Posts Tagged ‘Soren Kierkegaard’

Here and there

May 12, 2020

A few good things I’ve read of late:

  • With more time at home, I’ve been making an effort to read more to the kids. But I think I’ll steer clear of Tolstoy’s children’s stories.
  • If, like me, you enjoy looking at illuminated medieval manuscripts, perhaps you’ve wondered how they made the dyes that colour the images, and, in particular, perhaps you’ve wondered what made those blues so distinctive. The secret was lost for centuries, but a group in Portugal claims to have discovered the blue molecule. It’s 6′-hydroxy-4,4′-dimethoxy-1,1′-dimethyl-5′-{[3,4,5-trihydroxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)tetrahydro-2H-pyran-2-yl]oxy}-[3,3′-bipyridine]-2,2′,5,6(1H,1′H)-tetraone. I should have thought that was kind of obvious.
  • Roger Scruton’s last book, on Wagner’s Parsifal, has now been published. Sue Prideaux doesn’t care for it, mostly on the grounds that Wagner was such a prude. Good grief. I’ve long been circling around another book on this opera, by Richard Bell, but have yet to take the dive.
  • Continuing the theme of theologically-inflected music, James MacMillan writes about the fruitful encounter between modern music and Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (of which his own music is a fine example).
  • A new biography of Kierkegaard — Philosopher of the Heart, by Claire Carlisle — has been recently published, and has received some positive notice. Both Adam Kirsch at The New Yorker  and Christopher Beha at Harper’s find its structure somewhat awkward, but not enough to overshadow its fascinating subject. It is always good to read about Kierkegaard — and even better to read Kierkegaard himself.
  • “Some people acquire foreign languages more easily than others. I, alas, am one of those others,” writes Joseph Shaw. Me too, Mr. Shaw. But he’s taking a stab at Latin nonetheless, and I’ve been doing the same, in a manner of speaking, as I help my daughter to prepare for a Latin exam. Facies reginae canes terrebit. Mali milites oppidum arserunt. Magnam puellam sum. But I still don’t know how to ask for the butter…

For an envoi, here is the prelude to Parsifal:

That far country

April 12, 2019

If anyone thinks that this present life is a life not only of labour but also of reward, a life not only of sowing seed but also of harvesting, then we must let him follow the rules of sagacity that are in harmony with his view of life. But we would not care to ask his advice, since he is, after all, an alien and a foreigner who has no knowledge of, no connection with, that far country about which we are asking.

— Kierkegaard,
“The Expectancy of Eternal Salvation”.

Lenten difficulties

March 15, 2019

Just to collect one’s mind in prayer at a specified time and to pray inwardly, even though for only a moment, is more difficult than to occupy a city.

— Kierkegaard,
“Patience in Expectancy”.

de Lubac: The Drama of Atheist Humanism

March 13, 2014

The Drama of Atheist Humanism
Henri de Lubac, S.J.
(Meridian, 1967) [1950]
253 p.

As I understand it, Henri de Lubac was one of the leading theologians in the decades leading up to Vatican II who advocated and exemplified an approach to Catholic theology which emphasized engagement and dialogue with the modern world. I don’t know if that is a fair characterization of his work as a whole — for this is the first of his books that I have read — but it is a good description of what is going on in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, in which de Lubac sympathetically enters into conversation with the sources of contemporary atheism in an effort to both understand and challenge them.

For de Lubac, atheist humanism is rooted in the thought of a handful of nineteenth-century men: Feuerbach (and, through him, Marx), Nietzsche, and Comte. He considers each of them to be a “humanist,” in the sense of being one who takes a high view of the human capacity for greatness, and who wants to see that capacity developed and praised. Yet each conceives of the relationship between God and humanity as being one of competition, and it is in that apparent conflict that de Lubac identifies the principal motive of modern atheism: “Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness which, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”

Even the atheists, however, realized that the overthrow of God would exact a price. It was Nietzsche who perceived this most clearly; he foresaw “the rising of a black tide” as God’s influence over human affairs waned. He saw that to reject God was to reject everything founded on Him, and that this would be the greatest upheaval, both intellectual and moral, that the world had ever known.

de Lubac respects the honesty and integrity of these atheist thinkers, granting them credit where it is due, though of course he stops well short of endorsement:

“The criticisms which served as their starting-point were often shrewd, with a shrewdness cruel in its accuracy; and certain of their manifestations have an imposing grandeur which, for many fascinated eyes, masks the horrors that were their purchase price.”

It is Nietzsche, especially, who earns de Lubac’s admiration. Nietzsche was thorough and fearless: he followed his thoughts to their conclusions. It is notable that although he was of course opposed to Christianity, he refused even to argue against Christian theology, for to do so would have been to concede the eminence of truth, which would have been a concession to the principles of theism. Instead, the battle was for him a matter of values expressed through culture, a struggle of wills for domination. de Lubac remarks: “…never, before Nietzsche, had so mighty an adversary arisen, one who had so clear, broad and explicit a conception of his destiny and who pursued it in all domains with such systematic and deliberate zeal.” As I have said before, Nietzsche did everyone, theist or atheist, a great good service simply by clarifying the terms of the debate and its implications.

It is interesting that de Lubac saw the atheists of his time — the mid-twentieth century — as having assumed this same mantle of courageous and integral atheism. He writes, for instance, comparing them to the French philosophes and other early modern atheists:

“How timid those men now seem who, for instance, fought against the Church but wanted to keep the Gospel! Or those who, while claiming to be released from all authority and all faith, still invoked principles derived from a Christian source! “Free thinkers,” but not very bold and not very “free” as yet! Those who have come after them deride their illogicality as much as their impotence and lump them together with believers in a common reprobation. Those of the new generation do not intend to be satisfied with “the shadow of a shadow.” They have no desire to live upon the perfume of an empty vase.”

I have to wonder, however, whether this sort of high-octane atheist has survived into the present day in any large numbers. One of the principal criticisms of the crop of so-called “New Atheists” has been precisely that they are superficial, complacent, tame, and so forth. They take “values” for granted, coasting on the fumes of a religion from which they profess to have cut themselves off. It’s an interesting question. I wonder who were the mid-twentieth-century atheists whom de Lubac had particularly in mind when he wrote the above? Sartre and Camus, perhaps? If so, I think it would be fairly uncontroversial to say that our most vocal atheists today fall well short of the standard.

Yet in the end de Lubac argues that the atheists’ efforts to disparage God have, despite their often praiseworthy intentions, only ended up hurting humanity, and this because there was an obscure truth in the claim (made by Feuerbach and Nietzche) that God was a kind of mirror of humanity, in whom we find our highest ideals and ground our self-understanding. When we rejected Him, we quenched our own guiding light, lost our own balance. From a Catholic perspective, this had to be so, for God is in truth so intimately present to humanity that He could not be forsaken without doing damage to ourselves:

“For man, God is not only a norm which is imposed upon him and, by guiding him, lifts him up again: God is the Absolute upon which he rests, the Magnet which draws him, the Beyond which calls him, the Eternal which provides him with the only atmosphere in which he can breathe and, in some sort, that third dimension in which man finds his depth. If man takes himself as god, he can, for a time, cherish the illusion that he has raised and freed himself. But it is a fleeting exaltation! In reality, he has merely abased God, and it is not long before he finds that in doing so he has abased himself.”

Thus those who, as Comte said, set out “to discover a man with no trace of God in him” were on a quixotic quest, for the man so discovered would turn out to be a pale shadow, a cipher, or a mere tool.

(Parenthetically, to move from Nietzsche to Comte is rather like switching from scotch to lukewarm tea. Although he was in his lifetime apparently considered a formidable adversary of religion, a systematic thinker who rode the crest of modern “scientific” thought into an imagined blissful future, he has none of the guts and fire of Nietzsche. In this he resembles our “New Atheists” — though as a scholar of culture and society he easily surpassed even them. It is also, I confess, difficult to take seriously any man who thought sociology the highest of the sciences (!). But de Lubac does relate a hilarious anecdote about Comte’s overtures to the Jesuit order, whom he saw as potential allies to his ambition to bring about a secular world order. Alas, his knocks on the door went unanswered.)


de Lubac’s discussion of the leading atheists constitutes only the first third of the book. In the second and third parts, he turns to two prominent humanists who wrote in opposition to atheism. The first is Søren Kierkegaard, and the second is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. About the former he has relatively little to say — the discussion focuses on Concluding Unscientific Postscript and not much else — other than that Kierkegaard was a kind of herald of transcendence to a culture that had grown almost deaf to it. He called people back from abstraction and speculation to the inner life of faith, to a personal encounter with God. de Lubac cites his maxim from the Postscript: “Preparation for becoming attentive to Christianity does not consist in reading books or in making surveys of world history, but in deeper immersion in existence.” For Kierkegaard, contra the atheists, it was precisely by more serious and devout faith, by grounding oneself more firmly in God, that one could become more fully and maturely human.

The long final section of the book is a detailed engagement with the novels of Dostoyevsky, whom de Lubac sees as something like the archetypal man of our time: “in him the crisis of our modern world was concentrated into a spearhead and reduced to its quintessence”. He describes Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche as “hostile brothers,” united in their experience and understanding of a world conceived apart from God, but responding to that vision in opposite ways. For him, Dostoyevsky is something like an antidote to Nietzsche:

“To put the matter succinctly, he forestalled Nietzsche. He overcame the temptation to which Nietzsche was to succumb. That is what gives his work its extraordinary scope. Whoever plunges into it comes out proof against the Nietzschean poison, while aware of the greatness of Nietzsche.”

There are many atheists within the pages of Dostoyevsky’s novels; de Lubac identifies three principal types: the “man-God” (the individual who is a law unto himself), the “Tower of Babel” (the social revolutionary who proposes to ensure the happiness of mankind without God), and the “palace of glass” (the philosopher who rejects every mystery). Each is portrayed by Dostoyevsky, and each is, in a sense, refuted, not by abstract argument but by a means appropriate to a novelist and humanist: by exposing its defects from the inside. Although even those most sympathetic to Dostoyevsky might wonder whether Alyosha Karamazov, wonderful as he is, quite refutes his brother Ivan. But the point is sound: Dostoyevsky has felt the force of atheism but has pushed back in a way that merits the attention of thoughtful readers.

Among whom I hesitate to number myself. As much as I admire Dostoyevsky, and as much as I saw the importance he has to de Lubac’s overall argument in this book, I confess that I found myself skimming through this final section. To really sink one’s teeth into it one would need to have read the novels recently enough to remember many details, and in some cases it has been many years, too long, for me. Regrettably.


In closing, I will make mention of a short section of the book, placed somewhere near the mid-point and called “The Spiritual Battle”, which functions as something like an extended homily. de Lubac steps back from his analysis of atheist humanism to ask an important question: why has this movement arisen in our culture, and in what ways does the Church bear responsibility for its emergence? He concedes that many of the atheist critiques of Christianity — that it is stale and timid, say, or that its adherents lack true commitment to their professed ideals — have much truth in them that ought to be of grave concern to Christians. He sees, for instance, that even Nietzsche’s scorn for Christianity had something noble in it that we could profitably emulate. In a noteworthy passage he writes:

“Nietzsche’s feelings with regard to Jesus always remained mixed, and so did his judgments on Christianity. There are times when he sees in it not so much a false ideal as one that is worn out. “It is our stricter and more finely tempered piety”, he says, “that stops us from still being Christians today.” Thus his animosity is against the Christians of our day, against us. The lash of his scorn is for our mediocrities and our hypocrisies. It searches out our weakness, adorn with fine names. In reminding us of the robust and joyous austerity of “primitive Christianity” he calls shame on our “present-day Christianity”, as “mawkish and nebulous”. Can it be contended that he is quite wrong? Should “everything that now goes by the name of Christian” be defended against him? When he says of us, for instance: “If they want me to believe in their Savior, they’ll have to sing me better hymns! His followers will have to look more like men who have been saved!”—are we entitled to be indignant? To how many of us does Christianity really seem “something big, something with joy and enthusiasm”? Do the unbelievers who jostle us at every turn observe on our brows the radiance of that gladness which, twenty centuries ago, captivated the fine flower of the pagan world? Are our hearts the hearts of men risen with Christ? Do we, in our time, bear witness to the Beatitudes? In a word, while we are full alive to the blasphemy in Nietzsche’s terrible phrase and in its whole context, are we not also forced to see in ourselves something of what drove him to such blasphemy?”

He goes on to argue that the recovery of “the radiance of that gladness” must be the keen desire of modern Christians who hope for the Gospel to attract modern souls. We need, he says, a new infusion of joy and seriousness in our religion, and we must find the resources for this renewal by delving deeper into our own tradition, not by casting about outside it: “…it is not a case of adapting it to the fashion of the day. It must come into its own again in our souls. We must give our souls back to it.” It is only if we exemplify “gentleness and goodness, considerateness toward the lowly, pity for those who suffer, rejection of perverse methods, protection for the oppressed, unostentatious self-sacrifice, resistance to lies, the courage to call evil by its proper name, love of justice, the spirit of peace and concord, open-heartedness, [and] mindfulness of heaven” that Christianity will be an effective leaven in society, for

“it will never have any real existence or make any real conquests, except by the strength of its own spirit, by the strength of charity.”

And this seems a good thought on which to draw these notes to a close.

Kierkegaard: Either/Or II

May 13, 2013

My dear friend,

In Part I we looked at the many and varied writings of A, a young man of talent and sensitivity who is, it seems to me, nevertheless lost in life. He has no direction; indeed he lives in such a way that he cannot generate any momentum, for he lives in possibility and will not choose anything decisively. He is afflicted by a self-regard that prevents him from making true and forthright contact with others. And he is unhappy.

We do not know A’s name, but we now turn to the writings of one who does. The author of the letters which comprise most of Part II, known only as B, is a family friend of A. He is an older man, of an analytical bent, and though he lacks the literary flair of A his letters demonstrate that he is a man of generous understanding and personal depth. He has himself read at least some of the contents of Part I, and he is concerned for A’s spiritual well-being. He identifies A’s whole way of living as aesthetic, and against the aesthetic he offers and defends the ethical. His purpose is to convince A to abandon his current way of life in favour of a higher. His approach is twofold: he tries to show A what is bad in the aesthetic way of life, and he tries to show A that what is good in the aesthetic way of life is also found, in a higher way, in the ethical way of life. He tries this second method first.

Part II – The Papers of B

The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage

Is marriage opposed to romance? Is dutiful love true love? B does not waste any time quarreling about minor matters. If we are to be confronted with a choice between the aesthetic and the ethical, we will do so on the highest ground: love. It is first love, romantic love that rejoices the heart of the aesthete: romance is feeling, possibility, vitality. The ethical, on the other hand, is embodied in the institution of marriage with its demands of fidelity and responsibility. Which is higher?

B’s central thesis is this: the ethical both comprehends and enriches the aesthetic. Married love is not inferior to the first blush of love, it is superior. What, after all, are the qualities and characteristics of romantic love? Lovers declare their love to be eternal, but only in marriage, “filled with an energetic and vital assurance”, is the endurance of love firmly promised and lived. Lovers will call on the moon and the stars to be witnesses of their love, but marriage is more ambitious: marriage reaches above and beyond the heavens and calls on God, the Highest, to bear witness. The love of romance is exclusive, and lovers declare that they shall never love another; marriage underwrites and supports that resolution. In each case the natural tendency of romantic love is matched or overmatched by the marriage vow.

If A’s idea of love is opposed to marriage — remember that he called marriage “unmusical” in contrast to Don Giovanni’s “inherently musical” sensuality — what should we think? B declares that A’s love is a weak, diseased thing of which he should be ashamed. What is this love, this sickly victor that is vanquished by a vow? If the love of lovers were truly triumphant then duty could not defeat it.

Once you have got hold of the despairing notion that duty is the enemy of love, then your defeat is assured and you have disparaged love and divested it of its majesty, just as you have done with duty, and yet that was the last thing you wanted…

In B’s eyes the conflict A posits between love and duty is entirely false. Marriage preserves the good qualities of first love and purges what is corrupting and inconstant. The duty to which marriage commits one is not a low thing, not degrading or petty. On the contrary, it elevates and sustains the heart’s ambitions.

Duty here is just one thing, truly to love, with the sincerity of the heart, and duty is as protean as love itself, declaring everything holy and good when it is of love, and denouncing everything, however pleasing or specious, when it is not of love.

And it is really true, C, when you stand back and consider the matter. All that B says about marriage is quite solid and incontestable. For most of us, the marriage vow is a lifting of our eyes unto the hills. It is better than we are, and we are better with it.

Moreover, the heroic task which marriage sets before the couple, to love one another from their hearts, makes them strong in the virtues, the fruit of which is happiness. Marriage, we must remember, is not only a collaboration. It is also a serious personal challenge for each person, and reaps personal as well as collective rewards.

[Married love] is faithful, constant, humble, patient, forbearing, indulgent, sincere, contented, observant, persistent, willing, joyful. All these virtues have the property of being inward specifications of the individual. The individual does not fight external enemies; it is with itself and its love that it fights it out, of its own accord. And they have a temporal qualification, for their truth consists not in applying once and for all, but all the time. And nothing else is acquired by means of these virtues, just the self. Married love is, therefore, at one and the same time…the everyday and also the divine (in the Greek sense), and it is the divine through being the everyday. Married love does not come with an external mark, not like the rich bird with a rush and a roar, it is the incorruptible being of a quiet spirit.

These, I believe, are among the most beautiful and thoughtful words I have yet heard spoken about marriage. Do they seem so to you as well, C?

Marriage enjoins, then, what true love desires; the ethical sustains and completes the aesthetic. This is the argument of B’s first letter. Let’s turn now to consider the second letter, which is the longer.

Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical in the Development of Personality

Either/Or. These words have always made a strong impression on me and they still do, especially when I mention them by themselves in this way and out of context; the most frightful conflicts can now be set in motion. Their effect on me is that of an incantation… For although there is only one situation where the phrase has absolute meaning, namely where it points on the one hand to truth, righteousness, and holiness, and on the other to desire and susceptibility, and to dim passions and perdition, it is important to choose rightly even when the choice in itself is harmless; to test oneself so as never to have to begin a retreat to the point one started out from…

This opening gesture sets the stage for what follows: an ambitious attempt to explore, from the inside, the nature of the aesthetic and ethical ways of being, and of the transition, natural and necessary for any healthy soul, from the former to the latter.

We begin from the observation that we, as temporal, personal creatures possessing a measure of freedom, are obliged to choose, to make decisions that shape our lives. We are beings for whom choice is unavoidable if we are to retain the dignity of our nature. This obligation falls to us because if we fail to make such choices, they are made for us and we lose ourselves as a result. The crucial moment arises, and if we hesitate or refrain from decision it no longer lies in our power to direct our own path. Our dignity as free persons is damaged.

Entry into the ethical occurs precisely when this obligation is acknowledged and accepted. To live with the self-understanding that one is a responsible agent is to live the ethical. Paradoxically, perhaps, we must choose the ethical. This choice is not, in the mind of the chooser at any rate, a choice between the good of the ethical on the one hand and the evil of the aesthetic on the other. Rather it is the choice between good and evil on the one hand, and their exclusion on the other; it is the choice to live in contact with and in obedience to the realities of good and evil, something which is foreign to the aesthetic way of life (as we saw in the essay on Don Giovanni in Part I, for instance). “The aesthetic is not evil but indifference.”

You might wonder how entry into the ethical can be motivated as a good if the choice in favour of the ethical is prior to acknowledgement of the categories of good and evil. Can we, on these terms, even maintain that the ethical is better than the aesthetic? Objectively, of course, we can, but subjectively, in the mind of the chooser, we cannot. Or so it seems to me. But this is not the last word, for B argues that an aesthete will nevertheless be naturally led to confront the decision. He will experience the tension between the aesthetic and the ethical, not morally, but in the only way open to him: aesthetically. This is so because even the aesthete cannot destroy his nature as a soul endowed with genuine freedom:

There comes a moment in a man’s life when immediacy is as though ripened and when the spirit demands a higher form in which it will apprehend itself as spirit. …If this does not happen and the movement halts and is pressed back, melancholy sets in… If you ask a melancholic what reason he has for his condition, what it is that weighs down on him, he will reply, “I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it.” Therein lies melancholy’s infinitude. The reply is perfectly correct, for as soon as he knows what it is, the effect is removed, whereas the grief of the griever is by no means removed by his knowing why he grieves. But melancholy is sin, really it is a sin as great as any, for it is the sin of not willing deeply and sincerely, and this is the mother to all sins.

Thus melancholy is the spur; it is the self-devouring state in which no one can rest peacefully. When the obligations of choice are evaded, melancholy sets in, and the only escape is to graduate to the ethical life.

The ethical is therefore the telos of every free, rational person. What are the primary inner qualities of this way of life? It is, first, a life in which the categories of good and evil are honoured, as we have said. It is also fundamentally a life of development:

The aesthetic factor in a person is that by which he is immediately what he is; the ethical factor is that by which he becomes what he becomes.

The ethical is conditioned by choice; it is a life of change, of growth, of becoming. In this choosing the soul manifests its personal nature, for the choices are formed by and in turn form the personality of the chooser. In choosing, one chooses oneself, not in a selfish way, but in a concrete way. One gives oneself shape. The responsibility to choose well is thus a solemn one, and the heart may quiver in the face of it. Who has not experienced that solemnity, that holy dread, when one stands perched on the edge of a life-changing choice, when one confronts one’s freedom directly and cannot deny it, when all the threads of life must be gathered up for the decisive, monumental step? Are you not aware in that moment that you are engaged in spiritual labour, and that you will not be on the far side as you are on the near? B captures that sense of being poised on a precipice vividly:

What a person gives birth to in a spiritual sense is a creative urge of the will, and that is in man’s own power. What then is it you are afraid of? You are not going to give birth to another human being, you will only give birth to yourself. And yet, as I know well, there is a gravity in this which perturbs the whole soul; to be conscious of oneself in one’s eternal validity is a moment more significant than everything in the world. It is as though you were caught and trapped and now could never again escape, either in time or eternity; it is as though you lost yourself, as though you ceased to be; it is as though the next moment you would rue it and yet it cannot be undone. It is a grave and significant moment when one binds oneself for an eternity to an eternal power, when one receives oneself as the one whose memory no time shall efface, when in an eternal and unfailing sense one becomes aware of oneself as the person one is. And yet, one can still let it be! Look: here, then, is an either/or.

The remedy, then, prescribed for A’s melancholy is that he must undertake to live this drama in his own life. He must choose to live his own life in all of its concrete specificity. He must take responsibility for himself, choosing from the inside, not the outside. The task is “to clothe oneself with oneself”. And the first fruit of this entry into the ethical, says B, is repentance. “Choosing oneself is identical with repenting oneself.” In choosing you receive yourself, and part of this reception is a reception of one’s history, constituted by acts which may be judged as good or evil. This is the first step.

What follows is a portrait of the ethical life, highlighted from a variety of angles. One living ethically, for instance, retains and cultivates a memory of his life; the aesthete, by contrast, who thirsts for novel experiences, benefits by forgetting. To choose oneself ethically means not to choose abstractedly or in isolation, but to live soberly, honestly, with both feet on the ground, with acceptance of one’s situation, limitations, and human relationships.

This emphasis on rejecting artificiality leads B into a long digression against monastic vocations, which he considers fundamentally unreal, primarily on the grounds that the solitary life is an offence against God-given human relationships. B holds that every man has a duty to marry. Those who choose to live an uncommon vocation reject this duty, they “repent themselves out of themselves, rather than into themselves”. This is all pretty tendentious, I’m sure you will agree, but it is interesting to recall that Kierkegaard himself never married, and in fact wrote this book in the wake of his broken engagement. I am not sure how many layers of the authorial onion I can licitly peel back, but I am tempted to read this passage as a record of Kierkegaard’s internal battle with himself over his vocation. Step lightly, I know…

Because of his orientation toward becoming, the ethical person is not paralyzed by possibility. This, recall, was the curse of the aesthete: that he needed to float on a sea of possibilities if he was to conquer boredom. In the ethical one sees tasks — tasks of inward growth and development — instead of possibilities, and this awareness of tasks keeps an ethical person from being overwhelmed by circumstances or externals.

The person who lives aesthetically expects everything from outside, hence the sickly anxiety with which many speak of the dreadful circumstance of not having found one’s place in the world. Who would deny the satisfaction of being fortunate in this respect? But such an anxiety is always an indication that the individual expects everything from the place and nothing from himself. The person who lives ethically will try to choose his place rightly, but if he notices that he has chosen wrongly, or that obstacles arise over which he has no control, he does not lose courage for he never surrenders his sovereignty over himself. He at once sees his task and is therefore instantly active.

Finally the letter turns to a critique of certain aspects of A’s way of life. Remember that in Part I A had claimed that duty, because it was principled, constraining, and “unmusical”, was fundamentally opposed to love, which was spontaneous and full of possibility. B believes that love and duty are fundamentally harmonious, and identifies A’s central error as his supposing that “the individual is placed in an external relation to duty”. A sees duty as something imposed on him and on love from the outside. But this, says B, is false, and for the reasons stated in B’s first letter: the natural tendency of love is only augmented, sustained, and encouraged by the responsibilities of marriage. The duty of love respects the nature of love, and in fact makes it healthier than it would otherwise be. At bottom, one who honours the duty of love has seen that the aesthete’s view of love is low and insulting:

He has perceived that it was an insult and therefore ungracious to want to love with one part of the soul but not with all of it, to treat one’s own love as one element and yet take the whole of another’s love, to want to be something of a riddle and a secret. He has perceived that it would be unseemly if he had a hundred arms so that he could simultaneously embrace many; he has but one embrace and wants to embrace only one. He has perceived that it was an insult to want to attach himself to another person in the way one attaches oneself to finite and accidental things, conditionally, so that if difficulties later arose one could make a change.

The aesthete is unable to experience beauty in all of its richness. This is ironic, of course, for beauty is the principal object of the aesthete’s desire, and one would expect him to excel in its appreciation. Not so. The aesthete approaches life with a view to feeding on the beauty, using the beauty to please himself, and when the beauty passes or is no longer new, it dies for him. But the ethical person does not need beauty. As such, he can appreciate it with a calm mind wherever he finds it, accepting it for what it is, not needing to constantly refer it to his own needs:

If occasionally I have an hour free I stand at my window and look at people, and I have a regard for the beauty of each one. However insignificant and humble he may be I see him with a view to his beauty… The beauty I see is joyful and triumphant, and stronger than all the world. And this beauty I see everywhere, even where your eye sees nothing.

That is quite beautiful.

In friendship, too, the aesthete fails. We saw that A expressly forbade the cultivation of genuine friendships on the grounds that they result in obligations, which in turn hobble the capacity for “crop rotation”. Therefore the aesthete hides from friendship. The ethical person, on the other hand, has committed himself to becoming a specific, concrete person. He has no need to hide himself from others, and embraces friendship. This coming-to-be-known by others is an intrinsic part of the ethical life, and is in fact a duty of life:

‘It is every man’s duty to become revealed.’ The Scriptures teach that ‘it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement’ when everything shall be revealed. Ethics says it is the meaning of life and reality that man be revealed. So if he is not, the revelation will take the form of punishment.

Praising the strengths of the ethical life, B concludes:

[The ethical] affords to life peace, assurance and security, for it is constantly crying out to us: quod petis, hic est [What you are seeking is here.]. It saves one from all infatuations that would exhaust the soul and it brings to it health and strength. It teaches us not to overvalue the fortuitous or to idolize good fortune. It teaches one to be happy in good fortune… It teaches one to be happy in misfortune.

Thus his long essay on the virtues of the ethical life draws to a close. Believe it or not, I have excluded some noteworthy material! I have not mentioned, for instance, B’s passionate and thoroughly politically incorrect attack on feminism, which makes for bracing reading and it not without merit. But all good things must come to an end, my friend, and this letter is no exception.

But we are not quite at the end after all.

The Edifying In The Thought That Against God We Are Always In The Wrong

No, we are not quite at the end, for Kierkegaard, or Eremita, or B, has seen fit to round off the book with an enigmatic essay on a religious theme. B claims in his notes that the sermon — it is really a sermon — was written by a friend of his, and he notes that he thought it especially fitting that A read it. The style here is that of Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, and I think we must interpret it as a last-minute intervention from the religious sphere — Kierkegaard’s highest, but thus far silent, sphere of life.

The enigma of the piece is not so much in its content, but in its relation to the rest of the book. The sermon argues that when we love, we would rather accuse ourselves of wrongdoing than accuse our beloved, and that this same dynamic applies to our love of God. It is edifying, therefore, to think that when we are against God we are always in the wrong. What has this to do with the foregoing? I am remembering that entry into the ethical bears the fruit of repentance, and I see that if we are edified at the thought that “we are always in the wrong” then we must acknowledge the categories of right and wrong, which was a condition of the ethical. In this sense, the sermon asserts that it is edifying to live in the ethical — at least. But it seems a roundabout way of making the point, less forceful than what preceded it, and I suspect that I am missing something. Can you do better?


What shall I say in closing? This is a large, ambitious work that resists neat summary. It is a beautiful work, a masterpiece.

How should we receive it? It has to be kept in mind that this book is the opening move in Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. Reading your notes on his later, retrospective Point of View I am reminded of his tactic: to disguise himself, suppressing his true purpose, in order to lead his readers out from the wilderness in which they wander. It is a strategy that risks misunderstanding and failure, as Kierkegaard knew, for later in life he said, “I held out Either/Or to the world in my left hand… but all, or as good as all, grasped with their right what I held in my left.” We must not make the same mistake.

Clearly the book is an exploration of these two ways of being in the world: the aesthetic and the ethical. It is not a book from which one can extract a pithy lesson or an abstraction. As a faithful reader of Kierkegaard I will instead let the author speak to me, man to man, and where he speaks words that reveal or convict I must not dissemble within myself, for he condemns only in order to reform, and stings only to mend. If I have recognized myself in aspects of his portrait of the aesthete then that insight may not be simply dismissed. If it is a truth that touches me, then it edifies. Let it become a matter for reflection and prayer.

Perhaps my voice is not strong and warm enough to penetrate to your inmost thought; ah! but ask yourself, ask yourself with the solemn uncertainty with which you would address a person you knew was capable of deciding your life’s happiness with a single word, ask yourself even more seriously, for in truth it is a question of salvation. Stay not the flight of your soul, do not sadden what is your better part, do not enervate your soul with half wishes and half thoughts. Ask yourself, and keep on asking until you find the answer, for one can recognize a thing many times and acknowledge it, one can want a thing many times and attempt it, yet only the deep inner movement, only the indescribable motions of the heart, only these convince you that what you have recognized ‘belongs to you’, that no power can take it from you; for only the truth that edifies is the truth for you.

My friend, until now my reading of Kierkegaard has focused on his later works, so it was a pleasure to turn to his early writings. For the opportunity your request gave me, I thank you. I have been reminded once again why I admire Kierkegaard as I do, for here I have met the same passionate voice, penetrating insight, and, in an uncanny way, personal contact that I have valued before. If reading this overview has failed to convey that experience to you, it is entirely the fault of

Your friend.

Kierkegaard: Either/Or I

May 10, 2013

My dear friend,

I hardly know where to begin! Like Victor Eremita, to whom sly old Kierkegaard has shifted responsibility for this clamouring collage of addresses and aphorisms, I am tempted to keep my distance: just set the things in some sort of order and let them be, a beautiful mess. But conscious that I am reading the book in your stead, and wanting to report back in more than superficial detail, I’ve decided to wade as deeply into the swirling waters as my own modest ability permits. I hope that you will find the result satisfactory.

Like an actor in some one-man theatre show, Kierkegaard in this book assumes a cast of different personae. Like a Russian doll, the pseudonymous identities are packed one inside another. Eremita, in his playful way, would have us believe that he came in possession of these writings quite by accident. He sets the stage with a tale of an impulsive purchase of a writing desk and the chance discovery therein of a secret drawer containing sheaves of writings, writings which, upon inspection, fall roughly into two parts. The first are the papers of a young man whom Eremita dubs simply A. They are ironic and restless, now lyrical and now despairing. The second set, the work of an older man, a friend of A’s whom Eremita calls B, follows. He is mildly pedantic, but patient and obviously concerned with A’s spiritual welfare, for in his plodding way he submits A’s writings to an ambitious critique. Both A and B have supplemented their own writings with others, chosen, one suspects, as illustrations and elaborations of their own thoughts. I see no way forward but to examine each section as it arises.

Part I – The Papers of A

The papers of A are comprised of two essays, three addresses, and a collection of aphorisms, supplemented by a series of journal entries which A says he copied down from somewhere else.


These ‘musical interludes’ look like occasional writings: aphorisms, parables, and reflections thrown together in no discernible order. They reveal the unhappy mind of an aesthete, a man who has lost interest in life and doesn’t know how to move forward. “I feel,” he says, “as a chessman must when the opponent says of it: that piece cannot be moved.” Resigned and melancholic, he looks on the world with an ironic eye. Its activity and concerns do not concern him, and are in fact beneath him, for he has seen through them:

Of all ridiculous things in the world what strikes me as the most ridiculous of all is being busy in the world, to be a man quick to his meals and quick to his work. So when, at the crucial moment, I see a fly settle on such a businessman’s nose, or he is bespattered by a carriage which passes him by in even greater haste, or the drawbridge is raised, or a tile falls from the roof and strikes him dead, I laugh from the bottom of my heart. And who could help laughing? For what do they achieve, these busy botchers? Are they not like the housewife who, in confusion at the fire in her house, saved the fire-tongs? What else do they salvage from the great fire of life?

Even as he holds himself superior to the bespattered businessman and his kind, he has no wish to share his resigned wisdom with the riff-raff of the world, for who would understand him? This sense of futility he captures with a finely wrought parable that draws again on the imagery of fire:

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who think it’s a joke.

And though A is a young man of considerable intellectual gifts, even the intellectual life he judges to be a realm of false promises where the distinction between earnest inquiry and dry joke has been blurred:

What philosophers say about reality is often as deceptive as when you see a sign in a second-hand store that reads: Pressing Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed, you would be fooled; the sign is for sale.

But perhaps A’s attitude, with its lack of both conviction and hope, is best captured here:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.

Keep this in mind, my friend, for here the book’s crucial dichotomy, which Kierkegaard, behind the scenes, is constantly labouring to place before our eyes — namely, that of the choice, the either/or — rises into view. Is it true that our choices, however important we may think them, are ultimately personally irrelevant? Are we fated? A thinks so, and holds it as dearly bought wisdom.

The Immediate Erotic Stages, or The Musical Erotic

I know, my dear C, that you are a music lover. This next section therefore, an animated and passionate essay on music and its relationship to sensuality and desire, and more particularly a celebration of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, will be of special interest to you.

What does A mean when he speaks of the spirit of sensuality in the abstract? How shall we recognize it when we encounter it? Sensuality, says A, is possessed of an intense inwardness; it is not mere lechery, then, that he is considering. On one hand it is a quest for immediacy, for experience without the mediation of reflection or self-consciousness; it is experience pure and simple, here and now. On the other hand it is relentlessly successive; it does not rest in any one object, but moves always from one experience to another, one object to the next. As such it is closely related to the art of music, which is also inward, immediate, and successive. Indeed, of all the arts it is really only music that can truly express the spirit of sensuality.

A takes Mozart’s operas as illustrations of stages in the awakening of the true erotic spirit. The first and lowest level is represented by the page in Le Nozze di Figaro. In this stage desire is stirred but not fully awake; it is a dreaming sensuality manifest as yearning and melancholy. It yearns because it is desire; it is melancholy because it has not risen to the level of fixing its desire on any particular object. “Desire is lost in the present in a quiet longing, engrossed in contemplation, and yet it cannot evacuate its object, essentially because in a deeper sense no object exists.” In the second stage, for which A turns to Die Zauberflöte and chooses Pagageno as exemplar, desire awakes to a particular object, and seeks it. Yet according to A Papageno’s quest is badly marred in one respect: its goal is marriage. Marriage is ethical love, which A considers “absolutely unmusical”. Here we touch on an important theme which dominates the entire second half of the book: the nature of marriage and its relationship to love and duty. It is enough for now to note that A regards marriage as the enemy of true love, just as ethics is the enemy of pure aestheticism.

It is the musical figure of Don Giovanni who portrays the sensual spirit to an unsurpassable degree. Don Giovanni is the very personification of desire, “flesh incarnate”.

One can indeed imagine many more musical classics, yet there still remains just one work of which it can be said that its idea is absolutely musical, so that the music does not enter as an accompaniment but, in bringing the idea to light, reveals its own innermost being. Therefore Mozart with his Don Giovanni stands highest among the immortals.

The Don is a force of nature; an endless fount of gaiety and desire, a tireless seducer. “When he is interpreted in music…I have the power of nature, the demonic, which as little tires of seducing, or is done with seducing, as the wind is tired of raging, the sea of surging, or a waterfall of cascading down from its height.” He is not bothered by ethical reflection on his actions, past or future. His experience is entirely immediate, a state which only music can capture. The Don is, in A’s judgement, “inherently musical”. He must speak in music, for no other means of expression could truly portray his spirit; were he to speak without music, he would be subject to the reflection of language and therefore decline from his unselfconscious immediacy.

What do you think of A’s interpretation of the opera? He certainly has some interesting things to say. His comment, for instance, that “the very secret of this opera is that its hero is also the force animating the other characters” seems to me worthy of consideration. Yet I retain some doubts about the central thrust of his essay. He has illuminated the character of the Don in a wonderful way, but has he really understood the opera? I am thinking in particular of the Commandatore character, who seems not to fit A’s view of the opera, and who indeed directly contradicts it. The Commandatore, after all, is the ethical, and he triumphs over Don Giovanni in the end. Even the aesthete, even desire, must face judgement. A makes just one comment about the Commandatore, that he is “unmusical” and therefore restricted to the periphery. But the Commandatore commands the stage at the opera’s end — if it is a periphery it is a strange periphery indeed.

How does this essay contribute to the book as a whole? It is an exaltation of immediacy and desire, divorced from ethical considerations. It anticipates, it seems to me, Nietzche’s eagle, the violence of which is not subject to censure because it is merely an expression of its nature, unreflective, almost unconscious and impersonal. Desire is the Don’s nature, and A sees it likewise as beyond ethical evaluation. In A’s mind ethics destroys the beauty and spontaneity of life.

Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern
The Unhappiest One

Oh, dear. In these three short orations delivered before the Symparanekromenoi — the “fellowship of the dead” — the morose savouring of the finer points of sorrow that was hinted at in the Diapsalmata returns, this time augmented and expanded. We are in a candle-lit world soaked in the dark tones of nineteenth century romanticism. “I toast you, dark night, I toast you as victor, and this is my solace, for you make everything shorter, the day, time, life, and memory’s tribulation, in eternal oblivion!” Themes of tragedy, sorrow, and death, respectively, are offered for our contemplation. We are treated to morbid reflections that seem to relish decay and death as bearers of glad tidings: “Happy the one who died in his old age, happier the one who died at birth, happiest of all the one who was never born.” The orations are animated by that peculiarly self-indulgent unhappiness that one suspects is not quite in earnest: “…What is life but madness, and faith but folly, and hope but reprieve, and love but salt in the wound?” It’s all so deliciously gloomy.

The import of these three sections, it seems to me, is that they further illuminate aspects of the aesthetic sphere of life. In A’s world beauty has little to do with goodness. Our author is able to find beauty in sorrow and death, and transmute it into art. It is a sickly kind of appreciation that these addresses evoke, but it would be futile to deny that the appreciation is real. For the Symparanekromenoi suffering is art, and their dedication to art manifests as an embrace of suffering.

We, too, form an order; we, too, sally forth now and then into the world like knights errant, each along his own path, although not to fight monsters or to come to the aid of innocence or be tried in adventures of love. None of that occupies us, not even the latter, for the arrow of a woman’s glance cannot hurt our hardened breast, and it is not the merry smile of happy maidens that moves us, but the secret beckoning of sorrow. Let others be proud that no girl near or far can withstand the power of their love, we do not envy them; we would be proud if no secret sorrow escaped their attention, no private sorrow were too coy and too proud for us to succeed in probing triumphantly into its innermost hiding places!

They are minor pieces, then, in the overall architecture of the book, but not insignificant.

[Joy and sorrow]
…joy is far easier to represent in art than sorrow… It is of the essence of joy to reveal itself, but sorrow wants to hide, yes, even sometimes to deceive. Joy is communicative, sociable, open-hearted, and wants to express itself; sorrow is reserved, silent, solitary, and seeks to retire into itself.

[A parable]
If someone possessed a letter which he knew or believed contained information concerning what he had to consider his life’s blessedness, but the written characters were thin and faded, and the handwriting almost illegible, he would read it and reread it, with anxiety and disquiet certainly, but with passion. At one moment he would get one meaning out of it, the next another. When he was quite sure he had managed to read a word, he would interpret everything in the light of that word. But he would never pass beyond the same uncertainty with which he began. He would stare, more and more anxiously, but the more he stared the less he saw; sometimes his eyes filled with tears, but the more that happened, again the less he saw. In due course the writing became weaker and less distinct; finally the paper itself crumbled away and he had nothing left but eyes blinded with tears.

Crop Rotation: An Attempt at a Theory of Social Prudence

People of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle. I grant them that and start with the principle that all men are boring. Or will someone be boring enough to contradict me in this?

Such is the elegant beginning of this short but, so it seems to me, critical essay in which A describes a method he calls “crop rotation”. Crop rotation is a discipline by which an aesthete may govern his inner life with the aim of enhancing the aesthetic quality of his experiences. The ideal for an aesthete is to live immediately and unreflectively, as we saw in the essay on Don Giovanni. A’s problem is that he is naturally reflective and is unable to attain the ideal of immediacy. In consequence he must contend against the great foe of the aesthete — boredom. Evasion of boredom requires constant change, an infinite variety of new experiences which ordinary life is unable to provide. Crop rotation is a method for defeating boredom even in the ordinary circumstances of life.

Constant change, says A, may be achieved in two ways. The first is by varying the external circumstances of one’s life: different places, different people, different things. This method may be pursued for a time, but eventually exhausts itself:

One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one travels abroad; one is europamude, one goes to America, and so on; finally, one indulges in a dream of endless travel from star to star. Or the movement is different but still an extension. One is tired of dining off porcelain, one dines off silver; one tires of that, one dines off gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration at Troy. This method defeats itself; it is the bad infinite.

The alternative is not to change the external, but to change oneself: to live in the same circumstances, with the same people, but yet to have different experiences. This method requires that one draw on and develop internal resources. The secret is to pay attention to the minor details that change, to focus on the arbitrary or the tangential, or to view a familiar situation from a new and original point of view. It demands creativity, attention, and great command of the inner life to succeed in this discipline, for “it requires deep study to succeed in being arbitrary without losing oneself in it, to derive satisfaction from it for oneself.”

Perhaps this is too abstract. A provides us with a vivid example of the kind of attitude to life that he is advocating:

There was someone whose chatter certain circumstances made it necessary for me to listen to. He was ready at every opportunity with a little philosophical lecture which was utterly boring. Driven almost to despair, I discovered suddenly that he perspired unusually profusely when he spoke. I saw how the pearls of sweat gathered on his brow, then joined in a stream, slid down his nose, and ended hanging in a drop at the extreme tip of it. From that moment everything was changed; I could even take pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction, just to observe the sweat on his brow and on his nose.

From one point of view it is humorous, but from another it is quite sad, for while he is enjoying that sliding bead of perspiration he is certainly not listening attentively to his interlocutor’s words. Indeed, to the extent that he is always hunting for the accidental in order to feed his appetite for novelty he alienates himself, and A is quite explicit about the need for this estrangement. He cautions against friendship, marriage, and vocational commitment on the grounds that all three will try to involve one in obligations, in which the ethical intrudes into the arbitrary play of inner experience. The key is to vary oneself, and this cannot be done if one is tied down by others.

You might be tempted, dear C, to take A’s theory as a misguided but mostly harmless entertainment for an asocial recluse. I believe that A may have thought that himself at the time of composition, yet the next and final section of Part I disturbs that complacent assessment, for it unfolds in detail the harrowing consequences of A’s method.

The Seducer’s Diary

This section was not written by A. He discovered the papers in a drawer of an acquaintance, and copied them out furtively. Our editor Eremita attributes them to “Johannes the Seducer”. The papers consist of a series of diary entries and letters which vividly illustrate A’s method of crop rotation, the pursuit of the “interesting”.

Johannes’ writings recount the stages of his seduction of Cordelia, a young girl of 17 years. It makes for uncomfortable reading, I don’t mind telling you. It is not that Johannes is a lecher, or that his writing is sexually lurid — it isn’t. He seems largely uninterested in physical seduction; his ambitions are spiritual. He does not want Cordelia to give only her body; he wants her soul: her love and admiration. He wants to conjure out of her the passion of young love, though without any intention of truly returning it. He wants to have her in his power, and with masterful subtlety he manipulates her feelings until she renders herself up. It is spiritual molestation.

The specific details of how he achieves his end — and he does achieve it — are not edifying and I will not dwell on them. Johannes is an aesthete, indeed a virtuoso of the aesthetic life. Like A, he cannot escape being reflective and so cannot be Don Giovanni. Instead, he deploys a carefully calibrated strategy in which he manoeuvres his young prey, setting traps for her, springing surprises.

I tense the bow of love to wound the deeper. Like an archer, I slacken the bowstring, tighten it again, listen to its song — it is my martial music — but I do not take aim with it yet, do not even lay the arrow on the string.

Throughout, his interest is in coaxing out of her the desired response. When he succeeds he is elated, like a young man in love. But he is not in love. He remains always both in and yet above the situation, he is “not only the one baptized but also the priest”. Ultimately, Cordelia herself does not matter to him. Only he matters, and when once he is satisfied, she is dropped.

Thus Part I comes to an end. I hope, dear C, that my summary has been helpful to you. You said that you had no time to read the book yourself; you may complain that this précis is so long it defeats your purpose in soliciting my help — I apologize! I have gone on at some length, yet I have missed so much. I am no philosopher, as you know, and my psychological acuity pales beside Kierkegaard’s own, so I fear that I have not done him justice. But I do hope I have captured at least the main points. Casting a quick eye back over the ground we have covered, we see Kierkegaard — or his various characters, if you wish — exploring from many angles the aesthetic stage of life, the aesthetic way of being. It thrives on feeling and spontaneity. It can evoke melancholy, but gaiety as well. In its lower forms it may produce mere hedonism, but for those with the ability it can be developed into a highly reflective, disciplined art of appreciation. A mature aesthete may be a connoisseur of suffering, but he is a connoisseur. Above all, the aesthete despises duty, commitment, and anything that would make him something concrete, or fetter his scope for self-variation. I must admit that this sphere of life has its attractions, though I am not prepared to admit that it attracts my better nature.

In Part II, which I will defer to a later letter, we turn to the papers of B, an advocate for the ethical mode of being. His conscious task is to subject A’s writings to sustained critique. Until then, be assured of the best wishes of

Your friend.

Once at a time

February 19, 2013

Work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling.
— Epistle to the Philippians —

In the context of a discussion of Kierkegaard, Etienne Gilson touches on a matter fit for Lenten reflection:

Christianity’s own goal and solemn promise is to give each man eternal beatitude. It is both that promise and the way to fulfill it. Such a promise is for man of a literally “infinite” interest, and the only way for him to welcome it is to experience an “infinite passion” for it. In terms of the religious life, this means that the only answer a man can give to God’s message is a passionate will to achieve his own salvation, that is, to achieve his own infinite beatitude. A half-hearted effort to such an end would be quite out of proportion with it; it would not at all be a will to that end; it would not be that will at all.

On the other hand, if such a will actually arises in any man, it has to be the will to his own salvation, because what God has promised is actually to save him. Whether or not he was aware of the fact, Kierkegaard himself was merely repeating Bernard of Clairvaux, when he said: “This problem concerns no one but me.” And such indeed is the case, if the problem actually is to know how I myself can share in that beatitude which Christianity promises.

True enough, the same problem arises for each and every man, so that for an infinite number of men its solution, which is Christianity itself, is bound to be the same, but this does not mean that there is a general solution to the problem. Quite the reverse. Out of its own nature, this is such a problem as requires to be solved, an infinite number of times, once at a time; to solve it differently is not to solve it at all.

Being and Some Philosophers

Kierkegaard: The Point of View

March 30, 2012

The Point of View for my Work as an Author
Søren Kierkegaard (1848)
170 p.

These notes originally written 28 January 2006.

In some respects Kierkegaard’s authorship presents a bewilderment. The proliferation of outlandish pseudonyms — Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Hilarious Bookbinder, Anti-Climacus — is bound to leave a newcomer scratching his head. And there is this: although Kierkegaard is commonly regarded as a philosopher, his works bear little resemblance to traditional philosophical texts. Indeed, he commonly avers that he himself has nothing to teach, no doctrine to expound, no syllogism to unfold. What then is he up to? A good friend, who went to the trouble of writing a doctoral dissertation on Kierkegaard, once remarked to me that he thought that, rather than calling him a philosopher, we ought to call him an evangelical psychologist. This is exactly right.

Yet the reason for the insistance with which he obscured his authorship remains something of a mystery. His pseudonyms were pretty unconvincing, so why bother with them? I had assumed that, as he did not wish to teach an original doctrine, he did not wish to be regarded as an authority, and so refused to put his name to his work. This may be partly true, but it is weakened by the observation that in many cases he did put his name to his work, and not just in one period, but intermittently throughout the course of his life.

In The Point of View for my Work as an Author, which appeared rather late in his authorship, many of these questions are addressed and answered. Kierkegaard let the masks drop, not just to speak with his own voice, but also to explain why he was wearing the masks in the first place. In this way he illuminated his entire body of work in a particularly direct way, and the book serves as an excellent introduction to his writing, his methods, and his central concerns.

Early in the book he gives a summary of his position:

The contents of this little book affirm, then, what I truly am as an author, that I am and was a religious author, that the whole of my work as an author is related to Christianity, to the problem ‘of becoming a Christian’, with a direct or indirect polemic against the monstrous illusion that we call Christendom, or against the illusion that in such a land as ours all are Christians of a sort.

By calling himself a religious author he intends, of course, to contrast himself with an aesthetic author. In his taxonomy, a person living in the aesthetic sphere of life — which by Kierkegaard’s reckoning includes most people — is attuned to the sensual rather than the spiritual, to the temporal rather than the eternal, to a life oriented outward rather than inward, to pleasure rather than duty or love. The great task which he undertook was to seek out those who were capable of greater depth — that is, those who were capable ‘of becoming a Christian’ — and helping them toward greater inwardness. His task, he said, was to make people aware, to wake them up. He knew that people have a tendency to settle into a crowd, to take their bearings from those around them, to abdicate their own responsibility for working out their salvation in fear and trembling. He believed that his responsibility was to be concerned with the inwardness and spiritual awakening of ‘the individual’.

He knew, however, that to simply berate people for their faults and failings was more likely to provoke them to anger than to repentance and new life. And so, he says, he undertook a program of indirect communication, in which he disguised himself as one living an aesthetic life in order to show, from the inside, the deficiencies of that life, and so to compel his readers to seek higher things. He calls this method one of “incognito and deceit” which “does not begin directly with the matter one wants to communicate, but begins by accepting the other man’s illusion as good money”, for “if you can find exactly the place where the other is and begin there, you may perhaps have the luck to lead him to the place where you are.”

This clarifies a few things about his writing. The aesthetic writings, such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Stages on Life’s Way, were pseudonymous precisely because in them he was not speaking with his true voice. He was presenting himself falsely in order to gain a greater victory. He seems troubled that it was necessary to adopt this method, but insists that it was only “truth’s way of deceiving”. He had to speak indirectly if his point was to be heard.

This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy) so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God — that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.

In contrast, the works in which he was speaking candidly, as a religious author, such as in his Edifying Discourses, were published from the beginning under his true name, for in them he writes with no covert design.

After this explanation of how his overall authorship should be understood, he goes to some trouble to relate how his personal life was a reflection of his writing at each stage. Kierkegaard believed that an author was more than his words; the integrity of his words was derived from his life. He relates how, when writing the aesthetic works, he took pains to live as though he were indeed a target for his own designs. You might think this would occasion a little internal confusion (and might wonder why he would commit himself to this virtuosic, perilous, and not obviously necessary challenge) and you would be right to do so; he returns again and again to his need of intense interior focus so that in the thick of his artful deception his overall purpose should not be forgotten.

That he should not forget was critical, and a recurring theme in his writings is that he — and all of us with him — must struggle not to lose consciousness of ourselves and our responsibilities. He could not fall into forgetfulness or complacency because this task of awakening his readers was not something he had chosen to do, but a task that had been laid to his charge by Providence, and he was answerable for the results. The final section of the book discusses this aspect of his work, relating the ways in which he perceived divine guidance in his life and his vocation as a writer.

To anyone who is beginning to read Kierkegaard, I cannot think of a better place to begin than with this little book.

Silence and goodness

March 9, 2012

From the very start, everything that is good in a person is silent, and just as it is essentially God’s nature to live in secret, so also the good in a person lives in secret.  Every resolution that is fundamentally good is silent, because it has God as its confidant and went to him in private; every holy feeling that is fundamentally good is silent and concealed by a modesty that is holier than a woman’s; every pure sympathy for the human that is fundamentally good is silent, because it is hidden in God; every emotion of the heart is silent, since the lips are sealed and only the heart expanded.

— Søren Kierkegaard,
“Against Cowardliness”.

Kierkegaard: Stages on Life’s Way

September 29, 2010

Stages on Life’s Way (1845)
Søren Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1988)
798 p. First reading.

Stages on Life’s Way followed two years after the publication of Either/Or, and it is something of a sequel, reiterating, developing, and extending the first book’s argument. Either/Or had explored Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” and “ethical” spheres of life, touching only briefly at the end on the “religious” sphere. In Stages on Life’s Way the focus shifts: all three spheres are again represented, but the greater part of the work is devoted to consideration of the religious sphere.

Ultimately Kierkegaard is an advocate for the superiority of the religious sphere, but, knowing this, we must be cautious in our interpretation of this book. Stages on Life’s Way belongs to Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. Once again he speaks to the reader through layers of pseudonyms, an indication that he is labouring under a teleological suspension of the ethical, including the ethical obligation to speak the truth. Though the book dwells on the religious sphere, it would be an error to suppose that we should take the pseudonymous authors at their word. With a little help from D. Anthony Storm (and a little help was needed, for this is a ferociously difficult book), I believe that we are to understand the book — and the sections pertaining to the religious sphere in particular — as portraying the religious as it seems to an aesthete. Like all of Kierkegaard’s indirect communication, the point is to illuminate error by illustration.

In these notes, I intend to give little more than an overview of the book’s main sections, of which there are four. Let me begin with a summary of the pseudonymous authors responsible for each. The book as a whole has been edited and published by Hilarius Bookbinder, who reports that the manuscripts here collected were discovered in his bookbinding shop, their origins unknown. Hilarius confesses that he himself understands little of their contents, but has undertaken to publish them on the recommendation of his son’s tutor. A likely story. The first section, “In Vino Veritas”, is written by one William Afham; the second, “Reflections on Marriage”, by Judge William, who was also the author of a large part of Either/Or. The last two sections are both the work of Frater Taciturnus; in the first he himself adopts the voice of a fictional character, and in the second he speaks without disguise.

“In Vino Veritas”, the opening section of the book, is evidently modeled self-consciously on Plato’s Symposium: it describes a gathering of men at which each delivers a speech about erotic love. The list of attendees is illuminating, and also somewhat amusing, for those who have read a little in Kierkegaard’s works: Johannes the Seducer, who wrote “The Seducer’s Diary” in Either/Or, is there, as is Victor Eremita, the erstwhile editor of that earlier volume.  Constantin Constantius, the author of Repetition, is also present. A Young Man — perhaps the same as wrote portions of Either/Or? — and an unnamed Fashion Designer round out the group, not forgetting, of course, the narrator William Afham.

The Young Man speaks first, and he argues that erotic love is irrational and comical — comical, that is, to everyone who observes the lovers. So disgraceful is the spectacle that the Young Man vows never to fall in love himself. Constantin speaks next and contends that erotic love is overrated and not worth the fuss; women, he admits, are attractive when viewed aesthetically, but when viewed ethically they become “a jest”, and it is not fitting that a serious-minded man be subject to eros. Eremita disagrees that women are incidental to the good life; on the contrary, they inspire in men a desire for gallantry, or even for transcendence, they awaken “ideality” in the soul. Yet they are only stepping stones, means but not ends in themselves. Both marriage and seduction, he argues, take women and eros too seriously. The Fashion Designer speaks fourth, arguing that women are themselves essentially aesthetic; they think only under the categories of fashion. One suspects that the claim is in fact an unwitting self-revelation. Finally Johannes speaks; he is dismissive of all that came before. Against Eremita he argues that women are not merely means to an end, but possess their own native telos: to be seduced by men. As an advocate and an experienced practitioner of seduction, Johannes is bound to defend the value of eros, but it is plain enough that he can perceive women only through the lens of his own desires. Each of these viewpoints is defective — there is little wisdom to be gleaned from this symposium — and the trouble, in most cases, is that the speakers can see only the aesthetic elements of eros. They, for the most part, do not see the ethical challenge that erotic love generates, nor, just as importantly, are they willing to engage it.

The nature of that ethical challenge is articulated and developed by Judge William in the second part of the book. His section, “Reflections on Marriage in Answer to Objections”, is a long essay in praise of marriage, which he considers to be the quintissential form of the ethical life, and the principal means by which one comes to personal maturity. The bridge, says the Judge, from the aesthetic to the ethical sphere is resolution. Against Eremita’s thesis in the previous section, the Judge argues that a life lived in relation to ideals, to “ideality”, is not achieved through an aesthetic experience but solely through resolution, and resolution manifests the ethical. It is marriage, with its vows and unswerving commitment, that is the principal expression of resolution in human life, and therefore the principal form under which the ethical life is engaged.

As he did in Either/Or, the Judge argues that the relationship between eros and marriage is that the latter is the fulfillment of the promise of the former:

The husband is the young lover, totally so. His love is unchanged, except that it has something the youth does not have, the holy beauty of the resolution. Is he not just as rich and happy as the young man? Is my wealth less because I possess it in the only adequately secure way; is my claim upon life less because I have it on stamped paper; is my happiness less because God in heaven guarantees it, and not in jest, as Eros would do it, but in earnestness and truth, as truly as the resolution holds him fast!

Eros in itself cannot consitute a marriage, but likewise a marriage without eros falls short of the requirement. Yet it is true that marriage includes various elements, such as duty, that can, especially to one who lives aesthetically, seem foreign and even contrary to eros. Falling in love is immediacy, but marriage partakes of reflection and commitment, which are not immediate but abstract. Somehow marriage must do honour both to the god of eros and to the God who is spirit and before Whom one utters one’s vows. This subsuming of eros into marriage is accomplished through resolution: “Love is the gift of the god, but in the resolution of marriage the lovers make themselves worthy of receiving it.”

The Judge then develops a general account of the characteristics of the kind of resolution that is most powerfully conducive to an individual’s personal growth and maturity, and he then argues that marriage has precisely the required characteristics. This good resolution, he says, must not respect probabilities, for one who looks to probabiltiies is hedging bets, and is unable to make a true resolution. Likewise, resolution cannot look to potential outcomes, as though resolve could be revoked because of an unfavourable outcome. No, one cannot know for certain the consequences, but still one must make the resolution. The ideal resolution is also “just as sympathetic as it is autopathetic”, which is perhaps an odd quality to insist upon in a resolution but is incontestably a requirement for marriage. Resolution should be “just as concrete as it is abstract”, for it should have real and immediate consequences, but remain in relation to an ideal; marriage is both unavoidably concrete and unavoidably abstract. Finally, the good resolution must be “just as dialectical with regard to freedom as it is to the divine dispensation”; I do not know what this means.

The remainder of the book is an examination of the religious sphere. It begins with an “imaginary psychological construction” in the form of a young man’s diary. The young man, a fictional creation of Frater Taciturnus, is in love with, and engaged to, a young woman, but he breaks off the engagement in order to devote himself completely to the religious life — the Kierkegaardian religious life, of course, not the Catholic one. (I am tempted to read into this scenario autobiographical elements, for Kierkegaard himself broke off an engagement in just this sort of way, but I will resist.) Dwelling as it does on the decision between marriage and something else — something higher — it is reasonable, I would think, to see the diary as an exploration of the relationship of the ethical (represented, preeminently, by marriage) and the religious.

Unfortunately Taciturnus has given us an extremely difficult text, and I am not at all sure that I am on the right track with this interpretation. D. Anthony Storm, in his commentary on Stages, suggests that the situation is complicated by the fact that the young man is himself living in the aesthetic, and is therefore unable to really understand either the ethical or the religious. In any case, the diary is hard to understand. Frankly, I have no idea how it bears on the religious, nor even what Kierkegaard means by the religious sphere.

Whether to console or discourage, the fourth and final section of the book, a “Letter to the Reader”, also by Frater Taciturnus, begins by remarking that the preceding section was so difficult that “two-thirds of the book’s readers will quit before they are halfway through”. He then goes on to offer an interpretation of the diary, but his interpretation kicked me while I was down: I did not understand what it was all about, nor why. I understood so little of it that I cannot even summarize it, much less evaluate it. So I failed. I am one of those readers who failed to get to the end, in any meaningful sense.

On that self-mortifying note, I will simply say that Stages is, in my judgement, justly less famous than Either/Or. Granted that I failed to grasp much of what was going on, it seems to me to lack the cunning insight, psychological richness, and simple charm of its predecessor. This is a pity, since the transfer of focus onto the religious sphere would ideally have called forth an even greater, richer performance on Kierkegaard’s part. Perhaps it did, and I am just too much a dullard to see it. This is a real possibility. As it is, it is principally the Judge’s discourse on marriage that I admire. For your edification and mine, I close with two excerpts from the Judge’s essay:

[Freedom and choice]
If that phrase “to choose” is used to mean wanting to set someone up as the beloved, instead of wanting to accept the beloved, then a deluded reflection promptly has something to hold to. The young man then dissolves love into loving the lovable — after all, he must choose. Poor fellow, that is an impossibility; and not only that, who would still dare to choose if it is supposed to be understood in this way; who would dare to be so doting on his own manliness that he would not grasp that he who proposes must first be proposed to by the god himself, and any other proposing is a foolish having it all one’s own way. I decline to choose in this way; instead I thank the god for the gift — he chooses better — and to thank is more blessed.

[Probability and resolution]
There is a phantom that frequently prowls around when the making of a resolution is at stake — it is probability — a spineless fellow, a dabbler, a Jewish peddler, with whom no freeborn soul becomes involved, a good for nothing fellow who ought to be jailed instead of quacks, male and female, since he tricks people out of what is more than money and more valuable than money. Anyone who with regard to resolution comes no further, never comes any further than to decide on the basis of probability, is lost for ideality, whatever he may become. If a person does not encounter God in the resolution, if he has never made a resolution in which he had a transaction with God, he might just as well have never lived. But God always does business en gros, and probability is a security that is not registered in heaven.

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