Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Kierkegaard and Luther

Quia homo superbit et somniat, se sapere, se sanctum esse, ideo opus est, ut lege humilietur, ut sic bestia ista, opinio justitiae, occidatur, qua non occisa, homo non potest vivere.


     We have witnessed the unlimited proliferation of horrors in Kierkegaard's soul; in this incandescent atmosphere of horrors there arose the immense audacity of a man who had begun to think that he might, "although from a distance, from a very great distance," represent not only the heroes of the Biblical narrative, Job and Abraham, but also the Creator of heaven and earth, to be just as powerless and tormented as he was himself: and at that moment existential philosophy was born. But what are all these horrors to us, what have they in common with philosophy? Were not the Greeks right to turn away from horrors and direct all their attention upon bliss? Is this not the meaning and the task of philosophy, and the final word in wisdom? Kierkegaard does not even pose this question, as if he had completely forgotten that one must ask: were the Greeks right or not? He found himself faced with the unbearable horrors of existence; he was compelled to enter into a final and desperate struggle with them. "My severity is not of my own making," Kierkegaard has told us, taking issue with the usual interpretation of the texts of Holy Scripture. An even more horrifying feeling seizes us when God Himself is compelled to repeat these words in the presence of His beloved Son. But from whom does this severity come? And—most important—from whomever it may come and however terrible may be the horrors prepared in the world for mortals and immortals, what concern are they of philosophy, whether it be called existential or theoretical? Philosophy is the search for truth and truth alone; not for anything in the world will philosophy renounce truth, whether it brings men the greatest bliss or unbearable horrors, for truth is entirely independent of whether or not it pleases men. This is why we speak of the objectivity of knowledge, and if existential philosophy has no regard for this, then for that very reason it ceases to be philosophy and loses its great ability to lead men to the beginnings, the sources, the roots of being. Horrors,—and everyone must realize this—no matter how limitless they may be, have no power to shake the stability and firmness of truths obtained by knowledge. Whatever truth may demand from men or from the gods, it will obtain all and yield to nothing. And truth does not in the least resemble God: truth is not love, truth is truth, and, as truth, it never varies; it does not, and cannot, have any reason to change in any way. When love comes face to face with truth, it is love that must retreat. Truth has at its disposal every "necessity" and every "you must." If anyone does not yield to it willingly, it can coerce him forcibly. God never uses coercion, but, then, truth is not God: it coerces.

     It would seem proper to put an end to questions here, to recall Aristotle's tempting anankê stênai ("It is necessary to stop"). But precisely at this moment Kierkegaard begins his tale of the horrors he experienced when, in fulfilling the "you must's" set before him by truth, he was forced to ruin with his own hands the life of the woman who was dearer to him than anyone else in the world. This, of course, is terrible, much more terrible than it might appear to a man who has never had to undergo such an experience. But he had no choice: his love was helpless before the "you must's" presented to him by truth. And yet even this is not the most terrible thing, Kierkegaard tells us, suppressing with difficulty the triumph which pervades his whole being; more terrible, infinitely more terrible, is what the "good tidings" have imparted to mankind: God hears the cry of His beloved Son and, like Kierkegaard, cannot stir even a finger. His love is also forced to bow before the "you must's" which imperiously demand that He be inflexible. How did this come about? Why has divine love given way before "you must," and not "you must" before divine love? And why does Kierkegaard exult over this?

     With respect to himself, Kierkegaard had good reason to say that, in his life, "you must" had won the upper hand over love; that is a fact, and there is no disputing facts; at least, everyone is sure that there is no disputing facts. But what is the source of his confidence that, if God had to choose between love and inflexibility, He would do the same as he, Kierkegaard had done? Had he cared to recall the "relationship to God" of his beloved hero, Abraham, the father of faith, he would have seen that God certainly does not set as much store by His Inflexibility as philosophizing theologians would like Him to: God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and then renounced His intention, yielding to the persuasions and entreaties of His servant. It is clear that confidence in the absolute inflexibility of God was not suggested to, or, more precisely, inspired in Kierkegaard by Holy Scripture: another power intervened here. It seems evident as well that it was not Scripture that prompted him, apropos of the story from the Acts of the Apostles, to sing the praises of charity, which can do nothing. It is also entirely beyond dispute that when he amended the parable from the Gospel which says that the sun rises for good men and evil alike, and the one concerning the lilies of the field which are arrayed more richly than King Solomon, he was obeying some power which he encountered, or, more probably, which encountered him as he deviated from Holy Scripture. He himself said to us that God does not coerce man.

     But horrors coerce: the reason, and the only reason, they are horrors is that they coerce, and how they do coerce! We will recall that no torturer can equal the ethical in mercilessness and cruelty. But the ethical is not alone. "Eternity" works at its side: all the scorpions our empirical existence can boast are nothing in comparison with the torments prepared by eternity for those who obey its laws. Now we can "understand" why God did not venture to renounce His Inflexibility and answer the cries of His Son. Even God dares not disobey Eternity. God Himself, of course, does not coerce anyone. But Eternity cares as little about God as it does about men. If He had dared to move an inch from His inflexible position, Eternity would not have seen Him as God; it would have visited all its horrors upon Him—horrors compared with which the agony He felt when He heard His Son's cries would have seemed but child's play. Eternity, like the ethical, is almighty; they alone rule by might, for they have no scruples about "coercion" and, what is more, they have contrived to insinuate to every conscious and living being in the world that "coercion" ought not to be despised. There is nothing that can threaten them; they have no fear of horrors, for horrors are not horrors to them. They present their implacable demands to God and men alike, and as if their demands were not enough, they want both God and men to find bliss in the fulfilling of those demands. Did Kierkegaard prove to have attained the proper height: did he really feel "bliss" when he suppressed his "finite" love for the sake of eternity's "you must"? And did God also feel "bliss" when He turned away from His Son in order to preserve the spotless purity of His Inflexibility?

     Few writers in world literature have attempted to portray with such passion the rights of the eternal and the ethical over mortals and immortals. Indeed, even Kierkegaard himself did not dare to speak of this openly: here more than anywhere else he uses "indirect communication," and I do not conceal, either from myself or from the reader, that, in my comparisons of quotations, I have been more concerned to point out his "silences," or, to be more precise, what he was silent about, than to show what he said. However, this was necessary, for the subject on which he is silent, and on which we are all silent, is infinitely more important and significant than that about which all of us, including Kierkegaard, talk. What is this power that compels God, Who is love, to remain deaf to the cries of His Son? What is this Inflexibility that can enfeeble and paralyze divine love? And, finally: how does Kierkegaard "know" that there exists in the world "coercion" that can force even divine love to bow before Inflexibility? He cites his own experience, and does so scrupulously, at least to a certain degree. But can "experience" really provide "general and necessary judgments"? Especially the kind of experience of which he speaks? He loved Regina Olsen more than anyone else in the world. The necessity of breaking with her filled him with boundless horror, so much so that even during the last days of his life, many years after Regina Olson had become the wife of Schlegel, in spite of that accomplished fact and all the evidence that told him over and over that what has once existed cannot become nonexistent, he inwardly continued to try to assert his rights to her. At his death, he did not think about the judgment of eternity, of which he told us in his discourses, but seemed rather to expect that the evidence would give way, dissolve, turn into nothingness, and that behind it he would find a new truth, entirely incomprehensible to reason: that Regina Olsen belonged, not to Schlegel, who was married to her and possessed her, but to Kierkegaard, who had left her and, in this life, could only touch her shadow.

     I do not know how those to whom he addressed himself took what he had to say, or what they understood in it; but if what he said had any meaning whatever, then we must admit that such an insignificant, everyday occurrence as Kierkegaard's break with Regina Olsen was indeed an event of universally historic importance, more momentous than the discovery of America or the invention of gunpowder. For if it turns out that, from a standpoint invisible and immaterial to anyone else, Kierkegaard maintained his rights to Regina Olsen in the face of self-evidence, then every basis of our "thinking" is shaken. Philosophy is forced to turn from Hegel to Job, from Socrates to Abraham; forced to turn from reason to the Absurd. Our fundamental, immovable truths become "feathered dreams."

     Even as bold and radical a thinker as Duns Scotus, who was not afraid to sweep aside the "ethical" barring his way to divine free will—philosophers and theologians to this day have not been able to forgive him for his presumptuousness—did not venture to think that God has the power to make what has once existed nonexistent, just as he did not venture to dispute the law of contradiction. This, in his opinion, was the beginning of the realm of uncreated truths which depend on no one—and, as a result, we are obliged to see it as the limit of divine omnipotence. But before the "horrors" compiled by Kierkegaard, these truths, too, begin to waver: for God everything is possible, God can make what has once existed nonexistent. God is above the law of contradiction, above all laws. "If I had had faith, I would not have had to forsake Regina," Kierkegaard has repeated to us a countless number of times. Now it may be said that, when faith comes, Regina will return also. And all "doubts" about whether a man can, after the difficult ordeals connected with experiences like those which befell Kierkegaard, love again with a young, careless love—to put it differently, whether the way to the tree of life can ever be made open, through the forgiveness of sins, for a man who has tasted of the fruits of knowledge—all such doubts will vanish by themselves: the "horrors" transmitted from the soul of one individual to the very substance of the universe will explode the foundations upon which rest all our "impossibilities." They have already been shaken by the wails and curses of Job; will they be able to endure a battle with the omnipotence of God? Human cowardice, or, more accurately, human weakness, cannot bear what madness and death have to say. But will God—not the God of Hegel and theoretical philosophy, but the God of Holy Scripture, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob—also reject the cries He hears from people crucified by madness and death?

     As we have done more than once before, we must again recall Kierkegaard's words: "My severity is not of my own making." And now we can better understand, if not from where and from whom his severity came, then at least why Kierkegaard spoke with such frenzy and passion about the "savagery" of the "mildest" of teachings. From those "horrors" he forged a fearful weapon against the eternal and unshakable truths of our reason. Not only men, but God Himself is doomed to unendurable torments, if reason is the source of truths and if its confederates, the "ethical" and the "eternal," have the power over existence ascribed to them by the wisest of men. Kierkegaard is no longer content to ask Job's permission to make common cause with him. He feels that he is within his rights to take his case to the Creator Himself. God will understand him; when He had to "sacrifice" His love to Inflexibility, He felt what Kierkegaard felt when he had to break with Regina. He, too, dares not disobey the "ethical," although that is what He would like to do more than anything else in the world. And again—just like Kierkegaard—He is obliged to conceal this; He, too, is keeping a "secret from the ethical": He would rather be love, but acts as if He were Inflexibility. He was as powerless to do anything for His Son as Kierkegaard was powerless to do anything for Regina Olsen. The menacing "you must" strikes at His freedom; He can weep, suffer, despair, and yet, not only can He not respond to the call of His crucified Son, but He must pretend that powerless love and powerless charity are the "one thing that is needful," reserved for both mortals and immortals.

     Here we return to the ideas of the Fall and of faith, as Kierkegaard saw them, and, at the same time, we return to existential philosophy in the true sense of the word; the horrors of existence, both human and divine, have led us to that array of problems, the very possibility of which is an affront to the ordinary consciousness. In an enigmatic way, even in his edifying discourses, where he paints a horrifying picture of the wild riot of frenzied beasts, clothed in the splendid vestments of the "ethical" and the "Eternal," who have broken loose from their chains to fall upon helpless man, Kierkegaard does not cease to remind us that man's destruction comes only from sin. And if we compare with this his statements that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith; that the opposite of sin is freedom; that, moreover, freedom is not the freedom of choice between good and evil, but "possibility"; and that God signifies that everything is possible—then we will have come close to what Kierkegaard understood by the words "existential philosophy." That philosophy has nothing in common with the legacy of "wisdom" handed down to us by the Greeks. Kierkegaard's "fearless dialectic" perceived diabolic pride beneath the wisdom of Epictetus, and ultimately Socrates was discovered by him to be the sinner kat'eksochên ("par excellence"). Their sin lay in the very quality commonly regarded as their virtue and thought by us to be to their immortal credit before men and Heaven: they embodied an ideal, i.e., they lived in the categories in which they thought. But if Kierkegaard was sorely provoked by the discrepancy between the lives of Hegel and Schopenhauer and their philosophy, he found completely unbearable in Socrates and Epictetus the very fact that they embodied their philosophy, not in their teachings, not in words, but in their entire lives. "If the ethical is supreme, then Abraham is lost."

     And yet, existential philosophy, as the Greeks understood it, and as Kierkegaard himself understood it when he considered Socrates, may be summed up thus: the "ethical" is supreme, there is no principle higher than the ethical. Reason peremptorily demands this, so peremptorily that it is proper, indeed obligatory, for us to add one more "if": "If reason is the source, and the only source, of truth, then the ethical is supreme, then there is no principle higher than the ethical." But what is the principle against which Greek philosophy was so careful to defend its truths? There can be only one answer to this: truth does not want to be subject to the principle of a Creator; truth wants to be uncreated, as uncreated as the Creator Himself. In its estimation, both it and the Creator can only be the better for that. And man will benefit still more: he will be freed from divine arbitrariness, he will himself become like God, knowing truth, knowing the nature of good and evil. But will these truths, emancipated from God, really bring man freedom? Will not just the reverse happen? Does not the truthfulness of truth lie in its being of God, in its having been created by God, so that if it is separated from God and left to its own devices, it will turn into its opposite and become, not life-giving, but death-dealing, not freeing, but enslaving? Petrified itself, it will turn to stone all those who look upon it. Theoretical philosophy does not even ask this question. It scorns created truths; "reason eagerly strives," as Kant told us (essentially repeating what Aristotle had said), for general and necessary judgments, i.e., for judgments that have no master, that are themselves masters over all. And man imagines that by sharing reason's "eager striving," by surrendering himself wholly to it, he will partake of truth and good. He does not in the least suspect that immense danger awaits him here, that he is being threatened with destruction from this quarter.

     Kierkegaard had, by his own admission, read little of Luther, and, as we will recall, did not particularly like him. But few men have perceived the lack of grace in truths which have broken away from God (veritates emancipatae a Deo) as clearly as Luther. This is the origin of his doctrine of sola fide. It is also the origin of the sharp contrast he draws between law and grace. Man cannot redeem himself through law; law only degrades man: it has no restorative power. Law can only expose our weakness and our powerlessness, which we conceal in vain by an outward appearance of pride. This is why Luther says, in his commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: quia homo superbit et somniat, se sapere, se sanctum et justum esse, ideo opus est, ut lege humilietur, ut sic bestia ista, opinio justitiae, occidatur, qua non occisa, non potest homo vivere ("Because man is full of pride and imagines that he is holy and righteous, it is necessary to humble him by law, so that in this way the wild beast in him which is confident of its own righteousness may be killed, for, until it is killed, man cannot live"). Man's confidence in his "knowledge" and in the possibility of attaining the highest goal by his own powers not only will not save him, it will deliver him into the clutches of that frightful monster which man must kill if he is to live. Justus ex fide vivit ("the just shall live by faith"), said the Prophet Amos. [1] Justus ex fide vivit, repeated the Apostle Paul after him. Reason, which eagerly strives for general and necessary truths ("concupiscentia invincibilis") leads to death; the way to life is through faith. Plato's warning against lack of confidence in reason is the greatest offense. Misfortunes lie in wait, not for the man who despises reason (misologos), but the man who loves it. As long as a man submits to reason, as long as he depends upon the virtues which arise from reason, he will remain in the power of a terrible and hostile force, in the power of the monster which must be destroyed if he is to live. The true meaning of Kierkegaardian philosophy is revealed in the words by Luther quoted above: existential philosophy is the great and final struggle of man with the enigmatic and mysterious monster which has managed to convince him that his bliss, both temporal and eternal, depends exclusively upon his readiness to bow before truths emancipated from God—that struggle, the inevitability of which was felt by the last great representative of Greek philosophy, and which he was bold enough to proclaim: agôn megistos kai eschatos taîs psychaîs prokeitai ("A great and final struggle awaits human soul"). The philosophy of Plotinus sought that which is found epekeina noû kai noêseôs ("On the far side of reason and knowledge"). He called upon men to "rise above knowledge" (drameîn hyper tên epistêmên). A thousand years of experience by select representatives of humanity who had convinced men to entrust their fate to the truths of reason lay behind Plotinus, and he "suddenly" saw that, where men had hoped to find freedom, shameful and unendurable slavery awaited them. Or perhaps he did not "see," but heard the good tidings conveyed to him? And, having heard them, he fled blindly from reason, without knowing himself where he was going.

[1] This quotation is not from Amos, but from Habakkuk (2:4). Tr.

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