Saturday, 25 July 2015

"by virtue of the absurd"

When I first read Kierkegaard I just didn't get him at all - snippets of brilliant insights and disturbing truths, to be sure, but the 'found' quality of the book kind of jarred me. I needed its roots and foundations if I ever hoped to gain purchase.

Soren Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 - 11 November 1855) was a Danish philosopher, poet and theologian, and is considered to be the first 'existentialist' writer/commentator of some renown. His Christianity, his philosophy, the way his thoughts and ideas express themselves, is all surprisingly simple and even rustic. Rustic, in the sense that he took the Christ's Gospel at face value (who and what he must be, personally, to attain discipleship - his 'knight-hood of faith') and even in the way his central philosophical program is impelled:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (Søren Kierkegaard's Journals & Papers IA Gilleleie, 1 August 1835)

In his commentary on who our neighbour is (to us personally) he clearly seeks to find "a truth which is truth for me". There is nothing to suggest he didn't take his words and ideas seriously. He was critical of the very idea of a state religion, especially one that recognized his precious Christian faith as such, not because it was in vogue to hold such 'enlightened' views but because what exists 'by virtue of the absurd' (faith) cannot be objectified without consequences (more precisely: faith cannot be objectified, period):

Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister traveling companion — that irony of life, which manifests itself in the sphere of knowledge and invites true knowing to begin with a not-knowing (Socrates) just as God created the world from nothing. But in the waters of morality it is especially at home to those who still have not entered the tradewinds of virtue. (ibid)

Kierkegaard (and his faith) is only seen in true light when we consider that he truly believed that he had 'earned' G*d's wrath:

He is said to have believed that his personal sins, perhaps indiscretions such as cursing the name of God in his youth or impregnating Ane out of wedlock, necessitated [...] punishment. (

To him, faith is not some whimsy, it is an idea for which he is willing to live and die for (having suffered profound angst by the apparent meaninglessness of an unexamined, unclaimed life):

Frequently a person feels his very best when the illness is the worst, as in tuberculosis. In vain he tries to resist it but he has not sufficient strength, and it is no help to him that he has gone through the same thing many times; the kind of practice acquired in this way does not apply here. (Kierkegaard, 1 August 1835)

In the book, Batman and Philosophy, one of the contributors, Christopher M Drohan, writes of this 'owning up' to life:

While the knights of infinite resignation [ie, Batman] are always waiting for some future ideal state, the knights of faith [ie, Alfred the butler] have found it, and are living it presently. Their eternity is not to come, but is found in the moment, as they realize that in loving and serving others they exercise a kind of fellowship that will infinitely sustain humanity. For them, peace on earth must be made with every gesture and every action. And is starts by committing ourselves to another person and by helping that person in every way that we can.

Alfred knows that if we treated others in this way there would be no need for Batman, or for any type of coercive justice for that matter. (Batman and Philosophy, Christopher M Drohan, 2008, p. 194)

We've all suffered (or, been blessed by) moments of crises in our lives that cannot be characterized as anything but 'spiritual'. I've had my share. I think what has saved my rationality from the experience of seeing pure ignorance and want assert themselves in this life and realizing that they are me unchecked, unhindered selfishness that births and sustain's humanity's ignorance and want:

"'Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,' said
Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe,' but I see
something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding
from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.' 

'It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,' was
the Spirit's sorrowful reply. 'Look here.'

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children;
wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt
down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

'Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.' exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling,
wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where
graceful youth should have filled their features out, and
touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled
hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and
pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat
enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No
change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any
grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has
monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him
in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but
the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie
of such enormous magnitude.

'Spirit. are they yours.' Scrooge could say no more.

'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon
them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching out
its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye.
Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.
And abide the end.' 

'Have they no refuge or resource.' cried Scrooge.

'Are there no prisons.' said the Spirit, turning on him
for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses.'" (A Christmas Carol, Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits)

Becoming Scrooge is a terrifying proposition (the pre- and post-visitation Scrooge, warts and all). I think what Kierkegaard is saying is that becoming Scrooge is G*d's will, the wicket gate.


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