Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Cruel Christianity

My severity is not of my own making. If I knew a milder word, I would gladly comfort and encourage man. And yet! It may be that the sufferer needs something else: suffering that is crueler still. What fiend dares to say this? My friend, it is Christianity, the doctrine which is offered to us under the name of gentle consolation.


     This contradiction in Kierkegaard's existential philosophy contains all that is difficult to understand not only in the task he set himself, but also in the whole array of problems that arise when the revelation of Holy Scripture encounters the truths naturally obtained by our reason. We strive with our entire being and with all our thoughts to bridge the abyss separating revelation from truth; together with Hegel and all the philosophers in whose schools the teachings of Hegel were formed, we are convinced in advance that revelation cannot and must not contradict reason and rational understanding; that, on the contrary, it must place itself under their protection and in their keeping. It is true that both the Prophets and the Apostles tell us over and over again about the madness of faith. It is true that Kierkegaard himself, with fear and trembling, never wearies of repeating his magic formula: in order to achieve faith, one must give up reason. But the thundering words of the Prophets and the Apostles and the fervent incantations of Kierkegaard have no effect, or almost none, and they cannot awaken our freedom from its dreaming swoon. The "fear" that freedom which is unverified and unjustified by reason will lead, and can only lead, to unlimited trouble has become so entrenched in our souls that there is probably no way to get rid of it. We are deaf even to thunder; we reject all incantations.

     Whence came this fear? Whence came the conviction that reason has more to offer man than does freedom? Plato taught that to despise reason is the greatest misfortune, but we have not tried to find out where he obtained this truth. What is more, we have had the opportunity of assuring ourselves that reason does not very often direct its entire might against man. It will be said that this is not an "objection" to the legality of reason's claims—and, consequently, man will never succeed in freeing himself in this way from the power and spell of rational truths. Let us even suppose that Plato was mistaken, that reason will, in the last analysis, turn out to be the enemy of man, or even his executioner; still there is no end to Its rule, nor is any end in sight. How can one then oppose freedom to reason? Because freedom is freedom, we cannot know in advance what it will bring; it may be something good, but it may be something bad, very bad. Unlimited freedom cannot be permitted even for God: we do not "know" in advance what God may bring us. An inescapable fear continually whispers this disturbing question in our ear: but what if God should bring us something bad? Here, in this fear, is the origin of the custom of linking the religious with the ethical, and speaking of the religious-ethical. It is as if man were insuring himself against the religious with the ethical. The religious is something new, unknown, remote; the ethical, however, is something known, familiar, ordinary. Kierkegaard, and all of us after him, can confidently say of the ethical that even if it is not mighty enough to give a man back his arm or leg, there is no doubt that it has the power to deform and torment the human spirit. The ancients knew this, even before the time of Socrates; the ethical has always had at its disposal the horde of raging Furies, who mercilessly pursue every deviation from its laws. Everyone knows this, and such knowledge does not in the least presuppose faith.

     And yet Kierkegaard himself is always repeating what the Apostle Paul said: all that is not of faith is sin. The ethical with its Furies is certainly not of faith. This is knowledge, knowledge of what is real, and the "unbelieving" pagans could speak of it just as well as Kierkegaard. It cannot return a man's severed arm—however, it is not the only one that cannot; no one in the world can do this. The "religious" is in this case just as powerless as the "ethical": Zeus himself attested that the gods can give men the world only in trust, but not as their property. It is true that Kierkegaard says, or, rather, cries out in a frenzy: for God nothing is impossible; God means that everything is possible. He can return a severed arm or leg; He can raise Job's slain children from the dead; He can raise Isaac from the dead, and not just the one whom Abraham sacrificed, but every Isaac sacrificed to Necessity; and, what is more, Kierkegaard, as if inspired, as if in a transport of self-oblivion and desperation, assures us that God allows every man to decide for himself what his own Isaac will be and where he is to be found, allows him that unlimited freedom in the presence of which a case like Kierkegaard's, considered by reason to be "insignificant," "pathetic," "tedious," even "comical," becomes, in the words of Kierkegaard himself, a universally historic event, possessing an importance unsurpassed by the campaigns of Alexander of Macedonia and the great migrations of peoples. As Kierkegaard suggests to us: "The man who is not mature enough to understand that immortal fame through countless generations is only an attribute of temporality, and who does not understand that a striving for this sort of immortality is a pitiful thing in comparison with the immortality which awaits every man and which would justifiably inspire universal envy, were it prepared for one man only, will not go very far in the understanding of what the soul is and what immortality is." [V, 100]

     Who gave Kierkegaard the right to make such an assertion? Does the personal immortality of the first person who comes along mean more than the fame through countless generations of Alexander of Macedonia? Did he consult the ethical? Evidently he forgot this or overlooked it; for if he had consulted it, he would have had to cool his ardor. Personal immortality—his own or that of someone else—not only is not comparable with the fame in posterity of Alexander of Macedonia, but does not bear comparison with the far more modest fame of Mucius Scaevola or Regulus. Even Herostratus was, in his estimation of the significance of fame in posterity, much closer to the truth than Kierkegaard. Nevertheless, he did not permit himself to judge arbitrarily, as he pleased, but awaited the judgment of history. All values that exist in the world are true values only insofar as they find room for themselves in the categories which have been established, not by the arbitrariness and caprice of man, but by higher laws, standing outside of and above every arbitrariness and caprice. Kierkegaard's claim to immortality has as little basis as his claim to have turned his meeting with Regina Olsen into an event of universally historic significance. And this is no secret to Kierkegaard. In a burst of frankness, speaking as usual, of course, not directly, but in the third person, he confesses that he does not trust the "ethical," that he hides from it, although he knows it is very easily insulted and demands of man that he lay before it, as before a confessor, all his innermost thoughts and desires." [1] In Kierkegaard's life, the ethical not only is not indissolubly bound up with the religious, but is continually at war with it. In the moment when the ethical, according to the dictates of its nature, turns its gaze upon the rational and pronounces its decisive and final sentence, when all "possibility" ends for the ethical, the "religious" has its beginning. The religious dwells above and beyond the sphere of the "general." It is not protected by any laws, it is not concerned with what our thinking finds to be possible or impossible, or with what ethics declares to be permissible and obligatory. For a religious man, "personal immortality" is more precious than the greatest fame in posterity; to him, those gifts which he has received from the Creator are worth more than all the praises and distinctions with which the "ethical" lures us. Everything that Kierkegaard tells us, both in his books and in his journals, is evidence that he did not place his hopes in the possibilities revealed by reason (he disdainfully calls them probabilities), and the rewards promised by the ethical (which he calls deceitful consolations.) This is the source of his hatred for reason and his ardent glorification of the Absurd. One can find few writers in the literature of the world who sought the truth as passionately and recklessly as Kierkegaard.

     But not for nothing does he so often repeat the words: "Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me." The offense lies in wait for faith everywhere and at every moment. There is a certain connection between them, incomprehensible to us, but seemingly unbreakable: he who has not experienced offense will not come to experience faith. Only, I must add that the offense begins earlier than even Kierkegaard supposes. In Kierkegaard's opinion, the event which is most incredible, and therefore most offensive, is the incarnation of Christ. How could God lower himself to take human form, and, what is more, the form of the humblest of men? Kierkegaard spares no detail to depict for us the humiliation to which Christ was subjected during his life on earth. Poor, persecuted, despised not only by outsiders, but by those close to him; rejected by his own father, who was suspicious of Mary; [XI, 136] etc., etc.—how could such a one turn out to be God? This is truly a great offense. But the source and the beginning of the offense are nevertheless not to be found in God's decision to take the shape of a lowly person. The offense begins for human reason even earlier, in the very assumption that there is a God for Whom everything is possible, Who can take the shape, not only of a lowly person, but also of a king and lord. And it must be said that the second possibility is far less, acceptable to reason than the first, and that Kierkegaard himself never lost sight of this, least of all in those moments when he tells, with his characteristic somber pathos, of the horrors of Christ's earthly existence. It is easier for us to assume—keeping within the limits of our experience and understanding—that, if there are beings higher than man, which we therefore call gods, they are nevertheless not so mighty as to be able to break through all the impossibilities revealed by reason and overcome all the prohibitions established by morality; and are thus, when faced with unfavorable circumstances, doomed to every sort of hardship—it is easier to assume this than to acknowledge the existence of a being for whom "everything is possible." Reason, as we have seen, knows for certain that even God is the product of poros and penia, and that it is therefore more fitting for Him to appear as a lowly person than as an unlimited lord and master. And this is a matter which concerns not only the pagan philosophers. Every time we try to give an answer to the question: cur Deus homo, we inevitably come up against the moment of Necessity, which is evidence of the existence of some primordial principles of existence over which even God has no power; in order to save man, God is obliged to become man, to suffer, to accept death, and so on. And the more profoundly thought out the explanation, the more insistently it emphasizes, on the one hand, the impossibility of God's achieving His aim in any other way, and, on the other hand, His sublimeness, expressed in His readiness to accept the conditions set for Him by Necessity, for the sake of the salvation of mankind.

     The situation is altogether the same as in human affairs: reason shows God the limits of possibility, ethics praises God for scrupulously fulfilling all the "you must's" stipulated by impossibilities. Here lies the ultimate and greatest offense, of which Kierkegaard was always aware, and against which he always fought desperately, but which to the end he never succeeded in overcoming, which no mortal ever succeeds in overcoming, and which, by all evidence, mortals cannot overcome by their own powers: we are not able to reject the fruit of the tree of good and evil. In other words, our reason and our morality are emancipated from God. God created everything, but morality and reason were before everything, before God; they have always existed. They were not created—they have no beginning.

     This is why the endeavors of existential philosophy always have a tendency to run aground on what Socrates, according to Plato, taught: megiston agathon on anthrôpôi toûto, hekastês hêmeras peri aretês toûs logous poieîsthai ("The highest good for man is to converse every day about virtue.") When the religious is combined with the ethical, the former disappears into the latter without a trace; the tree of knowledge drains all the sap from the tree of life. Existential philosophy, seeing as its task the struggle, however mad, "for possibility," becomes edification, which by its very nature results in a readiness to compromise with those limited possibilities at the disposal of the "rational" and the "ethical." Man does not dare, or does not have the strength, to think in the categories in which he lives, and he is compelled to live in these categories in which he thinks. And, what is more, he does not even suspect that this is his greatest Fall, that this is original sin. He is entirely in the power of the eritis sicut dei inspired in him by the serpent. Kierkegaard probably had this in mind when he said of himself that he could not make the final movement of faith. And this was the real reason for his unrestrained attacks upon the clergy and the church, upon "the Christianity which has abolished Christ," just as it was the reason for that virtually unprecedented cruelty and severity of which his sermons (or, as he prefers to call them, his "edifying discourses") are full. Kierkegaard's most ardent admirers are not prepared to go along with him in this direction to the very end, and they make all sorts of attempts in the way of "interpretations" to adapt them for ordinary understanding.

     But this only alienates us from both Kierkegaard and the questions he poses, which persistently call attention to all the implacable either/or's concealed in existence. If Kierkegaard could have "relented," he would have done so, and would not have delegated the task to anyone else. In 1851, in the same book in which he announced with such fury that Christianity had abolished Christ, he wrote: "My severity is not of my own making. If I knew a milder word, I would gladly comfort and encourage man. And yet! And yet! It may be that the sufferer needs something else: suffering that is crueler still. Crueler still! What fiend dares to say this? My friend, it is Christianity, the doctrine which is offered to us under the name of gentle consolation." [XI, 67] At this point he returns once more to the sacrifice of Abraham, about which he told us so much in his earlier works: "To destroy with your own hands what you so passionately desired; to allow what you already possess to be taken from you—this cuts to the very heart of the natural man. But this is what God demanded of Abraham. Abraham himself was obliged—terrible to relate!—obliged by his own hand—horror and madness!—to sacrifice Isaac—the gift of God for whom he had waited so long and with such yearning, for whom he had thanked God all his life and could not give thanks enough, Isaac, his only child, the child he had been promised! Do you believe that death could sting so? I do not believe it."

     There is no doubt that life stings more keenly than death—and, on the other hand, there is also no doubt that Kierkegaard's severity was not of his own making. It was not he who demanded the terrible sacrifice from Abraham; he is not the author of those horrors of which human life is full. They existed before him, they will continue after him, and perhaps will grow and increase in number. He is only a spokesman transmitting to us words and phrases which he did not originate. He only sees and hears what until now has gone unheard by others. But he is the one who must guess the "meaning" of his words, the "significance" of what he has seen and heard. And here we are witnesses to an unprecedented inward struggle that tore his already tattered soul to shreds, a struggle that he nevertheless could not refuse, since through it existential philosophy is freed from the intolerable self-evidences established for man by theoretical philosophy. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard could still speak of "temptation" in connection with the sacrifice of Abraham. And in his later works he brings up "temptation" at every turn and continually asserts that no science can make clear and explain what is concealed in the Biblical expression "temptation." But he rejected the "serpent"—and is there much left of temptation without the serpent? Or, to put it better—was this not a concession to contemporary enlightenment, which accepts only what it can understand and explain?

     Kierkegaard, of course, did not admit the thought that his readiness to cleanse the story of the Fall of elements for which our understanding has no room could have such fateful consequences for our thinking, if not directly, then indirectly. But then, the intervention of the serpent with his eritis sicut dei ("you will be as gods") is nothing but an appeal to lumen naturale, to natural light: the fruit of the tree of knowledge will turn man into God, and by this very act, all that is unnatural, all that is supernatural will cease and become a fantasy, an illusion, Nothingness. There is real artistry in this, the beginning of every possible temptation, all the more threatening and dangerous because it does not in the least resemble temptation. Who could suspect that knowledge, the ability to distinguish good from evil, conceals in itself any danger whatever? It is completely obvious that, on the contrary, all dangers have their source in ignorance and the inability to distinguish good from evil. We will recall how unconcernedly the author of Theologia deutsch passed over the Scriptural story of the tree of knowledge. We will recall that Kierkegaard himself saw the sleep of the mind in the ignorance of the innocent man. Man is ready and willing to seek and find the source of sin anywhere but where Holy Scripture tells him it is. What is more, our "natural" thinking assures us that the greatest sin, man's most terrible Fall, his spiritual death, is his reluctance to participate in the knowledge of what good is and what evil is. Kierkegaard, who regards the Bible as a divinely inspired book, cannot rid his soul of this conviction. He does not doubt that, if the ethical, i.e., the fruit of the tree of knowledge, is supreme, then Abraham, his favorite hero, the father of faith—is lost. He knows that if Abraham's faith is humiliated by knowledge, then all human beings are lost. But the ethical does not loosen its grip on him and holds him firmly in its clutches.

     What is this? Kierkegaard himself has told us: sin is the swoon of freedom. Man does not even choose; he has no power to choose. The choice is made for him by Nothingness, which—Kierkegaard, again, has told us of this— turns out to be a Proteus. In the beginning it assumes the form of Necessity. Now it has adopted the guise of the "ethical." And it will not stop at this. Before our eyes it will take the shape of Eternity, Infinity, love. And consequently existential philosophy will retreat further and further before the objective truth of theoretical philosophy, against which Kierkegaard fought so desperately, and which he considers to be mankind's most terrible enemy.

[1] III, 82. "Ethics cannot help them; it is insulted. For they have a secret they have concealed from ethics. A secret they have accepted as their personal responsibility." And he is speaking here, not of Job, not of Abraham, but of a couple in love.

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