Kierkegaard’s pilgrimage

In an essay on Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, Lev Shestov traces Kierkegaard’s pilgrimage away from his youthful enthusiasm for Hegel toward biblical faith. On Kierkegaard’s reading, Hegel urged that philosophy and spirit transcend the finite and silly obsessions of Scripture, which presents at best representations of spirit. Kierkegaard ran aground just there:

He “suddenly felt that there lay hidden in the great master’s philosophy a treacherous, fatal lie and a terrible temptation. He recognized in it the eritis scientes of the Biblical serpent: an appeal to exchange a fearless belief in a free and living Creator for a submission to inflexible truths that rule over everything without exception, but are indifferent to all. He went from the great scholar, from the noted thinker whose praises were sung by everyone, to the ‘private thinker,’ to the Job of the Bible; and he not only went but ran, as if to his only savior. And from Job he proceeded to Abraham; not to Aristotle, the master of those who know, but to the man named in the Scriptures as the father of faith. For the sake of Abraham he forsook even Socrates himself . . . .

Socrates was also “knowing;” in the phrase gn?thi seauton (‘know thyself’) the pagan god had revealed to him the truth of the unity of the divine and the human natures five centuries before the Bible reached Europe. Socrates knew that for God, as for man, not everything is possible; that the possible and the impossible are determined, not by God, but by eternal laws to which God and man are equally subject. For this, reason God has no power over history, i.e., over reality. ‘To make something which once was into something which never was is impossible in the world of the senses; this can only be done inwardly, in spirit’; so Hegel says; another truth that was certainly not revealed to him in Scripture, where it is repeated so often and so insistently that for God nothing is impossible, and where man is even promised power over all that there is in the world: ‘If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible unto you.’ But the philosophy of the spirit does not hear these words and does not want to hear them. They are disturbing to it; a miracle, we will remember, is a violation of the spirit. But then the source of everything “miraculous” is faith, and moreover a faith so bold that it seeks no justification from reason, it seeks no justification from any quarter; a faith that instead summons everything in the world to its own tribunal. Faith is above and beyond knowledge. When Abraham went to the Promised Land, explains the Apostle, he went not knowing himself where he was going. He had no need of knowledge, he lived by what he had been promised; the place where he arrived would be the Promised Land, simply because he had arrived there.”

Kierkeegard discerned that Hegel, like Kant and Spinoza and the whole of modern philosophy before him, preferred to trust in necessity than in the Creator. Hegel’s defense of the serpent to the contrary, “Holy Scripture did not repudiate or prohibit knowledge in the strict sense of the word. On the contrary, it is said in Scripture that man was summoned to give names to all things. But man did not want to do this, did not want to be content with giving names to the things that the Creator had made.”

Modern philosophy arises from the discontent with that task. To give names to things made by God is not enough: “Kant expressed this very well in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason . ‘Experience,’ he said, ‘shows us what exists, but it does not tell us that whatever exists must necessarily exist thus (as it exists, and not otherwise). Therefore, experience does not give us a true generality, and reason, which eagerly strives for this sort of knowledge, will sooner became irritated than be satisfied with experience.’ Reason eagerly strives to hand man over to the power of necessity, and not only is not satisfied with the free act of creation described in Scripture, but is irritated, disturbed, and frightened by it. It prefers to hand itself over to the power of necessity, with its eternal, universal, inflexible principles, rather than trust in its Creator. So it was for our forefather, seduced or bewitched by the words of the tempter; so it continues to be for us and for the greatest representatives of human thought. Aristotle twenty centuries ago, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel in modern times, had an irresistible desire to hand themselves and mankind over to the power of necessity. And they did not even suspect that this is the greatest of Falls; in gnosis they saw not the ruin but the salvation of the soul. ”

Hegel’s embrace of necessity is thus a fall from truly human life: “Speculative philosophy cannot exist without the idea of necessity; necessity is essential to it, just as air is to a human being and water to a fish. This is why the truths of experience irritate reason so. They keep repeating the divine fiat and do not provide real knowledge, that is, coercive, compulsory knowledge. But for Kierkegaard coercive knowledge is an abomination of desolation, the source of original sin; it was by saying eritis scientes that the tempter brought about the Fall of the first man. Accordingly, Kierkegaard says that ‘the opposite of sin is not virtue but freedom’ and also ‘the opposite of sin is faith.’”

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