Lesson 6

I mentioned earlier that despite his distinction between the ethical and religious as life stages, Kierkegaard comes to talk with ease about what he calls ethico-religious knowledge. This can be explained either because early stages are subsumed into later ones -- as the passions of the soul are baptized by coming under the sway of reason -- or because of Kierkegaard's acceptance of the way in which the moral provides a kind of analogue to the religious. It is the second possibility I wish to explore now.

Knowledge and Virtue

One of the oldest questions in moral philosophy asks whether knowledge is virtue, that is, is knowing what one ought to do tantamount to doing it. What is the relation between knowledge and practice, knowing and doing? In his Protagoras, Plato has Socrates defend the notion that virtuous action is simply a function of knowledge. He uses the analogy of the art of perspective. In judging the relative size of physical objects we can be misled because of the greater or lesser distance from the observer of what is seen. The art of perspective corrects for distance by reminding us that distant things seem small and close things large. Moral judgment requires an analogous art of perspective, this one bearing not on distance but on time. Assuming that moral judgments are appraisals of the relative force of pains and pleasures, the suggestion is that one can go wrong because a present pleasure is wrongly judged to trump a future pain it will bring about, or a present pain is misjudged relative to the future ease and pleasure it can insure. That is, the one drink too many is incorrectly compared to the massive pain of the next morning's hangover, and the discomfort in the dental chair is given undue weight relative to the sparkling incisors it insures.

The heart of the position here attributed to Socrates is that one cannot not act contrary to the correct judgment of moral perspective.

The reason for that is that reason is what is distinctive in us, it is what is dominant in us, and it is simply unacceptable that reason could be dragged around by lower powers, such as the desire for pleasure or repugnance to pain.

The trouble with the position is that we all, alas, have had experience of acting contrary to our own best lights. It is human, all too human, to do the evil we would not, and not do the good that we would. But if knowledge or reason is not the sufficient cause of good action, and if reason is what makes us to be human agents, there would indeed seem to be a fissure in our very being.

Ethico-religious Knowledge

It can be seen that this moral question as to how knowledge of what we ought to do relates to our doing or not doing it is analogous to the question of the way in which accepting Christianity at one level leaves unanswered the doing or enacting of its message. We are urged to be not simply hearers of the word, but doers also. This parallel between morality and religion is a commonplace of reflections on religion. It is hardly surprising then that it becomes a leitmotif of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments.

When we turn to that work we find a celebration of what is called the subjective thinker and the assertion of the primacy of the subjective. And we find the famous definition of truth which may seem to have the effect of relativizing all truth claims, making them simply a function of our desires. I propose to come at this claim somewhat obliquely.

In speaking of subjective thinking, said to be especially relevant to the moral and religious, Climacus invokes Aristotle's distinction in On the Soul III, 10 between theoretical and practical knowledge. When we use our mind theoretically the aim is the perfection of thinking as such, namely, acquiring the truth of the matter. When we use our mind practically, the truths we acquire are ordered to an activity beyond and other than thinking, such as choosing. Practical thinking does not reach its completion in thinking, therefore, but in the activity it guides and directs.

This is why Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that one does not become good by philosophizing. That is, taking a course in ethics, perhaps receiving a high grade, does not as such make one a good man. A good student, perhaps, but the discussion of action in the way in which this is done in class or seminar is an instance of thinking not knowing, certainly not an instance of the moral doing that is under discussion. It is when moral knowledge is thought of as like this, that is, like that we find in Aristotle's Ethics, that it seems preposterous to suggest that possession of it is one and the same with acting in accord with it.

Now if one thought that there is such knowledge and then there is something else called action that follows from it, it could become quite mysterious to know what happens between the knowing and the action. Aristotle's solution is that practical knowledge in its full sense is what animates the particular actions performed. Practical knowledge in the full sense is embedded in singular actions. That is, there are degrees of practical knowledge, and that found in the Ethics is less practical than that present in this action or that. And Aristotle said, in partial defense of the Socrates of the Protagoras, that it would indeed seem impossible to have here and know the correct judgment of what I should do and not do it. The reason is that such here and now knowledge is embodied in the action already taking place. Correct judgments in the singular are a function of our moral character, that is, the bent of our appetite. If A is what I really want and a is clearly here and now the best way to achieve A, I do a forthwith. The moral task is to get our appetite glued to what truly is our good and fulfillment, then virtuous action should come with ease.  

Subjectivity is the Truth

Let us turn now to Climacus' discussion of truth. Truth resides in a relation between thought and being -- some define truth as thought's conformity with being, while others reverse this to being's conformity with thought -- but, Climacus says, everything obviously depends on what we mean by being. He proposes to take being to mean human being, and then the question of truth becomes one of the relation of our thinking to what we are. So we are back in familiar territory. Climacus then says that all essential knowledge relates to existence. "'That essential knowledge is essentially related to existence does not mean the above-mentioned identity which abstract thought postulates between thought and being; nor does it signify, objectively, that knowledge corresponds to some existent as its object. But it means that knowledge has a relationship to the knower, who is essentially an existing individual, and that for this reason all essential knowledge is essentially related to existence. Only ethical and ethico-religious knowledge has an essential relationship to the existence of the knower.'" This is the basis for the famous definition of truth as subjective. "'Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.'"

Many have taken this to be a way to justify any claim as true if only one feels strongly enough about it. The definition offered by Climacus is taken to be a wild innovation without precedent in previous thought. This is clearly false.

Is Climacus a Thomist?

It is false first on the level of the ethical. Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas after him speak of practical as opposed to theoretical truth. The latter is had when the mind's judgment is in conformity with the thing judged. Practical truth, on the other hand, is had when the mind's judgment as to what to do is in conformity with correct or rectified appetite, that is, with an appetite informed by virtue, disposing us to our true good. That disposition, inclination, prevents the appetite for an apparent good from deflecting the judgment. This judgment is made in the course of performing the action. That, again, is why Aristotle allows, in partial defense of the Socrates of the Protagoras, that it does indeed seem possible that one could act otherwise than in harmony with this knowledge.

Thomas Aquinas goes on to liken the act of faith to this practical judgment, the judgment of practical wisdom or prudence. The role of the will in belief is inescapable. Nemo credit nisi volens, St. Augustine wrote: only those believe who will to. Of course the will is moved by grace, and the good that draws us is the promise of happiness. That is the motive for accepting as true what we cannot in this life comprehend or understand to be true. This dark knowledge of faith will be rewarded in heaven, where we will see even as we are seen.

Faith is an intellectual virtue, a habit of mind which disposes to the acceptance of the truths God has revealed. Since in this life the mind cannot be fixed on these truths on its own terms, by understanding them, the role of the will moved by grace is essential to the assent of faith. Faith is thus a gift, not an acquisition, as if one just chose to have it.

Any appraisal of Kierkegaard -- or his pseudonyms -- on the question of faith and its object must take into account the nature of the literature, the role of a particular pseudonymous work, and Kierkegaard's over-all purpose as the author of the authors.

To those who wished to reduce Christianity to a knowledge claim like all others, the truth of which can be decided by application of standard philosophical criteria, Kierkegaard is there to thwart the effort. He will do this by indirectly reminding his reader that he does not really regard Christ as a teacher on the same level as Socrates or any other merely human teacher.

He is there to make the unsettling reminder that all the natural sciences in the world, all the history imaginable, all the scriptural scholarship you might wish for, cannot establish the truth of the essential Christian claims. In this life we cannot know, in the sense of prove, the trinity of persons in God, the union of human and divine natures in Christ. These must be believed because they cannot be known -- in this life.

Moreover, he will suggest that the object of faith is a contradiction, involving the claim that opposites are identical, that the eternal is temporal, the human divine. It is here that Kierkegaard seems most opposed to Catholic orthodoxy. And yet, as I have suggested, even here he has Pauline precedents.

Kierkegaard is a corrective, not a norm. His indirect method would be useless in giving instructions on Christianity to those with no knowledge of it. He himself stresses this. His is a rhetorical effort which makes use of extreme statements to recall the nominal Christian to the realization of what it means to be a Christian. When books and passages in the literature are simply extracted and separated from that overall purpose the intent of Kierkegaard is distorted.

Suggested Reading

Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Part Two, chapter two.

St. Thomas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues. South Bend: St. Augustine Press, 1998, pp. 40-44.

Suggested Writing

Three to five pages on the affinity of the ethical and religious.


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