Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Faith and Sin

The opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith: all that is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). This belongs to the most explicit of Christianity's definitions.


     Two things have, I hope, become fairly clear to us by now. On the one hand, Kierkegaard resolves to suspend the "ethical," which is the expression of "resignation," and to a certain degree he is successful; not only Job and Abraham, but also the poor youth who fell in love with the king's daughter, renounce the "deceitful consolations" suggested to them by reason and by Socrates, and have no fear of the judgment of the "ethical." They do not care whether ethics recognizes them as laudabiles or vituperabiles (worthy of praise or blame); they are aiming at something entirely different: Job demands the restoration of the past; Abraham, the restoration of his Isaac; the poor youth, the restoration of the king's daughter. Let ethics threaten them with all its thunders and anathemas; let Socrates be as ironical as he pleases, let him point out that "a contradiction is concealed in the infinitely passionate striving for the finite"—none of this will disturb Job or Abraham or Kierkegaard. They will answer indignation with anger and scoff at Socrates himself, if need be. But ethics is not alone; behind its gibes and its indignation stands Necessity. Necessity cannot be seen; it says nothing, it does not jeer or reproach. It is impossible even to say where it can be found; it is as though it were nowhere at all. It only strikes, silently, indifferently, at the man who is unprotected, who obviously does not even suspect the existence in the world of the indignation, the anger, the horror, of Job, Abraham, and Kierkegaard, and does not in any way take them into account.

     With what are we to oppose Necessity? How to cope with it? Reason not only does not dare to contend with it, it is entirely on its side. Indeed, reason led even the divine Plato to Necessity; it won ethics over to the side of Necessity, and ethics began to sing Necessity's praises, to justify it, and to demand of gods and men a loving resignation to the inevitable. Man must not only accept, but even give his blessing to everything prepared for him by Necessity, and he must see this as the supreme task assigned to him in life. We must not strive for finite happiness—must not aim for the flocks and lands of Job, or the return of a son, or the winning of the king's daughter—for everything finite passes; such is the fundamental law of existence. We do not know why, when, or by whom this law was established, but it is primordial and immutable. All that is finite, precisely because it is finite, has a beginning, and all that has a beginning also has and must have an end. Such, I repeat, is the unalterable law of existence, and although we know not when, where, and why it arose, our reason knows for a certainty that it will never go away. By its side, also revealed by intellectual vision, stand Eternity and her sister Infinity. Perhaps human daring already has the power to cope with ethics—but is there a power capable of vanquishing Eternity? Eternity devours everything and never returns what she has seized. She does not recognize "repetition" and takes from man with equal indifference all that is most precious to him—his honor, his pride, his Isaac, his Regina Olsen. The greatest daring has been obliged to humble itself, and has been humbled, before Eternity; worse yet, daring is unmasked before Eternity, revealed for what it really is—insurrection, mutiny, which is, moreover, doomed from the start to fail. Greek thought, almost from its very beginnings, discovered genesis and phthora (birth and destruction) in all that exists, inextricably bound up with the very nature of existence. Could Job, Abraham, and Kierkegaard change any of this? Could the gods themselves make any change whatever in it?

     Kierkegaard is no less aware of this than Hegel. [1] And precisely because he is aware of it, he opposes Greek reason with his Biblical Absurd, philosophical speculation with the thinking of Job and Abraham. This is the most difficult point in his "existential" philosophy, but at the same time the most important, the most essential, and the most remarkable. Here, to a greater extent than in all the rest of Kierkegaard's ideas, one must be prepared to put into practice his fundamental precept, or, if you please, his methodological principle, his either/or; it is either the thinking of Abraham, Job, the Prophets, and the Apostles; or the thinking of Socrates. It is either theoretical philosophy, which takes wonder as its starting point and seeks "understanding"; or existential philosophy, which proceeds from despair (I repeat once more: from the biblical de profundis ad te, Domine, clamavi) and leads to the revelation of Holy Scripture. Here, and only here, is the meaning of Kierkegaard's pairs of opposites: Job—Hegel, Abraham—Socrates, reason—the Absurd. And it would be a mistake to think that the Absurd signifies in itself the end of thinking. It was not by chance that Kierkegaard said that he had gone from Hegel to the private thinker Job. For Kierkegaard, Hegel, who as he expresses it, "deified reality," [IX, 73] is not "a thinker, but a professor." Thinking not only is retained in the "Absurd," but achieves an unprecedented intensity, achieves, as it were, a new dimension, totally unknown to Hegel and speculative philosophy; this is the distinguishing characteristic of existential philosophy. According to Hegel, a man thinks badly if he does not surrender wholly to the power of a thing external to him, and if he adds anything of himself; man is obliged to accept existence as it is given to him, for all that is given, or, as he prefers to say, all that is real, is rational. In saying this, Hegel shows no originality; a thousand-year-old philosophical culture lies behind him. Spinoza's formulation of the same thought—non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere—is far more brilliant, more meaningful, more profound; it still retains the traces (completely obliterated in the Hegelian formula) of a struggle with a truth that thrusts itself upon us from somewhere without.

     But Kierkegaard learned something different from Job; man thinks badly if he accepts what is given to him as final, irrevocable, forever unchangeable—however horrible and repellent he may find it. Of course, he understands perfectly well that to oppose Job to Hegel, or Abraham to Socrates is the greatest offense, and the height of folly for the ordinary consciousness. But this is precisely his problem: to tear himself free from the power of the commonplace; not for nothing has he told us that the starting point of philosophy is not wonder, but despair, which reveals a new source of truth to man. Moreover, he does not forget for a moment that theoretical philosophy, which is supported by the given and the real, is a terrible and implacable enemy; that even the greatest thinkers in the world have retreated and bowed low before the given, and not of their own will, be it good or evil; and that these great thinkers have compelled the gods to bow and retreat before it also. And yet he dares to go all but barehanded against an adversary armed from head to toe. He proceeds against the argumentation, the proofs, the evidence of theoretical philosophy with the wails and curses of Job, with the "groundless" faith of Abraham. He does not even offer any "proof"—what can one prove when all is over, all is lost? But on the other hand, will "proofs" still be able to prove anything to a man for whom all is lost, all is over? Will there not be an end to proofs, in that case? There, in the abyss, in the depths of despair, thought itself will revive; this is the meaning of those puzzling words of the Psalmist: de profundis ad te, Domine, clamavi. That which we call "understanding" is like an enormous stone, fallen from God knows where, which has crushed and flattened our consciousness, beaten it down to the two-dimensional plane of an illusory hall-existence, and weakened our powers of thought. We can only "accept"—we are not yet able to challenge, we are convinced that "challenging" only spoils and corrupts human thought; Job, Abraham, and the Psalmist, in our opinion, think badly. But for existential philosophy, the greatest defect in our thinking is its loss of the ability to "challenge," because it has thus forfeited the one dimension that alone is able to guide it to the truth.

     This is the source of the sarcasm which Kierkegaard directs at theoretical philosophy. "It seems strange to me, he writes, "that people are always saying: speculation—as if it were a person, or as if speculation were human. Speculation does everything; it questions everything, etc. The man who speculates, on the other hand, has become too objective to speak of himself; therefore he does not say that it is he who questions something, but that speculation does this and he is speaking in the name of speculation." [VI, 141 and 142] The very qualities which theoretical philosophy considers to be to its particular credit—its objectivity, its lack of passion—are seen by Kierkegaard as its greatest deficiency, its basic shortcoming. "Men," he says in another passage, "have become too objective to attain eternal happiness: for eternal happiness consists precisely of a passionate and infinite personal concern. And they renounce this in order to become objective: objectivity robs their souls of passion and 'infinite personal concern.'" [Ibid., 121] The unlimited power of "objectivity" seems to Kierkegaard unnaturally strange, mysterious, and enigmatic. And here is something to ponder, even though not one of the innumerable extollers of objectivity has ever pondered it, has ever posed the question of whence and when this power came to objectivity, and why the "infinitely passionate concern" of living man and living gods should have yielded to objectivity, which is indifferent to all and certainly has no concern for anything. At times one might even think that the philosophers who glorify objectivity and place all of creation in its clutches are, seemingly without knowing it, using the Kierkegaardian method of indirect communication; it is as if they were asking themselves: how much longer are the people to be scourged? The people are long-suffering, however; the people will endure everything, even objectivity.

     Then, too, objectivity has fascinated and will always fascinate the thinker because it offers him the possibility of announcing its truths with assurance—as universal and necessary truths. In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant openly asserts (I almost said: lets slip): "Experience tells us what exists, but it does not tell us that this must necessarily be the way it is or otherwise. Therefore experience does not give us a true generality, and reason, which eagerly strives for just this kind of knowledge, will sooner become exasperated with experience than be satisfied with it." But if it is a matter of "eager striving," of passion—then has not a substitution been made here? To express it in the words of Kierkegaard: has not the man who speculates—he who was hiding behind the impartiality of speculation—regained his voice at this point? And are we then not right to suspect that this so-called objectivity of theoretical thinking is only an outward show, a superficial appearance, perhaps even a conscious deception; should we not, following the example of Kierkegaard, oppose reason's eager striving for general and necessary judgments, with man's subjective concern for eternal happiness? This question does not exist for speculative philosophy; it does not see the question and does not wish to see it. It says, not openly, but with inward certainty, that man can laugh, weep, rail, curse, but this will make no impression on Necessity, which will continue as before to crush, smother, burn, and reduce to ashes everything "finite" (above all, man) that it finds in its path. As we shall more than once again find opportunity to show, this is the ultima ratio of theoretical philosophy, which is upheld only by Necessity and Necessity's companion, Obligation. Our reason, as if bewitched by some magic spell, is making straight for the place where man's destruction awaits him. What is this? Is there not concealed here that concupiscentia invincibilis which led our forefather to the Fall?

     This question is the principal theme of Kierkegaard's The Concept of Dread which he sets forth the most basic and irreconcilable difference (which he had mentioned in part before) between biblical revelation and Hellenic truth. Although Kierkegaard, as we will recall, assured us that Socrates, in his definition of sin, left out the concepts of stubbornness, of obstinacy, of evil will, conveyed to us by the Bible—in actuality, as we shall presently see, he not only felt and thought, but even said, something entirely different. "The opposite of sin," he writes "is not virtue, but faith. That is why it is said in Romans 14:23: all that is not of faith is sin. And this belongs to the most explicit of Christianity's definitions: that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith." [VIII, 77] He repeats this many times throughout all his works, just as he repeats countless times that, in order to attain faith, one must renounce reason. In his last writings he even formulated in this way: "Faith is against reason—faith dwells beyond death." [XI, 88] But what sort of faith is spoken of in Holy Scripture? Kierkegaard's answer is: "Faith means precisely this: to lose reason in order to find God." [VIII, 35] Kierkegaard had written earlier, with regard to Abraham and his sacrifice: "What an incredible paradox is faith! The paradox can transform murder into something that is holy and pleasing to God. The paradox returns Abraham's Isaac to him. Thinking cannot master the paradox, for faith begins at the exact point where thinking ends."

     Why is it necessary to renounce reason? Why does faith begin where rational thinking ends? Kierkegaard does not avoid this question and does not conceal from himself the difficulties and the pitfalls connected with the question thus posed. He had already written, in Philosophical Fragments: "To believe against reason is martyrdom. The man who speculates is free from this martyrdom." [VI, 285] And that is just the point: to renounce rational thinking, to deprive oneself of the support and protection of the ethical—is this not the ultimate horror for man? But Kierkegaard has anticipated us: existential philosophy begins in despair. Even the questions he sets before us are dictated to him by despair. This is how he himself describes it: "Picture a man who by straining his frightened imagination has thought up some unprecedented honor, something completely unbearable. And then suddenly he actually finds this horror before him. To the human mind it seems that his destruction is certain. He wrestles with despair in his heart over the right to despair and (if I may use the expression) find thus peace in despair. [*] And so, by human standards, salvation is a complete impossibility for him. But for God all things are possible. Faith consists of this: a mad struggle for possibility. For only possibility opens the way to salvation. If someone falls in a faint, people run to fetch water and restoratives. When a person falls into despair, we cry: possibilities, possibilities, only possibility will save him. Possibility appears, and the one who was in despair revives, begins to breathe again. Without possibility, just as without air, man suffocates. At times it seems that his inventive imagination is itself the creator of possibility. But in the last analysis one thing remains: for God all things are possible. And only then is the way to faith laid open." [VIII, 35]

     Kierkegaard is inexhaustible on this subject. He repeats in every conceivable way: for God all things are possible. He declares unhesitatingly: "God signifies that all is possible: or, that all is possible signifies God. Only the man whose being has been so profoundly shaken that he becomes spirit, and understands that all things are possible, only he has come near to God." [Ibid., 37] And here he adds: "The absence of possibility means either that everything has become necessary or that everything has become commonplace. The commonplace, the trivial do not know what possibility is. The commonplace tolerates only probability, in which hardly more than a trace of possibility is preserved; but that all this (that is, the improbable and the impossible) is possible does not occur to it and it has no notion of God. The commonplace man (be he a tavern keeper or a minister of state) is devoid of imagination and lives in the sphere of limited, banal experience: as generally happens, what is generally possible, what has always been... The commonplace imagines that it has caught possibility in the trap of probability or shut it up in a madhouse; exhibits it in the cage of probability and thinks that it possesses God knows what power." Kierkegaard has no mutual language with the commonplace—we must suppose that the commonplace, in turn, has no mutual language with Kierkegaard.

     Moreover, one certainly ought not to include brewers and the philosophy of brewers under the heading of the commonplace and the philosophy of the commonplace (notwithstanding the fact that Kierkegaard himself often identifies the commonplace with triviality and is tempted thus to simplify the matter.) The commonplace exists everywhere that man still relies on his own powers, his own reason (Aristotle and Kant, despite their undoubted genius, do not, in this sense, overstep the boundaries of the commonplace)[**], and comes to an end only where despair has its beginning, where reason demonstrates with full clarity that man is faced with impossibility, that all is finished forever, that any further struggle is senseless—in other words, the commonplace ends where and when man feels his total powerlessness. Kierkegaard had to drink more deeply than anyone else from the bitter cup given to man by the knowledge of his powerlessness. When he says that some terrible force took from him his honor and his pride, he has in mind his own powerlessness, powerlessness that made him feel that the woman he loved became a shadow when he touched her, powerlessness that made him feel that for him all reality was becoming a shadow. How did this happen? What sort of force is it, where can it be found,—this force which can so ravage a man's soul? In his journal he writes: "If I had had faith, I would not have left Regina." [Journal, I, 195; cf. ibid., 167]

     This is no longer indirect communication of the sort Kierkegaard put in the mouths of the heroes of his stories, this is a man's direct testimony about himself. Kierkegaard "felt" the absence of faith as powerlessness, and powerlessness as the absence of faith. And through this terrible experience he discovered that most people do not even suspect that the absence of faith is an expression of the powerlessness of man, or that powerlessness in man is the absence of faith. This makes clear to us his words: the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith. Virtue, as we have already been told by Kierkegaard, is maintained by man's own powers; the knight of resignation achieves by himself all that he needs, and, having achieved it, finds serenity and peace of mind. But is man thus freed from sin? All that is not of faith, as Kierkegaard reminds us in the enigmatic words of the Apostle, is sin. Are the peace and serenity of the knight of resignation therefore a sin? Was Socrates, who quietly accepted the cup of poison from the hands of his jailer, to the astonishment of his disciples and all succeeding generations, a sinner because of that? Kierkegaard nowhere says this directly; even when the subject of the most famous of the world's wise men arises, he places Socrates in a special category. But this does not alter the case. The "best of men" was satisfied with the position of a knight of resignation, accepted his helplessness before necessity as inevitable and therefore right, and for several hours before his death bolstered the "peace and serenity" in the hearts of his disciples with his edifying words. Is it possible to "surpass" Socrates? Many hundreds of years after him, Epictetus, faithful to the spirit of his incomparable master, wrote that the beginning of philosophy is a sense of powerlessness before Necessity. For him, this sense is also the end of philosophy, or, to be more precise, philosophical thought is altogether limited by man's sense of his absolute powerlessness before Necessity.

     Here, for Kierkegaard, the meaning of the Biblical story of the Fall is made plain. Socratic virtue does not save man from sin. The virtuous man is a knight of resignation, who has experienced all the ignominy and honor associated with his powerlessness before necessity, and has stopped at that. He can move no further: something has whispered to him that there is nowhere to go, and therefore no need to go on.

     Why did he stop? Whence came this "nowhere" and "no need"? Whence came this resignation, this cult of resignation? We know: "nowhere" was revealed to the pagan world by reason, and "not obliged" comes from the ethical. Zeus himself proclaimed them to Chryssip—we must suppose that Socrates and Plato found out about them from the same source. As long as man is guided by reason and bows before the ethical, "nowhere" and "not obliged" are insuperable. Without taking this into account, man decides, instead of seeking "the one thing that is needful," to put himself at the disposal of the "general and necessary" judgments for which reason, followed by its servant Ethics, so "eagerly strives." And, indeed, how can one suspect reason and ethics of anything bad, for they are our support, everywhere and in everything. They protect us from loss of honor and loss of pride! Can man think even for a moment that they, by their solicitude, are affording shelter to that "horror" which lies in wait for us at every step—that they are concealing from man's powerlessness not only his, but also their own powerlessness before Necessity? Even Zeus, compelled to admit the limitation of his powers, is transformed into a knight of resignation and does not feel that his powerlessness means his honor and his pride have been taken from him, that he is no longer God the all-sustaining, but the same sort of weak and helpless being as Chryssip, Socrates, and Plato, or any other mortal. Zeus, of course, was not lacking in virtue—at least, not the Zeus invoked by Chryssip, Plato, and Socrates; however, this is not the Zeus of popular mythology and of Homer, whom Plato had to re-educate in his Republic—but even he could not accomplish everything "by his own powers."

     Falstaff's sly question (can you restore a man's arm or leg?) might well have been addressed to him. Kierkegaard, who attacked Falstaff so angrily, himself turns to reason and ethics with the fat knight's questions: can you restore Job's children, Abraham's Isaac, can you give back the king's daughter to the poor youth, and Regina Olsen to me? If you cannot, then you are not gods; however much wise men may assure us of the contrary, you are but idols, creations, if not of human hands, then of human imagination. God means that everything is possible, that nothing is impossible. And this is why reason, which asserts that the power of God is limited and that God cannot cross over the boundaries set for Him by the very nature of things, not only does not inspire love for itself, but inspires the most profound, unyielding, implacable hatred. This is why even "ethics," which is always supported and glorified by reason, must be suspended. And here a question arises which appears completely senseless to speculative philosophy: where did reason obtain the gift of knowing what is possible and what impossible? And has it indeed such a gift? And furthermore, is it just that one sort of knowledge, or knowledge in general? It is not empirical knowledge, which arises from experience; such knowledge not only does not satisfy reason, but irritates and offends it. Kant himself told us this, and Spinoza said that to offend reason is the most grievous of crimes, laesio majestatis. Reason eagerly strives for universal and necessary truths which are uncreated and dependent upon no one! Is not reason itself in the power of some hostile force that has so bewitched it that the fortuitous and the transitory seem to it necessary and eternal? And ethics, which suggests to man that resignation is the highest virtue—is it not in the same position as reason? It, too, has been bewitched by mysterious spells; man's destruction awaits him where ethics promises him happiness and salvation. One must escape from reason, escape from ethics, without trying to find out beforehand what the end of the journey will be. This is the paradox, this is the Absurd, which was concealed from Socrates, but revealed in Holy Scripture: whew it was necessary for Abraham to go to the Promised Land, writes the Apostle Paul, he went, not knowing himself where he was going.

[1] III, 43: "He understands that [he is seeking] the impossible; but it is at precisely this moment that he believes in the Absurd. For if he, without having grasped impossibility with all the passion in his soul and all the strength in his heart, imagines that he possesses faith, then he is deceiving himself and his testimony is groundless."

[*] Corrected translation. Was [He wrestles with the despair in his heart over whether to give himself up to that despair in order to find (if I may use the expression) peace of mind thereby.] - AK.

[**] Corrected translation. Was [(Aristotle and Kant, owing to their undoubted genius, do not, in this sense, cross over into the realm of the commonplace)] - AK.

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