Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Mystery of Redemption

Omnes prophetae viderunt hoc in spiritu, quod Christus futurus esset omnium maximus latro, adulter, fur, sacrilegus, blasphemus, etc... quo nullus major nunquam in mundo fuerit.


     It remains for us to take the final step. Some power has persuaded us of the invincibility of Nothingness, and Nothingness has become lord of the universe. Of all that our experience of life reveals to us, this is the most incomprehensible and enigmatic. Hardly less mysterious is the dull, indifferent resignation with which we all accept the power of Nothingness, as well as our unaccountable and ineradicable fear of it. Rare is the man who pauses and ponders over the extraordinary thing that is happening to him. Pascal sensed the terrible enchantement et assoupissement surnaturels here; Luther has told us about the servo arbitrio. Kierkegaard repeatedly speaks of the enslaved will. But theoretical philosophy does not choose to recognize this, being unable or unwilling to see that the enslaved will is, in the words of Kant, the prerequisite for the possibility of knowledge. Everyone wants to think that knowledge is the prerequisite for the possibility of freedom, and everyone is also sure that freedom is the freedom of choice between good and evil. The preceding exposition has, I hope, satisfied us that both these assumptions are in fact the prerequisite for the possibility of the existence of theoretical philosophy. In order for theoretical philosophy to exist, the will of man (and of God: Leibniz "demonstrated" this to us) must be subordinated to knowledge, and, subordinated to knowledge, enslaved freedom ipso facto becomes freedom of choice between good and evil. Reality, which took form apart from and independent of anyone's will, is presented to man by knowledge as the immediate data of consciousness. In this reality man finds everything ready-made and irrevocably determined; he cannot alter the order of existence, which was established without him.

     This is the starting point of theoretical philosophy, for which only edification, the source of all wisdom, is left. Philosophy teaches man to understand the "necessary" in the "given" and to "accept" the necessary by adjusting to it, more or less. Philosophy knows, of course, what fateful significance there is in that "more or less." But it obstinately remains silent on this subject, for it, too, cannot bear what "madness and death have to say," which puts an end to all adjustment. In order to emerge with honor from a difficult situation, theoretical philosophy refers us to morality, which has the magic power of turning the inevitable into the obligatory and even the desirable, and thus paralyzes all our ability to resist. The passage quoted earlier from Kierkegaard's The Thorn in the Flesh shows us with appalling precision the state of mind of a man who has trusted to "pure reason": he feels, as in a nightmare, that a terrible monster is advancing on him and he cannot move a muscle. What keeps him in this stupor? What has chained and enslaved his will? Kierkegaard answers us: Nothingness. He sees clearly that the power which has defeated him, the power which has defeated us all, is the power of pure Nothingness—but he cannot overcome the fear of Nothingness, cannot find the word or make the gesture that would banish the spell. He is always searching for new "knowledge"; he tries to convince himself through inspirational edifying discourses that our enviable duty lies in a readiness to accept resignedly and even gladly the horrors that fall to our lot; he frantically calls down upon himself new horrors in the hope that they will erase the memory of lost freedom. But neither "dialectic" nor "exhortations" justify the hopes placed in them. On the contrary—the stupor of the soul and the powerlessness of the will continue to grow. Knowledge shows that all possibilities are at an end; exhortations forbid any struggle. The movement of faith, the one thing that could hurl him beyond the limits of the supernaturally bewitched world, he cannot make. Nothingness proceeds with its work of destruction; fear of Nothingness prevents man from doing what could save him.

     Does this mean that the end, the final end, has come, that theoretical philosophy with its truths and tortures rules the world, and that the morality of resignation, born of intellectual vision, is all that man can expect?

     To whom can a man turn with these questions? Kierkegaard rejected the serpent of the Bible, but Pascal did not hesitate to speak of a supernatural lethargy in man. But if Kierkegaard was right in thinking that human knowledge is based on fear of Nothingness alone, then ought we to strive so persistently to purge Holy Scripture of the "supernatural," and whom are we thus trying to please? Where do we turn with our questions? Evidently, to that to which the questions of theoretical philosophy have so far been addressed—i.e., to Nothingness, fear of which has impelled man to turn from the tree of life and put his trust in the tree of knowledge. As long as we still ask, we are wholly in the grip of original sin. We must stop asking, must renounce objective truth, must refuse objective truth the right to decide human fates. But how is this to be done by a man whose will is "in a swoon," whose will is enslaved, paralyzed? Does this not mean to "demand the impossible"? Beyond any doubt, it does mean to demand the impossible.

     Even Kierkegaard, who told us so many times of the swoon of freedom, ventured to say that God signifies that everything is possible. Or rather: Kierkegaard, the very man whose experience showed him that the Fall began with the loss of human freedom, that sin is the swoon of freedom and its powerlessness, the very man who had to pay such a terrible price for his own powerlessness, was able to comprehend—even though only in a presentiment of that which is not yet, and for us powerless, fallen men has never been—all the immense meaning of the words: God signifies that everything is possible. God signifies that the knowledge for which our reason strives so eagerly and to which it draws us so irresistibly does not exist. God signifies that there is no evil; there are only the primeval fiat ("let there be") and the heavenly valde bonum ("very good") before which all our truths, based on the "law" of contradiction, the "law" of sufficient basis, and the other "laws," fade away and become shadows. Man cannot break free from the power of the tempter who revealed Nothingness to him and inspired him with an ineradicable fear of Nothingness. Man cannot stretch forth his hand to the tree of life and is compelled to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge, even when he is convinced that it brings with it madness and death. But is the human "cannot" really the truth? Is it not simply evidence of powerlessness, evidence which is meaningful only as long as that powerlessness continues? [1] Let us now hear the words of another man, who, several centuries before Kierkegaard, spoke of the "enslaved will" no less intensely and vehemently than Kierkegaard did of the "swoon of freedom." What attracted Luther most of all in Scripture was the very thing that others find repellent in it. He sought salvation from our clear and precise judgments in tenebrae fidei (the "darkness of faith"). The powerlessness and helplessness of our will, which reason takes such pains to conceal from us, rightly perceiving that its might is based on them alone, were felt just as strongly by Luther as by Kierkegaard. Luther was convinced that the enslaved will cannot lead man to that which he needs most of all, and that the enslavement and powerlessness of the will have their source in the truths instilled in us by reason.

     That is why he attacked Scholastic philosophy so violently and rudely, and often unjustly. He took the visible and invisible presence of Aristotle in the systems of the great Scholastics as an insult and a challenge to revealed truth. For him, Aristotle was the embodiment of that concupiscentia invincibilis, that cupiditas scientiae, which took possession of man after he tasted the fruit of the forbidden tree and which Luther considered the bellua qua non occisa homo non potest vivere. Kierkegaard's existential philosophy is the successor to Luther's sola fide. Man's task is not to accept and put into practice the truths of reason, but to dispel these truths with the power of faith: in other words, to renounce the tree of knowledge and return to the tree of life. Luther, inspired by Scripture, dared to raise "homo non potest vivere" as an objection to the self-evidences of reason, just as the wails and curses of Job were raised by Kierkegaard as an objection to the arguments of theoretical philosophy. Luther's thinking, like Kierkegaard's, was enriched by a new dimension—faith—which the ordinary consciousness regards as a fantastic invention.

     It is worth noting that Luther's theory has an organic connection with that of the last great Scholastics, Duns Scotus and Ockham, with whom the collapse of Scholastic philosophy begins. The divine free will proclaimed by Duns Scotus exploded the possibility of a philosophy which seeks to unite and reconcile revelation with the truths of reason. After nearly a thousand years of intense spiritual labor, the artificiality, or the unnaturalness, of that mysterious symbiosis of revealed and rational truth which had inspired the works of the most influential representatives of medieval thought was suddenly exposed. If God arbitrarily, regardless of anything, decides what is good and what is evil, then what is to prevent us from going a step further, what is to keep us from asserting, together with Peter Damian and Tertullian, that God just as arbitrarily, unhampered by any laws of thinking or existence, decides what truth is? Perhaps the first proposition is in a way more of a challenge than the second; it might still be possible to come to terms with a God Who does not recognize our logic, but a God Who does not recognize our morality, i.e., an immoral God— what consciousness could find room for that kind of assumption? For Greek philosophy (as for modern) such statements marked the end of any philosophy. Free will as a basic attribute of the divine nature is an abomination of desolation which must repel believer and nonbeliever alike.

     There is no need to enlarge on this; everyday experience is enough to reveal to us the base and loathsome meaning contained in the concept of "free will." But no matter what everyday experience may have revealed, there is no disputing the fact that medieval philosophy, in the person of its last great representatives (and immediately after Thomas Aquinas), patterning itself after the fathers of the church in attempting to "understand" and "explain" revelation, arrived at the idea of divine free will. It is true that the final step was not taken. Even Ockham did not venture to follow the example of Peter Damian; in his writings, too, the law of contradiction had taken over the mind of God. But this does not alter the case. By withdrawing moral sanction from the truths of reason, Duns Scotus and Ockham made it possible for the Absurd to enter into every area of existence. God can overcome the law of contradiction; God, despite the principle of quod factum est infectum esse nequit, can, by His power, that potentia absoluta which takes precedence over every potentia ordinata, make what has once existed into what has never existed, just as He can cause that which has had a beginning to have no end, just as He can give His blessing to the infinitely passionate striving for the finite, even though to our way of thinking this is the same kind of absurdity, the same kind of contradiction, as the concept of a round square, and we are compelled to regard it as an impossibility both for ourselves and for the Creator.

     To us, the completely unlimited free will of the Creator is an idea as mad as it is terrible. All of us, together with Leibniz, are prepared to wager our souls that the laws of contradiction and sufficient basis alone can offer man the assurance that, when he sets out to search for the truth, he can expect that he will recognize it when he meets it, and never take the truth for a lie, or a lie for the truth. Beginning with Socrates and especially with Aristotle, and down to our own day, human thought has seen these laws and their immutability as an essential bulwark against the errors which besiege us from every side. And then to renounce them! When medieval philosophy encountered the "paradoxes" of Duns Scotus and Ockham, it had to turn its back on its spiritual leader, the Philosophus, and accept the fantastic stories of the Bible as the source of truth, or else condemn itself to the miserable existence of casuistic interpretation of the systems created prior to it. There was, of course, a third alternative: to put the Bible in its place, i.e., to stop taking it into account in matters of truth. But this was too heroic an alternative. The outgoing Middle Ages were not prepared to "go so far." Even Descartes did not dare to rely on his own thinking in this manner, or, at any rate, he did not dare to speak of it. Only Spinoza had the courage to raise and resolve the colossal and terrifying problem provided by medieval thinking: if it is necessary to choose between Scripture and reason, between Abraham and Socrates, between the free will of the Creator and eternal, uncreated truths—and impossible not to choose—then one must follow reason and put the Bible away in the museum.

     Aristotle, as the visible and invisible interpreter of Scripture in the Middle Ages, had done his work; the appearance of Spinoza was the result of his philosophical leadership. Duns Scotus and Ockham uncovered the presence of "free will" in the Biblical concept of the world. Spinoza rejected free will as anarchy, and returned to the idea of knowledge based on proofs, on necessity, that tertium genus cognitionis, cognitio intuitiva, which transforms the immediate data of consciousness into unshakable truths. No matter how you search you will not find any laws, any truths in the immediate data of consciousness. They do not contain the law of contradiction, nor the law of sufficient basis. Neither will you find in them the self-evident truth that quod factum est infectum esse nequit. It is impossible to "perceive" all this in experience, even through the oculi mentis ("intellectual vision") which Spinoza compared to demonstrationes; one can only add it to experience. This is the mission of reason, which is only irritated by experience and eagerly strives for general and necessary truths. Only general and necessary truths can make knowledge knowledge. Without them experience is a grotesque, disorderly, undefined succession of events. On all sides the capricious fiat lies in wait for us, on all sides we are threatened by the arbitrary unforeseen called into being by fiat alone. Knowledge and only knowledge can put an end to arbitrariness.

     Plato was right; if we renounce reason, if we renounce knowledge, we doom ourselves to the greatest misfortune. He was also right when, anticipating almost prophetically what his remote spiritual descendants, Duns Scotus and Ockham, would find in Scripture, he authoritatively declared in Euthyphro, speaking in the name of Socrates, that the idea of good was not created, that it is above the gods, that what is holy is not holy because the gods love it; rather, the gods love and must love the holy because it is holy. Plato realized quite clearly that morality is the guardian of truth and that, if it deserts its post, truth will meet with disaster. Truth and good are uncreated; God has been sentenced to obey the norms of truth and morality, both in His understanding and in His evaluations, to no less a degree than man. Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari—sed intelligere ("do not laugh, do not weep, do not curse, but understand"): this is the first commandment of human and divine thinking, before which all the Biblical commandments must take second place. To be more precise, considering that both the fathers of the church and the Scholastics continually cited Biblical texts, it should be said that Biblical doctrine, refracted through the premises of Aristotelian philosophy, turned into its opposite. The striving to understand, intelligere, made and continues to make the most sensitive of people deaf even to Biblical thunderings. Kierkegaard guided us to that appalling moment in history when the love and charity of God conflicted with the Inflexibility of uncreated truths—and love was forced to give way; God, like man, is helpless to answer the cry of great despair. Kierkegaard knew what he was doing in sharpening the question thus; never before, even in Kierkegaard's writings, had "indirect communication" been given such terrifying expression as in this conflict. Intelligere drained away all God's might, and with it His soul. His will fell in a swoon, became paralyzed, enslaved to some "principle"; God Himself was transformed into a "principle." In other words, God was tempted, God tasted the fruit of the tree against which he had warned man... We can go no farther; Kierkegaard has persuaded us that original sin was committed not by man, but by God. Did Kierkegaard persuade us of this? Or was he himself persuaded of it?

     This is what brought to my mind Luther's commentary on Galatians. I shall now quote his words, which are also a commentary on those attempts to penetrate to the meaning and significance of the Fall which form the content of Kierkegaard's major works. Having in view, of course, the famous fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, Luther writes: Omnes prophetae viderunt hoc in spiritu, quad Christus futurus esset omnium maximus latro, adulter, fur, sacrilegus, blasphemus, etc., quo nullus major alius nunquam in mundo fuerit ("All prophets have seen in spirit that Christ would be the greatest of all robbers, adulterers, thieves, desecrators, blasphemers—greater than any has ever been in the world").

     Those are the words of Luther and that is the real meaning of Isaiah 53, so horrifying and destructive to our reason and our morality. And Luther expresses the same idea once more, in words that are even blunter and more intolerable to us: Deus miserit unigenitum filium suum in mundum ac conferit in eum omnia peccata, dicens: Tu sis Petrus, ille negator, Paulus, ille persecutor, blasphemus et violentus, David ille adulter, peccator ille qui comedit pomum in paradiso, latro ille in cruce, tu sis persona, qui fecerit omnia peccata in mundo ("God sent His only begotten Son into the world and laid upon Him all sins, saying: You are Peter, the denier, You are Paul, the persecutor and blasphemer, You are David, the adulterer, You are the sinner who ate the apple in paradise, You are the thief on the cross, You have committed all the sins in the world").

[1] Cf. the remarkable entry in Kierkegaard's journal for 1848 (I, 379): "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. Nor for a moment do I allow myself the temerity of thinking that, if I see no way out, this means that there is no way out for God as well. For it is presumptuousness and despair to confuse one's own petty fantasy and so forth with the possibilities at the disposal of God."

Orphus system

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