Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Great Offense

The greatest provocation to offense comes when man admits that what lies outside the realm of possibility for human reason is possible for God.


     I have had to dwell somewhat on Kierkegaard's "inconsistencies," but by no means have I done this to demonstrate a lack of self-control in his thinking. The constant substitution of the "religious" for reason (of the Absurd for the ethical) we observe in his work does not in the least resemble what is called in logic metabasis eis allo genos [changing from one order into another]. When he wishes Kierkegaard can employ the strictest consistency in his thinking. But there is a reason for his repeating so often and so fervently that Christ's words, "Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me," are basic to Christianity. [1] "The greatest provocation to offense comes when man admits that what lies outside the realm of possibility for human reason is possible for God." [Ibid., 115] When Kierkegaard's thinking does an about-face, it is not because he is insufficiently consistent, but because he is overcome by the offense he speaks of in the lines just quoted. How is one to admit that what is evidently impossible to our human minds is possible for God? Descartes admitted this "theoretically," but he constructed his entire philosophy on cogito ergo sum (borrowed from St. Augustine, and St. Augustine could not have done without it!)—which meant that the truths of reason are equally compulsory for us and for the Supreme Being. In our time Husserl, whose thinking derives from Descartes, also states that what is true is true not only for us but for every thinking being, for the devil, for an angel, for God—and with this he seems to be bridging contemporary thought with Hellenic thought. And, throughout the whole history of human thought—even after the Bible had become widespread among the peoples of Europe—we can name scarcely one philosopher who completely overcame this offense. Kierkegaard sought the Absurd with all the impulsiveness characterizing him, and with an infinitely passionate intensity. He notes in his journal: "Only horror that has turned to despair can develop a man's higher powers." [Journal, II, 204]

     But even by thus straining all his powers he did not always succeed in driving offense from him. He was wholeheartedly with Job, but he could not dispel the fascination of Hegel, could not "think" that for God the possible does not end where human reason believes all possibilities end. He went to Job only to convince himself of his right and his power to transform his little case into a universally historic event. For as far as that goes, even the case of Job is very trivial. Quite a few men have their wealth taken from them, lose their children, fall ill with a serious and incurable disease. Kierkegaard says of himself that his suffering is "tedious." But Job's case is no more remarkable or more diverting! Kierkegaard knows this, and is frightened by it. It is here that we must seek the reason he spares the ethical and "suspends" it only temporarily to be able, if necessary, to rescue it from Hegel. For, and this no one can know in advance, Hegel might manage to prove, by relying on self-evidence, that neither the misfortunes of Job nor the misfortunes of Kierkegaard have any significance in the general economy of being. Hegel "explained" the fate of Socrates; why not assume that the fate of Job or Kierkegaard can also be explained, and once explained stricken from the records. Earthly misfortunes, however terrible or grand they may be, do not give man a deciding voice at the council of the great and eternal forces of nature. If Kierkegaard wishes to speak and wishes to be heard, he must win over the ethical to his side and put on its vestments. And if he does the opposite and appears naked before people, without any ceremonial robes—just as man looked when he came from the hand of the Creator, and just as each of us will appear sooner or later before the Creator (so Kierkegaard is convinced)—no one will stop to listen to him, or if any one does, then it will likely be to laugh at him.

     Fear of the power of necessity and the judgment of men never left Kierkegaard. He knew that his voice was the voice of one crying in the wilderness and that he was condemned to absolute loneliness and hopeless abandonment by circumstances which he could not alter. He constantly and incessantly speaks of this, both in his journals and his books. If he turned from Hegel, it was primarily because he no longer expected anything for himself from the universally recognized philosopher, and placed his hopes with Job, whom men had forsaken. But misgivings that the final truth and consequently the decisive power are to be found, if not on the side of Hegel, then on the side of Socrates, were his inseparable companions during his life. It might be expressed thus: he did not suspend the "ethical"; at a difficult moment, the "ethical" suspended itself from him. His soul was attracted to the "private thinker" Job; he hated Hegelian speculative philosophy ("Hegel is not a thinker but a professor," he wrote in his journal), but to the end he could not rid his soul of a fear of the eternal truths discovered by the Hellenes. And this fear, hidden in his soul, repressed yet irrepressible, vanquished yet invincible, accompanied him in his approach to the ultimate mysteries of existence—the mysteries of knowledge, faith, sin, redemption.

     Not for nothing did he give the name The Concept of Dread to one of the most remarkable of his works. He had discovered in himself and others a fear that was unaccountable, unjustifiable, and unreasonable, and moreover, as we shall presently see, a fear of Nothingness. And to anticipate what will be explained later, it must here be said that in his struggle with his fear of Nothingness, he remained as before in the power of Nothingness. I must add that the fear of Nothingness, in the sense given it by Kierkegaard, is not a personal, subjective trait of his. Owing to the special conditions of his existence, he merely exposed this fear and the Nothingness that gives rise to it with a precision distinguished by its clarity and its great vividness. Or perhaps we might put it this way: that which exists only potentially, and therefore invisibly, in the souls of other men became for him an actuality, an everyday reality. This is why he maintained that the beginning of philosophy is not wonder but despair. As long as a man wonders, he has not yet touched on the mysteries of being. Only despair brings him to the brink, to the limits of the existing. And if philosophy, as we have always been told, seeks the beginnings, sources, and roots of everything, then whether it wishes to or not it must pass through despair.

     But—and here lies Kierkegaard's final question—has despair the power to dispel the fear of Nothingness? We have just now seen that Kierkegaard could not renounce the support of the ethical, even after he had forsaken Hegel and gone to Job. We shall see this problem recurring further on, and in an even more, much more, clear-cut and obvious form. And still his truly titanic struggle with fear and Nothingness produces a shattering impression, unmasking for us those aspects of being of whose existence people have not the least notion. When he cried out, like Job, "What force is this that has taken my pride and my honor from me?" the ethical suspended itself from him. The ethical is unable to answer this question. It experiences the very same fear of Nothingness that paralyzed Kierkegaard's will. It is continually obliged to look directly at necessity, that terrible Medusa's head which turns to stone all those who gaze upon it. But Kierkegaard still managed from time to time to find the courage and the strength to tear himself away from the enchanted circle into which he had stumbled, and to search in life for another principle, a principle that knows no fear, not even fear of Nothingness. This is what led him to existential philosophy. It is pertinent to say here that even in those moments when like the prodigal son he returns to the ethical, he does in such a way that there is some doubt whether he is not more of a danger to the ethical when he returns to it than when he leaves it; more of a danger when he testifies for it than when he testifies against it.

     In this connection it is most helpful, in reading Kierkegaard's edifying discourses and the chapters corresponding to them in his later works (The Sickness Unto Death, Training in Christianity, and The Moment) to recall Nietzsche's Toward a Genealogy of Morals; Kierkegaard is no less zealous than Nietzsche in his glorification of cruelty, and his discourse on love for one's neighbor is as pitiless as Nietzsche's discourse on love for the far-off; the Nietzschean superman is only a different, less usual word than the "Christian" "you must" with which Kierkegaard assails the married pastors and the comfortably settled laity. When replying to the question asked by Shakespeare's Falstaff: can honor (for honor comes from the ethical) give a man back his arm or leg?, Kierkegaard answers with obvious triumph and joy, no, it cannot, but on the other hand when its demands are not fulfilled it can maim a man as the most vicious torturer cannot. Should not Kierkegaard ask himself what moved him to welcome a force which is able to smash, to burn, to reduce to ashes—but unable not only to build, but also to rebuild? Particularly if we recall that he, like Nietzsche, showed so little cruelty in his life, attacking Job's friends so fiercely because they did not want to acknowledge his laments and curses as lawful? Is not such a celebration of the "ethical," in Kierkegaard's work as well as Nietzsche's, simply an expression of profound, irreconcilable, ineradicable hatred for it? It is as if Kierkegaard wished to say: men think the ethical to be a superior vital principle, but look what it promises you: do you accept this? Do not think to rid yourself of it by giving it a pittance in alms. It demands from you what you consider most precious in the world. It comes to Job as he lies in filth and says to him: I cannot give you back your flock, your riches, your children, or your health. But if you agree to renounce all this and admit that my praise is worth more than all the good things in the world, I will sustain you, I will take you to my bosom. If you do not agree, if you insist as before that all that was taken from you be returned, then I will censure you, will turn you from my bosom, and add to the horrors that fell to you from my brother Necessity new horrors, much more terrible than those you already know. Nor will I do this in my own name, but in the name of Him who called to Himself the laboring and the heavy-laden, promising them rest. For even He cannot, as even I cannot, give you "repetition," and the rest that He promised shall be many times worse than the misfortunes you have suffered. [2]

     It cannot be disputed that the "ethical" has thus led astray those who have trustingly placed all their hopes in it. But neither can it be disputed that the "ethical" has never used this sort of language and has not revealed in this manner the meaning of the bliss promised to men. Plato and the Stoics did not talk like this. Aristotle in his Ethics sets as a condition of bliss a definite minimum of life's blessings. Even the Pelagians did not dare to defend the ethical thus when St. Augustine made a relatively weak attempt to dispute its right to apportion the higher blessings to men (quo nos laudabiles vel vituperabiles sumus), and this was precisely because they acted not out of fear, but out of conscience. And is it in fact a defense or the most monstrous, violent accusation masquerading as a defense? The ethical sets as the condition of its benevolence man's readiness to submit without a murmur to whatever necessity brings him; does not such a clear representation of the nature of the ethical have the effect of fixing it to the pillory and bringing everlasting dishonor upon it? Kierkegaard, as I have already indicated, repeated insistently that existential truths call for indirect communication. Indeed, as we will remember, he took pains to conceal, and did not want to give a concrete name to, that actual experience of his fated to be transformed by his will (or perhaps by the will of another) into a universally historic event. And in my opinion he had every reason for doing so.

     Perhaps it was because, like the princess in Andersen's fairy tale, he hid his pea under eighty feather beds that it grew to such gigantic proportions, not only in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of remote posterity; had he shown it openly to everyone, no one would have stopped to look at it. Moreover, when he took it out from under the innumerable covers, it seemed even to him (we have heard often enough about this) to be insignificant, dull, pitiful, and ridiculous. But concealed from men's eyes it took on universally historic significance, both for him and for others. He even forgot his unconquerable fear and found the strength and the courage to look into the empty eyes of the Nothingness that had overwhelmed him. It was not easy for him to convince himself that it is Job with his wails, and not Hegel and speculative philosophy, that leads to the truth. It was not easy for him to renounce the protection of ethics, even for a while. And these were only the first steps. The most difficult lay ahead. He had to accept the Fall of man—not as it is commonly represented, but as it is described in Holy Scripture; he had to accept the Absurd, to tear faith from the clutches of reason, and to look to faith, the Absurd, and Holy Scripture for the deliverance refused to man by rational thinking; and to accomplish all this in the face of Necessity and Ethics, and that invincible fear of them we have already heard about. This is natural, if in the future we are expected to be witnesses for the indirect manner of communication and those strange, innumerable, not always coordinated movements, sometimes almost convulsive and spasmodic, called for by the struggle he has undertaken. For Kierkegaard, reason and ethics became, to use Luther's words, bellua qua non occisa homo non potest vivere ("the monster man must kill so that he may live"). Existential philosophy has its point of origin here; man must not "understand," but live; and he opposes, he dares to oppose his ridere, lugere, and detestari to the understanding achieved through speculative philosophy. Holy Scripture gives him its blessing in this enterprise: justus ex fide vivit ("the just shall live by faith"), the Prophet tells us, and the Apostle after him. And what is more, "if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible unto you"— ouden adunatêsei humîn.

[1] "Taking the responsibility upon myself before the Most High, I have dared to say that the words 'blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me' belong with (the essentials) proclaimed by Christ" (VIII, 121).

[2] This will be discussed in greater detail further on; here I shall cite one short passage from Kierkegaard so that the reader may more easily see the direction in which his thought tended: "Oh, the singular effect of love; oh, the unfathomable misfortune of love: God cannot—true, He does not want to, and cannot want to—but if He did want to, He could not arrange matters so that His loving assistance would not lead to the opposite result, to the greatest unhappiness. He can make men more unhappy by His love than they could ever be without it" (VIII, 119, 120).

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