Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Movement of Faith

I cannot accomplish the movement of faith; I cannot close my eyes and fling myself without a glance into the abyss of the Absurd.


     The way leads from Job to the father of faith, Abraham, and his terrible sacrifice. The whole of the book Fear and Trembling, which takes its title from the Bible, is devoted to Abraham [Psalms 2:11 and Philippians 2:12]. Kierkegaard had difficulty enough with Job, great difficulty; we remember what an effort it cost him to decide to oppose the sedate and sober thinking of Hegel with the tears and curses of Job. But more, much more, was demanded from Abraham than from Job. Job's misfortunes descended upon him from an external, outside force—Abraham himself raised a knife to the one who was dearest to him in all the world. Men avoided Job, and even the "ethical," sensing its complete lack of power, imperceptibly suspended itself from him. Men were obliged not to avoid Abraham, but to take up arms against him; ethics not only suspended itself from him, but pronounced a curse on him. In the judgment of ethics, Abraham is the greatest of transgressors, the most despicable of men: he is a filicide. Ethics cannot help man, but, as we know, it commands sufficient means to torment anyone who does not please it. Abraham is at the same time the most unhappy and the most culpable of men; he loses his beloved son, the hope and support of his old age, and in addition he, like Kierkegaard, loses his honor and his pride.

     What sort of person is this mysterious Abraham, and what sort of enigmatic book is it, in which the case of Abraham is not deservedly branded as a disgrace, but is glorified and exalted as an example and lesson for posterity? I will remind you again of the words of Kierkegaard, which I have quoted once before: "Abraham by his own action oversteps the boundaries of the ethical. His telos (goal) lay further on, beyond the ethical. Fixing his gaze upon this telos, he 'suspends the ethical'." We will also recall that the ethical acted as a shield for Necessity, which has the power to turn to stone anyone who looks at it. How did Abraham dare to suspend the ethical? "When I think about Abraham," writes Kierkegaard, "it is as if I were utterly destroyed. At every moment I see what an unheard-of paradox is presented by the content of Abraham's life; at every moment something thrusts me back and, as hard as it tries, my thought is unable to penetrate into the paradox. I do not move forward by so much as a hairsbreadth. I exert my entire being in order to achieve my aim, but I immediately feel that I am totally paralyzed." And he explains this further: "I can think deeply about the hero, but my thought cannot fathom Abraham. As soon as I attempt to rise to his heights, I immediately fall, because what is revealed to me turns out to be a paradox. But I do not on that account belittle the importance of faith; on the contrary. To me, faith is the highest gift to man, and I consider it dishonest for philosophy to substitute something else for faith, and make light of it.

     Philosophy cannot and is not obliged to give man faith, but it ought to know its own limitations, it ought not to take anything away from man, and least of all has it the right to deprive man, with its glib talk, of what he possesses as if it were a trifle, as if it were nothing." [III, 28 and 29] Here, of course, we must pause and ask in turn: by what right does Kierkegaard assert that faith lies beyond the realm of philosophy? And can one shake off so "easily" philosophy's claims "to be the absolute judge" before which, as Hegel has told us and as almost all philosophers think, "the content of religion must justify and explain itself"? But Kierkegaard, as we have already been able to understand in some degree from what he has told us about Abraham, is himself aware of the difficulties that confront him. He writes: "I looked into the eyes of the horror and I was not afraid, I did not tremble. But I know that even if I courageously offer resistance to the horror, my courage is not the courage of faith; compared with the latter, it is nothing. I cannot accomplish the movement of faith; I cannot close my eyes and fling myself without a glance into the abyss of the Absurd." He repeats this innumerable times: "No, I cannot make this movement. As soon as I try to do so, everything begins to whirl about me." And he even expresses it this way: "To make the final movement, the paradoxical movement of faith is simply impossible for me. And I run to take shelter in the bitterness of resignation." [Ibid., 46]

     Whence came all these "I cannots" and "impossible's"? Who or what paralyzes Kierkegaard's will, prevents him from making what he calls the movement of faith, and imperiously drives him into the sorrowful vale of resignation and inaction? Philosophy (that is, rational thinking) does not, as he tells us, have the right to take man's faith away with its glib talk. But can there be a question of right here? Necessity also had no right to limit the power of the father of the gods, but both the divine Plato and the austere Epictetus were nevertheless obliged to admit that it was bona, optima fide for Zeus the all-powerful to submit to Necessity and resign himself to it, even though against his will; he wanted to give men both their own bodies and the entire world as their absolute property, but he had to be satisfied with letting them hold them "in trust," and limit himself to the sensible advice to find happiness in little. What? had neither Plato nor Epictetus nor Zeus himself enough courage to do battle with Necessity? Did they, too, flee from the field of battle to hide in "the sorrowful vale of resignation," as Kierkegaard put it? If we were to address this question to the Greek philosophers or gods, they would indignantly reject Kierkegaard's explanation. They had enough courage, much more than enough; it was not a question of courage. But every reasonable person well knows that Necessity is what it is, that it cannot be overcome, and that the sorrow of resignation is the only consolation in life, which the immortals share with mortals, giving of their own ability to adapt themselves to the conditions of existence.

     Kierkegaard continually challenges Socrates, the teacher of Plato and Epictetus. But did Socrates lack courage? And could Kierkegaard admit even for a moment that Socrates would have been on the side of Job or Abraham? Socrates, who always laughed at the courage that overestimates its strength and rushes headlong into danger! There is no doubt that Socrates would have directed all the venom and acerbity of his irony and sarcasm against Job's ravings, and even more so against Abraham, who throws himself with eyes closed into the abyss of the Absurd. Philosophy has no right to take a man's faith away, no right to laugh at faith! Where did Kierkegaard get this precept? Should it not be the other way round? is it not the basic task of philosophy, after making fun of faith, to return men to the sole source of truth—to reason? Especially such a faith as that celebrated by Kierkegaard and Abraham? The case of Job is bad enough; a person must be senile and completely ignorant besides, to call upon creation for an answer to his personal misfortunes, however great they may be. And he must be extremely naïve—like the unknown author of the Book of Job—in order to be seriously convinced that God could return Job's stolen cattle and riches, and even his slain children. All this is plainly an invention, a tale for the nursery, and if Kierkegaard, relying on the story he read in the Old Testament, declares that the starting point of philosophy from now on will be, not recollection, as Socrates and Plato taught, but repetition, then this is evidence only that he thinks that he cannot, as Hegel quite rightfully demanded, renounce his subjective desires and immerse himself in the thing itself. Or else it means that, scorning the advice of Leibniz, he did not take with him in his quest for truth the law of contradiction and the law of sufficient basis, which are as indispensable to the thinker as compass and chart are to the sailor; and so he took the first fallacy he saw for the truth.

     But Kierkegaard, I repeat, was very well aware of all this; if he had thought that he could get rid of philosophy so easily and simply, he would not have written his two-volume Philosophical Fragments, devoted exclusively to the struggle with theoretical philosophy. The unadorned assertion that faith is sustained by the Absurd would not strike anyone as convincing; if faith places its every hope in the Absurd, then anything at all will pass for the truth, just as long as it smacks of absurdity. The same thing can be said about the suspension of the ethical. It is enough merely to consider the kind of need which requires that the ethical be suspended. Thus, Socrates would have said —and here Socratic irony could not be more appropriate—that Job suspends it in order to get back his cattle, and Kierkegaard, in order to regain the ability to be a married man. One must suppose that even Abraham, the father of faith was not far removed from Job and the hero of Repetition... It is true that Abraham's decision was about a matter that to our minds is shocking: he raised a knife to his only son, his hope, the comfort of his old age. This, of course, required a great effort. But not without reason has Kierkegaard told us that Abraham suspended the ethical—that Abraham "believed." In what did he believe? "Even at the moment when the knife was already glittering in his hand, Abraham believed that God would not demand Isaac from him... Let us go further. Let us assume that he really did sacrifice Isaac—Abraham believed. He did not believe that he would find happiness somewhere in another world. No, he would still be happy here, in this world (underlined in the original). God would give him another Isaac; God would return his sacrificed son to life. Abraham believed by virtue of the Absurd he had long ago finished with human reckoning." [III, 32] And in order to dispel any doubts about how he regards Abraham's faith and the meaning of his action, Kierkegaard links his own case with the Biblical story. Of course, he does not do this directly or straightforwardly. We already know that men do not speak openly of such matters; this is even more true of Kierkegaard, and that is why he devised his "theory" of indirect communication. It is true, by the way, that when the occasion arises he tells us this: "Every man decides for himself and by himself what his own Isaac is" [Ibid., 68]—but the meaning and the "concrete" significance of these words can be guessed only after one has heard the story Kierkegaard "invented" about the poor youth who fell in love with the king's daughter.

     It is perfectly evident to everyone that the youth is never going to get the princess. Ordinary common sense, as well as the lofty wisdom of mankind (in the last analysis there is no essential difference between common sense and wisdom), advises him to put aside his dream of the impossible and to aim for the possible; the widow of a wealthy brewer is the most suitable match for him. But the youth forgets both common sense and the divine Plato, and suddenly, just like Abraham, throws himself headlong into the embrace of the Absurd. Reason refused to give him the daughter of the king, whom it had intended, not for him, but for a king's son; and the youth turns away from reason and looks to the Absurd for his happiness. He knows that in "the ordinariness of everyday life" there reigns a most profound assurance that the king's daughter will never be his. "For reason is right: in our vale of sorrow, where it is lord and master, this has been and will remain an impossibility." [III, 43] He also knows that the wisdom which the gods have given men recommends in such cases, as the only way out from the situation which has been created, a calm resignation to the inevitable. And he even passes through this resignation—passes through it in the sense that he perceives reality with all the clarity of which the human mind is capable. Perhaps, explains Kierkegaard, another man would consider it more tempting to do away with his desire to win the king's daughter, to blunt, so to speak, the sharp edge of his sorrow. Such a man Kierkegaard calls the knight of resignation, and even finds words of sympathy for him. But just the same "it is a wonderful thing to win the king's daughter"; "the knight of resignation is a liar if he denies this" t and his love is not true love. Kierkegaard contrasts the knight of resignation with the knight of faith: "Through faith, says this knight to himself, through faith, by virtue of the Absurd, you will win the daughter of the king." And he repeats this once more: "All the same, how wonderful it is to win the daughter of the king. The knight of faith is the only happy one: he is master over the finite, while the knight of resignation is merely an outsider and a stranger there." [Ibid., 46] But here he admits: "And yet I am incapable of this bold [movement]. When I try to perform it, my head whirls and I rush to take shelter in the sorrow of resignation. I am able to keep afloat, but I am too heavy for this mystical soaring." And in his journals we read, more than once: "If only I had had faith, Regina would still be mine."

     Why is a man who strives so passionately, so frantically for faith unable to attain it? Why can he not follow the example of Abraham and the poor youth who fell in love with the king's daughter? Why has he become so heavy and incapable of soaring? Why has resignation befallen him, why has he been denied this final act of daring?

     We will recall that Kierkegaard, in comparing paganism with Christianity, said that paganism did not understand that sin is bound up with the stubbornness and obstinacy of the human will. We will also recall that, upon investigation, this contrast turns out to be false; paganism always understood vice as originating in evil will. But the obstacle between Kierkegaard and faith was not evil will. On the contrary, his entire will, of the sort to be found only in man—a will both good and evil—sought faith with an infinitely passionate intensity, but it did not arrive at faith and went no further than resignation. To realize the ideal of resignation is within the power of the man, but he does not find in his soul the capacity for the final act of daring. "Resignation brings me awareness of my eternity; this is a purely philosophical movement and I am convinced that if it is demanded of me, I will make it, will find within me the strength to force myself to submit to the strict discipline of the spirit...I make this movement by my own powers." [III, 44] And Kierkegaard is not exaggerating; he knew what is meant by the discipline of the spirit—he did not pass through the school of Socrates in vain. If it were simply a matter of self-renunciation or, to put it better, of a feat of self-renunciation, Kierkegaard would emerge the victor from the struggle. But he is not much attracted by "awareness of one's eternity"—that which Spinoza expressed in the words sentimus experimurque nos aeternos esse [we feel and experience ourselves to be eternal], and which was such an inspiration to Schleiermacher—this is the consolatio philosophiae and of theoretical philosophy; one would not turn to Job or to Abraham with such "consolations."

     Kierkegaard goes on to explain: "I can renounce everything by my own efforts. But I cannot gain by my own powers anything that belongs to the finite world... By my own powers I can give up the king's daughter without a murmur and bear the sorrow in my heart cheerfully, with a feeling of peace and serenity. But am I to find the king's daughter again? Through faith, the wondrous knight tells us, through faith you can attain her, by virtue of the Absurd." [1] Kierkegaard's aim is now made clear. Socrates was a knight of resignation and all the wisdom he bequeathed to mankind was the wisdom of resignation. (Spinoza, with his sub specie aeternitatis, echoes Socrates.) Socrates "knew" that a man can give up a king's daughter by his own powers, but win her he cannot. He also "knew" that even the powers of the gods are limited, that they have no authority in the finite world, and that their realm' includes only the "eternal," which they are willing to share with mortals. This is why Socrates thought that all those who are not satisfied with what the gods can do for them and who do not agree to find happiness, peace, and serenity in a renunciation of the finite are obstinate and inveterate sinners who deserve all the misfortunes reserved for those who are misologoi. Since knowledge comes from reason, to reject knowledge means to reject reason—and quam aram parabit sibi qui majestatem rationis laedit—at what altar will the man worship who has insulted the majesty of reason, as Spinoza, the Socrates redivivus, said, two thousand years after Socrates?

     And yet Job rejected all the consolationes philosophiae, all the "deceitful consolations" of human wisdom—and the God of the Bible not only did not see evil will in this, but condemned his "comforters," who had suggested that he exchange his "finite" blessings for the contemplation of eternity. For his part, Abraham did not repudiate the "finite" Isaac even at the moment when the knife glittered in his hand—and he became the father of faith for countless generations to come; Kierkegaard cannot find words and images too strong to celebrate his daring.

[1] Cf. Ibid., 45: "A purely human courage is needed to renounce the transitory for the sake of the eternal; but a paradoxical and humble courage is needed to become master over all that is finite, by virtue of the Absurd. Abraham did not lose Isaac through faith; he gained him."

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