LEV SHESTOV \ Speculation and Revelation \ Soren Kierkegaard

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     We have spoken about Abraham's faith. Abraham decided to commit a deed that is one of the most staggering for the human imagination: he raised the knife over his only son, his hope, the comfort of his old age. For this, of course, enormous power is required; not in vain did Kierkegaard himself say that Abraham suspended the ethical. Abraham believed. In what did he believe? "Even in the moment," Kierkegaard writes, "when the knife glittered, he believed that God would not require Isaac... Let us go further. Let us assume that Isaac really was sacrificed. Abraham believed. He did not believe that someday he would be blessed in the beyond (as the ethic based on our reason teaches) but that here, in this world (Kierkegaard underscores this), he would be happy. God could give him another Isaac, could call the sacrificed Isaac back to life. He believed by virtue of the Absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function."

     To dispel every doubt about how he understood Abraham's faith and the meaning of his deed, Kierkegaard also introduces his own affair into the biblical narrative. Of course, he does not do this directly and openly. Of such things people do not speak openly and Kierkegaard, so much the more, does not do so: for this he invented his indirect communication. When an opportunity offers itself, by the way, he tells us: "What, for a man, his Isaac is, this everyone decides for himself and by himself." But one can guess the meaning and the concrete significance of these words only after one has heard the story Kierkegaard fabricated about the poor youth who fell in love with a princess. It is perfectly obvious to everyone that the youth will never obtain the princess as his wife. Ordinary common sense as well as the higher human wisdom (between which, finally, there is no essential difference) advise him in similar fashion to give up the dream of the impossible and to strive for the possible: a rich brewer's widow would be the most suitable match for him. But the youth, as if something had stung him, forgets common sense as well as the divine Plato and suddenly, just like Abraham, throws himself into the embrace of the Absurd. Reason refused to give him the princess whom it intended not for him but for a prince, and so the youth turns away from reason and tries his luck with the Absurd. He knows very well that in ordinary, everyday life there rules the profoundest certainty that the princess will never fall to his lot. "For reason" Kierkegaard writes, "was right: In our vale of sorrow, in which it is lord and master, this has been and remains an impossibility." He also knows that the wisdom bestowed upon men by the gods recommends in such cases, as the only way out of the situation that has been created, calm submission to the inevitable. And he even goes through this submission in the sense that, with all the clarity of which the human soul is capable, he takes account of the real. To another person, Kierkegaard explains, it would perhaps appear more tempting to kill in himself the wish to possess the princess, to blunt, so to speak, the sharp edge of sorrow. Such a person Kierkegaard calls a knight of resignation and even finds words of sympathy for him. "And yet," he declares, "it must be glorious to win the princess," and if the knight of resignation denies this, then he is a liar and his love was not a true love. Kierkegaard sets the knight of resignation over against the knight of faith. "Through faith, says this wonderful knight, through faith you must obtain her." And he says again: "And yet it must be glorious to win the princess." The knight of faith is the only lucky one: he is the heir apparent to the finite, while the knight of resignation is a stranger and a foreigner. But he admits, "So this movement I cannot make. As soon as I attempt it, everything turns around dizzily and I flee back to the pain of resignation. I can swim in life, but for this mystical soaring I am too heavy." And in his diaries we read, "If I had had faith, I would have remained with Regina."

     Why can a man who strives so passionately, so insanely for faith not find it? Why can he not follow Abraham and the poor youth who fell in love with the princess? Why did he become heavy and incapable of soaring? Why is his fate resignation, and why is the final audacity denied to him? This brings us to Kierkegaard's teaching about original sin and about sin in general, which is most closely bound up with his conception of biblical faith.

     For Kierkegaard "the opposite of sin is not virtue, but freedom" and at the same time "the opposite of sin is faith." Faith, only faith frees man from sin. Faith, only faith can tear man out of the power of the necessary truths that took possession of his consciousness after he had tasted of the fruits of the forbidden tree. And only faith gives man the courage and the power to look madness and death directly in the eyes and not bow down will-lessly before them. "Picture for yourself a man," Kierkegaard writes, "who with all the terror of a frightened imagination has represented to himself something horrible as absolutely not to be endured. Now it befalls him, precisely this terrible thing befalls him. Humanly speaking, his destruction is the most certain of all things... But for God all things are possible! This is the struggle of faith, which (if one would so express it) struggles insanely for possibility. For possibility is the only saving power... Finally only this, that for God everything is possible, is of help." Whether one will have faith is decided "only when, humanly speaking, there is no longer any possibility... God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means God, and only he whose being has been so shaken that he has become spirit by understanding that everything is possible, only he has had dealings with God." And in Kierkegaard's diary of the year 1848 we read a remarkable entry: "For God everything is possible; this thought is now in the deepest sense my watchword, it has gained for me a significance such as I would never have thought. That I in no moment may dare, because I see no way out, to say that therefore also for God there should be none. For this is despair and presumptuousness, to confuse one's bit of fantasy and the like with the possibility over which God disposes."

     You see here how far Kierkegaard is from that conception of faith that most people have. Faith is not confidence in that which parents, elders, teachers instill in us. Faith is a tremendous power arising out of the depths of the human spirit that is prepared and able to take up the struggle even when everything tells us that the struggle is condemned to failure beforehand. Kierkegaard, of course, is inspired by the great promise of the gospel: If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing will be impossible for you. And, mindful of the words of the prophets and apostles that human wisdom is folly before God, he decides to take up the great and final struggle - the struggle with human reason, insofar as reason wishes to be the only and final source of truth. That is why he turned, as I have already said, from Hegel and Greek philosophy and went for truth to the ignorant Job and the ignorant Abraham. And in every new book he attacks reason ever more passionately and unrestrainedly. With reference to Romans 14:23 he writes: "Everything that does not come of faith is sin. And this belongs to the most decisive definitions of all of Christianity, that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith."

     Kierkegaard repeats this tirelessly, as he also repeats that, in order to obtain faith, one must rid himself of reason. In his last works he expresses himself in the following way: "Faith is the opposite of reason, faith is at home on the other side of death." But what is the faith of which Holy Scripture tells? Kierkegaard's answer is: "Faith means just to lose reason in order to win God." Still earlier, in connection with Abraham and his sacrifice, Kierkegaard wrote, "What a tremendous paradox is faith! A paradox that can transform a murder into a holy, God-pleasing deed; a paradox which returns Isaac to Abraham; a paradox which no (customary) thinking can master, because faith begins precisely where (customary) thinking leaves off." Why does it leave off? Because for customary thinking here the realm of the impossible begins: it is impossible that the murder of a son should be a God-pleasing deed, it is impossible that anyone (be it God Himself) should call the slain Isaac back to life.

     But Kierkegaard thinks differently about all this. "The loss of possibility means either that everything has become necessary to a man or everything has become trivial... Philistinism, triviality also essentially lacks possibility..., it is absorbed into probability, in which the possible finds its insignificant place; thus it lacks sufficient possibility to take notice of God. Without imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience as to how things go, what is possible, what usually happens, whether the Philistine, by the way, is a tavern keeper or a minister of state... Philistinism means to be able to control possibility and to have decoyed this tremendous elasticity into the snare or the madhouse of probability." But by Philistinism one is not at all to understand a beer brewer or the philosophy of a beer brewer: Philistinism is everywhere that a man still relies on his powers, on his understanding (with all their undoubted brilliance, Hegel and Aristotle do not arrive beyond Philistinism), and it ceases only where despair begins, where reason shows with all obviousness that a man stands before the impossible, that for him everything has come to an end and forever, and that every further struggle is senseless - i.e., there and then when a man feels his utter impotence.

     Like no one else, Kierkegaard had to drink that bitterness which the consciousness of his impotence brings to a man. When he says that some terrible power has taken away his honor and his pride, he means thereby his impotence. The impotence that led to the point where when he lightly touched a beloved woman, she turned into a shadow. The impotence that led to the point where everything real was turned for him into a shadow. How did this happen? What kind of terrible power is this that can so devastate the human soul? In his diary he notes - not once but several times: "If I had had faith, I would have remained with Regina." This is not an "indirect communication" of the kind that he made in the name of the heroes of his narratives - this is already a direct testimony of a man about himself.

     Kierkegaard experienced absence of faith as impotence and impotence as an absence of faith. And through this terrible experience he learned what the majority of people do not even suspect: the absence of faith is the expression of the impotence of man, and in the impotence of a man is expressed the absence of faith. This explains to us his words that "the concept opposite to sin is not virtue but faith." Virtue - we have already heard this from him - rests on a person's own powers: the knight of resignation obtains for himself what he needs and, when he has obtained it, he finds spiritual peace and tranquility. But does a man become free in this way? Everything that does not come of faith is sin, says Kierkegaard, recalling the enigmatic words of the apostle. Is, consequently, the peace and calm of the knight of resignation sin? Was, consequently, Socrates, who, to the astonishment of his disciples and all future generations, accepted the cup of poison so calmly from the hands of the jailor, a sinner? The best, the wisest of men contented himself with the status of a knight of resignation; he accepted his impotence before necessity as unavoidable and therefore also as morally obligatory and, several hours before his death, maintained calmness and peace in the souls of his disciples through edifying speeches. Can one go farther than Socrates? asks Kierkegaard. Many centuries after Socrates the famous stoic Epictetus, faithful to the spirit of his incomparable teacher, wrote that the beginning of philosophy is the consciousness of impotence before necessity. For Epictetus this consciousness is, as for Socrates, at the same time the end of philosophy, or, more precisely, philosophical thinking is completely determined through a man's conviction of his absolute impotence before the necessity that rules in the world.

     Socratic virtue does not save a man from sin. The virtuous man is a knight of resignation. He has experienced all the shame and terror that are connected with impotence and on this has come to a stop. He cannot move further. He can go nowhere further; it is impossible for him. Why has he come to a stop? Whence came this "nowhere" and this "impossible?" Kierkegaard answers that they were brought to man by his reason, the source of all our knowledge and all our morality. But does not reason itself, when it imagines that it is the only source of truth and morality, find itself in the power of some hostile power that has so bewitched it that the accidental and the transient seem to it unavoidable and eternal? And does not ethics, which suggests to a man that submission to his fate is the highest virtue, find itself in the same position as reason? It also has been bewitched by a mysterious magic: where it promises man bliss and salvation, there ruin lies in wait for him. This is the paradox, the Absurd, that remained hidden to Socrates but was revealed in Holy Scripture, in the narrative of the Book of Genesis about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the fall of the first man.


     The fall into sin, to which Kierkegaard dedicated one of his most remarkable books, The Concept of Dread, has disturbed human thought since the most distant times. All people have felt that not everything in the world is well and that much even is very bad, and they have made enormous and extremely strenuous efforts to obtain clarity about whence this came. It is necessary to say that Greek philosophy as well as the philosophy of other peoples, including those of the Far East, answered this question in a way completely opposite to that which we find in the narrative of the Book of Genesis. One of the first great Greek philosophers, Anaximander, says in the fragment that has been preserved from him, "From whence their birth came to individual creatures, thence also, by necessity, destruction will come to them. At the appointed time they suffer punishment and receive retribution from one another for their iniquity." This thought of Anaximander runs through all of ancient philosophy: the appearance of individual things, mainly, of course, living beings and preeminently men, is considered a criminal, wicked audacity, the just retribution for which is death and annihilation. The idea that coming into being inevitably entails destruction is the point of departure of ancient and all of European philosophy; it stood importunately, I repeat, before the founders of the religions and philosophies of the Far East. The natural thinking of man at all times and among all peoples involuntarily halted, as if bewitched, before fateful necessity, which brought into the world the terrible law of death, inseparably connected with the birth of all things that have emerged and that will emerge. In the very existence of men reason discovered something improper - a defect, a sickness, a sin - and, accordingly, wisdom demanded a radical overcoming of this sin, that is to say a renunciation of being, which, since it has a beginning, is condemned by everlasting laws to an inevitable end. The Greek katharsis, i.e., moral purification, has as its origin the conviction that the immediate data of consciousness, which testify to the inevitable destruction of everything that is born, reveal to us a universal, eternal, immutable and forever insuperable truth. Real, true being must be sought not among ourselves and not for ourselves but where the power of the law of birth and annihilation ends, that is to say, where there is no birth and therefore also no annihilation. From this speculative philosophy took its beginning. The law of the inevitable destruction of everything that has arisen and was created which was revealed to intellectual vision appears to us as eternally inherent in all being. Greek philosophy was as unshakably convinced of this as the wisdom of the Hindus; and we, who are separated from the ancient Greeks and Hindus by thousands of years, are just as incapable of tearing ourselves away from the power of this most self-evident truth as those who first discovered it and showed it to us.

     Only the Book of Books, the Bible, constitutes an enigmatic exception in this respect. In it is told the exact opposite of that which people perceived through their intellectual vision. Everything, we read at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, was made by the Creator, everything had a beginning. But this not only is not seen as the condition of the decay, imperfection, corruption, and sinfulness of being, but in it is the assurance of all possible good in the universe. To put it differently: God's act of creation is the source and, moreover, the only source of all good. In the evening of each day of creation God, having looked at everything that He had brought into being, said, "It is good." And on the last day, when He considered everything created by Him, God saw that everything was very good. The world as well as the people (whom God blessed) brought into being by the Creator were perfect and had no defects whatever precisely because they were created by Him. In the created world there was no evil, there was also no sin from which evil took its beginning. Evil and sin came only later. From where? To this question Scripture gives a definite answer. God planted in the Garden of Eden, among other trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And he said to the first man: "You may eat of the fruits of all the trees, but do not eat the fruits of the tree of knowledge, for on the day that you eat thereof you will surely die. But the tempter - in the Bible he is called the serpent, who was more crafty than all the beasts created by God - said: "No you will not die, but your eyes will be opened and you will become like God, knowing." The man yielded to the temptation, he tasted the forbidden fruits, his eyes were opened, and he became knowing. What was revealed to him? What did he learn? The same thing revealed itself to him as to the Greek philosophers and the Hindu sages: the divine "very good" did not justify itself, for in the created world not everything is good, in the created world there cannot - precisely because it is created - be lacking evil, and indeed much and unendurable evil. This is attested with indisputable evidence by our reason and everything that surrounds us - the "immediate data of consciousness" - and whoever looks at the world with open eyes, whoever "knows," cannot judge otherwise on this matter. From that moment when man became knowing or, to put it differently, together with knowledge and through knowledge, sin entered the world and, after sin, evil and all the terrors of our life. So according to the Bible.

     Before us, men of the twentieth century, stands the same question that stood before the ancients: Whence comes sin, whence come all the terrors of life? Is there a defect in being itself, which, because it is created, because it has a beginning, must be burdened inevitably, by reason of an eternal, totally independent (even of God) law, with imperfection, through which it is condemned beforehand to destruction? Or do sin and evil lie in "knowing," in opened eyes, in "intellectual vision," that is to say, do they come from the fruits of the forbidden tree? Hegel, who absorbed in himself all of European thinking through the twenty-five hundred years of its existence, asserts without any hesitation whatever that the serpent did not deceive man, that the fruits of the tree of knowledge became the Source of philosophy for all future times. And it must be said: historically Hegel is right. The fruits of the tree of knowledge actually became the source of philosophy, the source of thinking for all future times. The philosophers, indeed, not only the heathen but also the Jewish and Christian philosophers who relied on the Bible and considered it a book inspired by God, all wished to be knowing and would not have agreed to renounce the fruits of the forbidden tree at any cost. Sin did not come from the fruits of the tree of knowledge; nothing bad can come from knowledge. Whence do people have such a certainty that evil cannot come from knowledge? No one raises such a question. It occurs to no one that it is possible to seek and find truth in Holy Scripture. Truth must be sought only in one's own reason, and only that which reason recognizes as truth is truth. Not the serpent but God deceived men.

     Kierkegaard lived at a time when Hegel was the dominant intellectual influence in Europe. He could, of course, not but feel himself entirely in the power of the Hegelian philosophy. Hegel, who repeated what philosophy had taught for twenty-five hundred years, proclaimed that everything that is real is rational, in other words, that all the terrors of reality must be accepted and approved by man. But when Kierkegaard, by the will of fate, had to collide with these terrors and himself live through them, he grasped the deep and shattering meaning of the biblical narrative about the fall of the first man. Men exchanged faith, which defined the relationship of the creature to the Creator and which signified totally unlimited freedom and boundless possibilities, for knowledge, for slavish dependence on dead and deadening eternal principles. Knowledge did not lead man to freedom, as speculative philosophy proclaims, but knowledge enslaved us, handed us over to the eternal truths for wholesale pillage.

     But how did this happen? How could man in the state of innocence be seduced by the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and believe the tempter who promised him that, if he tasted the forbidden fruits, he would "become like God?" In his book The Concept of Dread Kierkegaard, approaching the question of innocent man's fall, writes, "In this state (of innocence) there is peace and repose, but at the same time there is something different which is not dissension and strife, for there is nothing with which to strive. What is it then? Nothing. But what effect does nothing produce? It engenders dread. This is the deep secret of innocence, that at the same time it is dread." What is this dread before nothing? Here Kierkegaard's experience, which breaks through all the prohibitions laid upon our thinking by reason and morality, reveals to us astonishing things. "Dread," he says, "can be likened to dizziness. He whose eye chances to look down into a gaping abyss becomes dizzy... This dread (of man in the state of innocence) is the dizziness of freedom... In this dizziness freedom succumbs. Further than this psychology cannot and also does not wish to go. At that very moment everything is altered, and when freedom again arises it sees that it is guilty... Dread is a womanish impotence in which freedom swoons. Psychologically speaking, the fall into sin always occurs in impotence." Kierkegaard engrosses himself with strained concentration in the consideration of the nothing that reveals itself to him and the connection between the nothing and dread. "If we ask further," he writes in another passage of the same book, "what the object of dread is, then it must be answered as usual: it is nothing. Dread and anxiety regularly correspond to one another. So soon as the actuality of freedom and of the spirit is posited dread is abolished. But now what does nothing mean more closely in the dread of paganism? It is fate..., fate is precisely the unity of necessity and chance. This has found an ingenious expression, that fate is blind; he who goes forward blindly moves just as much by necessity as by chance. A necessity that is not conscious of itself is eo ipso contingency, in relation to the next moment, chance. Fate then is the nothing of dread."

     The most brilliant man, Kierkegaard explains further on, is incapable of overcoming the idea of fate through his own power. "Therefore the genius is constantly discovering fate, and the deeper the genius, the deeper he discovers it... Genius displays its primitive power in that it discloses fate, and thereby in turn it displays its impotence." And he closes his reflections with the challenging words: "Such an existence of genius is, despite its luster, its glory, its far-reaching significance - sin. To understand this requires courage, and he who has not learned to satisfy the hunger of the yearning soul will hardly understand it. And yet it is so."

     Kierkegaard varies in all kinds of ways the ideas expressed in the just quoted extracts which culminate in his assertion that dread before nothing leads to the swoon of freedom, that man becomes powerless after the loss of freedom and in his impotence accepts fate as omnipotent necessity and is convinced of this all the more the sharper his mind and the more powerful his talent is. Kierkegaard accepts completely the biblical narrative of the fall of the first man. The genius, the greatest genius, whom all admire and whom all consider a benefactor of mankind, whom immortal fame awaits in posterity, precisely because he is a genius, because he trusts entirely in his reason and with his sharp and wakeful eye penetrates into the final depths of being - is the greatest sinner, the sinner par excellence. Socrates, in that moment when he discovered in the world the universal and necessary truths that still today are the precondition of objective knowledge, repeated Adam~ s crime. He tasted the fruits of knowledge, and the empty nothing transformed itself for him into necessity which, like the head of Medusa, turns everyone who looks at it to stone. And he never even suspected the significance of what he was doing, as also our primal ancestor did not suspect it when he accepted from the hand of Eve the fruit that was so enticing to look at. In the words uttered by the tempter, "You shall be like God, knowing good and evil," was hidden the seemingly insuperable power of nothing, which paralyzed the will of man that had been free until then. Kierkegaard formulates this again in the words, "God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means God...but the fatalist has no God, or, what is the same thing, his God is necessity."

     Kierkegaard rejects the Greek idea of the power of necessity which was brought into the world by reason. In this also lies the meaning of his words, "To obtain God, one must renounce reason." He also rejects the Greek idea that the ethical is the highest, as well as the Greek certainty that freedom is the possibility of choosing between good and evil. Such freedom is the freedom of the fallen man, it is slavery. True freedom is possibility. The possibility of salvation is where our reason says that all possibility has ended. And only faith, faith alone gives man the power and the courage to look madness and death in the face. Speculative philosophy submits to the inevitable; existential philosophy overcomes it. For existential philosophy necessity transforms itself into the powerless nothing. In this conviction lies the source of Kierkegaard's teaching. For while no one has power over necessity, as the Greeks understood it, God has power over the sin committed by men. "God sent his only begotten son into the world," Luther teaches, "and laid upon him all the sins of men, in that he said: Be thou Peter that denier, Paul that persecutor, blasphemer of God, and man of violence, David that adulterer, that sinner who ate the apple in Paradise." Reason cannot grasp this, our ethics is enraged by it. But God is above ethics and above our reason. He takes upon Himself our sins and annihilates the terrors of life.

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