Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Despair and Nothingness

Even in what men consider most beautiful, most attractive: a charming young girl in whom everything breathes harmony, peace, and joy—even there despair is hiding.


     Homo superbit et somniat, se sapere, se sanctum et justum esse: the greatest of dangers lies here; this is the source of all the horrors of existence. But how did it happen that man was seduced, and continues to be seduced, by knowledge; how did he come to think that his "righteousness" and his "holiness" are summum bonum, megiston agathon ("the highest good")? The question seems perfectly natural and legitimate. However, it is precisely this question that can and should cause a man to suspect for the first time the futility of such questioning. When Kierkegaard began his inquiries into the meaning of the Biblical story of the Fall, he felt obliged to expunge from that story all the elements which seemed to him inconsistent with, or offensive to, the notions of what is possible and proper that he had found ready made in his own consciousness. He could not understand the need for the introduction of the serpent into the Biblical narrative. And, in fact, this is impossible to understand; without the serpent it would have been much more plausible and reasonable. But, surprisingly enough, Kierkegaard's rejection of the serpent was only verbal, or, more precisely, only conditional. In reality, all his reflections on the Fall depend exclusively upon the assumption that it was the result of an external, alien, even hostile force acting on man, and that some sort of mysterious and enigmatic insinuation had taken place. The first sin occurs in man, as Kierkegaard himself disclosed to us, when his freedom is paralyzed—in a "swoon." This means that in the free state man would never exchange the fruit of the tree of life for the fruit of the tree of knowledge. But the serpent of the Bible is only a figurative expression of this concept: the serpent's role is simply to cast a spell over man and restrain his freedom. The same must be said of the connection, entirely incomprehensible to our minds, established in the Bible between sin and the fruit of the tree of knowledge. If we approach this with our customary standards and criteria, we shall have to reject, not only the serpent, but also—and to a much greater degree—the tree of knowledge of good and evil. it is inexplicable and contrary to what we think reasonable and sensible that the serpent, even though he was the cleverest of all creatures, could have deceived man so and played such a fateful role in his destiny. But even less admissible, even more outrageous and repellent to our entire spiritual being, is the idea that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was able to poison our forefather's soul and bring it to the Fall. Quite the contrary: the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil should have purified his soul, made it whole, elevated it. All who have dealt with the Biblical story have, as I said before, been prepared to find there anything but what is really said in the Book of Genesis. They have understood the Fall as disobedience to God, or as a surrender to fleshly temptation, but no one has been able or willing to admit that the root of sin, that is, of original sin, is knowledge, and that the ability to distinguish good from evil is the Fall, and, moreover, the most terrible, most ruinous Fall conceivable.

     But, at the same time, without the story of the Fall, Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, remains for us the Book sealed with seven seals. The words of the Prophet Amos: "The just shall live by faith," and the inference drawn from them by the Apostle Paul (which is, properly speaking, not an inference, but an amplification): "All that is not of faith is sin," will reveal their enigmatic meaning to us only when we agree to accept the idea that the first man, tempted by the fruit of the tree of knowledge, thereby brought about his own ruin and that of all mankind. We are, of course, within our rights—who could prevent it?—to reject Holy Scripture entirely and place the Bible in the category of books which do not satisfy the demands of today's cultural level. But, according to the Bible, knowledge not only is not and cannot be the source of truth—according to the Bible, truth dwells where knowledge ends, where freedom from knowledge reigns. [1] Or, to put it another way, knowledge is a heavy burden which bows man down and does not permit him to stand erect. Plotinus, as I have said, either perceived this himself or was made aware of it by those of his friends who had acquainted him with the writings of the Gnostics. And there is every reason to assume that those very Gnostics, who "amended" Holy Scripture to conform with the "knowledge" they had adopted from the schools of Greek philosophy, were the inspiration for his incessant striving to "soar above knowledge" (drameîn hyper tên epistêmên). But, in the course of the long ages of our existence on earth, our minds have become so thoroughly imbued with the truths suggested to us by reason that we cannot even imagine how we could exist without them. Our everyday experience gives continuous and unchanging evidence that every imaginable misfortune awaits the man who renounces the guidance of reason. Everyone knows this, and there is no need to elaborate upon it; even Kierkegaard never tried to conceal from his readers that in our empirical world reason is absolute master. But philosophy attempts to go beyond the limits of empirical being. Plato, who warned us against misologoi, also taught that philosophy is meletê thanatou ("training for death"), and that to philosophize means apothnêskein kai tethnanai (to prepare for death and dying). Can it be that even in the face of death, on the borderline which separates our visible world from the other worlds, reason continues to retain its power and its rights? We have heard Kierkegaard say—and hardly anyone would dispute this—that the rational consciousness cannot bear what madness and death tell it. But, then, why must we be protective and considerate toward reason and pay it the divine honors it demands? If it still will not release us from its clutches, if it still pretends, in spite of its powerlessness, to play the role of overseer of human destinies, does this not imply that, instead of being our benefactor, it is our mortal enemy, the bellua qua non occisa homo non potest vivere? Reason as the enemy of men and gods is the greatest paradox that one can imagine, and, at the same time, the most terrible and agonizing that could befall lonely, helpless man: quam aram parabit sibi qui majestatem rationis laedit! ("What altar will the man who has insulted the majesty of reason provide for himself?"—Spinoza). If reason will not guide us, if reason will not aid us, if it refuses to serve us—where are we to turn? Kierkegaard was not exaggerating in the least when he said that to renounce reason is the greatest martyrdom. I might add only that it would be all but impossible to find even one man willing, on his own initiative, to take upon himself such martyrdom.

     It seems likely that the unaccountable fear which Kierkegaard assumed to be present in the first man was in fact a fear of being deserted by the guidance of reason. The serpent made use of this fear when he tempted man into tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Perhaps it would be more accurate, and closer to Holy Scripture, to say that this fear was inspired in the first man by the tempter, and that sin began in fear. Kierkegaard's second thesis, that this fear is fear of Nothingness, is one of the most profound insights into the mystery of the Fall. The tempter had at his disposal only pure Nothingness: Nothingness, from which God, by His act of creation, had made both the universe and man, but which without God could neither cross over the limits of its state of Nothingness nor have any meaning in existence. However, if the omnipotence of God was able to create the world out of Nothingness, it was the limited nature of man, and the fear inspired in him by the serpent, that transformed Nothingness into an enormous, all-destroying, all-consuming, annihilating force. Nothingness ceased to be nothingness, ceased to be nonexistent. It became existent and, together with its lack of being, established itself and took root in all that exists—although there was absolutely no need for it to be. Nothingness has turned out to be a mysterious Proteus. Before our eyes it has transformed itself, first into Necessity, then into the Ethical, then into Eternity. And it has fastened its chains, not only upon man, but upon the Creator Himself. It cannot be fought by ordinary means. There is no way to get at it, no way to overcome it—it hides beneath its lack of being whenever it senses the approach of danger. And—from our point of view—God finds it even more difficult to contend with than man does. God abhors coercion. There is nothing that Nothingness abhors. It is maintained by coercion alone, and accomplishes nothing but coercion in its unforeseen and totally superfluous existence.

     Nothingness has appropriated for itself (again, without any right) the predicate of being, as if that had in fact always been its inalienable property. And reason, whose duty should have been to prevent this unlawful seizure,— since it has available both the law of contradiction (bebaiotatê tôn archôn: "the most unyielding of all principles," as Aristotle put it) and the no less powerful law of sufficient basis—reason has remained silent; it has not dared, or has not had the strength, to stir. Nothingness has cast a spell over everything and everyone: the world seems asleep, frozen still, even dead. Nothingness has become Something, but a Something permeated by Nothingness. Reason, our human reason, which we have been taught to consider the best that is in us (pars melior nostra), which makes us akin to God, having quietly and indifferently watched all this happen, almost automatically went over to the side of Nothingness after its victory (for all that is real is rational) and to this day continues to stand guard over the conquests of Nothingness.

     The idea of original sin is entirely unacceptable to our reason. For—and now I hope to make this clear—the power and the sovereign rights of reason are maintained only by sin. If man could, even for a moment, become an embodiment of the truth of Holy Scripture, reason would immediately be deprived of its sovereign rights: it would cease to be an independent giver of laws and would assume the modest role of dutiful executor. But this very "if," so foreign to our way of thinking, conceals the greateSt enigma, an almost insurmountable difficulty. Upon what does this "if" depend? Are we free to make a choice? Can we accept Biblical truth if we want to, and reject it if we do not? Kierkegaard, in company with the most intense inner experience of men driven beyond the limits of the "general" with which theoretical philosophy tempts us, answers this question for us: no, we cannot. Everything was decided for us at the Fall of the first man; sin decided everything for us. Our freedom—that freedom which the Creator shared with man when He summoned him to life—is in a swoon, paralyzed. The terrible monster Nothingness holds us in its power. We know, we feel with our whole being, that this is Nothingness, i.e., that there is nothing to it, and yet we cannot fight against it, just as if it were not impotent Nothingness, but omnipotent Something. What is more, by virtue of some senseless and nightmarish dialectic, we do everything to strengthen the power and might of Nothingness. We ourselves have transformed it into Necessity, the Ethical, Eternity, Infinity. Our understanding and our consciences were not captured by it from without, but, as one might say, from within; we are incapable of doubting the lawfulness of its claims, even when it presents us with the most hideous demands; we see a contradiction in doubt, and Nothingness has taught us to think that horrors of any sort are preferable to a contradiction. When Hegel asserted that the serpent did not deceive man, and that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was the source of all future philosophy, he was sincere and spoke the truth: our "philosophy" (i.e., theoretical philosophy) begins with the Fall of Adam. We consider the "real," which has been delivered into the power of Nothingness and is permeated with that Nothingness, to be truly "rational" and eternally justified, that is, both unchanging and desirable. We must accept whatever it may bring us, become reconciled to all of it, grow to like it, and see this truce with reality as an expression of the ultimate in wisdom. But why mention only Hegel! Even as cautious, as calm, as sensitive a thinker as Nietzsche "bowed down" before reality. The crown of his philosophy is amor fati: it is not enough to accept, he tells us; we must come to love Necessity, which is Necessity for the very reason that it excludes any possibility of conflict. Nietzsche's audacity apparently knew no bounds. His "on the far side of good and evil," his "Wille zur Macht," summoned men to the ultimate liberation— but before the truths of "knowledge" he weakened; he began to humble himself. The fruit of the tree of knowledge, delightful to look at and pleasing to contemplate, cast its spell over his will, and he exchanged the will to power for resignation, love, and a slavish attachment to Necessity. And he even took pride in this. It is just as Luther said: homo superbit et somniat, se sapere, se sanctum et justum esse. A man who has surrendered himself to the power of Nothingness thinks that he is knowing, thinks that he is righteous, and does not even suspect that, the more firmly he becomes convinced of his own knowledge and righteousness, the stronger and more unbreakable grow the chains with which Nothingness has bound him.

     This absolute trust in knowledge which possesses immutable truths, dependent upon no one, and the accompaniment to this trust, confidence in the possibility of realizing a righteous life by one's own powers simply by having the desire to do so, have, as I said, transformed Nothingness in our eyes, first into Necessity, then into the Ethical, and then into Eternity and Infinity. It is highly significant that Nietzsche was the first man in the entire history of European thought to perceive the decadent in Socrates, i.e., to see him as a fallen man. But the wisdom of Socrates, whom the god of the pagans praised, amounts to amor fati, of which Nietzsche was so proud and boastful, considering it his sole merit. The pagan god, who was himself compelled to bow before Necessity, could not help praising Socrates; the power of fatum, as we have seen, extends to immortals as well as mortals. Reality no more belongs to the gods than it does to men. It is in the hands of Nothingness, which has no need of it and does not allow those who need it more than anything else to have access to it. Nothingness has arranged matters so that everything flows, everything passes, everything disappears, in accordance with the "law" of genesis and phthora ("birth and destruction"), sanctioned by even the most ancient "knowledge." Reality is encompassed by time, its only master, in such a way that nothing is left of it for man: the past is no longer, the future is not yet, and the present, confined between a future which has not yet arrived and a past which has already vanished into Lethe, becomes a mirage, a phantom, a shadow, just as Regina Olsen turned into a shadow or, at best, into a poetic device when Kierkegaard tried to approach her. No one in the world can do anything against this age-old "law" of being established by almighty Nothingness: all are powerless, as Soren Kierkegaard was powerless—only no one recognizes or feels horror at his own powerlessness. There is no difference here between the wise and the foolish, between the learned and the ignorant. In fact, the wise and learned prove to be even weaker and more defenseless than the foolish and ignorant. For wisdom and knowledge not only see the perishable and transitory nature of all that exists; they understand that it cannot be otherwise, and that therefore everything will remain as it is forever, whereas, the foolish and ignorant do not even suspect this.

     That is the basic and unshakable truth achieved by human understanding and demonstrated by human wisdom. Understanding has revealed to us that there is nowhere to flee from Nothingness. Wisdom has given its blessing to the truth revealed to it by understanding; there is no need to flee from this truth, no need to quarrel and contend with it; one must accept it, grow to love it, extol it. Even the heavens sing its praises; man must echo the heavens.

     Such was the "existential philosophy" of the Greeks from Socrates to Epictetus. Every school, including the Epicurean, moved in the orbit of the one whom the god at Delphi recognized as the wisest of men. The ancients were convinced—Plotinus said this, too—that en archê logos kai panta logos ("reason is at the beginning and all is reason") and that the greatest misfortune for a man is not to have come to terms with reason. Even Kierkegaard, as I have already mentioned, looked to Socrates each time his strength left him, and when he did so, he was overwhelmed by the mad fear that all his failures were connected with an inability and unwillingness to love and cherish the gifts brought by reason. Of course, it cannot be denied that the "truth" and "wisdom" of Socrates did give him some temporary comfort and a kind of consolation. Socrates was his defense, so to speak, against Hegel and theoretical philosophy. Perhaps he had Socrates to thank for his idea that his "failure to understand Hegel" was not such an irredeemable disgrace, since Hegel and his universalism (later on Kierkegaard was to speak caustically of the incompletely universal universalism of the Hegelian system) would probably have been received just as severely by Socrates as the philosophical structures of the Sophists had been. Socrates also defended him against Mynster; neither Mynster's life nor his preaching would have been able to withstand the Socratic irony. And even in his conflict with Regina Olsen, it seems evident that Socrates would have taken his side. For she, like Mynster and like Hegel, was not guided in life by the truth revealed by reason or the good that follows truth. If Socrates was not its inspiration, then at least he provided support and reinforcement for Kierkegaard's idea that even beneath the merry unconcern and lightheartedness of youth there is always hidden a slumbering despair which an experienced man with a certain cunning can easily awaken. [2] All of Kierkegaard's edifying discourses, with which the reader has become familiar in the preceding chapters, are based on Socrates and his "knowledge." Whenever some force compelled Kierkegaard, in his reading of Holy Scripture, to "turn his attention away from the miraculous" and concentrate on "truth" and "good"—just as, in Genesis, the serpent persuaded Adam to "turn his attention" from the tree of life and rest his hopes on the tree of knowledge—he consciously or unconsciously sought help from the man who "up to the time of Christianity was the most remarkable phenomenon in the history of the world." Socrates was indispensable to him; he could not think or live without Socrates. But neither could he live with Socrates. Can there be any doubt that it was during one of the moments when he was completely under the spell of Socrates that the despairing cry escaped his soul: "What force is this that has taken from me my honor and my pride? Is it possible that I have been deprived of the protection of the laws?" He could not, of course, stop at this. His "dialectical fearlessness," or what he called his dialectical fearlessness, drove him on; he arrived at a point from which he could see that his experience extended not just to human beings, but to God as well; God, too, had His honor and His pride taken from Him; God, too, was deprived of the protection of the laws; He looked upon His martyred Son, but, chained by Inflexibility, was unable to stir. What force is this that has taken away God's honor and pride? He is all love, all charity, and yet, like any ordinary mortal, He can only watch the honors unfolding before Him—and grow numb.

[1] I do not know whether this reminder is necessary—but, at any rate, I shall say once more that in this case knowledge means those general and necessary truths for which, according to Kant, reason eagerly strives; and not experience, which always irritates reason.

[2] I shall quote this passage in extenso, because, apart from its shedding some light on Kierkegaard's relationship to Regina Olsen, it gives additional evidence of the nature of the fruit of the tree of knowledge offered him by the maieutic method of Socrates. "Even in what men consider most beautiful, most attractive—a charming young girl in whom everything breathes harmony, peace, and joy—even there despair is hiding. Outwardly there appears to be happiness; but far, far inside, in the depths, within a shell which happiness has not penetrated, lives fear, i.e., despair. Despair prefers above all to conceal itself there, beneath happiness. Happiness is not spiritual; it is immediacy, and all immediacy, even though it may be accompanied by what seems to be complete serenity and unconcern, is fear, and, certainly, in large part, fear of Nothingness. Therefore, you can never frighten immediacy as much by terrible descriptions of horrors as you can by cleverly, almost casually, but with carefully calculated aim, hinting offhandedly and obscurely that immediacy knows what you are talking about. Of course, it does not know this. But reflection's prey is never so surely guaranteed it as when it makes its snare out of Nothingness. And reflection never expresses itself as completely as when it is itself Nothingness. Immense reflection, or, more correctly, great faith, is necessary if one is to have the strength to endure reflection upon Nothingness, i.e., infinite reflection" (VIII, 22).

Orphus system

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