Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy

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Kierkegaard's infinitely passionate striving for the finite—although it contains an internal contradiction and therefore seemed, in human estimation, both impossible and senseless—has turned out to be, in divine estimation, the one thing that is needful, which is able to triumph over every "impossible" and "you must."


     Dostoevsky expressed the fundamental ideas of existential philosophy with no less force and passion than Luther and Kierkegaard; all the years he spent in Siberia during which he read only one book—Holy Scripture—were not wasted. It must be assumed that one reads the Bible differently in confinement than in a writer's study. In confinement a man learns to ask questions different from those he asks in freedom, he acquires a boldness of mind of which he did not even suspect himself capable— rather, he becomes bold enough to set his mind the sort of problem he had never dared set it before: the problem of a struggle with the impossible. Dostoevsky uses almost the same words as Kierkegaard, although he had never even heard Kierkegaard's name. "Men yield at once to impossibility. Impossibility means a stone wall! What stone wall? Why, the laws of nature, of course, mathematics, the conclusions of the natural sciences. For instance, once they have proved to you that you are descended from the ape, it does no good to frown; just accept it as it is. Once they have proved that a single particle of your own fat must actually be worth more to you than a hundred thousand like you..., well, accept it, there is nothing to be done about it, for twice two is mathematics. Try to dispute it. For goodness' sake, they will shout at you, no insubordination; twice two is four. Nature does not ask your permission; she is not concerned with your wishes and with whether her laws please you or not. You are obliged to accept her as she is and therefore you must accept all her consequences as well. A wall, then, is a wall, etc., etc."

     Dostoevsky has summed up in a few lines what Duns Scotus, Bonaventura, Spinoza, and Leibniz have told us: eternal laws live in the understanding of God and men independent of their will, eternal truths are armed with every imaginable kind of intimidation, and so: non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. Truth is coercive truth and consequently, whatever its source, it will be truth only if it is able to defend itself by the same means which serve to attack it; for those who will not admit this, tortures have been prepared to force them to make the necessary admission. Dostoevsky, as is evident from his words which I have just quoted, perceived all this no less clearly than Duns Scotus, Bonaventura, Spinoza, and Leibniz. He also knew that our reason eagerly strives for general and necessary judgments, even though he had presumably never read Kant. But at the very moment when theoretical philosophy, under the spell of Socrates and Aristotle, was intensifying all its efforts to reduce revelation to the plane of rational thinking, at the very moment when Kant was writing his Critiques in order to justify and exalt the passion for reason, Dostoevsky was seized by a terrible suspicion, or, if you prefer, a magnificent and dazzling suspicion, that this passion for reason represented the concupiscentia invincibilis which took possession of man after the Fall.

     I repeat and insist: like Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky knew the power that original sin has over us; but he felt the horror of sin, and in this horror there dawned an awareness of the illusory nature of the power appropriated by the truths of reason. Immediately after the words quoted above, which summarize with such striking conciseness and precision the fundamental principles of theoretical philosophy regarding coercive truth, he completely amazes the reader and half amazes himself by not merely saying, but shouting, in a seeming transport of self-oblivion (such a thing cannot be said, but must be "shouted"): "Lord God, what are the laws of nature and arithmetic to me if for some reason I do not like these laws and this twice two is four? Obviously, I will not break this wall down with my head if I do not really have the strength to breach it, but I will not concede to it simply because it is a stone wall and I lack the strength. As if such a wall were in fact a reassurance and in fact contained any promise of peace, just because twice two is four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! It is far better to understand everything, be aware of everything, all impossibilities and stone walls, and not concede to even one of these impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to concede to them..." Kant "criticized" pure reason; the only truth before which he bowed was rational truth, that is, coercive, compelling truth. The idea that "coercion" is evidence not for, but against the truthfulness of a judgment, that all "necessities" must and can disappear in freedom (which he foresightedly transferred to the sphere of Ding an sich) was alien to Kant's "critical philosophy" and just as remote from it as from the dogmatic philosophy of Spinoza, Leibniz, and the mystically inclined Scholastics. Dostoevsky's determination to challenge the power of proofs to prove seemed even stranger to theoretical philosophy, quite outlandish, in fact; how can a man permit himself to take exception to the truth solely because he finds it repugnant! Whatever truth may bring with it, all must be accepted. What is more: man will accept it all, for he is threatened with unprecedented moral and physical tortures if he does not. This is the articulus stantis et cadentis of theoretical philosophy, which it has never actually formulated explicite, which it has always been at pains to conceal, but which, as we have seen, has always been implicite present in it and inspired it. One needs the unlimited audacity of Dostoevsky, the "fearless dialectic" of Kierkegaard, the sudden insight of Luther, the impetuosity of Tertullian or Peter Damian, in order to recognize in eternal truths the bellua qua non occisa homo non potest vivere and, armed with such weapons as homo non potest vivere, to take up the fight against the multitude of "proofs" which are the defense of self-evidence. Or, rather, one needs the boundless despair of which Kierkegaard told us, which is the only thing that can lift, catapult man into that dimension of being where coercion ends, and eternal truths with it, or where eternal truths end, and coercion with them.

     The powerlessness of God, Who, in Kierkegaard's view, is languishing in the stony grip of Inflexibility, or Luther's God, Who proves to be the greatest sinner the world has ever seen—only he who has survived, and continues to survive, not in words, but in actual experience, all the horror and immense burden of this ultimate enigma of our existence can dare to "turn" his attention away from the "immediate data of consciousness" and expect the truth from a "miracle." And then Kierkegaard hurls his "motto": for God everything is possible; Dostoevsky launches an attack against stone walls and "twice two is four;" Luther understands that God, not man, plucked the apple from the forbidden tree; Tertullian overturns our age-old pudet, ineptum et impossibile; Job sends away his pious friends; Abraham raises the knife to his son; revealed Truth engulfs and destroys all the coercive truths obtained by man from the tree of knowledge and evil.

     It is difficult, immensely difficult, for fallen man to grasp the primordial opposition between revelation and the truths of knowledge. It is still more difficult to entertain the thought of truths which are not coercive. Nevertheless, in the very depths of his soul man hates coercive truth, as if sensing that it conceals a sham and a delusion, that it has its origin in empty and powerless Nothingness, fear of which has paralyzed our will. And when they hear the voices of persons who, like Dostoevsky, Luther, Pascal, and Kierkegaard, remind them of the Fall of the first man, even the most heedless prick up their ears. There is no truth where coercion reigns. It is impossible that coercive truth, which is indifferent to all, should determine the fate of the universe. We have no power to banish the spell of Nothingness, we cannot free ourselves from the supernatural enchantment and stupor that have taken possession of us. To vanquish the supernatural requires supernatural intervention. How it has puzzled men that God permitted the "serpent" to tempt the first man, what devices have they resorted to in order to take the "guilt" of the first Fall from God and transfer it to man! And indeed, who would venture to hold God responsible for the horrors that came into the world with sin? Does this not mean to pass sentence upon God? To our way of thinking, there can be only one answer. Man has sinned and if sin has crushed him—then so must it be. But Luther discovered something different, as does every man who is not afraid to read and listen to Scripture: for God nothing is impossible—est enim Deus omnipotens ex nihilo creans omnia ("for He is God Almighty, Who created everything from nothing"). For God there is neither a law of contradiction nor a law of sufficient basis. For Him there are also no eternal, uncreated truths. Man tasted of the tree of knowledge and thereby ruined both himself and all his descendants; the fruit of the tree of life has become inaccessible to him, his existence has become an illusion, has turned into a shadow, like Kierkegaard's love for Regina Olsen. So it has been—Scripture bears witness to that. So it is—Scripture bears witness to that as well, as do our everyday experience and theoretical philosophy.

     And nevertheless—it was not man, but God that plucked and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. God, for Whom everything is possible, did this so that what had once existed would become nonexistent, and what had not existed would become existent, even though all the laws of our reason and our morality cry out against this. God did not even stop at "renouncing" His Inflexibility in answer to the cries, not only of His own Son, but of ordinary men as well. The cries of living, although created and finite, men are more audible to God than the demands of stony, although uncreated and eternal, truths. He even created His Sabbath for man and would not allow pedants to sacrifice man for the Sabbath. And for God there is nothing that is impossible. He took upon Himself the sins of all mankind, He became the greatest and most terrible of sinners: it was not Peter, but He Who denied; not David, but He Who committed adultery; not Paul, but He Who persecuted Christ; not Adam, but He Who plucked the apple. But nothing is beyond God's strength. Sin did not crush Him, He crushed sin. God is the sole source of everything; all eternal truths and all laws of morality bow and prostrate themselves before His will. Because God wishes it, good is good. Because he wishes it, truth is truth. It was by God's will that man succumbed to temptation and lost his freedom. It is also by His will—before which Inflexibility, stony like all laws, crumbled to dust when it attempted to resist—that man's freedom will return, that man's freedom has returned; this is the content of Biblical revelation.

     But the path to revelation is blocked by the truths of our reason and the laws of our morality, which have become petrified in their indifference. The heartless or indifferent power of Nothingness seems terrible to us, but we do not have the strength to partake of the freedom proclaimed in Scripture. We fear it even more than Nothingness. A God bound by nothing, not even truth and good, a God Who created both truth and good by His own will! We take this to be arbitrariness, we think that the limited certainty of Nothingness is still preferable to the limitlessness of divine possibilities. Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard himself, who learned well enough from his own experience the destructive effect of uncreated truths, amended Holy Scripture and rejoiced when Inflexibility stepped between God and His crucified Son, and "pure" charity, infatuated with itself, gloried in the knowledge of its helplessness and powerlessness. We know, of course, that all Kierkegaard's admissions were forced from him by torture. Nevertheless, Nothingness, in whose power Kierkegaard and the rest of us are condemned to drag out our earthly existence, has somehow or other made fear the inseparable companion of our thinking. We are afraid of everything, we are even afraid of God, and dare not trust in Him as long as we have not been assured in advance that He will not threaten us in any way. And no "rational" arguments can dispel this fear; on the contrary, rational arguments foster it.

     This is the starting point of the Absurd. It was from the Absurd, forged by the horrors of existence, that Kierkegaard found out about sin and learned to see sin where Scripture shows it to be. The opposite of sin is not virtue, but freedom. Freedom from all fears, freedom from coercion. The opposite of sin—this, too, was revealed to him by the Absurd—is faith. That is what is hardest of all for us to accept in Kierkegaard's existential philosophy, and what was the hardest of all for him to accept. It was for this reason that he said faith is the mad struggle of man for the possible. Existential philosophy is the struggle of faith with reason over the possible, or rather, the impossible. Kierkegaard does not follow the lead of theoretical philosophy and say: credo, ut intelligam ("I believe in order that I may understand"). He discards our intelligere as unnecessary and deadening. He recalls the words of the Prophet: justus ex fide vivit (the just shall live by faith), and the words of the Apostle: all that is not of faith is sin. Only faith, regardless of anything, "knowing" nothing and not wanting to know—only faith can be the source of the truths created by God. Faith does not ask questions, does not inquire, makes no investigations. Faith simply invokes the One by Whose will all that is, is. And if theoretical philosophy originates in the given, in self-evidences, and considers them necessary and inevitable, then existential philosophy vanquishes all necessities through faith. "It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to go into a country which would be his for posterity, and he went, not knowing himself where he was going." In order to reach the promised land, it is not necessary to have knowledge; the promised land does not exist for the knowing man. The promised land is the place to which the believer has come; it proves to be the promised land because the believer has come to it: certum quia impossibile ("it is certain—because it is impossible").

     Faith is not "trust" in the invisible truths unveiled by reason; it is not even trust in the rules of life proclaimed by teachers or holy books. Such faith is only less complete knowledge and is evidence of the Fall of man, like the tertium genus cognitionis (third kind of knowledge) of Spinoza or the uncreated truths of Leibniz. If God signifies that nothing is impossible, then faith means that the end has come for necessity and all the stony "you must's" spawned by necessity. There are no truths; the dawn of freedom has arrived: Hear, 0 Israel! the Lord our God is one Lord. And there is no sin; God has taken it upon Himself, and destroyed it together with all the evil that came into the world with sin. Theoretical philosophy "explains" evil, but explained evil not only persists, not only remains evil, but justifies its necessity, is accepted, and becomes an eternal principle. Existential philosophy goes beyond the limits of "explanations," existential philosophy sees its own worst enemy in "explanations." It is impossible to explain evil, impossible to "accept" it and come to an understanding with it, just as it is impossible to accept sin and come to an understanding with it; evil can only and must only be destroyed.

     Kierkegaard's books, together with his journals, all his direct and indirect communications, are an unbroken narrative of man's desperate, frenzied, convulsive struggle with original sin and the horrors of life which arose from sin. Rational thinking and the morality which stands guard over it—by which men live and with which they are satisfied—brought Kierkegaard to what is most terrible of all: powerlessness. His fate was to experience powerlessness in the most repulsive and shameful form it can take on earth: when he touched his beloved, she turned into a shadow, a phantom. Worse yet—everything he touched turned into a phantom; the fruit of the tree of life became inaccessible to him; the power of death that looms over all men, the despair that lies in wait for all, took possession of his soul even in his youth. Yet this same despair raised him above the plane of ordinary thinking, and it was then that he discovered that his powerlessness was itself an illusion. What is more: the illusory nature of human powerlessness was at times revealed to him even more directly and tangibly than the illusory nature of existence. Powerlessness was and powerlessness was not; it was unmasked as fear of the nonexistent, the uncreated, Nothingness. Nothingness, which does not exist, followed sin into the world and made man its slave. Speculative philosophy, brought into being by original sin and then crushed by it, cannot rid us of Nothingness. On the contrary, it calls upon it and binds it with unbreakable ties to all of existence. And as long as knowledge and intellectual vision are the source of truth for us, Nothingness will remain the master of life.

     Kierkegaard experienced all this as directly and agonizingly as few in the world have ever experienced anything; as a result, hardly anyone has been able to give such authentic testimony about sin and the powerlessness of the will as he. In addition, rarely has anyone had the ability and the desire to celebrate so ebulliently, so passionately, so ecstatically the Absurd which paves the way for faith. He could not make the "movement of faith"—his will was paralyzed, "in a swoon." But he despised his powerlessness and cursed it with all the vehemence of which a man is capable. Is this not in fact the first "movement" of faith? Is this not faith itself? Genuine, true faith? He rejected the eternal truths of reason, he shook the unshakable principles of morality. If reason is supreme, if morality is supreme—Abraham is lost, Job is lost, all men are lost; the "Inflexibility" which has permeated uncreated truths will, like a giant python, strangle everything alive, even God Himself, in its terrible embrace.

     Ex auditu, from Scripture, there came to Kierkegaard the good tidings that for God everything is possible, that for God there is nothing impossible. And when all possibilities had ended for him, or rather, because all possibilities had ended for him, he hastened to obey the call which had reached his ears. Historical Christianity, which lives in peace and harmony with our reason and our morality, had become for him the monster qua non occisa homo non potest vivere. Historical Christianity, which adapts itself to the average conditions of human existence, has forgotten God, has renounced God. It is satisfied with "possibilities," convinced a priori that God, too, must be satisfied with the possible; Christians, as Kierkegaard put it, have abolished Christ.

     During Kierkegaard's lifetime no one would listen to him. After his death his books came to be read more and more, and he achieved universal renown. But is existential philosophy fated to triumph over theoretical philosophy? Will Kierkegaard become a "teacher of mankind"? It makes no difference. Perhaps it is not necessary that he become a "teacher;" most likely it is not necessary. Kierkegaard's voice has been and probably will always remain the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Existential philosophy, which is directed toward God, for Whom everything is possible, tells us that God does not coerce, that His truth attacks no one and is itself defended by nothing, that God Himself is free and created man as free as He is. But the concupiscentia invincibilis of fallen man, man who has tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, fears divine freedom more than anything else and eagerly strives for general and necessary truths. Can a "rational" man allow himself to think that God, heeding the cries, not of His beloved Son, nor even of Abraham or Job, but of the theology student Soren Kierkegaard, smashed to bits the stony Inflexibility forced upon Him by our thinking, and raised a ridiculous, a petty and ridiculous, incident in Kierkegaard's life to the level of a universally historic event? That He freed Kierkegaard from the spell of the tree of knowledge and gave back to him who was old even in his mother's womb that youthfulness of spirit and that spontaneity which provide access to the tree of life? That Kierkegaard's infinitely passionate striving for the finite— although it contains an internal contradiction, and therefore seemed, in human estimation, both impossible and senseless—has turned out to be, in divine estimation, the "one thing that is needful," which is able to triumph over every "impossible" and "you must"? [1] There can be only one answer to this question. That is why Kierkegaard turned, not to reason and morality, which demand resignation, but to the Absurd and Faith, which give their sanction to daring. His writings and sermons, raging, frenzied, violent, full of intensity, speak to us of nothing else: a voice crying in the wilderness about the horrors of Nothingness which has enslaved fallen man! A mad struggle for possibility, it is also a mad flight from the god of the philosophers to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.

[1] Let us recall Kierkegaard's words once more (V, 46): "And nevertheless it is a wonderful thing to win the king's daughter... Only the knight of faith is really happy, only he is master over the finite, while the knight of resignation is a stranger and an outsider."

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