Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy

Review of Leon Chestov's Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy
by Emmanuel Levinas

© Translated by James McLachlan

     The thought of Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, dead in 1855, has known for some time a rare good fortune. Jaspers and Heidegger in Germany, Jean Wahl and Gabriel Marcel in France, are some of the names that permit us to measure the quality of the influence, which, in a very solid manner, he has also exercised on the only modern philosopher of Judaism worthy of the name, Franz Rosenzwieg. This good fortune is not just a mode. The moral crisis opened by the War of 1914 has given men a pointed feeling of the impotence of reason, of the profound discord between rationalist civilization and the exigencies of the individual soul lost in the anonymity of the general. It has reopened the question, despite the blinding expansion of the sciences and technology, of the value, until now uncontested, of the Greek heritage. From there, under different forms, the re-emergence at the same time of irrationalism and doctrines of violence.

     The substance of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy is much more subtle. It makes naked the richness of an individual soul thirsting for salvation, and through this, the existential categories of religious psychology. With all its nuances it does not lend itself well to summary. It suffices to indicate the essential preoccupation to which it responds.

     In a world clarified and explained by reason, only the general counts: my destiny is nothing important, my pain is nothing exceptional, my despair is nothing unique; if I carry a sadness or a shame in the depth of my soul, that does not trouble the universal order. My speculation assigns to these things a place in the whole, and my only wisdom can only consist of my submitting to its laws. But before speculating, I exist. My existence goes on precisely in this pain, in this despair. Far from arranging themselves in a whole that would embrace them, that are all mine. They have their history, their truth, their weight, their own exigencies. I can drive them back, but I can never fully suppress them. Their voice tears my being in spite of my submission to universal necessity. My speculation, itself, is it wholly independent of them? Can it be legitimately abstracted from the human condition, for its destiny, for its death? Whatever the response that one gives to these questions, it is important to pose them, it is important to respect the internal meaning of the events that constitute our existence, before interpreting them through the universal order constructed by reason. This is the task of existential philosophy.

     For Kierkegaard, this is not a "theory," but a wager that, like Pascal, the individual supports despite the absurdity and the paradox of its pretensions. An enterprise that is identified with faith, but with a faith that is an enterprise full of risks, an unsettled faith, a religion where certainties, menaced at each instant, must be reconquered anew, where each instant, virgin, pathetically counts for itself, where all is always starting anew.

     M. Shestov interprets Kierkegaard’s philosophy as a combat delivered by a soul abandoned to despair in a world commanded by reason and the ethical-which is to say by Necessity, consequence of original sin - for his salvation, which means his liberty that neither logic nor the ethical will be able to limit, daily struggle for a reign where the eternal, uncreated, truths will not impose their rule on a God who is absolutely free, for whom all is possible, even contradictions and for whom freedom pluralizes in the arbitrary, the fight of the "prince of faith," Abraham - who does not hesitate to place himself over the ethical and knowledge because of his confidence in the unlimited power of God - against the "prince of resignation," who has above all a sense of the impossible, who sees the gods themselves enchained by reason and submitted to the laws of necessity.

     M. Shestov knows very well the vicissitudes of this struggle, Kierkegaard’s oscillations between Abraham and Socrates, that fascinating "sinner par excellence," from whom Kierkegaard does not succeed in fully turning away. Through this, Kierkegaard’s cause is separated from that of vulgar irrationalism and appears as the tragic expression of the European consciousness that no longer has the strength to forget Socrates.

     This interpretation certainly seizes on one of the essential aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. But what affects us more deeply still - and this is not its smallest attraction- the ideas of M. Shestov. Those who know Shestov’s work, and his struggle for Jerusalem against Athens, will not be surprised. There is between the two thinkers an incontestable relation which is the cause of certain confusions. We are not, for example, absolutely persuaded that knowledge is identical for Kierkegaard with pure and simple evil, that it would not be more likely a happy and indispensable moment in his dialectic, a principle of enrichment and not abdication and as the goad of faith.

     The philosophical project of M. Shestov often takes on the allure of brilliant literary essay. It is a "poem" rather than a "work." The author is more present therein than his subject. The unity of his book on Kierkegaard, for example, is more symphonic that logical. M. Shestov runs to and fro through history in defiance of perspectives. Such proceedings disorient a reader who is habituated to the order of a French dissertation, to the patient reading of the texts, nourished by the note at the bottom of the page. But, on the other hand this style presents great advantages. The doctrines and the men of the history of philosophy appear with extraordinary life, posing questions, lancing replies, reunited in a vast symposium, despite space and time, around the problems that agitate M. Shestov. And those that lift his latest book are of a fundamental character for all of religious philosophy: They define the plan where is situated the religious fact itself. Also one could not recommend his book too strongly to those who wish to rethink their Judaism as a religion, that cannot be content with philological research on the past of Israel and who are tired of the sterile ecstasies before the "beauty of the Decalogue and the Morality of the Prophets." M. Shestov, Jewish philosopher, but certainly not a philosopher of Judaism. In the heritage of Jerusalem he does not separate the Old Testament from the New. But he is a philosopher of religion. And under its existential form, religious philosophy returns to importance problems of salvation, which is to say the essential message of Judaism. And he does this in a more radical fashion than ever, since existential philosophy - M. Shestov shows admirably and and obstinately - explodes the synthesis of the Greek spirit and the Judeo-Christian which the Middle Ages believed to have accomplished.

Emmanuel Levinas

[ E. Levinas, Review of Leon Chestov’s Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (Vox clamantis in deserto). - translated by T. Rageot and B. de Schloezer - Paris, 1936; 384 p. in Revue des Etudes Juives Vol 101 no 1-2, 1937, pp. 139-141. ]

[ Translation graciously offered by Dr. James McLachlan of Western Carolina University ]

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