Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Power of Knowledge

Superstition attributes the power of Medusa's head to objectivity, which turns subjectivity to stone, and the absence of freedom deprives man of any possibility of breaking the spell.


     The primordial, uncreated "ethical" can give man nothing, but it can make demands of him. And what is more: the less it is able to give, the more it demands. If Kierkegaard had wanted in this case as well to "go on to the end," he would have had to answer the words of the Gospel that say that the sun rises for both righteous men and sinners alike in the same way that he answered Falstaff. Although the words are different, this is, in effect, the meaning of the impassioned "edifying discourses" assembled in his book Life and Works of Love. This book is entirely devoted to a development of the thesis that the essence of man's relationship to God is defined in the words of the Prophet: "thou shalt love." You must love God, you must love your neighbor, you must love the sufferings and the horrors of life, you must, you must, you must. When Kierkegaard begins to speak on the subject of "you must," he is inexhaustible. The idea that the moment of "you must" can be eliminated from the relationship of man to God is painful and simply monstrous to him. He is not afraid to declare straightforwardly: "The hideous time of slavery is past; now humanity thinks that it will be making another step forward if it abolishes the dependence of men upon God, to Whom each of us belongs (not by birth, but because we were created out of nothing) more surely than any slave ever belonged to his earthly master." [1] Kierkegaard could not have found this in Holy Scripture. There it is said: "Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High"—and this is repeated in the Gospel of St. John (10:34): theoi este. If we recall that Kierkegaard had previously written: "Ethics regards every man as its slave," then we will be able to guess without difficulty the origin of his persistent idea of identifying the relationship of man to God with the relationship of slave to master. And this is, in its own way, the strictest sort of consistency: the relationship of man to the commandments of the ethical is, like his relationship to the "laws" of reason, a relationship of unconditional, slavish dependency, all the more terrible and destructive to him because morality and reason themselves can yield nothing in their demands; for they have no will. Kierkegaard is wrong only in his assertion that men have expunged the ethical "you must" from their relationship to God.

     Just the opposite: of all that men have associated with the idea of God, only "you must" has survived intact for contemporary man. God Himself long ago ceased to exist for many people, but "you must" has outlived even God. Kierkegaard was able to attack Falstaff by using a "you must" of his own, with such authority in his voice that one would think even the fat knight might have heard it. In any case, Falstaff would have found Kierkegaard and his threatening "eternity" which engulfs all that is transitory easier to believe than the tales in Holy Scripture about a God without Whose will not even a hair can fall from a man's head. For both "experience" and "understanding" repeatedly assure Falstaff that there exists in the world some kind of force that indifferently takes from men what is most precious to them, but that there is no force capable of returning what has been taken. Of course, it is impossible to convince Falstaff that the Absurd can offer any opposition to understanding and experience. He may not have read Plato, but he is perceptive enough to understand that the greatest misfortune for man is to become a misologos and entrust his fate to the Absurd. Like any intelligent man, he sees clearly that a struggle with objective truth can come to nothing, and that objective truth is maintained by the power of uncreated, unyielding Necessity. With a certain amount of education in philosophy, Falstaff would easily discern the inherent connection between the necessary and the ethical, for this connection is established by reason, all the benefits of which he valued highly in the course of his long life.

     But Kierkegaard ridiculed objectivity. "Superstition attributes the power of Medusa's head to objectivity, which turns subjectivity to stone, and the absence of freedom deprives man of any possibility of breaking the spell," [V, 139] he said in Fear and Trembling. It was he who assured us that "only the conclusions of passion—they alone are the only ones on which we can rely." [III, 95] How often and how inspiredly he spoke of this! And yet the ethical tempted him—tempted him with exactly that against which he had put himself on guard, and had warned others: his objectivity, his soberness. The ethical's absolute "you must," unlimited by any conditions or considerations, conceals the same immutable, implacable "law," binding upon all, which upholds the impossibilities proclaimed by reason. Kant, who found a synthetic a priori judgment in theoretical reason, provided practical reason with categorical imperatives which fully satisfy all the needs of the "ethical" whose praises Kierkegaard has sung. Only through a misunderstanding (and perhaps not a completely unintentional one) could Kierkegaard, who was quite familiar with Kant, complain that philosophy has eliminated the ethical. On the contrary, nowhere has the ethical been given so reasonable and honorable a reception as in those fields to which the power of theoretical philosophy has spread. Even Nietzsche, the "immoralist," bears witness to this: the ethical has only to nod its head, he says, and it will win over to its side the "freest" of thinkers.

     And here I must emphasize once more: the fascination of the ethical is maintained solely and exclusively by its connection with Necessity. As long as, and insofar as, Kierkegaard felt that his youth would never return to him and that even though God could forgive and forget sins, He could not make the existent nonexistent—as we have seen, this state of mind overwhelmed him more than once—he forgot Abraham and Job and the poor youth who loved the king's daughter, dashed headlong back to Socrates, and misinterpreted Holy Scripture in such a way that it would have offended neither the reason nor the conscience of the wisest of men. God cannot make something which once existed nonexistent, and there is much else that He cannot do: eternal truths are stronger than God. God, like His Apostles, has no power, but only authority: they can only threaten and demand, or, at best, exhort. In one of his edifying discourses on the subject of love and charity, Kierkegaard quotes the beginning of the third chapter of Acts: "Once when the Apostle Peter was going to the temple, he met a lame man who asked him for alms. And Peter said to him: Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk. And immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. And he leaping up stood and walked."

     After citing this passage, he "explains": "Who can doubt that this was a charitable deed? And yet there was a miracle here. The miracle draws all our attention to itself and distracts our attention from the charity, which is never revealed so distinctly as in those cases where it can do nothing: only then are we not prevented from seeing clearly and distinctly what charity is." [Life and Works of Love, 337] Perhaps, upon reading these lines, some people might involuntarily say to themselves: timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. But still, here again there is strict internal consistency. Here, above all, there is evident that "sublimeness" to which we are committed by the ethical, which tries, in spite of everything, to root out all "concern" from the human soul. Not just Socrates, not just Kant—but Hegel, too, would have saluted Kierkegaard. Hegel went even further; he completely rejected the miracles of the Gospels, and was angered by them, thinking them to be a "violation of the spirit." And, indeed, this is true: the miracle described in Acts is capable of obscuring completely, and making us forget, all the edifying discourses ever uttered by men. Is this not offensive? And would it not have been better if the Apostle Peter had limited himself simply to words of love and comfort, instead of healing a lame man, as Jesus of Nazareth himself had once done? Or if the lame man himself, rising to those heights where the ethical dwells, had said to the Apostle: I have no need of your miracles, I seek only love and charity, for, although I am no Hegel, I do know for certain that miracles are a violation of the spirit.

     And so once again it becomes necessary to amend or misinterpret Holy Scripture—to fit it into our ideas of "the sublime and the obligatory," which keep within the limits of the "possible." The idea of God held by ignorant carpenters and fishermen is too crude and naïve, in fact, one might say, primitive. It inclines them to the miraculous, inclines them to a God for Whom everything is possible. Before accepting their truths, we must sift them through the strict thinking of Socrates, through his "possible" and the ethical connected with the "possible," i.e., through his katharsis. And we must, above all, turn our attention away from the miracle; this can be done only by pure, disinterested love. It, of course, is powerless; it cannot set the lame man on his feet. With a strange persistence, as if he were drumming it into our heads, Kierkegaard repeats on every page: charity can accomplish nothing. He repeats it at such length and so insistently that he finally achieves his aim: the reader's attention is wholly distracted from the miracle, and it begins to seem that the passage from Acts quoted by him was taken, not from the Bible, but from the writings of Epictetus, or the words of Socrates; and that the Apostle Peter had the authority necessary to teach, but not the power to help men. Eternity, inflexible and invincible, stands above the Prince of Apostles, as it stands above the wisest of men—exactly as the wisdom of the Hellenes had already represented it. The god of Socrates is just as weak and powerless in the face of eternity as Socrates himself. He has at his disposal only virtue and wisdom, which he willingly shares with mortals, as befits a most benevolent being. But the world and all that is in it are not subject to him, and it is not he who commands the world. For this reason he has "humbled himself," and has taught men humility, attempting to distract their attention from miracles which no one has the power to bring about, and trying to instill in them a taste for love, charity, and conversations about the sublime, in which they find out that the ethical is their only source of help, that it alone has any value in heaven, and ought to be the only thing valued on earth. Socrates "knew" that the highest good for men, both here on earth, and in the other world, if the other world turns out to be, not the fruit of our imagination, but a reality, amounts entirely to holding edifying conversations. Spinoza, too, constructed his ethic upon this: beatitudo non est praemium virtutis, sed ipsa virtus ("happiness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself").

     Now we must ask ourselves: in what order did the thinking of Socrates and Spinoza proceed? Were they first of all convinced that there are limits to both the abilities of men and the abilities of the gods, limits which they cannot escape, and then, convinced of this limitation on the abilities of all living creatures, did they begin to look for a higher happiness in virtue, which is as helpless as they are themselves; or did they, without making any preliminary inquiries, become enamored of powerless virtue, just because it is valuable for its own sake, and only then discover that it can do nothing for men? In other words, did the impossible precede the obligatory, or the obligatory, the impossible? I think that there cannot be two answers to this question. Kierkegaard admitted to us that the "possible" and the "impossible" have no regard for our estimations of value, and that even the forgiveness of sins cannot give a man back the freshness and spontaneity of youth. The fate of virtue is decided in the council of powers which are entirely indifferent to human needs. There is a mysterious "dialectic of being" which develops according to its own laws (not only Hegel, but the mystically minded Jacob Boehme as well spoke of Selbstbewegung — self-movement), drawing to itself and grinding to bits all that exists in the universe—both the living and the dead. And there is only one way to save oneself from it, which Zeus recommended to Chryssip: to leave the world of-the finite or the "real" for the ideal world. Love, charity, and all the other virtues have an intrinsic value, completely independent of the course of events in the outside world, in which they cannot, and do not wish to, change anything. Even if all mankind, all living creatures should vanish from their presence—love and charity and the whole multitude of virtues surrounding them would not be moved or disturbed in their self-sufficient and self-satisfied existence.

     All the sermons, all the edifying discourses of Kierkegaard—what do they glorify? Again I must say: they glorify the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. How did this happen—for he has assured us that the ethical is not supreme, that if the ethical is supreme, then Abraham is lost. Now it turns out that Socrates knew the truth, that the ethical is supreme. And the biblical serpent with his eritis sicut dei scientes bonum et malum ("ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil") knew the truth. The father of faith was an abominable murderer!

     "My severity is not of my own making," wrote Kierkegaard. There is no doubt that it was not of his own making: if it had been for him to decide, he would never have condemned a suffering man to still greater suffering. But who is the source of that severity? Who dares to say a suffering man must be made to suffer even more? Kierkegaard answers: it is Christianity that says it. Is this so? Is Christianity really preoccupied with adding to the number of human afflictions, which are hard enough to bear as it is? And does Holy Scripture really not know a milder word? Peter healed a lame man; Jesus of Nazareth not only healed the sick, but raised the dead. And, obviously not foreseeing the critique of practical reason, he even said, in the simplicity of his heart, that it is "greater" to heal a sick man than to forgive his sins; but then, he was the incarnation of love and charity. Well then, why did he indeed distract our attention from charity by showing us a miracle, and thereby commit an offense against the ethical? Let this question be answered for us by Dostoevsky, a writer who is one of the closest and most congenial to Kierkegaard. "I maintain," he says, "that awareness of your inability to help or to bring any benefit or relief whatever to suffering mankind, at the same then that you are fully convinced of the suffering of mankind, can turn the love in your heart for mankind to hatred for it."

     Weak, powerless, helpless love reduced Dostoevsky to horror. But then, Kierkegaard himself was horrified by it. And did the friends of Job, against whom he rose up in anger, declare anything more than powerless love? They could not help Job— and they offered him what they had to give—words of charity. Only when Job laid bare their "stubbornness," and their "obstinacy," and rejected their "moral" and "metaphysical" consolations, did they attack him with their reproaches, justifiably seeing this as "rebellion" and "mutiny" against the ethical. And they were right: the ethical does the same thing itself and orders all its knights and servants to do likewise. It is powerless to return Job's children to to him, but it is able to strike at his soul with anathemas that are more painful than physical torture. Job is guilty before his friends and before the ethical because he scorned the gift of love and charity, and demanded "repetition," in integrum restitutio of what had been taken from him. And Kierkegaard was on Job's side. The ethical and its "gifts" are not supreme. In the face of the horrors that befell Job, helpless love and powerless charity must themselves understand their own insignificance and appeal to another principle. Job's friends are guilty of the greatest of sins: the desire to deal in their own pitiful human way with a matter that awaits, and calls for, a different comforter. If the ethical is supreme, then Job is not only a lost man, but also a condemned one. And, on the other hand, if Job is justified, if Job is saved, it means that there is a higher principle in the world, and that the "ethical" must take its humble place and submit to the religious. This is the meaning of the words by Dostoevsky quoted above, and—at present this will seem surprising, to say the least, but I hope further explanation will bear it out—it is also the meaning of Kierkegaard's edifying discourses, and of all that unprecedented and extreme cruelty or, as he himself called it, savagery which he sought and found or, more probably, inserted, not in Christianity, which had, in his opinion, abolished Christ, but in the actual words of Christ Himself. As we shall see, it is precisely here that Kierkegaard's method of "indirect communication," which I have already mentioned, has been carried out with special persistence.

[1] Edifying Discourses, III, 121; cf. ibid., p. 114: "Every man is in bondage to God."

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