Arnon Grunberg



On Kierkegaard and the leap, Christopher Beha in Harper's:

'Ever since, outsider-philosophers have tended to take Socrates as their touchstone. Like Plato, they have blurred the line between philosophical and literary writing, and they have shown a talent for the kind of aphoristic insight that the general public has come to expect from philosophers. While often hostile toward religion, they have all been deeply concerned with what we might call “God questions”: Does one exist? And what should such existence or nonexistence actually mean for us here on earth? They have had ambiguous or outright adversarial relationships with the academy, and they have often been ignored in their lifetimes or treated as objects of ridicule. In defiance of a discipline that prizes disinterest and objectivity, they have openly acknowledged the connection between their ideas and their experience. A striking proportion have died young, and they are often remembered more for their attempts to authentically live out their philosophies than for the philosophies themselves. As the field has become increasingly specialized and systematized in the modern era, these figures have stood out more conspicuously, coming to represent a tradition of their own.'


'Søren Kierkegaard—the subject of Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard—is an exemplar of the outsider-philosopher tradition, in some ways the founder of its modern strain. Nearly every one of the books listed above cites him as a precursor, and a direct line can be drawn from him to each of their subjects. Though Nietzsche never read him, Kierkegaard anticipated Nietzsche’s criticisms of rationalized Enlightenment Christianity and universal morality by half a century. A biographer reports that Weil “could not read Kierkegaard without feeling moved”; Camus owed to Kierkegaard his most influential idea, the concept of the absurd; and much of French existentialism can be understood as an effort to salvage Kierkegaard’s thought while removing the belief in God around which it was built. Ludwig Wittgenstein—another outsider whose place in the philosophical pantheon was posthumously secured—called him “by far the most profound thinker of the [nineteenth] century.”'


'Almost as soon as he’d made this commitment, Kierkegaard recognized that it had been a mistake. He sincerely loved Regine, and he believed that marriage might bring him happiness and fulfillment, but he doubted that he was meant to be happy or fulfilled. Like many people who suffer from depression, he understood his condition to offer some essential insight on the human situation. Grappling authentically with the feeling had the appearance of a kind of vocation.'


'On this second trip, Kierkegaard wrote what is probably his most widely read book today. Although it is the only one of the early pseudonymous works that does not directly take up the theme of the broken engagement, Fear and Trembling is in many ways Kierkegaard’s most sustained reckoning with his treatment of Regine. By Kierkegaard’s own accounting, his behavior had been wrong; he should have fulfilled his commitment to her. Yet he was certain that he had done the right thing. How did one make sense of this paradox? Kierkegaard still believed that marriage was the highest ethical calling, and he had failed to heed this call. But despite his public show to the contrary, he had not abandoned Regine for the shallow, undirected pleasures of the aesthetic life. Rather, he had committed himself to something higher. What was this higher thing? Did it even make sense to speak of a calling higher than the ethical life? A tentative answer to this question was offered by the sermon at the end of Either/Or; now he took it up again, and took it further, with the story of the binding of Isaac.

God’s covenant with his people begins with a promise to the old and childless Abraham that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. This promise is advanced with the birth of a son, Isaac, but God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac atop Mount Moriah. From the historical point of view, we know that this is a test of faith: Abraham will bring Isaac up the mountain and bind him for the sacrifice, but God will intervene before it is completed. Yet it is in the nature of such a test that one can’t know it to be a test at the time. Abraham must show himself willing to do something inexcusable, and the fact that he never actually does it is beside the point. What’s more, he does not tell anyone—not even Isaac—what he is doing. He suffers the anxiety of that trip up Mount Moriah alone, suffers even the possibility that he has misunderstood God’s command, that he is about to do something unforgivable. Finally, having passed the test, he descends the mountain again and returns to his old life, proceeding as though nothing had happened—as indeed, objectively, nothing did.

For Kierkegaard, this was the nature of the truly religious life. It entailed an inward turning toward God, one that could not be reduced to a moral law. In the preceding decades, great effort had been made to rationalize Christianity and situate it as the foundation of a universally binding ethical code. The problem, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, was that Jesus did not call us to obey a set of rules; he called us to love. It cannot be that adherence to an ethical code is the highest life, because it is possible to obey every rule placed in front of you without ever feeling love in your heart. To the aesthetic and the ethical was added a third category, the religious, which was beyond both.

Placed in this tripart relationship, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious seem almost to represent a Hegelian progression, but one stage does not lead inevitably to the next as they do in Hegel’s system. There is no internal contradiction in the aesthetic life that ushers us out of it. We must choose to be ethical as an act of individual will. And since choosing in this way, and standing by our choices, is precisely what the ethical entails, we must in a sense already be living in the ethical sphere in order to choose it. Nothing in the aesthetic sphere—which is precisely the sphere wherein such choices cannot occur—could make us ethical by degrees. (From A’s papers: “Experience shows that it is not at all difficult for philosophy to begin. . . . But it is always difficult for philosophy and philosophers to stop.”) What is required is a qualitative leap from one state to another.

A similar leap must move us from the ethical to the religious. The ethical sphere gives us the satisfaction of adherence to a code, seen in Judge William’s smug complacency, and so it does not push us on to something greater. Yet we continue to have moments of anxiety or despair, as when we sense that no amount of upstanding behavior will change the fact that we and all we love are fated to die, or when we recognize that our ethical code is built on air, that it does not—cannot—have a universal basis, that the Christian story on which these ethics claim to be built cannot be rationalized as a Hegelian synthesis of the absolute and the particular or the necessary and the contingent, but must be accepted as a paradox, an absurdity.

In Kierkegaard’s view, it is precisely this anxiety that makes our inward turning possible. It is in this anxiety that we begin to be truly religious. For religious life does not unfold according to a universal code. Like Abraham, we cannot know in advance if we are doing it correctly. We must give ourselves over to it, as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, in great fear and trembling. This is the famous leap of faith for which Kierkegaard is perhaps best known (although he never used the expression). The phrase is sometimes taken to mean that we ought to throw ourselves into belief even though we have no intellectual basis for doing so. In fact, it means that no amount of philosophical consideration or ethical behavior can bring about the inward turning that religious life requires.

Another fact about this inward turning is that we falsify it when we attempt to put it on display in the way that we might our ethical behavior. Of course, writing about the religious was a form of precisely this kind of objectified display. Kierkegaard was aware of the contradiction, and he had an ambivalent relationship to his own work. (He does not seem to have had any relationships that weren’t ambivalent.) This accounts in part for his use of pseudonyms, which was not just a writerly device. For some years, he took great care to keep his literary identity concealed. He made a point amid his work to go on long walks so that he could be seen by the people of Copenhagen, who knew his distinctive figure, and he turned up at the theater during intermissions, giving the impression that he’d spent his evening at the show, before sneaking home to work. He went out of his way to appear still mired in the aesthetic stage.'


'We are all Hegelians now, sure that the problems we face are not just unprecedented but systemic, too large for any individual to address. A sense of great urgency combines with a sense of acute hopelessness. We feel at once that the world desperately needs changing and that we are unequipped to change it. Kierkegaard tells us to begin by changing our own hearts.'

Read the article here.

This is an insightful article but there is a tendency here to turn Kierkegaard and his work into something overtly sentimental. Should we diagnose him as depressive? Somebody who used his illness to better understand the human condition. This is too mundane.

And if Kierkegaard tells us that changing the world can only be done by changing our hearts we can go to church, we don't need to read Kierkegaard.

The question remains, if God cannot 'be reduced to a moral law', if the leap is a step into the unknown then we must accept that this step is dangerous, maybe even criminal.

If the risk is quintessential for the step toward religion then we must accept the fact that this might be utterly wrong.

The possibility exists that Abraham never went up the mountain with his son, that is was just a thought experiment. Then indeed, he might live and we might live as if nothing happened, because nothing happened, it was just a fantasy.

If the story of Abraham and Isaac is more than a thought experiment then we must conclude that love is not by nature a force of the good.

As Mr. Beha writes: 'Yet his experience with Regine had taught Kierkegaard that some choices—precisely the ones that matter most to a person—really do exclude their alternatives.'

Our most important choices exclude their alternatives, our most important choices can be the act of killing.

Are we meant to be happy? And if not what alternatives are excluded?

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