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Everybody’s Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard buttressed his attack on rational, ethics-centered Christianity with a direct defense of “the absurd.” Using the familiar fideisticskeptical arguments that one can find in Sextus Empiricus, in Pascal, or in Bayle, Kierkegaard criticized the essential incompleteness of any rationalistic system, for example Hegel’s. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Philosophical Fragments, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est, Fear and Trembling, Training in Christianity, and elsewhere, he argued that rationality is necessarily limited, that the correctness of any system or way of life can never be proved. Any attempt to do so generates an infinite regress of proving; and a dogmatic presupposition is therefore necessary. So to adopt any particular way of life one has to make an irrational existential choice of some “absolute presupposition” or revelation. And this act of choice will not be determined by any “rational criterion”—such as the “universalizability principle.” In effect, Kierkegaard argued that there is an excuse for irrationalism which is valid even from the point of view of a rationalist.

IF THERE IS SUCH A LIMIT to rationality, there is no reason why God should not countermand a reasonable ethic; for instance, God could demand murder through what Kierkegaard calls a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This possibility Kierkegaard explores in Fear and Trembling. Where Abraham demonstrates his absurd faith in God first by believing, contrary to familiar biological laws, that his wife Sarah would bear him a son in her old age; and then by his readiness to kill his beloved son Isaac at God’s command in spite of the absurd violation of reasonable ethics which such an act would entail.

Kierkegaard concentrated on the Abraham story for many other reasons. First, he probably knew that Kant had criticized Abraham’s behavior as unreasonable in his The Quarrel Among the Faculties (1798). Secondly, one might have expected a Christian writer like Kierkegaard to choose Jesus as his example of the man of faith. By contrast to many Protestant writers of his time, Kierkegaard avoided, particularly in his earlier work, pinning the essence of Christian action on the imitation of the historical Jesus. To be a man of faith was for him to obey God blindly, absurdly, without recourse to reason—one’s model of the man of faith being more Abraham than Jesus.

This is not to say that Kierkegaard entirely avoided speaking of the imitation of Christ. Especially in the tenth volume of the Danish edition of Sören Kiekegaards Papirer, and to a lesser extent in The Last Years (which begins with the eleventh volume), Kierkegaard does write, rather vaguely, of the imitation of Christ, usually stressing suffering, solitude, and renunciation of this world. It has been argued, probably correctly, that this is due to Kierkegaard’s eventual reconciliation to the fact that he was not to marry or have a conventional career. But even in this later work Kierkegaard does not use the imitation of Christ for an apologetic purpose, and he elaborately qualifies his use of the word “imitate.” Moreover, his conception of a world-renouncing historical Jesus, although erroneous in detail, is close to those of Schweitzer, Barth, and the neo-orthodox thinkers, and far removed from the liberal portrait.

CONSEQUENTLY—AND THIS is the point—the investigations into the character of the historical Jesus which eventually destroyed the many liberal portraits of Jesus as a great practical moral teacher hardly affected Kierkegaard’s characterization of the essence of being a Christian. Kierkegaard, having avoided the traps of late nineteenth-century theology and biblical scholarship which eventually shattered Protestant liberalism, suddenly became relevant, and became at the end of World War I one of the few significant Christian thinkers of the nineteenth century who had not only not succumbed to Protestant liberalism, but who had attacked it in its heyday. Kierkegaard’s appeal to the early Barth and his followers needs little further explanation.

But apart from its intrinsic interest, the fact that Barth eventually dropped Kierkegaard probably does need explanation. So does the appeal Kierkegaard’s work has had for the existentialists—particularly those like Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, in whose thought the idea of a return to a more orthodox Christianity plays no important role. I suspect that the two explanations may be related. Presumably Barth dropped Kierkegaard at least in part because of the enthusiasm with which certain components of Kierkegaard’s thought, such as his fideistic arguments for commitment and “the absurd,” were taken up by thinkers whose attitudes to Christianity sharply opposed those of Barth. Fideistic arguments for irrational commitment had had historically, and have continued to have during this century, something like a “boomerang” effect. By providing an excuse for irrational commitment, the argument that rationality is ultimately limited, may well enable a Protestant to make an absurd commitment without losing intellectual integrity. But if it does so (and I have argued in my book The Retreat to Commitment that it need not) then it does the same for any other commitments whatsoever.

Moreover, anyone who makes use of this excuse may not, with integrity, criticize the holder of a different commitment—a commitment not to Christ but to the Fatherland right or wrong, to the class struggle, or to just about anything else. One gains the right to be irrational oneself at the expense of losing the right to criticize anyone else for acting absurdly. One gains immunity from criticism for one’s own commitment by making any criticism of alternative commitments impossible, and any defense of alternative commitments trivially easy. One quickly reaches what R. H. Popkin, in a study of Kierkegaard, aptly described as an “anarchy of private individual faiths that cannot be discussed or communicated.”

It is just here, when dealing with the commitment argument and the possibility of using it outside Christianity, that one reaches the real sadness and the most poignant irony of the Kierkegaard fashion. For Kierkegaard was disturbed by the complacency of Copenhagen Christianity and wanted his contemporaries to learn how difficult it was to become, through freedom and awareness, a true Christian—by contrast to what he supposed was the easy way of riding into church on Hegel’s coat-tails, as it were. Yet if one’s really thinks that the choice of one’s position is absurd and arbitrary, then I wonder whether it is not choice which is easy these days, and refusal to choose which is difficult.

ON MANY ISSUES the situation has indeed been dramatically reversed. After all, one does not necessarily—unless one has begged the question—get to the truth by making an irrevocable arbitrary commitment; and one may retain one’s capacity to go on learning only if one refrains from so committing oneself. Perhaps continuing one’s life without making a commitment, perhaps conjuring with alternatives, is at once more realistic and more difficult. Perhaps it is harder today to remain in flux, not to make a choice, than it is to “have the matter settled.”

If so, this would not be surprising: The general social situation was quite different in Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen, where people seemed—at least to Kierkegaard—to be rather more sure of what was right and wrong than we are today. Kierkegaard seems to have had little doubt that it was wrong for his father to have cursed God and to have lusted after women in unseemly circumstances. Kierkegaard himself was sufficiently sure of what Christian norms were to be convinced that his own society was deviating from them in an outrageously hypocritical way. Today, if the recent Councils are to be taken seriously, there seems to be a large measure of doubt about the nature—let alone the correctness—of Christian norms even in that division of Christianity which has traditionally been thought to be the most rigid.

As for hypocrisy, no doubt it continues within the Christian churches. But the Christian churches have become so much less important socially and institutionally in most countries that some of the most spectacular attacks against hypocrisy are made by men and women who are affiliated with church groups. I have in mind, to give an example, those religious people who have been affiliated with such non-religious groups as SNCC and CORE. What has pushed such people to action, I would guess, is not mere hypocrisy but hypocrisy in important places.

Existentialism can, but need not, enter the stage here. One is left with 1) the interest aroused today by the kinds of conflicts Kierkegaard faced, his “identity crisis,” and 2) with his terminology—his references to commitment, engagement, decision, the absurd, despair, time, boredom, anxiety. In neither case need there be any specific reference to existentialism or to one’s relationship to Christianity. The terminology, for instance, could be applied to Kierkegaard’s relationship to Regine Olsen. Moreover, there is nothing peculiar to existentialism about Kierkegaard’s identity crisis: In fact, this is just life as many of us know it today.

Yet even if the terminology is not peculiar to existentialism, it is perhaps nonetheless characteristic of it. I described the existentialist movement as “diffuse” just because most of the elaborate and labored attempts to connect Kierkegaard’s thought closely to that of the existentialists (Christian and non-Christian, but especially non-Christian) are either “sloppy scholarship” (if one is an historian of ideas), or a “misuse of the definite article” (if one is a linguistic philosopher), or both (if one just thinks). For there is no such thing as the theory of boredom or of commitment or of anxiety, originated by Kierkegaard and developed and applied to contemporary times by Sartre or Heidegger or Marcel or someone else who denies that he is an existentialist. Such thinkers differ among themselves about such concepts even on those points where they acknowledge their common debt to Kierkegaard most precisely. The meaning and ramifications of these terms differ radically, depending on the theoretical, historical, existential context in which one finds them imbedded—just as the word “unconscious” does, depending on whether it is being used by Freud, Jung, or a prizefighter. This existential point, which happens to have been overlooked by most existentialists, is no quaint peculiarity of existentialism, psychology, prizefighting, or philosophy. As Joseph Agassi has pointed out in his brilliant study, Towards an Historiography of Science, even “the law of inertia,” which one reads about in textbooks, does not exist. Einstein’s differs radically from Newton’s, and Galileo’s, and Descartes’.

A THIRD TRACK on which Kierkegaard’s influence has entered this century’s thinking I have left to last, because it is the least: that is, his—I fear—growing influence on literary criticism. A well-known literary critic, in an essay on Samuel Beckett, recently wrote: “The parallel between Beckett and Kierkegaard is a striking one, although there is no evidence that Beckett has, in fact, been directly influenced by Kierkegaard’s thought or writing.” The parallel, I take it, is supposed to consist in such things as the fact that in his pseudonymous aesthetic works Kierkegaard does not himself appear as the author, but instead presents a wide range of quite different, and usually highly developed, philosophical and literary points of view and ways of life, without committing himself to any of them. And such an approach, so the same critic avers, stamps Beckett’s works as superior to those of other writers, such as, say, Sartre, whose “narrative prose and theater clearly bear the marks of having been preconceived as an illustration of general concepts.”

Whether or not what has been said is true of Beckett or Sartre, let alone Kierkegaard, it is easy to spot the pseudo-scholarly, pseudo-critical character of such “criticism.” It is utterly trivial to remark of most authors or playwrights that they give one a sketch of a number of alternative kinds of human existence, together with their irrationalities; and it is fake intellectualism or philosophizing to connect this with the fact that some philosopher (in this case, Kierkegaard in his aesthetic works) did something vaguely like this.

Of course one can see the rationale for such a procedure: The unimaginative literary critic is provided with a recipe, useful in cooking up articles by means of which he can, without thinking, evaluate literary works, depending on whether they approach or veer away from the new “norm.” At one end there are Beckett, and probably Lawrence Durrell, and perhaps Virginia Woolf (e.g., The Waves), in all three of which you have in some sense a juxtaposition of opposing ways of life and a portrayal of different layers of consciousness. Somewhere in the middle you find E. M. Forster and Dostoevsky; and at the other end—the bottom by definition?—you have writers like Sartre or David Stacton who admittedly use their literary work to put across a definite philosophical point of view. Or, by slightly altering the scale and “reinterpreting the authors,” you can shuffle the whole deck—and be original. Of course, there are those troublesome fellows like Proust and Mann who seem difficult to fit into any such scheme.

One not only sees the rationale for such an approach; there even seem to be historical antecedents: Aristotle’s Poetics and Hegel’s writing on tragedy have performed a similar function for spirit-of-the-age critics. Even Bergson was dragged in to lend a certain kind of authority to Virginia Woolf’s treatment of time. But what a fate for Hegel’s critic, Kierkegaard! And somehow—perhaps I am a pessimist—the separation seems to have got worse. Literary criticism of this kind promotes neither literature nor philosophy, and begs the real questions concerning their uneasy relationships. Kierkegaard deserves better literary disciples.

He also deserves better editors. To be sure, one can only welcome the near completion of the translation of his works into English. Ronald Gregor Smith, the translator of The Last Years and a professor at Glasgow, is known as an expert on the work of Bultmann. His interest in Kierkegaard is of long standing, and several years ago he published a useful volume of translations from the works of J.G. Hamann (1730-1788), the thinker from whom Kierkegaard appears to have learned that skeptical arguments could be transformed into a fideistic defense of religion.

It is often said that the best approach to Kierkegaard is through his Journals. All the important themes of his work can indeed be found there; and some of the practical implications of his ideas come sharply into focus in The Last Years, where one sees Kierkegaard engaged in bitter open warfare with the Danish state church after the death of its primate, his father’s priest and friend, Bishop Mynster. But I doubt that this is the best path into his thinking: Smith’s contention that the last part of the Journals “shows a remarkable concentration of the motifs which controlled the whole authorship” is difficult to defend. As I have already suggested, the leading motifs are better presented and handled elsewhere, and one of the important themes of The Last Years—what appears on the surface to be a sort of misogynism—can hardly be called a controlling motif of Kierkegaard’s work.

BUT EVEN IF the chief themes were concentrated in this part of the Journals, it could hardly serve as a satisfactory introduction to his thought, unless one’s edition were carefully annotated to explain his references and allusions. For example, I seriously doubt that Kierkegaard’s admittedly biting remarks about women are really misogynistic. Those in The Last Years are due, at least in part, to the fact that Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish authoress, had just described him as a woman’s author. In her book Life in the North she wrote of “easygoing, happy Copenhagen,” where Kierkegaard has “won not a small public, especially among the women.” This incident probably lies behind Kierkegaard’s caustic remarks about emancipated women in his entry, “The North” (The Last Years, p. 156). And considering his aims and the actual content of his work, one can hardly blame him. A more scholarly editor and translator would have made such background information available and offered an opinion. Such services Gregor Smith has regrettably failed to provide. Apart from twenty-two very brief footnotes for a 344-page text, he gives the reader little aid beyond an obscure and rather muddled ten-page “introduction” which is so inadequate that it should have been omitted. Even Peter Rohde’s unpretentious selections from the Journals, The Diary of Sören Kierkegaard (London, 1960)—although no scholarly edition nor one that compares with Dru’s, and stylistically far less than even either Dru’s or Gregor Smith’s—is a scholar’s god-send compared to Gregor Smith’s edition. For example, not only does it have subject headings; it has 39 pages of interesting and usually reliable notes. Even Rohde’s Chronological Survey of Kierkegaard’s life and writings, by no means profound or complete, is more valuable than Gregor Smith’s chronological table. Gregor Smith is described as the “editor and translator” of The Last Years. One must be grateful for his excellent translation of this part of the Journals; one regrets that the word “editor” has undergone a change of meaning in recent years.


Kierkegaard in English July 28, 1966

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