Posts Tagged ‘“Every Good and Perfect Gift is From Above”’

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.


Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.2)

June 15, 2016

Next, anxiety: Kierkegaard wrote during the 19th Century, which was a famously optimistic period in most of Europe. It was an age of exploration and experimentation, of invention and economic growth, of capitalism and commercialism. Kierkegaard frequently criticized the philosophy and theology of his time as both shallow and overconfident; his advice, through his pseudonyms as well as in his own name, was to cultivate a humble spirituality. His words largely fell on deaf ears, and he was nearly forgotten in the years after his death. His greatest influence was in the early 20th Century and beyond, in response to some of humanity’s darkest times. As theologians and philosophers sought to understand how so many millions of their fellow citizens could gladly throw away their freedom and their professed religion to follow earthly self-proclaimed Fascist and Communist messiahs, they found Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous discussions of anxiety to be uniquely instructive.

Most of Kierkegaard’s discussion of anxiety comes through his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, in the book The Concept of Anxiety. Important additional insights come through his religious discourse, “Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above,” one of his Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843). Haufniensis describes anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom.” What does that mean? The experience of freedom is the realization that one can do something that one knows one ought not to do. Haufniensis takes the story of Adam as a true account of anxiety and sin, and points out that before rebelling against God Adam is described as “without the knowledge of good and evil.” But Adam did know that there was something he ought not to do. There was a possibility, a real possibility. And realizing that there was this real possibility of something was both attractive and repulsive, like the sudden urge to jump off a cliff. We can’t really say Adam chose to do evil, since he didn’t know what evil was; but once he had chosen what was evil, he both knew what good and evil were, and that he had chosen badly.

At least as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, only human have the freedom to choose in this way, what the later pseudonym Climacus called an “existential choice,” a choice of what would be the highest guiding value of one’s life. And the realization that one has that freedom is disorienting. Every human falls, Kierkegaard claims, and falls in this same way: by throwing away his or her innocence and choosing to do wrong, as Adam did, one finds that one has succumbed to this vertigo of freedom. It cannot be explained more than that, because it is a free choice and thus has no “cause” that can explain it. Without that freedom, one would not be a rational spirit; but while an animal cannot help but obey God and be what it was made to be, humans have the ability to make themselves, an ability they discover only when they choose first to deform themselves and then must strive to be remade.

In the pseudonymous Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s alter ego writes from a psychological perspective only; then the discussion gets too theological he breaks off with a comment that “at this point, we leave the problem to dogmatics.”[1] When he writes in his own name, he is much more explicitly religious. In “Every Good and Perfect Gift is From Above (1843)” he discusses how Adam’s sin breaks the sense of God’s presence, and the results of this. Before his disobedience, Adam “walked with God,” as Genesis puts it, in apparently easy fellowship. There was no division between God’s will and Adam’s, or between Adam and any other part of Creation. Once they made that initial decision to try to “become as gods, knowing good and evil,” Adam and Eve both realized that the world is outside their control, and thus threatening. The anxiety gave the occasion for freedom to break from God; the choice to actually do so creates a separation that then opens the door for genuine fear. Concept of Anxiety focuses on how human freedom apart from divine grace, responds to this situation. Asserting my freedom meant separating myself from God and thus also from God’s creation; now I am surrounded by threats and by mysteries. Once I knew what it was good for me to do, since it was simply to obey God; but now I am left to seek the good, and faced with the danger that I will again choose what I know is wrong. And that anxiety also leaves me fearful, and particularly fearful that I could die separated from my ultimate fulfillment. “To be or not to be?” becomes a terrifying question for one caught in anxiety.[2] Every attempt to gain a sense of security and certainty by my own efforts just leaves me with an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy. The world is simply too big and too confusing for me. There are only two possible responses. One is faith, at which point I leave the psychological and philosophical perspective of Concept of Anxiety and turn to God, accepting that “every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of variation” (James 1:17). But most of us never reach that state of faith; for most of us can only escape this overwhelming anxiety by choosing to throw away our freedom. We submerge ourselves in the spirit-numbing social conformity of the modern commercial society, which Kierkegaard calls “philistinism.” Instead of struggling to find our own life values, we let the crowd around us dictate our life choices. This was the aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought that so intrigued the existentialists and dialectical theologians, as they watched their world go mad. What would make civilized people swarm into a stadium where they could throw their arms in the air and shout “Sieg Heil!” until they were hoarse? What could make millions of people worship a Stalin or Hitler or other tyrant? Anxiety offers a key. If trying to create my own values has become an overwhelming burden, turning to a strong authority who promises to tell me what is good and evil is a relief, not an oppression. And if my anxiety about myself has metastasized to fear of the world, a strong protector becomes a shield, not a cage.

No, I am not saying that Trump is just like Hitler or Stalin. But the impulse towards social conformity and authoritarianism is certainly the same in both. It is the same force that drives the Christian Dominionist and the Muslim Jihadi. It is the desire to be part of a herd and to have a strong, visible, concrete shepherd. Polls say Trump does well among self-described Evangelicals who only occasionally attend church. That is, he does not do well among those whose faith is a daily part of their lives or a directing force; he does do well among those who are social Evangelicals, who long for a traditional world with stable values and a single voice replaces the clamor of all the hawkers in the marketplace of ideas.

[1] Kierkegaard’s reasons for using pseudonyms are too complex to deal with here; for more on this, and some pointers on sorting it all out, look at W. Glenn Kirkconnell Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion and Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, both published by Continuum Press

[2] For an example of a person who, though not Christian, is quite religious in Kierkegaard’s sense, look at Socrates in the Apology. He says that either death is like a long, dreamless sleep, which is actually a pretty good night, or else it is a beginning of another existence; and he is confident that if death leads to an afterlife, that it will be a just and therefore enjoyable one. Thus he accepts the death sentence from the Athenian jury without regrets. In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Socrates is presented as the archetype of prechristian faith.

To be continued….