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Part II. Reason and Faith: The Lutheran Succession

Chapter VI: Reason and Faith in Kierkegaard


1 In the long line of Lutheran theologians stretching from Luther himself to Brunner, Barth, and Bultmann, Kierkegaard holds a unique place. He holds it in virtue of being the first to state, in extended and more or less modern form, the case against rationalism in religion. Luther had stated it before him, but the rationalism Luther opposed was the comparatively modest rationalism of the schoolmen and Erasmus. What Kierkegaard had to contend with was the most radical and fully elaborated rationalism in history, that of Hegel.

Nevertheless, Kierkegaard's elevation to the place he now holds is a curious fact that calls for explanation. He died in 1855, after a short life of forty-two years, and by the end of the 1800s he was forgotten. In the Century Dictionary of Names, published about 1900, one will look in vain for any mention of him. He was rediscovered in the thirties, owing largely to the devoted work of Walter Lowrie in telling his story and translating his books. Since then his name has become familiar in every seminary and every department of philosophy in this country. Why was it that this forgotten figure, who wrote at excessive length in a baffling style and in a minor tongue, should have become, a century later, so bright a star in the theological sky?

He was a forerunner of existentialism; true. So was Nietzsche, but that has hardly served to place him on a theological pedestal. The reason for Kierkegaard's revival, I suggest, is his relevance to the position of religion in our time. Not that he is needed to cope with any danger from Hegel, for to most present-day theologians Hegel is scarcely more than a name. What is formidable today is not the rationalism of Hegel but the rationalism of science. Theologians have discovered that the strange Dane had forged so potent a weapon against rationalism that they could use it against science as effectively as he had used it against Hegel. The weapon was no blunderbuss or fowling-piece, designed to slow the enemy's advance while beating a retreat; Kierkegaard would have no half-measures with an enemy he so cordially hated. The weapon was a bomb designed for wholesale retaliation. It lay in the thesis that religion was not a rational affair at all, and that reason was therefore incompetent, irrelevant, and impertinent in sitting in judgement upon it. The forces of faith were foolish to take the forlorn liberal line of throwing piece after piece of their creed as sops to the enemy; let them turn on the foe boldly, take the offensive and oust him from their territory, where he had no right to be. This was essentially the line of the neoorthodox theologians of the twentieth century, of Brunner, Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr; and Kierkegaard was its pioneer. How exhilarating the new strategy was to beleaguered defenders of the faith will be clearer if we recall some of the incursions made by rationalism into religious territory between the death of Luther and Kierkegaard's timely resurrection.


2 Luther died in 1546; Galileo was born in 1564: and the name of Galileo has come to be a symbol of the scientific challenge to the Biblical view of nature. It was a limited challenge, which seemed at first to affect only some passages in the Old Testament. If the sun really stood still over Gibeon, that must have meant that the earth stopped revolving; but if the earth had suddenly stopped revolving, we should all have been pitched eastward at a thousand miles an hour and blotted out. Since we were not, the record was presumably in error. Such reflections proved, after some centuries, to have been the beginning of the end for the older conception of nature, which has been crumbling slowly away under the attrition of newly discovered fact. If the flood occurred in historic times, how did the sloth manage to cross the ocean from Ararat to Brazil? If the genealogies of the Old Testament are to be accepted, with their patriarchal lengths of life, there were no animals or men on earth earlier than six thousand years ago. But prying palaeontologists kept bringing to light human relics whose period, as reliably dated, was of fifty or sixty times that age. In the Yale museum I have often looked speculatively at the skeleton of a giant turtle, almost perfectly preserved, whose lowest plausible age is six hundred thousand centuries. It is hopeless to patch the older theory of nature to meet facts like these; that might be done with two or three of them, but hardly with ten thousand. They flowed through its loose-woven mythical texture as through a sieve.

3 After the orthodox theory of nature went the orthodox view of Scripture. The Church of Rome had committed itself with all the authority of popes and councils to the view that the entire Bible was inspired and therefore true. Most Protestant theologians have long seen that no one can continue to hold such a belief without canons of textual criticism that are naively elastic. There is now, I take it, agreement among disinterested scholars that, for example, the order of Old Testament Books bears no relation to the order of their composition, that in a given book conflicting narratives from different hands and different times are often pieced together, as in the early chapters of Genesis, that many of the books of both Testaments are not by the authors traditionally accepted, that none of the gospels, as we now have them, were written until a generation or two after the death of Christ, and that these at many points give conflicting accounts of fact and doctrine. Some of the central dogmas of the faith, such as those of the Trinity and the incarnation, have disclosed under further study so large an admixture of Greek thought as to render an origin in unique revelation hardly credible. Regarding others, for example the Virgin birth and the atonement, such an amazing mass of parallels has been brought to light by Frazer and others from the folklore of kindred peoples and of those at a like stage of advancement as to render quite implausible the theory that they were delivered whole from on high, unspotted by the primitive culture of their time and place of origin. With every passing decade more and still more of the provinces long supposed to be inviolable, because delivered once for all to the saints, have been annexed by ‘the new conquering empire of light and reason’.

4 Protestant theologians struggled heroically to remain loyal at once to their religion and to their intellectual conscience. They were unwilling to turn their faith into what they conceived Catholicism to have become, an island of intellectual anachronism safeguarded against invasion by walls of censorship and sophistical apologetic. Why, they asked, in a world where everything else that was human seemed to evolve, should not religion too evolve? Granting that revelation occurred, must it not have been filtered through the all-too-human minds that first received it, and must we not suppose that as the initial message is placed in a wider setting of knowledge and discernment it will receive an increasingly rational interpretation? If the Christian doctrine is true, they argued, it has nothing to fear from advancing knowledge; if at any points untruth has entered in, the best way to purge it out is surely to give free play to critical reason. We shall have to pay a price undoubtedly. We shall have to part with many cherished Biblical stories and many old beliefs, with all the prized associations, comforting assurances and high hopes that went with them, but we shall at least have kept our integrity of mind. Besides, not everything we have accepted can be dissolved, even by the acids of modernity. Suppose the entire supernatural component of the faith is eaten away, we still have in the record of the founder the outline of an ideal human life, and if our religion must scale itself down to being nothing but a way of living, we have saved after all what is practically most important.

But even here the invading forces would not halt. Though recognising the nobility and beauty of the Christian ideal of life, they went on to question this too. They asked whether its relative silence about the values of knowledge, art, and play, and its strong insistence on those of poverty and non-resistance, conformed to the demands of modern life or were acceptable even in principle to reflective reason. To these questions no answers are agreed upon by twentieth-century moralists. But that is not at the moment the important point. The point is that if not only the theology but also the ethics of Christianity are to be surrendered to the arbitrament of reason, then religion as an ark of the covenant, a deposit of faith, an indefectible revealed truth about anything whatever, must simply vanish, and though one may still talk about a nucleus of revelation which is to be construed and interpreted by advancing knowledge, the very content of this nucleus, all that it means and implies, will now have to be defined, tested, and criticised, by the methods of secular knowledge. And, plainly put, that means that nothing certain will be left to cling to. There will be nothing in one's creed, nothing even in one's moral ideal, that under rational criticism may not have to be revised or abandoned. The religion of revelation will have disappeared.


5 Now the hold on the contemporary mind of the theology pioneered by Kierkegaard lies in its clear perception of where rationalism tends, and its strategy in meeting the invasion. The tactics of liberals have been the tactics of appeasement. Over and over again they have retreated to what they thought a tenable entrenchment, only to be forced ignominiously back, and still further back. The Kierkegaardians have seen that this will not serve. What you have been doing, they say to the liberal theologians, is meeting reason with reason's weapons, and in that contest you cannot win. Once admit that a dogma or a moral prescription is to be accepted not on faith or revelation but on rational evidence, and no position you ever take will be safe. In the game of argument, the dice are loaded on the side of the rationalist, and if you are to avoid bankruptcy, there is only one way out, namely to decline the game altogether. This you can do with perfect right. Your true line is to say that religious belief, far from being an intellectual asset, is a non-rational decision made possible by a descent of divine grace, as inexplicable as it is certain. To try to explain it or defend it rationally is to play into the hands of the enemy. And we must recognise as the great enemy, says Karl Barth,

‘the emancipation of reason, the self-sufficiency of rational man. If once this magic spell were broken, there would be room for the Gospel… the theological problem as well as the Church problem is this—to deliver modern man and the modernized Church and theology from the illegitimate self-sufficiency of reason and the spirit of autonomy.’1

And Emil Brunner writes:

‘What can be proved is eo ipso unimportant.… Faith only can prove the reality of God, because God cannot be known by theoretical reason but must be comprehended by an act of decision.’2

That is the Kierkegaard line precisely.

To countless persons who were trying to combine religious belief with intellectual honesty such announcements sounded as the guns of Havelock must have sounded to the defenders of Lucknow. The long retreat and the desperate defence seemed at last to be over, and the old roles were to be reversed. The believer was not, after all, an intellectual Colonel Blimp living in the generation before last, nor was he clinging pitifully to the old faith because he was unadjusted to modern thought and frightened of it; it was he who saw things clearly and as they were; it was the rationalist who was deluded. To many tired liberals this call for no compromise, this summons to turn a retreat into an all-out offensive against the presumptions of reason, seemed as inspired as it was inspiring.

It is Kierkegaard's part as a staff officer in the anti-rationalist campaign that we are to study. No doubt the utility of his strategy in this campaign is not the only cause of his posthumous revival. His stress on vehement commitment, his disrespect for ecclesiastical and secular authority, his insistence on will and feeling, and his scepticism of received values have combined with his distrust of reason to strike a chord unexpectedly congenial to twentieth-century youth. But since his importance for our interest lies in his account of reason and faith, we must confine our attention to this part of his theory except so far as may be necessary to set it in the light of his philosophy generally. And that is perhaps just as well, since our estimate of this strange genius, whether as theologian, philosopher, or man, is far from the popular one.


6 At the centre of Kierkegaard's thought is his idea of human life as lived on various plateaux, each with its special characteristics. The idea probably came to him from Hegel. Just as Hegel recognised three main stages on the way to the Absolute—being, essence, and the notion—so Kierkegaard distinguishes three ‘stages on life's way’, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. He prefers not to describe these stages in systematic fashion, but to suggest their characteristics through the journals or dialogues of fictitious persons. Thus, for his account of the aesthetic life, we must go to the diary of one Johannes the Seducer, or to the speakers at an imaginary dinner where no one is permitted to hold forth until he is mildly drunk. The advantages of this method are literary rather than philosophical; it is not always easy to make out through the convivial oratory of In Vino Veritas what the speakers are trying to say, though one is encouraged to renew one's efforts by the assurances of Kierkegaard enthusiasts that the work deserves a place beside the Symposium of Plato. An account of the final stage is given in a more straightforward way in a ‘postscript’, as the author calls it, of a quarter of a million words. However, the reader who proceeds from the oratory to the philosophy in the expectation that here he will reach clarity and incisiveness will come away with the discovery that between Philip drunk and Philip sober the difference is disconcertingly small.


7 Our concern will naturally be with the third or religious level, but the first two should be noticed briefly. The aesthetic life is not, as current usage would suggest, a life devoted to beauty, but is rather, in line with the Greek origin of the word ‘aesthetic’, a life devoted to the goods of the senses. Kierkegaard's notion of it, as Höffding reminds us,3 is somewhat like the ideal of Aristippus of Greece, who held that one should follow the impulse of the moment; it suggests, again, the early Pater, who urged that it was unseemly, in this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening, and that the ideal is to burn as continuously as one can with ‘a hard gem-like flame’ of enjoyment. Since music is the most emotional and ‘immediate’ of the arts, it is discussed at length; since sex is suffused with so much passion and pleasure, it is discussed at still greater length; and since Mozart's Don Juan so adroitly combines the two, it is made the subject of an encomium. Johannes the Seducer contributes the observation that ‘woman is only the moment’, and this suggests to Kierkegaard ‘the essential aesthetic principle, namely that the moment is everything’. The aesthetic life is lived for the here and now; it surrenders itself to passion and desire; it refuses to take long views or to look before or after.

Like most moralists, though in more roundabout fashion, Kierkegaard points out that such a life is self-defeating. Though the aestheticist prides himself on his closeness to reality, he is in fact living among abstractions, as Hegel said of the man of mere common sense; for the self is a complex affair, and casual desires, even when they reach their ends, do not satisfy more than a fragment of it. Furthermore, one cannot count on their reaching their ends. The pleasure seeker is soon bored if he tries to squeeze repeated pleasure out of the same things; so he is always trying something new, and often getting burnt for his pains. He tires of his friends, behaves with fickleness toward them, and finds them turning on their heel as he approaches. He tires of one woman, exploits many in the Don Juan manner, and finds himself at last in isolation, with no affection given or received. And he is at the mercy of circumstance. It is part of his strategy of life to have no forelaid strategy; his days have no more unity than those of Plato's democratic man, for what he desired yesterday repels him today; ‘All the plans I make fly right back upon myself; when I would spit, I even spit into my own face.’4 Kierkegaard sums up on the aesthetic life as follows:

‘If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it.… Laugh at the world's follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret that.… Believe a woman, you will regret it, believe her not, you will also regret that.… Hang yourself, you will regret it [this does not seem quite self-evident]; do not hang yourself, and you will also regret that.… This, gentlemen, is the sum and substance of all philosophy.’5

8 How is one to escape from this dreary round of servitude to impulse? Mere doubt, mere intellectual conviction that these goods are tinsel, will not do; one must resort to something that plays the part in real life that doubt plays in reflection, namely despair. ‘So, then, despair with all your soul and with all your mind,’ says Judge William.6 Only through such despair can one ever make that choice which Kierkegaard described as a choice of oneself, in which the essential man, as opposed to a bundle of wayward impulses, declares itself and rises above them. When it does so, it ascends to the second or ethical level.

Whether it will do so or not is the choice before us in Kierkegaard's famous ‘either-or’. Although he distinguished three levels on which life might be lived, the upper two lay so close together that, in contrast to the aesthetic level, he often took them as one under the name of the ethico-religious plane. It was impossible, he held, to live at once on the aesthetic plane and on this higher one; we are confronted with a stern either-or, the demand for a total commitment to the one side or the other. The choice between planes is a very different matter from choice upon either plane. The problem for the aestheticist is what he wants to do. The problem for the ethical man is what he ought to do. The problem of the either-or is the fundamental one whether by a leap of resolution one will move up to the level where ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ have meaning.7 To make the leap is to enter a new world and to become a moral being. Kierkegaard here seems to be taking his cue from Kant. Holding, in Kantian fashion, that only the self that makes moral choices is free, and seeing that the rise of the impulsive self to rationality and freedom is a somewhat mysterious process, he describes this as a choosing of oneself. Of course it cannot be really that; it is self-contradiction to talk of a choice which brings one up to the level where for the first time choice is possible. There is a problem here of importance, which deserves an analysis it does not receive. It is not solved by such phrases as ‘choosing the absolute’, or ‘choosing myself in my eternal validity’, still less by excursions into the psychology of sex.


9 On the second or ethical level, what governs is not impulse, but principle. Kierkegaard takes as his example a happy marriage, setting off Judge William's defence of it in Stages on Life's Way against the picture of Don Juan in Either/Or. In such marriage the impulse and desire that were present in the aesthetic stage are not lost, but they are no longer isolated ends in themselves; they are taken up into another order; they are kept in check or given rein as the good of a life may dictate. And just as an impulse must be kept in place if it is to serve the interests of the whole self, so a self must be kept in place if it is to play its part in society. The ethical man does not claim for himself what he refuses to others; the rule of right is no respecter of persons, for a rule is impersonal and universal. His interest is no longer engrossed in himself; he shares the interests of his wife and children and awakes in them a concern for his own good. He adopts a calling which is, or ought to be, at once an expression of his powers and a way of playing a useful role in his community. In short he has ceased to be a moth fluttering after every candle and become a rational self ordering his life on principle.

Anyone who reached this stage, Kierkegaard thought, was already on the borders of the third stage, the religious. As a philosopher, he followed Hegel in thinking God was immanent. Hegel believed that when we think or act rationally, a mind to which all our fragmentary minds belong is finding expression through us. If two mathematicians see the same equation written on a blackboard, they no doubt have two different sense experiences of the chalk marks; A's sensations are never B's. But what of the equation they think of? Is this really two different equations that happen to be very much alike, or is it the same equation, presenting itself to both minds at once? When they go on to develop what the equation implies, are they under the constraint of numerical systems that are different, only very much alike, or of the same objective system? Hegel would have said, the same, and he conceived this system in its completion as the Absolute. So far as we succeed in being rational beings, it is because this massive and rational system is having its way with us. Kierkegaard found this striking conception hard to resist. With all his suspicion of Hegel, he too conceived of God as immanent, and as already at work in our minds when we reach the ethical plane of guidance by principle. Hence the lack of any sharp line between his ethical and religious levels.

Granting that we have attained the ethical level, what do its principles demand of us? Nothing short of the transformation of our whole life in accordance with them, down to the last detail. They require not merely that we should be generous, but that whenever we give we should give just the right amount, no more and no less. But that is to ask perfection, and we know that this is beyond us. Perfection in practice is as unattainable as perfection in knowledge; to demand it is like asking of abstract reason that it should know completely the event of our having breakfasted yesterday, or know exhaustively this desk that is now before us. No matter how many qualities and relations of a concrete thing or event we come to know, our knowledge will never exhaust its object; it will always be an approximation merely; there will always be something about the fact that will elude us; thought always falls short of existence. So of the attempt to catch a life in the net of ethical rules. There will always be something in our actual life, indeed much in it, that slips through the meshes and escapes control. It is not that you in particular are a failure; you may indeed be the nearest thing to a saint that the race has produced; no matter; you too have failed, and must go on failing. ‘Be ye therefore perfect’ is what ethics tells us. And measured by this imperative, the interval between the best and the worst of us is far less than the interval between the best of us and the goal we are jointly seeking.

In these circumstances, what are we to do? No ethical struggle will carry us to the goal. We may multiply our principles, qualify them, and conform to them always more closely; we shall still never be wholly good. All we can do, then, says Kierkegaard, is to bow our heads and concede that before God we are always and infinitely in the wrong. If we cannot do what is right, we can at least recognise that we cannot; we can confess that we are miserable sinners deserving of the divine anger and castigation. It is this breakdown of all morality in confession and repentance that takes us on to the third stage, that of religion.

10 In all this there is no doubt some plausibility. It is true that one can never make action ethically perfect or wholly rational. But most of us will feel that between this and Kierkegaard's conclusion that we are infinitely guilty moral lepers with no health in us there is some sort of gap in the reasoning. The argument seems to be this: We all have a duty to be perfect; whoever fails in his duty is guilty; we all fail abysmally in this duty to be perfect; hence we are all abysmally guilty.

Now this is not so much profound as confused. The first premise is ambiguous. When anyone says that it is our duty to be perfect, does he mean that we ought to be perfect or that we ought to do our best to be perfect? If he really means the first, he is asking the impossible. We ought to be perfectly just; yes, of course, in a sense, but in what sense? Is it our duty to be just in the same degree as a man who knows ten times as much about the facts of the case, and is free from our fears and prejudices? Surely to require that of us would be itself as unjust as to ask someone who could barely add and subtract to correct the mathematics of Gauss or Gödel. To blame us for failure here would be wholly unreasonable; we are not at fault for what we cannot help. No doubt we should take perfection as our goal, both intellectually and morally, but that means that we should do our best to reach it. To demand that we should reach it in fact is to demand that we should do more than our best, which is nonsense. Kierkegaard's insistence that moral imperfection entails infinite guilt seems to have been largely based on this elementary confusion.

But it was based also on something more. Kierkegaard believed, with Luther, in original sin. Every man, he said, ‘is born in sin and as a sinner’. ‘By coming into existence… he becomes a sinner.’8 He did not accept the Lutheran machinery of a literal inheritance of Adam's sin.9 The doctrine seems, nevertheless, to have had a strong hold on him, and the thought of it was made harder to bear by the suspicion that his own father bore an exceptional load of sin. Had not this man, by his own confession, stood up as a boy of eleven on a Jutland hillside and cursed his Maker? And is it not written that he who does this will not be forgiven either in this world or the next? In the diary of Quidam, who is virtually Kierkegaard himself, there is an entry called ‘Solomon's dream’. It describes how the young Solomon, sleeping one night in his father's palace, hears a sound in the royal room. Tiptoeing nearer, he hears his father moaning and groaning in an agony of despair. He returns troubled and fearful to his bed, only to dream that the purple robes of the King are the badge of God's punishment and condemnation. He wakes to the horror of realising what his father really is, and goes on to waste his life in the attempt to forget and escape it. Over and over again Kierkegaard comes back to this identification with his father and to the sense that he is living under the blight of another's wrong-doing.

We have said our say regarding the doctrine of original sin and need not discuss it again. It is a doctrine without basis in biology or ethics, a doctrine, moreover, that is linked, both as cause and effect, to something pathological in human nature—to irrational fear, to a morbid sense of guilt, and not improbably to stirrings of sadism. To say seriously, as so many in the Lutheran tradition did, that we not only inherit immoral promptings from our forbears but are somehow guilty of the misuses they made of them, wicked with the wickedness of men long dead, is not to express a profound moral insight but to darken both moral and religious counsel. If men who are doing their best to live up to such light as is in them are to be condemned for wrongs they never heard of, good has become evil, and evil may as well be called good. If sin is everywhere, then it is nowhere in particular. By making everything sinful, the dogma in effect makes sin trivial.


11 Let us return to ‘the stages on life's way’. The second stage, it will be recalled, was the ethical, in which impulse was replaced by law or principle in the guidance of conduct. But laws and principles are worked out by human reason, which by virtue of man's corruption is a fallible guide. If we are to escape this corruption and have any security that we are doing right, the control of both belief and conduct must be placed in more reliable hands than those of reason. What can these be? Only one kind of control can carry us out of despair to full security, and that is the guidance of God himself. We reach the third or religious level when we see that the duty that governs our life is not some merely human rule of reason or advantage but a divine imperative, and when we feel that our failure to do it is an affront to God. But this religious stage is not so much a plateau as a rugged mountain top, and within it Kierkegaard distinguishes two sub-stages which he describes as ‘religiousness A and religiousness B’.

The distinction between these is not very clearly drawn.10 The main difference seems to be that in stage A God is thought of as immanent, as somehow continuous with our own minds and open to some degree of understanding by reason, whereas in stage B, which Kierkegaard sometimes calls simply ‘Christianity’, we realise that God stands over against us as infinitely different, as quite incomprehensible, and indeed as absurd. The religion of stage A may be achieved by the better pagans or by persons of non-Christian religions, but that of stage B, in which man achieves ‘an absolute relation to the absolute’ and bows to the absurd with his whole heart and mind, is the possession of Christianity alone. The chief marks that show one's escape from the merely ethical level to the first religious level are resignation, suffering, guilt and—interestingly enough—humour. Let us turn to these in order.


12 The resignation must be total. ‘By resignation I renounce everything.…’11 The religious man cannot at once serve God and Mammon; he must detach himself from all temporal desires, renouncing without exception all that his heart has been set on. The lover will secretly renounce his loved one; the rich young man will account as nothing his well appointed house, his books, the account at the bank that has meant safety for him, his profession itself. If he is a married man, he will unhappily recognise that he has chosen the worse part.

‘It is an abominable lie to say that marriage is pleasing to God. From the Christian point of view it is a crime, and what is odious about it is that by this very crime the innocent individual is introduced into that community of criminals which is human life.’12

Such renunciation of human desires, drastic as it is, belongs to the lower stage of religiousness because it can be achieved by a sufficiently heroic effort of the will.

‘With my own strength I can renounce everything, and find peace and rest in suffering; I can bear everything, and… I can still save my soul, so long as it is of more consequence to me that my love for God should conquer in me, rather than my earthly happiness.… The man whose soul has not this sense of the romantic has indeed sold his soul.…’13

One must be resigned to going anywhere or doing anything, however deeply it may wound one's feelings or flout one's hopes or affront one's reason and common sense, if it presents itself as God's will.


13 A second religious requirement, insisted upon with strong emphasis, is suffering. Kierkegaard holds that ‘the distinguishing mark of religious action is suffering’;14 ‘to be without suffering means to be without religion’;15 ‘the more the suffering, the more the religious existence—and the suffering persists’.16 This suffering has nothing to do with outward causes, such as the loss of wealth or health or popularity; the religious man ‘requires and has suffering even in the absence of external misfortune.…’17 Nor is Kierkegaard's point about suffering that of the moralist who stresses the value of suffering in mellowing and maturing a character; he often speaks contemptuously of such teaching as the sort of thing that is talked in pulpits. The suffering he has in mind is more fundamental and inescapable, a darkness that remains within even while the outward sun is shining, and belongs to the very essence of religion; ‘the religious man believes that it is precisely in suffering that life is to be found’.18

Why this insistent, unqualified demand that the religious man should suffer and that his suffering should grow more intense as his religion advances? Kierkegaard explains it as follows:

‘This suffering has its ground in the fact that the individual is in his immediacy absolutely committed to relative ends; its significance lies in the transposition of the relationship, the dying away from immediacy, or in the expression existentially of the principle that the individual can do absolutely nothing of himself, but is as nothing before God; for here again the negative is the mark by which the God-relationship is recognised, and self-annihilation is the essential form for the God-relationship.’19

This may perhaps be translated as follows. In ordinary life, there are things that we very much want; when we become religious, what we want above all is to do God's will. We then see the worthlessness of our old ends, but find ourselves unable by any effort to achieve our new one; hence we are bound to be miserable.

It is obvious that Kierkegaard is falling back here on the theology of Luther and of his father. God stands over us like a stern taskmaster, insisting on obedience, demanding of us moral perfection. But since we are utterly corrupt by nature, we are unable to do anything that will please him. We are like a person in a nightmare who, with some dreadful form pursuing him, tries to run, only to find that his legs have turned to lead. From the terror and suffering of such an experience the normal man soon wakes up. For the religious man there is no waking up while life lasts. The more perceptively religious he becomes, the wider becomes the felt abyss between what God demands of him and what he can do. And any man who takes seriously the Deity of Kierkegaard's later writings has ample reason for a nightmare life. ‘Christianity exists,’ he writes, ‘because there is hatred between God and men.’ ‘God hates all existence.’

‘To be a Christian means that you will be tortured in every way. The best thing is that you should have an inexhaustible fund of inventions for torturing yourself; but if you are not strong enough, you can always hope that God will have pity on you and help you to reach the state of suffering.’ ‘It is a frightful thing, the moment when God gets out his instruments for the operation no human strength can carry out: cutting away from a man his desire to live, killing him so that he can live like a dead man. The object of this life is to give us the highest possible degree of distaste for living. Like a man who would be ready to travel anywhere in the world to hear a singer with a perfect voice, so does God listen in heaven; and whenever He hears rising up to Him the worship of a man He has led to the uttermost point of disgust with life, God says quietly to Himself: That is the note.’20

It would be unfair to suggest that the only picture of Deity that Kierkegaard carried in his mind was the picture of a celestial ogre. He often said that God was pure love. But he never succeeded, nor could anyone succeed, in fitting the two pictures together. A Deity of pure love who brought into existence millions of creatures only to throw the vast majority into endless unimaginable misery for wrongs they did not commit is a self-contradiction. If there were any sort of reasoning by which this misery could be shown to be necessary to the greater good of mankind, a rational mind might accept this theology. But it was no part of Kierkegaard's programme to render theology rational. How a God of pure love could also be a Moloch was indeed past understanding, but then what right had we to ask that God act intelligibly? The religious man will keep his intelligence firmly enough in its place to accept both pictures. What this meant in practice was an alternate stress on each side of the contradiction, or an acceptance as primary of the picture that best accorded with the devotee's prepossessions. To the man of sunny temperament God would be the loving father; to the man who was gloomy and apprehensive God would be the hard taskmaster. There could be little doubt which picture would be most vivid to a mind like Kierkegaard's. His preference for excluding the sunlight and working behind drawn blinds was symbolic of his inward climate, which was one of an almost pathological gloom. He can write of joy and love, but these are not his native element. Dread, suffering, guilt, and—toward the end—bitterness, scorn, and hatred are his characteristic emotions. And if God is a self-contradictory being, no one can prove you are wrong if you conceive him in your own image.

To the charge that this emphasis on suffering is arbitrary and smells of the hospital, Kierkegaard would no doubt reply that it has an objective and ‘existential’ ground. It rests on the real pathos of existence. We are sin-infested worms lying at the feet of infinite wisdom, justice, and goodness. The more genuinely religious we become, the more keenly we are aware of the distance by which we fall short. But this argument is double-edged. If we have a long way to go, we have come a long way also, and it is irrational to fix our eyes on one aspect only of the facts, to despair over the failure while refusing to take any satisfaction in the success. But the rationality of healthy-mindedness had no appeal for Kierkegaard. Our success is nothing; it is our helplessness and failure that must be kept in the forefront of our minds. ‘Religiously it is the task of the individual to understand that he is nothing before God, or to become wholly nothing and to exist thus before God; this consciousness of impotence he requires constantly to have before him, and when it vanishes the religiosity also vanishes’;21 ‘suffering is precisely the expression for the God-relationship’.22


14 If Kierkegaard did not derive this stress on suffering from the facts, where did it come from? In part, we have suggested, from his own clouded and morbid mind. But we must remember also that the theology he inherited was the Lutheran theology of a human nature so deeply sunk in corruption as to be salvable only by an interposition from on high, an interposition as unpredictable before it happened as it was inexplicable afterward. This view of the relation of God and man was accepted by Luther because he believed it to be the sense of the New Testament, and it was accepted by Kierkegaard on the same ground. On the question whether this theology can maintain itself under reflective criticism, we have said something in the last chapter. The decisive question for Kierkegaard, however, was not whether it was acceptable to a rational mind but whether God had said it. It is therefore worth asking whether his insistence that ‘the distinguishing mark of religious action is suffering’ does have a Scriptural basis. He admitted that ‘little is said in the New Testament’ about it; his doctrine of the central importance of such suffering seems to have presented itself as an implication of the teaching of St Paul. The Lutheran theology rested, by Luther's own avowal, on Pauline teaching, and this, as we have seen, had its grim side. But even in Paul's epistles one will look in vain for anything corresponding to Kierkegaard's exaltation of suffering. Paul speaks, to be sure, of the thorn in his flesh, of the struggle to keep the body under, of the warring against each other of two selves in his nature; and these things could not occur without suffering. But surely the dominant tone of his extraordinary letters is not one of suffering, dread, and despair, but very much on the contrary, of invincible courage, of an exhilarating confidence and hope. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.’ One suspects that the exuberant apostle would have been repelled by his successor's gospel of sedulous suffering and despair.

Nor is Kierkegaard's case better if the appeal is carried back to the gospels. Suffering is indeed represented there as an element in the religious life; Christians have a cross to carry; they must be penitent for their wrongdoing and ready to bear the burdens of others; they must turn the other cheek to a persecution thought to be inevitable. That is an important part of the teaching. But of course there is another side to it, what may be called the St Francis side. The yoke is still there, but to the St Francises of the world it is so easy and the burden so light that it is carried with grace and even gaiety. Neither the record of Jesus’ own teaching nor the impression he made on those around him suggests an atmosphere of intense and cultivated suffering. Kierkegaard's pronouncement that ‘God hates all existence’ has a very different sound from ‘I came that ye might have life and have it more abundantly’. Nor does his stress on suffering seem consistent with itself. He repeats with a curious suggestion of hedonism that the main object of life is to secure ‘eternal happiness’ and holds that this happiness is to be secured by compliance with God's will. One would expect, therefore, that an advance in goodness would bring some advance in happiness with it. Yet he also insists that ‘the more the suffering, the more the religious existence’. It was as if he was reluctant to accept even the measure of happiness that was open to him, as if he suffered from a congenital colour blindness and saw vividly all the greys, browns, and blacks of the world while having to squint and strain to make out the golds or blues.


15 Closely related to the second requirement of the religious stage, namely suffering, is the third, the sense of guilt for sin. It might seem that this belongs properly to the ethical stage, at which the sense of right and wrong, and remorse for wrongdoing, are already at work. But sin and wrongdoing are not the same for Kierkegaard. A pagan or an atheist can do wrong and know it; the sinner is a man who lives ‘before God’ and sees that his wrongdoing is an offence against God's will. His sin, therefore, is a personal betrayal, an alienation from Deity, which can be set right by no acts of repentance or amendment, but only by a grant of divine grace. To do wrong on a merely ethical level is to break a rule laid down by our reason; to sin is to relate oneself to the ultimate power in the world in a way that bears on one's eternal destiny. Kierkegaard sometimes speaks of the sense of sin as appearing only at stage B of the religious life; guilt at stage A is at most the guilt of violating rules laid down by a Hegelian God, an immanent God of reason, while the full blackness of sin first appears from the altitude of stage B and against the background of a transcendent Deity. It is perhaps needless to settle the precise places of guilt and sin in Kierkegaard's somewhat fluid classification. Suffice it to say that the guilt that is an awareness of sin always involves this new dimension of wrongdoing, a conception of it as no longer mere human waywardness but as a divine affront.

The guilt of the Christian, like his suffering, is inevitable, enduring, and total. As Kierkegaard puts it,

‘the decisive expression for the consciousness of guilt is in turn the essential maintenance of this consciousness, or the eternal recollection of guilt.… So here there can be no question of the childish thing of making a fresh start, of being a good child again… human justice pronounces a life sentence only for the third offense, but eternity pronounces sentence the first time forever. He is caught forever, harnessed with the yoke of guilt, and never gets out of the harness.…’23

We commonly think of ourselves as on the whole decent and upright persons; we have little lapses from time to time and are duly ashamed of them, but we soon bounce back again to our complacent self-respect. This self-satisfaction shows how fully we have surrendered ourselves to the undemanding standards of our time and place. But ‘what is the hour and a half I have to live with men, what but a brief instant compared with eternity?’24 And living in the light of eternity does not mean the intellectual culture that sees things steadily and whole; it has nothing to do with the philosopher's ‘contemplation of all time and all existence’; these are comparative frivolities. Indeed the attempt to understand may be one of the sins that keep us down, ‘woe unto me if the Deity were to condemn me in my most inward man for the fact that I wanted mendaciously to be systematic and world-historical, and to forget what it is to be a man, and therewith forget what it means that He is the Deity. Woe unto me. Woe unto me in time, and still more dreadfully when He gets hold of me in eternity! His sentence is the last, is the only one, from His congizance none can flee.…’25

The present writer is not one of those philosophers who can read such statements in unperturbed serenity. It is part of the business of the philosopher to realise how easily he may be mistaken, and he must feel a certain chill in his marrow when he hears such a judgement pronounced with prophetic confidence by a man hailed by discerning persons as a religious genius. Certainly the ordinary thoughtful man does not go about feeling ‘harnessed with the yoke of guilt’, weighed down with its ‘fetters’, and voicing terror at what God will do ‘when He gets hold of me in eternity’. According to Kierkegaard he must have these feelings if he is to call himself in the true sense religious, and if he is not religious, he stands in even greater jeopardy. What are we to say about this exaltation of the sense of guilt to a prime place in religion?

16 We must agree that it has its elements of truth. A religion lacking the sense of sin is plainly defective. There is force in the charge against the Greeks, for example, that as compared with the Hebrews they are hardly in earnest about their religion, precisely because of this absence of any effective sense of sin; even Socrates has been accused of being ‘too much at ease in Zion’. Again, if religion is to express, in Tillich's words, ‘an ultimate concern,’ it should have the power of controlling the impulses of the natural man. Those impulses will never be restrained from a wrong act by the merely intellectual perception of its wrongness. This does not mean that morality is impossible without religion, for that can be shown to be historically untrue. It does mean that the vast horsepower at the disposal of human egoism will be kept in check only if the sort of emotion involved in the sense of sin can be enlisted against wrongdoing. It is not enough to have a good eye for ethical distinctions and values; many moral philosophers of Laodicean record have had that. Above and beyond such perception there must be a strain of the Hebrew feeling of something leprous and unclean in moral evil, a stain on one's person that must be washed away in contrition if one is to be healthy again.

We must concede to Kierkegaard, once more, that there is some sense in what he says about the finite facing the infinite. The phrase is apt to produce a block in the modern mind by raising the suspicion that the word ‘infinite’ is a cover for the lack of any clear meaning. It is probably so in Kierkegaard's case, for he threw such words around recklessly. But if by facing the infinite he means that morality is an endless quest, that one no sooner reaches a given plateau than one sees a further ascent lying beyond it, that the road winds uphill to the end, and indeed beyond any end that we see or may hope to see, he is surely right. Here is another contrast between the Greek and the Hebrew or Christian. Aristotelian morality was a matter of ‘my station and its duties’, and the modest perfection of the ‘golden mean’ seemed quite attainable. But to forgive seventy times seven—that is, indefinitely—to love others, even one's enemies, as oneself, to be perfect even as God is perfect, that is another matter. If it is not one's duty to be perfect—and we have seen that it cannot be—it is at least a duty to try to be so, and that means that our reach will always exceed our grasp. Now religion is concerned with man's relation to the ultimate. To conceive morality as a quest, not for an immediate or visible goal but for one that is ultimate and infinitely distant, is thus in a sense to conceive it religiously; the religious man will naturally look at it in this light. If he conceives of it merely as Aristotle conceived it, as in essence a matter of propriety, if he cannot feel the pull of an ideal beyond all ideals, in the sense of something that works in and through them to amend them without limit, then in his moral life he has fallen short of the religious spirit. So far as Kierkegaard means this by insisting that a sense of imperfection and sin belongs to the religious life, we must agree.

But he meant far more than this. He would have regarded our agreement, based as it is on actual experience, as a milk-and-water support, which missed his main point. For the sin he was talking about was more than the continued failure that we can verify daily, and the infinite that condemned us was not a mere ideal, however exalted, but an existent being, powerful and terrible. It is not simply that ‘before God we are always in the wrong’ in the way just indicated; it is rather that, because God and man are ‘absolutely unlike’, we are condemned by a standard we cannot hope to understand. God's face is averted from us not only for our conscious misdeeds but for a vast volume of misdoing of which we know nothing, and we must bow to this condemnation, keeping it always in the forefront of our minds. ‘“Original sinis guilt’; ‘that is the real paradox… that something is inherited which by definition cannot be inherited. It must be believed. The paradox in Christian truth is invariably due to the fact that it is truth as it exists for God. The standard of measure and the end is superhuman; and there is only one relationship possible: faith.’26


17 Now the requirement of guilt in this sense as a condition of religion we clearly cannot accept. It is not a true exaltation of morality; it is a refusal to take morality seriously; it undermines and confounds the sense of sin. By morality here we mean what everyone normally means by it, the attempt to guide one's life by an authentic perception that some things are right and others wrong. Among the things that we see clearly to be wrong is the condemning of anyone for acts that he did not do. We have just heard Kierkegaard saying that this is what God does; and we are required to acquiesce and approve. The natural protests of our moral sense are overruled by a ‘standard of measure’ that we are assured is superhuman. But if on a cardinal point like this the human standard is unreliable, it can be relied on nowhere. This conclusion Kierkegaard is apparently willing to draw. If we try to do right and seem to succeed, we must remember that ‘before God we are nothing’ and that by the superhuman standard we are sinning still. If we do what we know to be wrong, one would think that the superhuman court, so different from our own, might give us an occasional acquittal, but of this there is apparently no hope. And if we do nothing at all, we are still condemned for the depravity we have inherited and which continues to vitiate us even in passivity. We obviously cannot win. We are moral lepers whatever we do.

To ask a reflective man to carry about with him a sense of infinite guilt on grounds like these is to ask what is impossible. The sin for which his overwhelming guilt must be felt he cannot verify in his deeds or his intentions. The towering structure of guilt that is based on it is the creation of a theology whose credentials he cannot verify by his reason, and Kierkegaard would call him a fool as well as a sinner for attempting so to verify them. Ordinary good sense, the ordinary appeals to conscience, the attempt to think things out and get them clear—pathetic expedients to put a lighter complexion on one's guilt—must be firmly put aside. In favour of what? Authority. ‘… Christianity's paradoxical difference from every other doctrine, from a scientific point of view, is that it posits: authority. A philosopher with authority is nonsense.’27 We are thus invited to accept an authority which overrides both reason and conscience, and which, in defiance of both alike, sets us down as unrighteous altogether. Now authority may demand that a man accept this, and tell him that if he demurs that is the worst sin of all. And he may give in, as many have done, through diffidence about his own insight and sheer terror of the unknown. But a mind that is morally and intellectually sane can hardly divest itself of its sanity on order.

Am I implying that in respect to this sense of guilt Kierkegaard himself was not quite sane? I am implying precisely that. His pattern of profound depression followed by states of exaltation was studied by the Danish psychiatrist Helweg, who found it symptomatic of a disordered mind, and there is much to confirm such a diagnosis. His own conviction that he had often stood on the brink of insanity, his repeated dallyings with suicide, his retreat from the world into his darkened rooms, his alienation from his friends, his family, and even his mother, the paranoiac claims to genius and comparisons of himself to Christ, the perpetual feverish anatomising of his own tortured mind, maintained until, exhausted and prematurely old, he died in his early forties—one wonders whether there is any psychiatrist of our time who would not at once recognise in such symptoms the syndrome of mental illness.

But this is matter for the pathologist, and what I am thinking of here is sanity in a less technical sense, the kind of intellectual health that one looks for in a matured and reflective mind. Intelligence is healthy so long as it adjusts its beliefs to the evidence and succeeds in maintaining harmony among them. It loses this sanity so far as it allows any belief to form a cyst, resistant to evidence, or allows its world of belief to fall apart into incoherence. There is such a thing as the sanity of the judicial mind, which we all recognise by its contrast with the temper of the fanatic, the crackpot, the bigot, and the doctrinaire.

Now whatever Kierkegaard's place may be on the medical chart, he lacked this kind of sanity. He fixed his eye on one part of the evidence, and did not and could not see it in perspective. Sin is of course a fact in human nature, and a most important fact. But it is not the all-important fact, to be carried by habit around one's neck like an albatross of doom. By his insistence on so carrying it, Kierkegaard has placed himself among the ‘sick souls’ in William James's familiar classification. Normal experience or impartial reflection would never suggest this view of sin; it comes straight from a special brand of theology. And this theology itself needs sanity in exceptional degree for its appraisal, for its claims and its confidence are enormous. Unhappily Kierkegaard was peculiarly unqualified to pass judgement on it. He had lived in its midst from infancy like a hothouse plant; his father was absorbed in it with the morbid fascination of one who feared he had committed the unpardonable sin. From the range of critical and scientific knowledge that might have made a fair appraisal possible, Kierkegaard was cut off by accidents of time and place. He died four years before The Origin of Species cast its grenade among the fundamentalist theologians. The remarkable movement of ‘higher criticism’ did begin in his lifetime, but the thought of both of its leaders, Strauss and Baur, had been deeply affected by Hegel, who was a bête noire to Kierkegaard throughout his later years. Indeed this hostile reaction to Hegel was one of the chief intellectual facts of his life. He had read that arch-rationalist early, but by the age of twenty-two had concluded that philosophy and Christianity were hopelessly at odds with each other, and that he must take the Christian side. Thereafter rationalism became anathema to him, and the very attempt to apply rational standards to religion came to seem an irrelevance and an offence. Now the truly judicial mind is one which, with a broad apperception-mass of experience and ideas, is able to bring it freely to bear on each point as it arises. On the facts of moral evil Kierkegaard lacked both the breadth and the freedom needed for a fair judgement. He saw these facts, not directly, but through the mist of his inherited theology; and this theology itself he could not appraise, partly because he lacked the required range of ideas, partly because an inveterate suspicion of reason itself deterred him from using freely such ideas as he had.

18 Another circumstance must be mentioned if we are to understand his thought about moral evil. This is the fixation on morality that belongs to Hebraic religion. In both the Old Testament and the New, the approach to the divine is almost exclusively moral. The emphasis in the Old Testament is on the law and the prophets—in the earlier days obedience to the law of Moses, in the later days the acquirement of a clean heart; the emphasis of the New Testament is on the service of God through the love of man. Now man is not merely a pursuer of morals; he is also, for example, a pursuer of beauty and truth. There is no antecedent reason why he should not approach his Deity, and find a revelation of him, through his aesthetic and intellectual faculties as truly as through his conscience. The Hebrew tradition discouraged such notions. It carried suggestions, to be sure, that we should consider the heavens, the work of God's hands, and consider the lilies how they grow, but these whispers are all but lost among the trumpet-calls to morality. There is likewise some recognition that with our other gettings we should get understanding and should love God with our minds as well as with our hearts. But these again are incidental counsels. There is nothing in the Hebrew tradition to compare with that intellectual passion, that love of the play of reason for its own splendid sake, that surged through the great Greek thinkers, nothing to suggest that ‘with certain persons’, as Bradley puts it, ‘the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a principal way of experiencing the Deity’. Here Kierkegaard was surrendered to the Hebraic tradition. He had some knowledge of the Greeks, and even held Socrates in a kind of hero-worship, but art and philosophy were not religion; the very notion that we could apprehend God by reason carried for him a touch of impiety. The umbilical cord from God to man was moral; we were sinners before a righteous Deity who was taking moral account of us. That was the great fact of our relation to him. One might be the first poet or the first philosopher of the world; that was nothing in God's sight. What was important was our moral status; we had sinned, all of us and morally; some of us had had our sins washed away, and would therefore be saved; where we stood in this transcendent reckoning was the only thing that really mattered. To the Greek lover of beauty and reason this would have seemed a strange contraction of divine interest and manifestation into a single channel. But in religion it is Hebraism, not Hellenism, that has won the allegiance of the West. Luther despised the Greeks and exalted St Paul. Kierkegaard looked at Socrates wistfully, fought an internal battle with him and with Hegel, and then in fear and trembling for his immortal soul crept back to his father, Galatians, and original sin.


19 The final condition of entering the religious level of life is a surprising one, humour. ‘Humor is the last stage of existential inwardness before faith.’28 It has often been noted that the commonest kind of humour rests on the perception of incongruity; a man in a top-hat slips on a banana peel; the butler is mistaken for his lordship and decides to play out the part; the praying mantis, the emperor without clothes, the duchess who has mislaid her teeth—these are comic characters because of the clash between appearance and reality. Now a person to whom the exalted status of the man with the top-hat or the emperor or the duchess conveyed no meaning would see nothing comic in their abject condition; the cream of the jest lies precisely in the deflation of high pretensions by humble fact. The enjoyment of the contrast need not be cruel; there may be sympathy for the fallen estate of the man with pretensions; indeed the main distinction between humour and irony, which appears a little lower in the scale, is that humour has sympathy, while irony lacks it. This, Kierkegaard remarks sagely, is why one never finds irony in a woman.29 To the person who can look with detachment upon the activity of ordinary mortals, they seem grotesque—puppets strutting about with turkey-cock importance. The loftier the position from which one can look down upon them, the wider will be the range of comic characters included in one's purview. The loftiest of all such positions is the religious. Hence the religious man has an unparalleled opportunity for humour; he holds a position by contrast with which every walk of life, from peasant to king, takes on the aspect of a puppet show. ‘Thus if Napoleon had been a genuinely religious individual, he would have had a rare opportunity to enjoy the most divine of amusements; for to have the power apparently to accomplish everything, and then to understand this divinely as an illusion: verily, this is jesting in real earnest!’30

There is nothing in principle new in this conception of humour, though Kierkegaard was perhaps the first to show its connection with religion and metaphysics. ‘What lies at the root of both the comic and the tragic in this connection, is the discrepancy, the contradiction, between the infinite and the finite, the eternal and that which becomes.’31 What is ‘essential for humour’ is ‘the retirement out of the temporal into the eternal by way of recollection’,32 a requirement that some humorists of one's acquaintance might have difficulty in meeting. Nevertheless one can see as soon as Kierkegaard points it out that to the person who contemplates life with detachment, who looks at it, as Carlyle occasionally did, against the background of ‘the eternities and immensities’, a peculiarly rich kind of humour is open. It is a humour, as Kierkegaard noted, that is very close to tragedy. Its note is often sounded by the greater poets.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Is the picture comic or tragic? It is clearly both. And what makes it significant is that it holds up to us so vividly the little mouthing puppet that man is against the splendid background of what he thought he was. It is the tragic humour of a brooding disillusionment.


20 That such humour exists is plain enough. But in two important respects Kierkegaard's account of it is puzzling. For one thing, the background against which human vanities are to present themselves as comic is so characterless that it is hard to see how contrast with it could render anything comic. When Carlyle called men forked radishes, or Shakespeare saw them as strutting players, the background of aspiration against which they appeared as comic was not difficult to see. What is the standpoint from which the religious man sees them? It is the standpoint of eternity; in looking down on human nature, he is occupying for a time the position of Deity itself. How is that position to be characterised? Kierkegaard tells us that it is beyond characterisation. We know that God's thoughts are not as our thoughts; his ethics contravenes our ethics; he is not even bound by our logic, so that he can do and think contradictory things. Now if men's actions become comic through incongruity, there must be something more or less definite with which they can be incongruous. But according to Kierkegaard, the divine nature has for the religious man no definite character at all; it is paradoxical, unintelligible, even absurd. The ground on which we are to regard human life as absurd is that it seems absurd when viewed from the standpoint of the transcendentally absurd. This is not very illuminating. We take God as absurd because he is so different from ourselves, though how, we do not know, and he takes us as absurd because we are so different from him, though what makes us absurd we again do not know, since his nature is utterly beyond us. Thus Kierkegaard's attempt to connect humour with religion ends in denying that such humour has any intelligible ground.

But theology, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Though Kierkegaard was emphatic in protesting that the divine nature was inscrutable, he was not indisposed to fill in the blank, and the picture that formed itself bore a striking resemblance to the theologian himself. The things that the religious man ought to laugh at were somehow the things that Kierkegaard found comical. He had a high regard for his powers as a humorist, even describing himself as ‘solely a humorist’.33 ‘If there is anything I have studied from the ground up, and pursued into its farthest ramifications, it is the comic.’34 At one point in his most philosophical work he explains a point somewhat obscurely and adds, ‘Whoever cannot understand this is stupid; and if anyone dares to contradict me, I propose to make him ridiculous, by virtue of the power I happen this moment to have in comic characterisation.’35 Since he set so much store by his keenness of humorous perception, it may be instructive to give instances of the sort of thing that he regarded as laughable. He writes:

‘when I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then I have not stopped laughing. I saw that the meaning of life was to secure a livelihood, and that its goal was to secure a high position; that love's rich dream was marriage with an heiress; that friendship's blessing was help in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be; that enthusiasm consisted in making a speech; that it was courage to risk the loss of ten dollars; that kindness consisted in saying, “You are welcome,” at the dinner table; that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.’36

Probably few persons will share Kierkegaard's feeling of the funniness of these things; the tone is that of a cynic rather than of a humorist. Still it is typically Kierkegaardian. His humour expresses a comprehensive scorn, seemingly unmellowed by tenderness. Human beings were comic to him because they were vain and pompous creatures who, he tells us, kept falling flat and bumping their noses, and when such a creature is splashed with mud or killed by a tile from a roof, ‘I laugh from the bottom of my heart’.37 Indeed there was something irresistibly comic to him about persons confident of the future being killed by tiles from roofs. He repeats a story from Lucian: Charon tells how a man invited a friend to dinner; the friend said, ‘You can count on me quite definitely,’ and as he walked away, the inevitable tile fell and killed him; upon which Charon remarks, ‘Is not that something to laugh yourself to death over?’38 Of course in the sense in which this is laughable, we are all more laughable than we know; ‘the speech of daily life makes us as humoristic as funeral sermons generally, according to which every moment sees the burial of a hero’.39 A man with these genial feelings about his fellows will have an ample field for humour, and Kierkegaard, as he tells us, never stopped laughing.


21 The four conditions we have now considered—resignation, suffering, guilt, and humour—are requisites for the first stage of religion, called by Kierkegaard stage A. It is the second stage, however, referred to as stage B, that is the goal of the Christian pilgrimage, and in describing it he gives his final answer to the question that preoccupied his mature life: ‘How am I to become a Christian?’ His answer is somewhat difficult, and it is made more so by his preference for stating his position not in a straightforward way but in scores of fragmentary discussions scattered through thousands of pages in a dozen volumes, and contributed by characters that sometimes speak with his voice and sometimes not. The substance of this answer, so far as I have been able to sift it out, may be given in three statements: one becomes a Christian in the full sense only (1) by overcoming objectivity, (2) by achieving subjectivity, and (3) by a leap of faith from a subjective base. On each of these points Kierkegaard had arresting things to say.


22 To most scientists or philosophers the remark that they had achieved objectivity regarding their subject would seem high praise. But if made with truth about any man who was trying to understand Christianity, it would be, according to Kierkegaard, an evidence of failure. The objectivity aimed at in philosophy and science he held to be a mistaken ideal in theology, ‘for an objective knowledge of the truth of Christianity, or of its truths, is precisely untruth.’40 What led him to adopt so paradoxical a view? He had several grounds for it.

23 The most important was that thought—the kind of thought at work in philosophy and science—can deal only with abstractions, not with existence, and that since being a Christian is a way of existing, it is beyond the scope of such thought. He put the point variously. ‘A logical system is possible; an existential system is impossible.’41 When we attempt ‘interpretations of existence’, we find that

‘speculative philosophy has of course no part to play here, since, being objective and abstract, it is indifferent to the concretion of the existing subject and at most has to do with the pure idea of mankind.…’42 ‘Because abstract thought is sub specie aeterni it ignores the concrete and the temporal, the existential process, the predicament of the existing individual arising from his being a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal situated in existence.’43

Kierkegaard has clearly been reading Plato and Hegel, and here he is offering one of the stock objections against any thoroughgoing rationalism. The objection is that reason can deal only with universal, and that therefore particulars, which plainly exist, are bound to slip through its meshes and get away. Philosophy, for example, deals not with this or that particular thing or man, but with ‘as suches’—with the nature of matter as such, or with man as such, or with mind or cause or time as such. Kierkegaard would say that the same holds of science. It may be that a particular apple fell at a particular moment on the particular head of Isaac Newton, but if it did, that is no part of science, for science is concerned only with law, for example the law that matter as such obeys the gravitational formula. Now to understand anything by the use of reason, Kierkegaard suggests, is to reduce it to a set of as suches or universals, and then to connect these with others by laws which are themselves universals. In these laws there is no reference to any particular event or to any individual thing or man. They are timeless, like the statements of logic and mathematics. But the occurrence of a particular event is not timeless, and the existence of an individual man, oneself for instance, is not to be resolved away into any set of as-suches. The particular occurrent and the individual thing or person therefore defy explanation by any process of thought, however extended.


24 There is something in this objection, and since Kierkegaard places great store by it, we shall do well to try to see what this is. In one use of the term ‘universal’, it is plainly true that an individual thing cannot be reduced to universals. Suppose we say of Socrates that he is human and has a certain height, weight, and colour. These words, it is often said, connote universals; ‘human’ means the range of properties owned in common by all human beings, ‘height’ the common property of all particular heights, and so of the others. Now it is obvious that an indiviual thing or man, say Socrates, is not made up of universals like these. He is not a composite of humanity as such, plus height that is no height in particular, plus weight with no definite poundage, plus colour of no specifiable shade. One could assemble as many of these pale abstractions as one wished and still fall immeasurably short of the actual flesh-and-blood Socrates, who possesses these characters, not as abstractions, but in specific forms—a height of five feet ten, a weight of 180 pounds. If Kierkegaard means that an individual cannot be resolved into universals of this type, he is right, even if it is hard to think of any rationalist who could serve as a culprit.

His point, however, may be different. He may be maintaining that even if we take the characters of an individual in their completely specific form, their totality is not enough to constitute the man. This position, unlike the preceding one, is actually advanced by some rationalists. The traditional concept of a universal is that of a character that may occur in varying contexts. Suppose Socrates is five feet ten and weighs 180 pounds. Are these characters universals? Clearly they are by this definition, for other persons besides Socrates may also have this specific weight or height. Now the nature of Socrates does seem to be made up of specific characters like these. Each is a universal because each could in principle be repeated, nor can one place any limit on the number of them that might be repeated together. And thought can obviously deal with universals of this kind, both singly and in groups. It can note that this wholly specific shade is brighter than that. It can note that John Doe's wholly specific weight is greater than Richard Roe's. If thought can deal with such characters, both singly and in sets, and the individual is made of them, why should Kierkegaard say that intelligence is helpless in dealing with the individual?

Two answers are possible. Intelligence may fall short because it cannot exhaust the characters of the individual, or because in this individual there is something that can be set over against its characters as not a character at all. The first answer is that of the thoroughgoing rationalist, who would say that Socrates is a set of characters and relations. He admits that we cannot deal with an individual, even a broomstick, if this means that we can apprehend all its properties; they are presumably infinite, and we shall never wholly exhaust them. But this is merely because our intelligence is limited. And it would be absurd to say that we cannot think of Socrates at all because we cannot exhaust the millions of attributes that an infinite knowledge would find in him.

But this is not Kierkegaard's answer. For him there is something in the individual that lies beyond all its characters and is therefore beyond the grasp of thought, however far extended; ‘the particular cannot be thought, but only the universal’. ‘The only thing-in-itself which cannot be thought is existence, and this does not come within the province of thought to think.’44 This view has some plausibility. For consider: a character may either exist or not exist. I may clearly conceive a character; I may conceive your height for example; but can I in the same way conceive its existence? If so, what sort of entitity is it that I am conceiving? Is it some further attribute possessed by this height, so that when I say it exists, I am asserting some predicate of it? No, existence is not an attribute; it is not a predicate; it is not a character or quality; it is not a ‘what’ of any kind. Even to ask what I am asserting when I say that something exists is subtly to beg the question, since it assumes that existence is a content or character which I can conceive as I do roundness or the colour blue; and it is nothing of the sort. Thus the inference seems clear that if thought can deal only with characters, and existence is not a character, thought cannot deal with it. Rationalism is therefore doomed to inevitable defeat, not in a minor skirmish, but on an issue of major moment. The most important thing about any character or essence or universal is whether it exists, for on this depends whether it will be a cipher in the world of change or a dynamic agent that affects the course of events. Yet before existence thought stands helpless. Its explanations move among universals. It can note that with a certain fall of temperature water becomes ice, but this law is still a connection between as-suches. In short, since reason moves among universals only, it can neither explain existence nor conceive it.


25 Here Kierkegaard has plainly gone too far. If he were saying only that relective thought may abstract from existence in the sense of temporarily directing attention away from individuals to the abstract connections they exemplify, no one could take exception to what he says. But it would not be very interesting, for it would amount to saying that abstract thought is abstract. He clearly means to say something more important. He means to say that objective thought by its very nature is unable to deal with existence. And this seems to be false to fact. There is no discontinuity between thought in philosophy and science and that of ordinary life, in which we find ourselves dealing constantly and successfully with existence. If Kierkegaard looked at us in puzzlement as to what we could possibly mean by saying that elephants exist but mammoths do not, or that King Alfred existed while King Arthur did not, he would suddenly find us intelligible enough if we said that three cases of smallpox existed in Copenhagen or that his particular house was on fire. We manage to think such thoughts without feeling the slightest obscurity about them. Why then should a sane man say that thought cannot deal with existence?

Some confusion is evidently at work. It may be that the speaker is confusing connotation and denotation, or Frege's Sinn and Bedeutung. Convinced that the Sinn or sense of an assertion consists of characters, he may have assumed that this exhausted the meaning, and that we could not refer to anything beyond it. But the fact that we do refer to existence is surely more obvious than any antecedent generalisation about what thought can or cannot do, and Kierkegaard would have done better to engage in a little sharp analysis than to indulge in a priori pronouncements about thought and existence. Again, one might start with the assumption that the objects of thought must be somehow embraced in the thought itself, which seems plausible enough when we think such abstractions as that 2 + 2 = 4, whereas when we say that Gibraltar exists it is not at all plausible to suppose that the rock exists bodily in our consciousness. But it is an illusion to suppose that in order to refer to an object thought must contain it; the end of that road is solipsism. It is surely clear that if I talk of a Gibraltar across the sea or of an event that happened before I was born, I am not talking merely of my own state of mind.

Indeed if the thought of the philosopher or scientist could not move among existent individuals, it is hard to see how it could ever have arrived at its abstractions, ‘Because abstract thought is sub specie aeterni,’ says Kierkegaard, ‘it ignores the concrete and the temporal, the existential process, the predicament of the existing individual.…’45 But how could it deal with the eternal except by contrast with the temporal, and how could it deal with time as such if it had never apprehended particular lapses of time? How could it reach the abstract idea of humanity except by experiencing individual men and marking off in thought what they had in common? How should we ever have known that billiard balls roll or that water congeals into ice at 0° centrigrade except by finding the connection exemplified in particular cases? For that matter, even a truth as ‘timeless’ as 2 + 2 = 4 is learned with the help of marbles or matches, and except through the counting of such individual things would never be learned at all. Thought does of course have the power of isolating characters and dealing with them and their relations in abstraction from the individuals in which they appear. But to make thought a contemplation of nothing but unchanging and eternal essences is to make that achievement itself unintelligible. The road to the universal lies through the individual.

26 A logical system is possible, says Kierkegaard; an existential system is impossible.46 His reason for saying this is, as we have seen, that a system is a set of related concepts or universals, and that existence necessarily falls outside it. But no sooner has he pronounced the above judgement than he throws us off balance about it. ‘Does this mean,’ he continues, ‘that no such system exists? By no means; nor is this implied in our assertion. Reality itself is a system—for God.…’ But if what prevents the existent from entering into a system is that it is not the sort of being that can so enter in, then it is idle to tell us it does so in the thought of God, for this is to say at once that it does and that it cannot. Kierkegaard might of course reply, as he does in some other cases, that contradiction presents no difficulties to Deity. But what that means is in effect that reality is self-contradictory and then it is meaningless for him to say, as we have just heard him saying, that for God reality is a system. A system that is incoherent violates the very notion of system.

Furthermore, is it true that finite beings have failed so utterly in the attempt to make existence intelligible? Kierkegaard speaks of philosophy as if it were a system of concepts hanging in air. But what of the philosophy of history? Here is a clearly philosophical discipline whose avowed and special subject-matter is actual historical events. ‘Yes’, Kierkegaard would reply, ‘and what a pretentious and egregious failure it is! Only look at Hegel.’ Very well, look at Hegel; a glance will suffice to show whether he is an appropriate object for such derision. Of course if one approaches Hegel expecting a deduction of history in its infinite detail, one will not get it, nor did Hegel ever pretend to offer it. But neither did his thought move solely among abstractions. He discussed the rise and fall of particular civilisations, such as the Chinese and the Greek; he discussed particular movements, like the crusades and the Reformation; he even discussed individuals, like Caesar and Charlemagne. Many inquirers have thought they drew from him a flood of light on the historical process—a fuller insight, for example, into the causal importance of the rise of Athens and the barbarian invasions of Rome, and a better understanding of the cultural importance of feudalism and the enlightenment. A philosophy that many critics have found so illuminating seems hardly an appropriate butt for Kierkegaard's mockery. But did it render the events of history completely intelligible? Can any ‘miniscule professor’, working with imperfect records and limited powers, understand them fully? Obviously not, as Hegel would have agreed. But to suggest that because thought cannot understand the historical process fully it can render it in no degree intelligible is both a non sequitur and contrary to fact.

How jaundiced Kierkegaard was in his attack on Hegel will become plainer from another consideration. Suppose we grant him that in every event there is an ‘existence’ inaccessible to reason, and that in the absence of this element the ‘what’ or character would be an ‘airy nothing’, powerless to make any difference in the actual course of events. It would remain true nevertheless that the only way we can deal with such events, either in theory or in practice, is by recourse to their character; we must control existence through essence. To be sure, the mere general statement that the type of disease called malaria is caused by a certain type of virus carried by a certain type of mosquito says nothing about little Susy, whose health may be at the moment of prime concern to us. But if in the light of this generalisation we can prevent the disease in her particular case, or if, when she gets it, we can predict and halt its course, that is not a negligible achievement in the understanding and control of existence. It is made possible by the assumption, now verified on a vast scale, that an event is causally linked through its character with that of some preceding event which is such as to produce it. Because men have assumed this linkage of events through their characters, they have achieved that mastery of nature, theoretical and practical, which is called modern civilisation. To depreciate such ‘objective’ and generalised thought as somehow failing to deal with existence is singularly inept.


27 Kierkegaard's contention that ‘objective’ thinking cannot deal with existence has been discussed at some length because it has often been regarded as a profound insight of existentialism. But he had other grounds for his protest, which can be dealt with more briefly. A second ground was that in religion we need certainty, and ‘objective’ thinking can never achieve it. If Christian doctrine is true, a gift of infinite value is offered to us, a gift of eternal happiness, but it is offered on the condition of our belief. Suppose we try by thinking to determine whether the doctrine is true. It tells us that in certain places of what is now Israel and Jordan there lived and died some two thousand years ago a person who embodied Deity, performed miracles, and spoke with the voice of absolute authority. Is there any process of thought, philosophic, scientific, or historical, by which we can prove these things to be true? Plainly philosophy is not enough; we must concede to Kierkegaard at once that no process of speculation can prove the occurrence of a single past event. Can science do it? No, again. The major assumption of science is the reign of law, which would rule out miracles at the outset, including the central one of the appearance on the planet of a being unaccountable by human antecedents. Can history do it? No, once more. We may grant that historical research, by seeking independent confirmation of the report of a given gospel may lend a given event a higher probability, but certainty is beyond our grasp. And certainty we must have.

‘There has been said much that is strange, much that is deplorable, much that is revolting about Christianity; but the most stupid thing ever said about it is, that it is to a certain degree true.’47

Unfortunately reason can say no more. We are thus left with a hopeless disparity between the value of the prize and our power to appropriate it. On our acceptance of Christianity depends nothing less than a future of infinite happiness, but if this acceptance turns on rational calculation, it is beyond our reach. We must remember, says Kierkegaard,

‘that even with the most stupendous learning and persistence in research, and even if all the brains of all the critics were concentrated in one, it would still be impossible to obtain anything more than an approximation; and that an approximation is essentially incommensurable with an infinite personal interest in eternal happiness.’48

On the question whether we can reach by objective thinking the sort of certainty desired, we must grant that Kierkegaard is right. Theologians as different as St Thomas and Luther have agreed that some of the cardinal doctrines of the faith are indemonstrable, and however strong the confirmation may be for events in the synoptic gospels, it will always fall short of certainty. If our eternal happiness does indeed depend on our certainty about them, the situation is tragic. Nor is it enough to reply to Kierkegaard that a kindly Deity would not dangle so great a prize before mankind while endowing us with natural faculties unable to embrace it. For the Deity accepted by Kierkegaard was not governed by human standards of justice or goodness and was capable of demanding what, by those standards, was impossible or wrong.

28 But does not this very consideration blunt the point of the present argument? Kierkegaard tells us that a prize of infinite value is before us, and that if we depend on objective thinking to secure it we are bound to fail. There must, therefore, be some other means to the certainty which we so passionately desire, one that he finds in a non-rational ‘leap of faith’. But the argument is not very convincing. For if the divine justice is so very different from our own, why should it not leave the pearl of great price dangling permanently beyond our grasp? In a world governed by justice in our sense of the term, it would certainly be strange if an acceptance of Christianity were exacted from us while the powers with which we were endowed would not allow us to do more than ‘approximate’ to it. But then we are expressly told that the world is not of this kind, and indeed that it is impious to ascribe to Deity a logic and ethics like our own. In that case why suppose that the impotence of our reason has any remedy at all? The circumstance that our plight would then be shocking to us would not disprove or remove the fact. Kierkegaard, like Kant, thought that in depreciating reason he was clearing the way for faith. In Kierkegaard's case, at least, the argument was a boomerang. For if the world is really irrational, how can we argue from the irrationality of a certain ordering of things to the conclusion that it is unreal? It may be that reason, with all its imperfections on its head, is the best means to certainty we have, and that we shall always fall short of the goal.


29 Sometimes Kierkegaard puts forward a third ground for his distrust of objective thinking. The belief that is required from the Christian is not an intellectual affair at all, but a matter of action, and to try to prove or disprove an action would be meaningless. Christianity is a way of living; even the acceptance of it is a decision, a commitment of the will, an instance of doing or becoming, not of contemplating. By action Kierkegaard was careful to explain that he did not mean overt behaviour; Luther's great action, for example, was not his appearance in the flesh before the Diet of Worms, but the inward decision from which that behaviour flowed.49 It might be supposed that if action is thus made an inward affair thought and will would blend with each other indistinguishably. But this would be an example of the old mistake that existence is a content.

‘Between the action as represented in thought on the one hand, and the real action on the other, between the possibility and the reality, there may in respect of content be no difference at all. But in respect of form, the difference is essential. Reality is the interest in action, in existence.’50

The passage from thought to decision is not like a transition from one idea to another, but an unpredictable, inexplicable break from one order of being into another, from the realm of thought to the realm of existence. ‘The transition thus reveals itself clearly as a breach of continuity…’;51 ‘the category of transition is itself a breach of immanence, a leap’.52

That there is something in willing or deciding that goes beyond the mere thought of the willed behaviour seems clear enough, though what exactly this is has often puzzled introspective inquirers. Some have said, with James, that if the thought occupied itself exclusively with the action proposed, and did not divide attention with anything else, the thought was the volition; others have found that a special ‘feeling of innervation’ was necessary. Kierkegaard's habits of thinking did not lend themselves to precise analysis and such pronouncements as ‘reality is the interest in action’ and ‘the category of transition is itself a breach of immanence’ are not very helpful. But he does appear to be saying that what is important for religion is not belief or understanding in any cognitive sense, but on the contrary a sheer act of will, which, as an element of existence or process, falls outside the realm of ideas and is beyond the support or confutation of reason.

30 Now this sort of division between thinking and willing cannot be maintained. All thinking involves willing, and all willing involves thought. Taking the former point first: a process of thought is itself a process of willing; to hold attention to a certain course and to resist the solicitation of irrelevancies may be voluntary action of a peculiarly resolute kind; indeed James considered the control of attention the essential factor in willing. On the other hand, Kierkegaard speaks of philosophers as if they had opted out of the world of volition and existence. ‘It is only systematists and objective philosophers who have ceased to be human beings, and have become speculative philosophy in the abstract.…’53 Curiously enough the life that for Aristotle was the fullest and best realisation of human nature was for Kierkegaard a desertion of one's humanity for a flight into the unreal. We need not go the whole way with Aristotle to perceive how artificial is this contrary view. With all respect to the religious devotee, it is not very convincing to say that the life of an Aristotle himself or a Kant or a Hegel lacks commitment and therefore reality as compared with that of a Salvation Army worker untroubled by a doubt. There are many opportunities from which the life of thought cuts one off, but that of voluntary effort is not one of them.

If will enters into the process of thinking, it is equally true that thought enters into volition. Two types of volition are of particular interest here, the will to believe and the will to behave. Consider first the act of believing or assenting. If to reflect is an act of will, as we have seen that it is, then the judgement that concludes reflection is also an act of will. But is this act therefore a breaking out of the order of thought into an alien order of existence where thought cannot follow with its canons of relevance and validity? This seems to be Kierkegaard's meaning in such pronouncements as that ‘the category of transition is itself a breach of immanence’. But no act of judgement does or can break out of this ‘immanence’ in the sense suggested, for the act is an assertion of content, and is so bound up with that content that it could neither be nor be conceived without it. As such an act, it remains within the province of logical thought. It makes a claim that is true or false, a claim that can be appraised by thought alone. If Kierkegaard supposes that by making belief an act he is putting it off cognitive bounds where it is no longer responsible to logic, he is fabricating a psychology to fit his irrationalism. An act of belief or assent is truly an act; agreed, but it is an act done in the service and under the implicit criticism of a rational ideal.

But there is another kind of action which answers more nearly to ordinary usage: the inwardly taken decision which initiates outward behaviour; and it is no doubt this that Kierkegaard usually has in mind when he insists that Christianity is action, not thought. To put it with his characteristic obscurity, ‘The only reality that exists for an existing individual is his own ethical reality’;54 which seems to mean that one really exists only when one is choosing between right and wrong. And what counts here, he insists, is the decision or choice, not the thought. Does this view make sense? I do not think it does. The attempt to place decision or commitment beyond the jurisdiction of thought backfires here again. For what one elects or chooses in a choice of this kind is a course represented in thought, and presumably represented as right. This rightness is always assumed in ordinary life to be something open to debate and reflection, something that can be supported or impugned by reason; we have no doubt that some choices are reasonable and others not. Our ways of showing this reasonableness may indeed differ. Perhaps most commonly we bring the course envisaged under the head of some rule accepted as self-evident, like ‘Keep your promises’, or argue that the action is a necessary means to goods valuable in themselves, like happiness or fulfilment. But whatever form the defence may take—the appeal to principle, to consequences, to conscience, to authority, to ‘inner light’—thought, implicit or explicit, is always involved. If we doubt the rightness of an act, thought is the only way out.55

We find this here denied. ‘The ethical lays hold of each individual and demands that he refrain from all contemplation, especially of humanity and the world.…’56 ‘In all his writings Kierkegaard maintains that doubt is not checked by means of reflection but by an act of will.’57 Will may rightly terminate reflection, but in ethical choice reflection must not impose itself upon will. We are warned that so far as thought is in control we are falling short of the vividness and tang of real existence. But surely this is to make action irresponsible. The way to achieve reality is now to assert ourselves in independence of any appraisal by thought of the wisdom or rightness of our action. Indeed no such appraisal can be given. As Thomte says, Kierkegaard ‘presents no objective ethical values, the only value being the inwardness of the existing individual as he faces crises and makes his choices.’58 It is thus impossible to give rational guidance in advance of choice; it is impossible for the person choosing to choose on a rational basis; it is impossible for the critic reviewing the conduct to judge it by any rational standard. What is described as ‘ethical reality’ looks under scrutiny like an apotheosis of thoughtlessness.


31 We have seen that in ‘the task of becoming a Christian’ Kierkegaard finds ‘objective thinking’ unnecessary. Indeed, ‘the greater a man's equipment of knowledge and culture, the more difficult it is for him to become a Christian.’59 Objective thought cannot deal with existence; it cannot give certainty; it falls short of the action in which religious living consists. What is to replace it in Kierkegaard's scheme of things?

The replacement is subjectivity;

‘becoming subjective is the task proposed to every human being, and his highest task.…’60 ‘Only in subjectivity is there decisiveness, to seek objectivity is to be in error’;61 ‘since all decisiveness… inheres in subjectivity, it is essential that every trace of an objective issue should be eliminated’;62 ‘the subjective acceptance is precisely the decisive factor; and an objective acceptance of Christianity… is paganism or thoughtlessness.… It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence.’63

What did Kierkegaard mean by these cryptic pronouncements?

He meant of course to deny that one could be religious in virtue of mere intellectual assent, going so far as to hold that it is better to worship an idol with the right subjective attitude than to worship a God truly but objectively conceived, if this attitude is lacking. He meant also to deny that the religious life was a matter of outward conformity to any pattern of behaviour. The true religious attitude lay in ‘subjectivity’. We must try to penetrate the meaning of this very important term.

32 We may note, first, that in subjectivity one's self is felt as active. In perception and even in thought it is comparatively passive. The philosopher ‘contemplates all time and all existence’ much as a spectator looks at a landscape; he does not create the objects before him; they are there to see if he opens the eyes of his mind. But in active decision or choice we feel the self creatively at work. More surprisingly, so far as we are subjective the self is not only the operator but also the object of the operation. ‘… Christianity protests every form of objectivity; it desires that the subject should be infinitely concerned about himself.’64 ‘Kierkegaard regarded “the individual” as his own peculiar category so wedded to his name that it would be a fitting inscription upon his grave.’65 Just as it is through individual action that we first really exist, so it is with our own individual life that we are, and indeed ought to be, chiefly concerned. Kierkegaard speaks on occasion of the interest in others as if it were possible only for the man whose faith has given him an assurance, unattainable by reason, that there are other persons at all. His ethics are curiously egoistic; ‘the sole ethical interest is the interest in one's own reality’.66

Secondly, to be subjective is to be passionate. ‘Christianity wishes to intensify passion to its highest pitch.’67 ‘the scribbling modern philosophy holds passion in contempt; and yet passion is the culmination of existence for an existing individual’;68 it is ‘the highest expression of subjectivity’.69 One can assent to theological dogmas with the cool impersonal neutrality of a geometer, but to be religious is to take a stand on a matter of life and death, and neutrality on such an issue is indifference or blindness. We must feel ‘the infinite passion of inwardness,’ and pray with ‘the entire passion of the infinite’. To contemplate Christianity, to doubt about it, to weigh it in rational scales, to compare it favourably or not with other religions, even to assent to its doctrines, is to stand off from it and look at it from the outside, not to engage oneself in it. Engagement requires commitment of the will; commitment is to action and existence, not thought; and since in this action one's ‘eternal happiness’ is at stake, it is interested, concerned, emotional action. ‘There is only one interest, the interest in existence; disinterestedness is therefore an expression for indifference to reality.’70 The man who is truly engaged will be in a consuming passion; ‘the absolute consciousness of God consumes him as the burning heat of the summer sun when it will not go down, as the burning heat of the summer sun when it will not abate.’71

Thirdly, our subjective experience is incommunicable. The Christian lives alone. Such external things as propositions he can no doubt share with other people; for when two persons say that 3 + 3 are equal to 6, they are grasping the same equation. But neither can communicate to the other his emotion. I may try to evoke in you an emotion similar to mine; I may describe my feeling, or make gestures, or write a poem, but I can no more transfer my feeling into your mind than I can transfer a toothache. Subjectivity is existence, and existence is always particular and unique, never shared or shareable; ‘existential reality is incommunicable’.72


33 There is another and fourth fact about subjectivity that is momentous, though it is hard to grasp. Kierkegaard holds that subjectivity is truth. At first this seems quite meaningless. How could a commitment of the will, however passionate, be true or false? Is it not precisely as we lay aside subjective desires, purposes, and prejudices and look at things objectively that we can hope to see things as they are? Kierkegaard does not oppose such objectivity in science, but he holds that in religion it is irrelevant or worse; ‘an objective knowledge of the truth of Christianity, or of its truths, is precisely untruth’.73 The belief or acceptance of Christianity is for Kierkegaard, as we have seen, a decision of the will, and he is quite prepared to say that this decision is not a cognitive act at all. But though neither true nor false in the conventional sense, he felt that the word ‘true’ could still be applied to it significantly. As so applied, it was really an adverb rather than an adjective, for its application was now to an act. What was important in Christian assent was not any content assented to but the manner of the acceptance, not the what but the how. ‘At its maximum this inward “how” is the passion of the infinite, and the passion of the infinite is the truth.’74 ‘The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.’75 ‘Subjectivity is the truth.’76 Kierkegaard was fond of repeating ‘only truth that edifies is truth for me’. Since Christianity is not a set of doctrines but a way of living, the truth that it possesses is a quality of the act of accepting it; we accept it ‘truly’ if we commit ourselves to it whole-heartedly, unreservedly, and passionately. It was in this sense that for Kierkegaard subjectivity was truth.

Such teaching was revolutionary. It abruptly altered the theological tactics for the defence of Christianity against all forms of rationalism. Instead of answering the critics point by point, Kierkegaard shifted ground and held that their criticism required no answer because it was irrelevant. They had tried to equate Christianity with a set of dogmas that were to be approached in the same manner as Newton's theory of gravitation or Locke's theory of matter, by a rational appraisal of evidence. Kierkegaard denied that Christianity had anything in common with such theories. It did not consist of doctrines; its acceptance was not an affair of cognition; and in trying to refute it the critics were therefore beating the air. Christianity was true, indeed, but not in their sense. Its truth lay not in the conformity of statement to fact but in the sincerity, the completeness, the passionateness, with which one committed oneself to it as a life.

With countless persons this strategy has proved effective. It appeals to the widespread conviction that any attack upon religion as a set of dogmas is an attack upon a straw man. The sense that Kierkegaard is right against intellectualism in religion is the main reason for his extraordinary revival. Furthermore, in his insistence that religion is not a merely intellectual affair we can only agree with him. A Catholic who believed every clause in the Nicene, the Athanasian, and the Apostles’ creed, or an Anglican who subscribed without demur to all the thirty-nine articles but who hated and exploited his neighbours, would certainly not be regarded as a Christian. Christianity is a way of life. And a way of life can hardly be brushed aside as speculative cobwebs can, by the flourish of a dialectical broom.


34 But there is more to be said. To reject intellectualism in religion is one thing; to embrace subjectivity in Kierkegaard's sense is quite another. If we absorb the what into the how, if we reduce the acceptance of Christianity to a passionate commitment of the will in divorce from any attempt at objective thought, we are banishing the intellect from religion altogether. And is one extreme not as objectionable as the other? Certainly Christianity as historically accepted has never been a matter of will and action only. Besides having a committed will, a Christian has certain beliefs. Even though he lives whole-heartedly for the good of his community, if he has no belief in a God, rejects the divinity of Christ, finds the atonement meaningless, and denies a future life, he will hardly be regarded as a Christian. The intellectual element, though it does not stand alone, is and must be there. Kierkegaard, in his endeavour to make Christianity ‘existential’ rather than ‘objective’, distorts and depreciates this element beyond recognition. When he says that the truth of Christianity consists in a passionate decision to act, he is not only eviscerating Christian beliefs of their meaning but also denying that belief, in its ordinary sense, has any part in religion at all. This is a most unconvincing position, which Kierkegaard was unable to maintain consistently.

Consider his way of dealing with the doctrine of immortality. No doubt this doctrine has meant different things to different minds, but for the great majority of believers it has had one simple and central meaning, namely that they will continue as persons after death. This is a belief about their future, and whether it is true or false clearly depends on its relation to future fact. Not, however, for Kierkegaard. His way of posing the question of immortality is as follows:

‘Objectively the question cannot be answered, because objectively it cannot be put, since immortality precisely is the potentiation and highest development of the developed subjectivity. Only by really willing to become subjective can the question properly emerge, therefore how could it be answered objectively?… people will not understand that viewed systematically the whole question is nonsense, so that instead of seeking outward proofs, one had better seek to become a little subjective. Immortality is the most passionate interest of subjectivity; precisely in the interest lies the proof.’77

That is, the way to gain assurance that one will survive in the future is to take a passionate interest in it now; if the interest is strong enough, that will attest that the belief is true. On the assumption that immortality carries its ordinary meaning, this is plainly nonsense, since it is absurd to attest the truth of propositions about the future by going into a passion about them. It makes sense only on the assumption that Kierkegaard is not talking about immortality in its common meaning at all, but about something else to which he has chosen to attach the word. Not that he takes the word consistently in its new sense, whatever that is, for then his discussion would lack even apparent relevance to the traditional question. He understands well enough what the traditional meaning is, both of this and of other religious questions; in converting them into the sort of issue that can be settled by an eruption of feeling and will, he is merely ‘changing the subject’.

35 Why did he insist on replacing objective truth with this curious subjectivity? Partly, no doubt, because he had convinced himself that the general propositions of science and philosophy dealt only with universals, not with particular things or persons; ‘all men are mortal’ stated a connection between humanity and immortality but said nothing about me. We have seen that there is no good ground for this strange interpretation. The statement is about me, for if it is true, I shall die, and if I do not, that will render the statement false. Again, Kierkegaard seems to have held that belief in the ordinary sense was not something that could enlist one's passion, whereas one could be fully engaged emotionally about a decision to act. On this, T. S. Eliot's remark is pertinent that ‘it is by no means self-evident that human beings are most real when most violently excited’. Nor is it self-evident that the person who feels most strongly about death realises its nature most fully, that the kind of criminal, for example, who is soddenly indifferent until impending execution jars his torpid feeling into life, and is then dragged shrieking to the chair, has necessarily seen the meaning of death more clearly than the man who has reflected about it long and quietly. Sometimes again, Kierkegaard's ground for exalting subjectivity seems to be the conviction that thought must be pale and cold. This too is untrue. There are persons, as Sir Thomas Browne observed, who love to ‘pursue their reason to an “O Altitudo”’, and indeed follow philosophy, as Spinoza and Bradley did, as ‘a way of experiencing Deity’.

Occasionally the reader, casting about for reasons why this strange doctrine should have commended itself, is driven to the suspicion that other and plainer confusions are at work. Kierkegaard holds that ‘the entire essential content of subjective thought is essentially secret, because it cannot be directly communicated’; all one can do is to help another grasp it by an act of his own. But strictly speaking, all thought is of this kind, even 2 + 2 = 4. If I want to communicate this to you, I can make noises or write symbols, but you can gather what I am thinking only by rethinking it for yourself. Thus the fact that a thought can be communicated only indirectly does not, as Kierkegaard supposed, distinguish a subjective from an objective form of thinking. Perhaps because of a perception of this, he seems at times to identify subjective thought with the act of judgement itself as a bare psychological event, distinct from anything judged. This act is really subjective in the sense that your act can never be mine, nor mine yours. But then it becomes meaningless to speak of the judgement as true or false, for a mere event can be neither. Furthermore the whole campaign against the ‘objective’ thought of the philosopher would become pointless, since acts of thought are as truly subjective in this sense as the most passionate acts of the devotee.


36 All these confusions may have contributed to Kierkegaard's insistence on subjectivity. But the main reason for it was his obsession with immediacy as what brought him closest to existence. His attitude at this highest level reminds one, as did his attitude on the lowest level, of the hedonism of Aristippus, for whom what was all-important was the feeling of the moment; and it was anticipatory of Bergson, for whom reality lay only in the immediate. Kierkegaard wanted to sink himself in immediacy. All ideas, all speculation, all reference beyond the experience of the instant were unreal, and even the experience of that instant was tainted with unreality unless it could be reduced to the immediate without remainder. One can see that the contention is not wholly without point. The thought of a distant thing or person is only a thought; it is not the thing or person, and it cannot bring them into existence; it is only a shadow, a suggestion, a foretaste of its object. Banish it then. Get down to the really real—pure action, pure passion, unalloyed and unvitiated by thought.

It was an impossible enterprise. We never do or can reach pure immediacy, as has been seen; we leave it behind in infancy, if indeed we ever experience it; by the time the child recognises a ball or a milk-bottle, he has lost his innocence and eaten of the tree of knowledge. The attempt to strip experience of thought while retaining its immediacies is radically mistaken, for if the ideal elements of our experience were removed the immediate ones would go too, or at least would lose their character. Consider emotion, for example. Emotion was for Kierkegaard an immediate experience, and therefore subjective and real. Thus the fear one feels if one hears a tiger roar in the jungle is intensely real, though the thought of the tiger is not. Or to take the sort of case that Kierkegaard prefers—for he was preoccupied with the erotic—the love of Dante for Beatrice was real, though a vast gulf separated the thought of her from the existent woman of flesh and blood. But what would be left of the ‘real’ emotion in either of these cases if the ‘unreal’ thought were taken away? Nothing. It is the interpretation imposed by thought on the roar in the jungle that arouses the emotion and gives it its tone of fearfulness. It is the thought of Dante about Beatrice as a person of grace and goodness that appoints his complex feelings about her. In the same way, it is the religious man's thought of God as a person concerned about the fall of a sparrow, or as a ferocious Moloch demanding the first-born, that fixes and colours his feeling about Deity. Without religious thought, religious feeling would be without form and void, and religious commitment would be to nothing. Kierkegaard wants to keep the immediacy of religious experience—its passion and practical devotion—without those intellectual elements that involve it in doubt and strife. It was a vain attempt. He might as well have tried to keep the colour of the rose while doing away with its form.

37 The doctrine that truth lies in subjectivity is self-defeating in another way. It makes truth relative to the passions and preferences of the individual mind, no matter how anarchic or conflicting these may be. One would say unhesitatingly that it would justify both sides of a contradiction except for Kierkegaard's insistence that truth belongs to pure acts or decisions, which, not being true or false in the ordinary sense, cannot contradict each other in that sense. But though he does insist on this, he also, with his customary generosity, talks continually as if it were not the case, and draws freely on examples that would be meaningless unless truth were taken in the ordinary sense. We may therefore follow him as he does so. He takes the case of Pilate, called upon to judge whether the prisoner before him had committed a capital offence, and maintains that Pilate erred because he tried to deal with the issue objectively.

‘But whoever is neither cold nor hot is nauseating.… Had not Pilate asked objectively what truth is, he would never have condemned Christ to be crucified. Had he asked subjectively, the passion of his inwardness respecting what in the decision facing him he had in truth to do, would have prevented him from doing wrong.’78

This is singularly unconvincing. The roles of intelligence and feeling have somehow got reversed. So long as Pilate allowed himself to be governed by the evidence objectively considered, his stand was for acquittal. ‘Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him.’79 It was only when Pilate, against his objective judgement, capitulated to the passion of the accusers that he gave the tragic sentence. ‘And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.’80 Kierkegaard says that if subjectivity had been allowed to settle the issue, the right verdict would have been given. He fails to note that it was precisely subjectivity that did give the verdict—the passionate, unreflecting, unquestioning, moral condemnation of the priestly accusers. He denounces the attitude that ‘found no fault in this man’ and exalts the attitude of non-objective and passionate self-righteousness that led to his conviction.

It may be replied that the attitude of the accusers was not genuine subjectivity, and could be regarded as such only if it gave the right verdict. But we must remember that no objective method is now left us by which we can find what is the right verdict. If Kierkegaard is to present the product of his own subjectivity as truth and that of others as error, he must be prepared to show how to distinguish a real subjectivity from a fraudulent one. This he cannot do. His description of the state as active, passionate, and incommunicable applies as well to the accusers’ state of mind as to the defenders’; the high priests were vehemently sure of themselves. If subjectivity as described is the only test available, the conclusion seems clear: you can justify anything by it. A man has a sincere, unquestioning, unreflecting, passionate conviction that something is right; therefore it is right.

This conclusion will plainly not do. It has provided through many centuries a charter for those who have burned witches, supported slavery, and put down heresy by force, and it further simplifies their task by enabling them to dismiss appeals to reason as irrelevant. If the peculiar quality of a man's ‘subjectivity’ happens to be hatred, as it frequently was with Kierkegaard, what is dictated by this hatred assumes the vesture of certain truth, and its presentation to the public with a suitable show of reluctance attests at once devotion to truth and devotion to duty. Kierkegaard found the equation of truth with subjectivity a great convenience. With an apparently untroubled conscience, for example, he could seek to destroy the growing reputation of so harmless a friend as Hans Christian Andersen through an anonymous manuscript ‘published against his will by S. Kierkegaard’, and could subject another friend, the kindly Bishop Mynster, to public vilification after his death. If people pointed out that this was not fair, if they protested, as they did, that it was less than accurate to describe priests as ‘cannibals’ and fellow-Christians as ‘whoremongers’, Kierkegaard could reply that ‘there still remains One that I take with me in my disrepute, God in Heaven.…’ For anyone who regards his passions, and particularly his malevolent passions, as ‘the truth’, it is prudent to secure unimpeachable references.


38 It will be recalled that to reach the highest level of the religious life three things were necessary: first, the abandonment of the search for certainty through objective thought; second, the falling back on subjectivity as a passionate, non-rational act of will; third, the leap of faith. We have examined the first two, with results that do not raise expectations as we turn to the third. Still, this leap of faith demands scrutiny. It is the last step in the ascent which takes us to the highest summit of religious knowledge that man can achieve.

What is it that distinguishes an act of faith from other subjective acts, such as making a moral decision? It is that faith is concerned with a special type of problem. Christianity requires a commitment to certain beliefs. Among these the central one is the belief in the incarnation, namely that at a certain point in past time God actually became man. ‘The object of faith is thus God's reality in existence as a particular individual, the fact that God has existed as an individual human being.’81 This is the distinctive fact of Christianity, which marks it out from all other religions. And we have seen that, according to Kierkegaard, it is a fact incapable of establishment by any process of objective thought. You can never prove the existence of any past fact. It might seem, then, that the proper attitude is one of doubt and suspended judgement, just as it would be if we were asked to accept the existence of King Arthur. The two facts, however, are not comparable. For the unique Christian fact, if a fact at all, is one of overwhelming moment, upon whose acceptance our eternal happiness depends, and if there is any chance of its reality, an attitude of reserve and detachment would be flippancy. So, ‘while objective knowledge rambles comfortably on by way of the long road of approximation without being impelled by the urge of passion, subjective knowledge counts every delay a deadly peril, and the decision so infinitely important and so instantly pressing that it is as if the opportunity had already passed.’82 The decision is what James called a ‘forced option’; we cannot evade it, since with so high a prize at stake to evade decision is in effect to reject the offer as illusory.


39 The man who attempts to make this decision on the ground of evidence is in an even worse position than we have suggested. For the incarnation is not a fact of more or less probability; to our reason it is bound to look like an impossibility. To say that Deity became an individual human being is to say that the eternal or timeless became temporal, that the infinite became finite, that omnipotence became limited in its power, that omniscience grew in knowledge as a man does, that moral perfection was tempted and therefore attracted by evil. These things are not mere probabilities, low or high; to our intelligence they are absurdities. What, then, are we to do? If we appeal to our intellect for guidance, it conducts us to a blank wall, for ‘the contradiction that God has existed in human form’83 is not knowable or even thinkable.

‘To speculate upon it is a misunderstanding, and the farther one goes in this direction the greater is the misunderstanding. When one finally reaches the stage of not only speculating about it, but of understanding it speculatively, one has reached the highest pitch of misunderstanding.’84

The attempt to know religious truth by the intellect is thus fundamentally misguided because destined to defeat by the nature of its object. ‘For the absurd is the object of faith, and the only object that can be believed.’85

Fortunately this defeat of intelligence does not leave us without recourse, for faith remains. But there must be no looking back, no longing for the unprofitable old fleshpots of rational understanding and certainty. One must recognise the sophisticated intellect for the dangerous thing it is, and be content to become a child again. ‘When faith requires of a man to give up his reason, it becomes equally difficult for the cleverest and the most stupid person to believe, or it becomes in a sense more difficult for the clever.’86 The difficulty must be overcome, not by thinking more critically, which is futile, but by a resolute act of will. The leap of faith is a daring, passionate, non-rational commitment to the paradoxical and the unintelligible.

‘Faith begins where thought leaves off.’87 ‘Without risk there is no faith.’ ‘The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite… the above definition of truth is an equivalent expression for faith.… Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual's inwardness and the objective uncertainty.’88 ‘Faith is what the Greeks termed divine madness.’89

Kierkegaard's best known illustration of the meaning of faith is drawn not from theology but from morals. The ultimate source of right and wrong is the will of God, and ‘the knight of faith’, like the knights of the Round Table, will at every moment of life be in the service of his royal Master. Not that he needs to renew the appeal to this will at every moment consciously; for the lower-level guidance of his own ethical faculties will normally suffice. The ethical level, says Kierkegaard, is the level of ‘the universal’. By this cryptic pronouncement he seems to mean one or the other of two things; that the moral man will either, in Kantian fashion, ask what conduct could in principle be consistently adopted by everybody, or, in Hegelian fashion, ask what the community generally would approve. Most modern moralists would regard either of these appeals as hopelessly inadequate, but Kierkegaard had little grasp of ethical theory. His chief contribution to it is to say that at times it breaks down, and that when it does, our resort must be to a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ at divine behest. The nature of this behest can be ascertained only by faith.


40 How is he to show that our natural faculties do break down in morals? The most effective way would be to show that our clearest moral judgement may stand in radical conflict with the divine will. Can any case of such conflict be cited? Yes; we find it in Scripture itself. The most revolting act of which a human being is capable is to destroy his own flesh and blood. In the book of Genesis we find Abraham commanded by God to do just this, to take his only son, the son of his old age on whom the joy and hope of his life were concentrated, to the summit of Mount Moriah, to bind him, cut his throat, and use his body as a burnt offering. Anthropologists who have studied this legend have considered that it is probably a relic of the custom of human sacrifice which once held in many parts of the world, and apparently even in the prehistoric past of the Hebrew people. However that may be, Kierkegaard takes it in all historic and symbolic seriousness. Is it not the point of this story, which is clearly inspired, that it was Abraham's duty, and may at any moment be ours, to trample down the affections of the natural man and all his nicely calculated goods and evils? Kierkegaard's answer is an emphatic Yes.

In his essay on Fear and Trembling he goes into the matter with gusto and in detail. After a ‘Preliminary Expectoration’, as he calls it, in which he spews philosophy, ethics, and even reflective theology out of his mouth as incompetent to deal with the case, he goes on to consider what is implied in the command to Abraham. There have been cases in history and literature in which a father's killing of a child may in some degree be reconciled with our moral sense. Brutus ordered the execution of his sons, but they were, after all, guilty of treason, and does not a general's duty to the state take precedence of his own affections? Jephthah made a grateful vow to Heaven to offer as a sacrifice the first person he met on his return from victory, and if this happened to be his daughter, he would nonetheless be breaking a sacred oath by sparing her. If Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, it is to appease the wrath of Artemis, who holds the power of destruction over his fleet and army. These are not, therefore, pure cases of ‘the teleological suspension of the ethical’; in all of them the killing of the child is dreadful, but it is not entirely pointless. The great thing about the act demanded of Abraham was that it was pointless absolutely. Isaac was wholly innocent; Abraham loved him beyond anyone else in the world; no conceivable good to anyone could be anticipated from killing him. It was an act in which every human consideration was lined up on one side and on the other nothing at all but the command from on high to kill. Abraham bowed to it and drew his knife. The fact that at the last moment he was relieved of the need to strike is irrelevant in appraising him. Whether he actually killed or not, he showed that he possessed the one thing needful, namely the readiness to kill.

For Kierkegaard this makes him the perfect knight of faith. ‘Venerable Father Abraham! Second Father of the human race!… thou who first didst know that highest passion, the holy, pure and humble expression of the divine madness.…’90 Abraham is ‘great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.’91 He surrendered himself to the ‘paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God.’92 ‘… Abraham believed and did not doubt, he believed the preposterous.’93 ‘He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.’94 He was called upon to renounce the moral for the religious, the finite for the infinite. ‘This is… clear to the knight of faith, so the only thing that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith.’95 Here is the meaning of that most deceptive phrase, ‘the teleological suspension of the ethical’. ‘Teleological’ means ‘for an end’, but what Kierkegaard is praising here is the abandonment of all thought of ends and the doing of something that from every human point of view is productive of nothing but evil. ‘As soon as the will begins to look right and left for results, the individual begins to become immoral.’96


41 What are we to say of a rhapsody (in forty thousand words) in praise of pure and holy murder, of a defence of the humanly immoral on the ground that it is religious duty? Kierkegaard, in choosing such ground, believes that he has cut off the possibility of rational criticism. And clearly if an appeal is taken to the unintelligible and the irrational, it is begging the question to protest against it on any grounds of sense or reason. Sense and reason have been deliberately left behind. But we can at least point out that the irrationalist defence is double-edged. If it undercuts its opponents, it also undercuts itself, in the sense that it has foregone all right to the rational criticism of others. If opponents claim a divine warrant for the opposite of what Kierkegaard proclaims, all he can do is denounce them as impostors.

Of course there have been countless claims of this sort. There were Jewish leaders who claimed a divine imperative to destroy the Amalekites, man, woman, and child. There were Christians—St Louis described himself as one—who thought the proper Christian reply to an argumentative Jew was to bury one's sword in him to the hilt. John Woolman felt a divine interdict against his preparing papers as a magistrate for the sale of a slave; but John Newton, the hymn-writer, reported that some of his sweetest hours of communion with the divine were spent while he was the captain of a slave-ship, separated by a few planks from a weltering mass of human misery. Joseph Smith claimed to know that the divine will approved of plural wives; Mohammed made a like claim, but limited the divine approval to four; the Christian fathers limited it still further to one; and St Paul construed it as favouring those who did not marry at all. St Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Ambrose thought it a divine imperative that one should not accept interest on loans. St Abraham the Hermit appears to have thought it the divine will that, beginning with the day of his conversion and continuing for fifty years, he should wash neither his face nor his feet. There are few practices too trivial or too eccentric to have been included among actions enjoined or prohibited by divine will. If claims to such guidance are to be above rational criticism, what we have is a chaos of voices, each announcing itself as authoritative, each denouncing its opponents as deceivers, and none of them able to defend themselves against the others.

Such chaos raises suspicion of all the claimants. Nevertheless, it supplies nothing decisive against the objective rightness of any of them. To suppose that it does is a common error in these days, particularly among ‘cultural relativists’. They have succeeded in showing by diligent investigation that virtually every practice regarded as wrong at one time and place is accepted as right at some other, and have often concluded from this that ‘the mores can make anything right’, that all claims to objective truth for moral judgements must be equally thrown out. The conclusion does not follow. If Pericles differs from the Polynesians, it is not necessarily dogmatism to say that he speaks for a higher culture and is more likely to be right. If it were, one could by a parallel argument call Newton and Einstein in question because John Alexander Dowie disagreed with them and insisted that the earth was flat. No such argument will be offered here. We must in fairness agree that among the chaos of claimants to supernatural direction Kierkegaard might be right and all who differ from him wrong. The issue can be decided only by scrutinising his particular claim. The questions to be asked about it are of two kinds, intrinsic and extrinsic. The intrinsic question is whether the content of faith, the beliefs disclosed to it, are meaningful and credible; the extrinsic question is whether their credibility is affected for better or worse by the sort of mind through which they are disclosed. It will pay us to look briefly at each of these.

42 Abraham was enabled by faith to see what ordinary men were unable to see. What exactly was this? It was that an act which, so far as the human mind could judge, was productive only of evil was nevertheless right—a duty because the will of God. For the person who possesses the insight, the principles and consequences involved in the act are held to be irrelevant; its character as seen by faith is its true character, which takes precedence of any judgement of our merely human faculties. Faith thus revealed to Abraham in the most dramatic and decisive way that it may be duty to reduce rather than to increase, to destroy rather than to create, the values recognised by reason and conscience.

Now when ‘the knight of faith’ claims that he has had this kind of insight, can we credit what he says? It is hard to take the claim seriously. A person may say that it is really better that the powers of youth should be frustrated than fulfilled, that excruciating pain is better than pleasure, that sorrow and anguish are better than happiness, but can we believe that he has in fact seen these things to be true? The question is not, of course, whether pain, misery, and the destruction of life may be means leading to later goods; this is true enough, but is irrelevant here; for we are expressly forbidden to try to justify the divine command by any such considerations. What was presented as Abraham's duty, what he was honoured for accepting, was the production of these evils without any thought of compensating goods.

When the question is thus clearly put, one must take leave to doubt not only whether such insight occurs in fact but whether it could possibly occur. For what the insight amounts to is that there is no such thing as good or evil, right or wrong, better or worse. If the killing of innocent youth without regard to consequences may be right, then anything may be right, since our moral sense has proved delusive at the very point of its greatest confidence. If pleasure is intrinsically evil and pain intrinsically good, if misery is in truth more desirable than happiness, then the clearest and surest judgements about values are worthless, and it is no longer possible to hold that anything is really better than anything else. The entire realm of values, including moral values, becomes a mirage. Now one may talk as if it were, but one cannot live or think accordingly. Daily and hourly we make choices implying judgements that it is better to be happy or enlightened or at peace than it is to be the opposite; indeed the person who chooses to affirm that nothing is better than anything else presumably assumes that it is better so to affirm than not to do so. The Kierkegaardian ‘knight of faith’, in electing the ‘absurd’, is divesting himself of the shackles of all such insights. But to do that is to be not a saint but a moral nihilist.


43 Those who accept Kierkegaard's knight of faith as the true saint may well pause over this conclusion. The popularity of his religious ethics in our schools of theology is a genuine anomaly. The Christian saint, we must admit, has at times been a strange character whose asceticism and other-worldliness have set him apart from the run of men and caused him to be regarded with uncomprehending wonder. Still, in the main he has accepted and exemplified the values most prized by his fellows and has been honoured by them accordingly; he has believed in the superiority of love to hate, in the relief of human misery, in refusing to count his own good as more important than that of others. These are virtues that we can see to be virtues with our unaided human faculties. But for Kierkegaard as for Luther, these faculties are corrupt; all the principles laid down by them are open to a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ imposed from above; they are subject at any moment to cancellation by ‘the absurd’; and if in the face of such a suspension we retain our old adherence to love or loyalty or even conscience in its natural sense, the charge of immorality is compounded with a charge of impiety. Furthermore, the saint or knight of faith, according to Kierkegaard, is a man whose leading concern is not the welfare of others but his own ‘eternal happiness’, a description incidentally that applied to himself. ‘If ever a person was self-centred,’ says Professor Paton, ‘it was Kierkegaard; he hardly ever thinks of anyone but himself.’97 What we have in this strange version of Christianity is thus an insistence on the selfish character of the religious motive combined with an insistence that the values of the Christian life, so far as these can be understood, are provisional only and may at any time be overridden. Kierkegaard revelled in paradox; ‘if anyone has ever used the slogan credo quia absurdum,’ says Emil Brunner, ‘it was Kierkegaard’.98 Those who love daylight, even in religion, will greet the absurd with less acclaim. To them it will still seem odd that one should have to become immoral in order to be religious. They may recall Halevy's remark that ‘virtue is more dangerous than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the restraints of conscience’.

The knight of faith sometimes startles us as much by his banality as by his transcendence of moral claims. Kierkegaard assures us that if he were to meet such a man, who was living on the religious summit, he might find nothing about him that distinguished him from anyone else. He imagines himself meeting such a person:

‘Good Lord, is this the man? Is it really he? Why, he looks like a tax-collector! However, it is the man after all. I draw closer to him, watching his least movements to see whether there might not be visible a little heterogeneous fractional telegraphic message from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a note of sadness, a smile, which betrayed the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite. No! I examine his figure from tip to toe to see if there might not be a cranny through which the infinite was peeping. No!… when one looks at him one might suppose that he was a clerk who had lost his soul in an intricate system of book-keeping.… He goes to church. No heavenly glance or any other token of the incommensurable betrays him; if one did not know him, it would be impossible to distinguish him from the rest of the congregation, for his healthy and vigorous hymn-singing proves at the most that he has a good chest.… On his way he reflects that his wife has surely a special little warm dish prepared for him, e.g. a calf's head roasted, garnished with vegetables… his appetite is greater than Esau's. His wife hasn't it—strangely enough, it is quite the same to him.… In the evening he smokes his pipe; to look at him one would swear that it was the grocer over the way vegetating in the twilight.… And yet, and yet—actually I could become furious over it, for envy if for no other reason—this man has made and every moment is making the movements of infinity. With infinite resignation he has drained the cup of life's profound sadness, he knows the bliss of the infinite… the whole earthly form he exhibits is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd.’99

There is thus no telling what life in the absurd may require of us. It may summon us to something dramatic and unconventional, such as murder on a mountain top; ‘men will continue to commit atrocities,’ said Voltaire, ‘as long as they continue to believe absurdities’. On the other hand, it may affect our conduct so little that even our friends may never detect that we are among the chosen of mankind. We may achieve full religious absurdity with so little trace in our conduct of any new mellowness or affection or unselfishness or refinement of feeling that we are undistinguishable from our brother grocers and tax-collectors. The discontinuity is so great between the inner man, occupying his stratosphere of absurdity, and his natural interests and activities that the two may coexist in the same person without visibly affecting each other. The notion of the Christian spirit as permeating natural attitudes and transforming selfish conduct seems to have been supplanted by a different kind of picture. And it is a somewhat odd picture to hang in a gallery of ‘saints’ alongside those of St Francis and Thomas à Kempis, of John Woolman and Albert Schweitzer.


44 We have been dealing with the absurdity apprehended by faith in the field of morals. But it will be remembered that the central dogmas of the creed are also apprehended by faith, and are regarded as equally absurd. Sometimes the absurd is presented as the merely improbable. ‘Faith has in fact two tasks: to take care in every moment to discover the improbable, the paradox; and then to hold it fast with the passion of inwardness.’100 Sometimes, as we have seen, the paradox that must be held fast is more than improbable; it is impossible. The central fact of Christianity, Kierkegaard holds, is the incarnation. ‘The object of faith is hence the reality of the God-man in the sense of his existence… the fact that God has existed as an individual human being.’101 But he admits that by rational standarts this fact is inconceivable and inconsistent with itself. A being who is eternal or out of time cannot have measured out his life in human years. A being who is omnipresent could not be confined in his movements to a small area in the eastern Mediterranean. A being who is omniscient cannot grow in knowledge, or a being who is perfect grow in grace. A son who is a separate person from his father cannot also be one with that father; still less can three persons be one. So speaks logic. But faith requires us to put logic aside and accept what Kierkegaard flatly calls ‘the contradiction that God has existed in human form’.102 ‘In my God-relationship I have to learn precisely to give up my finite understanding, and therewith the custom of discrimination which is natural to me.…’103 A man must somehow learn ‘to relinquish his understanding and his thinking, and to keep his soul fixed upon the absurd.…’104 He must achieve a ‘crucifixion of the understanding’,105 and by a leap of faith embrace the improbable and even impossible as nevertheless certain.

The difficulty with this claim is to attach any definite meaning to it. If we were told that though a certain belief was improbable we should try to make ourselves believe it, that would be intelligible, whether ethical or not. If we were told that a belief, though beyond our present understanding, was vouched for by others who did understand it, and that through provisionally accepting this assurance we might come to understand it ourselves, that too would make sense. But if we are told that although a belief is both unintelligible and self-contradictory we shall see that it is absolutely true and certain if we commit ourselves to it passionately enough, we can only question whether the proposer knows what he is asking of us. The law of contradiction is not a principle that is valid in some cases and not in others; if it is invalid in any case, it is invalid as such and therefore in every case. But if it is thus universally invalid, then in no case does the assertion of something as true exclude the truth of its denial, and nothing is true rather than untrue. And that makes assertion meaningless, for what could one be asserting? Just as Kierkegaard's ethics implies the denial of a realm of value, so his trans-logical truth undermines truth as we know it. Not that he saw this implication or held to it. If he had, he would not have argued at all. He was in fact proud of his prowess as a dialectician, and took pleasure in pitting himself against Hegel. But his philosophy terminates in a rejection of those very principles of logic on which he proceeded as a philosopher. He can hardly have it both ways. If the logic he assumes in his philosophy is valid, then the faith which stands at the summit of ‘the stages on life's way’ is meaningless. If that irrational faith is accepted, the principles on which reflection conducts itself are everywhere impugned. In that case, Kierkegaard should merely smile like Buddha and remain silent.

What would he reply to all this? Probably that he was not concerned with the truth of doctrines at all; ‘Christianity is not a doctrine but an existential communication expressing an existential contradiction.’106 He would fall back on his notion of subjectivity; ‘the passion of the infinite is the truth. But the passion of the infinite is precisely subjectivity, and thus subjectivity becomes the truth.’107 (This looks like both an undistributed middle and an illicit minor, if logic still has any importance.) He would renew his attack on the attempt to understand, insisting that the ‘objective acceptance of Christianity… is paganism or thoughtlessness’.108 He would remind us that religion is a commitment of the will, that ‘Christianity wishes to intensify passion to its highest pitch,’109 not to induce in us belief of comprehension.

We have seen long ago that this will not do. Christianity does include beliefs, and it insists rightly or wrongly that these beliefs are true in the common and ancient sense. To adopt Kierkegaard's new sense, peculiar to himself, which reduces truth to a passionate commitment of feeling and will, would not save Christianity; on the contrary, it would largely destroy it. For it implies that there are no common truths for Christians to accept, no common principles by which their lives may be guided, indeed no common Deity for them to contemplate and worship. The Kierkegaardian subjectivity would dissolve these things away into a set of processes in individual minds where there would be as many Christianities as there were persons to exercise their ‘inwardness’ and their passion.


45 In this review of Kierkegaard on faith and reason, we have been examining the thought, not the man. Ad hominem reasoning, besides being distasteful, is never conclusive and is often self-defeating. But I do not wish to conceal my own belief that psychological causes as distinct from logical reasons had much to do with his conclusions. I cannot think that a psychopathologist would have much trouble in connecting the irrationalism of his thought with the irrationality of his temper. He said himself that his thought must be understood through his personality; and that personality was profoundly abnormal—so abnormal as to have cut him off from his fellows, his friends, and his own family. His alternations of exaltation and depression, his temptations to suicide, the feverish activity of an over-pressed brain in darkened rooms, the hysterical-sounding claims to being ‘a genius in a market town’ and his comparison of himself to Christ, the frenzied excoriations of church and clergy in his later years, his own report that he had stood on the verge of insanity—it would be a mistake to pass over these things as if they were wholly irrelevant. They suggest, though with a force difficult to assess, that Kierkegaard's singularities of thought were less the product of judicial reflection than the by-product of a sick spirit.

I will take two examples that may serve to make clear what I mean. First, his overwhelming, persistent, and surely morbid sense of guilt. This was partly, as we have seen, an infection from his father, who lived in terror of having committed the unpardonable sin, partly the reaction to youthful irregularities on the part of an excessively introspective mind brought up in a theological hothouse. Georg Brandes reminds us that ‘he lived his life through in an atmosphere saturated with theology and theological discussion; at least three fourths of his near acquaintances appear to have been theologians, chaplains, ministers, bishops, clerics of every rank.’ This atmosphere kept alive and flourishing in Kierkegaard's anxious mind a conviction which, if exposed to the air and light of free secular discussion, would probably have been dissipated, the inherited Lutheran conviction that we were born in sin, utterly corrupted by it, and doomed by it to condemnation unless faith could somehow be won. Kierkegaard, like his father, lived in fear. ‘The whole of existencé frightens me, from the smallest fly to the mystery of the Incarnation; everything is unintelligible to me, most of all myself; the whole of existence is poisoned in my sight, particularly myself.’110 The cure for this fear was faith, and Kierkegaard was terrified that, by losing his faith, he might also lose his ‘eternal happiness’; he must therefore keep it at all costs. He saw clearly the tendency of ‘objective thinking’ to undermine and disintegrate this faith. Is there any wonder that an imaginative mind, living in a ‘sickness unto death’ of fear, despair, and dread, should come to conceive of philosophy as the enemy? If one wished to preserve one's faith, it was safer not to play the philosophical game at all. ‘The ungodly calmness with which the irresolute man would begin in the case of God (for he would begin with doubt), precisely this is insubordination; for thereby God is deposed from the throne, from being the Lord. And when one has done this, one really has already chosen another master, wilfulness.… ‘111 To argue the case with the philosopher is to risk defeat on an issue too important by far to be dealt with by a match of wits. It is better to ignore him, to insist that faith is one thing and reason quite another, and to settle the issue decisively by a leap of faith. That is the only escape from despair.

46 For the other example of how Kierkegaard's thought is rooted in his life, we may refer to his too celebrated love affair. Much in his philosophy seems to have been a rationalisation, in the Freudian sense, of his conduct in this affair. He had long contemplated with growing passion a neighbour's daughter, a girl in her teens named Regine Olsen. He at last declared himself, led her on to a wholehearted reciprocating passion, then threw her abruptly over and went off to Berlin, where he wrote up his experience in The Diary of a Seducer and other edifying discourses. By merely secular standards his behaviour was that of a cad, and he seems to have realised this, for running through much of his work from this time on, there is a veiled attempt to justify himself. To his credit, he has occasional doubts. ‘Had I had faith I should have remained with Regine,’ he once confided to his diary.112 But the line he more commonly took was that he threw her over because he did have faith, or at least because renouncing her would give exaltation to his spiritual life. He prefers to write about it in parables, but the reference is unmistakable.

‘Love for that princess became for him the expression for an eternal love, assumed a religious character, was transfigured into a love for the Eternal Being, which did to be sure deny him the fulfilment of his love, yet reconciled him again by the eternal consciousness of its validity in the form of eternity, which no reality can take from him.’113

In this treatment of her, the simple Regine was unable to share ‘the eternal consciousness of its validity in the form of eternity’, and was broken-hearted. Kierkegaard probably realised that, as mentally and sexually abnormal, he was no fit person to marry at all, and if he had rested his desertion on such ground, one could understand it, though wondering why the discovery came so late. But such an explanation was not satisfactory to a mind in which a messianic egotism was mixed in unwholesome fashion with his eroticism and piety. He had done wrong; he knew it; and if he was to retain his picture of himself as genius and saint, he must explain his action by lofty motives. He chose the loftiest. As Buber suggested, God was Regine's successful rival. The desertion was in obedience to a secret imperative from on high, which, like the hero of Fear and Trembling, he was ready to obey, whatever the cost in renunciation. Regarding this book, Professor Paton has passed judgement in terms with which, severe as they are, it is hard to disagree.

‘… what makes it nauseating as a professedly religious work is that, as he himself has said, it is a “mystification” which reproduces his own life. In other words, it is an account of his unhappy love affair with Regina Olsen, an account in which his own deplorable behaviour is supposed to be similar to that of Abraham. We may pity his unhappy and diseased temperament, but neurosis is a poor qualification for setting up as a religious guide.… Self-centredness is the very antithesis of religion; and if the paradox of faith is—as he says—a willingness “to do the terrible and to do it for its own sake” (as well as for God's sake), then the less of this kind of faith we have the better.’114


47 This is a grim note on which to end our study of Kierkegaard. He is a figure who of late years has received almost lyrical praise for the depth of his thought and the penetration of his psychological insight. We have been assured that he ‘belongs to all time and to all humanity, just as surely as do Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Hume and Kant and Hegel.’115 We have been assured over and over of how profound he is. ‘Kierkegaard's explanation of the dialectical relation of freedom and fate in sin is one of the profoundest in Christian thought’; and similarly ‘Kierkegaard's analysis of the relation of anxiety to sin is the profoundest in Christian thought.’116 Georg Brandes in a letter to Nietzsche says that Kierkegaard ‘is in my view one of the most profound psychologists of all time.…’117 ‘… Harnack's once celebrated essay on The Essence of Christianity seems incredibly trivial,’ remarks a disciple, ‘when one has read S. K.’118

I recall that, stimulated by such fair words, I approached his books with high expectations. My experience was like that of John Laird, who wrote, after a determined attempt on Either/Or: ‘By the time I had finished the first enormous volume I was sadly disconsolate. Even on a wide literary interpretation of “philosophy”—and no other could be appropriate—I found very little that seemed to be worth stating in any formal way.’119 One reads a few puzzling pages with the feeling that the writer must be catching his breath and getting slowly under way; some definite point will soon emerge. It does not. One reads on with gathering disillusionment, coming in the end to realise that Kierkegaard, if a philosopher at all, is a distinct species of philosopher, and that it is useless to look for clearly stated theses, still less for ordered arguments in support of them. He combined an undisciplined intellect with a remorseless, facile, unchecked, limitless, compulsive loquacity; he was, as Disraeli said of Gladstone, ‘inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity’. He is said to have written twenty-two books by the time he was thirty-five; and since they have no firm construction, no obvious beginning or ending, and no internal reason why they should ever end, one can read them only by allowing one's critical sense to be lulled into drowsiness and one's mind to be floated along on the tide of words. Unfortunately, no sooner has one made one's peace with the indiscipline of thought and style than one must begin the battle over again with the man himself. The self-absorption, the strange blend of piety and contempt (his two dominant emotions, according to Brandes), the dogmatism, the proclamations of unappreciated genius, the imprecations on church and clergy, the gospel of universal guilt and despair, the homilies on love from a mind that was simmering with hatreds, the scorn for those who, in religion, try to understand—these things have an effect that the reader must manage to suppress if he is to go on. He must remind himself that though this is a sick and twisted mind, such minds have, on occasion, shown a sharp eye for truth.

48 What was the truth that Kierkegaard saw? The great insight claimed for him is that in religion objective thinking breaks down and that the insight it seeks is obtainable by faith. As for the inadequacy of thought, a case can certainly be made for it, and such a case was actually presented with a force of statement and argument beyond Kierkegaard's range by an English contemporary, Dean Mansel of St Paul's. Kierkegaard's own case is unimpressive. His contention that thought cannot deal with existence is put so obscurely that there is difficulty in extracting from it a meaning definite enough to refute. Furthermore, he seems never to have worked out what was involved for the normal exercise of reason by its breakdown at crucial points—for ethics by the suspension of its clearest rules, and for logic by the admission of contradictions to the status of higher truths. As a philosopher he employed with scornful confidence the reason which, as a theologian, he dismissed with equal scorn. He was too impatient to get on with his writing to declare a moratorium on it while he achieved coherence in his theory of knowledge.

What of the second half of the great insight attributed to him—that where reason fails faith succeeds? Unfortunately this is more obscure than the first. Perhaps it is inevitably so. Where one has bid good-bye to reason and made the prodigious non-rational leap into the rarefied air of paradox, one should presumably say nothing, since anything one did say would have to be said in the distorting accents of the reason one has left behind. The silence, nevertheless, is a pity. Men struggle onward and upward through the stages on life's way; a hardy few reach the summit; and when they descend, the many waiting below ask a report on the splendid vision from the top. Kierkegaard, so voluble elsewhere, here finds his tongue at last tied. The stage that was supposed to cast illumination downward on all the others turns out to be strangely dark and empty. Practically, indeed, it is rather worse than empty. Kierkegaard insists that the love felt by the knight of faith is not mere human love, and if one can make any inference from his own practice, he was right, since the love displayed in that practice permitted a selfishness and harshness toward others—toward Hans Andersen and Regine and his mother and brother and Bishop Mynster and the unfortunate ‘Christians’ about him—which the lower love would have rendered impossible. Nor is the insight of faith into truth comparable with a merely human knowledge. Just as it gave Luther the power to see through and around Aristotle, so it gave Kierkegaard the power to see how superficial were all the systems of philosophy, and to see of science, without the need to study it, that if it differed from faith at any point it was wrong.

In the end Kierkegaard stands, in his thought as in his life, a defeated figure. He was like a business man who builds up a commercial empire by condemning and buying up the businesses of all his competitors on the strength of promissory notes which he cannot redeem. He indicts reason; he indicts rational ethics; he indicts love and justice of the merely human variety; he indicts with eloquent contempt the Christianity that is practised around him. He invites them all to accept subordination to one directing head in return for grandiose, even infinite, promises. But when they present their claims, they find the bank vaults empty. The large promises of a new directorate are never fulfilled. Just how reason is to be rectified or ethics reformed, just what the new golden affections are that are to replace the old leaden ones, just what we are to believe or do or feel—these all-important directions never transpire. Faith has leaped so high that it has shot up beyond the earth's atmosphere to where thought and conscience can no longer breathe. These may be poor things, but we know them, and know that they have served us not badly. We shall do well to keep them, even when notes are flourished before us that are stamped in infinite denominations, unless we can be sure that the issuing bank is solvent. That assurance Kierkegaard never supplies.

  • 1.

    Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1938), 126.

  • 2.

    Emil Brunner, The Theology of Crisis (N.Y., Scribner, 1930), 63.

  • 3.

    Harald Höffding, Sören Kierkegaard als Philosoph (Stuttgart, Frommanns, 1922), 89.

  • 4.

    Kierkegaard, Either/Or (London, Humphrey Milford, Oxford Univ. Press; Princeton Univ. Press, 1944), I, 20.

  • 5.

    Ibid., 30–1.

  • 6.

    Ibid., II, 175.

  • 7.

    ‘My either/or does not in the first instance denote the choice between good and evil, it denotes the choice whereby one chooses good and evil/or excludes them.’ Ibid., 143.

  • 8.

    Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton Univ. Press, 1944), 186 and cf. 517. Henceforth CUP.

  • 9.

    I owe a correction on this point to Professor Louis Dupre.

  • 10.

    It may help readers unfamiliar with Kierkegaard's style to gain some idea of the difficulties facing the interpreter if we quote two sentences in which he tries to bring these two stages into sharp contrast: ‘Religiousness A is the dialectic of inward transformation; it is the relation to an eternal happiness which is not conditioned by anything but is the dialectic inward appropriation of the relationship, and so is conditioned only by the inwardness of the appropriation and its dialectic. Religiousness B, as henceforth it is to be called, or the paradoxical religiousness, as it has hitherto been called, or the religiousness which has the dialectical in the second instance, does on the contrary posit conditions, of such a sort that they are not merely deeper dialectical apprehensions of inwardness, but are a definite something which defines more closely the eternal happiness (whereas in A the only closer definitions are the closer definitions of inward apprehension), not defining more closely the individual apprehension of it, but defining more closely the eternal happiness itself, though not as a task for thought, but paradoxically as a repellent to produce new pathos.’ CUP, 494.

  • 11.

    Fear and Trembling, trans. by Robert Payne (Oxford Univ. Press, 1939), 66.

  • 12.

    Efterladte Papirer, IX, 503; quoted by Regis Jolivet, Introduction to Kierkegaard (N.Y., Dutton, n.d.), 158.

  • 13.

    Fear and Trembling, 67.

  • 14.

    CUP, 387.

  • 15.

    Ibid., 406.

  • 16.

    Ibid., 256.

  • 17.

    Ibid., 389.

  • 18.

    Ibid., 390.

  • 19.

    Ibid., 412.

  • 20.

    These passages from various later writings are cited by Jolivet, op. cit., 155.

  • 21.

    CUP, 412.

  • 22.

    Ibid., 405.

  • 23.

    Ibid., 474–5.

  • 24.

    Ibid., 163.

  • 25.


  • 26.

    The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, trans. by A. Dru (Oxford Univ. Press, 1938), 1061.

  • 27.

    Ibid., 1025.

  • 28.

    CUP, 259.

  • 29.

    Ibid., 491.

  • 30.

    Ibid., 413.

  • 31.

    Ibid., 82–3.

  • 32.

    Ibid., 242.

  • 33.

    Ibid., 448.

  • 34.

    Ibid., 431.

  • 35.

    Ibid., 125.

  • 36.

    Either/Or, I, 27.

  • 37.

    Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard (Oxford Univ. Press, 1938), 103.

  • 38.

    CUP, 80.

  • 39.

    Ibid., 118.

  • 40.

    Ibid., 201.

  • 41.

    Ibid., 99.

  • 42.

    Ibid., 506–7.

  • 43.

    Ibid., 267.

  • 44.

    Ibid., 290, 292.

  • 45.

    Ibid., 267.

  • 46.

    Ibid., 107.

  • 47.

    Ibid., 205.

  • 48.

    Ibid., 26.

  • 49.

    Ibid., 304.

  • 50.


  • 51.

    Ibid., 306.

  • 52.

    Ibid., 262.

  • 53.

    Ibid., 85.

  • 54.

    Ibid., 280.

  • 55.

    To defend this statement adequately in the light of recent developments in ethics would take much space. I may perhaps refer to my Reason and Goodness (London, Allen & Unwin, 1961), where I have attempted to work it out in detail. See especially Chapter 13.

  • 56.

    CUP, 284.

  • 57.

    Reidar Thomte, Kierkegaard's Philosophy of Religion (Princeton Univ. Press, 1948), 127–8.

  • 58.

    Ibid., 211.

  • 59.

    CUP, 342.

  • 60.

    Ibid., 141.

  • 61.

    Ibid., 181.

  • 62.

    Ibid., 115.

  • 63.

    Ibid., 116.

  • 64.


  • 65.

    Thomte, op. cit., 117.

  • 66.

    CUP, 288.

  • 67.

    Ibid., 117.

  • 68.

    Ibid., 176.

  • 69.

    Ibid., 178.

  • 70.

    Ibid., 282.

  • 71.

    Ibid., 433.

  • 72.

    Ibid., 320.

  • 73.

    Ibid., 201.

  • 74.

    Ibid., 181.

  • 75.

    Ibid., 182.

  • 76.

    Ibid., 187.

  • 77.

    Ibid., 154–5.

  • 78.

    Ibid., 206.

  • 79.

    Luke 23:14.

  • 80.

    Ibid., 23–4.

  • 81.

    CUP, 290.

  • 82.

    Ibid., 179.

  • 83.

    Ibid., 38.

  • 84.

    Ibid., 339.

  • 85.

    Ibid., 189.

  • 86.

    Ibid., 337.

  • 87.

    Fear and Trembling, trans. by Payne, 74.

  • 88.

    CUP, 182.

  • 89.

    Papirer, IVa, 109; quoted by Thomte, op. cit., 144.

  • 90.

    Fear and Trembling, trans. by Walter Lowrie (Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), 37.

  • 91.

    Ibid., 31.

  • 92.

    Ibid., 64.

  • 93.

    Ibid., 35.

  • 94.

    Ibid., 47.

  • 95.

    Ibid., 57.

  • 96.

    CUP, 121.

  • 97.

    H. J. Paton, The Modern Predicament (London, Allen & Unwin; N.Y., Macmillan, 1955), 120.

  • 98.

    Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason (London, Student Christian Movement Press, 1947), 310.

  • 99.

    Fear and Trembling, 49–51.

  • 100.

    CUP, 209.

  • 101.

    Ibid., 290.

  • 102.

    Ibid., 38.

  • 103.

    Ibid., 159.

  • 104.

    Ibid., 495.

  • 105.

    Ibid., 496.

  • 106.

    Ibid., 339.

  • 107.

    Ibid., 181.

  • 108.

    Ibid., 116.

  • 109.

    Ibid., 117.

  • 110.

    Journals, 275.

  • 111.

    Christian Discourses (Oxford Univ. Press, 1939), 90. Quoted also by L. H. DeWolf in The Religious Revolt against Reason (Harper, 1949), 98—a book from which I have profited.

  • 112.

    Journals, 444.

  • 113.

    Fear and Trembling, 54.

  • 114.

    Paton, The Modern Predicament, 120.

  • 115.

    D. F. Swenson in E. Geismar, Lectures on the Religious Thought of Søren Kierkegaard (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1937), xvii.

  • 116.

    R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (N.Y., Scribner's, 1949), I, 263; I, 182 fn.

  • 117.

    W. Kaufmann, ed., The Will to Power (N.Y., Random House, 1967), 53.

  • 118.

    Lowrie, Kierkegaard, 5.

  • 119.

    Mind, April 1946, 179.

From the book: