"Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you have morbidity."--G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy, Chapter 2)
Alice C. Linsley
Kierkegaard was a brilliant philosopher who was critical of 18th century Romanticism’s emphasis on naturalism. He was also critical of Empiricism’s claim that moral judgment must be based on reason and verifiable data. Kierkegaard believed that the basis for forming moral judgment is always subjective and that the purpose of Philosophy should be to enhance the individual’s quality of life and freedom.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche shared an overarching realization that anything decided to be meaningful or important must come from within the individual. It is the human race itself that attributes meaning. They both regarded the objective truth of the Enlightenment as a concept that ultimately leads to frustration, despair and anxiety. In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, each philosopher sets out to discover the importance of subjective human emotion, and the role of human freedom in the universe.
In his personal life Kierkegaard suffered from depression. Before age 21, he lost his mother and five of his family members. He never married because he regarded marriage as “the deepest form of revelation” and he doubted that he could so thoroughly self-reveal as to fulfill his ideal of marriage. Evidently his struggle with depression didn’t hinder him from expressing his ideas, as he was an extraordinarily prolific writer, contributing in the areas of philosophy, theology, psychology and social criticism.
Kierkegaard refers to biblical Abraham as a “knight of faith” and sees him as the embodiment of his existentialist philosophy. For Kierkegaard, true individuality comes through surrendering one’s individuality. Abraham discovers his meaning in the cosmos through losing himself in God, but when one tries to explain this to another person, the explanation seems absurd.
Kierkegaard wrote, “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?” In this statement, Kierkegaard expresses “existential anxiety” or “angst.” Existential angst is not the same as normal fear. It is not caused by outside events that signal danger, it never leaves, it touches every area of our lives, and it does not respond to counseling.
Although Kierkegaard never used the term "existentialism" in his writings, he is regarded as the founder of Christian existentialism. Kierkegaard believed that the value of a philosopher's ideas should be judged by the person's life. (He would have judged Nietzsche's ideas as lacking moral and intellectual value, which Nietzsche would have applauded!) According to Kierkegaard, the individual’s life is the basis upon which he is judged by God. A writer's work is an important part of his existence, but his life as a whole is what ultimately matters to God.
This is why he was attracted to the lives of the saints, especially John Climacus, a 6th century monk who spent much of his time in solitude, prayer and fasting.
While at the monastery on Mount Sinai, Abbot John wrote “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” a work arranged into thirty chapters or “steps.” Each step details the vices that the individual must conquer and the virtues that the individual must perfect in order to ascend the spiritual “ladder” to the Kingdom of Heaven. Here are some of John Climacus’ famous sayings:
Step 1: A Christian is one who imitated Christ in thought, word and deed. A lover of God is one who lives in communion with all that is natural and sinless.
Step 5: Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent inflicts his own punishment upon himself.
Step 9: If you forgive quickly, you, too, will be quickly forgiven.
Step 15: Purity is putting on the nature of angels. It is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart.
Step 17: He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below. He who has not, only finds joy in possessions.
Step 25: Humility is a divine shelter which prevents us from seeing our achievements.
Step 50: There remain three virtues that bind and secure the union of all: Faith, Hope and Love--- and the greatest of these is Love.
Kierkegaard published Philosophical Fragments under the name of John Climacus. In this work, Kierkegaard poses three important questions:
• What is the relationship between history (temporal existence) and human consciousness (eternal existence)?
• Is there any purpose or meaning to events in our temporal existence other than historical interest?
• Is it possible to base eternal happiness upon historical knowledge?
Kierkegaard’s solution was to find a link between the historical/temporal and the eternal/nontemporal. He does so by explaining knowledge as miraculous or supernatural. He agrees with the Socratic-Platonic view that there is no learning, since one can’t learn what one already knows. Drawing of John Climacus’ understanding of spiritual enlightenment, Kierkegaard argues that learning involves a mysterious change that takes place in the learner at a specific moment of his existence - a moment of enlightenment. In this moment, the learner is absolutely certain that he/she has grasped eternal knowledge. He maintains that this is miraculous and supernatural because it only can be initiated by God through a series of historical/temporal events. This learning (or enlightenment) is highly individual and subjective, and it is unique for every learner.
Kierkegaard argues further that individuals are unable to know anything that is certain except through this supernatural intervention in history. In this sense, Kierkegaard is a Skeptic. He doubts that humans are able of our own faculties to learn or know anything.
So what makes this learning or enlightenment possible? Kierkegaard recognizes that human existence involves suffering, anguish, pain, sickness and death. That being our plight, we naturally desire an escape. This desire is very powerful. It is a yearning for the eternal that leads us to “leap into absurdity.”
What is the absurdity? For Kierkegaard, it is the supernatural intervention of the divine Person Jesus Christ entering history, making it possible for us to know that God exists. The existence of God can’t be proved by reason, by experimentation, by logic or through observation. Only by faith in this divine intervention can one hope to escape the suffering of this life and move from ignorance to enlightenment. This is the “supernaturalism” of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and it is clearly the opposite of the naturalism of Nietzsche and the Romantics.
Whereas Nietzsche rejected the prevailing morality in favor of his “immoralism,” Kierkegaard presents social norms as the universal measure of service to the community. Even human sacrifice is justified in terms of how it serves the community, so when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia he is performing a tragic sacrifice in order that the Greek expedition to Troy may succeed. Were Abraham’s intention in sacrificing Isaac to gain worldly success, he would simply be another tragic hero like Agamemnon. But as Kierkegaard understands the story of Mount Moriah, it is Abraham’s absolute surrender to God that makes possible his receiving back his offering and much more. Kierkegaard explains, “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith …for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.”
Kierkegaard recognizes an existential duty to a creator God as more authoritative than human social norms. Ultimately God's definition of the distinction between good and evil outranks any human definition. He holds up biblical Abraham's near sacrifice of his son, not as an example of obedience to social norms, but as the consequence of a "teleological suspension of the ethical.”
That is, Abraham recognizes a duty to obey something higher than both his social duty not to kill an innocent and his fatherly commitment to his son. (Fear and Trembling)
From Kierkegaard's perspective, the distinction between good and evil is dependent not on social norms but on God. Therefore it is possible for Abraham to live and act beyond the prescribed norms of his day to fulfill a spiritual destiny that he alone can fulfill. This renders ethical cases such as Abraham's problematic, since we have no public policy to guide our decision about whether Abraham is obeying God's command or is a deluded would-be murderer.
In the end, Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy can’t be used to formulate specific ethical guidelines for society. It is simply too personal and too subjective. While existentialism would become a popular philosophy in the 20th century, ethics in the post-modern world would be influenced more by analytic and linguistic philosophy, and especially the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, to which we turn next.
Related reading: Kierkegaard on Abraham