Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Job and Hegel

Instead of turning for help to the world renowned philosopher or to the professor publicus ordinarius, my friend seeks refuge with a private thinker who knew all that is best in the world, yet afterward withdrew from life: with Job who tosses off fluent observations and hints as he sits in the ashes and scrapes the sores on his body with potsherds. Truth is here expressed more convincingly than in the Greek Symposium.


     Kierkegaard bypassed Russia. Not once did I so much as hear his name in philosophical or literary circles. I am ashamed to admit it, but it would be a sin to conceal the fact that just a few years ago I knew nothing about Kierkegaard. Even in France he is all but unknown; it is only quite recently that a start has been made at translating him. His influence in Germany and the northern countries, however, has been immense. And that fact is of great importance; he has taken hold in the thinking, not only of the more distinguished German theologians, but also the philosophers, and even the professors of philosophy; it is enough to name Karl Barth and his school, on the one hand, and Jaspers and Heidegger on the other. The publisher of Philosoph. Hefte went so far as to say that a thorough statement of the philosophy of Heidegger would give us Kierkegaard. And there is every reason to think that the ideas of Kierkegaard are fated to play a great role in the spiritual development of mankind. It is true that that role is of a special kind. He will hardly be accepted among the classics of philosophy and perhaps he will not receive superficial recognition from everyone. But his thought will find a place, unseen, in the hearts of men. So it has already happened; the voice of one crying in the wilderness is not simply a magnificent metaphor. In the general economy of spiritual being, the voices of those crying in the wilderness are just as necessary as the voices which resound in inhabited places, in the public squares and in the temples. And it may be that in some sense they are even more necessary.

     Kierkegaard called his philosophy existential—a word which in itself tells us little. And although Kierkegaard uses it often, he was not the one who gave us what might be called the definition of existential philosophy.

     "With respect to an understanding of the existential, a desire to avoid definitions shows discretion," [V, 146] writes Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard does generally avoid detailed definitions; this is connected with his belief that the best means to a common relationship with others is "indirect communication." He adopted this method from Socrates, who felt that he had been singled out, not to convey ready-made truths to men, but to help them arrive at truths for themselves. Only the truth which a man has worked out himself can be of use to him. In keeping with this idea, Kierkegaard's philosophy is so constructed that it cannot be assimilated as we usually assimilate any series of ideas. What is called for here is not assimilation, but something different. Well before his death, Kierkegaard was dismayed and infuriated by the idea that after he died Privatdozenten would present his philosophy as a complete system of ideas, arranged in sections, chapters, and paragraphs, and that amateurs of interesting philosophical structures would find it mentally enjoyable to follow the development of his thought. For Kierkegaard, philosophy is by no means a purely intellectual activity of the mind. The origin of philosophy is not wonder, as Plato and Aristotle taught, but despair. Human thought undergoes a complete transformation in despair and terror, discovering new powers which lead it to those sources of truth considered unimportant by other persons. Such a man continues to think, but not at all in the way that men think who marvel at what the universe reveals to them, and attempt to understand the nature of that which exists.

     In this respect, Kierkegaard's short book Repetition is particularly significant. It belongs to the group of his works written and published immediately after, and having to do with, his break with his fiancée, Regina Olsen. In a very short space of time Kierkegaard wrote first his great book Either/Or, then Fear and Trembling (which came out in one volume together with Repetition), and finally The Concept of Dread. All these books are on the same theme, which he varies in a thousand ways. I have already indicated the theme: that philosophy originates not in wonder, as the Greeks supposed, but in despair. In Repetition he expresses it this way: "Instead of turning for help to the world-renowned philosopher or to the professor publicus ordinarius (i.e., Hegel), my friend (Kierkegaard always speaks in the third person when he has to express an idea which is most sacred to him) seeks refuge with a private thinker who knew all that is best in the world, yet afterward withdrew from life: with Job... who tosses off fluent observations and hints as he sits in the ashes and scrapes the sores on his body with potsherds. Truth is here expressed more convincingly than in the Greek Symposium." [III, 172]

     The private thinker Job is contrasted with the world-renowned Hegel, and even with the Greek Symposium—i.e., with Plato himself. Does such a contrast have any meaning and has Kierkegaard himself the power to realize it? That is, to accept as the truth, not what was revealed to him by the philosophical thought of the enlightened Hellene, but what was related by a man half-mad from horror and an ignorant man at that—the hero of a narrative from an ancient book? Why is Job's truth "more convincing" than the truth of Hegel or of Plato? Is it really more convincing?

     It was not so easy for Kierkegaard to break with the world-famous philosopher. He himself attests to this: "There is no one he dares to trust, no one to whom he can confide his shame and unhappiness at not understanding the great man." [VI. iii, cf. ibid., 192, 193] And again: "Dialectical courage is not so easily come by: it is only through a crisis that you resolve to oppose the marvelous teacher who knows everything best and has neglected only your problem! Ordinary people," Kierkegaard continues, "will perhaps not guess what I am talking about here. For them, Hegelian philosophy is simply a theoretical structure, a very interesting and diverting one. But there are 'young men' who gave their hearts to Hegel; finding themselves at the difficult moment when a man turns to philosophy seeking 'the one thing that is needful,' such young men will sooner lose faith in themselves than admit that their teacher was not looking for the truth, but was pursuing entirely different problems. If such persons are destined to return to their senses, they will pay Hegel back with scornful laughter; and there will be great justice in that."

     It may be that they will take even more drastic action. To leave Hegel for Job! If Hegel could have admitted even momentarily that such a thing is possible; that the truth is not in him, but in the ignorant Job; that the method of inquiry into the truth lies not in a search for "the self-movement of the concept," (discovered by Hegel) but in wails of despair which from his point of view are wild and meaningless, then he would have had to confess that his whole life's work and he himself amounted to nothing. And perhaps it is not only Hegel who would feel that way, perhaps it is not just a question of Hegel. To seek the truth from Job means to cast doubts on the basic principles of philosophic thinking. It is possible to give preference to Leibniz or Spinoza or the ancients, and to contrast them with Hegel. But to exchange Hegel for Job is like forcing time to reverse its course, like turning back to the age, many thousands of years ago, when men did not even suspect what our knowledge and our sciences would bring us. Yet Kierkegaard is not satisfied even with Job. He rushes still further into the depths of time—to Abraham. And he contrasts Abraham not with Hegel, but with the man whom the Delphic oracle, and after the oracle all humanity, recognized as the wisest of men—Socrates.

     It is true that Kierkegaard does not dare to ridicule Socrates. He respects Socrates, even venerates him. But he takes his need and his difficulties to Abraham, not to Socrates. Socrates was the greatest of men—the greatest, that is, of those who lived on earth before the Bible was revealed to mankind.[1] One may admire Socrates, but it is not from him that a perplexed soul will find the answers to its questions. In summing up what he had received as a legacy from his teacher, Plato wrote that the greatest calamity that can befall a man is for him to become a misologos, i.e., a despiser of reason. And here I must say immediately: Kierkegaard went from Hegel to Job and from Socrates to Abraham solely because Hegel and Socrates demanded that he love reason, and he hated reason more than anything else in the world.

     Plato and Socrates threatened the despiser of reason with every sort of misfortune. But did they have the power to protect the lover of reason from harm? And there is a more disturbing question: must you love reason because if you do not you will be punished? Or must you love it disinterestedly, not looking ahead to see whether it will bring with it joy or sorrow, love it just because it is reason? In my opinion, Plato was far from disinterested, for otherwise he would not have made threats of misfortune. He would simply have said, as a commandment: you must love reason with all your heart and with all your mind, no matter whether this makes you happy or unhappy. Reason demands love for itself and presents no justifications in apology, for it is itself the source, and furthermore the only source, of all justifications. But Plato did not go "as far as that"; even Socrates, to my mind, did not go so far. In Phaedo, which declares that the greatest calamity is to become a despiser of reason, we also find it said that when Socrates decided that the noûs [mind] of Anaxagoras, which had been so alluring to him in his youth, did not guarantee him the "best," he turned away from his teacher. The "best" must come before everything else and the world must dance to its tune. But if such is the case, before we can love reason we must try to find out exactly whether it does guarantee man the best; and consequently we cannot know beforehand whether we ought to love or hate reason. If it gives us the best, we shall love it: if it does not give us the best, we shall not love it. In the event that it brings us something different, or something very bad, we shall hate it and turn away from it, and we shall love its age-old enemy—the Paradox, the Absurd. However, neither Plato nor Socrates posed the question so pointedly. Although the noûs of Anaxagoras did not satisfy Socrates and Plato, they did not stop glorifying reason; they only ceased to be enthusiastic about Anaxagoras. No force could have torn them away from reason.

     But there were in fact times when reason yielded them truths that bore little resemblance to the "best," truths that on the contrary, concealed within themselves much that was bad, very bad. Take for instance Plato's admission (Tim. 48A) that "creation is mixed, being made up of necessity and mind": or the same statement in a different form: "We may distinguish two sorts of causes, the one divine and the other necessary" (ibid., 68E). And again, if we recall that reason, with its characteristic confidence in its own infallibility, was continually suggesting to Plato that "not even the gods war against necessity" (Prot. 345D), then there seems to be really no justification for counting on the blessings at the disposal of reason. Reason has partial control over the world, and it also gives a certain measure of support to the gods: but reason and the gods it glorifies are equally powerless against necessity. Moreover, they are always powerless; reason is well aware of this, allows no one to doubt its knowledge, and therefore rejects, definitely and irrevocably, every attempt to struggle against necessity, as if to do so were madness.

     But then necessity, against which both men and gods are equally powerless, may bring with it countless misfortunes. Reason knows this, of course, and indeed has intimated as much to man—but here it suddenly relieves itself of any responsibility and prefers not to talk about it. And yet it continues to demand that men love it, although it is evident that beloved reason may turn out to be just as ill-fated as despised reason, and perhaps even more so; consequently, Plato's famous statement appears in the last analysis to be very weak and even almost entirely without basis when confronted with the facts of experience. Reason, like Diotima's Eros, is not a god but a demon, born of poros ("abundance") and penia ("want"). Socrates and Plato did not pursue this subject further. On the contrary, they tried in every way to turn the probe of thought away from an inquiry into the origin of reason. In order to get around necessity, they invented the famous katharsis. What is katharsis? Plato explains; "Catharsis is the separation of the soul from the body... the dwelling in her own place alone, as in another life, so also in this, as far as she can—the release of the soul from the chains of the body." This is all that men and gods together with their reason can muster in opposition to necessity, which does not know reason and does not want to know it. No one has power over the body or over the world. That means there is nothing we can do: let the world exist for itself as it pleases or as it thinks best; we shall learn, and teach others, to do without the world and without the body that belongs to this world. And we shall proclaim this as our greatest triumph, as a victory over invincible necessity before which even the gods have been humbled—or, to put it better, which even the gods can overcome only with the help of a trick invented by reason. Epictetus, the platonizing Stoic, whose intellectual conscientiousness is usually assumed to denote naïveté, openly admitted this. According to him, Zeus told Chryssip: "If it were possible, I would put both your body and all external things completely at your disposal. But I will not conceal from you that I give you all these things in trust only. And since I cannot give you all this as your property, I shall give you instead a certain share from us [the gods]—the ability to decide whether to do something or not, whether to want something or not: in short, the ability to make use of your ideas" (Discourses, I, 1).

     It is difficult, of course, for the man of today to suppose that Zeus actually honored Chryssip with a conversation. But there was no great need of Zeus. He himself must have obtained from some mysterious source the truth proclaimed by him to Chryssip: that it is "impossible" to give man external things as his property. It is more likely that it was not Zeus who taught Chryssip, but Chryssip, Zeus; that Chryssip himself knew what was possible and what impossible; and that he did not have to bother the gods with his questions. If Zeus had entered into conversation with Chryssip and had attempted to set his own opinions on the possible and the impossible against those of Chryssip, Chryssip would not have listened to him. And if he had listened, he would have refused to believe Zeus: can the gods be superior to the truth? Are not all thinking beings made equal by the truth? Men and devils and gods and angels—all have equal rights, or, more correctly, all are equally without rights before truth, which is wholly subject to reason. When Socrates and Plato realized that the world is ruled not just by the gods, but by necessity also, and that no one has power over necessity, they found the truth for both mortals and the immortals. Zeus is very mighty; no one dares dispute that. But he was not gifted with omnipotence, and as a being no less rational than Chryssip, or even than Chryssip's teacher, Socrates, he must bow before the truth and become a misologos. The only thing that Zeus can do is present man with the ability to conform with the terms of existence.

     In other words, if all external things, including his own body, can be given to man only in trust, and if there is no possibility of changing the situation (even though it would not be bad, not in the least, if everything could be arranged differently) then let it be so. Man still has a "divine" gift—the freedom to want a thing or not to want it. He is entirely capable of not wishing to own his body and external things as property: he is capable of wishing to possess them only in trust. And then everything will suddenly take a turn for the best and reason will actually boast that for the man who loves and heeds it, life in the world is good, and that there is no greater misfortune than to become a misologos. This is the katharsis of Plato and Aristotle, which the Stoics expressed in their famous theory that "things" have no intrinsic worth, and that autonomous ethics has its starting point in our freedom to consider a thing valuable or worthless as we wish. Ethics makes its own laws. It has the power to declare whatever it pleases (whatever pleases it, of course) worthwhile, important, significant, and also to declare whatever it pleases worthless, unimportant, good for nothing. And no one, not even the gods, can contend with autonomous ethics. Everyone is obliged to yield to it; everyone is obliged to bow before it. The "you must" of ethics came into being at the moment when Necessity said to men and gods alike: "You cannot." The ethical was born of the same parents that produced necessity: poros and penia ("abundance" and "want.") Everything in the world is the product of poros and penia, even the gods. And so, strictly speaking, there are no gods and never were; there are only demons. This is what reason teaches us, this is what is revealed to us by the rational view, by intellectual vision, by speculation. And could reason indeed disclose anything else, if it was itself born of poros and penia?

[ A prototype of this chapter is an article called "Hegel and Job", published in Put', n.42, 1934 - A.K. ]

[1] Journal, II, 343. "Outside of Christianity, Socrates is unique," wrote Kierkegaard in his journal for 1854, a few months before his death.

Orphus system

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