Athens and Jerusalem \  Part II  \ In the Bull of Phalaris


     Two books are particularly revelatory in this respect - Fear and Trembling (along with Repetition) and The Concept of Dread. The first is devoted to Abraham and his sacrifice, that is, to the problem of faith; the second deals with original sin. I recall once more that Kierkegaard was born and grew up in a strict Lutheran environment. Even though he had not read Luther's works, he could not but profess Luther's sola fide. With age, however, he moved further and further away from Luther and his sola fide in order to regain "free will," thus approaching that conception of faith as "faith formed by love" that Luther attacked so violently in Catholicism. In 1844, when he wrote The Concept of Dread, he already understood faith quite differently than in 1843 when he wrote Fear and Trembling; between these two works one of those events which are unimportant in other people's eyes but which determined Kierkegaard's fate happened: Regine Olsen, his former fiancée, became engaged to Schlegel. For everyone else this was only another engagement like all others and could furnish no material for profound meditation. For Kierkegaard, however, this meant: Socrates was the wisest of men, and Abraham, the father of faith, must and could be accepted only insofar as his faith confirmed and expressed Socrates' wisdom.

     As everyone knows, God turned Abraham's hand away at the moment he raised the knife over his son and Isaac remained alive. Regarding this, Kierkegaard says in Fear and Trembling, "Let us go further. Let us assume that Isaac had really been slaughtered. Abraham believed. He had faith, not in some future happiness in another world but that he would be happy here in this world. God could return to him Isaac whom he had killed. Abraham had faith in the power of the Absurd; [1] all human calculation had long ceased to exist for him." A page further Kierkegaard adds, "...the movement of faith must always be made by virtue of the Absurd, but it must be noted that the finite is not lost thus but won in its totality." And further on, to make his conception of faith clearer for us, Kierkegaard tells us the "invented" story of the poor young man who fell in love with a princess. It is obvious to everyone that the young man will never obtain the princess as his wife. But "the knight of faith," who knows as well as "everyone" how mighty is the power of the "everyday" over men, makes the "movement of faith," and a miracle happens: "I believe," says he, "that she will be mine; I have faith by virtue of the Absurd, for to God everything is possible." Yet at the same time Kierkegaard several times admits to us, "As for myself, I do not believe; I lack the courage for that." Instead of saying, "I lack the courage," perhaps Kierkegaard should have repeated what he had written in the Thorn in the Flesh, "to wish to run faster than ever before and not be able to move a limb" and recalled Luther's De servo arbitrio. What is it that prevents him from believing? Faith is what he needs most in the world. Faith means that God can give Abraham a new son, recall the slaughtered Isaac to life, unite the poor young man with the princess, force hell to violate its laws and return Regine Olsen to Kierkegaard.

     It is clear that it is not courage that is involved here - on the contrary, if courage is needed it is rather to renounce faith. And, in general, anyone who knows Kierkegaard's life will not be able to deny him courage, just as he cannot deny it to Socrates or Spinoza. This is why the road to "faith" for Kierkegaard passes inevitably through "infinite resignation": "This resignation is that shirt of which an old folk-tale speaks; its thread is woven in tears, the shirt is sewn in tears... The mystery of life consists in the fact that every man must sew for himself such a shirt." And in this "infinite resignation lies rest and peace." It is not difficult to discover behind this infinite resignation Socrates' bull of Phalaris, Spinoza's beatitudines, or Nietzsche's amor fati. Kierkegaard passed through all this; but while Socrates' wisdom stopped here, considered this the final end and blessed this end as the supreme goal of man, Kierkegaard could not stop here when he wrote Fear and Trembling. Or, to put it better, he could still not stop here. He called upon himself all the horrors of existence - by the way these, as we know, did not wait for his summons to visit him - not in order to appear a model of virtue and astonish people by his resistance and heroism. He expected from these horrors something different: God could return to Abraham his slaughtered son. Kierkegaard hoped that his sufferings would finally break in him that trust in the given, in experience, which reason inspires in men and by virtue of which they "accept" the real as inevitable.

     Kierkegaard in a way gathered and concentrated all his powers, all his capacities for despair - the beginning of philosophy, he said, is not wonder, as the Greeks taught, but despair - to obtain the right "to weep and curse" and to oppose his tears and curses to the limitless demands of the reason which has enchained the human will through universal and necessary truths. The "knight of resignation" must become the "knight of faith." Kierkegaard writes: "Reason is right: in our vale of tears where reason reigns as master it is impossible (that for God everything be possible). Of this the knight of faith feels as certain as the knight of resignation. The only thing that can save him is the Absurd, and this he acquires through faith. He sees the impossibilities and at the same moment has faith in the Absurd." Here is still another confession - the moment in question is so important that we must concentrate all our attention on it: "If I renounce everything, this is still not faith - it is only resignation. This movement I make by my own efforts,[2] and draw from it as a prize myself in my eternal consciousness, in blessed agreement with my love for the eternal Being. Through faith I renounce nothing; [2] on the contrary, through faith I acquire everything - even in the sense in which it is said that he who has faith as a grain of mustard can move mountains." And not only move mountains; infinitely more is promised to one who has faith: "Nothing will be impossible for you." In other words, reason with its universal and necessary truths, reason which rules autocratically over our world, will forever lose its power. "Beyond reason and knowledge" - these words of Plotinus express the same thought. Plotinus also began with an apotheosis of resignation: if your sons are killed, your daughters dishonored, your fatherland destroyed, it must all - he declared - be "accepted." But he ends up with a demand for the impossible: Beyond reason and knowledge lies the impossible. When Kierkegaard opposes to the knight of resignation, i.e., Socrates, the knight of faith, i.e., Abraham, he expresses basically the same thought as Plotinus, whom he probably knew hardly at all. But he uses the term "faith," which is foreign to Plotinus.

     "My intention," says Kierkegaard at the end of his introduction to Fear and Trembling, is to draw out in the form of problematics the dialectical in the story of Abraham in order to show what a monstrous paradox faith is, a paradox that transforms murder into a holy action, pleasing to God; a paradox that returns Isaac to Abraham; a paradox that no thought can master for faith begins precisely where thought ends." This is Kierkegaard's basic idea which he never stops repeating throughout all his works. Six years after Fear and Trembling he writes in The Sickness Unto Death: "To believe means to lose reason in order to find God." This formula, recalling Pascal's s'abêtir (to humble oneself) which has given rise to so many commentaries, carries Kierkegaard, it seems, beyond the limits of philosophic problems: if thought is brought to a halt, if reason is lost, does this not mean that philosophy also ends and is lost? But it is precisely on this account that I have recalled Plotinus' words "beyond reason and knowledge." Indeed, though he never says anything of Abraham and Isaac and perhaps never even thought of them, having attained the limit beyond which Socrates' bull of Phalaris is found and where man must accept passively everything that is real according to the testimony of reason, so that "he is no longer to be held a thinking thing but rather a most infamous ass," Plotinus made what Kierkegaard recommended - a leap into the unknown, where the competence and power of reason come to an end. Did philosophy then end for Plotinus? Or did it, rather, only begin, for it was only then that the critique of pure reason was attempted, that critique without which there cannot be any philosophy? I say "attempted" for it has been realized only once since humanity has been in existence, when God said to Adam, "The day you eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil, you shall die." And indeed, the critique of pure reason is the greatest paradox, which saps the very foundations of thought. "It requires no support, as though it could not carry itself." [3] This idea which appeared to Plotinus in connection with the bull of Phalaris appeared to Kierkegaard in connection with the biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice. If man is really res cogitans and not asinus turpissimus he will never accept the reality where reason reigns and where human beatitudo consists in putting oneself joyfully under the protection of universal and necessary truths - Isaac slaughtered by his father, man thrown by a tyrant into the bull of Phalaris.

     Abraham raised his knife against his son, Abraham was a child murderer, that is, the greatest of criminals. According to the Bible, however, Abraham was a righteous man, the father of faith. What then remains of the Socratic-Spinozist edification, and the beatitudines promised by it, for the man who has decided to kill his son? Is there any peace of soul possible for him? Such a man is condemned forever. As long as reason reigns over the universe it is as impossible to save him as to make that which has been not to have been. Kierkegaard sees as clearly as Descartes saw that "what has happened cannot be made not to have happened" Kierkegaard sees, then, that it is necessary to choose between Abraham and Socrates, between him whom Scripture declared a righteous man and him whom the pagan god proclaimed the wisest of men. And Kierkegaard, conscious of the heavy responsibility with which he was charged, took the part of Abraham and began to speak of the "suspension of the ethical" with a daring that reminds one of Luther and the prophets. He notes in his Journal: "He who succeeds in resolving this enigma (the suspension of the ethical) will explain my life." Nietzsche's "beyond good and evil," which differs from the suspension of the ethical in form only, was also for Nietzsche not the solution of a theoretical problem, as he himself in several places admits, but a way out of the impasse into which the universal and necessary truths had pushed him.

     To make clearer what Kierkegaard meant when he spoke of "the suspension of the ethical," I shall quote again one of his almost involuntary confessions; when it is a question of the relationships between lovers, Kierkegaard's confessions are always against his will. He tells the love story of the young man and young woman and ends it thus: "The ethical could not come to their help, for they have a secret which they hide from it, a secret which they take upon themselves, for which they accept responsibility." What is this secret? Kierkegaard proceeds to explain it to us. "The ethical as such is the universal... As soon as the particular man opposes the universal he has sinned and can reconcile himself with the universal only in acknowledging his sin... If this is the highest that can be said of man and his existence, then the ethical has the same meaning as eternal happiness which for all eternity and at every instant constitutes the end (telos) of man. It is easy to recognize in these words the deepest and dearest thought of Socrates and Spinoza. The ethical was for them not only the supreme but the essential value. You may possess all terrestrial goods, but if you lack the "ethical" you have nothing. And, on the contrary, if everything is taken away from you and you have saved the "ethical" only, you have the one thing necessary - you have "everything." The "ethical" is a value sui generis which is distinguished toto coelo from all other values. The goods which the "ethical" has at its disposal differ as much from the goods which the man who does not participate in wisdom seeks and finds as the constellation called the Dog differs from the dog, the barking animal. It is with deliberate intent, of course, that I use Spinoza's image, and it is with intent also that I do not quote the end of the sentence, to the effect that they have in common only the name. For even their names are different: on the one hand a constellation, on the other a dog, an animal that not only barks but is despised. It would have been more logical on Spinoza's part to say not animal latrans (a barking animal) but animal turpissimum (a most infamous animal). It is beyond doubt that the source of the Socratic-Spinozist ethic was a profound metaphysical shaking, if one may so express oneself. In Kierkegaard's terms, the beatitudo brought by the Socratic ethic is worse - if one evaluates it by human standards - than the worst calamities.

     Kierkegaard felt Socrates' problem, which is the basic problem not only of ethics but of all philosophy, no less deeply than Nietzsche. And, like Nietzsche, he strained all his powers to overcome Socrates' enchantment. It was for this reason alone that he turned to the Bible; it was only to deliver himself from the temptation of the beatitudines promised by the wisest of men that he remembered Abraham. But, unlike Nietzsche, Kierkegaard never thought of considering Socrates a "fallen man" who, as Hegel tells us, transformed the fruits of the tree of knowledge into the principle of philosophy for all future time. Socrates is, for Kierkegaard, a pagan, but the most perfect man who lived on earth before the truth of the Bible was revealed to the world. At the very moment when, carried beyond good and evil, he finds himself face to face with Abraham, dares to proclaim his "suspension of the ethical," and sees that man is forced to hide from the "ethical" his final secret, he continues to cling compulsively to Socrates. He compares Socrates to the Christian mystics and declares with assurance, "The system begins with nothingness, and it is with nothingness that mysticism always ends. The latter is the divine nothingness, as Socrates' ignorance, with which he not only began but also always finished, or to which he returned, was piety."

     As I have indicated, Socrates' ignorance was not ignorance; Socrates knew that he did not know, and aspired eagerly to the knowledge that appeared to him the only means possessed by man for avoiding the fatal consequences of the fall. Nietzsche felt that "man must distrust his works" and that death awaits the fallen man precisely where he believes himself to see the road to salvation. But Kierkegaard does not even dream that Socrates is the fallen man par excellence and that "knowledge" is not a remedy for the "fall" and that the need, the hunger for knowledge is already the expression and confirmation of the fall. That is why in the Concept of Dread Kierkegaard attributes to Adam before his fall the same "ignorance of nothingness" which he had found in Socrates and which, having reached the extreme degree of tension, is realized in the act of disobedience to the divine command. To put it differently, Socrates, for Kierkegaard, is man as he was before tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge. That is why in Fear and Trembling he dares turn to Abraham only after having obtained the favorable disposition of the universal and necessary truths. At the very beginning of this book, as if to excuse himself before the "ethical" for the offense that he is about to perpetrate against it, he declares: "In the world of the spirit V an eternal divine order rules; here the rain does not fall equally on the good and the wicked, here the sun does not shine indifferently on the good and the wicked. Here there is only one law: he who does not work does not eat."

     What is this "world of the spirit?" How did Kierkegaard know it? It is not from the Bible surely that he learned it, for in the Bible it is said that the sun rises equally on the good and the wicked. But this Kierkegaard could not endure: in "the world of the spirit" there must be another "order," another "law"; in the world of the spirit the sun rises only on the just and only he who works eats. Why must there be another law here? No answer to this question is found either in Fear and Trembling or in The Concept of Dread. But The Thorn in the Flesh contains a confession which sheds light on Kierkegaard's "suspension of the ethical" as well as on his attitude toward Abraham's sacrifice: "In the world of the spirit," he says, "luck and accident do not make one a king and another a beggar, one more beautiful than the queen of the Orient and another more miserable than Lazarus; he only is excluded from the world of the spirit who has excluded himself. In the world of the spirit all are invited." [4]

     At the last moment, Kierkegaard returns to the "ethical." It is only in it that he hopes to find protection. And, indeed, here in our world the sun rises indifferently on the just and on the wicked. Still worse, it sometimes happens that the just never see the smallest ray of the sun. The sun is among the "things that are not in our power. No, neither in our power nor in the power of God. Can one attach himself to what caprice and chance bring and take away? Can one love it? By virtue of the Absurd, Kierkegaard has told us, he believed that God returned Isaac to Abraham, that the princess would belong to the poor young man. As long as he hid from the "ethical" his faith in the Absurd he could maintain his faith. But when he resolved to reveal his "secret" in order to obtain the blessing of the ethical, the secret lost its magic power, and from the world where the sun shines on both the just and the wicked Kierkegaard entered the world of Socrates, the world of necessary truths, where - to be sure - there are no sinners but only just men, but where the sun has never risen and will never rise.

[1] No matter what certain commentators may think, the term "the Absurd" which is so characteristic of him was borrowed by Kierkegaard not from the German philosophers but from Tertullian, whom he greatly admired and to whom he attributed, as did almost everyone in the nineteenth century, the famous credo quia absurdum.
[2] Italics mine (L.S.).
[3] See the last chapter of my book In Job's Balances.
[4] Speaking of the world of the "good" created by Socrates, I said in my book Potestas Clavium, "This world does not know frontiers and limits. It offers shelter to millions of men and fills them with a spiritual nourishment that satisfies all. All who wish to enter it are received like dear and longed for guests... There miraculous metamorphoses take place. The weak become powerful, the artisan a Philosopher, the poor rich, the ugly wondrously beautiful." When I wrote these lines about Socrates, I still knew nothing of Kierkegaard.

Orphus system

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