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Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy


The Suspension of the Ethical

Abraham oversteps the boundaries of the ethical... Either the ethical is not supreme or Abraham is lost.


     "From my early youth," says Kierkegaard, "I have lived a perpetual contradiction: to others I appear uncommonly gifted, but in the depths of my soul I know that I am fit for nothing." [IV, 218] Who was right, those others who considered Kierkegaard to be uncommonly gifted, or the man himself who knew that he was fit for nothing? Can one even pose such a question in regard to Kierkegaard? He himself says: "It is only in a religious way that I can understand myself, alone before God. But between me and others there stands the wall of misunderstanding. I have no common language with them." [IV, 318] Just so; how are we to reconcile Kierkegaard's inquiries with that which "everybody" is seeking? "Everybody" considers him a very gifted man; he knows that he is fit for nothing. Everybody supposes that he suffers because of trifles, but for him, his suffering is a universally historic event. His certainty that "everybody" will never consent to admit that his "sufferings" are worthy of any attention whatever makes it impossible for him to share his secret with others; this forces his anguish to an extreme pitch and it becomes unendurable. Where are we to find a court of law to judge between Kierkegaard and "everybody," between Kierkegaard and the "general"? Is there indeed such a court?

     At first glance it seems that there is not even a question here: it is wholly evident that the individual must first of all be prepared to give in to the general, however difficult this may be for him, and he must be ready to find the meaning of his existence in this act of conforming. Moreover, and this is the most important thing, what specific gravity do such words as suffering, torment, horror, possess with regard to truth, whether they be uttered by Kierkegaard, or Job, or Abraham? Job says: "Oh, that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sands of the sea." Even Kierkegaard decided not to repeat these words of Job's. What would Socrates have said, had he been able to hear such a thing? Can a "thinking" man talk this way? Nevertheless, Kierkegaard left the distinguished philosopher Hegel for Job, the "private thinker," solely because Job dared to talk like that. Job, as he expresses himself in Kierkegaard's words, also "withdrew from the general," also had no common language with others. The horrors that befell Job drove him to madness, and "human cowardice cannot bear what death and madness have to say about life." [III, 185] Kierkegaard continually repeats that most people do not even suspect what terrible things life conceals within itself. But is Kierkegaard "right," is Job right? Isn't it an indisputable and self-evident truth that madness and death are "simply" the end of everything, just as it is indisputably and self-evidently true that the calamities and griefs of Job, and even of all humanity, will not on any scales outweigh the sands of the sea? And does not "everyone," that is, he who does not know and does not want to know the horrors of life, thus find himself more favorably situated to grasp the truth than a person who has experienced these things?

     We now come to Kierkegaard's basic question: on whose side is the truth; on the side of "everybody" and "everybody's cowardice," or on the side of those who have dared to look madness and death in the eye? It was for this and this alone that Kierkegaard forsook Hegel and turned to Job, and at that moment determined the characteristics that distinguish existential philosophy from speculative philosophy. To abandon Hegel meant to renounce Reason and rush toward the Absurd without a backward glance. However, as we shall presently see, the path to the Absurd proved to be barricaded by "ethics"; it was necessary to suspend not only reason, but' also the ethical. In his journals Kierkegaard says that he who wishes to understand existential philosophy must understand the meaning concealed in the words "suspension of the ethical." As long as the "ethical" stands in the way, it is impossible to break through to the Absurd. The truth is (and this must be said now) that if we do not turn from the path of the "ethical," we cannot penetrate to the Absurd; but this still does not mean that the "ethical" is the only obstacle existential philosophy must overcome. The greatest difficulty lies ahead.

     We already know that the ethical originated at the same time and had the same parents as the rational, and that necessity is obligation's own sister. When Zeus, compelled by necessity to limit man's rights over his world and his body, decided to give him something "better, from the gods themselves," by way of compensation for what he had lost, the "ethical" was that something better. The gods were able to save themselves and human beings from necessity by one stratagem alone: obligation. Having suspended the ethical and having refused the gift of the pagan gods, man finds himself faced with necessity. And here there is no longer a choice; one must enter into a final desperate battle with necessity, a battle from which even the gods would shrink, and the outcome of which no one can predict. Or to be more accurate: as much as we would like to predict it, it must be said that we cannot be of two minds about this. Even the gods do not contend with necessity; the greatest sages have retreated before necessity. Not just Plato and Aristotle, but Socrates himself admitted that no one can fight against it and, inasmuch as a struggle for the unattainable is unthinkable, it follows that there ought not to be any struggle. If at this point there is anyone who does not see where the meeting ground between the rational and the ethical lies, then perhaps he will see it flow: as soon as reason looks at necessity and announces "Impossible," the ethical is right alongside to say "You must."

     The words that the friends of Job addressed to that tormented old man, lying in filth, show them to be no less educated than the Greek philosophers. Their lengthy speeches, put more concisely, all come down to what Socrates was in the habit of saying, or, if we may believe Epictetus, what Zeus said to Chryssip: if it is impossible to prevail, then men and gods alike must accept their fate. And on the other hand, if a brief version of Job's answer to his friends is wanted, it could be stated this way: nowhere in the world is there a force strong enough to make him "accept" what happened to him as proper and unquestionable. In other words, not just necessity's "right" but also its "power" is being questioned. To be exact, does necessity really have the power to arrange the fates of men and of the world? Is this a "self-evident truth" or a dreadful nightmare? How did it happen, how could it happen, that human beings accepted this power and humbled themselves before it? Furthermore, how could the "ethical," which men associate with all that is most important, most essential, most valuable in life, come forward with its "you must" to champion that meaningless, disgusting, dull, stupid, blind thing, Necessity? Can a man live in peace as long as he is dominated by necessity? Is it possible for him not to give in to despair if he has convinced himself that necessity, not satisfied with the methods of outward coercion at its disposal, has managed to win over to its side his own "conscience," and forced it to sing the praises of its evil deeds?

     It was this that drove Kierkegaard away from Hegel and speculative philosophy to Job, the "private thinker." Job demonstrated the "breadth of his concept of the world by the firmness with which he opposes all the subterfuges and attacks of 'ethics,'" [III, 192] writes Kierkegaard. Let Job's friends "berate" him as much as they please, he goes on to say, let not only those friends, but all of the wisest men of all times and nations, berate him in order to convince him of the justness of the "ethical," which demands that he cheerfully submit to the fate which has befallen him. For Job, the ethical's "you must" is an empty phrase, and the "metaphysical consolations" that his friends tossed at him by the handful simply nonsense. And not because his friends were not sufficiently wise and educated. On the contrary, they had mastered all human wisdom and would have been ornaments to any Hellenic symposium. By quoting their words, Philo was able to prove without difficulty that the great Greeks drew their wisdom from the Bible—not, it is true, from the Prophets and Psalmists, but from the opinion expressed by Job's friends: ethics (obligation) is the shield of necessity; a person has no right to wish for the impossible. Precisely: if reason, which is all-seeing, can determine exactly where the possible ends and the impossible begins, then ethics, which shields reason and is supported by it, is safe and sound in the saecula saeculorum, and the wisdom of Job's friends becomes holy, just like the wisdom of the Greeks.

     If?! But here the question arises: what sort of thing is this necessity? And how does it hold on to its power? Why is it that both men and gods behave as though bewitched by it, and dare not or cannot renounce their obedience to it? Once more I repeat the question I posed earlier: how did it happen that ethics, invented by the wisest of men, acted in support of this power and gave it its blessing? Before the court of ethics, it is not Job who is right but his friends; an intelligent person cannot think it probable that the laws of the universe will be remade for his benefit, cannot demand this! But that is just the way Job behaves; he does not want to "think anything probable," he does not want to think... he demands, and has but one answer to everything put forward by his friends: "Miserable comforters are ye all." Kierkegaard echoes Job, sacrifices Hegel for his sake, suspends ethics, renounces reason and all the great conquests that humanity, thanks to reason, has made in the course of its age-old history. To everything suggested to him so far by his teachers he replies as though in oblivion, not with words but with sounds that our ears can scarcely distinguish; and he does not even give an answer, but cries with all his might: "What power is this, that has taken from me my honor and my pride, and in such a meaningless way?" He cries out as if his cries had some force, as if he expects that those cries, like the trumpets at Jericho, will make the walls begin to topple.

     Where, then, is the "absurdity"—in the power that took from Job (more precisely, from Kierkegaard) his honor and his pride, or in Kierkegaard's fantasy of walls toppling because of his cries? it is true that something unheard of, almost unbelievable, had happened to him, something neither he nor others could comprehend: he, a man like any other, found himself beyond the protection of the laws. Suddenly, without any apparent reason, he was exiled for life from the realm of reality; everything he touched was transformed into a shadow, just as everything the mythical Midas touched turned into gold. For what reason? why? Job's friends, like Kierkegaard's friends, had no particular difficulty finding enough, and more than enough, reasons for this. That both Job and Kierkegaard are insignificant links in the endless chain of the universe's endlessly changing phenomena is in itself a completely satisfactory explanation for a person of "normal" consciousness. Even Job himself at the beginning, when news of his first misfortunes began to arrive, said with dignified serenity, in full compliance with the demands of the ethical, as befits a wise man: the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away (just as Socrates would have spoken, so Epictetus assures us, if he had been in Priam's or Oedipus' situation). But the more misfortunes rained down upon him, the more impatient he became and the more suspect grew his "knowledge" of the inescapable and the irrevocable, and his moral philosophy, which had inspired his readiness to accept cheerfully the fate which had befallen him. "The greatness of Job," says Kierkegaard, "manifests itself not when he says: the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord—this is how he spoke in the beginning, and afterward he did not say it again; the significance of Job is in the fact that he carried his fight to the boundaries where faith begins." [III, 191] And once more: "The greatness of Job is that his suffering can neither be allayed nor suppressed by lies and empty promises." [Ibid., 189]

     All this is so. But it is still not the main point. The main point, both for Job himself and for Kierkegaard, is to be found elsewhere—least of all in the greatness of Job. Is Job really in need of compliments and distinctions? Is he really waiting for any scrap at all of approval from any source whatsoever? Does not even Kierkegaard have to be reminded about this, Kierkegaard, who turned to Job for the very reason that Job had "suspended the ethical"? The question here is not whether Job was or was not a great man or a worthy man; all such questions were abandoned long ago. The question is whether it is possible to go against the eternal laws of nature, armed with shouts, laments, and curses; or, as we would put it, with bare hands. Job perhaps did not know, but Kierkegaard knew, that in modern philosophy this question is settled once and for all: non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere [do not laugh, do not weep, do not curse, but understand]. This is Spinoza's thesis, with which there can be no quarrel. And if the existential philosophy of Job, the "private thinker," wishes to turn this thesis around and expects to get the truth not from understanding but from its own wails and curses, then it is hardly fitting to transfer these questions to the level of a subjective evaluation of Job's personality. Nevertheless, it is not by chance that Kierkegaard twice speaks of the greatness of Job. Apropos of this, he has no difficulty explaining why Job shows himself to be great not when he speaks the words: "The Lord gave and the Lord bath taken away," but when he says so passionately that his grief is heavier than the sands of the sea. Who decides in these cases where greatness lies and where insignificance?

     But what if the opposite is true: if Job is great as long as he accepts his misfortunes with inward serenity, but he becomes pitiful, contemptible, and ridiculous when he loses his serenity and peace of mind. Who is to resolve this question? Up to that time Job had been completely subject to the jurisdiction of ethics. We even have a ready-made formula for this, minted long ago by the Greeks. Cicero and Seneca put it in these words: fata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt. A man whom fate drags along as if he were a drunkard being taken to the police station cannot be called great: the great man is he who goes of his own will when fate has ordained that he should go. Oedipus cried out, wept, and cursed, but Socrates, as Epictetus has explained to us, would have been just as imperturbably serene in Oedipus' place as he was when he accepted the cup of poison from his jailer. There can be no question that were Socrates and Job to come together before the court of ethics, Job would lose the case. Kierkegaard is aware of this. He knows that the only way for Job to get what he wants is to impugn the competence of ethics in his case. He writes: "Job was blessed; everything that he had possessed before was returned to him twofold. This is called repetition... And so it is repetition. When does it begin? Human language has no way of expressing that. When did it begin for Job? When every conceivable probability, every reliable indication, told him it was impossible." And here, drawing a parallel between his own experience and Job's, he goes on to say: "I am waiting for the storm and the repetition. What is the repetition to bring me? It must make me capable of being a husband." [III, 193, 194]

     Is there any hint in all this of that which we call greatness? Is ethics at all interested in the fact that Job recovered his cattle, his gold, and even his children (and twofold at that)? Is ethics interested in whether Kierkegaard regains his ability to be a husband? The "blessings of this world," as the spirit defines them, are of no concern: Kierkegaard himself tells us this at the end of Repetition. And he goes on to explain that everything finite becomes insignificant for a person with a proper understanding of his relationship with God. But then, this was known long ago to the wise men of pagan times, who invented self-regulated (autonomous) ethics. And if it is true that everything worldly is a matter of indifference to the spirit, and the essence of the "religious" is that it teaches one to scorn what is finite, then why bother, why turn away from Socrates? Why take up arms against Hegel? Hegel, too, taught that everything finite is in the process of development, has no independent meaning, and takes on significance only in that endless process. There was, moreover, no need to bother about repetition or to announce solemnly that "repetition is fated to play an important role in the new philosophy," and that "the new philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition." [Ibid., 119]

     What if Job regains his cattle, and Kierkegaard his ability to be a husband—these cannot seriously matter to anyone and it is unnecessary to turn such trifles into universally historic events. Job would have wept, would have cried out, and would have fallen silent. Kierkegaard, too, finally ceased his weeping and cursing; for not only are life's blessings (which they were both denied) transitory things: Kierkegaard and Job themselves were no less transitory than their cries, tears, and curses. Eternity swallows up everything, as the sea swallows the rivers emptying into it and becomes no fuller thereby. And in the long run even the praise and censure of the ethical come to nothing in the limitless expanse of eternity. Yes, as we have seen, neither Job nor Kierkegaard had need of them. They sought repetition, which human reasoning, knowing full well what is possible and what is impossible, absolutely refused them. On the other hand, it never refuses to praise anyone, on the condition, of course, that the person humble himself, admit that what is real is rational, and with the pure joy characteristic of a spiritual nature accept the fate, however burdensome, that falls to his lot. Kierkegaard knows this and now and then is even tempted by it. It is all very well if Job can overcome necessity and attain repetition! But what if he should fall in the unequal struggle? It is all very well if Holy Scripture does contain truth of which the ancient philosophers knew nothing! But what if Philo was right and one should accept from the Bible only that which does not contradict the wisdom of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? And what if even the despised Hegel was right in summoning religion before the court of reason?

     These misgivings never entirely left Kierkegaard. That is why he spoke only of the "suspension of the ethical," although he was aware that more was called for, that for him the moment of that most inexorable either/or was approaching. He himself at times speaks of this with great power and intensity. "Abraham," we read in Fear and Trembling, "by his own action oversteps the boundaries of the ethical. His telos ("goal") lay further on, beyond the ethical; fixing his gaze upon this telos, he suspends the ethical." And once more: "We find ourselves faced with a paradox. Either the individual, as such, stands in absolute relationship to the Absolute, in which case the ethical is not supreme; or Abraham is lost." [III, 56 and 107] Still, the ethical is suspended only to make possible a return to its protective shadow if need be (i.e., in the case of Job's victory over necessity), even though that would require Kierkegaard to subscribe to the sentence passed on Abraham. This instinctive caution in a thinker who was otherwise always impulsive is profoundly significant. The fight he has taken up is too daring; even the boldest of men cannot avoid being frightened by it. Everything has been taken from Kierkegaard. He has "withdrawn from the general," he is "deprived of the protection of the laws." And then for him to refuse the protection of ethics, which has the power to pronounce us laudabiles vel vituperabiles! This is why (and I shall speak of this further on in greater detail) Kierkegaard persistently introduces an ethical element into his understanding of "religious thought" and attaches more and more significance to this element in each succeeding book.

     We will recall that he was speaking of the "greatness of Job" as early as Repetition, and it is there that he calls religious persons "aristocratic natures." [III, 204] In The Sickness Unto Death he even often uses his opinions on ethics to support his opinions on religion, as if he had forgotten what he said about the relationship between the religious and the ethical, that if the ethical is supreme, then Abraham is lost. "What determining factor did Socrates (i.e., the pagan world in its best aspect) fail to consider in his definition of sin? Human will, human stubbornness. Greek intellectualism was too genial, too naïve, too esthetic, too ironical, too clever, too sinful, to understand that anyone can consciously refrain from doing a good thing, or consciously (i.e., knowing what is right) do something wrong. The Greeks proposed an intellectual categorical imperative." [VIII, 87, 90] At first glance, this seems true: Socrates taught that no one who knows what good is will do evil. But this has nothing in common with what Kierkegaard says about the pagan world. One need only recall Alcibiades' speech in Plato's Symposium in order to be won over to the opposite side. Or Ovid's video meliora, proboque, deteriora sequor [I see what is good and I approve of it but follow what is bad], quoted by almost all philosophers (among them Leibniz and Spinoza), along with the corresponding words of the Apostle Paul.

     Just as though he had never read The Symposium or heard of that line by Ovid (he must have read it, if not in Ovid's own writings, then in Spinoza's work, where it is quoted several times), Kierkegaard goes on to say: "Where is the confusion? It is in the fact that the dialectical transition from understanding to action is lacking. The role of Christianity begins here, at this transition; now it becomes clear that sin lies in will, and we arrive at the concept of stubbornness." There can hardly be any doubt that these words open up the possibility of a restitutio in integrum of the "ethical" that Socrates brought to mankind and which, at the decisive moment, Abraham had to "suspend." But we already know what protected the ethical and from what it drew its power and strength. Moreover, Kierkegaard is here speaking not on his own behalf, not on behalf of philosophy, but in the name of Christianity. He sees sin in human stubbornness, in the obstinacy of the will, which does not consent to obey decrees emanating from a higher power. In that respect, however, Job was the sinner par excellence; his sin was in not wanting to adhere to the traditional "the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away," daring instead to show resentment of the ordeals which had descended upon him. Job's friends spoke the truth: Job is a rebel, an insurrectionist, opposing his own will to the eternal laws of the universe in a blasphemous and wicked manner. It is not from Hegel to Job that one must flee, but from Job to Hegel; not from the general to the particular, but from the particular to the general. As for Socrates, not only is he outside Christianity, but he has no equal within Christianity itself. Abraham became a transgressor when he resolved to pass beyond the realm of the ethical. The Absurd, in which Kierkegaard sought protection, protects nothing; behind ethics and its "you must," Necessity, with its heavy, stone-like tread, is closing in on helpless man.

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