Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Fear and Nothingness

In the state of innocence, there is peace and serenity, but in addition to that there is something else... But what is it? Nothingness. What effect has Nothingness? It arouses fear.


     The opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith. Faith is faith in God, for whom all things are possible, for whom nothing is impossible. Human reason, however, is not willing to assume that all is possible; for it, this means thinking that there is unlimited arbitrariness at the foundation of the universe. It does not in any way alter the case for us to say, as did Kierkegaard, that for God all things are possible—for this implies an admission that God does not take into account either our reason or our ethics. Can one entrust his fate to God without having first been convinced that God is a rational and ethical being? What if God is insane, what if God is evil and cruel? Abraham, who went, not knowing himself where he was going, is an ignoramus and a fool; Abraham, who raised a knife to his own son, is a transgressor and an evildoer. To us, this is self-evident; there is no disputing it. Even St. Augustine himself wrote: "Before I can believe, I must ask myself: cui est credendum." God created everything; but reason and ethics are not created—they are timeless and primordial.

     Here, for the second time, Kierkegaard has come up against the idea of sin as it was imagined by the pagan consciousness and as it is represented in Holy Scripture. He has assured us that the idea of sin in Socrates' definition left out the moment of "evil will." But we are certain that this is historically false. The fact is that the pagans linked sin inseparably with evil will and even, I might add, attempted to impose their own notion of sin upon Christianity in its infancy. The famous Pelagian controversy arose over this very point. For Pelagius, to use Kierkegaard's words, the opposite of sin was virtue—which is why he insisted so vehemently that man has the ability to save himself by his own powers, and why he showed such indignation toward those who relied not on their own merits, but on the grace of God. It is true that Pelagius was condemned, but even St. Augustine, who had been the first to offer a proper objection to Pelagius, could never (and did not want to!) relinquish the concept of sin as an expression of evil will; and in the history of theological thought we observe constant attempts (clandestine, of course) to return, on one pretext or another, to Pelagianism. Men have always been inclined to rely upon their own powers and to trust their own reason more than God. Kierkegaard, who, of course, disavowed the Pelagian doctrine and was generally far removed from it, nevertheless could not rid his heart of the conviction that sin originates in evil will and stubbornness, and that virtue is fated to play a certain and indeed not the least, part in the matter of our salvation. He not only could not, but did not want to—and, as we have just seen, he was more unwilling than unable to do so. At the same time, though, he felt that the radical difference between the pagan and the biblical concepts of sin was by no means to be found here.

     In his book The Concept of Dread—one of his most profound works and the one that brings us nearest to him—he closely considers the greatest enigma set before man by Holy Scripture, the story of the Fall of the first man. He makes a tremendous effort to link the Biblical narrative dealing with original sin and the Biblical concept of faith with his personal experience; and to free himself of those ready-made ideas which he had absorbed during his study of the works of the pagan and Christian philosophers. "The thought of finding a logical explanation of how sin came to the world," he writes, "is a piece of nonsense which could occur only to men who are preoccupied to a ridiculous degree with perpetually explaining everything, no matter what." And again, a page later: "Each man must understand for himself how sin came into the world—for if he wishes someone else to teach him this, it means that there is some hidden misunderstanding here... And if any sort of science makes an appearance at this point with its explanations—it will only confuse everything. It is truly said, that a scholar should forget about himself: but this is exactly why sin is not a scientific problem." (italics mine). [V, 44]

     But, if this is so, what then can Kierkegaard tell us about sin? And what is the source of what he tells us? The Bible? But the Bible is open to everyone, even without him. Moreover, as we are about to see, he refuses to accept part of what the Bible says about the Fall of the first man. He does have some sources of information: not without reason has he told us that each man must know for himself how sin came to the world. Let us listen to him: "Innocence is ignorance. In innocence, man is limited, not spiritually, but mentally, in direct union with the natural state. Man's mind is still sleeping. This idea fully agrees with the Bible, which does not recognize that man in the state of innocence has any knowledge of the difference between good and evil." [Ibid., 36] The contrary is completely indisputable: this idea does not agree in any way with the Bible, but is very similar to what theoretical philosophy sees in the biblical narrative. It is true that, according to the Bible, the innocent man (that is, man before the Fall) has neither knowledge in general nor knowledge of the difference between good and evil. But in the Bible there is not even a hint that the mind of man, as he came forth from the Creator's hand, was lulled to sleep, and still less that knowledge and the ability to distinguish good from evil signify in themselves the awakening of man's mind. Exactly the opposite; the entire meaning of the enigmatic story of the Fall of man lies in just this: that knowledge and the ability to distinguish good from evil, that is, what the fruit of the forbidden tree brought man, did not awaken his mind, but put it to sleep. It is true that when the serpent tempted Eve, he promised her that, having tasted of this fruit, men would awaken and be as gods. But then, the serpent, according to the Scripture, was the originator of every sort of lie, and only men of Hellenic education—in ancient times the Gnostics, and afterward, nearly all philosophers—thought otherwise, considering it unlikely that the knowledge and the ability to distinguish between good and evil would not awaken a sleeping mind, but would put to sleep a wide-awake one. Hegel, whom Kierkegaard despised, persistently and confidently repeated that in the story of the Fall of man the deceiver was not the serpent, but God: the serpent revealed the truth to the first human beings. It would seem least of all appropriate for Kierkegaard, who sang the praises of the Absurd so ardently, to connect the awakening of the mind with knowledge; and since he had surmised that the knight of faith was obliged to suspend the ethical, it would be even less fitting for him to see any spiritual advantage in the ability to distinguish good from evil. But not for nothing did he lament that he was not able to make the final movement of faith. Even at the moment of greatest inward strain, when his entire soul is rushing in a frenzy toward the Absurd, he turns to "knowledge," demands an examination of the Absurd, and asks the question (asks it of reason, of course, whom else could he ask?): cui est credendum. And that is why he, who recklessly surrendered his soul to Holy Scripture, does not find it at all difficult to say that the role of the serpent in the Biblical narrative is incomprehensible to him. In other words, he almost (and maybe not almost) repeats what Hegel had said: it was not the serpent that deceived man, but God!

     And yet, even though Kierkegaard reserved the right and the possibility of verifying with his own reason what the Bible revealed to him, he still felt with all his heart its profound truth, perhaps even confirming it indirectly by this very interpretation, as he had confirmed it by his admissions that he could not make the movement of faith and that, if he had had faith, he would not have left Regina. Immediately after the words quoted above, he goes on to say: "In that state (i.e., in the state of innocence) there is peace and serenity, but in addition to that there is something else: not confusion, not a struggle—for there is no reason to struggle. But what is it? Nothingness. What effect has Nothingness? It arouses fear. The great mystery of innocence lies in this: that it is, at the same time, fear." [Ibid., 36]

     Original sin, the Fall of the first man, as the result of fear of Nothingness, is the basic concept of the book by Kierkegaard mentioned above. We must suppose that this is the most precious, most necessary, most sacred, most deeply felt idea in his extraordinary spiritual experience. And yet, in the words which I have just cited, he expresses this idea inadequately. He says: "The great mystery of innocence lies in this: that it is, at the same time, fear." If he had heard someone else say that, he would probably have felt uneasy and called to mind all the things he had said about theoretical philosophy and the objective truth acquired by theoretical philosophy. "Innocence is, at the same time, fear." Who gives us the right thus to expose the great mystery of innocence? This is not to be found in the Bible, just as one cannot find there even the slightest hint of the idea that man in the state of innocence is limited, not spiritually, but mentally. Kierkegaard could have learned all this, I repeat, either from the Gnostics, who took over both the gnoseological ideas of the Greek philosophers and their axiology, and, accordingly, drew a contrast between the spiritual condition of man and the mental, the latter being considered superior; or he could have learned it from thinkers contemporary to him who had yielded to Gnostic influences. At any rate, we are hardly likely to "know" anything about the state of innocence, even in a general way. Kierkegaard's approach to the Fall includes his own personal experience, but in his experience of the sinful man, there could not be any data that would enable him to draw conclusions about the innocent man, i.e., the man who has not sinned. And least of all had he the right to express the opinion that "innocence is, at the same time, fear." The most that he had the right to say is that "There was innocence; then suddenly, for an unknown reason, from an unknown place, came fear." But Kierkegaard is afraid of any sort of "credo." Is not this fear of "suddenly" the fear we already know, the fear of Nothingness, which destroyed our forefather, but was not itself destroyed, and a thousand generations later continues to be passed down to us, the remote descendants of Adam?...

     Kierkegaard insists that the fear felt by the first man must be distinguished from terror, apprehension, and other such states of mind that are always aroused by certain definite causes; this fear is, as he puts it, "the reality of freedom, as the possibility of possibilities." In other words, Adam's fear was not motivated by anything—and yet it seemed insurmountable. Perhaps it would have been better if, instead of defining fear as "the reality of freedom" (we shall see in a moment that, according to Kierkegaard, the most terrible "result" of the Fall was man's loss of his freedom), and as "the possibility of possibilities," Kierkegaard had expressed himself more concretely, that is, had said that the freedom of the innocent man knows no bounds. This would correspond with what he, in complete agreement with the Bible, told us earlier: for God all things are possible; and with what he has further to tell us about fear. It is just as incorrect to find fear in the state of innocence as it is to find the sleep of the mind there. Both the sleep of the mind and fear—according to the Bible—came after the Fall. Therefore the serpent is evidently introduced into the Biblical narrative to serve as an external, but active, principle. The serpent inspired the first man's fear; although a false fear—fear of Nothingness—it was overwhelming and insuperable. And this fear has lulled the human mind to sleep, paralyzed the human will. Kierkegaard takes exception to the serpent, declaring that he cannot associate him with any sort of definite idea. I am not about to dispute the notion that the role of the serpent is "incomprehensible" to our reason. But then, even Kierkegaard himself continually assures us that the persistent desire to "grasp," to "understand" the meaning of the Fall, no matter what, only bears witness to our reluctance to experience the entire depth and significance of the problem that lies therein. In this case, "understanding" not only does not help, it is a hindrance. We have entered the region where the "Absurd" rules with its "suddenly," which ceaselessly flares up and dies down again; every "suddenly," every unexpectedness is the implacable foe of "understanding," and so, too, is the Biblical fiat—for ordinary human thinking it is a deus ex machina which theoretical philosophy quite rightly sees as the beginning of its destruction.

     It is my opinion—and I hope that the following explanation will bear this out—that Kierkegaard behaves contrary to his nature whenever he tries to amend the Bible (alas, he does this more than once), and that therefore we will come far closer to him if we say this: the state of innocence did not include fear, because it had no knowledge of limited possibilities. The innocent man lived in the presence of God, and God signifies that all is possible. The serpent, in the temptation of man, had at his disposal only Nothingness. This Nothingness, although it is only Nothingness, or, more probably, all the more because it is Nothingness, has lulled the human mind to sleep, and the man whose mind is asleep has become the prey or the victim of fear, even though there is no reason or basis for fear. But then, Nothingness is only Nothingness. How did it happen to turn into Something? And once having become Something, how did it acquire such limitless power over man, and even over all existence?

     The concept of Nothingness was already well known to the ancients. According to Aristotle (Met. 985 B 6), Democritus and Leucippus affirmed the existence of Nothingness: ouden mâllon to on toû mê ontos eînai, they said. The same thought is put forward by Plutarch in far more expressive words: mê mâllon to den ê to mêden eînai (Being has no more existence than nonbeing). It is true that Leucippus and Democritus identify Nothingness with emptiness, and Something with matter. But whether in this aspect or another—at the same time as, and in contrast to, Parmenides, whose point of departure was the position that only being exists, that nonbeing not only does not exist, but cannot even be conceived of—Greek philosophy assumed the existence of Nothingness and even held that the existence of Nothingness was a prerequisite of thinking. It is obvious that this idea was not entirely foreign to the Eleatics, and that when Parmenides insisted that Nothingness has no existence, he had to overcome and reject, after an inward struggle, the suspicion that perhaps Nothingness manages nevertheless in some way to exist; "natural" thinking is obliged, in the quarrel between the Eleatics and the Atomists, to incline to the side of the latter. Nothingness is not perfect; that is, Nothingness is devoid of existence. It stands in opposition to Something, and opposes it as an equal. This is how we must understand Plato's words about the two causes—the divine and the necessary. He was merely clarifying the idea of the Atomists; for him, Nothingness had become Necessity. The conviction that Necessity is separate from divine power over what exists was, for the Hellenists, one of the most insuperable of self-evidences and even, perhaps, the fundamental postulate of Hellenic thinking. And so it has remained down to our own day. In modern philosophy it has been expressed in the Hegelian dialectic, where it is called "the self-movement of the concept"; in the opinion of Schelling, who states that there is "something else" in God besides Himself—His nature; and in the thesis that Spinoza, the spiritual father of Hegel and Schelling, formulated in his famous theorem: Deus ex solis suae naturae legibus et a nemine coactus agit (God acts only by virtue of the laws of His own nature and is coerced by no one).

     The "natural" human way of thinking, which strives for what is self-evident, i.e., which obtains the kind of knowledge that finds that what is not only is, but necessarily is (only this sort, of thinking, as Kant explained to us, gives us genuine knowledge)—this natural thinking must cherish as its most precious treasure the idea of Necessity. However much reason may sing the praises of freedom, it still wants to and has to fit it into the mold of Necessity. This Necessity is indeed that Nothingness which we must say exists, for although it is nowhere and there is nowhere to search for it, it still in some mysterious fashion bursts forth into human life, which it makes ugly and monstrous, in the guise of fate, luck, destiny, Fatum, from which there is no hiding place and no salvation.

     Kierkegaard has much to say about the role of fate in the consciousness of the ancient Hellene, about the horror the ancients felt for Destiny. All this, of course, is true, just as it is true that, for Biblical revelation, fate does not exist. Revelation is revelation precisely because, in spite of all that is self-evident, it tells us that for God all things are possible and that there is no power equal to the omnipotence of God. When Jesus was asked which was the first commandment of all, he replied: "The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord" (Mark 12:29). How, then, could Kierkegaard assume that innocence (i.e., the state of man as he stood in the direct presence of God) presupposes fear of Nothingness and, therefore, contains within itself the source of, or the potential for, those horrors of which human life is full and which he himself depicts with such incomparable, stunning power both in his journals and in his other works? The reason I insist so upon this question is that, for Kierkegaard himself, either the question or its answer conceals the articulus stantis et cadentis of existential philosophy. Neither Job, nor Abraham, nor any one of the Prophets and Apostles would ever have admitted the idea that innocence—which, as Kierkegaard says, quite rightly and in full agreement with the Biblical text, is ignorance—is inseparable from fear. Such an admission could only arise in the soul of a man who has lost his innocence and found "knowledge." We have just been speaking of how Socrates and Plato saw by intellectual vision that the power of Necessity is equal to divine power; how Leucippus and Democritus with similar confidence added the predicate of Being to their Nothingness; and how even Parmenides himself could only fight against the idea of Nothingness right to existence, and yet was barely able to uproot it from his soul. As long as we put our trust in reason and the knowledge which reason brings, the rights of Nothingness and the rights of Necessity will be guaranteed by self-evidences which we have not the power to overcome, and which we dare not even try to overcome. Kierkegaard went to Job, went to Abraham, invoked the Absurd and craved Faith, only because he hoped in this way to blow up the impregnable fortress behind whose walls speculative thought was hiding all-destroying Nothingness. And at the very moment when the Paradox and the Absurd were presented with the chance to realize their sovereign rights and enter upon a great and final struggle with the self-evident, they fell exhausted, robbed of their strength by some mysterious and enigmatic power.

Orphus system

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