Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Thorn in the Flesh

As for me, a thorn was set in my flesh early in life. If it were not for that, I would from the beginning have lived an ordinary life.


     Kierkegaard exchanged Hegel and the Greek Symposium for the fiery speeches of Job. Here one must make a very important reservation however; Kierkegaard had a perfect hatred for Hegel and indeed had learned to despise him (although only after a long and difficult inner struggle), but he could never decisively reject the Greek Symposium and the man who was the soul of the Symposium, Socrates—even during that period of incredible strain on all his mental powers when he was writing Fear and Trembling, Repetition, The Concept of Dread. He did not even scoff at Spinoza and, in my opinion, treated him with the greatest respect, bordering on veneration (perhaps influenced in this by Schleiermacher). It is as though he felt it necessary to keep Spinoza as well as Socrates in reserve, in case Abraham and Job and the book in which he read of Abraham and Job failed to justify the expectations placed on them. And could it indeed have been otherwise? Can contemporary man reject Socrates and expect to find the truth in Abraham and Job? Usually one would not pose such a question. We prefer to ask: how may the truths of Socrates and the Greek Symposium be "reconciled" with the truths of Abraham and Job? Long before the Bible began to penetrate to the peoples of Europe, this question was posed in just such a way by Philo of Alexandria. He resolved the question by saying that the Bible not only did not contradict the Greek philosophers, but that everything taught by the Greeks was drawn from Holy Scripture. Plato and Aristotle were only disciples of Abraham, Job, the Psalmists and the Prophets (the Apostles did not yet exist).

     Philo was not in himself a great philosopher, nor was he in general a very outstanding man. He was an educated, cultured, pious Jew much devoted to the faith of his fathers. But when it needs to, history can make use of mediocre and even insignificant persons to carry out its most grandiose plans. Philo's idea on the relationship between the Bible and the wisdom of the Greeks was fated to play a great historical role. After Philo no one even attempted to understand the Bible as it really was; everyone strove to see in it a special sort of expression of Greek wisdom. In Hegel's Philosophy of Religion we read: "In philosophy, religion draws its justification from thinking consciousness. Thought is the absolute judge before which [religion] must justify and explain itself." Two thousand years before Hegel, Philo was of the same mind. He did not "reconcile" Holy Scripture with Greek thought: he made the former justify itself before the latter. And of course he could do this only by first "interpreting" the Bible in the way necessary to achieve the sought-for justification and explanation. Describing the nature of thought in his Logic, Hegel said: "When I think, I renounce all my subjective peculiarities, immerse myself in the thing itself, and I think badly if I add anything whatsoever of myself." When Philo interpreted the Bible under the influence of the Greek philosophers, he tried to force the authors of the biblical narratives, and even the One in Whose name they were told, to renounce all their subjective peculiarities. In this regard Philo stood at exactly the same cultural level as Hegel. Philo was brought up on the Greek philosophers and had firmly adopted for himself the thought that not only the heathen gods but also the God of Holy Scripture were subject to the truth that would be revealed to one's thinking self only if that self would renounce its own nature and immerse itself in the thing. After Socrates one could not think otherwise, one must not think otherwise. The mission that history entrusted to Philo consisted of pointing out to people that the Bible did not contradict, and had no right to contradict, our natural way of thinking.

     Kierkegaard does not mention Philo, either in his books or in his journals. But we must suppose that if he had happened to mention Philo, he would have called him the forerunner of Judas. For this was the first betrayal, no less shocking than Judas; all the elements were there in full, even to the kiss. Philo praised Holy Scripture to the skies, but in praising it he delivered it into the hands of Greek philosophy, that is, natural thinking, speculation, intellectual vision. Kierkegaard is silent on the subject of Philo. He directs his thunder against Hegel for precisely the reason that Hegel was a modern-day herald of "objective thinking," which rejects what is revealed by the "subjective" individuality of a living creature, and sees the truth and seeks it in "things." But all the same he respects and spares Socrates—it is, if I may say so once more, as though he were unconsciously insuring himself against the chance that Abraham and Job might not see him through. Even in those moments when he is turning with his terrible either/or to complacent laymen and married pastors (or perhaps especially in those moments), he tucks Socrates safely away in some crevice of his soul that even he cannot see. He invokes the Paradox, the Absurd, but all the same he does not let go of Socrates.

     And perhaps this will not seem so "improper" if we remember the need with which he turned to Abraham and Job. He says over and over again in his journals that he will never give a concrete description of what happened to him and he even solemnly forbids anyone to try to find Out about it. But in his works he cannot help telling about it, in his works he tells of nothing else. It is true that he speaks not on his own behalf, but through various imaginary personages; nevertheless he tells us about it. At the end of Repetition [III, 207] he declares that an event which would have been considered trifling had it happened to someone else became for him a thing of world-shaking significance. In Stages on Life's Way he writes: "My suffering is tedious; I know that myself." And a page later he repeats: "Not only did he suffer indescribable torment, but his suffering was tedious. If it had not been so tedious, perhaps someone would have felt sympathetic toward him." And again: "He suffered so terribly because of trifles." [IV, 315, 314, 269] Why this tedious suffering? He gives a specific answer: "He felt incapable of that of which everyone is capable—being married." [Ibid., 398] And again, in the same book, he confesses: "The nine months I spent in my mother's womb were enough to make me an old man." [Ibid., 237] Such admissions are scattered through all his books and journals; one could cite them endlessly. I shall add just one passage from his journal for 1845, in which, notwithstanding the vow he made, he states in "concrete" words what happened to him:
I am, in the real sense of the word, an unhappy man; I have, from my earliest years, been nailed down to a suffering which is driving me mad, a suffering which is bound up with some sort of abnormality in the relationship of my soul to my body... I spoke of this with my doctor and asked him whether he supposed that the abnormality might be cured, so that I could realize the general. He was doubtful of this. Then I asked him again, whether he did not think that a man's mind could of its own will make some adjustment or set things right there. He had his doubts of this, too. He did not even advise me to try to exert all my strength of will—which, he knew, could destroy everything together. From that moment my choice was made. I accepted this unhappy abnormality (which would probably have led the majority of people capable of understanding such horrible torment to commit suicide) as a thorn set in my flesh, as my limitation, my cross, as the enormous price for which the Heavenly Father has sold me my strength of mind, a strength which has no equal among my contemporaries.
And once again: "As for me, a thorn was set in my flesh early in life. Had it not been for that, I would from the beginning have led an ordinary life." [Journal, I, 276, 277, and 405] Kierkegaard gave the title "The Thorn in the Flesh" to one of his most remarkable discourses, remarkable for its profundity and for its stunning power of expression, and the meaning of this can only be understood in the light of the confessions made in those selections from his journals cited here. So also it is only after these confessions that one can understand Kierkegaard's statement that sin is "the swoon of freedom," and that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith. The swoon of freedom is described thus in Repetition: "I cannot embrace the girl as one embraces a person who actually exists; I can only reach out toward her clumsily, approach her as one approaches a shadow." [III, 184] Not only Regina Olsen, but the whole world turned for Kierkegaard into a shadow, a phantom. As he more than once repeats in his books and journals, he could not make that "movement of faith" which would have restored reality to the world and Regina Olsen. Can others make it? Kierkegaard does not ask. A large part of the story Repetition and that part of Stages on Life's Way entitled "Guilty— Not Guilty" seem to strike an entirely different note. The story of unrealized love is not so "simply" or so "tediously" set forth in them. And Kierkegaard is right, of course; if he had only described what really happened to him, who would have "felt sympathetic toward him," who would have been interested in him? That is why the confessions that I have assembled here, although there are not a few of them and they are scattered though the narrative, all seem to amount in their general theme to the same thing: the hero must forsake his betrothed because she is to him not "the beloved of a man, but the muse of a poet." This, of course, is not so tedious and not so ridiculous. But Kierkegaard would rather have his betrothed and everyone else consider him a profligate and a scoundrel than find out his secret. And yet he has an irrepressible need to leave in his writings a trace of his actual experiences. "I am waiting for the storm and repetition. Oh, if only the storm would come! What is the storm to bring me? It must make me capable of being a husband." [III, 194]

     This is why he turned to Job and Abraham, why he turned to Holy Scripture. He despised Hegel, as he despised all speculative philosophy, because in philosophical system no room was allowed for his question. When he said that he concealed from everyone the shame and unhappiness occasioned by his inability to understand the great man Hegel, he did not in the least mean that he could not cope with the abstract complexity of the Hegelian philosophical structure. Kierkegaard had no fear of these difficulties; from his youth he had accustomed himself to read the works of philosophers, had studied Plato and Aristotle in the original, and easily analyzed subtle and complicated arguments. Coming from him, "unable to understand" meant something quite different; almost as if he said, "I understood all too well," understood too well that Hegelian philosophy, in principle, would reduce his question to naught. It can "explain" Kierkegaard's case as it "explained" the case of Socrates, the Thirty Years War, or any other historical event great or small; and then it demands that a person be satisfied with these explanations and put an end to the questioning. It was this demand which Kierkegaard did not understand in Hegel (that is, in speculative philosophy). He did not understand it, because he supposed that he should in fact submit to this demand, and that in Kierkegaard's place Hegel himself would have been completely satisfied by what speculative philosophy could offer him; but that he, Kierkegaard, was so insignificant and mean-spirited that he was incapable of mounting to those heights where Hegel's thought soared. This is why he spoke about his lack of understanding of Hegel as if it were a shameful and unhappy thing. He might have recalled Plato's misologos ("despiser of reason") and said to himself that he embodied what the divine philosopher had warned against: he who is not satisfied with the world of rational explanations is a misologos and a misologos is doomed to the greatest misfortune.

     But Kierkegaard hardly ever recalls the Platonic legacy, as if he were trying to forget that the first person who revealed to men the significance and the value of speculation was not Hegel but Plato. He even leaves Aristotle in peace. Both Plato and Aristotle are still too closely bound up with Socrates, and Socrates must be retained. It is likely that Kierkegaard asked himself more than once how the wisest of men would have acted in his place; for Socrates could not have looked to Job or Abraham for help. Yes, and even if he could have, he probably would not have. Epictetus unhesitatingly declared that even the woes of Oedipus and Priam could not have put Socrates at a loss. He would not have taken to complaining, weeping, or cursing; he would have said what he said in prison to Crito: "Oh, good Crito, if it pleases the gods, let it be so." Hegel's speculation amounted to the same thing. All his "explanations" had the same meaning as Epictetus' reflections on Socrates and Oedipus: reality is rational. And one cannot and must not argue with reason. Presumably—and a further explanation will support this theory—Kierkegaard would not have attacked Hegel with such indignation and scorn if the reality which Hegel happened to embody in his life had been the same as that which fell to Socrates' lot. If Hegel had lived in poverty, had suffered every sort of persecution, and at the end had been poisoned for being faithful to his ideas, then Kierkegaard would have considered Hegel's philosophy not empty twaddle at which the gods of Olympus would laugh, but a serious piece of work. He would have called it existential and would have recognized Hegel himself as a "witness for the truth." However, Hegel declared that reality is rational (that reality is as it should be and that there is no need for it to be anything else) solely because he had succeeded in safely avoiding those submerged rocks against which others had been dashed. What is such a philosophy worth?

     Not long before his death, Kierkegaard made an attack upon Bishop Mynster. Like Hegel, Mynster was sincerely able to think that the reality that had been prepared for him by fate, or created by him for himself, was rational. For many years he was head of the Danish Christian Church, which did not interfere with his being a wealthy man, married, respected and honored by all. His Christianity had no quarrel with his reason. Christianity was for him both "comprehensible" and "desirable"; for Hegel's "reality is rational" meant also that reality can be comprehended and, being comprehensible, can be accepted as the best of all that is possible and even impossible. Mynster died a very old man, conscious that he had lived his life as a devoutly believing Christian should. And over his grave his pupils and friends, who were also believing Christians and enlightened men, solemnly proclaimed in the words of his son-in-law Martensen, a professor of philosophy (and a firmly convinced Hegelian), that the deceased had been a "witness for the truth." Kierkegaard did not attack Mynster while he was alive. Mynster had been confessor to his father whose memory Kierkegaard venerated, he had carried Kierkegaard himself in his arms, and he was considered in their family an example of every virtue. Kierkegaard was raised on Mynster's sermons; he heard them constantly and read them repeatedly. But all the while an aversion to Mynster's complacent Christianity was growing in his heart; and when Mynster died as peacefully as he had lived, and not only did not repent and confess before his death his guilt before God but somehow managed to cast a spell over all those who had known him, leaving behind the memory of a man who "bore witness for the truth," it was too much for Kierkegaard. With all the impulsiveness that distinguishes his writings he declared in the harshest way over the bishop's open grave his protest against Martensen's words. Kierkegaard himself had not long to hive, and he knew it. And yet, almost dead as he was, he made a furious attack upon an adversary who was quite dead. Could he have acted in any other way?

     In Repetition, from which we have already quoted a number of passages, the hero of the story speaks of the fate that has overtaken him: "What force is this that wishes to take from me my honor and my pride, and in such a meaningless way? Can it be that I am beyond the protection of the laws?" [III, 184] And in Stages on Life's Way, as if to clarify the meaning of this question, Kierkegaard writes:
"What is honor," asks Falstaff? "Can it set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Ergo, honor is an expression, a word, a mere scutcheon..." This "ergo" is false. It is true that honor, if you possess it, can give none of these things, but if you lose it, it can do the opposite; it can cut off an arm, cut off a leg, send you into an exile worse than Siberia. And if it can do this, it is then no longer just an expression. Go out onto a battlefield and look at the dead; go to a hospital and look at the wounded; neither among the dead nor among the wounded will you find a man so maimed as the one upon whom honor has revenged itself. [IV, 320]
There can be no doubt that Kierkegaard "bore witness for the truth," although of course not in the same sense as Mynster who also, in Martensen's words, bore witness for the truth. To put it another way: Kierkegaard tells the truth about himself. He was deprived of the protection of the laws and covered with dishonor as if he were a leper. It was no accident that he included his horrifying "Memoirs of a Leper" in Stages on Life's Way. Can there be a common language between him and Martensen and Mynster? Is it not obvious that some primordial and terrible either/or, merciless and relentless, was drawing near him? It is either Hegel, Mynster, Martensen, complacent Christianity, and the "laws" that protect their reality, or else new "laws" (or perhaps not even laws, but something that does not resemble laws at all) that will do away with the old laws, cast down the false witnesses for truth, and raise Kierkegaard to his rightful place, Kierkegaard who has been trampled underfoot. It is true that "honor" has not the power to restore to a man the arm or leg that has been torn off, but on the other hand it has the ability not only to tear off arms and legs, but to set the hearts of men afire. From whom did Kierkegaard learn this truth? Outside of Christianity, he told us, there was no man equal to Socrates. Then does not Socrates remain, in Christianity as before, the sole source of truth?

Orphus system

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