not know, but it must certainly have been Kierkegaard’s opinion, for never, when he is attacking the Danish clergy for worldly prudence and cowardice, does he specify a concrete issue about which he thinks it their Christian duty to protest.

In England during the first half of the nineteenth century, there were a number of issues one can think of — the slave trade, the treatment of the industrial poor in mines and cotton mills, the criminal law, the unjust treatment of Catholics — about which, to their shame, most of the Anglican clergy remained silent, though a few did have the courage to protest, at the cost of losing preferment. Were there really no comparable issues in Denmark? I have the uneasy feeling that if there were, Kierkegaard would have considered them unimportant.

About Roman Catholicism as a “counterweight” Kierkegaard was acute. In Catholic countries one may find, as in all countries, worldly, even immoral, prelates, but one also finds monastic orders of men and women vowed to chastity, poverty, and obedience: a parish priest may be more stupid and tiresome than many of his congregation, but he is a celibate, who has made a sacrifice which they know they would not or could not make themselves. By doing away with the monasteries and fasting, by not only permitting but encouraging the clergy to marry, by abolishing all visible “works” of self-sacrifice, Luther and Calvin made piety a matter of internal conscience. As C. S. Lewis has said of Calvin:

The moral severity of his rule … did not mean that his theology was, in the last resort, more ascetic than that of Rome. It sprang from his refusal to allow the Roman distinction between the life of “religion” and the life of the world, between the Counsels and the Commandments. Calvin’s picture of the fully Christian life was less hostile to pleasure and to the body than Fisher’s, but then Calvin demanded that every man should be made to live the fully Christian life. In academic jargon, he lowered the honours standard and abolished the pass degree.

Similarly, Kierkegaard says of Luther:

Luther set up the highest spiritual principle: pure inwardness. . . . And so in Protestantism a point may be reached at which worldliness is honored and highly valued as — piety. And this — as I maintain — cannot happen in Catholicism. . . . Because Catholicism has the universal premise that we men are pretty well rascals. And why can it happen in Protestantism? Because the Protestant principle is related to a particular premise: a man who sits in the anguish of death, in fear and trembling and much tribulation — and of those there are not many in any one generation.

There is another aspect of Protestantism which Kierkegaard seems to have overlooked — one which makes the position of a Protestant minister more ambiguous and vulnerable than that of a Catholic priest; namely, that in the Lutheran and Calvinist churches, and increasingly so as time went on, the sermon, the ministry of the Word, took precedence over the Sacraments, the ritual acts of worship. The Catholic priest, of course, also preaches, but his primary function is to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and give absolution. His right to perform such actions depends not on his moral character or even his faith but on the fact that he has been ordained by a bishop.

But when a man preaches, all kinds of questions begin to arise. While it is meaningless to ask of a priest “Does he celebrate Mass well or badly?” the question “Does he preach well or badly?” is a real one, with a real answer. Preaching, like lecturing, demands an aesthetic gift: a preacher may himself be a hypocrite but still have the power to stir the hearts of his congregation; conversely, he may be personally a holy man but because he lacks a gift for verbal expression he leaves them cold.

Also, the preacher must necessarily address his congregation not as individuals but as a group. As long as his sermon is confined to doctrinal instruction, to telling them what the Church believes and what her creedal formulas mean, this presents no problem, but the moment he turns to moral exhortation, to telling them what they should or should not do here and now, he is in difficulties, for each member of his congregation has his or her unique spiritual problems.

At confession, a priest may give a confessant stupid, even harmful, advice, but at least this is given to a particular sinner, not to sinners in general. But the preacher in the pulpit is confronted by sinners in general. If he is to avoid generalities which will leave most of them exactly as they were before, he must speak of some concrete situation in which he knows they are all equally guilty, and this, in practice, usually means one about which they not only feel no guilt but are convinced that they are righteous. As Bonhoeffer said:

The preacher must be concerned so to incorporate the contemporary situation in his shaping of the commandment itself relevant to the real situation. It cannot be “War is evil” but, rather, “Fight this war,” or “Don’t fight this war.”

He will have small occasion to say either, unless he knows his congregation are going to be shocked; that, in the first case, they are willing, out of cowardice, to appease a tyrant, or, in the second, that they are jingoist patriots who say, “My country, right or wrong.” In doing so, he risks martyrdom. Attacking sinfulness in general is always perfectly safe, for each listener will assume that it is not he personally but people in general who are being attacked. It is only when a preacher attacks a concrete case of worldliness that he is likely to get into trouble. A clergyman in Mississippi can scold his congregation for not loving God and their neighbor, and they will sit there in smiling agreement, but if he tells them that God demands that they love Negroes as themselves the atmosphere will soon change.

Of the Danish clergy in his day, Kierkegaard complains:

Like children playing war games (in the security of the living room), so all of Christendom (or the preachers insofar as they are the actors) plays at Christianity; in the security of worldliness they play the game that the Christian is persecuted (but no one persecutes him, the speaker), that the truth is crucified (but the speaker himself already ranks with the court justices).

This complaint seems to suggest either that they only preached on such texts as “Sell all thou hast and give to the poor” and “Marvel not if the world hate you,” which cannot have been the case, or that such texts are the only ones on which a true Christian may preach, which is heretical. Secondly, it lacks effectiveness, because Kierkegaard does not or cannot specify any concrete issue for which it was their duty to invite persecution and crucifixion.

It is curious that the author of “Repetition,” who could analyze so subtly the difficulty for human beings in their daily life of having to live in and with time, should have failed to see that any church, as a visible organization on earth, has the same problem. Ideally, of course, everyone who calls himself a Christian, whether a clergyman or a layman, should be an apostle, but to imagine that at any time in history this has been, or could be, the case is a sheer Donatist fantasy. It is true, as Kierkegaard says, that “Christianity cannot be `introduced’ into a country as one introduces improved sheep breeding,” but if an individual is ever to become a Christian he must be introduced to the Christian faith, and this is one of the church’s functions.


W.H. Auden on Søren Kierkegaard II

March 21, 2012

"The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character. And yet, historically speaking, the lovers of wisdom, the philosophers, have all but repressed thinking about that amorphous feeling that haunts many of us hour by hour, and day by day. The 19th-century philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard stands as a striking exception to this rule. It was because of this virtuoso of the inner life that other members of the Socrates guild, such as Heidegger and Sartre, could begin to philosophize about angst. It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless.
Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me….”
Gordon Marino, The Danish Doctor of Dread, NY Times article March 17, 2012

Revealed Religion (Judaism and Christianity)
A revealed religion is one in which God is not present as an object of consciousness, either as a feeling or a proposition. He is not begotten by the world, nor does he impose order on its coeternal flux but creates it out of nothing, so that while God and the world are at every moment related, God is not knowable as an object.

While in the aesthetic religion the feelings, and in the ethical religion, the ideas were the presence of God, they are now only my feelings, my ideas and if I believe that what I feel (e.g., God is present) or think (e.g., God is righteous) is caused by my relation to God, this belief is a revelation, for the cause is outside my consciousness.

As one term of a relation, the other term of which is God, I cannot overlook the whole relation objectively and can only describe it analogically in terms of the human relation most like it, e.g., if the feeling of which I have immediate certainty is one which I would approximately describe as sonship, I may speak of God as Father.

There is no longer a question of establishing a relation between God and myself for as my creator he is necessarily related to his creature and the relation is presupposed by my existence; there is only a question of the right relation. The uniqueness of the relation is that it is a relation to an Other yet at the same time as continuous and inescapable as my relation to myself. The relation of the aesthetic worshipper to his gods is intermittent and depends on their pleasure — they do not have to get in touch with him at all. The relation of the ethical worshipper to the Ideas is intermittent or not depending on his pleasure. They are always there to be contemplated if he choose, as a river is always there to be drunk from if one is thirsty, but if he doesn’t choose to contemplate them, there is no relation.

But the relation to the creator God of revealed religion is unbreakable: I. his creature, can forget it as I can forget my relation to myself when I am thinking of other things, but it is permanently there, and, if I try to banish it permanently from consciousness, I shall not get rid of it, but experience it negatively as guilt and despair. The wrath of God is not a description of God in a certain state of feeling, but of the way in which I experience God if I distort or deny my relation to him.

So Dante inscribed on the portals of Hell: “Divine Power made me, Wisdom supreme and Primal Love” — and Landor justly remarked about the Inferno that its inhabitants do not want to get out. To both the aesthetic and the ethical religion, evil was a lack of relation to God, due in the one case to God’s will, in the other to man’s ignorance; to the revealed religion, evil is sin, that is to say, the rebellion of man’s will against the relation.

The aesthetic commands cannot be codified because they are arbitrary commands of the gods and always novel. The ethical commands ought to be able to be completely codified as a set of universal moral laws. Revealed religion shows why this is impossible. A law is either a law of or a law for. Laws of, like the laws of science, are patterns of regular behavior as observed by a disinterested observer. Conformity is necessary for the law to exist, for if an exception is found, the law has to be rewritten in such a way that the exception becomes part of the pattern, for it is a presupposition of science that events in nature conform to law, i.e., a physical event is always related to some law, even if it be one of which scientists are at present ignorant.

Laws for, like human legislation, are patterns of behavior imposed on behavior which was previously lacking in pattern. In order for the laws to come into existence, there must be at least some people who do not conform to them. Unlike laws of which must completely explain how events occur, laws for are only concerned with commanding or prohibiting the class of actions to which they refer, and a man is only related to the law when it is a question of doing or not doing one act of such a class; when his actions are covered by no law, e.g., when he is sitting alone in his room, he is related to no law at all.

If the commands of God were laws of man, then disobedience would be impossible; if they were laws for man, then his relation to God would not be permanent but intermittent. The commands of God are neither the aesthetic fiat, “Do what you must” nor the ethical instruction, “These are the things which you may or must not do,” but the call of duty, “Choose to do what at this moment in this context I am telling you to do.”

Christ the Offense
To one who believes that Jesus was what he claimed to be, the incarnation as an existing individual of the Son of God begotten of his Father before all worlds, by whom all things were made, his birth, life and death are, first, a simultaneous revelation of the infinite love of God — to be righteous means to love — and of the almost infinite sinfulness of man — without the gift of the Holy Spirit it is impossible for him to accept the truth; secondly, a revelation that God is related to all men, but to each of them uniquely as an existing individual, i.e., God is the father of all men, not of a chosen people alone, and all men are exceptions, not aesthetically, but as existing individuals — it is their existence not their natures which makes each of them unique; thirdly, a revelation that the Life is not an object for aesthetic admiration nor the Truth an object for ethical appropriation, but a Way to be followed, an inclination of the heart, a spirit in which all actions are done. Insofar as collectively they considered their relation to God to be aesthetically unique, and individually an ethical relation to his Law, this revelation is an offense to the Jews; insofar as it proclaims that God the Father is not a God but the God, that Christ is not a teacher of truths but the Truth, it is an offense to the Gentiles.

The Jews would have welcomed a Messiah for them alone, but not one who demanded that they give up their claim to be the unique people of God or their belief that the Law covers the whole duty of the individual; the Gentile imagination could have accepted another culture-hero to add to its old ones, the Gentile reason, another teacher to add new stores to its knowledge, but could not accept one who was a passive sufferer, put faith before reason, and claimed exclusive attention. The Jews crucified Jesus on the serious charge that he was a blasphemer, the Gentiles, on the frivolous charge that he was a public nuisance.

Preaching to the Non-Believer
“It is,” Newman observed, “as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.”
However convincing the argument, however holy the arguer, the act of faith remains an act of choice which no one can do for another. Pascal’s “wager” and Kierkegaard’s “leap” are neither of them quite adequate descriptions, for the one suggests prudent calculation and the other perverse arbitrariness.

Both, however, have some value: the first calls men’s attention to the fact that in all other spheres of life they are constantly acting on faith and quite willingly, so that they have no right to expect religion to be an exception; the second reminds them that they cannot live without faith in something, and that when the faith which they have breaks down, when the ground crumbles under their feet, they have to leap even into uncertainty if they are to avoid certain destruction.

There are only two Christian propositions about which it is therefore possible to argue with a non-believer:

(1) That Jesus existed;
(2) That a man who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ is in despair.

It is probably true that nobody was ever genuinely converted to Christianity who had not lost his “nerve,” either because he was aesthetically unfortunate or because he was ethically powerless, i.e., unable to do what he knew to be his duty. A great deal of Kierkegaard’s work is addressed to the man who has already become uneasy about himself, and by encouraging him to look more closely at himself, shows him that his condition is more serious than he thought.

The points that Kierkegaard stresses most are, firstly, that no one, believer or not, who has once been exposed to Christianity can return to either the aesthetic or the ethical religion as if nothing had happened. Return he will, if he lose his Christian faith, for he cannot exist without some faith, but he will no longer be a naive believer, but a ruse one compelled to excess by the need to hide from himself the fact that he does not really believe in the idols he sets up.

Thus the aesthetic individual is no longer content with the passive moderation of paganism; he will no longer simply obey the passions of his nature, but will have by will power to arouse his passions constantly in order to have something to obey. The fickle lover of paganism who fell in and out of love turns into Don Giovanni, the seducer who keeps a list so as not to forget.

Similarly, the ethical philosopher will no longer be content to remain a simple scientist content to understand as much and no more than he can discover; he must turn into the systematic philosopher who has an explanation for everything in existence except, of course, his own existence which defeats him. Nothing must occur except what he can explain. The multitude of ordinary men and women cannot return to the contented community of the Greek chorus for they cannot lose the sense that they are individuals; they can only try to drown that sense by merging themselves into an abstraction, the crowd, the public ruled by fashion. As Rudolf Kassner says in his fascinating book, Zahi and Gesicht:

“The pre-Christian man with his Mean (Mitte) bore a charmed life against mediocrity. The Christian stands in greater danger of becoming mediocre. If we bear in mind the idea, the absolute to which the Christian claims to be related, a mediocre Christian becomes comic. The pre-Christian man could still be mediocre without becoming comic because for him his mediocrity was the Mean. The Christian cannot.”

To show the non-believer that he is in despair because he cannot believe in his gods and then show him that Christ cannot be a man-made God because in every respect he is offensive to the natural man is for Kierkegaard the only true kind of Christian apologetics. The false kind of apologetics of which he accuses his contemporary Christians is the attempt to soft-pedal the distinction between Christianity and the Natural Religions, either by trying to show that what Christians believe is really just what everybody believes, or by suggesting that Christianity pays in a worldly sense, that it makes men healthy, wealthy, and wise, keeps society stable, and the young in order, etc. Apart from its falsehood, Kierkegaard says, this method will not work because those who are satisfied with this world will not be interested and those who are not satisfied are looking for a faith whose values are not those of this world.

Preaching to Believers
The danger for the Christian in an officially Christian society is that he may think he is a Christian. But nobody except Christ and, at the end of their lives perhaps, the saints are Christian. To say “I am a Christian” really means “I who am a sinner am required to become like Christ.” He may think he believes as an individual when all he is doing is believing what his parents said, so that he would be a Mohammedan if they had been. The task of the Christian preacher is therefore first to affirm the Christian commands and arouse the consciousness of sin, and secondly to make the individual’s relationship with Christ real, that is, contemporary.

The world has changed greatly since Kierkegaard’s time and all too many of his prophetic insights have come to pass. The smug bourgeois Christendom he denounced has crumbled and what is left is an amorphous, despairing mass of displaced persons and paralyzed Hamlets. The ubiquitous violence of the present age is not truly passionate, but a desperate attempt to regress from reflection into passion instead of leaping forward into faith. The worst feature, for example, of the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis is not its cruelty but its frivolity; they did not seriously believe that the Jews were a menace as the Inquisition believed about heretics; no, it was rather a matter of “We must do something. Why not kill all the Jews?”

It is almost bound to be the fate of Kierkegaard, as of so many polemical writers, to be read in the wrong way or by the wrong people. The contented will not read him or read him only scientifically as an interesting case history. The unhappy and, for the most part, agnostic intellectuals who will read him, will confine themselves to his psychological analyses like The Sickness unto Death or his philosophical polemics like Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which they will read poetically as sympathetic and stimulating reflections of their feelings and thoughts, but they will fight shy of books like Training in Christianity or The Works of Love, either because they are not as unhappy as they pretend or because they really despair of comfort and cling in defiance to their suffering.

Kierkegaard is particularly vulnerable to such misunderstanding because the only force which can compel us to read an author as he intends is some action of his which becomes inexplicable if we read him any other way, e.g., Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. In Kierkegaard’s case there is indeed such an action, but the action is another book, The Attack upon “Christendom.” The whole of his writings up to this one, written in the last year of his life, even the sermons, are really “poetical,” i.e., Kierkegaard speaks in them as a genius not as an apostle, so that they all might have been published, as many of them were, anonymously.

The Attack upon “Christendom,” on the other hand, is that contradiction in terms, an “existential” book. What for the author was the most important book of his life is for us, as readers, the least, for to us the important point is not what it contains, but the fact that Kierkegaard wrote it. For this reason, no selection from it appears here.


W.H. Auden on Søren Kierkegaard I

March 20, 2012

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (b. 1813, d. 1855) was a profound and prolific writer in the Danish “golden age” of intellectual and artistic activity. His work crosses the boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology, literary criticism, devotional literature and fiction. Kierkegaard brought this potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom. At the same time he made many original conceptual contributions to each of the disciplines he employed. He is known as the “father of existentialism”, but at least as important are his critiques of Hegel and of the German romantics, his contributions to the development of modernism, his literary experimentation, his vivid re-presentation of biblical figures to bring out their modern relevance, his invention of key concepts which have been explored and redeployed by thinkers ever since, his interventions in contemporary Danish church politics, and his fervent attempts to analyze and revitalize Christian faith. Statue in Copenhagen.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I am not Christian severity contrasted with Christian leniency. I am … mere human honesty.
Søren Kierkegaard


Though his writings are often brilliantly poetic and often deeply philosophic, Kierkegaard was neither a poet nor a philosopher, but a preacher, an expounder and defender of Christian doctrine and Christian conduct. The near contemporary with whom he may properly be compared is not someone like Dostoevsky or Hegel, but that other great preacher of the nineteenth century, John Henry, later Cardinal, Newman: both men were faced with the problem of preaching to a secularized society which was still officially Christian, and neither was a naive believer, so that in each case one is conscious when reading their work that they are preaching to two congregations, one outside and one inside the pulpit.

Both were tempted by intellectual ambition. Perhaps Newman resisted the temptation more successfully (occasionally, it must be confessed, Kierkegaard carried on like a spiritual prima donna), but then Newman was spared the exceptional situation in which Kierkegaard found himself, the situation of unique tribulation.

Every circumstance combined to make Kierkegaard suffer. His father was obsessed by guilt at the memory of having as a young boy cursed God; his mother was a servant girl whom his father had seduced before marriage; the frail and nervously labile constitution he inherited was further damaged by a fall from a tree. His intellectual precociousness combined with his father’s intense religious instruction gave him in childhood the consciousness of an adult.

Finally he was fated to live, not in the stimulating surroundings of Oxford or Paris, but in the intellectual province of Copenhagen, without competition or understanding. Like Pascal, whom in more ways than one he resembles, or like Richard III, whom he frequently thought of, he was fated to be an exception and a sufferer, whatever he did. An easygoing or prudent bourgeois he could never become, any more than Pascal could have become Montaigne.

The sufferer by fate is tempted in peculiar ways; if he concentrates on himself, he is tempted to believe that God is not good but malignantly enjoys making the innocent suffer, i.e., he is tempted into demonic defiance; if he starts from the premise that God is good, then he is tempted to believe that he is guilty without knowing what he is guilty of, i.e., he is tempted into demonic despair; if he be a Christian, he can be tempted in yet a third way, because of the paradoxical position of suffering in the Christian faith. This well expressed by the penitent shade of Forese when he says to Dante:

“And not once only, while circling this road, is our pain renewed:
I say pain and ought to say solace.”

For, while ultimately the Christian message is the good news: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good-will towards men — “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you”; it is proximately to man’s self-love the worst possible news — “Take up thy cross and follow me.”

Thus to be relieved of suffering in one sense is voluntarily to accept suffering in another. As Kafka says: “The joys of this life are not its own but our dread of ascending to a higher life: the torments of this life are not its own but our self-torment because of that dread.”

If the two senses of suffering are confused, then the Christian who suffers is tempted to think this a proof that he is nearer to God than those who suffer less.

Kierkegaard’s polemic, and all his writings are polemical, moves simultaneously in two directions: outwardly against the bourgeois Protestantism of the Denmark of his time, and inwardly against his suffering. To the former he says, “You imagine that you are all Christians and contented because you have forgotten that each of you is an existing individual. When you remember that, you will be forced to realize that you are pagans and in despair.” To himself he says, “As long as your suffering makes you defiant or despairing, as long as you identify your suffering with yourself as an existing individual, and are defiantly or despairingly the exception, you are not a Christian.”

Kierkegaard and the Existential
However complicated and obscure in its developments it has become, Existentialism starts out from some quite simple observations.

  1. All propositions presuppose the existence of their terms a ground, i.e., one cannot ask, “Does X exist?” but only, “I this existing X the character A or the character B?”
  2. The subjective presupposition “I exist” is unique. It is certainly not a proposition to be proven true or false by experiment, yet unlike all other presuppositions it is indubitable and no rival belief is possible. It also appears compulsive to believe that other selves like mine exist: at least the contrary presupposition has never been historically made. To believe that a world of nature exists, i.e., of things which happen of themselves, is not however invariably made. Magicians do not make it. (The Christian expression for this presupposition is the dogma, the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.”)
  3. The absolute certainty with which I hold the belief that I exist is not its only unique characteristic. The awareness of existing is also absolutely private and incommunicable. My feelings, desires, etc., can be objects of my knowledge and hence I can imagine what other people feel. My existence cannot become an object of knowledge; hence while, if I have the necessary histrionic imagination and talent I can act the part of another in such a way that I deceive his best friends, I can never imagine what it would be like to be that other person but must always remain myself pretending to be him.
  4. If I take away from my sense of existence all that can become an object of my consciousness, what is left?

    a.   An awareness that my existence is not self-derived. I can legitimately speak of my feelings. I cannot properly speak of any existence.

    b.   An awareness that I am free to make choices. I cannot observe the act of choice objectively. If I try, I shall not choose. Doctor Johnson’s refutation of determinism, to kick the stone and say, “We know we are free and there’s an end of it” is correct, because the awareness of freedom is subjective, i.e., objectively undemonstrable.

    c.   An awareness of being with time, i.e., experiencing time as an eternal present to which past and future refer, instead of my knowledge of my feelings and of the outer world as moving or changing in time.

    d.   A state of anxiety (or dread), pride (in the theological sense), despair or faith. These are not emotions in the way that fear or lust or anger are, for I cannot know them objectively; I can only know them when they have aroused such feelings as the above which are observable. For these states of anxiety or pride, etc., are anxiety about existing, pride in existing, etc., and I cannot stand outside them to observe them. Nor can I observe them in others. A gluttonous man may succeed when he is in my presence in concealing his gluttony, but if I could watch him all the time, I should catch him out. But I could watch a man all his life, and I should never know for certain whether or not he was proud, for the actions which we call proud or humble may have quite other causes. Pride is rightly called the root of all sin, because it is invisible to the one who is guilty of it and he can only infer it from results

    These facts of existence are expressed in the Christian doctrines of Man’s creation and his fall. Man is created in the image of God; an image because his existence is not self-derived, and a divine image because like God each man is aware of his existence as unique. Man fell through pride, a wish to become God, to derive his existence from himself, and not through sensuality or any of the desires of his “nature.”

Kierkegaard’s Three Categories
Every man, says Kierkegaard, lives either aesthetically, ethically, or religiously
. As he is concerned, for the most part, with describing the way in which these categories apply in Christian or post Christian society, one can perhaps make his meaning clearer by approaching these categories historically, i.e., by considering the Aesthetic and the Ethical at stages when each was a religion, and then comparing them with the Christian faith in order to see the difference, first, between two rival and incompatible Natural Religions and, secondly, between them and a Revealed Religion which neither is destroyed or ignored, but the Aesthetic is dethroned and the Ethical fulfilled.

The Aesthetic Religion (e.g., The Greek Gods)
The experience from which the aesthetic religion starts, the facts which it sets out to overcome, is the experience of the physical weakness of the self in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful not-self.
To survive I must act strongly and decisively. What gives me the power to do so? Passion. The aesthetic religion regards the passions not as belonging to the self, but as divine visitations, powers which it must find the means to attract or repel if the self is to survive.

So, in the aesthetic cosmology, the gods are created by nature, ascend to heaven, are human in form, finite in number (like the passions) and interrelated by blood. Being images of passions, they themselves are not in their passion — Aphrodite is not in love; Mars is not angry — or, if they do make an appearance of passionate behavior, it is frivolous; like actors, they do not suffer or change. They bestow, withhold or withdraw power from men as and when they choose. They are not interested in the majority of men, but only in a few exceptional individuals whom they specially favor and sometimes even beget on mortal mothers. These exceptional individuals with whom the gods enter into relation are heroes.

How does one know that a man is a hero? By his acts of power, by his good fortune. The hero is glorious but not responsible for his successes or his failures. When Odysseus, for instance, succeeds, he has his friend Pallas Athene to thank; when he fails, he has his enemy Poseidon to blame. The aesthetic either/or is not good or bad but strong or weak, fortunate or unfortunate. The temporal succession of events has no meaning, for what happens is simply what the gods choose arbitrarily to will. The Greeks and the Trojans must fight because “hateful Ares bids.” To the aesthetic religion all art is ritual, acts designed to attract the divine favors which will make the self strong, and ritual is the only form of activity in which man has the freedom to act or refrain from acting and for which, therefore, he is responsible.

The facts on which the aesthetic religion is shattered and despairs, producing in its death agony Tragic Drama, are two: man’s knowledge of good and evil, and his certainty that death comes to all men, i.e., that ultimately there is no either/or of strength or weakness, but even for the exceptional individual the doom of absolute weakness. Both facts it tries to explain in its own terms and fails. It tries to relate good and evil to fortune and misfortune, strength and weakness, and concludes that if a man is unfortunate, he must be guilty.

Oedipus’ parricide and incest are not really his sins but his punishment for his sin of hubris. The Homeric hero cannot sin, the tragic hero must sin, but neither is tempted. Presently the observation that some evil men are fortunate and some good men unfortunate brings forth a doubt as to whether the gods are really good, till in the Prometheus of Aeschylus it is openly stated that power and goodness are not identical. Again, the aesthetic religion tries to express the consciousness of universal death aesthetically, that is, individually, as the Fates to which even the gods must bow, and betrays its failure to imagine the universal by having to have three of them.

The Ethical Religion (The God of Greek Philosophy)
To solve the problem of human death and weakness, the ethical religion begins by asking, “Is there anything man knows which does not come and go like his passions?” Yes, the concepts of his reason which are both certain and independent of time or space or individual, for the certainty is the same whether a man be sick or well, a king or a slave.

In place of the magnified passions of the aesthetic religion, the ethical sets up as God, the Ideas, the First Cause, the Universal. While to the former, the world begot the gods who then ruled over it because they were stronger than any other creature, in the latter God and the world are coeternal. God did not create the world of matter; he is only the cause of the order in it, and this not by any act of his — the neuter gender would be more fitting to him — for to be divine means to be self-sufficient, “to have no need of friends.”

Rather it is matter which, wishing to escape from the innate disorder of its temporal flux, “falls in love” with God and imitates his unchangeableness in such ways as it can, namely by adopting regular movements. (Plato’s introduction of a mysterious third party, the Demiurge who loves the Ideas and then imposes them on matter, complicates but does not essentially alter the cosmology.) Man, however, being endowed with reason, can apprehend God directly as Idea and Law, transcend his finite bodily passions, and become like God.

For the aesthetic either/or of strength or weakness, fortune or misfortune, the ethical religion substitutes the either/or of Knowledge of the Good or Ignorance of the Good. To the aesthetic, evil was lack of power over the finite world, for all finiteness, all passion is weakness, as goodness is gained by transcending the finite world, by a knowledge of the eternal and universal truths of reason which cannot be known without being obeyed. To the aesthetic, time was unmeaning and overwhelming; to the ethical, it is an appearance which can be seen through. The aesthetic worshipper was dependent on his gods who entered into relationship with him if and when he chose; the ethical worshipper enters into relationship with his god through his own efforts and, once he has done so, the relationship is eternal, neither can break it. The ethical hero is not the man of power, the man who does, but the philosopher, the man who knows.

Like his predecessor, however, he is not tempted and does not choose, for so long as he is ignorant he is at the mercy of his passions, i.e., he must yield to the passion of the moment, but so soon as he knows the good, he must will it; he can no more refuse assent to the good than he can to the truths of geometry.

As in the case of the aesthetic religion, there are facts with which the ethical religion cannot deal and on which it founders.

  1. Its premise “Sin is ignorance; to know the good is to will it” is faced with the fact that all men are born ignorant and hence each individual requires a will to know the universal good in order to will it. This will cannot be explained ethically, first because it is not a rational idea so that the ethical has to fall back on the aesthetic idea of a heavenly Eros to account for it.
  2. Secondly, it is not a universal; it is present or appeals to some individuals and not to others, so that the ethical has to call in the aesthetic hero whom it instructs in the good, and who then imposes justice by force. Art to the elect is no longer a religious ritual, but an immoral sham, useful only as a fraudulent but pragmatically effective method of making the ignorant masses conform to the law of virtue which they do not understand.
  3. Lastly, there comes the discovery that knowledge of the good does not automatically cause the knower to will it. He may know the law and yet not only be tempted to disobey but yield to the temptation. He may even disobey deliberately out of spite, just to show that he is free.

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