Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Autonomy of the Ethical

Both of you died and one attained the same bliss as the other (the witness for the truth). Think about that—and then see if you do not say the same thing as I: what sort of crying injustice is this, that we have attained equal bliss.


     "My severity is not of my own making," Kierkegaard tells us. But whence came the severity of Socrates, of Epictetus, of Spinoza? And—the time has come to ask one more question which is perhaps, in its own way, even more important: why did the Greek sages, who glorified virtue, elaborate so little and, as it seems, only lightly upon the difficulties to be found in the way of the righteous, while Kierkegaard's journals and his other writings are filled to overflowing with weeping and wailing about these horrors? Kierkegaard asked that men imitate Christ in their own lives, and seek from life, not joy, but sorrow. The Greek katharsis could be summed up, without exaggeration, as an imitation of Socrates, and the Greeks taught of the wise man's bliss in the bull of Phalaris. And even what Kierkegaard says about the poverty, humiliations, etc., willingly accepted by Christians finds a parallel in the teachings of the school of the Cynics, which derived from Socrates. There is a well-known saying, attributed to Antisthenes: maneiên mallon ê hêstheiên ("I would rather go mad than experience pleasure"). But no matter how stern the demands of the wise men of Greece were, not one of them, with the exception of Hegesias, ever thought it necessary to depict the difficulties and horrors of a virtuous existence in the painstaking manner of Kierkegaard—they all preferred to speak of the beauty and sublimeness of the just life. No one ever heard Socrates complain, and he certainly had reason to complain. He drank the cup of poison brought to him by his jailer as if it were a healing potion: how movingly was this story told, in the words of the disciples who were present at his death, by the divine Plato for the edification of posterity!

     The same may be said of Spinoza: he, too, knew want and sickness, suffered persecution, died young—but this left no outward traces visible in his philosophy. Like Socrates, he truly was not distressed that fate had given him, not an easy and happy life, but a difficult and sorrowful one. His virtue would have been consolation enough for him even if everything described in the books and journals of Kierkegaard had fallen to his lot; it would have defended him against 'lugere et detestari' and the despair which accompanies lugere et detestari. Wisdom itself was speaking through the voice of Epictetus when he asserted that, had Socrates been in the position of Priam or Oedipus, he would have remained calm, would have said serenely: if it pleases the gods, let it be so. Socrates never heard of Job; but had he been able to meet Job, he would have tried to cure him in his usual manner: with dialectic and irony. Kierkegaard's books and journals would have evoked great indignation from him and inspired him with unfeigned disgust. How could anyone think that Job was right, not when he said: God gave, God has taken away, but when, deaf to reason, he wailed and cursed senselessly! A rational man must aequo animo utramque faciem fortunae ferre: everything in the world is given to man as a loan, not as a possession, and it can always be taken back again. And Socrates would have been even more disturbed by Kierkegaard's assurances that each man decides for himself what his Isaac is to be, for this is free will, the truest, most genuine free will, an orgy of free will. Not only man, but the gods themselves cannot, as they imagine, decide what is important and what is not: it is not because something is holy that the gods love it; the gods can and must love only what is holy. Bliss, for both mortals and immortals, is not to be found in the "finite," in transitory joys and the absence of equally transitory sorrows, but in "good," which has no connection with either our joys or our sorrows, and which is made of an entirely different stuff from that which men usually prize, or love. This is why, even in Epictetus, "you must" towers above and dominates every "I want."

     But it does not tower as it does in Kierkegaard's work. Epictetus, like Socrates, would never have dreamed of saying that the bliss promised by his philosophy is worse, in human estimation, than any misfortune we may suffer. Philosophy does not even pay any attention to the "general estimation" and what people consider to be their misfortunes; if it does, by any chance, think of them, it is only to dismiss them as worthless, petty, and futile. Even Abraham's sacrifice would not have perplexed the sage of Greece: "if it pleases the gods, let it be so," he would have said. Anyone who is unable to ascend to such heights of intellectual vision is not worthy to be called a man; he is a miserable slave, chained by mean and despicable attachments to the transitory. The free man rises above all this, sets out for the pure realm of the ethical and the eternal where the noise and tumult of earth cannot be heard. Freedom is by no means the possibility Kierkegaard declares it to be, citing Holy Scripture; freedom is the possibility, granted to men by the gods, of choice between good and evil. And this possibility, which makes us equal to the immortals, has been given to every man. Socrates wanted to be free, and he was free; he sought the "sublime"—and only the sublime—in life, and found it. His philosophy was the exercise of freedom in the pursuit of the sublime. Anyone who wishes to enter the Kingdom of God must follow the example of Socrates. And it makes no difference at all whether a man happens to suffer greatly in life, whether he is persecuted or not. If Socrates had enjoyed general respect, and had died a natural death, nothing would have been essentially changed by this; his successes in life would have detracted as little from his worth as his failures had added to it. The wise man takes neither the one nor the other into account. This is why he proudly proclaims his independence even from almighty fate: everything that is not within our power (ta ouk eph'hêmîn) is a matter of indifference to us. No one, not even the gods, can punish or reward him.

     The keen mind of Pascal, of course, correctly saw in this lofty "independence" of the Greek sage from God, which so impresses everyone, that superbe diabolique, that pride of which Holy Scripture speaks; and perhaps no one has been able to expose for us the nature of pride, both human and diabolic, as clearly as Epictetus. Indeed, Epictetus himself, who could not and did not wish to conceal anything, gives us a hint of the required "explanation." In his words, "philosophy has its beginning in the helplessness of man and in his awareness of his own powerlessness before Necessity." Pride, as Holy Scripture represents it, or what Epictetus calls the freedom and independence of man, is only a shell, only a façade, behind which he hides his powerlessness before necessity. And can there really be any doubt of the origin of this pride? Can there be any question that Pascal was right when he discerned superbe diabolique in the wisdom of that remote spiritual descendant of Socrates?

     But Kierkegaard was even more deeply aware of it. For him, the ethical of Socrates and Epictetus offered the greatest offense. When the horrors of reality advanced upon him, He turned his eyes to the God of the Bible, for Whom nothing is impossible. And at times it seemed to him that God answered him, that God had answered his prayers and would free him from the nightmarish and senseless idea, which had become rooted in his being, that in the Absurd of faith the "immutable" truths obtained by our forefather from the tree of knowledge would disappear without trace and the way to the tree of life would be laid open. But the years went by and the nightmare did not vanish, but grew and grew. And then he forced himself to turn his attention away from the impossible and concentrate wholly upon the possible. Even in the healing of the sick he made himself see, not a miraculous vanquishing of powerlessness—powerlessness cannot be vanquished—but only the love and charity of the Apostle. He would have preferred it if Peter had limited himself to a mere word of consolation, in order to put an end once and for all to his futile and tormenting hopes that for God everything is possible, that by God's word the blind will see, the deaf hear, the lepers be cleansed, the dead be raised.

     Socrates dispensed with that sort of God. He knew for certain, through human reason, that the impossible does not exist, that the impossible is impossible for that very reason, that it has never existed anywhere and never will, and that all must therefore come to a halt before impossibility. He was no less certain that reason does not deceive us and there are no magic formulas in the world which can free man from the power of rational truths; that, on the contrary, man has a will which commands him to love these truths and obey them. The fundamental thesis—not of Biblical revelation, as Kierkegaard sometimes maintained in moments of doubt, but of Greek wisdom—was that sin is the result of the obstinacy and stubbornness of the will. Alcibiades himself did not deny that, if he had wanted to, he could have followed the example of Socrates in everything and become a model of every virtue. He could have, but he did not wish to; he was attracted by the good things of this world—divitiae, honores, libidines—and wallowed in the filth of vices. He became a sinner for whom there was no salvation either in this world or the next, for, as Plato explained to us, the man who devotes himself, not to philosophy, but to his desires, will never attain the salvation which is reserved for the righteous and the righteous alone. In our finite existence, as experience shows, the sun rises for good men and evil alike. Here it often happens that the man who does not work eats, and the man who works has nothing to eat. Here the lilies of the field, which think of nothing and do not worry about the future, are clothed more richly than King Solomon. Here the fowls of the air sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns—and they have all that they need. All this is as the Scriptures tell us. Socrates tells us that this is a "crying injustice." He even "knows" that "there," there is another law: he who does not work (katharsis is work) does not eat. "There" the ethical keeps step with the rational.

     Whenever Kierkegaard feels obliged to "turn his attention" away from the "miraculous," to forget that for God nothing is impossible, it is not within his power, indeed he has no desire, to contend with Socrates and his "ethical!" What if God does forgive sins—man can still never regain his innocence. Forgiveness is only forgiveness, only oblivion; even God cannot abolish, destroy, extirpate the sin which runs through existence—quod factum est infectum esse nequit—there is no escape, either for God or for men, from the horrors of existence. But, if this is so, if these horrors are so inextricably bound up with existence—then not only must they not be hidden away, they must not even be covered over; they must be brought to view, and must not be avoided, but sought out, not only accepted, but given our blessing. The pagans taught that the wise man can be blissful even in the Bull of Phalaris; Christianity, transforming itself into the ethical, "goes further"—but in the same direction: only in the Bull of Phalaris will man find true bliss. A man who imitates" Socrates will not fear the bull of Phalaris, but he who imitates Christ will be dismayed at escaping it... Pascal saw superbe diabolique in Epictetus. But Epictetus wanted only to emulate Socrates, who was the wisest of men, but nevertheless a man. What should we call the desire to become equal to Christ, i.e., God, by imitating him?

     Once again it must be said that Kierkegaard was astute enough to see the difficulty concealed here. In one of his edifying discourses he proposes this question: is it right for a man, in defense of the truth, to run the risk of having those near to him tear him limb from limb and thereby take upon themselves the most grievous of sins? And he answers: it is not right, even though Christ himself did this. Christ was able to do it because he has the power to forgive all, to forgive even those who crucified him—but a man who does not possess this power must not, even in bearing witness for the truth, overstep the limits set for him. And yet, although Kierkegaard plainly realizes that man must not wish to become God's equal, he sings his passionate hymns to suffering as ecstatically as ever, both in his edifying discourses and his other writings, and imperiously demands that men seek out martyrdom in their earthly lives. The older he grows, the more violent and unrestrained his frenzied preaching becomes. He does not venture to attack Luther openly, but at times Luther's sola fide drives him into a rage. "Picture two believers," [1] he says, addressing the reader; "one of them has passed his life on earth happily, without knowing poverty or sickness, has enjoyed general respect, and been a happy family man. The other man, on the contrary, has suffered persecution during his entire life in defense of the truth. Both of them are Christians and both of them hope for bliss in the next life.

     I have no authority," he continues, "and I am not about to take exception to this, although if you should come across a man who does possess authority, he would probably have something quite different to say to you, and you would realize to your horror that your Christianity is only a word, and that hell awaits you. I am far from considering this view an exaggeration, but I have no authority and it would not be right for me to say that I believe you will find bliss, as if I were a genuine witness for the truth or a hero of faith. But I do say to you: remember how you have lived and how he has lived. Remember what he had to sacrifice, he who renounced everything: both that which seems at first glance hardest of all to give up, and that which is all the harder to give up with the passage of time. Think of how he suffered—how painfully, how long! And at the same time you were living happily in the bosom of your family, your wife loved you with all her heart, your children were a joy to you—only think what a comfort it is to live your life in such peace and tranquility—and this was your life for all your days on earth... and then think of the witness for the truth. You did not live in idleness (I do not think that), but your work did not consume all your time: you were able to rest and refresh yourself; you may not have lived in luxury, but you did not know want... In short, your life was passed in quiet joy, but his—alas!—was hard work and suffering day in and day out. And now you have both attained bliss; you have attained what he has." Further on Kierkegaard tells us more specifically what the "witness for the truth" had to bear, how he was driven and persecuted, and after that he concludes: "Then both of you died and one attained the same bliss as the other. Think about that and then see if you do not say the same thing as I: what sort of "crying injustice" is this, that we have attained equal bliss." [XI, 15, 16]

     I hope that the reader will not complain because I have quoted such a long passage. It gives us an extremely vivid description of what the religious becomes when it yields to the temptation of the "ethical," or, if you prefer, it shows us the devices to which the ethical can resort when it finds it necessary to "distract our attention" from the religious. Kierkegaard, who composed such fiery hymns to suffering, Kierkegaard, who scornfully rejected earthly joys, even in the other world cannot settle his dispute with Mynster regarding these joys and sufferings. Even in the other world where eternal bliss has fallen to his lot, the "witness for the truth" does not forget the insults he received on earth, which he himself had sought, or the joys he "willingly" rejected. Neither immortality, nor bliss, nor eternity can erase the memories of the ignominy he experienced in his finite existence, and even less can they replace the joys of which he was deprived. It is as if he were repeating the words of Lermontov's Demon: I involuntarily envied imperfect human joy. This imperfect joy is better than immortality, better than eternity, better than the heavenly bliss reserved for us by the ethical. One step further, and he would be saying: it is better to be a day laborer on earth than a king in the world of shadows. The only thing that can reassure him is his confidence that even "there" the ethical will retain its power. Of course, even there it will not be able to add anything to his bliss, nor to the bliss of his companion. The fruit of the tree of life is beyond his reach; only the fruit of the tree of knowledge is available to him.

     We found out long ago from Falstaff that the ethical cannot reward; it can only punish. And, even if the Almighty Himself does open the gates of paradise "impartially" to the one that bore witness for the truth and the one that did not, the ethical will not give up its prerogatives. It will poison the "bliss" of the man who did not work, it will turn heaven into hell for him, so that the witness for the truth will be able to say in all sincerity, as he looks upon his unhappy companion in bliss: "I thank You, Lord, that I am not as that publican." To be sure, even Kierkegaard does not speak as harshly as this. But still, when he mentions the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, in passing, it is true, he cannot help putting in a kind word for the Pharisee. It could hardly be otherwise: Christ, in this parable, did "overstate" his love for sinners all too far. Once the ethical intervenes, it must decide the fates of men itself. Most men would not venture to revise this parable as Kierkegaard did—but nevertheless virtue always collects its tribute. After reading about the publican, a man says to himself: "I thank You, Lord, that I am not as that Pharisee." And, in fact, if the way to bliss passes through the ethical, if bliss comes from the tree of knowledge and not from the tree of life, if it was not God, but the serpent that revealed the truth to the first man—then there is no other way out; man not only can, but must, save himself by his own powers, as the ancients taught. This is the only real salvation. And so once again it becomes necessary to amend the Scriptures: where it is said: initium peccati superbia, we shall say: the beginning of righteousness is superbe diabolique.

[1] We would not go wrong in assuming that these two believers are Bishop Mynster and Kierkegaard himself; the details of Kierkegaard's thinking on this subject give clear enough evidence of that.

Orphus system

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