May 5, 2012

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard

soren kierkegaard birthday main works: fear and trembling sickness unto death philosophical fragments present age key themes: faith reason philosophy god publicity public opinion paradox christian religion
More than half of my life now, Søren Kierkegaard has occupied a top seat in the shifting chorus of my favorite philosophers -- something one would hardly guess by looking at my scholarship, which has focused much more upon other thinkers: Aristotle, St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas,Thomas Hobbes, G.W.F. Hegel, Maurice Blondel, Alasdair MacIntyre, each of which I've found sufficiently fascinating to be drawn into reading and rereading, taking notes upon then writing, and when lucky, publishing articles about, each one of them a great philosopher in his own right, worth studying, engaging in intellectual dialogue and musing reflection full-time the rest of my remaining lifetime.

Yet, given the choice at any given moment about whose book to pull off the shelf, crack the pages open, and begin reading anew, I find it tempting not to select Kierkegaard, particularly these days his Philosophical Fragments, The Concept of Irony, and The Sickness Unto Death. That attraction has altered over time, not so much changed in the sense of transmuting entirely from one thing, away from that and towards yet another, different thing in its place.  Rather, I'd say, as with a wine, or port, or liquor whose aging permits flavors, scents, textures, already there to be sure but only in potency, to unknot their bonds, to freely mingle and wax into a more complex, symphonic taste -- that's what happened with my appreciation of Kierkegaard, though along these lines of analogy, it would be better to say that my palate gradually took on the sharpness to distinguish and more deeply enjoy drinking in the flights of draughts he assembles and then offers.

I must admit that when I first encountered him as an undergraduate, what attracted me principally was his opposition to anything that effaced the individual, that favored the crowd, society, derivative mentality and sentiments -- a certain kind of existentialist Kierkegaard.  I'd say, struggling to reminisce myself back into the mindset of  the younger, brasher though less assured, more readily and rancorously argumentative self I was, loyal but lacking in faith, from half a lifetime back, I particularly admired and went back frequently to read an cull lines from his essay The Present Age, primarily because I mistook it as simply a diatribe against anything which leveled people and their individuality, which effaced distinctions of greater and lesser worth, which lulled people into acceptance and transmission of widely held and infinitely malleable (because only surface deep) opinions.
The present age tends towards a mathematical equality in which it takes so and so many to make one individual.  Formerly the outstanding individual could allow himself everything and the individual in the masses nothing at all.  Now everyone knows that so and so many make an individual, and quite consistently people add themselves together. . .  for the most trivial purposes.

the fact that several people united together have the courage to meet death does not nowadays mean that each, individually, has the courage, for even more than death the individual fears the judgement and protest of reflection upon his wishing to risk something on his own.
No single individual . . .  will be able to arrest the abstract process of leveling, for it is negatively something higher. . . No society or association can arrest that abstract power, simply because an association is itself in the service of the leveling process.
In order that everything should be reduced to the same level it is first of all necessary to procure a phantom, a spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage -- and that phantom is the public. . . .The public is, in fact, the real leveling-master rather than the actual leveler, for whenever leveling is only approximately accomplished, it is done by something, but the public is a monstrous nothing.
Making Kierkegaard over to speak to what I was interested in -- perhaps only what I was ready for -- hearing about, I missed so much more going on in that short text.  Looking back at that time of my life and my so-selective reading, from the vantage point afforded by a decade of further study and another decade teaching, during which I have encountered so many young bright students similarly revealing in written papers and class conversations blinkered vision understandably seeing on the page only what fit frames of their own concerns and assumptions, I'm less and less surprised by how much I simply dismissed in his passionately, yes, but also equally carefully articulated thought.

I was unequipped to read that work as a careful analysis on several levels of various possibilities of the human condition, configured differently from one age, to the next, then to the present and still ongoing one of modernity, incorporating rather than just invoking sophisticated concepts, some of them Kierkegaard's own lasting contributions to philosophical though, some of them classic ideas corresponding to realities philosophers thought important enough to examine, identify, and describe, taking on new life and shapes in Kierkegaard's hands. Just to take one example, in a passage like:
The principle of individuality in its immediate and beautiful formation symbolizes the generation in the outstanding and eminent individual;  it groups subordinate individuals around the representative.  The principle of individuality, in its eternal truth, uses the abstraction and equality of the generation to level down, and in that way cooperates in developing the individual religiously into a real man. For the leveling process is as powerful where temporary things are concerned as it is impotent where eternal things are concerned.  Reflection is a snare in which one is caught but, once the "leap" of enthusiasm has been taken, the relation is a different one and it becomes a noose which drags one into eternity.  Reflection is and remains the hardest creditor in existence; hitherto it has cunningly bought up all the possible views of life, but it cannot buy the essentially religious and eternal view of life. . . .
I cannot say I was entirely clueless as to Kierkegaard's predilection for contrasting the temporal with the eternal.  I could at least make the association between a "leap of enthusiasm" and a "leap of faith."  But the notion that the best resource that could keep the individual in the present age from being swallowed was some sort of religious orientation, let alone the fathomless object towards which a religious perspective orients a person, or a personality and relation irreducible to oneself or to another merely human person on the other side of the leap -- what I did understand of that, which was relatively little, I rejected -- a resource provided by the "religious" became in my eyes, unaccustomed to reading well, merely a refuge.

I could resonate with his lament:
The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or to his science;  he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction  to which he is subjected by reflection, just as a serf belongs to an estate.
so long as the first possible subject of belonging was understood to be a residue of Keirkegaard's own idiosyncratic insistence that Christianity be taken seriously, something perhaps that could be peeled away, secularized into an existentialist stance much more like that of Nietzsche or Sartre, perhaps even more like Camus.

I took a sort of solace in his rejection of the systematic thinking, embodied in the eclipse of the sphere of the Ethical, the realm of the rational, where everything has been worked out, arranged in order even when things go wrong, famously articulated in terms of a "teleological suspension of the ethical" in Fear and Trembling.

What changed over time for me -- and I think this is really less due to any progress attributable to my part, but rather to a certain geniality and generosity much more characteristic of Kierkegaard than any melancholy of gloom, to a paradoxical willingness to speak out, to take a stand passionately, and yet by reflection display and elaborate understandings of other equally possible stances -- was the realization of the depth and richness of what Kierkegaard termed the "religious," as well as the permeating by that order of all of the interstices of the other, seemingly more stable, commonsensical, worldly, easy-to-relate-to orders, the Ethical, the rational, even the Aesthetic -- that his works displayed but did not insist upon and demonstrate deductively oases, holes, entry-points, bridges of communication between these incommensurable orders.

It's for that reason that by far my favorite work of his has become the
Philosophical Fragments, where he communicates under the aspect of Johannes Climacus, a philosopher avowedly remaining on this side of the leap of faith, the skip into the plenitude of the paradox, where reason does not simply disintegrate but finds that in order to remain rational it must accept a growth and demands previously unacceptable to itself -- a space (actually all space, all time, the temporal within the eternal) in which the rational being must stake out a stance, make a decision:
If the Paradox and the Reason come together in a mutual understanding of their unlikeness their encounter will be happy, like love's understanding, happy in the passion to which we have not yet assigned a name. . . If the encounter is not in understanding the relationship becomes unhappy, and this unhappy love of the the Reason if I may so call it. . . . may be characterized more specifically as Offense.
Kierkegaard is re-exploring now-familiar terrain which nevertheless offers vistas, clearings, paths that can always be seen, traveled, and even enjoyed again with fresh eyes -- inexhaustible.  The differences arising from the contrast between Socrates, the teacher, and the modes of truth he heroically makes available by assisting his student out of error, and a different type of Teacher, requiring not students alone but disciples, offering liberation from more than just error. . . .

Here I ought to end, since it would be so easy to continue, on and on -- and I can just as well explore these matters and movements in further posts or even further videos on Kierkegaard (beyond this one) I have projected for the coming weeks and months.  Happy Birthday again, Søren Kierkegaard, with whom I hope sometime to share an ongoing and endless conversation in eternity.