KIERKEGAARD AND THE VIRTUES OF WEAKNESS

KIERKEGAARD AND THE VIRTUES OF WEAKNESS

Presented to the American Academy of Religion

                                                                                                                                                        November, 2005
In his seminal work After Virtue, MacIntyre portrays Kierkegaard as the arch-liberal, destroyer of moral reasoning and the virtues.  He is said to have championed the “criterionless choice,” the decision to be esthetic/or ethical for no reason, since there can be no reasons for existential choices.  All that is important, in this reading of Kierkegaard, is to choose with passion, to be sincerely and unequivocally committed to whatever arbitrary life-choice one has made, whether to be saint or sinner. [1]  As an illustration of the breakdown of the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal standards (rather than revelation, tradition or community) this portrayal serves an important part in the overall argument of After Virtue.  But as a reading of Kierkegaard, it is tendentious because it is partial; it only works if one ignores the signed works which Kierkegaard published alongside his pseudonymous books.

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? by contrast, MacIntyre quotes Kierkegaard with approval, contrasting his “Purity of heart is to will one thing” with the fragmentation of value seen so often today.[2]   He does this in the context of his discussion of the Augustinian moral tradition, suggesting that Kierkegaard may not be the absurdist boogeyman he is often said to be (in, for example, After Virtue).  The claim that Kierkegaard might be an Augustinian is nothing new; what particularly interests me is the notion that MacIntyre’s writings themselves seem to support this reading, and what the implications of this might be for his argument and for an understanding of Kierkegaard.  The key elements of the Augustinian moral tradition are identified in Whose Justice? as (1) the expansion of the moral community beyond the polis to the civitas Dei; (2) the centrality of the concept of will (voluntas) to direct and order human desires, and thus to motivate human morality; and therefore (3) the characterization of pride (superbia) as “the fundamental human vice,” and humility (humilitas) as the cardinal virtue, so that no other virtue is possible unless pride is checked and humility attained.[3]  I shall return to the first later, and the centrality of will is almost a cliché in Kierkegaard discussions; so let us turn our attention to pride and humility.

The upbuilding discourses have relatively little in common with Kierkegaardian ethics as expressed, say, in the deontological portions of Judge William’s writings.  By contrast, they show a keen interest in the virtues, a theme not alien to other aspects of William’s thought.  In modern philosophy (such as MacIntyre’s discussion), it is common to associate virtue ethics with antifoundationalist, tradition-based ethics.  A tradition or linguistic community will have certain character traits that it values, and these become its virtues.  In Christianity these would include love and humility, whereas in the Homeric age courage would be more highly valued.[4] Kierkegaard is himself heir to an ethical tradition running from Pauline Christianity through Augustine, Luther, Kant, and many others.[5]  However, his adoption of virtue ethics is not here based on a self-conscious membership in this tradition.  Rather, it seems more rooted in epistemological considerations.  William assumes that he knows the essential human nature, and that he knows what is the universal that we are to realize, and hence he has a pretty good idea of duty as well.  Kierkegaard by contrast has asserted that we do not know what the good is, or even our own nature.  We do not know what our duty might be, what values or what human nature we should strive to actualize.[6]  But we can know what character traits are appropriate to our state of ignorance.  Love was discussed in the discourses of October 16, 1843.  Patience is another virtue that receives extensive treatment, in following discourses.  Concern and expectancy are also discussed.  Each of these virtues or character traits has one thing in common— receptivity.  In adopting these virtues, one opens up to the other, to God, to the unknown.  One must receive knowledge of one’s true self, of the good, of God, of the needs of the neighbors one ought to help.  The religious individual must adopt the stance of positive passivity, actively awaiting some sort of revelation, however long it might take and however piecemeal it may turn out to be.  While “patience” is specifically described as a virtue of weakness, in fact all the virtues described in these upbuilding discourses are virtues of weakness.  After one has nurtured the proper virtues and developed the proper nature, right action and true understanding of duty will follow more easily.  One begins from a condition of ignorance, and must learn, often slowly, what one should do or become.  Remarkably, even courage, traditionally thought of as the most aggressive, assertive, “manly” virtue, is described by Kierkegaard as the courage to be humble; and cowardice is described by him as self-assertion and pride based on a fear of one’s own nothingness before God.[7]

Why pride should be the deadly sin is clear from the first upbuilding discourse to the last. In “The Expectancy of Faith” (1843) Kierkegaard describes faith as the highest gift, the only unqualifiedly good gift.  It is equally accessible to anybody; at the same time, it can only be received by one who is willing to grasp it.[8]  One must have the expectancy of faith if one is to be assured of victory over time; one must be taught by God to have that faith in God.  And if one is unwilling to grasp this, and would instead have pride in being self-taught or in having distinguished learning not available to all, one can never receive the expectancy that alone can overcome anxiety throughout one’s life until its end.  It is pride that would block the individual from receiving the one good gift; humility is the condition to receive the gift, and the gift itself is the humility to rely upon God.  Likewise, in the last of the eighteen discourses, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In That God is Victorious,” again it is pride that leads away from victory and humility that is essential to attain it.  Here the “struggle” is to convince God to give one the good gifts one desires and save one from the bad; the “victory” is not that God relents and gives one what one asks, but that one realizes that God is goodness itself and already wants what is truly good for each person, so that you give up your pride or desire to be in the right if God fails to fulfill your wish.  One struggles with God to persuade God to fulfill one’s desires; one is victorious when one’s desires change, and one’s only desire is God.  Just as Job demanded God appear and explain why he, a righteous man, was suffering, so the one who struggles in prayer wants first to have good things, then concentrates his or her will on one wish, then ends by seeking an explanation why God who is good did not give this one good thing.  Kierkegaard writes:

The external world and every claim on life were taken away from him; now he is struggling for an explanation, but he is not even struggling his way to that.  Finally it seems to him that he is reduced to nothing at all.  Now the moment has come.  Whom should the struggler desire to resemble other than God?  But if he himself is something or wants to be something, this something is sufficient to hinder the resemblance.  Only when he himself becomes nothing, only then can God illuminate him so that he resembles God.  However great he is, he cannot manifest God’s likeness; God can imprint himself in him only when he himself has become nothing.  When the ocean is exerting all its power, that is precisely the time when it cannot reflect the image of heaven, and even the slightest motion blurs the image; but when it becomes still and deep, then the image of heaven sinks into its nothingness.[9]

All of this is a far cry from the stereotype of Kierkegaard as the champion of the choice “for no reason,” who urges one to make the leap of faith by one’s strength of will and live sincerely with whatever choice one has made.  Here there is a reason:  victory, fulfillment of one’s truest and deepest needs and wish.  One does not make a leap, but ceases to struggle and allows God to pull one across.  There does seem to be something one can do by one’s own will, but that is only to resist God.  The pride that leads one to try to do for oneself leads to failure; the humility  to cease striving allows  one’s nature to reflect God’s, and allows one to receive the good gifts God freely offers.

Kierkegaard has both theological and philosophical reasons for endorsing just this sort of virtue ethics; and his strategy can be interpreted in two very different ways.  The discourses are certainly based on Scripture, and hence reflect Christian traditions even if they are held to be only “religiousness A.”  Furthermore, the Scriptures are interpreted through a largely Pauline-Augustinian-Pietist lens, emphasizing individual will and commitment, and the importance of humility before God and of openness to God’s grace.  Therefore, it is possible to see Kierkegaard as a voice of the Augustinian moral tradition, and to see his arguments as valid only for readers who have bought into that tradition. At the same time, many of his arguments appeal to more universal standards of rationality and truth and objective (gasp!) reality.  Is he writing for the internal consumption of the Augustinian moral community, or to convert the unconvinced?

These same questions arise when we look at one of Kierkegaard’s favorite authors, Johann Georg Hamann.  Hamann was a contemporary and friend to Kant, and introduced Kant and Germany to the philosophy of David Hume. Kant famously took Hume’s epistemology as a challenge to be met and overcome, rescuing certainty in human knowledge by moving the realm of knowledge from the physical and metaphysical realms to the realm of a priori concepts.  Hamann saw Kant’s solution as worse than Hume’s skepticism, for if Kant is right and truth itself does not come through the senses then the Incarnation (where Truth became a flesh and blood man to be known through the senses) is essentially false.  Additionally, he had philosophical objections to Kantian idealism; he claimed that Kant’s solution relied on abstracting knowledge so that it could be systematized, then rejecting whatever did not fit the system.[10]  In response to Kant’s first Critique, Hamann argued that Hume basically had it right:  all knowledge really is derived from the senses.  Until thought can eliminate the need for language, thought cannot eliminate its essentially sensual roots, for language is sensuous and arises from the senses.[11]  But Hume has shown (convincingly, Hamann thought) that there is no certainty either of sense knowledge nor of spiritual knowledge.  Hamann accepted this and argued  that reason, believing and sense-experience are in fact all connected and all rest upon receptivity.[12]  If one is to have anything other than skepticism either of God or earthly matters, one must have faith.[13] It is pride that leads a person to reject the conditions under which true knowledge is given and to grasp after an impossible certainty; it is humility that opens up to receive the knowledge which is available to our human condition.

For Hamann, faith is humility, and humility is both the cardinal virtue and the essential prerequisite for knowledge; pride is the deadly sin and the first error.[14]  As he writes:

Faith and doubt affect man’s ability to know, as fear and hope affect his appetitive instinct….  All our knowledge is in part, and all human grounds of reason consist either of faith in truth and doubt of untruth, or of faith in untruth and doubt of truth…. If the understanding believes in lies and enjoys it, doubts truths and despises them with disgust as bad food, then the light in us is darkness and the salt in us has lost its savour — religion is pure church parade, philosophy is an empty word-display, superannuated and meaningless opinions, out-of-date rights without power.  Scepticism about the truth and credulity of self-deceit are thus inseparable symptoms as cold and heat in a fever.[15]

Or as Kierkegaard writes:  “False doubt doubts everything except itself; with the help of faith, the doubt that saves doubts only itself.”[16]

CONCLUSIONS

Hamann has been called the first important Augustinian of the modern era.[17]  Kierkegaard might be the most widely influential, considering the range of thinkers who have drawn from him.  Kierkegaard learned much from Hamann, and both shared a concern to protect Christianity (specifically Augustinian, Lutheran Christianity) from corruption and co-option by philosophy.  Each sought to carry out this task not by simply opposing Christianity to philosophy, but by developing Christian philosophy.

If we return to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, we see that his history of philosophy needs a fundamental rewrite.  One of his primary villains in the Enlightenment corruption of moral philosophy actually turns out to be part of an Augustinian alternative to the Enlightenment project, one with roots going back to the days of Kant and Hume.  It is not simply a reactionary or fundamentalist stonewalling, but a genuine attempt to respond to the Enlightenment challenges with different answers.  This Augustinianism extends the cardinal virtue of humility from theology and ethics to epistemology.  Epistemologically, humility means accepting uncertainty and seeking receptivity, accepting that knowledge is given rather than created in the human mind.  Morally, humility means accepting the other as other, recognizing the independent concrete reality and importance of the other.  (With minor extensions this humility can even be extended to the nonhuman world and offer a basis for environmental ethics.)

My first, almost trivial conclusion is that MacIntyre has misread history:  moral philosophy and virtue did not vanish; they were still going on at least as late as Kierkegaard.  This means, second, that we should consider the Augustinian alternative proposed by Hamann and Kierkegaard  as a live option, not simply as a passé forerunner to Aquinas as MacIntyre implies.  By what standards can we judge this option?  By its own standards, Augustinianism would claim that pride leads to errors of morality and understanding, to crimes and sins as well as prejudices and mistakes.  Humility means being open or receptive to the otherness of persons and the otherness of facts, practicing love as well as open-mindedness. However, this argument only justifies Augustinianism in holding to its own values; can it produce an argument why  anyone should  embrace its views?

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? MacIntyre claims that the strength of a tradition is seen largely in how well it can account for the arguments of rivals.[18]  If, as Cardinal Ratzinger has said, our age is a dictatorship of relativism, can modern Augustinianism respond with anything other than dogmatism?  The chief appeal of relativism is its toleration.  Truth claims are seen as inherently oppressive; only a moral nihilism is sufficiently open to the feelings of others.  It is impossible and even immoral to make judgments or raise questions about the practices of another culture, the argument goes; each culture and perhaps each individual must define its own good and evil.  Looking at the history of crosscultural judgments over the millennia — crusades and jihads, pograms, segregation and so on — the moral mandate to “live and let live” is undeniable in the would-be postcolonial world. This is why Benedict XVI’s call to respect the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has such limited appeal. He offers an answer to moral ambiguity and uncertainty, but he seems to be speaking only to those who already more or less belong to his moral tradition and are in danger of leaving or diluting it.  That is, the appeal to authority is meaningful primarily to those within the group, and only to those who are already convinced that ambiguity and uncertainty are bad.  Many in the postmodern world seem more than ready to embrace this uncertainty, in order to preserve the more valued virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness and progress.

Hamann was able to remain a strong advocate for tolerance while remaining a vigorous defender of objective truth.  When the cardinal virtue is humility, one must accept the fact that some of one’s beliefs are in fact false even while remaining committed to the search for truth.  And likewise, at least some of the other’s beliefs may well be true; in any case, it would be the height of arrogance to attempt to forcibly impose one’s views on another.  This approach to morality and theology rejects the bigotry of insisting that everyone must adopt the same tradition or values, beyond the value of openness to truth; at the same time, it remains optimistic that there is in fact truth and that it will make itself known, albeit partially, to anyone who is truly willing to accept it.  Ironically, relativism or emotivism are usually considered rationalist positions, as compared to the intuition and revelation called for in an Augustinianism like Kierkegaard’s; yet it is relativism that renders reason irrelevant to morality, while Kierkegaard allows an important continuing role for moral reason.  It seems that prideful reason cannot achieve the universal moral certainty is seeks, and ends up with skepticism or with rival claimants to absolute truth; it finally must abandon its quest to guide moral action entirely, yielding the task to emotion and custom.  Kierkegaard’s approach to the virtues, based upon Hamann’s simultaneous convictions that truth is knowable and that uncertainty is unavoidable, relies on revelation and grace, on God’s power and on human humility; yet this humbled practical reason is able to remain fruitfully engaged in guiding human choice, action and belief.

Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses present a vision of virtue largely based upon Hamann’s epistemology.  This epistemology was itself based upon Hamann’s understanding of the Incarnation, where truth (God) gave itself so that any who would receive it humbly could do so.  He broadened this theological doctrine to become the basis of general theory of knowledge:  all truth must give itself, and faith is necessary to receive knowledge of the world just as much as knowledge of God.  Therefore humility is a cardinal virtue not just for the Christian pursuing a life of discipleship, but for any knower, and in relation to any reality.  If Augustine widened the moral community beyond the polis to include the civitas Dei, Hamann may have widened it even further; now the moral horizon and moral community includes anything that is.

Given all this, what is there here for the nonreligious person?  Is this a morality of use only to the believer, or is there a word here for the nonbeliever as well?  After all, it is hardly likely that postmoderns are going to line up to embrace Augustinian Christianity no matter how solid its philosophical underpinnings or how worthy its virtues.  Certainly, it is possible to embrace the virtues of humility, love, patience, even faith (in Hamann’s sense) without becoming an avowed theist.  Simone Weil has a very similar moral vision, though she frames it in reference to an impersonal God which Kierkegaard explicitly rejects.  Iris Murdoch presents a non-theistic morality based on love as humble acceptance of the other and the rejection of egocentric pride.  Clearly there is much to work with here in exploring the virtues, as well as in the philosophical framework of Hamann and Kierkegaard.  On the other hand, Hamann would be the first to admit that epistemology is not innocuous; every philosophy has its own theological assumptions, its own gods.[19]  The essence of the Augustinian moral tradition is the recognition that the self is not the center of the universe, that there are other centers of value and the highest center of value is God (for the theist) or Being (for the non-theist).  Even if one rejects the concept of a personal God, it is very difficult to reverence Being and the cosmos as higher than oneself without coming to feel something akin to faithful submission.  Therefore, it seems likely that eventually the implications of this sort of ethic would lead one towards the religious.[20]

Bibliography

Alexander, W. M.  Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith.  Martinus Nijhoff, The

Hague.  1966.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with

introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton University Press; Princeton NJ:  1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue.  University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:

1984

Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:  1988

Smith, Ronald Gregor.  J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with

selections from his writings.  Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York.  1960.


[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1984) pp. 40-43, 49; see also Louis Pojman, Kierkegaard and the Logic of Subjectivity

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1988) p. 165

[3] Whose Justice?  pp. 153-58

[4] Whose Justice?  pp. 1-29; 146-63

[5] Robert C. Roberts, “The Virtue of Hope in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses,” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, ed. by Robert L Perkins (Mercer University Press, Macon GA, 2003) pp. 184-5

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 126-32

[7] Martin Andic, “Against Cowardliness,” The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, p. 290

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Expectancy of Faith,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 8-14, 28-9

[9] Kierkegaard, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In that God is Victorious;” Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 399

[10] W. M.  Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith  (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.  1966), p. 72

[11] Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with selections from his writings  (Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York; 1960), pp. 214-217

[12] Smith, p. 257

[13] Smith, p. 76; Alexander, p. 163

[14] Alexander, pp. 37-39

[15] Smith, pp. 231-32

[16] Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses  p. 137

[17] Alexander, p. 160

[18] Whose Justice?  pp. 166-67, 362-66

[19]Alexander,  p. 86

[20] And of course, that is what Kierkegaard, and Hamann too,  have been saying all along.

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