Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy

Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky
(instead of a Preface)

[A paper read at the Academy of Religion and Philosophy in Paris, May 5, 1935.]


     You do not, of course, expect me to exhaust the complicated and difficult subject of the work of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky during the hour allotted to me. I shall therefore limit myself to speaking of how Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard understood original sin; in other words, my subject will be speculative and revealed truth. But I must say first that in so short a time I shall hardly be able to give as complete an explanation as you might like of what Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard thought and told us about the Fall of Man. At best I shall be able to indicate—and schematically, at that—why original sin caught the attention of these men, two of the most remarkable thinkers of the nineteenth century. I might mention here that even Nietzsche, usually thought to be so far removed from biblical themes, considered the problem of the Fall to be the axis or pivot of his whole complex of philosophical questions. His principal, essential theme is Socrates, whom he saw as a decadent man, that is, as the fallen man par excellence. Moreover, he saw Socrates' fall in that quality which history and the history of philosophy in particular had always found, and taught us to find, most praiseworthy: in his boundless confidence in reason and the knowledge obtained by reason. When you read Nietzsche's thoughts on Socrates, you cannot avoid being reminded constantly of the biblical story of the forbidden tree and those enticing words of the tempter: ye shall be knowing. Kierkegaard tells us more about Socrates than Nietzsche does, and he speaks with greater urgency. What is more surprising is that Kierkegaard considers Socrates the most remarkable phenomenon in the history of humanity before the appearance on Europe's horizon of that mysterious book known as the Book, i.e., the Bible.

     The Fall of Man has troubled human thought since earliest times. Men have always felt that all is not right with the world, and even that much is wrong: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," to use Shakespeare's words; and they have made tremendous and intense efforts to explain how this evil originated. I must say at this point that Greek philosophy, just like the philosophy of other peoples, including those of the Far East, replied to this question with an answer directly opposed to what we find in the story of the Book of Genesis. One of the first great Greek philosophers, Anaximander, says in a passage that has come down to us: "From that source whence came birth to individual creatures, thence also, by necessity, shall come their destruction. At the appointed time they do penance and accept retribution, one from the other, for their iniquity." This thought of Anaximander's pervades all ancient philosophy: the appearance of individual things (mainly, of course, living creatures, and primarily human beings) is considered wicked effrontery, for which their death and destruction is fit punishment. The idea of genesis and phthora ("birth" and "destruction") is the starting point of ancient philosophy (this same idea, I repeat, was persistently in the minds of the founders of the Far Eastern religions and philosophies). Man's natural thought, at all times and among all peoples, has stopped helplessly, as if bewitched, before fatal necessity which brought into the world the terrible law of death, inseparably bound up with man's birth, and the law of destruction, which waits for everything that has appeared and will appear. In being itself human thought has discovered something wrong, a defect, a sickness, a sin, and accordingly wisdom has demanded the vanquishing of that sin at its roots; in other words, a renunciation of being which, since it has a beginning, is fated inevitably to end. The Greek catharsis, or purification, has as its source the conviction that the immediate data of consciousness, which attest to the inevitable destruction of all that is born, reveal to us a truth that is primordial, eternal, inflexible, and forever invincible. True being, real being (ontôs on) is not to be found among ourselves or for ourselves; it is to be found where the power of the law of birth and destruction ends, that is, where there is no birth and where therefore there is no destruction. This is the point of origin of speculative philosophy. The law, discovered by intellectual vision, of the inevitable destruction of all that has arisen and been created seems to us to be a law eternally inherent in being itself. Greek philosophy was as firmly convinced of this as was the Hindu wisdom, and we, who are separated from the Greeks and the Hindus by thousands of years, are just as incapable of breaking free from the power of this most self-evident truth as those who first discovered it and showed it to us.

     In this respect the Book of books alone constitutes a mysterious exception.

     What is said in it directly contradicts what men have found out through their intellectual vision. Everything, as we read in the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, was made by the Creator, everything had a beginning. But this not only is not seen as a precondition of the decay, imperfection, corruption, and sinfulness of being; on the contrary, it is an assurance of all possible good in the universe. To put it another way, God's act of creation was the source, and moreover the only source, of all good. On the evening of each day of creation the Lord said, as he surveyed what He had made: "It is good," and on the last day, looking around at everything that He had created, God saw that it was all very good. Both the world and its people (whom God had blessed) were made by the Creator, and it is for the very reason of their creation by Him that they were made perfect, without any defects. There was no evil in the world created by God, nor was there any sin from which evil could proceed. Evil and sin arose later. Whence came they? Scripture gives a definite answer to this question. God planted among the other trees in the Garden of Eden the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And He said to the first man: "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." But the tempter (in the Bible he is called the serpent, the most cunning of all God's creatures) said: "No, ye shall not die; your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing." Man succumbed to temptation, ate of the forbidden fruit; his eyes were opened and he became knowing. What was revealed to him? What did he find out? He learned the same thing that the Greek philosophers and Hindu sages had learned: the "it is good" uttered by God was not justified—all is not good in the created world. There must be evil and, what is more, much evil, intolerable evil, in the created world, precisely because it is created. Everything around us—the immediate data of consciousness—testifies to this with unquestionable evidence; he who looks at the world with open eyes," he who "knows," can draw no other conclusion. At the very moment when man became "knowing," sin entered the world; in other words, it entered together with "knowledge"—and after sin came evil. This is what the Bible tells us.

     The question is put to us, the men of the twentieth century, just as it was put to the ancients: whence comes sin, whence come the horrors of life which are linked with sin? Is there a defect in being itself, which, since it is created, albeit by God, since it has a beginning, must inescapably, by virtue of that eternal law that is subject to no one and nothing, be burdened down by its imperfections, which doom it ahead of time to destruction? Or do sin and evil arise from "knowledge," from "open eyes," from "intellectual vision," that is, from the fruit of the forbidden tree? One of the most notable philosophers of the last century, Hegel, who had absorbed the whole of European thought covering twenty-five hundred years (and in this lies his significance and his importance), maintains without any hesitation that the serpent did not deceive man, that the fruit of the tree of knowledge became the source of philosophy for all time to come. And I must say immediately that historically Hegel is right. The fruit of the tree of knowledge has truly become the source of philosophy, the source of thought for all time to come. Philosophers—and not just the pagan ones, those foreign to Holy Scripture, but also the Jewish and Christian philosophers who recognized Scripture as a divinely inspired book—have all wanted to be knowing and have not been persuaded to renounce the fruit of the forbidden tree. For Clement of Alexandria at the beginning of the third century, Greek philosophy was the second Old Testament. He asserted that if it were possible to separate gnosis (that is, knowledge) from eternal salvation and if he had to make a choice, he would choose, not eternal salvation, but gnosis. All medieval philosophy tended in the same direction. Even the mystics offer no exception in this respect. The unknown author of the celebrated Theologia deutsch maintained that Adam could have eaten twenty apples and no harm would have resulted. Sin did not come from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for nothing bad can come from knowledge. Where did the author of Theologia deutsch get this conviction that no evil can come of knowledge? He does not raise this question; evidently it did not occur to him that one may seek and find the truth in Scripture. One must seek the truth only in one's own reason, and only that which reason recognizes as truth is truth. The serpent did not deceive man.

     Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky were both born in the first quarter of the nineteenth century (however, Kierkegaard, who died at forty-four [1] and was ten years older than Dostoevsky, had already concluded his literary career when Dostoevsky was just beginning to write) and they both lived during the period when Hegel dominated European thought; they could not, of course, have failed to feel that they were wholly in the power of Hegelian philosophy. It is true that Dostoevsky is supposed never to have read a single line by Hegel (in contrast to Kierkegaard, who knew Hegel through and through), but during the time that he belonged to Belinsky's circle he became familiar enough with the basic statements of Hegel's philosophy. Dostoevsky had an extraordinary flair for philosophical ideas, and what Belinsky's friends had brought back from Germany sufficed to give him a clear picture of the problems posed and resolved by Hegelian philosophy. However, not only Dostoevsky but also Belinsky himself, a "perpetual student" and certainly a man whose philosophical insight was far behind Dostoevsky's, truly felt, and not only felt but found the necessary words to express, all that he found unacceptable in the doctrines of Hegel, which then seemed just as unacceptable to Dostoevsky. Let me remind you of the passage from Belinsky's famous letter: "If I should succeed in ascending to the highest rung of the ladder of development, even there I would ask you to render me an account of all the victims of circumstance in life and history, of all the victims of chance, of superstition, of the Inquisition of Philip II, etc., etc.: otherwise I would fling myself headfirst from the highest rung.

     I do not wish happiness even as a gift, if my mind is not at rest regarding each one of my blood brothers." [2] Needless to say, if Hegel could have read these lines by Belinsky, he would merely have shrugged his shoulders contemptuously and called Belinsky a barbarian, a savage, an ignoramus, who obviously had not tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge and consequently did not even suspect the existence of the immutable law by virtue of which everything that has a beginning (that is, those very human beings for whom he interceded so passionately) must have an end; and that therefore there is absolutely no one to whom one can reasonably turn with such demands for an account of creatures which, being finite, are not subject to any protection or defense. These defenseless ones are not just those victims of chance who first come to mind, but even such as Socrates, Giordano Bruno, and many other great, very great men, wise and just; the wheel of the historical process crushes them all mercilessly and takes as little notice of them as if they were inanimate objects. The philosophy of the spirit is the philosophy of the spirit precisely because it is able to rise above all that is finite and transitory. And conversely, all finite and transitory things can participate in the philosophy of the spirit only when they cease to be concerned with their own interests, which are insignificant and therefore not deserving of any concern. This is what Hegel would have said, and he would have cited the chapter in his History of Philosophy which explains that it was quite proper for Socrates to have been poisoned and that this was no great misfortune: an old Greek died—is such a trifle worth making a fuss over? All that is real is rational; in other words, it cannot and must not be other than it is. Anyone who does not understand this is not a philosopher and has not been given the intellectual vision to penetrate to the essential nature of things. Furthermore, the man who has not found this out cannot truly consider himself to be a religious person (all this according to Hegel). For any religion, and especially the absolute religion (that is what Hegel called Christianity) reveals to men through images (that is, less perfectly) what the thinking spirit itself sees in the nature of existence. "The true content of the Christian faith is therefore justified by philosophy, but not by history" (that is, by what is told in Holy Scripture), says Hegel in his Philosophy of Religion. This means that the Scriptures are acceptable only insofar as the thinking spirit admits that they are in agreement with those truths that it acquires itself, or, as Hegel puts it, that it draws from itself. All the rest ought to be discarded.

     We already know that the thinking spirit of Hegel drew from itself the idea that in spite of what Scripture says, the serpent did not deceive man and the fruit of the forbidden tree has brought us the very best thing that life holds—knowledge. In a like manner the thinking spirit discards as impossible the miracles described in Scripture. We can see how thoroughly Hegel despised Scripture from the following words written by him: "Whether there was more than enough or not enough wine for the guests at the wedding at Cana in Galilee is a matter of complete indifference. In the same way, it is purely accidental that a certain man was cured of a paralyzed hand: millions of people go about with paralyzed hands and other deformities, and no one heals them. Also, it is related in the Old Testament that at the time of the Exodus from Egypt the doors of the houses of the Jews were marked with red so that the angel of the Lord could identify them. Such a faith has no meaning for the spirit. Voltaire's most venomous gibes are directed against this sort of faith. He says that it would have been better if God had taught the Jews about the immortal soul, instead of teaching them how to relieve the call of nature (aller à la selle). In this way, privies become the content of faith." Hegel's "philosophy of the spirit" treats Scripture with derision and contempt and accepts from the Bible only what can be "justified" before rational consciousness. Hegel had no need of "revealed" truth; to be more exact, he does not accept it, or rather he considers revealed truth to be what his own mind reveals to him. Certain Protestant theologians arrived at this idea without the help of Hegel; in order not to confuse themselves and others with the mysterious quality of biblical revelation, they declared that all truths are revealed truths. The Greek word for truth is alêtheia; by deriving this word from the verb a-lanthanô ("un-veil"), the theologians freed themselves from the obligation, so burdensome to a cultivated man, of acknowledging the privileged position of Scriptural truths. Every truth, precisely because it is a truth, reveals something formerly concealed. Seen in this way, Biblical truth offers no exception and has no advantage over other truths. It is acceptable to us only when it can justify itself before our reason and be viewed with our "open eyes."

     It goes without saying that under these circumstances we must reject three quarters of what is told in Scripture and interpret what remains in such a way that reason will not yet find something offensive in it. For Hegel (as for the medieval philosophers) Aristotle is the greatest authority. Hegel's Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences concludes with a long passage (in Greek in the original) from Aristotle's Metaphysics on the subject hê theôria to êdiston kai to hêdiston, which means: "contemplation is the best and sweetest." And also in the Encyclopedia, he writes at the beginning of the third part, in the sections that head "The Philosophy of the Spirit": "Aristotle's books on the soul are even today the best work and the only one of a speculative sort on this subject. The essential goal of the philosophy of the spirit must be simply to introduce the idea of the concept into the knowledge of the spirit, and thus to open the way to the books of Aristotle." Dante had reason to call Aristotle il maestro di coloro, chi sanno ("the master of those who know"). He who wants to "know" must follow Aristotle, and must regard his works—De Anima, the Metaphysics, the Ethics—not only as a second Old Testament, as Clement of Alexandria said, but also as a second New Testament; he must regard them as a Bible. Aristotle is the only master of those who want to know, those who do know. Further inspired by him, Hegel solemnly proclaims in his Philosophy of Religion: "The fundamental idea [of Christianity] is the unity of the divine and the human natures: God has become man. And in another passage, in the chapter on "The Kingdom of the Spirit," he says: "The individual must be imbued with the truth about the primary unity of the divine and the human natures, and this truth is to be grasped through faith in Christ. For him, God no longer seems a being part." This is all that the "absolute religion" brought Hegel. He joyfully quotes the words of Meister Eckhard (from his sermons) and the same words of Angelus Silesius: "If God were not, I would not be: if I were not, God would not be." The content of the absolute religion is thus interpreted and put on a level with the thought of Aristotle or of the Biblical serpent who promised our forefather that "knowledge" would make him equal to God. And it never for a moment entered into Hegel's mind that in this lies the terrible, fatal Fall, that "knowledge" does not make a man equal to God, but tears him away from God, putting him in the clutches of a dead and deadening "truth." The "miracles" of Scripture (i.e., the omnipotence of God) were, as we recall, contemptuously rejected by Hegel, for as he explains in another passage: "It is impossible to require of men that they believe in things in which they cannot believe past a certain degree of education: such a faith is faith in a content which is finite and fortuitous, that is, which is not true: for true faith has no fortuitous content." According to this, "a miracle is a violation of the natural connection of phenomena, and is therefore a violation of the spirit."


     I have had to dwell somewhat on Hegel's speculative philosophy, for the reason that both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard (the first without realizing it, the second fully aware of it) saw their life work as a struggle with, and victory over, that system of ideas embodied in Hegelian philosophy, the culmination of the development of European thought. For Hegel, a break in the natural connection of phenomena, a break that shows the power of the Creator over the world, and his omnipotence, is an unbearable and most dreadful thought: for him, this is a "violation of the spirit." He ridicules the Biblical stories—they all pertain to "history," they speak only of the "finite," which a man who wishes to live in the spirit and the truth must shake off. He calls this the "reconciliation" of religion and reason; in this way religion is justified by philosophy, which finds a "necessary truth" in the diversity of religious systems, and in this necessary truth discovers an "eternal idea." There is no doubt that reason is thus fully satisfied. But what is left of the religion which has been justified in this manner before reason? There is also no doubt that in reducing the content of the "absolute religion" to the unity of the divine and the human natures, Hegel and all his followers became "knowing," as the tempter promised Adam when he lured him with the fruit from the forbidden tree. In other words, Hegel discovered in the Creator the same nature which had been revealed to him in his own being. But do we turn to religion in order to acquire knowledge? Belinsky sought an account of all the victims of chance, of the Inquisition, etc. But is such an account the concern of knowledge? Would knowledge be able to render such an account? On the contrary, one who knows, and particularly one who knows the truth about the unity of the natures of God and man, is certain that what Belinsky demands is impossible. To demand the impossible means to reveal weakmindedness, as Aristotle said; where the realm of the impossible begins, there must human seeking end; there, to express it in Hegel's words, all the interests of the spirit must cease.

     And now we come to Kierkegaard, who was brought up on Hegel and in fact venerated him in his youth; who, having run aground on that reality which Hegel, in the name of the interests of the spirit, had urged men to cast aside, suddenly felt that there lay hidden in the great master's philosophy a treacherous, fatal lie and a terrible temptation. He recognized in it the eritis scientes of the Biblical serpent: an appeal to exchange a fearless belief in a free and living Creator for a submission to inflexible truths that rule over everything without exception, but are indifferent to all. He went from the great scholar, from the noted thinker whose praises were sung by everyone, to the "private thinker," to the Job of the Bible; and he not only went but ran, as if to his only savior. And from Job he proceeded to Abraham; not to Aristotle, the master of those who know, but to the man named in the Scriptures as the father of faith. For the sake of Abraham he forsook even Socrates himself. Socrates was also "knowing;" in the phrase gnôthi seauton ("know thyself") the pagan god had revealed to him the truth of the unity of the divine and the human natures five centuries before the Bible reached Europe. Socrates knew that for God, as for man, not everything is possible; that the possible and the impossible are determined, not by God, but by eternal laws to which God and man are equally subject. For this, reason God has no power over history, i.e., over reality. "To make something which once was into something which never was is impossible in the world of the senses; this can only be done inwardly, in spirit;" so Hegel says; another truth that was certainly not revealed to him in Scripture, where it is repeated so often and so insistently that for God nothing is impossible, and where man is even promised power over all that there is in the world: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible unto you." But the philosophy of the spirit does not hear these words and does not want to hear them. They are disturbing to it; a miracle, we will remember, is a violation of the spirit. But then the source of everything "miraculous" is faith, and moreover a faith so bold that it seeks no justification from reason, it seeks no justification from any quarter; a faith that instead summons everything in the world to its own tribunal. Faith is above and beyond knowledge. When Abraham went to the Promised Land, explains the Apostle, he went not knowing himself where he was going. He had no need of knowledge, he lived by what he had been promised; the place where he arrived would be the Promised Land, simply because he had arrived there.

     For the philosophy of the spirit no such faith exists. For the philosophy of the spirit faith is only imperfect knowledge, knowledge taken on trust, which will be proven true only when and if it wins the recognition of reason. No one has the right to quarrel with reason and rational truths, nor the power to contend with them. Rational truths are eternal truths; they must be accepted and assimilated unreservedly. Hegel's "all that is real is rational" is therefore a free translation of Spinoza's non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere ("do not laugh, do not weep, do not curse, but understand"). The created and the Creator alike bow before eternal truths. Speculative philosophy will not give up this position for anything and it defends it with all its strength. Gnosis (knowledge, understanding) is more precious to it than eternal salvation; what is more, in gnosis it finds eternal salvation. This is why Spinoza declared so steadfastly: do not weep, do not curse, but understand. And here, as in Hegel's "rational reality," Kierkegaard perceived, here he discovered, the meaning of that mysterious, elusive link between knowledge and the Fall set forth in the story of Genesis. Now, Holy Scripture did not repudiate or prohibit knowledge in the strict sense of the word. On the contrary, it is said in Scripture that man was summoned to give names to all things. But man did not want to do this, did not want to be content with giving names to the things that the Creator had made. Kant expressed this very well in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. "Experience," he said, "shows us what exists, but it does not tell us that whatever exists must necessarily exist thus (as it exists, and not otherwise). Therefore, experience does not give us a true generality, and reason, which eagerly strives for this sort of knowledge, will sooner became irritated than be satisfied with experience." Reason eagerly strives to hand man over to the power of necessity, and not only is not satisfied with the free act of creation described in Scripture, but is irritated, disturbed, and frightened by it. It prefers to hand itself over to the power of necessity, with its eternal, universal, inflexible principles, rather than trust in its Creator. So it was for our forefather, seduced or bewitched by the words of the tempter; so it continues to be for us and for the greatest representatives of human thought. Aristotle twenty centuries ago, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel in modern times, had an irresistible desire to hand themselves and mankind over to the power of necessity. And they did not even suspect that this is the greatest of Falls; in gnosis they saw not the ruin' but the salvation of the soul.

     Kierkegaard also studied the ancients and was in his youth a passionate admirer of Hegel. And only when he by the will of fate felt himself wholly in the power of that necessity for which his reason so eagerly strove did he understand the depth and the disturbing significance of the Biblical story of the Fall of Man. We have exchanged faith, which specifies the relationship of the created to the Creator and is in itself a token of unlimited freedom and infinite possibilities, for knowledge, for a slavish dependency on eternal principles which are dead and deadening. Can one imagine a more terrible, more fatal Fall? And then Kierkegaard perceived that the beginning of philosophy is not wonder, as the Greeks taught, but despair: de profundis ad te, Domine, clamavi. He realized that there was something to be found in the "private thinker" Job that had not occurred to the renowned philosopher, the noted professor. In contrast to Spinoza and those who before and after Spinoza sought "understanding" (intelligere) in philosophy and put human reason in a position to judge the Creator Himself, Job teaches us by his own example that in order to grasp the truth, one should not refuse or forbid oneself "lugere et detestari," but should proceed from them. Knowledge, i.e., a readiness to accept as the truth what appears to be self-evident, that is, what we see with the eyes that were "opened" for us after the Fall (Spinoza calls them oculi mentis; Hegel uses the phrase "spiritual vision"), inevitably leads man to ruin. "The just shall live by faith," says the Prophet, and the Apostle repeats his words. "What is not of faith is sin"—only these words can defend us against the temptation of "ye shall be knowing," which seduced the first man and holds us all in its power. Job restores to the weeping and cursing, "lugere et detestari," rejected by speculative philosophy their primordial right: the right to come forward as judges when inquiries are begun into the whereabouts of truth and falsehood.

     "Human cowardice cannot bear what madness and death have to tell us;" men avert their eyes from the horrors of life and are satisfied with the "consolations" prepared for them by the philosophy of the spirit. "But Job," continues Kierkegaard, "demonstrated the breadth of his concept of the world by the firmness with which he opposed the subterfuges and insidious attacks of ethics" (i.e., of the philosophy of the spirit; Job's friends told him the same thing that Hegel later on declared in his "philosophy of the spirit"). Furthermore, "The greatness of Job is that his suffering can neither be allayed nor suppressed by lies and empty promises" (of that same philosophy of the spirit). And finally, "Job was blessed; everything he had possessed before was returned to him. This is called repetition. When does repetition begin? Human language has no way of expressing this: when every conceivable probability, every reliable indication says that it is impossible." And he notes in his journal, "Only horror which has turned to despair can develop a man's higher powers." For Kierkegaard and for his philosophy, which to contrast it with theoretical or speculative philosophy he calls existential philosophy, that is, a philosophy which gives man not "understanding" but life ("the just shall live by faith"), Job's wails seem more than mere wails (i.e., meaningless, useless, tiresome cries). For him these cries reveal a new dimension of truth; he perceives an effective force in them, a force that, like the trumpets at Jericho, must make the walls of the fortress crumble. This is the basic motif of existential philosophy. Kierkegaard knows as well as anyone else that speculative philosophy considers existential philosophy great nonsense. But this does not stop him; on the contrary it inspires him. He sees in the "objectivity" of speculative philosophy its basic defect. "Men," he writes, "have become too objective to achieve eternal bliss: eternal bliss consists of a passionate, infinite concern." And this infinite concern is the beginning of faith. "If I renounce everything (as demanded by speculative philosophy, which 'frees' the human spirit through the dialectic of the finite)—this is still not faith," writes Kierkegaard concerning Abraham's sacrifice, "it is only submission. I make this movement by my own powers. And if I do not, it is simply through cowardice and weakness. But in believing I do not renounce anything. On the contrary, I gain everything through faith: if one has faith as a grain of mustard seed, he can move mountains. A purely human courage is needed to renounce the finite for the eternal. But a paradoxical and humble courage is needed to become master of all that is finite by virtue of the Absurd. This is the courage of faith. Faith did not take Isaac from Abraham; Abraham won him though faith." I could cite any number of quotations from Kierkegaard which express the same idea. [3] "The knight of faith," he says, "is the truly happy man, master of all that is finite." Kierkegaard is perfectly aware that statements of this sort are a challenge to everything suggested to us by the natural human way of thinking. Therefore he looks for protection not to reason, with its universal and necessary pronouncements so eagerly desired by Kant, but to the Absurd, i.e., to faith, which reason qualifies as Absurd. He knows from his own experience that "to believe against reason is martyrdom."

     But only such a faith, a faith that seeks no justification from reason and finds none in it, is, according to Kierkegaard, the faith of Holy Scripture. Faith alOne gives man the hope of vanquishing that necessity which entered the world and gained control of it through reason. When Hegel transforms the truth of Scripture, revealed truth, into metaphysical truth; when, instead of saying that God took the form of man, or that man was created in the image and likeness of God, he declares that "the fundamental idea of the absolute religion is the unity of the divine and the human natures," he kills faith. Hegel's words have the same import at Spinoza's words: Deus ex solis suae naturae legibus et a nemine coactus agit—God acts only by the laws of His own nature and is coerced by no one. And the content of the absolute religion is reduced to another of Spinoza's statements: res nullo alio modo vel ordine a Deo produci potuerunt quam productae sunt—things could not have been created by God in any other manner or in any other order than that in which they were created. Speculative philosophy cannot exist without the idea of necessity; necessity is essential to it, just as air is to a human being and water to a fish. This is why the truths of experience irritate reason so. They keep repeating the divine fiat and do not provide real knowledge, that is, coercive, compulsory knowledge. But for Kierkegaard coercive knowledge is an abomination of desolation, the source of original sin; it was by saying eritis scientes that the tempter brought about the Fall of the first man. Accordingly, Kierkegaard says that "the opposite of sin is not virtue but freedom" and also "the opposite of sin is faith." Faith and faith alone liberates man from sin; faith and faith alone can tear man away from the power of the necessary truths that have controlled his consciousness since the time when he tasted the fruit of the forbidden tree. And faith alone gives man the courage and the strength to look death and madness in the eye and not bow helplessly before them. "Picture a man," writes Kierkegaard, "who by straining his frightened imagination has thought up some unprecedented horror, something completely unbearable. And then suddenly he finds this horror before him; it becomes a reality for him. To the human mind it seems that his destruction is certain. But for God all things are possible. This constitutes the struggle of faith: a mad struggle for possibility. For only possibility reveals the way to salvation. In the last analysis one thing remains: for Cod all things are possible. And only then is the way to faith made open. Man believes only when he cannot find any other possibility. God signifies that everything is possible, and that everything is possible signifies God. And only that man whose being has been so shaken that he becomes spirit and grasps that everything is possible, only he has drawn near to God." This is what Kierkegaard writes in his' books, and he continually repeats the same theme in his Journal.


     And here he comes so close to Dostoevsky that one may say, without fear of being reproached for overstatement, that Dostoevsky is Kierkegaard's double. Not only their ideas, but also their methods of inquiry into the truth are absolutely identical, and are equally unlike those which form the content of speculative philosophy. Kierkegaard went from Hegel to the private thinker Job. Dostoevsky did the same. All the episodic digressions in his great novels—"Hippolyte's Confession" in The Idiot; the reflections of Ivan and Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov, and of Kirilov in The Possessed; his Notes from Underground; and the short stories he published during the last years of his life in The Diary of a Writer ("The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," "The Gentlewoman")—all of them are variations of the theme of the Book of Job, as are the works of Kierkegaard. "Why has dismal sloth destroyed what is most precious?" he writes in "The Gentlewoman." "I will rid myself of it. Sloth! Oh, nature! Men are alone on earth—that is the trouble." Dostoevsky, like Kierkegaard, "withdrew from the general," or, as he himself expresses it, "from the allness." And he suddenly felt that it was impossible and unnecessary for him to return to the allness; that the allness—i.e., what everyone, in every time and place, considers to be the truth—is a fraud, is a terrible illusion; that all the horrors of existence have come into the world from the allness toward which our reason summons us. In "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," Dostoevsky reveals with unbearable clarity the meaning of the words "ye shall be knowing," with which the Biblical serpent tempted our forefather and continues to tempt all of us to this day. Our reason, as Kant says, eagerly strives for generality and necessity; Dostoevsky, inspired by the Scriptures, exerts all his strength in order to break away from the power of knowledge. Like Kierkegaard, he desperately struggles against speculative truth and the human dialectic that reduces "revelation" to knowledge. When Hegel speaks of "love"—and Hegel has just as much to say about love as about the unity of the divine and the human natures—Dostoevsky sees it as a betrayal: a betrayal of the divine word. "I maintain," he writes in The Diary of a Writer (that is, in the last years of his life) "that awareness of our complete inability to help or to be of any use whatever to suffering mankind, at the same time that we are fully convinced of the suffering of mankind, can turn the love for mankind in your heart into hatred for it." This is the same idea that Belinsky had: an account is demanded of every sacrifice to chance and history—i.e., an account of those whom speculative philosophy considers, in principle, worthy of no attention, since they are created and finite beings, and whom no one in the world is able to help, as speculative philosophy well knows.

     The following passage from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground expresses the concept of the futility of speculative philosophy with even greater force and intensity, in his characteristic bold manner. Men, he writes, "yield at once to impossibility. Impossibility means a stone wall! What stone wall? Why, the laws of nature, of course, mathematics, the conclusions of the natural sciences. For instance, once they have proved that you are descended from the ape, it does no good to frown; accept it as it is, for twice two is mathematics. Just try to dispute that! For goodness' sake, they will shout at you, you can t dispute it—twice two is four. Nature does not ask your permission; she is not concerned with your wishes or with whether her laws please you or not. You are obliged to accept her as she is, and therefore you must accept all her consequences as well. A wall, then, is a wall, etc., etc." You see that Dostoevsky is no less aware than Kant and Hegel of the meaning and significance of those general and necessary judgments, that obligatory, coercive truth to which man's reason summons him. But, in contrast to Kant and Hegel, not only is he not reassured by this "twice two is four" and these "stone walls"; on the contrary, the self-evident revelations of his reason arouse the greatest alarm in him, as they do in Kierkegaard. What handed man over to the power of Necessity? How did it happen that the fate of living human beings came to depend on "stone walls" and "twice two is four," which have nothing at all to do with human beings, which, in general, have nothing at all to do with anyone or anything? The Critique of Pure Reason does not raise this question. The Critique of Pure Reason would not have paid any attention to this question, if it had been asked. Dostoevsky himself writes, immediately after the words quoted above: "Lord God, what are the laws of nature and arithmetic to me, if for some reason I do not like these laws and this twice two is four? Obviously, I shall not break this wall down with my head if I really do not have the strength to breach it, but I will not concede to it simply because it is a stone wall and I lack the strength. As if such a wall were in fact a reassurance and in fact contained any promise of peace. Oh, absurdity of absurdities" (italics mine).

     Where speculative philosophy sees "truth,"—that truth which our reason tries so eagerly to obtain and to which we all pay homage—Dostoevsky sees the "absurdity of absurdities." He renounces the guidance of reason and not only does not agree to accept its truths, but assails our truths with all the power at his command. Whence came they, he asks, who gave them such limitless power over man? And how did it happen that men accepted them, accepted everything that they brought into the world; and not just accepted, but worshipped, them? One need only raise this question—I repeat that the Critique of Pure Reason did not raise it, did not dare to raise it—in order for it to become clear that there is no answer to it and can be none. More correctly, there is only one answer to it: the power of the "stone walls," the power of "twice two is four," or (to express it in philosophical language) the power of eternal, self-evident truths over man, although it seems to lie at the very basis of existence and therefore to be insuperable, is nevertheless an illusory power. And this brings us back to the Biblical story of Original Sin and the Fall of the first man. Stone walls" and "twice two is four" are only a concrete expression of what is contained in the words of the tempter: ye shall be knowing. Knowledge has not brought man to freedom, as we are accustomed to think and as speculative philosophy proclaims; knowledge has enslaved us, has put us wholly at the mercy of eternal truths. Dostoevsky understood this; Kierkegaard, too, found it out. "Sin," wrote Kierkegaard, "is the swoon of freedom. Psychologically speaking, the Fall always occurs in a swoon." "In the state of innocence," he continues, "there is peace and tranquility, but at the same time there is something more: not dissension, not a struggle—for there is no reason to struggle. But what is it then? Nothingness. What effect has Nothingness? It arouses fear." And again: "If we ask what is the object of fear, the only answer will be: Nothingness. Nothingness and fear are attendant on one another, but as soon as the reality of the freedom of the spirit is revealed, fear vanishes. What, upon closer scrutiny, is Nothingness as the pagans feared it? It is called fate. Fate is the Nothingness of fear."

     Rarely has any writer succeeded in expressing so graphically the meaning of the Biblical story of the Fall. The Nothingness that the tempter pointed out to our forefather prompted his fear before the unlimited will of the Creator; and he rushed to knowledge, to the eternal, uncreated truths, in order to protect himself from God. And so it has continued to the present day: we fear God, we see our salvation in knowledge, in gnosis. Could there be a more profound, more terrible Fall? It is amazing to see how much Dostoevsky's thoughts about "stone walls" and "twice two is four" resemble what Kierkegaard has just told us. Confronted with eternal truths, men offer no resistance, but accept everything that they bring. When Belinsky "cried out," demanding an account of all those sacrificed to chance and history, the answer given him was that his words had no meaning, that one could not raise such objections to speculative philosophy and Hegel. When Kierkegaard contrasted Job, as a thinker, with Hegel, his words went unheard. And when Dostoevsky wrote about the "stone wall," no one guessed that there lay the real critique of pure reason: all eyes were fixed on speculative philosophy. We are all convinced that a defect is concealed in Being itself, a defect which even the Creator cannot overcome. The "it is good" which concluded each day of creation is evidence, to our way of thinking, that even the Creator Himself had not penetrated deeply enough into the nature of being. Hegel would have advised Him to taste of the fruit of the forbidden tree, so that He might ascend to the proper level of "knowledge" and understand that His nature, like that of man, is limited by eternal laws and powerless to change anything at all in the universe.

     And so Kierkegaard's existential philosophy resolves, as does Dostoevsky's philosophy, to oppose revealed truth to speculative truth. Sin lies not in being, not in what came from the hands of the Creator; the sin, the defect, the lack are in our "knowledge." The first man was afraid of the limitless will of the Creator; he saw in it the "arbitrariness" that terrifies us so, and began to seek protection from God in knowledge which, as the tempter had suggested to him, made him equal to God, i.e., made him and God equally dependent on eternal uncreated truths by revealing the unity of the divine and the human natures. And this "knowledge" flattened and crushed his consciousness, hammering it down to a plane of limited possibilities by which his earthly and eternal fates are now determined. This is how Scripture represents the "Fall" of man. And only faith, which Kierkegaard, in accordance with Scripture, understands as a mad struggle for possibility (i.e., as we would say, for impossibility, for it is the vanquishing of self-evident truths )—only faith can lift from us the excessive burden of original sin and enable us to straighten up, to "rise" again. Thus, faith is not reliance on what has been told us, what we have heard, what we have been taught. Faith is a new dimension of thought, unknown and foreign to speculative philosophy, which opens the way to the Creator of all earthly things, to the source of all possibilities, to the One for Whom there are no boundaries between the possible and the impossible. Not only is this enormously difficult to put into practice; it is difficult even to conceive of it. Jakob Böhme has said that when God took His hand from him, he himself did not understand what he had written. I think that Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard could have repeated these words by Böhme. Not without reason did Kierkegaard say: "to believe in spite of reason is martyrdom." Not without reason are the works of Dostoevsky so full of a superhuman intensity. This is why not enough attention is paid to Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, why so few hear what they have to say. Their voices have been and continue to be voices crying in the wilderness.

[1] Kierkegaard (1813—1855) actually died at forty-two. (This footnote and the two that follow are adapted from those written by James M. Edie and James P. Scanlan for their translation of the Preface. Tr.)

[2] From Belinsky's letter to Botkin, March 1, 1841. Tr.

[3] Shestov read Kierkegaard in the German translations of Ketels, Gottsched, and Schrempf (Gesammelte Werke, Jena, 1923), Haecker (Die Tagebücher, Innsbruck, 1923), and Schrempf (Erbauliche Reden, Jena, 1924). All his quotations from Kierkegaard are given as they occur in his text, rather than as they appear in the standard English versions of Kierkegaard's work. Tr.

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