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Introduction to Kierkegaard: The Religious Solution

The following is a transcript of this video.

“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?” (Fear and Trembling)

As outlined in the previous video, Kierkegaard posited the human being to be a synthesis of opposing elements, of “the infinite and the finite, and the temporal and eternal, of freedom and necessity”. The task which confronts every individual is to properly relate these opposing elements in a manner conducive to genuine human existence. One who accomplishes this mightiest of all tasks attains selfhood. One who does not lives in a state of despair, is stricken with a “sickness of spirit”, and lacks a self.

In his works Kierkegaard investigated various life-views or “existence-spheres”, and their appropriateness for the eradication of despair. In this video we will summarize these life-views.

“Every human being” Kierkegaard has one of his pseudonyms, Judge William, state, “…has a natural need to formulate a life-view, a conception of the meaning of life and its purpose.”

While everyone has a life-view; an idea of what is good and how to live, not everyone consciously formulates one for themselves.

Instead, most live as mass-men, philistines, passively adapting themselves to the socially accepted values, expectations, and modes of behavior familiar to their culture. Instead of turning inward and thinking through the meaning and purpose of existence, the mass-man’s gaze is forever directed outward, his thought, behavior, entire life in fact, merely a mimicry of what he sees others do:

“Just as a mother admonishes her child who is about to attend a party, “Now, mind your manners and watch the other polite children and behave as they do”, so he, too, could live on and behave as he saw others behave. He would never do anything first and would never have any opinion unless he first knew that others had it…he would be more like a puppet character that very deceptively imitates all the human externalities…” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript)

The mass-man’s lack of awareness of himself as an individual renders him akin to a herd animal.  No matter what one thinks of the mass-man, according to Kierkegaard one thing is certain – he has no self, and therefore has failed as a human being.

But not all live and die as mass-men. Sometimes a person will become conscious of himself as an individual, separate from his social identity and the social order he is enmeshed in.

Such an awakening is often accompanied by the conviction that the bonds which tie him to society are in fact chains, highly repressive and limiting. Detaching himself from his ties to society, he becomes enticed by the multifarious alternatives open to him, and thus hyper-aware of possibility. Approaching life as a fertile ground upon which he can conduct numerous life-experiments, such an individual enters into Kierkegaard’s first “existence-sphere”, the life-view of aestheticism.

Experimenting with different personas, careers, relationships, and hobbies, the aesthete settles upon nothing, makes no enduring choice, and refuses to throw himself wholeheartedly into anything. He avoids any and all serious relationships; for that would diminish his freedom, his ability to discard his current life-experiments and pursue others which entice him in the moment.

“One must always guard against contracting a life relationship by which one can become many. That is why even friendship is dangerous, marriage even more so. They do say marriage partners become one, but this is very obscure and mysterious talk. When you are one of several, then you have lost your freedom; you cannot send for your traveling boots whenever you wish, you cannot move aimlessly about in the world.” (Kierkegaard)

The vulgar aesthete centers his life around the pursuit of base pleasures. Frequent exposure to this type of pleasure quickly leads to satiation, boredom and meaninglessness, and is thus not a life-view worthy of much consideration, if one is concerned with becoming a self.

Kierkegaard was more interested in the refined aesthete, the master pleasure seeker, the paragon of the aesthetic sphere.

As an expert in the “art of pleasure”, the refined aesthete constantly alternates among novel sources of enjoyment. Spending time seducing others solely for the sake of the chase, enjoying the beauty of music, travel, intellectual conversation and fine food, the refined aesthete “indulges in the fanatical hope of an endless journey from star to star.”

And as a master pleasure seeker he succeeds in staving off boredom more efficiently than his cousin, the vulgar aesthete – however, an emptiness still lurks beneath his existence. The pleasures which give his life meaning are only significant in the heat of the moment. In the time between pleasures he becomes deeply troubled by a nihilistic sense of indifference to any course of action.

“I do not feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding—the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking—it is too tiring. I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum: I don’t feel like doing anything. (E/O I, 20)”

Refined aestheticism, like all forms of aestheticism, inevitably leads to despair. Judge William admonishes the aesthete who has seen the emptiness of his life-view to change his ways.

“So it appears that every aesthetic view of life is despair, and that everyone who lives aesthetically is in despair, whether he knows it or not. But when one knows it (and you indeed know it), a higher form of existence is an imperative requirement.” (Kierkegaard)

For Judge William this higher form of existence is immersion in the ethical sphere. Recognizing the “holiest thing of all in a man” to be “the unifying power of personality”, the ethicist regards as his task the realization of a coherent and continuous identity. He accomplishes this by making definite choices to which he abides over time.

“The choice itself is crucial for the content of the personality; through the choice the personality submerges itself in that which is being chosen, and when it does not choose, it withers away in atrophy.” (Kierkegaard)

In his quest for a unified identity, the ethicist, like the mass man, immerses in and engages with the social order. Yet instead of conforming blindly, the ethicist participates in his community with a high degree of self awareness. Conscious of himself as an individual with unique talents, dispositions, and yearnings, he attempts to fit himself into the social order in a way which does justice to his individuality, becoming not an isolated self, but a social self, a self which requires others in order to exist:

“The self which is the aim is not merely a personal self, but a social, a civic self. He has, then, himself as a task for an activity wherewith as this definite personality, he takes a hand in the affairs of life.” (Kierkegaard)

Unlike the aesthete, whose life was guided by pleasure, the ethicist abides to the morality of his community, internalizing social constructions of good and bad as a compass to guide his actions. Far from finding social norms and duties repressive and constricting, he uses them to sculpt his character harmonizing his self-interest with his social duties.

“I sacrifice myself for my profession, my wife, my children, or, more properly expressed, I do not sacrifice myself for them, but I find in them my satisfaction and joy.” (E/O)

Having attained social status, wealth and power, the ideal ethicist is someone who has attained worldly success and veneration in the eyes of others. But whether he has attained selfhood is another story.

One issue with the ethical life-view is that the convictions and customs of all societies are flawed in one way or another, and in some cases deeply diseased. The individual in the ethical sphere, living as if social morality were absolute, has no higher vantage point with which to judge the flaws of his culture.

He is therefore in danger of harmoniously situating himself in a sick society a situation not conducive for success as a human being. Moreover, the ethicists’ sense of self is wholly dependent on finite and temporal things, most notably his marriage:

“What I am through her she is through me, and neither of us is anything by oneself, but we are what we are in union.” (SLW 93).

Yet people perish and worldly things vanish, and thus by resting his self upon such things he is forever in danger of having his self swept away in the flux of time. Anxiety is an educator which can reveal this most important lesson:

“He who is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility… When such a person, therefore, goes out from the school of possibility, and knows more thoroughly than a child knows the alphabet that he demands of life absolutely nothing, and that terror, perdition, annihilation, dwell next door to every man, and has learned the profitable lesson that every dread which alarms may the next instant become a fact, he will then interpret reality differently…” (Kierkegaard)

A thoroughgoing despair will quell up in the ethicist who realizes the limitations of the ethical sphere, and despite all its successes, its inappropriateness for the attainment of a self. This intense despair is a positive sign, for it is the moment when all is dark that the individual grasps for security with such passion and vigor that he finally finds the light of faith. “The opposite of being in despair is to have faith.”

In faith, the individual enters Kierkegaard’s religious sphere, relating himself absolutely to a transcendent source, he attains a proper synthesis of his finite and infinite factors, and thereby becomes a self:

“The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” (Sickness Unto Death)

Within the religious sphere there is a preliminary step which must be ascended before faith is attained.

This step is to become a knight of infinite resignation by renouncing everything worldly, becoming completely detached and indifferent to the finite.

Such a thoroughgoing renunciation of the world often follows deep pain or disappointment – Kierkegaard gives the example of an individual falling madly in love and subsequently realizing that such a love-affair is impossible, that it “cannot possible be translated from ideality into reality.” With such a realization and the accompanying suffering, the knight of infinite resignation makes a “movement of infinity”, transfiguring his potent love for another person “into a love of the eternal being”.

Cutting all “the roots” which previously tied him to the world, “He lives in the finite, but does not have his life in it” – becoming “a stranger in the world of finitude”, unaffected by its sorrows and losses.

But the knight of infinite resignation has not attained faith.

In order to transform into the knight of faith, he must make a “double movement”: He must make the “movement of infinity”, renouncing everything finite and worldly, yet in the same moment make the movement of finitude, that is, have faith that he will regain what he renounced, be convinced that his highest earthly hope will be attained.

From the point of view of reason faith is ‘absurd’. Yet from the point of view of the knight of faith, who is convinced that “Spiritually speaking, everything is possible”, faith trumps reason: “the absurd is not the absurd – faith transforms it.”

Just like Abraham, the “father of faith” who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac upon God’s command, with faith that God would return Isaac to him in this life, so too the knight of faith renounces the finite, and in the same instant has faith that he will gain it all back, and experience it “more joyfully than the first time”.

“By virtue of resignation, that rich young man should have given away everything, but if he had done so, then the knight of faith would have said to him: By virtue of the absurd, you will get every penny back again—believe it!” (Kierkegaard)

Although stating in Fear and Trembling he has never found a “single authentic instance” of the knight of faith, Kierkegaard envisioned what it  would be like to encounter such an enigma.

“Here he is. The acquaintance is made, I am introduced to him. The instant I first lay eyes on him, I set him apart at once; I jump back, clap my hands, and say half aloud, “Good Lord, is this the man, is this really the one—he looks just like a tax collector!” But this is indeed the one.” (Kierkegaard)

Because he has resituated himself back into the finite world only after having renounced it, now relating to the world in and through his relationship to the Absolute, or God, in all outward appearances the knight of faith would look like a boringly ordinary individual, even appearing, as Kierkegaard noted, to be a philistine, or mass-man.

Outwardly, “it would be impossible to distinguish him from the rest of the crowd”, yet inwardly “this man has made and at every moment is making the movement of infinity”. Resting his self in the transcendent, he has attained the ideal relation between the infinite and finite: “the simultaneous maintenance of an absolute relationship to the absolute, and a relative relationship to the relative.” Living in this world, but not of the world, and thus not dependent on it, he can enjoy finite things and relationships without suffocating them with a desperate anxiety:

“…the finite tastes just as good to him as to one who never knew anything higher, because his remaining in finitude would have no trace of a timorous, anxious routine, and yet he has this security that makes him delight in it as if finitude were the surest thing of all…He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd. He is continually making the movement of infinity, but he does it with such precision and assurance that he continually gets finitude out of it, and no one ever suspects anything else.” (Fear and Trembling)

As for the claim it is possible the knight of faith is deluded, as there is no evidence that God or the Absolute exists, Kierkegaard readily agreed:

“I contemplate the order of nature in the hope of finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety. The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty.” (Kierkegaard)

The existence of the Absolute or God can never be “known” for certain, for it is an “objective uncertainty”, unreachable by intellectual pursuit. To live with faith is therefore a great risk, for one is always in danger of being deluded:

“Without risk, there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite  passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of  grasping God’s objectivity, I do not believe. If I  wish to preserve myself in faith I must  constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out  upon the deep, over seventy fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.” (Kierkegaard)

As faith requires an inward relationship to the Divine, it is only possible to exist religiously as a “single individual”. Every call from God is always addressed to one person, the single individual. Precisely in this lies the difficulty and the examination, that the one who is called must stand alone, walk alone, alone with God’ ( JP, I, p. 100).”

The individual who walks alone with God is one who has become a self, the attainment of which is the greatest of all tasks, “eternity’s demand upon him”. He has eradicated despair from the depths of his being, and become a fully realized and free individual. For this reason he has succeeded as a human being.

For when all is said and done, and the curtains are falling upon the life of every person, “eternity will demand of him that he shall have lived as an individual.” This can only be done through faith by relating oneself absolutely and passionately to the Absolute:

“Whether you are man or woman, rich or poor, dependent or free, happy or unhappy; whether you bore in your elevation the splendour of the crown or in humble obscurity only the toil and heat of the day; whether your name will be remembered for as long as the world lasts…or you are without a name and run namelessly with the numberless multitude…eternity asks you and every one of these millions of millions, just one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not…If then, if you have lived in despair, then whatever else you won or lost, for you everything is lost…” (Sickness Unto Death)

Further Readings