A god descends

March 30, 2008

Philosophical Fragments (1844)
Johannes Climacus [Søren Kierkegaard] (Princeton, 1985)
123 p. First reading.

“Can virtue be taught?” was a question to which Socrates returned again and again. He answered with a qualified negative: a teacher may provide the occasion for learning, but learning itself is a form of recollection of truths already known from the soul’s pre-existence. Socrates therefore viewed himself as a mid-wife, bringing to birth knowledge sunk deep within each soul’s forgetfulness. He does not give the learner anything, but only elicits from them something they already possess, though unawares. On this view, Socrates himself tends to disappear, for the fact that his questioning was the occasion for coming to truth can be of only poetic, not intrinsic, interest; it might have been someone else. So too the moment at which one came to truth is of only historical, not intrinsic, significance; it might have happened just as well under other circumstances.

In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard, writing as Johannes Climacus, explores the consequences of answering Socrates’ question in the affirmative. Though Johannes writes only as a philosopher — if a self-professedly indolent one “without any claim to being a part of the scientific-scholarly endeavor in which one acquires legitimacy” — not as a Christian, for he has not yet attained to knowledge of God, but is only following ideas wherever they lead, attempting to understand what it would mean for “a historical point of departure to be given for an eternal consciousness”, he nevertheless sketches a picture that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Christian economy of salvation: consciousness of sin, grace, faith, and even the Incarnation find a place in his account of non-Socratic knowledge. It is a remarkable piece of imaginative engagement with the psychological significance of Christian faith.

He begins by supposing that time — the moment at which one passes from untruth to truth — is significant. If so, then beforehand one must not know the truth. But even that is not enough, for if one was prepared to receive the truth, if one was anticipating it, then one would already, in a sense, possess it. No, if the moment is truly to be significant, one must not even know that one does not know the truth; one must be in untruth. Even more than that, the learner must be unable to move himself from untruth to truth by any act of will, for if he could do so then he would, by definition, be willing to know truth, but he cannot will what he does not know. It is not only his intellect, but also his will that needs to be enlightened. His epistemological problem is deeply involved with an existential problem.

The teacher, then, if the encounter with him is to be truly irreplaceable, if he is to be a means and not just an occasion, must supply not only the truth but also the condition for understanding it. The teacher must reveal to the follower that he is in untruth, thereby preparing him to receive the truth itself. He must do for the follower what the follower cannot do for himself. A teacher who gives in this way assumes with respect to the learner the status of a god. He cannot be forgotten, his role in bringing the follower to truth can never be eliminated or glossed over or replaced, because the moment of his aid is decisive. Johannes develops such a teacher’s character under the titles saviour, deliverer, reconciler, and judge.

Unlike in the Socratic case, this teacher and learner do not exist in a reciprocal relation. Socrates could say, with truth, that he learned just as much from the learner as the learner learned from Socrates. In our case, however, there is a decided asymmetry between the two. The god gives; the follower receives. The god, moreover, is not moved by need — for what need could the god have of one who languishes in untruth? — but rather by love. Love is both the motive and the goal of this encounter.

Yet this raises a problem. It appears that this love that moves the god must be unhappy, for how can genuine love unite two who are so unequally matched? How is the god to give his gift without thereby placing the follower in an intolerable, because overwhelming, debt? How can he bring the learner into a state of equality while still leaving room for love to be reciprocated out of freedom rather than fear? “Who grasps the contradiction of this sorrow: not to disclose itself is the death of love; to disclose itself is the death of the beloved.” Could he somehow elevate the learner? No, for the inequality will not be forgotten, and will always be an impediment to the weaker party, and therefore to love. Unity may only be brought about by the descent of the god, who in earnest love wills to be the equal of the beloved, emptying himself, and taking the form of a slave, for in order to the teacher of all — even the lowest! — he must make himself the lowest.

It is in the pursuit of this theme of the descent of the god that Kierkegaard introduces his famous parable of the king and the maiden, a beautiful and sensitive allegory of the Incarnation of Christ. This parable alone makes Philosophical Fragments worth reading.

Though the god descends, yet the encounter with him retains its transforming power, for he still intends to reveal the follower’s untruth to himself. When he does so, in what Johannes calls the moment, the result is not self-knowledge (as it was with Socrates) but confusion: the learner awakens to his own untruth, but he has not yet received the truth. The god, who had seemed so lowly, has by his gift revealed himself as divine in relation to the learner, but the divine is other than the human, and how may the god be both highest and lowest at once? The follower therefore experiences the revelation as a paradox that confounds his understanding. “In order for the teacher to be able to give the condition, he must be the god, and in order to put the learner in possession of it, he must be man.” If the encounter between the understanding and the paradox is unhappy, the result is offense. But if they are in harmony, the result is a special happiness. Johannes postpones giving this happiness a name, but I will not: he calls it faith.

What is the teacher’s intention in all this? Is it not to show the learner to himself? Or, what amounts to the same thing, to reveal his love for the learner? For the truth about the learner is that he is beloved of the god. This truth, however, could be taught by no-one else — this was why the god had to descend — but this means that “the god’s presence is not incidental to his teaching, but is essential. The presence of the god in human form — indeed, in the lowly form of a servant — is precisely the teaching.” The knowledge gained by the learner, therefore, is unlike that gained in other circumstances, for it remains always and necessarily involved with the teacher. Unlike the case of Socrates, wherein one could leave Socrates still in possession of the knowledge one had gained with his help, in this case the knowledge, this faith, is always involved with the person of the teacher. “The object of faith becomes not the teaching but the teacher.”

This line of argument, however, appears to create a deep problem, for the teacher, though his ambitions are universal, cannot be present to every person, nor can he live forever. His efforts, therefore, will be undone by time. The contemporary follower has a chance, but those who come later do not. To be sure, the contemporary may teach those who arrive only after the teacher has gone, but then that relation, of man to man, is back to being Socratic. The contemporary follower appears to have a decisive advantage.

But is it really so? After all, what sort of advantage is contemporaneity supposed to grant? Is it that the contemporary sees the teacher in the flesh, and hears him speak? Is it that he looked into his eyes, and witnessed his distinctive stride, and saw where his sandal had left a mark in the sand? In other words, should we consider the contemporary’s advantage to lie in his having more historical knowledge than those who came after? Of course not! The knowledge necessary for faith is not helped by precise historical knowledge. Even seeing the god in the flesh is not enough — if one sees him in the flesh only.

What if we turn the question around: maybe the advantage belongs to the follower at second-hand, for he has the advantage of seeing the consequences of the god’s sojourn among men, sees its influence spreading through time. But this sort of knowledge is just another sort of historical knowledge, not faith. We must remember that the object of faith is not historical fact, but the teacher himself.

The remedy can only be this: “the report of the contemporaries becomes the occasion for everyone coming later to become a follower — by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself.” The historical aspect is supplied, for the contemporary, by a direct encounter, and, for the follower at second-hand, by the report of the contemporary. But in both cases the decisive moment, the unmasking of untruth and the gift of the possibility of faith, is a direct gift of the god. In this sense, “There is no follower at second hand.”

At this point, Johannes brings his analysis to a close. He remarks, of course, that his ideas bear a distinct resemblance to Christianity, “the only historical phenomenon that despite the historical — indeed, precisely by means of the historical — has wanted to be the single individual’s point of departure for his eternal consciousness, has wanted to interest him otherwise than merely historically, has wanted to base his happiness on his relation to something historical”, but this resemblance is accidental, for he has simply been following his own whimsical idea to its conclusion.

That whimsical idea, remember, was to answer the Socratic question non-Socratically. On the last page of the book, however, he seems to call his own consistency into question — or does he?

The Moral

This project indisputably goes beyond the Socratic, as is apparent at every point. Whether it is therefore more true than the Socratic is an altogether different question, one that cannot be decided in the same breath, inasmuch as a new organ has been assumed here: faith; and a new presupposition: the consciousness of sin; and a new decision: the moment; and a new teacher: the god in time. Without these, I really would not have dared to present myself for inspection before that ironist who has been admired for millenia, whom I approach with as much ardent enthusiasm as anyone. But to go beyond Socrates when one nevertheless says essentially the same as he, only not nearly so well — that, at least, is not Socratic.

Confound it all.


This is a potent little book, full of rich ideas, most of which I have only touched on, and several of which I have left untouched. As I said earlier, I think its chief merit is its imaginative engagement with the possibility and meaning of Incarnation, as embodied especially in the parable of the king and the maiden, but, when read from a Christian perspective, it raises many probing questions: What is the nature of faith? What does it mean to encounter Christ personally? What is the value of historical knowledge about Christ? What is the Church, and what is her role in history? Why does Christian experience have the shape and characteristics that it does?

It must be said, also, that aspects of the argument Johannes develops are quite unclear. This was especially true, in my judgment, of the role of paradox in faith, for which the trail of argument was frequently lost beneath thickets of thorns. I have done my best to reconstruct something plausible. For the time being, I remember that Philosophical Fragments is a prelude to Johannes Climacus’ major work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in which, perhaps, these ideas will be developed with greater clarity.

[The decisive moment]
If a child who has received the gift of a little money – enough to be able to buy either a good book, for example, or one toy, for both cost the same – buys the toy, can he use the same money to buy the book? By no means, for now the money has been spent. But he may go to the bookseller and ask him if he will exchange the book for the toy. Suppose the bookseller answers: My dear child, your toy is worthless; it is certainly true that when you still had the money you could have bought the book just as well as the toy, but the awkward thing about a toy is that once it is purchased it has lost all value. Would not the child think: This is very strange indeed. And so it was also once, when man could buy freedom or unfreedom for the same price, and this price was the free choice of the soul and the surrender of the choice. He chose unfreedom, but if he then were to approach the god and ask whether he could make an exchange, the answer presumably would be: Undeniably there was a time when you could have bought what you wanted, but the curious thing about unfreedom is that once it is purchased it has no value whatsoever, even though one pays the same price for it. I wonder if such a person would not say: This is very strange indeed. Or if two hostile armies faced each other, and there came a knight whom both sides invited to join; but he chose the one side, was defeated and taken prisoner. As prisoner he was brought before the conqueror and was foolish enough to offer him his services on the conditions originally offered. I wonder if the conqueror would not say to him: My dear fellow, you are my prisoner now; true enough, at one time you could have chosen differently, but now everything is changed. Would this not be strange indeed! If it were otherwise, if the moment did not have decisive significance, then the child, after all, must indeed have bought the book and merely have been ignorant of it, mistakenly thinking that he had bought the toy; the prisoner, after all, must have fought on the other side, but had not been seen because of the fog, and had really sided with the one whose prisoner he now imagined himself to be. – “The depraved person and the virtuous person presumably do not have power over their moral condition, but in the beginning they did have the power to become one or the other, just as the person who throws a stone has power over it before he throws it but not when he has thrown it” (Aristotle). Otherwise the throwing would become an illusion, and the person throwing, despite all his throwing, would keep the stone in his hand, since the stone, like the skeptics’ “flying arrow,” did not fly.

2 Responses to “A god descends”

  1. […] Nonfiction On the non-fiction side I will start with Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a witty but probing exploration of how we think about our relationship to history, and of the personal significance of historical knowledge.  Not satisfied with that alone, it is also a profound meditation on love, and contains a beautiful re-presentation of the Gospel.  (Book Note) […]

  2. […] Kierkegaard – Philosophical Fragments […]

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