Kierkegaard (1813-55) is the father of existentialism, which is a philosophy which takes the individual as its central concern. It asks what it means to exist, and how we are to make our way through this world in which we find ourselves. Most existentialists take being to be without justification, to be absurd. They take it that God is dead, that the universe itself is without meaning and absurd, and that the only way to have a meaningful life is to give life a meaning ourselves. Our existence is without meaning until we give it a meaning. But not all existentialists are atheists. Kierkegaard is himself profoundly religious and a christian. Indeed, his family name Kierkegaard means “church yard.”
The advancement of the sciences did much to remove God from the center of European life as it had removed the Earth from the center of the universe. This decentered modern man. He had lost himself, and wandered now about estranged and a stranger to himself.
The triumph of modern science was a triumph of Reason, whose laws appeared universally applicable, valid, and necessary. “God said ‘Let Newton Be!’ and all was light” wrote Alexander Pope. It appeared that Newton had discovered the laws on which the grand system of nature operates. It was only a matter of time that western philosophy, drunk with Reason, would lose modesty and proclaim with Hegel, “The Real is the Rational, and the Rational is the Real.”
Reason and being were consubstantial. The universe became itself the outward expression of the inward principles of Reason. Then to know Reason itself is to know the universe itself. Hegel claimed to know the structure of Reason through and through, such that he had Absolute Knowledge. There was nothing, it appeared to him with his mastery of Reason, which his philosophic system could not explain and subsume. His system was universal and universally valid.
In Hegelian thinking, the individual is an expression of the impersonal forces of history. The individual is but a specific instance of the universal laws of Reason historically expressed. Indeed, individuality dissolves in Hegel’s system, and an individual is only a part of a whole, and the whole is more real than the part. The Rational is universal; and only what is Rational is Real.
Kierkegaard takes this view to be patently false. Human existence is never universal, but is always individual. In Hegel’s system, and particular case is countered antithetically, and both this particular and its implicit other-than-itself are taken up in a third logical category: the synthetic.
An individual always implies its opposite, which is otherness. Neither of these opposites is in itself Absolute, and so neither is finally Real. Only the synthesis is true and real: the drop-and-the-ocean is truer than either the drop or the ocean; and the individual-and-the-state is more true than either the individual or the state. And in the final analysis, all things subsume under a universal and unifying law.
This Hegelian way of thinking functions on a concept we may call the “both-and.” Truth is not this OR that, but synthetically both this AND that. Yet this concept does not measure up to what we meet with concretely in our finite human lives. This Hegelian theory may work out very well on paper, no matter how badly written; yet it cannot account for the utter specificity of subjective existence.
Philosophy had gotten so caught up in abstractions that it had utterly lost contact with concrete existence, which is that world we must deal with. And when we find ourselves in the world, it is radically subjective and concrete, utterly finite and specific. When you or I make a real choice, we don’t make a “both/and” choice. We must choose one road or the other. To be an individual is a choice. Authentic, concrete existence is ever faced with an “either/or.”
Kierkegaard rightly saw that the modern situation endangered to smother the individual. Mass communication was just beginning to become a reality, and the public was growing to be and indistinguishable and impersonal mass in which the individual could literally lose him or herself. Society was industrializing, systematizing, and institutionalizing human existence. In our own age, we recognize well that what we might call an individual is little more than a statistical average. Individuals have become little more than the Unknown Citizen for whom a marble monument is erected by the State, as envisages W.H. Auden.
In Kierkegaard’s own time, he saw not only public life turning into a massive and depersonalized system, but he also saw his beloved Christianity becoming but an institution, wherein Christians were but actors before an anonymous public. People did not choose their Christianity authentically, but attended church casually, not living up to the full demands of authentic religiosity. People attended church to act a part, living as performers, externalized, without the inward reflection which is required of an authentic person before the “yawning abyss of eternity.”
Science had given modern man a false sense of mastery and control. It had given laws which appeared to be certain, necessary, and objective, universally applicable. Consequently, the modern society which developed out of this attitude, took it, as did Hegel’s student Marx, that the march of history unfolds according to the impersonal dialectical laws of change. In Marx, we get the sense that social revolution is inevitable, certain, and that we will come to realize a classless society where our differences are no longer an issue, and we will find the this resolution of all differences to be a paradise on earth.
Marx’s history has proved wrong, though he gave us a great many insights. Yet the effect of the Hegelian philosophy did result in paving over of our individual differences. The massive bureaucracies of Marxist societies indeed negated the individual by turning him into an abstraction which expressed a universal system. Marx had merely materialized Hegel’s system, inverting Hegel’s idealism, while maintaining the premise of the primacy of abstract universals. It was for Kierkegaard to invert the abstract universal into a concrete particular: the individual.
The movement of the system through history does not care for the particular concerns of the individual, which are primary for the individual. Our concerns are for a future which is utterly personal and of ultimate concern. We must decide what kind of person we are to become, and to make this choice again and again, and forever again, if we are to live authentically in concord with our personal concerns. “Life”, he tells us, “can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” That is, we must understand from where we have come individually, and life to an utterly unknowable future.
Individuals have no knowledge about the future, except on the basis of what has happened before. What you or I will become after today is speculative, but of concrete concern. What we choose determines what we will concretely become; and every choice is an either/or, not a both/and. Either I attend this university program, or I do not; either I marry this person, or I do not. The difference is all; and the difference between any two options is never certain. In the words of Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We cannot know beforehand what future awaits us. We cannot know who we will become. We cannot know what undiscovered country which Hamlet feared came after death as he contemplated the ultimate question of his existence: “To be, or not to be.” We are utterly uncertain of our future, and must yet choose what we are to become. And in this concrete and utterly personal understanding that we each must face the undiscovered country alone, and face the yawning abyss of eternity alone, then enters into our reality fear and dread. Every choice is a leap into the abyss, a leap of faith.
To leap into the system and follow the public is inauthentic, since the individual alone must face his mortal truth concretely. The individual will die; and to live an authentic life, she must face this alone. Every choice is to decide which kind of life she will have lived. Death is the backdrop against which she must decide her fate. And it is not enough simply to fall into doing as one does for a public; it is not enough to be but an actor; it is not enough to put on nice Sunday clothes and go to church, which is a dishonest theatre–at least theatres know and say what they are: theatres. Churches are public theatres in which all don costumes, but none there do know they but play a play.
Kierkegaard saw that there were freethinkers who did not believe in Christianity, and he took these thinkers to be something better than people who profess to be Christians though they are not. Hegel called himself a Christian, but Kierkegaard tells us that Hegel is no Christian. Hegel’s brand of abstract Christianity claims to know universal truths, and in so claiming, loses the heart of Christianity: the individual who alone must take the leap of faith. To have faith is a way of being, not an abstract. Faith is a fundamentally subjective affair. To this end, Kierkegaard calls himself a “subjective thinker,” as counter distinct from a philosopher who concerns himself with abstract and theoretical universals. Existence is concrete, not theoretical; authentic choice is always subjective and concrete.
Kierkegaard points out that Christianity is an Abrahamic Religion, and thus takes its start from the individual. Abraham, you will recall, is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, in order that Abraham demonstrate his faith. This choice is symbolic of the individual’s predicament. Abraham alone can decide what is right to do; and what is required of faith may appear to the public to be insane and unethical–and this, the ethical, is what must needs be transcended in the authentic choice.
Kierkegaard describes a certain kind of inwardness which faith and authentic existence requires. Existential choices require an intense sort of introspection. We must go inward, away from the prying impersonal public, in order to make the kinds of choices which have ultimate significance for our being–that concrete existence we are. And for that being we concretely are, we alone are responsible. The weight of eternity rests on our choices; the weight of being, the weight of our our concrete being, the weight of the existence we are and will become–all this rests on what we ourselves choose: and the public will not lead us to this place of authentic inwardness.
To describe the journey inwards, Kierkegaard begins by describing the aesthetic, who takes his present experience to be the point of it all. This aesthetic, childlike and naive, takes sense experience and pleasure to justify existence, though he does so without reflecting on it. For him, a flower is a supreme pleasure; but when the flower wilts, he can fall into despair, and seek frantically to find some replacement for what he has lost. The aesthetic can be the man who would lose himself in the pleasures of the flesh, and so would, like Don Juan, lose himself in a woman. But he tires of this woman, and seeks in despair another. This seeking for the aesthetic pleasure of the flesh can go on until the last of his days, at which end his life has apparently been to no end but pleasure, which is fleeting as a shadow.
But Kierkegaard expands this more commonplace way of examining the aesthetic to include intellectuals, who find ideas to be like women but pretty playthings. They take to thinking as were but entertainment, and they take ideas to be either interesting or boring; which, in the end, turns out to be a bankrupt kind of thinking, justified fleeting pleasures, which are but the shadows of an academic theatre–fundamentally an inauthentic way of being and thinking.
The person who would turn away from the outward world of sensual pleasures does so in order to become an ethical person. This is an either/or choice. Either one stays attached to the sensual pleasures of living and aesthetic life, or one becomes ethical, and begins to look a little inward. To be ethical is to live the life of an ethical citizen, considering what one ought and ought not to do. To be ethical entails that we sometimes or often deny ourselves base sensual pleasure.
Yet the ethical life is not yet the life of an authentic person, as it is caught up in universal judgments. One should behave as one would have others behave; and in the ethics of universality, there is not yet the conditions out of which an individual would choose. Ethical systems can tell us what not to do collectively; but ethics cannot help us to make intensely personal choices, such as if I should or should not marry a person. Nor can they tell us how to make choices, each of which alternative would contain some evil, and which would drive a person to despair.
This leads on to the most inward of the three stages, which Kierkegaard calls the religious. When faced with the choice of whether or not to sacrifice his son for God, Abraham represents the authentic individual caught between two alternatives, each of which entails profound loss: either the loss of his faith and his soul, or the loss of his son. No universal ethical system can tell him how to choose. He has to decide first if the message is indeed from God; and second, whether to obey that voice. If he stays at the level of the ethical, which can deal with only universal conditions and not particular and concrete specifics, he will be paralyzed.
In order to make the leap of faith, he has to make what Kierkegaard calls “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” In short, in order to make this kind of seemingly impossible choice–which seems all the more impossible to the person of deep faith–he must suspend his universal judgement, his ethical judgement, and stand himself before that yawning abyss, and choose. This he does individually, in fear and trembling.
Teleology is the study of final ends, and the person of faith would have to take it that God has for the person some end which is of higher value than what our common ethical systems can give us guidance for. Ethically, it is wrong for Abraham to kill his own son. Yet, as a man of faith, Abraham has to suspend his common ethical judgement and in faith submit to the will of God. In this is a concept of a hero, who would act at tremendous sacrifice for a good which is beyond his ability to know.
Abraham makes his choice with no measure of certainty, with no assurance that God will prove himself a worthy God. But nor can God know Abraham a worthy man unless he test his resolve to act on his faith; and nor can Abraham move to that innermost center of religiosity without this leap of faith.
Of course God sends an angel just at the moment Abraham has committed fully to his faith, and prevents Abraham from killing his own son, thus revealing himself a worthy God; just as Abraham has shown himself to be an authentic man of faith, profoundly courageous.
To us, who are outside of the problem Abraham faces, the act of killing his own son appears unethical, and we are right to judge it so. But Abraham, facing deeply an issue which is beyond the scope of everyday ethics, the consequences of which are of ultimate significance–Abraham shows himself to be the kind of hero for the individual who must choose his own life, which cannot be accounted for on any system.
I cannot personally see any justification for Abraham’s action; but then I am an atheist, and take it that did I hear God’s voice, I should seek medical help. Yet looking at Kierkegaard, I think we can learn something of value.
First, he points out quite rightly that to be an authentic Christian requires a subjective leap of faith, and that no objective analysis of the facts can assure who would take that leap that it is not just taking a flying leap. A relationship with God is intensely personal; just going to church on Sunday is not what it means to be a Christian.
Second, philosophers like Hegel who objectively justify their kind of Christianity on universal and rational grounds miss the essential feature of Christianity, which was founded on the act of faith of an individual. He lived forward, to a final end, whereof he could have no knowledge; and were there knowledge in the first place that he were right, it were no act of courage. Hegel takes it to be a matter of Absolute Knowing that he is a Christian, and so cannot know the fear and trembling which is under the armor of faith.
And we would do well to contrast Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical with Nietzsche’s Ubermench, who acts above mere morality in order to be the bold creator of his own existence. Nietzsche in the end preaches that we say yes to nature as we find it: a will to power. And so Nietzsche preaches that whoso would be a man must not be weighted down by the gravity of the herd morality.
No. Kierkegaard takes a less assured stance, and yet would have us to act. His Christianity is a bold and daring act of faith, which at its heart has the sacrifice of a son, and would teach that we would recognize that every deep choice is some kind of sacrifice.
We all have to make such kinds of sacrifices. Every choice worthy of struggle and courage excludes some good and entails some evil. Kierkegaard himself famously chose not to marry a woman whom he loved for his love of her. He did not want to burden her with himself. And yet he chose not to marry her so that he could become that he had it in himself to become: a great writer and thinker. In order to become the brilliant subjective thinker we study today, he sacrificed his love and joy, and it pained him to the end. At the end of his life, he willed to her, though she had married another man, the small amount of money he had.
Every day, Kierkegaard would teach us, we must choose what we value against other things we would value. Good things are not for us a universal singularity, but a multiple as we have it in ourselves to be. Life is an either/or, each road of which leads to a different good, a different way of existing. The Good is not One; and choice is not a both/and.