Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Enslaved Will

Who would hesitate between choosing to trust in God and not choosing to do so? But my choice is not a free one. I am hardly aware of my own freedom, for I am wholly in the power of Necessity. I do not choose the path to God, for the choice is not mine.


     "My severity is not of my own making." We have gradually begun to understand where it does originate. "Look out over the field of battle"—the most hardened foe does not deal with the vanquished as mercilessly as the ethical. But we must not forget that, although it carefully guards this secret from the eyes of outsiders, the "ethical" did not itself invent its stony "you must's," but took them ready-made from its master, Necessity. Kant told us: "you must, therefore you can"; he derived the ethical from freedom, intelligible freedom, it is true, but freedom nonetheless. However, closer attention reveals something different. The statement should be: "you cannot, therefore you must not." The source of moral imperatives is not freedom, but Necessity. That severity is certainly not of Kierkegaard's making, but neither does it come from the ethical. If the ethical does not clearly understand this, it is only because it wants to be autonomous, to have its own laws, to be the supreme and ultimate principle, bound by no other laws, and the equal of reason, which also and for the same reasons conceals from all the fact that it is in bondage to Necessity. Only here can we find out why Kierkegaard demanded so insistently that the knight of faith pass through the stage of resignation; why, at the same time, he saw sin as the swoon of freedom; and, moreover, why he simultaneously determined that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but freedom. It is true that in so doing he was citing "dialectic," but we will be closer to him if we leave dialectic to the Greeks and Hegel, and begin to seek other sources for Kierkegaard's insight.

     However much we may expound upon "dialectic," in the last analysis, as I have already indicated, it always presupposes a certain self-movement: even Jacob Boehme "eagerly strove" to find a dialectical process in the world and in life, and, as is well known, it was chiefly this that made him attractive to the authors of German idealism. At times it even seems—although at first glance this appears paradoxical—that the German idealists, by the whim or the malicious intent of history, felt almost involuntarily obliged to demonstrate a retrospective influence upon the inflexible Boehme and drive him into the orbit of their own ideas. But when Kierkegaard freely and skillfully employs dialectic to show us the process by which the knight of resignation becomes the knight of daring, who is also the knight of faith, he is not at all interested in making us see this change of appearance as comprehensible, that is, natural in its regularity and continuity. In his work, dialectic always accompanies entirely different movements of the mind, which by their very nature neither demand nor seek explanations, but are rather directed at proclaiming the uselessness and futility of all explanations. And indeed, what sort of explanations can there be where, according to the testimony of our reason and experience, all possibilities come to an end, and there arises the truly mad problem of breaking through to a God for Whom nothing is impossible?

     And here Kierkegaard summons up his "severity," his ethical, his Necessity, and leads the knight of resignation to them. God, in concert with Satan, thought to "tempt" man: He sent Job's misfortunes upon him, He demanded Abraham's son. What is temptation? For reason, our knowledge, and our ethics, there is no answer to that question. Therefore, with characteristic confidence, they reject it: temptation is the fruit of idle fancy and, in fact, neither God nor the devil tempts man. Job lost his livestock and his children—this happened naturally; Abraham killed, or attempted to kill, his son—that, too, happened naturally, in a fit of mental derangement. This meaningless word must be dropped from the vocabulary of the enlightened man; Job must be left on his dunghill, and Abraham before the body of the son he murdered. The knight of resignation is definitely sure that there is no escape from the reality he sees, and no appeal from it. What has happened has happened; one must accept and submit to it. [Hegel "deified reality," but we don't have to deify it, since, having subjugated man, it is itself no longer subject to anything!] Hegel demanded that our thinking draw its truths from reality and add nothing of itself, and he was right; only such truths can withstand experience and time and eternity. But if reality is rational, if we can derive truth only from reality, then elementary consistency demands of us that we pass Biblical revelation through the filter of the truths obtained from reality. And, conversely, if revelation receives the sanction of truth, it must wear the halter of reality. Zeus himself told Chryssip this many hundreds of years before Hegel, as we have already mentioned more than once. Plato, too—I shall repeat this once again, as it cannot be said too often—saw with all possible clarity and distinctness the existence in the world of Necessity, which is indifferent to everything, and is the source of all the wrongs and hardships which fall to the lot of men.

     Can we properly draw an opposite conclusion, and say that Necessity is always perceptible behind the severity? If that is correct, then, are not Kierkegaard's discourses on the incomparable and boundless ferocity of the Gospels evidence of how he struggled against Necessity and realized that he was ultimately powerless to overcome it? The more insistently, impulsively, and, in their own way, inspiredly his words ring out, the more we are convinced that here before us is one of the most important and significant of his "indirect communications," although it may be unintentional. He cannot openly say that the power of Necessity is intolerable to him; this would appear to everyone a banal and ridiculous truism. It is still harder for him to admit that he is helpless to throw off that power. Regardless of the fact that Necessity, like the ghost of Banquo, although immensely effective, is illusory, fate chose to give such a revolting and shameful form to Kierkegaard's powerlessness that even he did not have enough courage to speak directly of what was for him the most important thing in the world. He even avoided using the word "powerlessness," justifiably afraid that by doing so he might betray his secret. But, on the other hand, he could not remain silent about this, or, to be more precise, he could not talk about anything else but the powerlessness of man before Necessity—precisely because even those who call themselves Christians try with all their might to forget about "Necessity," to hush it up, as if they felt instinctively that before Necessity everything, even their faith, must retreat and bow low. From this came his "indirect communications"; at times he hides behind his pseudonyms (the majority of his books are signed, not with his own name, but with the most varied pseudonyms) or behind the plots of the stories he invented, which always tell about a struggle between a living man and an infinitely powerful and completely indifferent force; at other times he sings the praises of a Christianity which is just as destructive and merciless as Necessity itself. And this is again an expression of the strict internal consistency in Kierkegaard's writings; if a Christian must and can "turn his attention away from the miracle" in Biblical revelation (i.e., from the idea that for God everything is possible, that even Necessity has no authority over God), and see as its essence the preaching of a love that can do nothing, then the more highly we interpret Christianity, the closer it comes to theoretical philosophy. In other words, if Christianity is only a doctrine, only edification, then it has in no way "surpassed Socrates," whose spiritual demands answer the strictest requirements of morality.

     But then, what is it that makes Kierkegaard "turn his attention" from the miraculous and summon us to powerless love? We have already come up against this question more than once; for Kierkegaard it is the basic question to which he persistently returns, since it is the articulus stantis et cadentis of existential philosophy. To turn your attention away from the miraculous means to admit the existence of veritates aeternae—which are also veritates emancipatae a Deo—truths independent of God, truths to which God is subordinate; it means to admit that for God not everything is possible. And to admit that for God not everything is possible is equivalent to admitting—as Kierkegaard himself has told us—that there is no God. Moreover, the Christianity which amounts to a doctrine, although an extraordinarily sublime one, of veritates aeternae is a denial of God, and the sublimeness of its doctrine is in direct proportion to the obstinacy and persistence of its denial. How often Kierkegaard himself said that Christianity is not a "doctrine," and warned against the "Dozenten" who turn the word of God into a rigid system of regulations, arranged in sections, chapters, and paragraphs! And yet at the same time we read in his Journal: "They would like to convince us that objections to Christianity come from doubt. This is a pure misunderstanding. Objections to Christianity have as their source insubordination, unwillingness to obey, rebellion against all authority. Consequently, until now, those who have fought doubt with intellectual weapons, instead of combatting that insurrection ethically, have fought in vain." [Journal, I, 313]

     At first glance it seems that the "ethical struggle" with unwillingness to obey can in fact be contrasted with what Kierkegaard calls an intellectual struggle with doubt; that in the sphere of the religious only the first kind of struggle is appropriate; and that this is the task of existential philosophy. But has he not told us: "To believe that what, for human reason, lies beyond the limits of the possible is possible for God: this is the most decisive provocation to offense"? [Ibid., VIII, 115] We have more than once before considered this enigmatic moment in the history of Kierkegaard's spiritual struggles. It is perfectly obvious that in his case there can be no talk of "insurrection," of unwillingness to obey. More than anything else in the world, he needed faith in a God for Whom that which, according to human reason, lies beyond the limits of the possible, is possible. He continually asserted: "If I had had faith—I would not have had to part from Regina." But he just as invariably repeated: "I cannot make the movement of faith." Why not? Was it because of "unwillingness to obey"? Because of pride? It may have been because of pride, but not the superbe diabolique which we discovered in the most humble Epictetus and that wisest of men, Socrates, and which—as we shall presently see—has nothing in common with the usual conception of pride. "Who would hesitate," testifies Kierkegaard, "between choosing to trust in God and not choosing to do so? But my choice is not a free one. I am hardly aware of my own freedom, for I am wholly in the power of Necessity. I do not choose the path to God, for the choice is not mine." [1] The inhuman and terrifying feeling of anguish which accompanied Kierkegaard's awareness that man cannot choose his own path is expressed with even greater force in his short essay "The Thorn in the Flesh." I shall quote it in German, in order not to weaken by a second translation the original, which has probably already been somewhat weakened by its first:
Wenn man geängstigt wird, geht die Zeit langsam; und wenn man viel geängstigt wird, da ist selbst ein Augenblick langsam mordend; und wenn man zu Tode geängstigt wird, da steht die Zeit zuletzt stille. Laufen zu wollen schneller als je—und da nicht einen Fuss rücken zu können; den Augenblick kaufen zu wollen mit Aufopferung alles andern—und da zu lernen, dass er nicht feil ist, weil es nicht liegt an Jemands Wollen oder Laufen, sondern an Gottes Erbarmen.
[When one is afraid, time passes slowly; and when one is very much afraid, even an instant is too long; and when one is scared to death, time comes to a standstill. You want to run as fast as possible - and you can't move a foot; you want to sacrifice everything to buy one single moment - and you realize then that it is not for sale, for it depends not on one's will or one's capacity to run, but on God's mercy. - AK]
He seeks God with all his soul, and upon the question of whether or not he will find God hangs his own fate and the fates of humanity and the universe—but he cannot make the "movement of faith," cannot stir even a limb; it is as if he were bewitched and his will paralyzed, or, as he himself said, in a swoon. And he clearly realizes this; he feels that he is in the power of Necessity, a power which he considers monstrous, hostile, and immensely hateful—but he has not the strength to overcome it. Can there be any talk here of insurrection, of rebellion—of unwillingness to "obey" God? To fling back the provocation to offense would have meant salvation for him. To believe that for God there is nothing impossible would mean salvation for all men. But he does not make, and cannot make, this movement, nor can anyone else in the world; Necessity has cast its spell over them all, and even Kierkegaard consults a doctor about the "truth," not daring to raise his eyes to the promised ouden adunatêsei humîn (nothing shall be impossible unto you.)

     Now we are at last able to ask: whence came this Necessity, and who or what gave it such boundless power over man? Kierkegaard has told us of stubbornness, inveteracy, insurrection, unwillingness to obey, etc—but we have seen that the matter does not lie here. Kierkegaard quotes Scripture to prove that he is right, but we have also seen that he could not have found any support for himself in Scripture, and that the source of his "insight" was not Scripture, but Greek wisdom—he felt obliged to amend Scripture continually in order to adapt it, in some measure at least, to his own interpretations. And his severity increased in proportion to his revision of Scripture, so that Christian doctrine, which everyone had thought to be gentle, became in his hands a doctrine of infinite "ferocity." I have already quoted a number of passages from the entries in his journals and from his other writings which are evidence of this. I do not think it would be superfluous to add a few more, so that the reader may obtain a graphic picture of the incandescent atmosphere in which Kierkegaard's life was passed: only then will he see the connection between Kierkegaard's and existential philosophy. In one of his "Christian discourses" we read: "For, in truth, Christian doctrine inspires greater despair than the most grievous earthly suffering or the greatest misfortune." And in the same discourse he says: "Only through torture can a confession be extracted from a man (i.e., a confession of the truth of Christian doctrine): natural man will not willingly submit to that." [Christian Discourses, 81] In his journal for 1850 he makes this entry: "Perfect love consists of loving that which makes us unhappy. Man cannot rightfully demand this. But God can, and there is something infinitely sublime in that. It must be said of the man who is religious in the strict sense of the word that, in loving God, he loves that which, even though it makes him blissful, makes him unhappy in this life." Strangely enough, he hastens to add here: "I have not the strength to understand this; moreover I am greatly afraid that in so doing I would become entangled in the most dangerous of the snares which have been set for us, which is to begin to believe in our own merits. But the man who is in the strictest sense religious is equal to this danger." [2] And, finally, in the last year of his life, he writes in the little magazine, The Instant, which he published himself and to which he was the only contributor: "God is so terrible (humanly speaking) in his love; it is so terrible (humanly speaking) to be loved by God. For as complement to the proposition: God is love, there is another proposition: He is your mortal enemy." [XII, 54]

     The persistence with which Kierkegaard, throughout his writings, invariably returns to the theme of the horrors brought into the world by Christianity, and the miserly restraint of his language on the subject of the blessings reserved for witnesses for the truth, remind one of those righteous men who, in thundering against vice, endlessly describe its charms, and only in conclusion, hurriedly, as if discharging a tedious duty, add that atonement will have to be made eventually for the joys provided by vice. Kierkegaard portrays the horrors of Christianity with stunning power, but he paints no vivid pictures of its blessings. It is as though he wished to say: what possible blessings can there be in a world where the "religious ethical" rules!

     He clearly has no desire to lead the way to Christianity as it is understood by contemporary man, who is obliged to turn his attention away from the miracle (i.e., the idea that for God everything is possible) and be content with a faith that has justified itself before the court of reason. This is why he, for once in complete agreement with Holy Scripture, never fails to remind us that the greatest offense for man lies in the words: "for God everything is possible." This means that the rational and the ethical are not supreme, as Socrates had taught; neither the immense number of "you cannot's" dictated by reason, nor the even greater number of "you must's" imperiously set before man by the "ethical," can lead us to the supreme principle, the ultimate source of being. It is with this principle that "doubt" is waging its struggle to the death, and only through a misunderstanding, as Kierkegaard has told us, can one see in this doubt an obstacle to the faith which is basic to Biblical revelation and all that Biblical revelation presupposes. As long as we rely upon the guidance of reason, faith and the ability, given us by faith, to see that for God everything is possible will appear to be inconsistent with the truth. To say that for God everything is possible means to offer a final and decisive challenge to reason, which cannot tolerate any other power as its equal and is therefore always trying to undermine the strength of faith. Reason clearly, distinctly, and definitely sees where possibilities come to an end; it does not accept a faith which considers its claim to be omniscient and all-seeing completely nonexistent and looks for the truth to a living God Who is not bound to, or limited by, anything. Kierkegaard himself has said to us that faith begins where all possibilities end for reason.

     But men do not want to think about this; they do not even want to glance in the direction where the fire of faith, which for some unknown reason they think to be sinister, has begun to burn with a flame that is destined to reduce reason to ashes. We have seen that, although they are very dissimilar in all else, Bonaventura and Hegel are in agreement on this; they both have confidence, the former in religion, the latter in philosophy and reason. It is different with Kierkegaard; he feels with his whole being that reason, by its very nature, strives to render faith defenseless, to suck it dry of its vital juices. He is sure that faith begins where reason ceases to be of service to man. Of course, he knows that men refuse to enter the realm in which reason can no longer guide them; the commonplace cannot bear what madness and death have to tell it. But it is for precisely that reason that Kierkegaard summons man from theoretical to existential philosophy, as if he wanted to force our thinking in the very direction toward which it is least inclined to go. It is not enough to say that the wise man will be blissful in the Bull of Phalaris—one must arrange one's entire life so that its substance will be exhausted by that bliss. We will recall that Kierkegaard not only remained aloof from Hegel and theoretical philosophy, but also drew a line between himself and the mystics; we would hardly be wrong in saying that what repelled him most of all in the mystics was the very thing that makes them so attractive to most people, even educated persons of our own time: their earthly bliss, humanly attainable right here on earth. Nowhere does he say this directly, but it seems that the more triumphantly and inspiredly a mystic conveys his joy at union with God, the more gloomy and impatient Kierkegaard becomes. The mystic has already received his reward, and he has achieved it for himself by his own powers; is this not that superbe diabolique we have met before, which always conceals human powerlessness?

     In other words, have not the mystics, like the wise men of old, exchanged the fruit of the tree of life, which is inaccessible to them, for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which after the fall of the first man became accessible to all? But if the fruit of the tree of knowledge is truly more valuable than the fruit of the tree of life, then why do the mystics so assiduously avoid the horrors of existence? They know that Socrates and Plato were convinced there is no higher principle than reason, which is why it is said that the greatest misfortune for man is to become a misologos. But they also know that not everything is possible for reason, that it shares its power with Necessity. Why are they silent about the chaos with which Necessity fills the world—and why do they continue with their praises as if there had never been any Necessity at all? The mystics extol the bliss of the man who has renounced finite attachments—Kierkegaard speaks of the horrors of such an existence. The mystics, like theoretical philosophy, have a final and definitive answer for every question asked by the man who has been left to himself and his reason; existential philosophy subjects these answers and their finality to a new test. The virtues—and the highest of divine and human virtues is love—will be confronted with the horrors of earthly existence; could philosophical or mystical bliss endure such a trial? Beneath the "bliss" of mysticism, as beneath Spinoza's beatitudo non est praemium virtutis sed ipsa virtus, is there not visible the ancient eritis sicut dei scientes bonum et malum?

     Christian mysticism and philosophy, the enemy of faith, are equally incapable of hearing what "madness and death have to tell" them. Their promised "blessings" are an expression of superbe diabolique, which suffices to elevate poetic creativity to dizzying heights, but is powerless and helpless to restore anything to a Job who has been crushed by the hammer of God. The "miserable comforters," who do not know themselves what they are saying, are those that, like the friends of Job with their rational, human considerations, venture into the presence of a man whom the Lord is testing with His horrors.

[1] IV, 319. Cf. III, 48: "It is completely impossible for me to make the final movement, the paradoxical movement of faith, whether or not I am obliged to make it, and even though I am more than willing to make it."

[2] Journal, II, 163. Cf. 204, 261, 277, and still other entries made after 1850, in which the same subject is mentioned.

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