Lesson 3: Away from the Poet!

The symbol of the aesthetic is the seducer. The symbol of the ethical is the spouse. The ethical is genially conveyed in volume two of Either/Or by Judge Wilhelm in what may be letters to the young man who seems to be responsible for the contents of the first volume.

The aesthete lives in the moment and there is no link between the moments of his life. He thus acquires no history. Responsive to the change and changing, there is no real plan to his life. He is always on the qui vive for fleeting pleasure. His life is episodic, discontinuous. Don Giovanni conveys this most powerfully in the aria in which Leporello tells us that there have been two thousand conquests in Spain alone. There is a madness in this. There is despair.

By contrast, the ethical is the acquisition of a history, the moments of one's life form part of a plan and one which is governed by the duties and goods universally applicable to human beings. With maturity one falls in love and marries, but now love is not just the flight of the bumblebee. It is linked to procreation and family and thus to the future. The ethical is the realization of the universally human, becoming what a human person is meant to be.

It is sometimes said that the contents of volume two are dull compared to those of volume one. So they are, and this is deliberate. There is a kind of complacency in the outlook of Judge Wilhelm. He is proud and grateful for the life that is his. Are these domestic comforts the meaning of Christianity?

There followed the same year, 1843, a little book called Fear and Trembling, attributed to Johannes a Silentio. Its purpose is to show the inadequacy of the ethical, of the universally human, from the point of view of Christianity. The Abraham story from Exodus conveys this. Abraham and Sarah have lived into their old age without a child through whom could be fulfilled the promises God made to Abraham. His progeny were to be as numerous as the sands of the sea and the stars of the sky. And then improbably Sarah is with child and Isaac, the child of their advanced years, is born. Finally the means of the realization of God's promises are at hand. And then in a dream Abraham is instructed to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and there sacrifice him. He gets up and immediately sets off with his son.

It is a familiar story. And, because it is familiar, we know how it comes out. Isaac is spared, a ram is offered in sacrifice, father and son return to Sarah. Johannes a Silentio so presents the familiar story as to deprive us of the anticipated comfort of its ending. It took Abraham three days to get to Mount Moriah. What did he think along the way about the command he was obeying to sacrifice his only son? What did he say to Isaac? How did he explain the trip to Sarah? All we need do is imagine Abraham telling Sarah that he had a dream in which he was instructed to sacrifice their son to get a sense of the discrepancy between the command and what is normally expected of a father.

We are confronted with a teleological suspension of an ethical absolute. Do not take innocent life is a moral absolute. God is commanding Abraham to act contrary to that absolute, it is suspended, for the purpose of testing his faith. The mark of the religious is that an ethically forbidden act becomes something holy and pleasing to God.

Despite the prominence of the Abraham story in showing the inadequacy of the ethical, the symbol of the religious is the celibate, one who forgoes the natural pleasures and satisfactions of the married life to devote himself entirely to God. The connection of this with Kierkegaard's own broken engagement is obvious. 

Indirect Communication

Very well. We have a string of pseudonymously published works which begins in 1843 with the publication of Either/Or, Repetition (Constantine Constantius) and Fear and Trembling, three the first year of the project, the same year he took one of his trips to Berlin. But that is only a fraction of the project of indirect communication.

Guided by The Point of View, we note the appearance of a parallel series of books that also begins in 1843, Edifying Discourses, authored by Soren Kierkegaard and published under his own name. The interplay between the Discourses and the pseudonymous works is meant to keep the overall point of the authorship present. Kierkegaard did not want anyone to think that, having devoted himself to worldly writing, aesthetic stuff, he repented, got religious and began to write things like the discourses. The fact that the two are simultaneous was important to his effort. And there is a third factor, that would have been operative for his contemporaries, namely the way Kierkegaard himself was living. Since it was soon known that he was the author of the pseudonymous works as well as of the discourses, over and above the puzzlement this might cause, the reaction could well be that he was a pretty industrious and serious fellow. Someone serious enough to take seriously. It was to remove this possibility - an intrinsic basis for taking the writings to heart - that Kierkegaard contrived to live in such a way that he seemed a man about town, a ne'er-do-well who seemed always to be lounging around public places. Thus he tells us he would go to the theater in the evening, be prominent in the lobby, and then when the curtain went up hurry off home to his writing desk. How could the reader take seriously the writings of such a gadabout?

Away from Philosophy!

And still we are not done giving a sense of the complexity of Kierkegaard's indirect communication. The movement through the pseudonymous literature thus far described obeys the command, "Away from the poet!" That is, away from the aesthetic and through the ethical to a realization of what it truly means to be a Christian. Not of course as a matter of mere understanding. If Christianity is a way of life, to think about it and not live it is a way of misunderstanding it. The literature is meant to put the reader in the position where be might freely move onward. But if he does this, he does this -- no one can do it for him.

There is another movement in the literature, and it obeys the command, "Away from philosophy!" In this movement, Kierkegaard is interested in confronting the misunderstandings of Christianity that are peculiar to the intellectual, to the philosopher, to the sophisticated thinker.

It is this movement that we emphasize in the lectures. The pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus has two books attributed to him, Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. This name was one Kierkegaard had already employed in a little work begun in 1842, and left unfinished. Johannes Climacus or De omnibus dubitandum est.

Kierkegaard's contemporaries would not have known of this book, of course, any more than they could be privy as we are to his journals and papers. We can see in this story, this philosophical novel, as it were, the underpinning of Kierkegaard's belated but profound dissatisfaction with modern philosophy.

He had begun as an enthusiast for Hegel's philosophy. Tells us that he translated passages into Danish to better to grasp their meaning. Eventually, he became disenchanted with Hegel and came to consider Hegelianism as a promissory note that could never be redeemed. Hegel was one of the heirs of the Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes, so there is a sense in which modern philosophy is the target of the philosophical novel.

Johannes Climacus is the main character of the philosophical novel, not its author. He is a university student who is beginning the study of philosophy. He is told that the way we begin philosophy is by casting into doubt all presumed claims to know. We doubt everything. De omnibus dubitandum est. Johannes takes the advice literally with comic and eventually disastrous results. Kierkegaard has great fun with the qualifications of the maxim that everything is to be doubted made by professors surprised to be taken literally, and the upshot is that neither they nor anyone else could possibly follow such advice. This means that the keystone of modern philosophy crumbles. Methodic doubt, taken as a universal requirement, is a chimera.

If universal doubt is impossible, we must recognize that everyone already knows things, that is, prior to studying philosophy. Underlying this critique then is the ordinary human capacity to know untutored by philosophers.

When Johannes Climacus becomes one of Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authors, his target is the way in which philosophy can lead to a misunderstanding of Christianity.

In the background there are at least two things. On the one hand, there is Immanuel Kant and a little work called Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. In it, Kant proposes to give an account of Christianity that will make it acceptable to a mind illumined by the Enlightenment. One with such a mind will wince when he reads of the miracles Christ is said to have performed. He will clear his throat and lift his brows when he is reminded of the hypostatic union of human and divine natures in Christ. But being magnanimous, he does not just dismiss the whole thing. Christianity may not redeem him but he thinks he can redeem Christianity. All one has to do is to throw out everything in Christianity that is unacceptable to the rational mind. What is left? Well, the Sermon on the Mount, for one thing. The ethical teachings of Jesus. These have the further attraction, we are told, that they are just what any reasonable person is likely to think about how we should act.

And then there is Hegel. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel reminds his reader that as Christians we are commanded not only to love God but to know him. How are we to know him? Through history which is the providential plan unfolding. We might object that historical events seem as often as not to just happen. They are very difficult to reduce back into determined causes. At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy suggests that Napoleon was accounted a great general but this was due to the fact that his orders were not carried out. Hegel acknowledges that history can look like that, a chain of chance events. That is why we need Philosophical History. This will enable us to go beyond the initial appearance of chance and randomness to the realization that the events of history come about with necessity.

Of course the random and fortuitous may characterize your life and mine, but we are not world historical individuals. The philosophical historian will concentrate on them, people such as Napoleon, and then will see the pattern and logic in the unfolding of the temporal sequence, God's plan. Providence. Nor does this entail that Napoleon is a conscious agent of Reason in history. The Cunning of Reason employs him for her own devices, turning his actions to the ends of history.

Christianity is an historical religion. It focuses on the birth of Christ, his life and passion, as the very meaning of it all. Hegel holds out the hope that philosophical history will enable us to see the necessity with which Christianity appeared historically.

Very well. Let those two reminders suffice to get a preliminary sense of the target of the pseudonymous literature meant to lead us away from such philosophical misunderstandings of Christianity as we find in Kant and Hegel.

Suggested Reading

Hegel, The Philosophy of History.

Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Suggested Writing

Describe and compare the two movements of the literature, away from the poet, away from philosophy.


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