Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


God is Love

God is love... You cannot even remotely imagine how He suffers. For He knows how difficult and painful it is for you. But He can change nothing of it, since otherwise He Himself would have to become something different, something other than love.


     We have made an exhaustive study of "existential philosophy," as represented in the sermons and Edifying Discourses of Kierkegaard, in our attempt to explore its true meaning and significance. We have discovered that it expresses—in indirect form—the most tormenting, but also what I would call the most cherished and original, of Kierkegaard's thoughts: the imitation of Socrates led the wise men of pagan times inevitably to the Bull of Phalaris; the imitation of Christ led to quiet despair for those in whom Biblical revelation had been refracted through Hellenic wisdom. Both the former and the latter men accepted only that "bliss" which they had created by themselves. Where, so far as even the most perceptive could see, the slightest confusion existed, superbe diabolique unexpectedly emerged. And now it becomes clear why Kierkegaard insists that the beginning of existential philosophy is despair, why he demanded that the knight of faith first of all pass through the stage of resignation, and what precisely he understood by the knight of resignation. The knight of resignation is the man who has "turned his attention away from the miraculous." He knows that eternal bliss—the only sort which living creatures can attain— lies in "conquering his own inclinations," and scrupulously carrying out all the "you must's" addressed to him by a higher power. A few months before his death, Kierkegaard wrote: "There is only one permissible relationship to revealed truth: faith in it. What a man believes can be demonstrated in only one way: by his readiness to suffer for his faith; and the extent of his faith can be told only by the extent of his readiness to suffer for it." [XII, 152]

     These words are tempting in the extreme—who would venture to "dispute" them? But is not the knight of resignation a good example of this? Did he renounce suffering? Were not Socrates, and Epictetus, too, embodiments in this respect of the proclaimed ideal of the faithful? What then is the purpose of revealed truth? Kierkegaard could upbraid Hegel for not making his philosophy the guide of his own life and seeking more tangible blessings than those which were appropriate for him as philosopher of the spirit, but even the worst enemies of Socrates or Epictetus could not reproach them in the same way. And among modern philosophers one could name more than a few who are in this regard above all suspicion: Spinoza was prepared to undergo, and did undergo, the greatest suffering for his convictions; Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake; Campanella spent his life in prison, and was not broken by the tortures of his inquisitors, to whom he staunchly retorted that he had burned more oil in his lamps—the symbol of toil and wakefulness by night—than they had ever drunk of wine. I could also cite men who are remote from any philosophical doctrines: Mucius Scaevola or Regulus, whom St. Augustine so often referred to as Stoics who lived before Stoicism. We are, of course, entitled to assess their incomparable courage and other spiritual qualities as highly as we please—but faith and revealed truth have nothing to do with that. Quite the opposite—both in their lives and in their opinions, these men defied revealed truth and faith (I have in mind, of course, not the Roman heroes, but Bruno and Spinoza.) St. Augustine always spoke of Mucius Scaevola and Regulus with unconcealed irritation. And yet, if we keep to the criteria set forth by Kierkegaard, we must see them as witnesses for the truth, even men of faith; for they proved their faith by their suffering and the courage with which they accepted and bore that suffering. Not only did the "ethical" not take them under its protection; it held them up as an example to those who are not willing to distinguish themselves in its service. Their absolute "disinterestedness"—for they did not count on "bliss," either in this life or the next—guaranteed complete triumph for the ethical, which is powerless to give us anything but praise; disinterestedness has put man in bondage, i.e., it has fulfilled that conditio sine qua non which alone makes it possible for the ethical to gain absolute control over the world.

     Kierkegaard never mentions the names of these men; but if he had, he would scarcely have taken their part against St. Augustine. Rather, he would have reminded us of the well-known saying: virtutes gentium splendida vitia sunt ("The virtues of the pagans are splendid vices"), which even to this day has been attributed to St. Augustine, and would have countered their "disinterestedness" with the same indignant words he let fly when faced by those speculative philosophers who take pride in their readiness to "accept" objective truth, whatever it may bring with it. No sufferings, no sacrifices, not even voluntary ones, could have justified these original martyrs to the ethical in Kierkegaard's eyes. Their faith, faith in the ethical which has once and for all rejected the miraculous, would have seemed to him monstrous, the ultimate in lack of faith. And this would only have emphasized again that Kierkegaard's edifying discourses must be understood as "indirect communication," and that existential philosophy, insofar as it glorifies the eternal truths of reason and morality, liberated from God and therefore petrified, is merely preparation, merely the first step toward the great and final struggle to which he dedicated his brief life.

     Kierkegaard never raised the question of whether Luther was a "witness for the truth." It is true that more than once he expressed his regret that Luther had not managed to end his life in martyrdom, [1] and it is also true that Luther's Table Talk inspired him with extreme annoyance and even indignation, but nevertheless he did not venture to say that Luther was not a witness for the truth (as he had said of Bishop Mynster, after the latter's death). And if he had been asked whose was the true faith, that of Mucius Scaevola and Regulus, who "proved" by voluntary martyrdom their readiness to carry out what they considered their duty, or that of Luther, whom history gave no opportunity of offering such "proof," he would hardly have hesitated over his answer. Faith is not proved by martyrdom or sacrifices. Faith is not proved at all; it does not require proofs and has no need of them. And existential philosophy, which is so closely united with faith that only in the presence of and through faith can it do its work, finds in faith that new dimension which sets it apart from theoretical philosophy. Faith dwells beyond proofs, as it dwells, to use Kierkegaard's words, beyond death. When all possibilities come to an end for man's thinking, new possibilities are "revealed" for faith.

     An example from elementary geometry can serve to make somewhat clearer to us, or at least give us an approximation of, the way in which Kierkegaard perceived faith. It is impossible to draw more than one perpendicular to a straight line from a point on a two-dimensional plane. And if any line occupies the place of the perpendicular, that privileged position is forever unattainable by all the other innumerable straight lines at large in the universe; the laws of contradiction, of the excluded third, etc., keep that fortunate and privileged line safe from all other pretenders' temptation to become its equal. But what is impossible on a two-dimensional plane suddenly becomes possible when we pass from plane to solid geometry; when, enriched by a new dimension, we transform a flat surface into three-dimensional space: an infinite number of perpendiculars can be drawn to a line from one and the same point, and the smallest, most insignificant line, forgotten by all, almost forgotten by itself, is equal in "value" to that one line which enjoyed the enviable and seemingly inalienable right of forming two equal and adjacent angles with a given straight line, of being the geometrical location of fixed points, and so on and so forth. Every kind of understanding, every kind of knowledge, every intelligere takes place on a plane surface, is by its very nature in conflict with the new dimension, and tries with all its might to compress and flatten the human—all too human, in its estimation—ridere, lugere et detestari into this plane. And conversely, the latter break away from the plane where intelligere has pressed them down, toward a freedom which does not know how to, and cannot, coexist with intelligere.

     This is why existential philosophy, as we have seen, abandoned Hegel and the Greek symposium for Job and Abraham. And yet, more precisely: for that very reason we cannot justifiably turn our backs on Kierkegaard's "severe" Christianity. And this is in spite of the fact that, in the last year of his life, in The Instant, where he published his vehement phillipics against married pastors, complacent theologians, and the laity who had turned Biblical revelation into a comprehensible and tolerable, even advantageous, moral system, and in which he declared that Christian man had abolished Christ, Kierkegaard frankly admitted that he did not even consider himself equal to the demands made upon him by Christianity. After repeating for the hundredth time his fundamental idea: "The truth is that to be a Christian means to be unhappy in this life and you will be (humanly speaking) all the more unhappy and will suffer all the more in this life, the more you devote yourself to God and the more God loves you," he adds, immediately afterward: "To the weak man this idea appears terrible and destructive, demanding a superhuman straining of all his powers. I know this from twofold experience. First of all—I myself cannot endure it (italics mine) and can only observe from a distance, only get a hint of, this truly Christian idea of Christianity... secondly, the peculiar circumstances of my existence have riveted my attention upon it; otherwise I would never have concentrated on it, and would be even less capable of bearing its burden." [XII, 82] In a footnote he provides an even more detailed explanation: "Therefore," he writes, "I do not even consider myself a Christian—I am far from that. But in one respect I have an advantage over official Christianity: when I speak of Christianity, I am talking about the real Christianity and not adulterating it, and I speak in the same way of my relationship to Christianity."

     This unusually valuable admission (of a sort which, incidentally, is not uncommon in his journals and other writings) sheds new light and aids us in discovering what inspired his "indirect communications" and why "existential philosophy" needs them and cannot do without them. Kierkegaard himself could not endure his own "severity" and his "ferocious" Christianity, and I think it would not even be a distortion of the formal text for us to say that there is not a soul alive who could endure the severity of Kierkegaard's Christianity. It remains only to ask: could God Himself endure this sort of Christianity? There can be no doubt that this question lies hidden beneath all Kierkegaard's edifying discourses and that all of them have only one aim: to pose this question. Human cowardice, as Kierkegaard said more than once, cannot endure what madness and death have to tell us. But madness and death have no regard for human endurance and continue to spin out their endless narrative; the works of Kierkegaard are nothing other than this narrative, more or less systematized and put into order. But if human cowardice cannot endure it— could divine courage? It would not be amiss to mention at this point that by "sufferings" Kierkegaard does not mean the usual hardships, however considerable, which men must overcome, and do overcome to a greater or less degree, together and separately, guided by the counsel of their reason and supported by their moral strength. When Kierkegaard speaks of "sufferings," he means the hopelessness and gloom from which even reason and virtue flee as from the plague. In the presence of Job, wallowing in filth, in the presence of Abraham, raising the knife above his son, the wise and truly sublime words of the friends of Job seem like the salt that has lost its savor. And here we ask: could even God endure horrors such as these? There is, at the same time, another question: who or what is it that inflicts these horrors upon mortals and immortals alike? And if there is something in the world that does inflict us with these horrors, then is it strictly necessary to accept and endure them? Are acceptance and endurance man's only possible answer to the horrors of life?

     Kierkegaard has just told us that he could not endure true Christianity, or what he, in his works, calls true Christianity, and that he could not realize in his own life what Christianity demands of man; he could only set forth, without any alteration or falsification, what he had learned from Holy Scripture. But this is exactly what is rejected and forbidden in the most decisive way by existential philosophy. Existential philosophy requires, not the exposition, however accurate, of any doctrine, but its carrying out in life, its realization. Even Epictetus knew this: a man can in no way justify himself by honestly and humbly admitting his weakness and inability to rise to the proper level of morality. With existential philosophy (which is why it is existential, and not speculative) "I cannot's" of any sort discredit not just the man, but the philosophy itself.

     In the very middle of the eighteen-fifties, that is, just at the height of Kierkegaard's battle with the official Christianity that had abolished Christ, he became acquainted with the works of Schopenhauer, who was already at that time coming to be well known in Germany. They made a great impression upon him. "In spite of my complete difference of opinion with him," he remarks in his journal, "I was amazed to find a writer who resembled me so closely." [Journal, II, 344] And then he rebukes Schopenhauer for "developing an ethical doctrine that does not have the power to compel its teacher to manifest it in his own life." However, the same must also be said of Kierkegaard: he cannot in all conscience be excused by his admission that he did not think he could properly call himself a Christian. Schopenhauer is only "honest in that" he does not pretend to be the equal of the righteous men he praises, and does not try to pass himself off as a holy man—Kierkegaard stresses this. And yet he applies the scale of existential philosophy to Schopenhauer; would like to "compel" him to embody his doctrine in his life, although he does not find it necessary or possible to oblige himself to do the same; and, after his encounter with Schopenhauer, continues to preach "ferocious" Christianity with an ever-increasing passion. It would, however, be a mistake to see any inconsistency in this. Rather, the opposite is true: I would say that what is expressed here is a complete indifference, even hostility, toward theoretical consistency, as toward everything which smacks of "coercion." Existential philosophy cannot endure coercion; coercion has remained wholly the property of theoretical philosophy. And although Kierkegaard demands that Schopenhauer affront people, not in his books, which may or may not be read, but in public places, in theaters, in churches, it is by no means absolutely necessary that he do so; to be more precise, it is not necessary at all. Si vis me plere, primum est tibi ipse dolendum ("If you wish me to weep, you yourself must suffer first"); he feels that Schopenhauer became habituated to his pessimism, accommodated himself to it—and he cannot forgive him this. Schopenhauer ridiculed Leibniz and called his optimism "dishonest." But a pessimism which has "accommodated itself" in life, which can remain calm in the face of the questions which Kierkegaard sets for philosophy, seems far more dishonest.

     In his peculiar language, Kierkegaard calls his relationship to Christianity "simultaneousness": for him the horrors of Christ's earthly life exist not in the past, but in the present; they are not ended, but continue. And he sees this as "crucial." Moreover, although he has admitted that he can do no more than set forth Christian doctrine, and can never put it into practice, he unhesitatingly declares: "This (simultaneousness) is crucial. This idea has been the idea of my entire life. I can truly say that I have felt honored to suffer for proclaiming it. I would gladly die for it, infinitely grateful to Providence for having given me the opportunity of fixing my attention and the attention of others upon it. I am not its author—God forbid that I should be so presumptuous—this idea was originated long ago; it is stated in the New Testament. But I was fated, in my suffering, to remind people anew of this idea which, as rat poison is death to rats, is death to Dozenten, that miserable scum which is destroying Christianity at its roots, Dozenten, those fine fellows who construct tombs for the prophets and objectively interpret their teachings, who objectively (for subjectivity presupposes a morbid affectation; it must be assumed that they take pride in their objectivity) make use of the suffering and death of better men, while they themselves (always with the aid of their celebrated objectivity) maintain a position outside, and as far away as possible from anything that recalls in any way the possibility of their sharing the suffering of these men... Simultaneousness—this is the crux of the matter. Picture a witness for the truth, that is, a man who follows an ideal. He has borne every sort of insult and endured, long endured, all manner of persecution. In the end he is executed, and the death to which he is condemned is a terrible one. He is burned, burned with exquisite cruelty in a slow fire. Picture this to yourself. Christianity and the seriousness of the case demand that you picture this graphically, as graphically as if you yourself were a contemporary of that man, and that you recognize him for what he really is. In this lies the seriousness of Christianity." [XII, 126]

     I find it necessary to quote further passages from Kierkegaard's works in order that we may come closer to what is not only the central idea of his philosophy, but has been and always will be the object of intense consideration for every living man. Plotinus called this to timiôtaton (the most important, most significant), Scripture calls it the one thing that is needful. "We human beings suppose that the main thing is to pass our lives happily in this world. Christianity, however, holds that all horrors are of the next world; the horrors of our world are but child's play in comparison with the horrors of eternity; and therefore the problem is not to live happily in this world, but to achieve through suffering a genuine relationship to eternity. Man lives only once. If at the hour of death you are convinced that you have led a righteous life, i.e., have kept your eyes fixed upon eternity—then praise and thanks be to God for evermore; if not, there is no way to make amends: all is lost. Man lives only once. If you have missed the opportunity of suffering, or avoided it, you will never be able to set matters right. God does not wish to coerce you. Not for anything in the world would the God of love coerce anyone; by doing so He would accomplish an entirely different aim from the one He had intended. How could the God of love even think of demanding love by coercion?... God is love. There is not a man whom this thought would not fill with indescribable bliss, especially if he were to give it a concrete, personal interpretation: God is love; this means that God loves you. But as soon as a man comes to the conclusion that to be loved by God means to be doomed to suffering, and becomes convinced that the sufferings will not be trivial—he is horrified. Yes, but this is the result of love. You cannot even remotely imagine how He suffers—for He knows how difficult and painful it is for you. But He can change nothing of it, since otherwise He Himself would have to become something different, something other than love." [Ibid., 130]

     God does not wish to coerce man, says Kierkegaard. Well, how could anyone really conceive of God coercing man? And yet coercion remains, notwithstanding the will of God. He can do nothing about it. Power passes from God, Who does not wish to use coercion, Who forever abhors coercion, to eternity, which in this respect is just as unconcerned and indifferent as the ethical; it has the desire and the ability to employ coercion, sine effusione sanguinis, of course—but at its disposal are horrors beside which the shedding of blood and all the other terrors of our earthly existence seem mere child's play. It is impossible to prevail upon Eternity, to beseech it, to appeal to its conscience; like the ethical, it has no ears with which to hear. And in this case God has no advantage over mortals: He has no common language with the ethical or with Eternity. God Himself suffers, suffers unbelievably, when He sees how Eternity and the ethical deal with human beings. God is indeed love. And yet He dares not, He cannot, put them to flight, just as the god of the pagans could not oppose the order of existence which he did not establish. Even for Zeus, Eternity was the ultimate judge. Kierkegaard's remark that all is lost for the man who has not gone through suffering during his life is no more than a free translation of Plato's words about katharsis; as we will recall, Plato felt that he who did not philosophize, who did not purify himself in this life, had ruined his soul forever. Kierkegaard only takes us a little further along, but still in the same direction. Plato and Greek philosophy did not venture to threaten the immortals. There is perhaps a certain inconsistency here, but their gods somehow avoided katharsis, and, as I have already said, the Greek katharsis was more eager to display its blessings to men than to point out the horrors conditional upon those blessings. We find no attempt in any of the Greek philosophers to depict graphically and concretely the torments experienced by a sage who had been enclosed within the red-hot brazen bull. In their writings, the Bull of Phalaris acts as a theoretical sluice gate against the dialectical attacks of their opponents: "intellectual vision" is completely engulfed by the contemplation of bliss. Kierkegaard's "Christianity," on the other hand, mentions blessings seldom, and even then reluctantly, as if doubtful that anyone could need them. Are such blessings, then, truly necessary? And can one accept the writings of Kierkegaard without first making an effort to penetrate through them to his actual experiences?

     Listen to what he tells us himself, and not even in one of his books, but in his journal: "There is no question that, in the entries made in my journals for 1848 and 1849, I often included material that I invented. It is not easy for a man as productive as I to hold it back. It comes by itself, as soon as I take pen in hand. By myself I am a different man, self-controlled, serene. But as soon as I begin to write, poetic invention gains the upper hand. How very strange this is! I have no desire to put down on paper my religious impressions and thoughts: they have too great a meaning for me. There are only a few of them, but of my writing there is a great deal." [Journal, II, 325] And in another passage from his journal on the same theme, he writes, under the heading "About Myself": "Silence concealed in silence is suspicious and inspires suspicion, and it seems as if something were being betrayed; at least it is betrayed that silence is necessary. But the silence concealed beneath brilliant and talented conversation, that is genuine; it is a real silence." [Ibid., 363] Such admissions are not infrequent in Kierkegaard's writings, and anyone who sets himself the task of getting closer to his true purposes must, whether he wants to or not, make his way through Kierkegaard's "brilliant" talk to his "silence," which alone can make us privy to what he considers important, necessary, and significant. And perhaps an entry from his journal for 1854 which I have quoted before should be included in the little that truly expresses his religious, i.e., his final and decisive, experiences, and that is concealed, not beneath his fascinating, sometimes dazzling, literary works, but beneath his invisible, seemingly nonexistent, silence. Its message is essential, and for that reason I shall quote it once again: "When Christ cried out: My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?—this was terrible for Christ, and so it has usually been described. It seems to me that it was more terrible still for God to hear that. It is terrible to be so inflexible! But no—this is still not the most terrible thing: that is to be so inflexible and, at the same time, to be love; this is profound, endless, unfathomable sorrow." And immediately thereafter he adds, with an audacity which cannot and must not be weakened by any of the reservations which accompany it: "Alas, I, too, unhappy man that I am, have experienced this conflict—not to be able to change and yet to love! Alas, my experience helps me to form, from a great distance, from a very great distance, an idea, however feeble, of the sufferings of divine love."

[1] Journal, II, 336... from 1854, and, therefore, a year before his death: "Luther did immeasurable harm by not becoming a martyr."

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