Wednesday, May 9, 2007

An Aside about Kierkegaard

This evening I read Kierkegaard for Beginners. I think it was the first time that I ever read anything about SK of which I felt I understood something. And that's not to say that I liked what I understood. This might also be why I've always been both drawn to & repelled by Kierkegaard. Maybe I have a sympathetic antipathy & an antipathetic sympathy to him. Kierkegaard is one of those very few thinkers that I find myself coming back to every few years. I can't quite make my peace with him: either to let him be, or to figure out what it is that bugs the shit out of me about him, to use a colloquial expression.

On reading through Kierkegaard for Beginners, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I have read at one time or another and at how much of it I remember.

It was an odd feeling, remembering when I was going through my religious crisis. Looking back today, I would say that I dodged a bullet. On reading it, I feel so very lucky that I didn't understand any more when I was deciding whether to throw myself into Nietzsche's writings or into Kierkegaard's.

The morbidity and guilt that fume about much of his writings could easily have had a seductive effect at times in my life. Suffering and pain, psychic pain in particular, promise profundity: knowing things to which the less afflicted are oblivious. De omnibus dubitandum est. Maybe if he had been a bit more suspicious of his mistrust of pleasure and an unacknowledged faith that painful experiences simply the most profound experiences possible. In which case, it looks too much like "I, Soren, suffer. I must suffer. Since I cannot choose not to suffer, I choose to suffer even more. Thus, I am free. The true manifestation of my freedom is my suffering more than I would otherwise." He reminds me of nothing so much as one of Nietzsche's ascetic priests in The Genealogy of Morals in the passage of how N explains how the ascetic priest saves the will.

Having become a political philosopher more than anything else, I'm mistrustful of an emphasis on an overly inward turn. The putative recipient of faith [for him that is "GOD"] can easily be substituted for something else, oh, say Orwell's Big Brother. I don't think it is a historical accident that existentialism was most widespread at the same time as totalitarianism.

Kiekegaard and totalitarianism? Of course, Kierkegaard wouldn't have meant such a thing. The good morals of the human being who is also a thinker & theorist. But, there is an experience and experiences behind his leap of faith. And for us atheists, the emphasis again falls on the subject. The object to which the faith & the leap are directed may vary. (Re)read the end of 1984 in this light, with the main character's discovery of the "right inward relationship" to Big Brother.

I think the parallel, while blasphemous to K scholars, is also
undeniable. It doesn't explain anything, but it does relate K to some of the important events and movements of the 19th Century. In addition, K stands in the fideist tradition of Christian theology: faith & revelation are more important that reason. Second, fideist theologies have a special place for authority & submission to authority. When the faith is merely a matter of the appropriate inwardness of the parson & parishioner so that they can feel themselves to have faith, life can go on pretty much as before, but now with a clear conscience. In essence, the reliance on faith means that not everyone is equal in faith, and therefore, trust in submission to the authority of those with greater faith is required. Of course, K probably didn't want that, but in a broader sociological view of things figures like K are integral & necessary to organized institutional religion. Considered posthumously, K is very much one of Weber's charismatic leaders.

I would expect that in a largely Lutheran country, a good deal of popular Nazi writing would have been about being in the right (inward) relationship with the Fuehrer. But that's just speculation.

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