Kierkegaard's first full-length published work was From the Papers of One Still Living (1838), a critique of Hans Christian Andersen's novel Only a Fiddler, which Kierkegaard attacks for not having a "life-view." This concern for a life-view, to find a "truth worth living or dying for," as he puts it in an early journal entry,15 is a theme that runs through Kierkegaard's authorship.
Kierkegaard's next significant work was his doctrinal dissertation The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. Although still showing signs of Hegelian influence, this youthful work contains nascent forms of the concepts that would dominate Kierkegaard's future authorship: irony, subjectivity, existence as the synthesis of possibility and necessity, and the contrast between the figures of Christ and Socrates.
Kierkegaard, however, dated his authorship from the publication of Either/Or (1843).16 Part I of this massive work comprises a diverse collection of pieces ranging from aphoristic "diapsalmata" to "The Diary of the Seducer." Both the subject matter as well as the disparity and fragmentary nature of the themes discussed in the volume express the central features of what Johannes Climacus in Postscript terms the "aesthetic" sphere of existence. "A," the pseudonymous author of part I of Either/Or, is an individual who lives according to the aesthetic life-view, the fundamental principle of which is pleasure. What the aesthetic individual does not realize is that his life-view is one that leads ultimately to despair. It lacks a center or leading idea to hold the self together. The aesthetic self allows itself to be dissipated among the myriad possibilities life has to offer.
Part II of Either/Or consists of two lengthy letters written by "B" to the aesthete of part I, to which is appended a brief sermon by a country parson. From his letters we learn that "B" is a magistrate, "Judge William," who is concerned at the hedonistic lifestyle of his young friend, A. B strives to persuade A that the aesthetic enjoyment and fulfillment the latter craves can be achieved only through grounding the aesthetic in the ethical. Thus, to take B's example of the love-relationship, love is truly realized only when the particularity of the individual love-affair is grafted onto the universal-human by being grounded in the ethical institution of marriage. The inherent despair of the aesthetic self through its dissipation in life's myriad possibilities and the aesthetic individual's consequent lack of a coherent self are overcome by the choice of the ethical. This ethical choice is initially a choice of despair. Despair is "personality's doubt," and by choosing despair17 the aesthetic individual accepts the inadequacy of his or her mode of existence and takes on "the absolute self or my self according to its absolute validity."18 In choosing, the individual freely accepts responsibility for him or herself and, instead of conceiving of possibility as the source of aesthetic pleasure, understands possibility as a task. With this choice of the despairing self, the distinction between good and evil is posited, because the choice of despair constitutes an acknowledgment of, and application to oneself of, the categories of right and wrong.
Either/Or concludes with a sermon written by a country priest, entitled the "Ultimatum," which B has sent to A because it confirms the validity of the ethical life-view and will thus be of use in helping A out of his aesthetic mode of existence. B is mistaken, however. The "Ultimatum," the theme of which is "The upbuilding that lies in the thought that in relation to God we are always in the wrong," does not confirm the validity of the ethical but provides the first hints of its downfall. In his sermon the Pastor argues that before God all human beings are in the wrong, and that this is our joy, for it is by being in the wrong that we sustain a relationship with God. Far from confirming the ethical view of life espoused by B, then, the "Ultimatum" provides the first hints that the ethical sphere is not the full story. It is not getting right with God through ethical observation that determines our God-relationship, but becoming aware that we are wrong before God. The "Ultimatum," then, is alluding to sin and providing the first hints of a mode of existence that cannot be contained in ethical categories. What Either/Or offers us, then, is, as Robert L. Perkins has pointed out, an either/ or/or.19 It is this second "or," the religious life-view, which is arguably the main concern of the subsequent works.
1843 was a highly productive year for Kierkegaard. Besides Either/Or he published three collections of upbuilding discourses and two more pseudonymous works, namely, Fear and Trembling and Repetition, published under the pseudonyms Johannes de silentio and Constantin Constantius respectively. The first of these is a meditation on Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Theologically the book is significant for its conception of faith as a "movement by virtue of the absurd" and for the introduction of the notion of a "teleological suspension of the ethical." This latter concept has elicited considerable scholarly attention and has prompted some commentators to accuse Kierkegaard of moral nihilism. The point Johannes de silentio seems to wish to make is one already hinted at in the "Ultimatum" of Either/Or, namely, that the God-relationship cannot be confined in the deontological ethics advocated by Judge William and that the ethical consciousness of the human self must have its grounding not in social and civic norms and standards but in God.
Repetition is a psychological study by Constantin Constantius of the unhappy love affair of a young man of his acquaintance, much of which mirrors Kierkegaard's experience with Regine. By "repetition," Constantin means the restitution in a qualitatively new way of something believed to have been lost irrevocably. This restitution comes about not by means of human powers, however, but as a result of the initiative of God, for whom the impossible is possible. As the young man of Repetition says of Job, "So there is repetition, after all. When does it occur? Well, that is hard to say in any human language. When did it occur for Job? When every thinkable human certainty and probability were impossible."20
1844 was another year of astonishing productivity for Kierkegaard. Besides three collections of upbuilding discourses, he published two significant and influential pseudonymous works, namely, Philosophical Fragments by Johannes Climacus and Concept of Anxiety by Vigilius Haufniensis.
The first of these works is a thinly disguised exposition of Christianity. Climacus undertakes a "thought-project" in which he constructs a form of religiousness opposite to "Socratic religiousness." By "Socratic religiousness," Climacus designates the view that the human being is in innate possession of the truth, or, to put it in religious terms, sustains a natural albeit obscured relationship to God. The task then becomes that of "recollecting" this innate but obscured truth and allowing it to inform one's existence as fully as possible. This was the religiousness Kierkegaard felt was prevalent in the Hegelian-colored religion and state Christianity of his own age, albeit without Socrates' existential intensity. But how, Johannes Climacus asks in the Fragments, would religion appear if the human being did not possess a natural propensity for a God-relationship? What form would religion take if the human being were not in innate possession of the truth? Then the individual could not recollect a dimly remembered innate truth, for there is no innate truth to recollect. But if the human being is not in possession of the truth, then he or she must be in untruth. This state of being in untruth is more than an epistemological deficiency, however; it is a form of bondage in which the human being has freely chosen to flee from the truth. It is, Johannes Climacus tells us, sin.
A consequence of this is that there is no role for the Socratic teacher, for there is no truth in the human being which such a teacher can bring to birth. The human being needs a different type of teacher, one who possesses the truth and is able to impart it to the untruthful, sinful human being. But this is still not enough, for the human being, in bondage to sin, does not possess the resources either for recognizing or for appropriating the truth the teacher brings. Consequently, reason cannot be the means by which the human being accepts the truth offered by the teacher. The teacher must therefore provide not only the truth but also the condition for accepting the truth. Johannes Climacus suggests that the most appropriate term for this condition is faith.21
The claim that the teacher gives not only the truth but also the condition for accepting the truth to the human being raises two problems. First, what is the role of reason in the human being's relationship to the truth? Secondly, is Johannes Climacus a determinist? In reply to the first question, it is well known that in many of his works Kierkegaard makes clear the limitations of reason. Indeed, his description of faith as a movement by virtue of the absurd in Fear and Trembling, and his description of the incarnation as a paradox in Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, have led some commentators to accuse him of irrationalism. Reason, however, is not absent from faith. On the contrary, Johannes Climacus emphasizes the importance of reason. Reason is the means by which we distinguish between the paradox and nonsense. Furthermore, it is only by pushing reason to its limits that we arrive at the boundary at which a God-relationship -albeit always on divine initiative - can become a possibility.22
Although certain passages in both Fragments and Postscript can create the impression that Johannes Climacus is a determinist, closer examination of Climacus's argument forces us to an altogether different view. Climacus's point is that it is God who provides the condition by which the God-relationship becomes possible. It is not a human achievement but a divine gift. The condition that is faith entails release from the bondage of sin and restores human freedom. These constitute the condition of the truth, but, now that freedom has been restored, the human being must freely choose whether to accept the truth that is offered in and by the teacher. As Climacus puts it, "If I do not possess the condition ... then all my willing is of no avail, even though, once the condition is given, that which was valid for the Socratic is again valid."23
The Concept of Anxiety was published on June 14, 1844, four days after the appearance of Philosophical Fragments. With its abstract and technical style, it appears at first sight to be a very different work from Fragments. Nevertheless, the two works are connected in that the Concept of Anxiety takes up the themes of freedom and sin touched upon in Fragments.
In Fragments, Climacus tells a parable to illustrate the origins of the loss of freedom and bondage to sin.24 Before a battle, a knight arrives on the scene and is asked by each of the hostile armies to join the battle on their side. He makes his choice, but chooses the losing side and is taken captive. His subsequent attempt to join the victorious side is rebuffed. The terms offered to him before the battle no longer apply now that the battle is over. The knight is bound by his earlier decision. A similar state of affairs applies to the sinner. The sinner, too, has chosen sides and is now bound by the decision he or she has made. But what leads the human being to choose sin?
It is this transition from innocence to sin and the nature of original or "hereditary" sin that Vigilius Haufniensis explores in the Concept of Anxiety. Vigilius generally accepts the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, but reformulates it in psychological terms in order to leave room for human freedom and responsibility for sin. The human self, Vigilius tells us, is a "synthesis" of the psychical and the physical,25 and the temporal and the eternal.26 It is the task of the self to bring these dipolar elements into a coherent structure, and the manner in which the self goes about this task determines the nature of that self. Anxiety is the disquiet the self experiences in the face of this task. The self suffers anxiety because it has the capacity to choose. As Vigilius puts it, anxiety is "a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy"27 in which the self is both attracted to and repelled by its possibility. The transition from innocence to sin is a consequence of this anxiety. Vigilius describes anxiety as "the dizziness of freedom which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself."28 In this free but anxious choice of finitude, sin is posited. This is the transition which Adam made and which all subsequent human beings make.
For Vigilius, the Fall was not a single, unique historical act the consequences of which are passed down genetically from generation to generation. Such an understanding would place Adam in a qualitatively different position from all other human beings and would, moreover, negate human freedom, for if human beings are predestined to sin by the inheritance of original sin they cannot be held responsible for their sin. The difference between Adam and all subsequent human beings, Vigilius argues, is not qualitative but quantitative. The long history of human sin since Adam has produced an increase in the quantity of sin in the world. This creates an environment in which the anxious vertigo of the innocent human being is intensified. It does not, however, cause the innocent individual to make the transition from innocence to sin. Like Adam many generations before, every human being falls through an act of freedom in which, disorientated by freedom, he or she grasps finitude and falls into sin.
Stages on Life's Way (1845) and Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) can both be regarded as a summing up and taking stock of the previous works. In Stages on Life's Way, many of the characters already encountered in earlier works reappear. The work falls into three unequal sections. Part 1, "In vino veritas," takes the form of a dinner party modeled after Plato's symposium, at which the five diners hold speeches on "erotic love or the relation between man and woman."29 In part 2, we renew our acquaintance with Judge William, who once again is concerned to defend the institution of marriage, although now he is more ready to acknowledge the possibility of religiously justified exceptions to the duty of marriage. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book from the theological perspective, however, is part 3, which falls into two sections, namely, "Quidam's Diary" and Frater Taciturnus's psychological study of Quidam and his failed love-relationship. In the course of this study, religious themes emerge in the consideration of guilt and its role in the God-relationship. Whereas parts 1
and 2 of Stages on Life's Way map roughly onto the aesthetic writings of Either/ Or I and onto Judge William's two letters of Either/Or II, respectively, the final section of Stages seems to be an extension and deepening of themes touched upon in the "Ultimatum" with which Either/Or closes.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments is, as its name indicates, a sequel to Philosophical Fragments, albeit one which far outstrips in length the work to which it is allegedly only an addendum. It is the nearest Kierkegaard comes to a "systematic" presentation of his thought. Many of the themes of the earlier works are taken up and presented in the broader context of Johannes Climacus's question: how do I become a Christian?
It is in this context that Kierkegaard introduces his famous, or perhaps infamous, thesis that "truth is subjectivity." Of all aspects of Kierkegaard's thought, this is probably the most controversial and arguably the most misunderstood. Contrary to the claims of some commentators, Climacus is not claiming that we can invent the truth or that intensity of belief guarantees the validity of that belief. Climacus is concerned with ethical, religious, and existential truth. His point is that it is not sufficient to understand such truth merely intellectually; it is necessary that each of us embody it and bring it to expression in our own lives. The concept of subjectivity is developed in order to unfold the nature of being, or rather becoming, a self. As such it is closely connected with Climacus's concept of "existence," a term which he employs in a specialized sense to refer not to simple facticity such as stones and plants possess but to a qualitative type of existence distinctive to the human being. This qualitative type of existence arises from the contradictory nature of the human being as an infinite and eternal self situated within the finite and the temporal. This contradiction presents the human being with the task of becoming a self within the temporal and finite structures of history. Subjectivity plays an important role in this because it is the means by which the self appropriates, actualizes, and embodies what it conceives to be the truth or life-view according to which it is called upon to organize itself. Human existence is not static, nor does it possess a fixed essence; it is a task arising out of the eternal self being situated within finite and temporal existence.
Climacus explores the task of becoming a self by means of his theory of the spheres of existence, which also provides a framework for the interpretation of the earlier pseudonymous works. In the Postscript, he lists four existence-spheres open to the human being, namely, the aesthetic and the ethical spheres, and religiousness A and B. The difference between the various existence-spheres is determined by the way in which they resolve the contradiction of human existence, namely, that of being an infinite and eternal self situated within the finite and the temporal.
The aesthete externalizes the existential contradiction. As Climacus puts it, "Immediacy, the esthetic, finds no contradiction in existing; to exist is one thing, contradiction is something else that comes from without."30 The aesthetic individual thus exists in what Climacus calls "the esthetic dialectic between fortune and misfortune"31 and is undialectical in him or herself.32 For the aesthete, eternity is a never-ending succession of "nows," each one of which offers the possibility of enjoyment, before passing away to be replaced by the next pleasurable moment. Time is fragmented, for the past and the future are dissolved into the present moment, the consequence of which is that the aesthetic self is also fragmented among the myriad and disparate pleasures offered by the moment.
The ethico-religious individual, on the other hand, is the individual who has become conscious of and acts upon the existential contradiction of being an eternal and infinite self situated in temporal and finite existence. Time takes on a new quality. It is no longer a never-ending flux but is a time of decision. The moment is consolidated in the decision. As such, it is not past but is remembered and repeated in the present and future. With decision, then, the past and the future are posited. The individual chooses him or herself not once, but repeatedly, a choice which manifests itself in commitment, resolution, and constancy. Thus love is not dissolved in a flux of erotic moments, but is consolidated in marriage. Thereby past, present, and future are unified and the human being acquires a coherent self. The aesthetic conception of eternity as an infinity of transitory experiences is replaced with the eternity of ethical resolution.
Religiousness A is the "religion of immanence"; it assumes a fundamental affinity between eternity and existence and understands the existential task as being that of the self's "recollection" of this affinity. As Climacus puts it with regard to the God-relationship, religiousness A is "an evolution within the total category of human nature."33 That is, religiousness A assumes that the human being possesses the condition for a God-relationship. The dialectic of religiousness A is thus a "dialectic of inward deepening," in which the self appropriates the truth of its affinity with the eternal and strives to restructure its existence accordingly. As Climacus puts it, religiousness A "is the relation to an eternal happiness that is not conditioned by a something but is the dialectical inward deepening of the relation, consequently conditioned only by the inward deepening, which is dialectical."34
It is this dialectic of inward deepening that accounts for both the similarities and differences between religiousness A and the ethical sphere. The similarities lie in the common assumption of a fundamental, although obscured, compatibility between eternity and existence. The difference between the two lies in their assessment of the human being's resources for resolving the existential contradiction. Climacus points out that the choice of despair recommended by Judge William cannot result in the individual "winning himself," because the individual exhausts his or her strength in choosing despair and consequently "cannot come back by [himself]."35 In religiousness A, the human being has become far more profoundly aware of the difficulties of being an eternal and infinite self situated in temporal and finite existence. He or she strives to resolve this contradiction by subordinating the self to the greatest possible degree to the "absolute telos" that is God. This entails "becoming nothing before God," "suffering," and "guilt-consciousness," all of which constitute marks of a God-centered existence.
In religiousness B or "Christian religiousness," religiousness A is not annulled but intensified. The difference between religiousness A and B is that the latter is "dialectical in the second instance"36 as a result of eternity's entry into time. Eternity's irruption into time, or, to express the same point in religious language, God becoming a human being, is the absolute paradox, because in the person of the God-man mutually contradictory qualities - the eternal and the temporal, the infinite and the finite, and the divine and the human - are united. As Climacus puts it, "That God has existed in human form, has been born, grown up, and so forth, is surely the paradox sensu strictissimo, the absolute paradox."37 The paradox of God's presence in time is incomprehensible to reason, for the God-man "is compounded in a way contradictory to all thinking."38 Indeed, in the presence of the paradoxical irruption of the eternal into time, reason becomes a "clod and a dunce."39 Furthermore, the paradox makes clear to human beings that they are not in possession of the condition necessary for a relationship with God and that there can therefore be no question of recollecting the truth. God is not to be found in the depths of the self, accessible by means of the dialectic of inward deepening; on the contrary, the paradox reveals that God and the human are not united at some deeper level, but are separated from one another by an "infinite qualitative abyss." Subjectivity is consequently not the truth but the untruth, for the human self does not possess the resources for establishing a relation to the eternal. The Christian expression for this radical separation of eternity and existence, God and the human, is sin.
This transforms and sharpens the religious task. Whereas in religiousness A the task was that of the self's "recollection" of its fundamental affinity with eternity and its structuring of its life accordingly, in religiousness B the task is that of relating oneself to the paradoxical presence of the eternal-in-time. The response to the absolute paradox and the crisis into which this plunges the human being is faith.
The paradoxical nature of the incarnation allows Kierkegaard to address the problem Lessing raises in his On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power that "accidental truths of history can never become proof of necessary truths of reason."40 In Fragments and Postscript, as well as in the later Practice in Christianity (1850), Kierkegaard addresses this issue by developing the concept of "contemporaneity." For Lessing it was only the immediate contemporaries of Christ who were able to form a judgment on the status of Jesus of Nazareth. Later generations are dependent upon historical reports of Christ's life and ministry, which, Lessing argues, are an insufficient basis for faith. Both Climacus and Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Practice in Christianity, argue, however, that immediate contemporaneity is of no advantage with regard to the absolute paradox. Christ is the paradoxical union of the eternal and the temporal, the infinite and the finite, and the divine and the human, and this is just as much a paradox for Jesus' contemporaries as it is for later generations. For the same reason, later generations have no advantage over Christ's contemporaries, even though the historical consequences of Christ's life have now become apparent. There is, Anti-Climacus points out, no ascending scale of human greatness to the point where human greatness reaches such a high level that it becomes divinity.41 All human beings, whether they knew Christ personally or only on the basis of the historical record, are in the same position. All are confronted by the absolute paradox of the God-man and faced with the same choice: faith or offense.
To this last phase of Kierkegaard's "first authorship" belongs Two Ages. This little book is a review of a novel of the same name by Thomasine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvard (1773-1856), which draws a contrast between the French Revolution and the present age. Kierkegaard uses the novel as a springboard for his own reflections on the modern age. Whereas the revolutionary age was an age of passion and action, he writes, "The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence."42 The consequence of this superficiality is that although bourgeois society pays lip service to such authorities as the Church, it too overthrows them, albeit not with passion and action like the French revolutionaries but by emptying them of their content, for bourgeois society "lets everything remain but subtly drains the meaning out of it."43 It allows a pall of worldliness to descend upon everything, including, most importantly, religion. The result of this is "levelling," a process which reduces human beings to the lowest common denominator and robs them of the potential for authentic selfhood. As we saw earlier, Kierkegaard understands the human being as existing in a tension between opposing categories. This tension and the task of becoming a self which it entails are eliminated by the leveling processes of bourgeois society. It is precisely the tensions, conflicts, and tragic dimension of existence that lead to authentic selfhood, and it is precisely these essential human qualities that bourgeois worldliness and comfortableness remove. This critique of the leveling tendencies of modern society prompts Kierkegaard to attack the "crowd" and the press, both of which in his view annihilate the human individuality essential for a relationship with the eternal. It would, however, be a mistake to understand this attack as due to a reactionary, undemocratic spirit on Kierkegaard's part. His critique is motivated by a concern with the herd instinct that prompts human beings to follow blindly the majority opinion instead of choosing themselves as selves before God. Similarly, Kierkegaard's attack on the press is not a rejection of freedom of speech as such but is a protest against the press's tendency to reduce human beings to spectators and thereby undermine the existential commitment and action necessary for the individual's relation to the eternal. In an age of mass media and global communications, Kierkegaard's critique has acquired a new relevance.
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