Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


God and Coercive Truth

For God everything is possible—this thought is my motto in the most profound sense of the word, and it has acquired a deeper meaning for me than I could ever have imagined.


     In the writings of Duns Scotus we find the following admission, which in its own way is remarkably frank: isti, qui negant aliquod ens contingens, exponendi sunt tormentis quousque concedant, quod possibile est eos non torqueri ("Those who deny the fortuitousness of anything that exists should be forced to undergo tortures until they admit that it is possible for them not to be tortured"). In itself, this thought is not original: it was a straightforward expression of what all had thought and many had said. It is surprising only that Duns Scotus, whom his contemporaries—not without reason—gave the name of doctor subtilissimus, did not perceive that by defending his own position in this way he compromised the entire system of philosophical proofs. Of course, he was right; if a man is subjected to tortures and told that the torture will continue until he admits that it is possible for him not to be tortured, he will almost certainly make the admission demanded of him. If he should turn out to possess the fortitude and courage of a Socrates or an Epictetus, then you would most likely achieve nothing by torturing him; the same would be true if you were dealing with a Regulus or a Mucius Scaevola. There are men over whom torture cannot prevail. What then? Would the argument of the doctor subtilissimus retain its power to prove?

     On the other hand, men who do not possess sufficient fortitude would under torture admit anything at all to be the truth, if only the torture would stop. If they were asked to admit that it would be possible for them not to be tortured—they would admit that it would be possible for them not to be tortured; if they were asked to admit that it would be impossible not to torture them, they would admit that, too, if only they would be set free. The Apostle Peter denied his master three times, although it was not a question of torture; the threat at hand was only that of a more or less harsh sentence. Therefore, the example given by Duns Scotus is fanciful and contrived. One would have to suppose that as long as the world has existed no one has ever been put to torture in order to extract from him an admission of aliquod ens contingens. On the contrary, the opposite constantly takes place before our eyes: life tortures men and continues to torture them from all sides, and for a long time has been wringing from them the admission that what is, not only is as it is, but cannot be otherwise.

     However, this is not even the main point. How could the doctor subtilissimus, to whom both will and intellect were purely spiritual attributes of man, assume that torture, which works on the senses, would play such a decisive role where it is a matter of the truth! When we encounter this kind of thinking in Epictetus, we calmly overlook it, attributing it to his lack of philosophic insight. But Duns Scotus is not Epictetus: Duns Scotus is one of the keenest and most powerful minds, not only of the Middle Ages, but of all thinking humanity. And he speaks of torture, of purely physical methods of coercion, as the ultima ratio of truth. There is something to give us pause here, especially in connection with what Kierkegaard has told us about the horrors of human existence. It might also be appropriate to recall the testimony offered by Nietzsche. Nietzsche, too, spoke of the "great pain" which "truth" uses to humble man, and of how truth cuts its way into us like a knife. The theory of knowledge cannot and must not remain deaf to such testimony. Whether it wants to or not, it will have to admit that the purely spiritual methods of persuasion which it puts at the disposal of truth for the realization of its sovereign rights are not going to achieve their aim. Neither the "law" of sufficient basis, nor the "law" of contradiction, nor intuition with all its self-evidences can guarantee a man's obedience to the truth; in the last analysis, it must resort to torture, to force. God, Kierkegaard has told us, never coerces, but knowledge, with its truths, clearly does not resemble God and has no wish to; it coerces, it is maintained only by coercion, and the grossest, most repellent coercion at that, and, as is evident from the example given by Duns Scotus, it does not even consider it necessary to hide behind the unctuous sine effusione sanguinis.

     The theory of knowledge, in clearing the way for theoretical philosophy, has ignored this, unwilling to see anything worthy of its attention here. Not only the naive Epictetus, but the keenest of thinkers, like Duns Scotus and Nietzsche, when they inadvertently came upon the methods resorted to by truth when man does not voluntarily agree to submit to it, were not discomfited in the least, as if such things were quite right and proper. Aristotle himself, with almost angelic meekness, tells us of the great philosophers anankadzomenoi hup'autês tês alêtheias ("coerced by truth itself"). It is true that he was not speaking of torture, having rightly reasoned that there are matters on which it is better to be silent, and that in such cases eloquence is more harmful than helpful. But he has a great deal to say about anankê (necessity), which he identifies with force—bia, and its power over human thought. Plato, too, did not mention the tortures to which we are subjected by truth, simply pointing out that the world is ruled by necessity, which even the gods cannot overcome. Homo superbit et somniat, se sapere, se sanctum et justum esse—man thinks that if he only closes his eyes to anankê (necessity), if he allows knowledge to take over his life, no matter what the price, then holiness and righteousness will follow of themselves.

     He cannot forget the ancient pronouncement: eritis sicut dei, and instead of fighting his powerlessness, he hides from it in his pride. This is why Pascal said, with regard to Epictetus: superbe diabolique. Pride is not confidence in one's own power, as we are generally inclined to think—pride is an awareness, banished to the depths of the soul, of one's powerlessness. But, invisible, it is more terrible than when it is visible. Man values this kind of powerlessness, loves and cultivates it in himself. Kierkegaard had to arrive at the frightful awareness that God's love is controlled by His inflexibility, that God is bound and cannot move a finger, that God, too, has been afflicted like us with a "thorn in the flesh," i.e., all the tortures to which the truth subjects man are intended for Him as well—in order for him to dare to oppose theoretical philosophy with existential, to allow himself to ask how truth seized power over God, and to see what is actually manifested in this monstrous device of reason's: the Fall of man and original sin. Even the devout Leibniz, who always spoke in the name of Christianity, was thoroughly convinced that les vérités éternelles sont dans l'entendement de Dieu indépendamment de sa volonté [eternal truths inside God's mind independently of his will]. And, again, this idea, like Duns Scotus' idea about the power of torture to prove, is not even his own original idea; the Middle Ages thought the same thing, and so did the Greeks. In the same paragraph of his Théodicée, Leibniz himself quotes Plato, who maintained—as the reader will recall—that necessity reigns in the world side by side with reason, but he could have quoted the Scholastics with equal justice, as their general views on the source of evil, which he cites, attest. Perhaps it might therefore be not unprofitable for us to take a closer look at his observations: On demande d'où vient le mal. Les anciens attribuaient la cause du mal à la matière, qu'ils croyaient incrée et indépendante de Dieu... Mais nous qui dérivons tout être de Dieu, où trouvons-nous la source du mal? La réponse est qu'elle doit être cherchée dane la nature idéale de la créature autant que cette créature est renfermée dans les vérités idéales qui sont dans l'entendement de Dieu indépendamment de sa volonté. Car il faut considérer qu'il y a une imperfection originelle dans la créature avant le péché, parce que la créature est limitée essentiellement, d'où vient qu'elle ne saurait tout savoir et qu'elle peut se tromper et faire des fautes. [One inquires where does evil come from. The Ancients saw the cause of evil in matter which they believed to be uncreated and independant of God... But since we derive every being from God, where do should we look for the source of evil? The answer is that the source is to be found in the ideal nature of the created being in as much as this created being is contained inside the ideal truths which are themselves contained inside God's mind independently of his will. One has to consider that there is an original imperfection in the creature prior to sin, because the created being is essentially limited, which means that it cannot know everything and can be wrong and make mistakes. -AK.]

     It seemed to Leibniz that only a pagan, far removed from revealed truth, could take for granted the existence of matter which is uncreated and independent of God. But to place ideal truths side by side with and above God, to assume that ideal truths are not created, but eternal, means, as he saw it, to "exalt" God, to glorify Him, to do Him honor. True, he himself admits that all evil in the world arose because uncreated truths, heedless of the will of God, worked their way into His mind—and one would think that this must have troubled him. But not at all: his entire Théodicée, i.e., his "justification of God," is based on the idea that God has no power to overcome truths which He did not create. Thus, the Théodicée is not a justification of God so much as a justification of evil. Reason, eager to comprehend the existing as something that cannot be other than it is, has had its way. "Experience" no longer irritates, but satisfies; and reason considers the task of philosophy completed. Although it was accomplished by torture, still, God and man have been reduced to obedience. The world must remain imperfect, for it is impossible to destroy evil. Of course, if things had been different, if the truths had not been eternal truths, but created ones, and man had not been created, but eternal, then there would have been no need for evil. Or, if the truths had not succeeded in insinuating themselves into the mind of God without seeking His consent, then, too, evil would have found no place for itself in creation. But Leibniz, or rather, theoretical philosophy, pays no attention to this. Its main concern is to preserve truth—and what happens to man and God is none of its affair. Or worse still: the very essence of theoretical philosophy lies in its absolute rejection of the idea that the power of truth is in any sense limited. This is why Leibniz was so firmly convinced that the act of creation itself already presupposes imperfection, and that man before the Fall, i.e., man as he came from the hands of the Creator, was just as weak and insignificant as all the succeeding generations of Adam. Evil came, not through the Fall, as the Bible says, and not from the Fall, but from the fact that man was created by God. And if we taste of the fruit of the forbidden tree and thus allow the possibility of uncreated truths to enter our minds, then we will be as gods, knowing good and evil, and creation as it is will be justified.

     Once again we see that the Biblical serpent, a seemingly unnecessary adjunct to the story of Genesis, proves to be the spiritual leader of the best representatives of thinking humanity. Leibniz, following the example of the Scholastic philosophers, saw the act of creation as the source of evil, without even realizing that he was thereby perpetuating evil. Even less did he suspect that by condemning the act of creation he was repudiating Holy Scripture. In fact, Scripture states the opposite: that everything created was valde bonum ("very good"). And it was valde bonum precisely because it was created by God. Therefore, if Leibniz had really wanted to conform to Holy Scripture, he could have and should have seen, or at least tried to see, that truths uncreated by God, are, for the very reason that they were not created by God, impaired, defective, deprived of that valde bonum which, according to the word of the Creator, is shared by everything summoned into being by Him. And, indeed, in spite of all their ideality, eternal truths are just as lacking in spirit and will, just as empty and unreal, as the uncreated matter of the Greeks. They came from Nothingness, and sooner or later will return to it. When Leibniz was still young, barely in his teens, he read Luther's book on the "enslaved will," as well as the Diatribae de libero arbitrio by Erasmus of Rotterdam against which it had been written, and, despite his youth, appears to have gained an excellent understanding of the arguments of the disputing sides. But he did not heed Luther's homo non potest vivere, even though Luther was not speaking, but thundering. He was thundering specifically against truths which have penetrated, or, more precisely, which think they have penetrated, the will of the Creator, without asking His consent; and against those who, like Erasmus, do not perceive that these eternal truths which have permeated their understanding have also enslaved and paralysed their will.

     Leibniz in his youth, as in his old age, felt that Luther's homo non potest vivere was not an "argument" and could in no way be countered with the "self-evidences" on which eternal truths rest and to which they owe their claim to be independent even of God. And still less, of course, could he admit that our attachment to truths which have penetrated the mind of God independent of His will is in fact the result of the Fall of man described in Scripture; that the curse of sin is upon self-evidences; and that rational or speculative philosophy is just as lacking in grace (i.e., unsanctified by the divine valde bonum) as the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Original sin, for Leibniz as for theoretical philosophy, was a myth, or, more exactly, a fiction, which ought not to be disputed, out of respect for a book recognized by everyone as holy, but which cannot be taken seriously. However much Luther may thunder, however much the Prophets and Apostles may thunder, the philosopher knows that thunder will not shatter the eternal truths of reason. And even if it should turn out (as Leibniz himself admitted) that all the evil in the world came from eternal truths this would not cause either the eternal truths or the awe felt by philosophy for them to waver. Truth, by its very nature, does not allow hesitation and does not tolerate hesitation in those who look upon it; it has tortures ready for hesitaters. It menacingly demands that it be accepted as it is, and proudly and confidently defends itself from all questions and all criticism by citing its own uncreatedness and independence from the will of any being whatever, even almighty God.

     And here we plainly find ourselves in an enchanted circle from which a man cannot escape by ordinary means. All the "arguments" are on the side of uncreated truth. It is impossible to quarrel with it; one must fight it, cause it to vanish like an evil spell, like a nightmare. But "reason" will never begin the fight on its own. Reason "eagerly strives" for uncreated truths, not even remotely suspecting that their uncreatedness conceals death and destruction, and that in spite of all their "ideality" they are just as much of a menace to everything living as the "matter" of the ancients. For reason, the divine or Biblical fiat ("let there be") is the greatest offense; for reason, life itself is the greatest offense, an offense for the very reason that it bears witness to the Creator's fiat, which reason translates into its own tongue as "free will," words hateful to it. That is why lugere et detestari are so strictly forbidden man by reason, and why intelligere is so peremptorily demanded of him. Intelligere means to accept and bless uncreated truths, to wonder at them and glorify them. And yet all man's curses are hurled at the very things accepted and blessed by reason, above all at truths which, imagining that their uncreatedness gives them an advantage, have penetrated, not into the mind of God, as Leibniz assures us, but into the mind of fallen man. And only curses can drive them out of there, only an irreconcilable, ever-ready hatred for the fruit of the tree of knowledge can clear man's way to the tree of life. One must oppose reason and its awe of uncreated truths with the Absurd and its despair before the devastation brought into the world by truths independent of the will of God. Sin came from them—and salvation from sin is not to be found in knowledge of the inevitability of all that comes to pass, or in virtue, which, aware of inevitability, "voluntarily" submits to it, but in faith in God for Whom everything is possible, Who created everything according to His own will, and in Whose presence everything uncreated is only empty and pitiful Nothingness. The Absurd to which Kierkegaard summons us also consists in this, and it is the starting point of existential philosophy, which in contrast to theoretical philosophy is a philosophy of Biblical revelation.

     All Kierkegaard's dialectical fearlessness and his unreserved "severity" were needed in order for him to show us the true nature of theoretical philosophy. Theoretical philosophy originated in an immense and inexplicable fear of Nothingness. Fear of Nothingness compels man to search for refuge and protection in knowledge, i.e., m truths which are uncreated, independent of anyone, general and necessary, and, as we think, capable of saving us from the fortuities of free will with which existence is inundated. When Kant says that reason eagerly strives for general and necessary truths, and when he disputes the claims of metaphysics, pointing to the inability of metaphysics to satisfy reason in this respect—he is quite right: metaphysics has no general and necessary truths at its disposal. But Kant does not ask what those general and necessary truths have prepared for man, and why reason is so eager for them. He considers himself a good Christian, he has read Holy Scripture, he knows that the Prophet Amos proclaimed, and the Apostle Paul repeated after him: justus ex fide vivit (the just will live by faith). He also knows the words of the Apostle Paul: "all that is not of faith is sin." It would seem no more than a step from this to guessing, or at least suspecting, that reason's "eager striving" is that concupiscentia invincibilis which the Prophet and the Apostle regarded, and have taught us to regard, as the most terrible consequence of the Fall of the first man. Kant boasted that he had suspended knowledge in order to open the way to faith, but what sort of faith is that, if man is striving for general and necessary truths?

     The Critique of Pure Reason took pains to protect all the necessary truths which in the Critique of Practical Reason duly became imperatives, "you must's." Critical philosophy only proved once again that reason cannot bear and will not tolerate any criticism; the German idealism which grew out of it returned to Spinoza and his testament: quam aram parabit sibi qui majestatem rationis laedit (What altar will the man who has insulted the majesty of reason provide for himself)? Luther's efforts to prevail over Aristotle were in vain; history has not recognized them. Even among rather influential Protestant philosophers and theologians we will not find anyone who recognized the eager striving of Kantian reason as the concupiscentia invincibilis which led the first man to the Fall and saw it as the bellua qua non occisa home non potest vivere. On the contrary: man is so afraid of the freedom proclaimed by Scripture and the divine fiat which is not bound by anything that he is prepared to submit to any principle, put himself in bondage to any authority—solely in order not to be left without sure guidance. God coerces no one—this idea seems intolerable to us. And the idea that God is bound by nothing, absolutely nothing is considered to be utter madness.

     When Kierkegaard approached the threshold of that Holy of Holies where Divine Freedom dwells, his usual courage deserted him and he resorted to indirect communication; if there is any sort of power above God, any principle whatever, whether material or ideal—then even God will not escape all the horrors of existence revealed to us in our experience. Worse yet: God knows horrors, compared with which all the hardships that fall to the lot of mortals seem but child's play. In fact, if God is not the source of truth and the possibilities and impossibilities stipulated by it, if truth stands above God, as it does above man, equally indifferent to God and man, then God is just as defenseless as mortals. His love and charity are helpless and powerless. When God looks upon truth, even He turns to stone; He cannot stir, cannot speak out, cannot answer His crucified Son appealing to Him for help. I have repeated these words by Kierkegaard so many times because they express in a remarkably concrete and vivid form the basic concept of existential philosophy: for God everything is possible. That is also what was meant by his violent attacks on the church. The church and Christianity, by living in peace and harmony with reason, abolish Christ, abolish God. One cannot "live" with reason. Justus ex fide vivit: man will live by faith alone, and all that is not of faith is sin, is death. What faith brings with it, it brings without consulting or considering reason. Faith abolishes reason. Faith is given to man, not in order to support reason s claims to sovereignty in the universe, but to make man himself master in the world established for him by the Creator. Faith leads us through what reason rejects as Absurd to what that same reason identifies with the nonexistent. Reason teaches man to obey; faith gives him the power to command. Theoretical philosophy condemns us to slavery; the aim of existential philosophy is to break through the self-evidences erected by reason, and reach the freedom in which the impossible becomes reality. As it is written: ouden adunatêsei humîn (nothing shall be impossible unto you).

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