Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Fear and Original Sin

Much has been said about the nature of original sin, but the main category has been overlooked: fear. Its real definition is to be found here. Fear is an alien, external force which takes possession of the individual; he cannot tear himself away from its power.


     Let me remind you once more—because it is extremely important for an explanation of the problem that existential philosophy has set itself—of what Kierkegaard tells us about sin, about fear, and about freedom. "Fear is the swoon of freedom," he writes in his book The Concept of Dread. And there also he adds: "Psychologically speaking, the Fall always takes place in a swoon." [V, 57] In his journal we read the same thing, almost word for word: "Fear weakens man, and the first sin takes place in a swoon. The words just quoted are introduced by Kierkegaard in this manner: "Much has been said about the nature of original sin—and yet the main category has been overlooked: fear. Its real definition is to be found here. Fear is an alien, external force which takes possession of the individual; he cannot tear himself away from its power because he is afraid; what we fear, we at the same time desire"(italics mine)[Journal, 171].

     I think scarcely anyone, including even the most profound religious thinkers, has succeeded in coming close to the problem of the Fall. Nietzsche, perhaps: however, Nietzsche, having renounced Christianity, was obliged to speak, not of the Fall, but simply of the fall of man. But Nietzsche's "decadence" is indistinguishable in nature from Kierkegaard's original sin. For Nietzsche, Socrates— the wisest of men, the greatest of geniuses—was the fallen man par excellence. Fearing the "Absurd" revealed to him in life, he sought reassurance and salvation in the confines of rational thought. We know that, for Kierkegaard, Socrates was the most remarkable phenomenon up to the time of Christianity. But for him, Socrates was also the sinner par excellence, for the very reason that he was an incomparable genius, i.e., a man who "revealed" knowledge and placed all his hopes in the knowledge revealed by him. Knowledge was to him the only source of both truth and good. Knowledge showed him the natural limits and boundaries of the possible; good was the art of finding the greatest blessing in the limits pointed out by knowledge. His inspiration was the Delphic gnôthi seauton [know thyself], which led him to the conviction that the greatest blessing for man is to converse every day about virtue.

     It is astonishing that Nietzsche not only guessed the existence of the decadent, that is, the fallen man, in Socrates, but also—just as though he had undertaken to illustrate the Biblical story with the example of Socrates— was able to understand that the fallen man cannot save himself by his own powers from the catastrophe which awaits him. Everything the decadent does to save himself only hastens his ruin, says Nietzsche. However much he may struggle and try to gain control of himself, his methods of fighting and his attempts to save himself are only an expression of his "Fall"; everything he does, he does as a fallen man, i.e., as a man who has lost his freedom of choice and is doomed in advance, by a power hostile to him, to see his salvation in that which brings his ruin. When Kierkegaard said that the greatest genius is the greatest sinner, he did not, as we know, name Socrates, but doubtless he had him in mind. For him, Socrates embodies the great offense of which Holy Scripture speaks.

     And indeed, what could be more of an offense than the Delphic commandment: know thyself? Or the wisdom of Socrates: to converse every day about virtue? But then, this is just how the Biblical serpent led the first man astray. And led him so far astray, that even today we persist in seeing the truth where a fatal lie is concealed. All men, even those inclined to mysticism, are attracted to knowledge, but Kierkegaard simply rejects the serpent, for reasons which seem to him and to everyone else to arise from the depths of the soul awakened from its "sleep of ignorance." It is probably here that we must seek the Source of the mysterious certainty that the man who has knowledge cannot act badly, and, no doubt, of our certainty that sin could not come from the tree of knowledge. On the contrary, sin came, if we may still use the Biblical images, from the tree of life. All evil that exists on earth came from the tree of life. And yet Kierkegaard, even though he rejected the serpent, always kept aloof, as if instinctively, from the teachings of the mystics, as I have already pointed out. The mystics maintained a semblance of faithfulness to the Biblical revelation, but the principle of "knowledge," proclaimed by Socrates, was realized both in their teaching and in their lives. They sought and found their salvation in themselves, and only in themselves, and their aim was to set themselves free from the world. But, no matter how often Kierkegaard managed to resist Socrates and the mystics, they gained the upper hand once more each time his strength failed him. It was evidently at one of these moments that he resolved to reject the serpent, and it seemed to him then that the narrative of Genesis could only be the better for such correction, that the Fall of man would become clearer and more comprehensible.

     But the result was quite different. The story of the Fall of the first man is too closely connected with the entire content of the rest of the books of the Old and New Testaments. Further amendation was necessary. And Kierkegaard's existential philosophy began to take on that contradictory character of which I spoke earlier. To reject the serpent not only does not mean to rid oneself of his power, but means just the opposite: to surrender oneself wholly to his power—that is, to give up the struggle with him. Unseen or unrecognized, he is even more completely our master: we do not know who our true enemy is, and we set ourselves against a nonexistent enemy. As Nietzsche said, the fallen man, in saving himself, destroys himself. When he should be listening, he instead begins to teach, to expound, to preach. But can a man who "teaches" "surpass" Socrates? Can one be a "better" teacher than Socrates? In one of his edifying discourses, Kierkegaard asks the question: "What is the difference between the apostle and the genius?" (The discourse was published under that title.) One would think, from what Kierkegaard has already said about genius, that his answer to this question would clarify still further the principal conflict between existential and theoretical philosophy which he has so inspiredly set forth for us. It would seem that here Kierkegaard was presented with a particularly favorable opportunity to express the thoughts dearest to him.

     But Kierkegaard puts together a work of edification: and everything changes as if a magic wand had been waved. His answer goes like this: the apostle speaks with an authority that the genius does not and cannot possess. Apostles become teachers and exhorters whose only advantage over the genius or the wise man is that they possess authority, and that, on the strength of this, everyone must obey them. In his eyes, even Jesus becomes a teacher who possesses authority and who therefore rightfully demands obedience of men. He possesses the authority, but not the power: in other words—it is not the world and the elements that obey him, but only men. Even the God of Biblical revelation does not signify that everything is possible: and much (perhaps even what is most important) continues to remain impossible for the God of the Bible, as for the god whom Socrates knew, and the god with whom, according to Epictetus, Chryssip conversed. The most that we can expect from God is instruction, edification, a willingness, like that of the pagan god, to share with us the results of His rational understanding. Anything more is merely superstition, even though it may be conveyed to us through the pages of Holy Scripture. And on this point we read in Kierkegaard's writings: "In general, unbelievable confusion arises in the sphere of religion if in the relationship of man to God the "you must," which is the only possible rule here, is abolished." [VIII, 109]

     This is one of the basic themes of Kierkegaard's edifying discourses; he returns to it many times, at every possible occasion, and even without occasion. And it is necessary to dwell on it with particular attentiveness, because it presents to us, although in a negative fashion, one of the most burdensome and tormenting preoccupations of his mind. After what I have already said in the preceding chapters, there can hardly be any doubt of the source of Kierkegaard's idea that the relationship of man to God is regulated by duty. We have seen that all "you must's," no matter how much they would like to be considered independent and without limitations (i.e., uncreated, or, like man as seen by the Pelagians, liberated from God), are basically inseparable from ideas of the rule of Necessity in the world. When Necessity proclaims its "impossible," ethics hastens to its aid with its own "you must." The more absolute and invincible the "impossible," the more threatening and implacable the "obliged." We have witnessed how Kierkegaard's indignation was aroused by the sarcastic observation about honor made by Shakespeare's Falstaff. It stung him in his most sensitive spot, and he answered the man, who ought, properly speaking, not to have been admitted at all to a discussion of philosophical problems, with all the thunders at his disposal— as if that man were not Falstaff, but Hegel himself. He could not help admitting that the ethical is powerless to return a man's arm or leg; nevertheless the ethical retains a certain power: it can mutilate the human soul as the most vicious torturer could never mutilate the human body.

     And so it appears that the ethical with its "you must" is the only possible regulator of "man's relationship to God." It is obvious that somewhere in the depths of Kierkegaard's soul there remained alive a firm conviction that the world contains "impossible's" which neither God nor man can overcome, and which are inescapably accompanied by all those threatening "you must's." Moreover, in Kierkegaard's work these impossibilities turn out, as always, to be connected, not with any universally historic events—that would not be so "paradoxical"—but with that same boring and ridiculous story which he has already dinned into our ears: his break with Regina Olsen. He remarks in his journal: "Let us suppose that someone does possess the enormous courage which is necessary in order for him to believe that God literally will forgive all his sins... What then? All is forgiven. He has become a new man. But can it be that the past has left no traces? To put it another way: is it possible that such a man could begin life anew as carefree as a youth? Impossible!... How could a man who believes in the forgiveness of sins become once again young enough to experience erotic love!" What could seem more proper and natural than this question? And yet it reveals with singular clarity that "thorn in the flesh" of which Kierkegaard speaks both in his journals and in his other works. [1] "Is it possible?" he asks. But to whom is this question directed? Who decides, who has the right to decide, where the realm of the possible ends and the realm of the impossible begins?

     For God, Kierkegaard tells us again and again, nothing is impossible. Consequently, someone different, something different, not the power of God, has taken possession of Kierkegaard's thought. Is it not that Nothingness with which we are already familiar, fear of which was implanted in the first man and, through him, in all mankind by the Biblical serpent rejected by Kierkegaard? The fact cannot be disputed: Kierkegaard was unshakably convinced that, even if God Himself had forgiven his sins, youth and the carefree quality of youth would never have returned to him. But—where he got this unshakable conviction, he does not tell us. He does not even question it, he cannot make up his mind to question it. But, as a matter of fact, he need only have recalled his own words from The Sickness Unto Death in order to realize that this question cannot be avoided. As he himself said: "For God everything is possible; God signifies for man that everything is possible. For the fatalist, everything is the result of necessity; his God is necessity. This means that for him there is no God." [VIII, 37] But, if there is no God where there is necessity, and if forgiveness of sins is necessarily accompanied by a loss of youth and youth's freedom from care (perhaps it is also, just as necessarily, accompanied by other, even more terrible, losses!), then forgiveness of sins does not come from God, but from the source whence theoretical philosophy draws its metaphysical consolations. The "mad struggle for possibility" has ended in complete failure; the master of the world of the "finite" turns out to be, not the knight of faith, but necessity, and the full realization of the human ideal is to be found in the knight of resignation. The poor youth will never get the king's daughter, Job will not see his children again, Abraham will slaughter Isaac, and people will make fun of Kierkegaard himself, as though he were a crank, a half-wit.

     Moreover, it will be demanded of us that we recognize this state of affairs as natural and desirable, and even see in it the fulfillment of a wise design planned by some primordial principle. "It is madness," writes Kierkegaard, "(and, from the point of view of esthetics, comical) that a creature for whom eternity is waiting should make every effort to possess the transitory and keep it unchanged." And, at another point in the same book: "To desire the finite absolutely is a contradiction, for the finite must have an end." [VII, 105 and 81] It is fruitless to argue with all these self-evident truths, as long as we remain on the plane of rational thinking. However, Kierkegaard has summoned us to the Absurd, which cannot be fitted into a plane of two dimensions, and which presupposes as a condition for grasping the truth a new third dimension—faith, of which it has been said: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed... nothing shall be impossible unto you... (ouden adunatêsei humin). The children of Job, and Abraham's Isaac, and the king's daughter, and Regina Olsen—all these are "finite." It is inconsistent, and, therefore, ridiculous and mad, to strive, and strive with infinite passion, for something that must have an end. [2]

     If we ask ourselves where Kierkegaard got this truth, we hardly need hesitate over the answer: it came to him from Socrates, the wisest and best of men up to the time of, and outside the realm of, Holy Scripture; and its proper place was in the work of Socrates. Socrates knew only Zeus, and Zeus himself was in the power of natural, uncreated reason; for him, not everything was possible. The law of birth and destruction of everything that is born was superior to him and stronger than he was. Everything that has a beginning must also have an end. We cannot imagine it otherwise: "It is incomprehensible to the thinking that something which was not eternal could become eternal." But is a thing which the thinking cannot grasp the same as a thing which cannot exist in reality? Kierkegaard told us that in order to achieve faith, one must renounce thinking. And then the ridiculous and the mad will cease to be ridiculous and mad, and the infinitely passionate striving for the finite will be justified. And, on the other hand, if thinking, Socratic thinking, i.e., two-dimensional thinking in which intelligere has crushed ridere, lugere et detestari, triumphs; if reason with its "impossible" and morality with its "obliged" turn out to be primordial and are triumphant; then faith, which arises from lugere et detestari, together with an infinite striving for the finite, will turn out to be mad, useless, and ridiculous. And Holy Scripture will consequently have to be systematically amended and interpreted, in order that it not turn out to be mad and ridiculous also.

     As strange as it may seem, Kierkegaard kept to both paths at once, and this was probably the best, or indeed the only, possible way for him to deal at all with the overpowering questions which continually threw him off the ordinary course of human existence.

     We know that he felt obliged to eliminate the serpent from the Biblical story of the Fall. The serpent did not fit in with, and even insulted, our religious-ethical ideals. Sin, as human beings understand it, cannot and must not enter the soul from without. Kierkegaard also was not able to reconcile himself to the words of Holy Scripture that the sun rises for sinners and righteous men alike. Every time something reminded him of this, he became indignant, and resolutely protested; in our world, the material world, things are really like that, but in the world of the spirit there is another "law." There "the man who does not work does not eat"; there the sun does not rise for evil men, but only for the good. He speaks of this more than once even in his early works: Either/Or and The Concept of Dread. And it must be admitted that he observes strict consistency on this point. If it becomes necessary to eliminate the serpent from the story of the Fall in order to satisfy the ethical, then under no circumstances can one retain the words of Jesus in the New Testament which say that the sun rises for sinners as well as righteous men. Sinners are an evil, and the ethical will never admit that what it condemns is not also condemned by God. If God Himself, i.e., the religious, opposes the ethical, it will condemn even Him. It is the ethical alone, and only the ethical, that decides what is good and what is evil, what is sin and what is righteousness. Socrates taught that the gods have no power over the ethical; the holy is not holy because the gods love it; the gods love the holy because it is holy. For Socrates, good, like reason, is primordial, uncreated, and completely independent of God, Who created the world. For him, therefore, it would be the supreme blasphemy to assume that sin had its origin in the tree of knowledge. On the contrary: all sins come from ignorance. There is also no doubt that sin calls for retribution; the sun must not shine on the sinner, and the rain must not give him its refreshing coolness. Sinners will fall prey to the absolute power of the ethical. The ethical cannot give back a man's severed leg, his lost children, his beloved. But it can punish him: Kierkegaard's reply to Falstaff is comment enough on this.

[1] A particularly forceful and intense article by Kierkegaard is entitled "The Thorn in the Flesh."

[2] Cf. ibid., 231, where Kierkegaard, inspired by the pathos of the "Absurd," which he extols in the preceding pages without fear of inconsistency or comicality, both of which he uses as snares when necessary, says: "It is incomprehensible to the thinking that something which was not eternal could become eternal." This is one of many striking examples of how thinking, when it finds a new dimension, rises above truths that seem to the ordinary man insuperable.

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