The Sign of Jonah: lessons from my father (pt. 3)

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  Jonah 3:1

Even those who know almost nothing of the Bible will generally follow “Jonah” with “and the Whale.”  In fact, however, the “whale” is something of an intrusion.  The story works just fine if you start with Chapter 3, with only a little editing.  It doesn’t matter whether it was a “whale” or a “big fish” or even “the belly of Sheol.”  In fact, the central message of the Book of Jonah doesn’t require the first two chapters at all.  That is why I say that while in one sense “the whale” is inseparable from Jonah, in another sense it is quite unessential.  What follows after that story is what changes an apparent fairy tale into what my father now says is the most important book in the Old Testament.

Jonah now travels to Nineveh.  “That great city” is described as being so huge that it would take three days to walk across it.  Jonah doesn’t bother trying to reach the heart of the city, much less the entire city.  He walks about a day in, enough to fulfill the letter of the command, and proclaims to the city, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”  Strangely, he is not arrested as an enemy national come to undermine the morale of the city, nor is he mocked as a lunatic. Instead, his somewhat incomplete effort is wildly successful.  Interestingly, the text in the NRSV says “the people of Nineveh believed God.” (Jonah 3;5).  The Hebrew name for their deity is transliterated YHWH, and usually translated into English as “LORD,” all caps.  “Elohim,” usually translated “God” or “gods”, can refer either to the Israelite deity who spoke to Moses, or to any god.  It is a less definite title as compared to the true name of God, YHWH, that name so holy Jews do not even speak it aloud.  The implication is that the Ninevites hear Jonah not as the prophet of the god of Israel only, but as a prophet of God, The God, whose power and justice rule the whole world.  And they react with sincere and even extravagant repentance.  The people first, and then even the king put on sackcloth and ashes, the traditional signs of mourning, they fast, and they even put sackcloth on the animals to show that every living thing in the city is submitting to the will of God; and more importantly, the king proclaims that all are to give up their evil and violent ways, so that this ritual act of repentance is accompanied by genuine reformation.  Jonah is one of the most successful prophets in the entire Bible!  “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”  (Jonah 4:1)

Rarely does the Bible record such a success as Jonah’s, and even more rarely does it report a prophet so displeased with his success.  Jonah had wanted Nineveh’s destruction all along.  He never wanted it to repent; he wanted to be rejected so that the LORD’s wrath would fall on the city as he had predicted.  Instead, the city repents, and God relents.  And Jonah prays bitterly, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  (Jonah 4:2-3)  And Jonah stomps out of the city, and makes camp outside it to wait and see what the LORD will finally do, and whether he will in fact spare the city or not, still hoping for Nineveh’s destruction.

Instead, “The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. ”  (Jonah 4:6-7)  It really doesn’t seem to take much to please or displease some people!  God sends a shade bush to Jonah and he is delighted again.  The next day the bush dies, and God makes sure it is a particularly hot day just so Jonah gets the point.  Soon Jonah is angry and miserable again, praying for death.  And God responds to Jonah, saying:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?  (Jonah 4:11)

That is where the book ends.  We have no word whether Jonah had a reply at all.  The book ends with a question for Jonah, and for us:  shouldn’t God be merciful even to the rotten, who are so ignorant they don’t know right from wrong?  Shouldn’t God even be merciful to our enemies?

This is why my father says Jonah is the most important book in the Old Testament.  There are individual psalms and passages that speak of the love of God for all people, but Jonah is the book that is dedicated to the message that God loves everyone.  God even loves Assyrians.  God even loves their animals!  When he preaches his sermon, he intends to end it by saying, “God loves you!  And you!  And you!  And even me!”  And then, if possible, he’d like to end with the congregation singing this:   (minus whatever commercial YouTube shows you before the clip, of course!).

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14 Responses to “The Sign of Jonah: lessons from my father (pt. 3)”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Your post reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who believes that all religions are good and teach people to do good. She said her favorite verse in the Bible is John 3:16, ” For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”. I replied, “Don’t forget the second half of that verse, ‘that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.'”

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      I think that is a tension in “dialectical theology,” that movement that traces itself through Kierkegaard and includes Barth, Tillich, Bultmann and the Niebuhr brothers, among others. And I see that as a tension in Kierkegaard, or at least in Climacus and the Postscript. In the Hong translation, it is v.1 starting with page 581: “Appendix to B: The Retroactive Effect of the Dialectical on Pathos Leading to a Sharpened Pathos, and the Contemporaneous Elements of This Pathos.” In Kierkegaard’s terms, Religiousness A can have that universal sympathy and sense that “in the end we all get equally as far.” Religiousness B says that one’s relationship to the Absolute depends on a relationship to an historical event, the Incarnation, and that cannot be the same for everyone. Some never experience the event; believers have an out in that case, by suggesting that perhaps Christ appears to those who never had the opportunity to choose (see John 8:56). But others have the chance and reject it. Sometimes those are our own children, parents and friends. What are we to believe about them? Kierkegaard/Climacus describes this “sharpened pathos” in rather mournful language, linking it to Christ’s saying that only those who hate father and mother are ready for the Kingdom of Heaven. Barth takes an agnostic approach; he grants that the Christian cannot claim to know any salvation other than through the Gospel since to be a Christian is to accept that revelation, but since we cannot know the full mind of God then we can at least hope God will make a way for those others. In any case, Barth would say, it is not our call to say that someone else is not going to Heaven; your only concern is your own relationship to God, since you are not here to judge others but rather let all be judged by God.

      My father told me a story about a sermon he heard from an Evangelical preacher, professing to mourn the death of a good and pious man and a coworker of my dad’s, because the man had died a Jew and therefore was not saved. Dad said that any Heaven that didn’t have room for Simon wasn’t any place he wanted to be either. Polls suggest that a lot of Christians, perhaps the majority, feel much the same way: believing the Gospel but also knowing non-Christians who seemed not only “good” but even “godly,” and not believing God would condemn such good people and let in some of the others who claim the name of Jesus while living such “unchristian” lives. There is some Biblical backing for this (for example, Romans 2:12-15). But the New Testament was written in a period of polytheism and pluralism, and great volatility in relations between Christians and other religions. The writings reflect this. Even just within the Pauline Epistles there are more universalist passages such as Romans 1-2, and more apocalyptic and dualistic passages in 1 Thessalonians and elsewhere. Heck, the Gospels even report Jesus saying at different times that “Whoever is not against us is with us,” and “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” So, does God want us to condemn and hate nonchristians, or to mourn them like those with a terminal disease, or to accept them as full and equal partners?

      Again returning to Kierkegaard, I think part of the problem Christians have is that most of the self-professed believers, just like most people in general, are really esthetes who have either never had a genuine religious experience or who have had the religious moods and passions but without the tempering of the ethical or the sense of guilt of Religiousness A. How could you possibly know you weren’t really a Christian, and that the revulsion you felt upon seeing a homosexual or a liberal or an abortionist did not come from God but was your own childhood prejudice? What would be your standard of comparison, if you’d never actually met God but grew up with these strong feelings and were told by others they came from God? If you manage to avoid the other tempering messages, where Christians are told to love all and not to judge and “insofar as it lies in your power, live at peace with everyone,” then you might actually believe you are doing God’s will when you burn witches or murder Jews or beat gays to death; and if you are just one of those who says, as a local preacher said, that we should lock all the homosexuals in concentration camps (but not actively murder them) you might believe yourself a “good Christian” even more readily—after all, you didn’t actually kill anyone like “those guys” did, since that would be illegal.

      I think that many claim to be “good Christians” who know they aren’t, or who don’t care, but know it is the only way to get elected or to keep peace in the family or to have the esteem of their circle of friends or who find it a good job, social network or whatever. There are hypocrites and charlatans and predators. There are also many who simply themselves have missed the mark and don’t know it. Both of these types exist in any sizable religious group; and if the group is like Christianity (or Islam or many others) that seeks to claim universal appeal and the moral high ground, both those types can do a lot of damage to the reputation of the faith. And both the genuinely insincere and the sincere but immature tend to be exclusive and arrogant. And there are others who perhaps feel driven to conclude that there is no salvation outside the religion they know. I think though that these, as Climacus puts it, show a “sharpened pathos.” Those who seem too gleeful at the torments awaiting those others probably lacks that sense of personal unworthiness and universal sympathy that they should have learned in the ethical and religious stages.

      I suspect that Barth’s agnosticism is a cop-out, but I’ll take it. I personally don’t want to judge the God-relationship of others, if those others are living objectively good lives. God knows, and it is not my job to discipline someone else’s child or reprimand someone else’s employee. When I read a passage like John 3:16, I take the “whoever believes in him” more as a warning to myself that I should have faith in him, not that I should make myself a pain in the back of those who say they don’t. I concede though that there is a case to be made that I should be more irritating to my nonchristian friends and neighbors, lest they never hear the Gospel. I still believe though that there are many who are turned away from all religion by clumsy, pushy, self-serving “witnesses” and I would prefer to avoid that error. Perhaps I am only choosing a theological Scylla of over-passiveness over the Charybdis of being an active stumbling-block.

      • Nemo Says:

        Perhaps I am only choosing a theological Scylla of over-passiveness over the Charybdis of being an active stumbling-block.

        This seems to be a dilemma that many, if not all, Christians face. The sense of personal unworthiness on the one hand, and the duty to speak the truth in love on the other. Moses, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Paul, they all grappled with it. If they had kept the gospel to themselves, would anyone in the world have been saved?

        I haven’t read Barth, but I’m curious; if he really believed that we cannot know the mind of God fully and our only concern is our own relationship to God, why did he publish all those books on Christian theology, shouldn’t he have kept his theology to himself?

        A self-serving witness is a false witness. The antidote to the pernicious effect of false witness is to be a true witness of Christ, not silence, for silence gives consent.

        Kierkegaard wrote in For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself: “The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence.” Yet he didn’t become silent but kept on writing, for silence is not an option. As Aristotle put it, “The only way not to err is not to live”.

        Personally I think the power of the Gospel is not at all restricted by space and time, which are created by God for this very purpose, and nobody will be condemned merely because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

        Your story about Simon reminds me of the rich young ruler in the gospels. Just as it is natural to hold on to one’s private possessions, so it is natural to hold on to one’s own virtues and goodness, and not give up all for Christ, unless the person has encountered the Divine, and realizes his own wretchedness and poverty. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        ” if he really believed that we cannot know the mind of God fully and our only concern is our own relationship to God, why did he publish all those books on Christian theology, shouldn’t he have kept his theology to himself?”

        I’m not a Barth expert, but more generally I can see at least two reasons to publish. Both of these are at least hinted at by Kierkegaard. One reason is to be the voice of skepticism and criticism to the overly-optimistic or overly-certain claims of others. In many ways, Barth was a recovering Social Gospel preacher. World War I revealed to him, and to the rest of the Dialectical theologians and to many people, that the liberal confidence that expected to gradually transform this world into the Kingdom of God was terribly overconfident. Likewise, the results of modern science, archaeology, literature and philosophy undermined the claims of the fundamentalist. The fundamentalist claims to know the truth because it is all written there in black and white, in the literal truth of Scripture. To support this claim, the fundamentalist must simply ignore pretty much every branch of science. Literary criticism of the Scriptures raises further questions, such as “How did Moses write about his own death? Why does the name for the deity switch back-and-forth between Elohim and YHWH, with a few Shaddai thrown in, if the whole Torah was written by one person, namely Moses? Why do three of the Gospels almost agree but not quite, and why are those three so radically different from the fourth?” and so on. Again, the only real answer for the biblical literalist is to dismiss and ignore “higher criticism” as simply another incipient atheism. And philosophy calls into question the whole project of literalism. How could a 20th or 21st Century person literally say the same things as a First Century person, and mean the same things? What are the implicit assumptions the fundamentalist makes, that are not in Scripture at all but which are in fact the lenses through which the fundamentalist reads Scripture so he or she is not even aware of them?

        The second reason I can see, the second need I see for Dialectical theology, is that despite uncertainty and human limitations, we need to understand God and our relationship to God. As Kierkegaard put it, suppose you had a letter from the person who was the dearest to you in the entire world. How you would prize that letter and read it over and over! But suppose the ink were faded and the writing smudged, so it was hard to read. Would you cast it aside, or would you spend every moment you could trying to understand it better? You might even ask a friend who had better eyes than yours for help. And suppose the letter were in another language. You would at the very least get the best translation you could, and further study to try to understand the idioms that didn’t carry over literally, or the jokes and other parts that might have a point that didn’t translate so clearly. Your love for the other would drive you; you would need to seek the best understanding of that letter that you could. You wouldn’t use your study to question whether the other really loved you or was really worth your trouble—your love would block that sort of rebellious thought and see it as laziness, trying to dispense with the work. You would assume that the letter and the writer were worth any effort you needed to make, because the writer really, really had something important to say and cared enough about you to say it. That, Kierkegaard says, describes the Bible: a love letter from God to each individual. The one who recognizes God’s love and that God ought to be loved will not use scholarship to try to refute the Bible or weaken its claims upon us; that is the way of objectivity, depersonalizing and distancing Scripture from oneself. Instead, the subjective thinker or believer will use scholarship to recognize the limits of scholarship and to refute the refutations; he or she will use scholarship to find out whatever can be found to clarify his or her God-relationship; and at the end of the day will sit back and just bask in the warmth of the message.

        You’re absolutely write that there is a tension in dialectical theology, in all its varieties. I say it is reflective of the tensions in existence itself. Someone said that the laws of physics, insofar as they pertain to reality, are not certain; and insofar as they are certain, do not pertain to reality. Reality is never as neat as a system. Kierkegaard’s response was to be unsystematic. Barth’s response was to be dogmatic, i.e. to discuss Christian dogma as it is expounded in Scripture and in the light of the ongoing historical discussions (he was quite aware of previous scholars and theological traditions). When he came to a point that he did not think Scripture was clear, he said we must simply keep silence. For example, in discussing evil, he basically says that God reveals God and God is good; so God does not reveal to us the nature of evil. Therefore, the most we can say is that it is nothingness, both in that it is not a substance of its own and that God has told us nothing about it except to avoid it and how to be redeemed from it.

        I’d like to see a lot more dialectical theology around today. I’d like to see the smug moral certainty of the Prosperity Gospel knocked down a peg, with its condemnation of the poor, its easy equation of riches with holiness and its claim that all of this is the literal word of God. I’d like to see the certainty of the Left Behind theology knocked down a bit too, with its self-righteous veneration of its “true believers” and its easy, even gleeful condemnation of fellow Christians who don’t go to the right church or believe the right things in the right way. Both of these drain the tension from the Gospel; instead of being “in the world but not of the world,” both seek to eliminate the epistemic and moral challenges of Christian faith. “Left Behind” eliminates the “in the world” part; if you are the right kind of believer, you will be Raptured away and not have to endure any of the terrible things predicted. Prosperity Gospel eliminates the “not of the world” part, by making worldly success the aim and demonstration of faith. Both claim to have the gospel and to teach it completely and literally, while any critical thinking would reveal a host of unwarranted and unacknowledged assumptions together with myriad points where this “completely and literally true” gospel contradicts any clear reading of the Scriptures. A professor of mine, Lee Barrett, said he thinks we need another Kierkegaard, and I think he’s right. Maybe it will be you.

      • Nemo Says:

        that is the way of objectivity, depersonalizing and distancing Scripture from oneself

        This is where I disagree with Kierkegaard. Objective truth does not induce nor prevent people from becoming subjective. The latter is a matter of choice. For example, the Law of Gravity is objective and impersonal, but everybody in their sound mind would abide by it seriously and personally. It’s not objectivity’s fault that people do not take the Scripture personally, it’s their own fault.

        If we do not pursue the objective truth about the Scripture and about God, then there is no subjective truth either. In other words, if God doesn’t exist objectively, there would be no “God-relationship”, since there would be nothing to “relate to”.

        If beliefs about God are all relative and has no objective reality outside the mind of each individual, then there is no possibility of dialogue or understanding. Any attempt at discussing the dogma would be comparing apples and oranges.

        Having grown up in an environment of atheist scientists, I tend to value the objective more than the subjective, and cannot (under)stand those who reject all claims of objective truth. (The Law of Gravity exists whether you accept it or not.) I tend to believe in objective truth about God, as I do scientific truths, though our knowledge in both are extremely limited and imperfect, and reason itself has its limitations.

        in discussing evil, he basically says that God reveals God and God is good; so God does not reveal to us the nature of evil. Therefore, the most we can say is that it is nothingness, both in that it is not a substance of its own and that God has told us nothing about it except to avoid it and how to be redeemed from it.

        Barth seems to be in agreement with the NeoPlatonists on that point.

        I’ve been slowly reading through Aristotle’s complete works, and his influences on Kierkegaard become more and more apparent. The difference between Hegel and Kierkegaard is perhaps the same as that between Plato and Aristotle. So I cannot be a Kierkegaard after all 🙂

  2. philosophicalscraps Says:

    Kierkegaard does not argue against objective knowledge per se. Epistemologically, he’s an empiricist. Unwittingly, he’s something of a disciple of Hume, because he is following Hamann and Hamann was following Hume. Like Hume and Hamann, Kierkegaard believes that knowledge of the world comes through the senses; but also like them, he believed that the senses cannot give 100% certainty. In this, Aristotle also agrees. The dispute between Plato and Aristotle is that Plato believed knowledge must be certain, and therefore knowledge proper does not apply to this world; it applies to the Forms. Aristotle says knowledge starts with the senses, and the only knowledge we have of the Forms is mediated through the senses. So while Plato says the senses do not give us knowledge since they are uncertain, and therefore there is no knowledge of the world but only belief, Aristotle does not hesitate to call this “knowledge” and to affirm that we can know things through the senses; but at the same time our knowledge is uncertain at times. Hume pushes this idea further, denies “knowledge” of the world and calls for mitigated skepticism. Kierkegaard accepts that we can never have complete knowledge of facts of existence, but says that this just means that at some point an act of will, a leap, must occur to carry us from what we can directly know to what we can conclude about it. I can know that I see a point of light against the darkness; to say “I see a star” requires a leap.

    What Kierkegaard objects to is taking faith objectively. He doesn’t doubt that the basic facts of the Bible are true, but he also is aware that many are disputed. What he denies is that arguing whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch solves anything. A person could believe firmly that Moses wrote it all, including the account of his own death, and still fail to have faith because it was all a matter of getting the facts straight and imposing that affirmation on others. Another person might doubt, but still treat it all as the word of God and respond to it with love and obedience. The one would have a false relationship to the truth, treating it as something to be known rather than lived. The other might have a weaker relationship to the truth from an objective standpoint, or even get some of it wrong, and still have a more personal and live relationship to the truth. This is Climacus’ point when he says the one who prays in a false spirit to the true God is an idolator, while the one who prays devotedly to an idol has a true God-relationship and has real faith, even though his eyes rest on an idol.

    It is a tension in Kierkegaard. Climacus goes so far as to say the only thing necessary for Christian faith is the one-line affirmation that the god was born, lived and died among us. This seems exaggerated, and is certainly not how Kierkegaard operates; he discusses historical and objective content throughout his discourses and sermons. I think the point is that Climacus is talking algebraically, claiming that the one-line affirmation creates the logical paradox that is Christianity; but to actually live as a Christian we seek and need a lot more information. I think too that while Kierkegaard treats all the Pauline epistles as genuine, for example, he would say it is beside the point whether Paul wrote, say, Ephesians or not. The person who lost his or her faith because of doubts over Ephesians, or conflicts between the gospel accounts, never had faith at all; he or she was looking only for objective certainty, unwilling to really risk error for the sake of a relationship with the true God. This is exactly what the fundamentalist does. As one (I believe it was Gary Brashears) in the documentary “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” puts it, if you accept the possibility of even one tiny error in the literal truth of the Scripture, you have no reason to trust it to tell you anything at all. Kierkegaard would compare that to saying, “I got a letter from the one I love. However, the date was wrong; it says Friday the 5th but Friday was the 4th. Therefore, I can’t trust anything it says and perhaps therefore the one I love doesn’t love me at all.”

    I see parallels in the Buddhist story of the man shot with a poisoned arrow, but I will leave it to the reader to consider this.

    • Nemo Says:

      The dispute between Plato and Aristotle is that Plato believed knowledge must be certain, and therefore knowledge proper does not apply to this world; it applies to the Forms. Aristotle says knowledge starts with the senses, and the only knowledge we have of the Forms is mediated through the senses.

      Having read the complete works of Plato and more than two-thirds of Aristotle, I think the dispute between them is much more subtle than people would have us believe. For one thing, Aristotle asserts that we can have certain knowledge of the universal but not the particular. Unless a man comes into being, there is no way for others to gain knowledge of him via the senses, but the knowledge of humanity does not depend upon the senses, because the universal is prior to the particular, and the knowledge of the particular is deduced from that of the universal. In this, Aristotle basically agrees with Plato’s Theory of Form, but only expresses the idea in his own terms.

      Hume’s epistemology is consistent with his denial of identity. It is impossible to have certain knowledge, if both the subject and the object “are in a perpetual flux and movement”. Conversely, this is also partly the reason why Plato believes in the immortality of the soul.

      I understand and agree with your point about Kierkegaard, What I object to, if it can be called an objection, is what I perceive to be a false dichotomy between faith and the pursuit of objective knowledge. Kierkegaard seems to suggest that the speculative philosophers (the Hegelians and the Platonists) do not take faith seriously and personally. As an armchair Platonist, I take umbrage at it. 🙂

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I agree that Aristotle and Plato are closer than some believe, certainly closer than Plato and any British Empiricist. But it is significant that Aristotle will still call this uncertain knowledge of particulars “knowledge” of a sort.

        As to Kierkegaard, part of the issue is the situation he was in. At times he admits he exaggerates for effect, particularly in The Instant. Other times he doesn’t admit it, but he probably is taking a more extreme stance to protest the optimism and complacency of his age. And his most skeptical claims, the ones that most vigorously denounce objectivity, are pseudonymous. Climacus does not claim to be a Christian and does not have first-hand knowledge of the importance of truth-claims in Christianity. What he does have is logical knowledge that what makes Christianity unique is that it puts the personal relationship to Christ above objective knowledge. Hegel said Christianity was picture-thinking, and only was perfected in his philosophy; the subjective was important in its place but had to be superseded by absolute knowledge. Kierkegaard argued that Christianity’s insistence on personal appropriation, on choice and trust, was more important than getting the “facts straight.” That is also why he considered the pursuit of the “historical Jesus” to be misguided. Yes, the believer wants to know all he or she can know about the historical Christ; but at the same time, the believer does not let knowledge replace or determine faith. It is quite possible to get so caught up in the scholarship that one loses hold of the faith that made one think this was worth studying in the first place.

        As to Kierkegaard’s shots at Plato, partly he is really aiming at the Hegelians, but I think he is also legitimately criticizing Plato. The search for the historical Socrates is nearly as tangled as the search for the historical Jesus, as Kierkegaard well knew (he wrote his Master’s thesis on it). His general belief was that when we see real personal engagement, we are seeing the historical Socrates peek through; when we see abstract musings or mystical detachment, that is Plato. And his certainty that he could disentangle Socrates from Plato may be overly confident, although he did study this much more than I have. What is perhaps most interesting is that Kierkegaard really is well within the Augustinian tradition, and Augustine himself was melding Platonism and Christianity, so Kierkegaard is not so much anti-Plato as he is part of the broader Platonic heritage’s self-criticism.

        As always, nice chatting with you!

      • Nemo Says:

        I’ve read the historical accounts of Socrates by Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes –the same sources Kierkegaard studied, but I don’t see the distinction he was trying to make. Xenophon is in harmony with Plato in their recollection of Socrates; Aristophanes ridicules Socrates for “conversing with the clouds”, obviously not the personal and engaging type.

        In a way, to abstract an ethical and personal Socrates from a metaphysical and mythical Plato is like following the ethical teaching of Jesus but denying his divinity, neither is a wholesome approach–cutting people in half.

        I’m interested in tracing the development of Kierkegaard’s thoughts, if that is possible. Do you think it would help to read his works in a chronological order?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, the full-blown research into the development of Kierkegaard’s thought would also include his journals. Second best in that regard would be reading people who read his journals. For one thing, if you want to understand the development of his thought, the journals are much more of a real-time record; the published works often reflect ideas he had years earlier but hadn’t gotten around to publishing sooner. But yes, I do think that there is great value in reading Kierkegaard’s works in chronological order. For too long, we have tended to skip over Kierkegaard’s signed works, like the Upbuilding Discourses, and read only the pseudonymous ones. Or, if we read the signed works, it was separate from the unsigned ones. He wrote with a back-and-forth, and he did it for a reason: as he says in Point of View for my Works as an Author, he is saying directly the essence of what he said indirectly, so reading both together presents a much clearer reflection of what he actually was thinking. (A fuller expression of this argument can be found in “The Elegant Unity of Kierkegaard’s Authorship,” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 22: The Point of View.)

        As the IKC and other sources point out, looking for “the real Socrates” was common in Kierkegaard’s day as well as others. I suspect too the influence of Hegelianism. What Kierkegaard is doing in his thesis, it has been argued, is a parody of Hegelian method. He takes his sources and instead of looking for commonalities, he looks for differences and magnifies these distinctive differences as much as possible (much like Hegel does when he discusses the different stages of religious consciousness expressed in Greece, Israel and other cultures). Then, having separated the conceptions as much as possible, he brings them back together to present a “higher unity.” I do think he is right that Xenophon and Plato have different perspectives on Socrates and, judging from the history of Greek philosophy after his death, so did many others. But his method of really punching up those differences, as well as the choice to treat Aristophanes as a genuine source of information (sort of a Socrates in a funhouse mirror) rather than just dismissing his Socrates as complete fiction, those are very common strategies in the Hegel-dominated scholarly environment of Kierkegaard’s university days.

        I know two writers who have written commentaries putting Kierkegaard’s works in chronological order. One is W. Glenn Kirkconnell, who has written Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion and Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation. Both of these focus on the “first authorship,” as Kierkegaard called it: the pseudonymous works and the series of eighteen upbuilding discourses that accompanied them. M. Jamie Ferreira wrote Kierkegaard for Wiley-Blackwell Press. Her book is shorter and also discusses the entire Kierkegaardian authorship.

      • Nemo Says:

        Xenophon and Plato definitely have different perspectives on Socrates, and I see the differences as reflecting their own respective life experiences and how they apply Socrates’ ideas to their own areas of interest. For instance, Xenophon was a Greek general and fought in Persia. His Socrates gives a long discourse on generalship, which is not found anywhere in Plato’ writings, but the principles they expound are the same. That’s why I think Xenophon and Plato are in harmony with regard to Socrates.

        I don’t see how people can separate “real Socrates” from Plato. Are they perhaps reading into Socrates their own perspectives like Plato and Xenophon did? On second thought, why is the “real Socrates” so important, if all they care about is the ideas he represents?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        The search for the historical Socrates is similar to the search for the historical Jesus.

        I would say that while interest in the historical original was always there, it was the 19th century in particular that gave rise to a real historical consciousness. Scholars and theologians became much more aware of the fact that they did not already have the historical Jesus, but also developed historical and linguistic tools to search for him in a more intentional and systematic way than ever before. The result, however, was summed up by George Tyrell: Adolf von Harnack stared down into the well of history searching for the historical Jesus, and saw at the bottom of the well a liberal Protestant face staring back up at him. As much as they may have been aware of the past failures and past tendencies of earlier Christians to imagine Jesus as one of them, they could not avoid doing the same thing.

        I think that Socrates studies in that time were in a similar state. While an earlier age would have immediately and unconsciously pictured Socrates as simply one of the philosophers of its own time, the 19th Century knew better, for they had a historical consciousness. But the more intently they sought the real Socrates and the more optimistic they were of the possibility, the more they were inclined to project. In Kierkegaard’s case, he is even aware of this to some extent. He comments for example that a genius (which he considered himself to be) is actually a poor reader, because the genius’ own ideas and creative impulses get in the way. Everything is taken up and used in the context of the genius’ own project. The less clever reader can be more open to new ideas and better able to see the other author as he or she is. So yes, Kierkegaard’s Socrates is something of a reflection of Kierkegaard, and moreover Kierkegaard himself is somewhat aware of this; and his Plato is also a Kierkegaardian vision of Hegel. He sees Plato as philosophically reprocessing the existential message of Socrates in much the same way as Hegel turned the essence of the Gospel from an existential communication into a philosophical doctrine about the unity of humanity and the divine. So to answer your first question: Yes.

        Second question: the historical Socrates is important because Socrates is the archetype of the philosopher. Aside from Nietzsche (who was not really a “philosopher”), I don’t know any philosopher who would reject Socrates as a role model even if he or she did quarrel with some of his teachings. Certainly, Kierkegaard was one of the legion of philosophers who greatly admired Socrates. Anyone who admires Socrates as he did would want to see himself as an heir to Socrates; so there is the attempt to project a bit of oneself into Socrates. If Socrates foreshadows me in some way, it validates me, my ideas and myself as a philosopher. At least, I think that is part of the answer.

      • Nemo Says:

        Just out of curiosity, what led you to a do full- blown research project on Kierkegaard?

        Did reading him help your personal pursuit of God-relationship, or was him also subsumed into a system of some sort?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I first heard of Kierkegaard when I was enrolling at New College, Florida in 1975. The catalog said he was the considered the father of existentialism and influenced many different philosophers, both religious and atheist. The idea of going to the root of a tree with so many branches intrigued me. As I explored Kierkegaard as an undergrad, the emphasis on personal commitment to one’s faith struck me, as did his acceptance of uncertainty and inquiry in the midst of the life of faith. As I continued, I found more and more areas of inquiry where Kierkegaard’s ideas had something to say. Any thinker who influenced minds as diverse as Barth, Wittgenstein, Sartre, both Niebuhrs and Craig Ferguson bears watching.

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