Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


Knowledge as Fall

If I might express my wish, it would be that not one of my readers displays his depth of thought by proposing the question: what would have happened if Adam had not sinned?


     In order to forgive sin, it is necessary to have power, just as one must have power in order to return strength to the sick. Natural reason says that it is as impossible to do one as the other, impossible not only for man, but also for a higher being: Zeus, may I remind you once again, himself disclosed this secret to Chryssip—or, more probably, both Chryssip and Zeus received the revelation of this ultimate secret of existence from the one eternal and inexhaustible source of all truths. To use the words of Bonaventura, the truth of Chryssip and Zeus is in no worse position than all other truths; if someone should think to attack it by citing reason, then it could just as well be defended by reason. Such is not the case with the truth claimed by Jesus in the Gospel: all reasonable arguments are against it, and not one is adduced in its favor. It is forced to say of itself, as Kierkegaard said of himself, that it is deprived of the protection of laws. Or, in simple language: neither Jesus of Nazareth, nor generally speaking, anyone else in the world has the power to forgive sin, as no one has the power to return strength to a sick man. Reason proprio motu, consulting no one, having inquired of no one, proclaimed this truth—without, I insist and repeat once more, having asked anyone, gods or men, whether or not they wanted it. Indeed, reason itself proclaimed this truth, not because it wanted it, not because it valued it or needed it; it simply proclaimed it in a tone which admits of no objection. Thereupon, this truth began to gain the upper hand in life; and all living beings, secretly sighing (Zeus himself sighed as he confessed his helplessness to Chryssip), have submitted to it.

     Why this submission? Where does reason get the power to impose its truths upon existence—truths which it does not need itself and which are detestable and at times completely intolerable to existence? No one asks this question—neither men nor gods, at least not the gods of enlightened pagandom, and not the God of enlightened Christianity, either. For this would be a more grievous insult to reason, to the greatness of reason, than the laesio majestatis against which Spinoza, that profound thinker, warned us. The Pelagians defended morality desperately in order to realize their ideal of homo emancipatus a Deo. Theoretical philosophy aspires no less fervently after ratio emancipata a Deo; for it, the only truth is that which has succeeded in freeing itself from God. When Leibniz announced so triumphantly that eternal truths exist in the understanding of God independent of His will—he was only confirming openly what had been the mainstay of medieval philosophy, passed down to it by the Greeks: the human mind has always directed all its efforts toward obtaining for itself veritates emancipatas a Deo. Reason dictates the laws which it takes a fancy to dictate, or more probably, which it is obliged, by virtue of its nature, to dictate. For it, too, has no freedom of choice; it, too, could not, even if it wanted to, give back the world to man, not merely to be held in trust, but as an absolute possession. But reason itself does not ask why and wherefore it dictates these laws, and it does hot permit others to ask questions about them. So it is, so it has been, so it will always be. The fates of mankind and of the universe have been foreordained in saecula saeculorum and nothing that has been foreordained since time began can or should be altered. Existence has been bewitched by some impersonal and indifferent power and it cannot shake off the magic spells. Philosophy, which has always asserted proudly that it seeks the beginnings, the sources, the roots of everything—rhidzômata pantôn—does not even try to find out the nature of this force that has been able to bewitch the world, but "simply" recognizes it and rejoices over its own Success in "exposing the invisible." Even The Critique of Pure Reason halted at this point, obviously in full agreement with the wise vision of Aristotle who said that an inability to know when to stop asking questions is the mark of ill breeding in a man.

     Only in the Bible is there an indication that all is not well with reason and the eternal truths conveyed by reaSon. God warned man against knowledge: thou shalt surely die. But can it be that this is an objection to knowledge? Can one thus disparage knowledge? Bonaventura was not present in Eden, nor was theoretical philosophy there. It seems to me that for the first man the words of God actually did appear to be an objection; he would not have stretched forth his hand to the forbidden tree on his own initiative, of his own will. For the ignorant, "law" meant the words which were later to be declared by the Prophet and repeated by the Apostle: justus ex fide vivit. Faith leads to the tree of life, and from the tree of life comes, not knowledge, not theoretical philosophy, but existential philosophy. According to Genesis, the intervention of the serpent was necessary so that the first man might take his fateful step; made weak by some mysterious spell, he gave himself up to the power of the truths of reason, veritates emancipatae a Deo, and exchanged the fruit of the tree of life for the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

     Kierkegaard does not decide to accept the story of Genesis about the Fall of the first man without reservations and without making corrections. He takes exception to the Biblical serpent, he cannot grant that the ignorance of the first man revealed the truth to him and that knowledge of good and evil implies sin. And yet Kierkegaard is the one who told us that sin is the swoon of freedom; that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but freedom (or—as he also says—the opposite of sin is faith); that freedom is not, as is commonly thought, the possibility of choosing between good and evil, but possibility; and finally, that God signifies that all is possible. How could man, in spite of this, have exchanged freedom for sin, renounced the boundless possibilities set before him by God, and taken instead that limited possibility offered him by reason? Kierkegaard has no answer to this question—but he does ask it, although in a different form. "If I might express my wish, it would be that not one of my readers display his depth of thought by proposing the question: what would have happened if Adam had not sinned? At the very moment that reality takes hold, possibility moves aside as if it were nothing, which tempts all those who do not like to think. And why can this kind of science (perhaps it would be better to say, knowledge!) not conclude that it is holding man back and understand that even it has limitations! But when someone asks you a stupid question, beware of answering it—you will become just as stupid as th~questioner. What is ridiculous about this question is not so much the question itself as the fact that it is addressed to science." There can be no argument here; this question should not be addressed to science. For science, reality always puts an end to possibility. But, does it follow from this that, generally speaking, the question ought not to be raised at all? And that Kierkegaard himself did not raise it—if not explicite, then implicite? When he proposes that we forget about the serpent-tempter, was this not his answer to the question which he now forbids us to ask? And he answered in the name of science, which is naturally forced to admit that there is nothing necessary in the Biblical narrative of the serpent, and that it is, moreover, a purely external, childish fantasy. In rejecting the serpent, Kierkegaard evidently hesitated in the face of some rational truths, which are emancipated from God, and in fact uncreated and eternal. But, at the same time, it is here, right at this point, more than anywhere else, that we ought to recall the enigmatic words: "blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me," of which Kierkegaard himself reminds us so often. Indeed, what an offense the Biblical serpent offers for rational thinking! But then, the entire story told in the Bible about original sin is no less an offense. The Fall of Man, as described in the Scriptures, is completely incompatible with our notions of what is possible and what ought to be, no less incompatible than a serpent who holds a conversation with a man and tempts him. However much we may be convinced of the truthfulness of the Biblical story, every conviction must fall before the logic of common sense. If there is, nevertheless, some "truth" to be found in this story, it is indisputable that it cannot be defended by the same means with which it can be demolished. And so, if the truth of faith, like the truth of knowledge, is maintained only by the possibility of rational defense, then that chapter of Genesis in which the story of the Fall is told ought to be erased from the pages of Holy Scripture. Not that it would be stupid to ask what would have happened if Adam and Eve had not surrendered to the blandishments of the serpent and had not picked the forbidden fruit; it can be confidently asserted that our ancestors would never have given in to temptation, that the serpent would never have tempted them, and, what is even more, that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was not more harmful and dangerous, but instead more useful and necessary, than the fruit of the other trees in Eden. In short, if we rely upon our own insight and perspicacity, then we must assume that sin began with something that is quite dissimilar from what we have been told about Adam and Eve; that it did not even begin with Adam, but, let us say, with Cain, who murdered his brother. Here we see with our own eyes—oculis mentis—both the presence of sin and the presence of guilt, and there is no need whatever to resort to such a fantastic deus ex machina, considered totally inadmissible by philosophy, as the serpent tempter and betrayer. Consequently, even the idea of sin loses the fantastic character lent it by the Biblical narrative, and fully deserves the honorable title of truth, for it can be defended with considerations of the same sort that can be used to attack it.

     Evidently Kierkegaard was thrown off guard: the Biblical story of the Fall offended him. But then, who can guard against offense, who can overcome it? All our "spiritual" being cries out: let the origin of sin be anything but the tree of knowledge of good and evil. No less shocking to us is the idea that the serpent had the power to paralyze or lull to sleep man's will. Therefore, we surely must look for another, more acceptable explanation of sin. But does not every "explanation"—and in particular the attempt to "explain everything," which Kierkegaard himself ridiculed—still bear witness to the "swoon of freedom"? So long as man is free, so long as man's freedom is not paralyzed, so long as man is free to do everything he wants to, everything he needs to, he does not make explanations. The man who explains is the one who does not have the Strength to act on his own, who has submitted to a power outside himself. One who is free not only does not seek explanations, but with unerring perceptiveness guesses that the greatest threat to his freedom lies in the very possibility of explanations.

     Consequently, we not only can but must ask: what would have happened if Adam had not sinned? And if man is indeed fated to awaken from his swoon and shake off the spell cast over him by the serpent, then perhaps he will find the courage to ask: is the story of Adam's Fall an "eternal truth"? And has not the moment come for him to regain the genuine primordial freedom which he shared with God during his existence in Paradise; the moment when, in spite of all reason's prohibitions, he will "suddenly" realize that the truth about the Fall had a beginning, as do all the truths which experience conveys to us, and that, by the will of the One who creates all truths, it can also have an end? Of course, reason will offer resistance to this; such an assumption means the end of its rule, which, it is convinced, can have and must have no end, since it had no beginning. But Kierkegaard wrote so many inspired pages about the Absurd! Is it possible that the protests and the indignation of reason would alarm him or move him to pity? or that existential philosophy would, at the decisive moment, tremble and give way before its enraged opponent?

     I must emphasize here that existential philosophy, as conceived by Kierkegaard, has a double meaning, or, more precisely, it has set two problems for itself, problems which, moreover, seem at first glance to be opposed to each other, and even mutually exclusive. And this is not mere chance, not "involuntary inconsistency." It has a very close, organic connection~ with his method of "indirect communication," which I have already mentioned more than once and which at times makes Kierkegaard's thoughts, complicated and involved to begin with, totally incomprehensible to the hasty reader.

     We meet in Kierkegaard's work almost at every step the expression "religious-ethical," which is familiar to everyone and therefore distasteful to no one, indeed even caressing to the ear. By quoting numerous passages from his writings, and without making any far fetched interpretations, it is possible to state that the goals which existential philosophy has set for itself are religious-ethical. It is true that we have heard him say that Abraham, the father of faith—at a grave and terrible moment of his life, the moment when his destiny was decided, when the fateful question "to be or not to be" rose before him, not as a theoretical, abstract problem, - but as that to which his entire existence was linked—had to "suspend the ethical," which was blocking his path to God. "If the ethical is eternal—Abraham is lost": this Kierkegaard clearly understood. And, indeed, it is true that if the ethical were the highest court, the last stage of appeal, if it had no beginning and were uncreated, if it were not of God, if it were veritas a Deo emancipata—then there would be no salvation for Abraham. Kierkegaard himself exposed that sort of ethics (in the philosophy of recent years it is called autonomous, self-regulated): when Abraham raised the knife above Isaac, he did believe that Isaac would be returned to him. In the court of religion, this is the strongest argument in Abraham's favor, but in the court of reason and ethics, which have their own laws (let me remind you again that both reason and ethics are autonomous), Abraham's faith compromises him and makes his action worthless. Reason firmly declares that there is no power capable of returning a murdered Isaac to life, and ethics demands, no less firmly, that Abraham slay his son without any hope, without any "expectation" of ever regaining him. It is only upon the fulfilling of this condition that ethics is willing to consider his action a sacrifice, and only at the price of such a sacrifice can its praise and approval be purchased. Shakespeare's Falstaff asks: can ethics replace a man's severed arm? It cannot. Therefore ethics is merely a word. But Kierkegaard's Abraham echoes Falstaff. Can the "ethical" return a murdered Isaac? If it cannot, then the ethical must be "suspended." Abraham made his decision to raise the knife to his son only because God, unlike ethics which can do nothing, could and would return his son to him. What difference is there between the "father of faith" and the comical personage of Shakespeare's play? Faith, which possesses such exceptional, incomparable value in the sphere of religious existence ("all that is not of faith is sin"), turns out to be a defect, and a great defect, in the commonplace world of rational thinking. The "ethical," whose function is to shield and protect rational truths— although it is powerless to replace a man's severed hand, and generally powerless to give man anything except its blame and praise—is still required to direct all its blame, all its thunders, all its anathemas, in equal measure against both Abraham and Falstaff.

     And once more I must add: Falstaff laughs at the threats of ethics. If ethics cannot give back a man's arm or leg, this means that it has no might, that it is powerless, that it is only an illusion, only a word—and its thunders are an illusion also. For by what right does one who cannot bless assume the power to curse? We have not forgotten how, according to Kierkegaard, the ethical takes its revenge upon those who dare to disobey it. Sine effusione sanguinis, of course, as befits its pious nature—but it is worse than the most merciless torturer, the most violent murderer. This, I say, is the mysterious "contradiction" in Kierkegaard's work: in the presence of Abraham, ethics falls silent. And before Job—after prolonged and desperate resistance, it is true—ethics is obliged to withdraw. If Socrates himself had approached Job, all his irony and dialectic would have come to nothing. Job appeals from ethics to another "principle"—to God, to God, for Whom nothing is impossible, Who can restore a severed arm, Who can raise Abraham's murdered Isaac from the dead, Who can give back the king's daughter to the poor youth, and Regina Olsen to Kierkegaard himself. He overturns the commandment of Spinoza—the commandment of speculative philosophy: non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. Man will not live by "understanding." "Understanding" is the terrible bellua, qua non occisa homo non potest vivere. Out of man's weeping and curses new strength is born, which sooner or later will help him to triumph over the despised enemy. As the Psalmist said: de profundis ad te, Domine, clamavi. This is what Kierkegaard calls existential philosophy: "the mad struggle of faith for possibility." Theoretical philosophy subsides into flatness, into two dimensions. Existential thinking is aware of a third dimension which does not exist for theoretical thinking: faith...

     But as soon as Kierkegaard turns from Job and Abraham and begins to deal with the commonplace, he is overwhelmed by an unconquerable fear, fear that, with the elimination of the rational and the ethical, the Falstaffs will become the lords of existence. And then he hastens back to the ethical. The ethical cannot return Regina Olsen to him; it is, generally speaking, powerless to give man anything. But it can take away, it can warp and make hideous the lives of those who do not obey it; for it is the ally and companion in arms of necessity, which is protected by the exalted shield of reason. However much Falstaff may vaunt his courage, however much he may bluster, the ethical will overtake him in the end. It will transform itself into infinity, into eternity, bringing with it death and destruction. The most frivolous and heedless of men will be driven to despair when faced with the arsenal of horrors at the disposal of the ethical—and will surrender. And now when Kierkegaard feels that, as he expresses it, "he cannot make the final movement of faith," he turns to the ethical with its menacing "you must," and gives what seems to be an entirely different meaning to existential philosophy. It is no longer a mad struggle for the impossible, but a calculated struggle (at times well, at times poorly calculated) for a possible victory over dissenters. Instead of fighting against the terrible enemy "necessity," he attacks those who, of course, are also terrible, but who are nevertheless armed only with human weapons similar to his own. Fear has carried out its destructive purpose; it has paralyzed Kierkegaard's freedom, or, to use his own words, it has caused him to fall into a swoon. The self-evident truths of reason replace the revelation of Holy Scripture.

Orphus system

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