Zarathustra and Kierkegaard

by John Holbo on July 15, 2016

Apologies for lack of posts. I’ve been without keyboard for 10 days. It’s silent meditation for the fingertips, if – like me – you type quickly. (I don’t count that hunt-and-pecking ground on my iPad mini as a keyboard.) But before leaving home I prepared a few “On Beyond Zarathustra” installments to hold my clamorous readership (yet you are all so politely silent!) until I return to my Cintiq at summer’s end.

I’ve been using my keyboard-free time to read news and be horrified, also to read as many hundreds of pages of Kierkegaard as I can before August. (When I get tired, I read Lord Dunsany, pagan palate-cleanser, when the Kierkegaardian Christianity gets too much.) So far I’ve gotten all the way through Either/Or, in the Penguin Classics edition, which is slightly abridged but – you know what? – I’m not complaining. (Have YOU ever read all the way through both volumes of Either/Or, as opposed to skimming “The Diary of a Seducer” for naughty bits, then getting disappointed and bored?) I have also made it through Philosophical Fragments, which is shorter but even more head-scratching.

First, for the impatient: if you were making a hilarious Kierkegaard t-shirt of coffee mug, what goes on it? This week’s candidates:

“It would indeed be unreasonable to require a person to find out all by himself that he does not exist.”

“Here I ask only that you recognize that a fair number of people find it right and proper to despair.”

“The individual has not created the world after all, and so need not take it so much to heart if the world should really turn out to be vanity.”

The first is from Fragments, the second two from the Judge, in Either/Or. (Just in case you thought the Judge didn’t have his tongue in his cheek.)

Next, since the theme of this week’s Zarathustra installment is new hats and old values, a remark from the Judge, indicting the aesthete:

You conduct your life as it is your custom to behave in a crowd, you ‘work your way into the thickest of it, trying if possible to be forced up above the others so as to be able to lie on top of them’; if you manage to get up there you ‘make yourself as comfortable as possible’, and this is also the way you let yourself be carried along through life. But when the crowd disperses, when the event is over, you stand once more at the street corner and look at the world. A dying person possesses, as you know, a supernatural energy, and so too with you. If there is an idea to be thought through, a work to be read through, a plan to be carried out, a little adventure to be experienced – yes, a hat to be bought, you take hold of the matter with an immense energy.

And yet, says the Judge, the Aesthete is in despair. Ever newer hats, plus Stagedivings On Life’s Way, will not suffice. Then what?

But let’s back up a step. I’m sure some of you haven’t read much Kierkegaard – or any. And my title indicates a Nietzschean connection. Last year, while I was teaching Nietzsche, a student asked, simply: what’s the difference between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard? My answer: substantively, Kierkegaard is not simply religious but is absolutely committed to the spiritual necessity of Christianity – specifically, the mystery of the Incarnation (Eternity in time) and the miracle of forgiveness (the spiritual non-fatality of being, essentially, spiritually fatally flawed.) Formally, Kierkegaard is always role-playing and ventriloquizing. He is experimental, hence does not always say what he means. Nietzsche, despite all that ‘all that is profound wears a mask’ stuff, is not usually wearing a mask. Nietzsche mostly says what he means and means what he says. (What the thing that he means MEANS – well, that’s not so clear. You might have to wait a while for that wheel to turn.) He doesn’t throw his voice or flamboyantly role-play. When there are apparent contradictions between Nietzsche passages, the answer is very seldom that he didn’t mean that one, he was just trying to exhibit, dramatically, what such-and-such a moral personality/psychology is like. The semi-exception to this is Zarathustra – especially Part IV, my fave bit. Is Nietzsche Zarathustra, in his mind? Is Zarathustra a mask? That’s a good question. But let’s talk Kierkegaard.

How many different roles does Kierkegaard play, and why does he play like that? He has over a dozen pseudonyms in the complete body of his works (Either/Or contains three, including the ‘editor’ of A and B, Victor Eremite.) But maybe it wouldn’t kill us to simplify: he has voices to go with his famous Stages – Aesthetic, Ethical, Faith. Naturally we wonder which voice is closest to the author’s own – true! real! authentic! – voice. (Not that this is a good question. Possibly it is a very bad one. I only said we will ask it.)

Maybe Kierkegaard is a figure of faith, pulling the rest of us up through the other two stages?

Or maybe he is an aesthete, and a bad boyfriend, indulging a lot of literary monkeyshines because it is all so very ‘interesting’. Faith! A new hat for one’s head!

No one thinks he is primarily an ethicist, I think; but, as noted in a previous post, Kierkegaard’s got a surprisingly stiff, rigorist, Kantian ethical spine (despite it being so unhealthily curved, per all those caricatures.)

Let’s start with the aesthetic option. The reason why I think this “Hark! A Vagrant” strip is so spot-on is because maybe the Judge nails not just A, the Aesthete, but Kierkegaard himself:

There is an unrest in you over which your consciousness nevertheless soars light and clear. Your whole soul is gathered at that point. Your mind draws up a hundred plans, everything is prepared for the assault. Should it fail in one direction, instantly your well-nigh diabolical dialectic is ready to explain that away as a necessary part of the new plan of operation. You hover constant! over yourself and however decisive each step you take, you are ready with an interpretation which with a word can change everything. And then there is the whole embodiment of the mood: your eyes sparkle, or rather it is as though a hundred watchful eyes were simultaneously shining, a fleeting blush passes rapidly over your face; you have full confidence in your calculations, and yet still wait with a terrible impatience – yes, my dear friend, I really think that in the final analysis you delude yourself.

And:

Life is a masquerade, you tell us, and this, for you, is an inexhaustible source of amusement, yet still no one has succeeded in knowing you; for all your revelations are constantly illusions; that is the only way you can breathe and make sure people do not press in on you and prevent you drawing breath. Your activity is designed to keep yourself hidden, and in that you succeed, your own mask is the most enigmatic of all; for you are nothing and exist merely in relation to others, and you are what you are in this relation.

(So now maybe you have some notion why the author of Philosophical Fragments opines it’s not reasonable to expect the non-existent to realize this about themselves.)

That said, the philosophical motive for so much role-play is tolerably clear. It’s a protest against Hegel, who is always running together psychology, logic, biography, history, to the point where you can’t tell which is which. (This is the complaint anyway.) By insisting that the various Stages not be mistaken for premises or propositions to be Both/Anded up-up and away into Absolute Spirit, Kierkegaard tries to keep the human personalities, and even a lot of biography, center-stage.

But maybe anti-Hegelian polemics are just an excuse for a lot of literary monkeyshines?

You know what? I have to go eat lunch. I’ll try to find a keyboard again later and continue this thought.

{ 32 comments }

1

bob mcmanus 07.15.16 at 9:04 pm

Watched Ordet for the first time Wednesday.

“What happened to drive the poor boy mad?”
“Kierkegaard”

2

ZM 07.16.16 at 5:30 am

“First, for the impatient: if you were making a hilarious Kierkegaard t-shirt of coffee mug, what goes on it?”

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards
— Soren Kierkegaard

3

Joshua Holmes 07.16.16 at 6:08 am

“First, for the impatient: if you were making a hilarious Kierkegaard t-shirt of coffee mug, what goes on it?”

One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became the greatest of all. – Eulogy for Abraham

“Maybe Kierkegaard is a figure of faith, pulling the rest of us up through the other two stages?”

I suspect the point of the various masks and personas is to show the emptiness of the ego from multiple angles. Break down the ego & bring the reader to realize the vanity of all the ego’s pursuits, and then the reader is prepared to throw him/herself on the mercies of God, becoming a Knight of Faith.

4

Adam Roberts 07.16.16 at 4:01 pm

I’d say your thumbnail of the Kierkegaard-Nietzsche differential is right. K is ironic, where N is playful. Germanically playful in a sometimes rather clump-footed manner, but playful nonetheless. Playful and ironic are not the same thing.

5

John Holbo 07.16.16 at 5:32 pm

Come to think of it, it’s almost simpler to say that what makes Kierkegaard so distinctive is that he really really takes the Nicene Creed extremely seriously. Seriously. Father = Son plus spirit and salvation. That’s the ticket.

6

Maria 07.16.16 at 9:40 pm

“the mystery of the Incarnation (Eternity in time) and the miracle of forgiveness (the spiritual non-fatality of being, essentially, spiritually fatally flawed.)”. Huh. Is there such a thing as a gateway drug to Kierkegaard on this stuff, or an entry point for amateurs who lack your impressive reading stamina, John? #askingforafriend …

7

Yan 07.16.16 at 10:54 pm

Bob @1

Such a fascinating movie, like a retroactive parody of the Exorcist, but the demon the kid’s possessed by is religious faith.

8

ZM 07.17.16 at 8:09 am

John Holbo,

“Come to think of it, it’s almost simpler to say that what makes Kierkegaard so distinctive is that he really really takes the Nicene Creed extremely seriously. Seriously. Father = Son plus spirit and salvation. That’s the ticket.”

I don’t think you have the theology right here no offence. I can’t say what Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the Nicene Creed is, but how you sum up the Nicene Creed isn’t exactly right.

The Trinity is three things the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Father = the Son plus spirit and salvation as you write, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit make up the Trinity and they are different and they are consubstantial. Also you should capitalise the Holy Spirit if you are capitalising the Father and the Son. And salvation is not an element of the Trinity it is more like a goal or a state of being I suppose. Someone can seek salvation, or someone can be saved, that sort of thing.

If you look at the Nicene Creed, first you have to state you believe in the one God, the Father, the Creator of all things, Heaven and Earth. So this is an idea that there is one single creative spirit which is the origin of all being.

This idea of a creator spirit is not exclusive to Judaism and Christianity and Islam, for instance China has versions of this one creator spirit, in Hinduism it is Brahma, and for Indigenous Australians the creator spirit is called the Rainbow Serpent which is a bit like a dragon who lives in water but maybe moves in mist and air I think (when you see a rainbow this is said to show the rainbow serpent is moving to another water hole).

Then the next bit is that you believe in one Lord Jesus Christ who is the only Son of the Father, born before time, God from God, light from light, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.

This is the bit where your theology is not exactly right, since consubstantial does not mean the same which you indicate with the = symbol.

Consubstantial is a Latin translation from the Greek homoousism ; homo is translated as “same” in English, and ousia in translated in plain English as “being” or in Philosophical English as “ontic”.

So it is more like saying they are of the same sort of being, rather than they are one and the same things. The language calls them the Father and the Son implying they are different beings. The language also says the Son is begotten not made, but since it is about spiritual beings it is a bit difficult to understand what that means exactly, apart from I guess it is a different relationship between God the Creator and the Son, as between God the Creator and, say, Earth and its creatures , with the latter being I guess probably classified as “made” in some sort of sense rather than “begotten”.

Wikipedia states in Gnostic use homoousism was used generally to discuss the nature of the relationships between generator and generated, between things generated of the same substance; and between the partners of a syzygy. “It was by Athanasius of Alexandria and the Nicene Council that the Son was taken to have exactly the same nature or essence with the Father, and in the Nicene Creed the Son was declared to be as immutable as his Father. Some theologians preferred the use of the term ὁμοιούσιος (homoioúsios, from ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar”, rather than ὁμός, homós, “same”) in order to emphasize distinctions among the three persons in the Godhead, but the term ὁμοούσιος became a consistent mark of Nicene orthodoxy in both East and West.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homoousion

Out of the three beings in the Trinity the Son became man, “He came down from Heaven for us men and our salvation”. So you see people’s salvation is the motive for why the Son would come down from Heaven to become man as Jesus Christ, but salvation is not part of the Trinity since it isn’t a being itself more a state of being that is achievable like a goal.

Then you state you believe in the Holy Spirit too, which is the giver of life. Life here doesn’t mean everyday life I think but spiritual life instead. The Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father and the Son, which is taken to mean the source is the creator spirit, but the Holy Spirit proceeds through the Son from the Source. And you should capitalise it since it says the Holy Spirit is adored and glorified with the Father and the Son.

Since you didn’t write about the rest of the Nicene Creed, this is enough Sunday theologising for me ;-)

9

ZM 07.17.16 at 12:58 pm

I thought of another bit of theology which is not quite right either.

“Kierkegaard is not simply religious but is absolutely committed to the spiritual necessity of Christianity – specifically, the mystery of the Incarnation (Eternity in time) and the miracle of forgiveness (the spiritual non-fatality of being, essentially, spiritually fatally flawed.)”

There are different sorts of sins and forgiveness depends on the sort of sin the sin is. The sin doesn’t just get forgiven by a miracle though. Maybe it depends if you are calling the sacraments generally miracles or not?

The least bad sort of sin is a forgivable sin called a venial sin, which is the term for sins which are not grave. You can remain in reasonably good stead with God if you commit a venial sin but you are still supposed to be contrite and do other sacraments. You can do the sacrament of Penance if you like but you don’t have to.

The middle sort of sin is a mortal sin and these sins condemn a soul to Hell if they are not dealt with in the person’s life time. Your relationship with God is ruptured and your soul becomes dead if you commit a mortal sin. You can receive absolution for this via the sacrament of Penance — contrition, confession, a commitment to sin no more, and then do restorative acts of penance as satisfaction.

The worst sort of sin is an eternal sin and this is when the Holy Spirit calls someone to repent of their sin and they do not repent and thus reject the Holy Spirit. Aquinas made a list, but only one is in the catechism, which is presumption “if a man wants to obtain glory without merits or pardon without repentance”. I guess since this is an eternal sin the sin is never forgiven and lasts forever.

10

Yan 07.17.16 at 3:16 pm

ZM,

K was a Protestant, so he might have been not well versed or interested in those sorts of technicalities. It’s probably safe to say he thought such theological weights, measures, and currency exchanges of the inner life antithetical to the “religious” as he conceives it.

He might see forgiveness of sin less as a “miracle” than a paradox. If sin is forgiven either it isn’t serious enough to require forgiveness, or it is, in which case God is not ethical and so not God. It is then a proper object of faith, which cannot be justified or motivated by reason.

I think of K as a fictionalist: an atheist who believes we’re better off believing, or at least at best trying and at worst pretending to, believe. He euphamisitically calls this “becoming a Christian,” where becoming never reaches being.

@1, Ordet’s a fascinating film. I like to think of it as a preemptive parodist remake of The Exorcist, except the demon that possesses the kid is religious faith itself.

11

ZM 07.17.16 at 3:52 pm

He was a Lutheran, they still have the sacrament of confession, but instead of doing acts of restoration as satisfaction for committing sins they have to read the bible a lot and meditate on scripture.

12

John Holbo 07.17.16 at 4:14 pm

ZM, you have invented a new rhetorical trope: behold the mansplaining!

13

ZM 07.17.16 at 4:21 pm

I’m not quite sure what you mean John Holbo. If you mean you already knew everything I explained, how was I to know?

14

M Caswell 07.17.16 at 4:35 pm

Seems to me K’s ironic method is an elaborate negotiation of the following problem, which has been with Christian writers since Augustine: how does a believer write about God for a non-believing audience?

Hegel didn’t face this problem, for example.

15

John Holbo 07.17.16 at 5:23 pm

Sorry, I just can’t resist a pun. (And to be fair: the history of Christian heresy is one long line of behold the mansplainers.) More seriously: the ‘splain derives (in this case as in others) not from the evidence of absence of knowlege. Which, as you say, was absent. But from the absence of evidence of absence of knowledge. For evidence of my absence of knowledge was, I think, evidently absent.

And my failure to capitalize Nicean may be chalked up to absence of keyboard. (Evidence of such absence provided in the OP!)

Moving right along: the ‘=’ between God and Son has been the source of some nice controversy. But this seems safe: exactly how God and Son can be equal, in any substantial – nay, consubstantial – sense, is a bit of a headscratcher. How can a Being with the properties we regard as immortal, eternal, outside of time – be mortal, finite, born at a time and died a bit later? Kierkegaard is most concerned that we should really scratch our heads about this. This is job #1. I glossed this by saying: he really takes the Nicean Creed pretty seriously (even if he is about eccentric about his mode of subscription.)

Let’s try this instead: Kierkegaard is famous for being a psychologist and proto-existentialist. He inspired Sartre and Heidegger. Some existence-precedes-essence thing? Something about the leap of faith? Sounds very athletic and, perhaps artistic and Romantic. His preoccupation with the mystery of Christ’s incarnation might not immediately square with our picture of K as a proto-existentialist. I’m just saying: he’s, in a sense, more of an orthodox Christian than you might think.

In other ways, of course, he’s highly unorthodox. You are

Moving right along: your typology of sin is standard, of course, ZM. K’s view is a bit different, as one might expect – but not because he was unaware of theological basics. He has an awful lot to say about how sin and forgiveness pose a spiritual challenge. Here’s a quick gloss: suppose you are an artistic perfectionist. But you just screwed something up on the canvas. It can’t be erased. It’s there. How is one’s commitment to perfectionism consistent with proceeding past this point? It isn’t. You’re screwed. Forgiveness won’t make it perfect. Now: spiritual life is like that, too. There are stains and, so it might seem, they can’t come out. What’s done is done. As Aristotle says: this power – to make what happened not-have-happened – is denied even to the gods. Except Christianity promises a fix. A real fix. You can repent and be forgiven and, even, born again? So how does it work? This is why only Christianity ‘works’ religiously, for K. Because religion’s job is to take out stains that, necessarily, don’t come out. This isn’t really analogous to anything in Sartre or Heidegger. This centrality of the problem of guilt. This is important to see about K.

As to Maria’s question: I would suggest starting with “Fear and Trembling”, which I think is both K’s best and most accessible work. It’s short and highly readable and, I think, you will basically get it. It doesn’t give you the whole picture, even in miniature. But it gives you a lot of it. I think it would be ideal to supplement it with selections from other works, but that’s kind of hard to arrange. If you can lay hands on that old Walter Kaufman anthology – what was it called? – it has some reasonable choices. But seriously: just read “Fear and Trembling”.

16

js. 07.17.16 at 6:11 pm

Seconding the Fear and Trembling recommendation. Apart from everything else, it’s got passages of just amazing prose.

17

engels 07.17.16 at 7:30 pm

I was always thought ‘Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas’ would make a good sequel to Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life’

18

Yan 07.17.16 at 8:41 pm

Yes, Fear and Trembling. Plus, section two, chapter 2 from Concluding Unscientific Postscript on the idea that “truth is subjectivity.” Philosophical Fragments is a good second choice if you’re still curious after FAT.

“His preoccupation with the mystery of Christ’s incarnation might not immediately square with our picture of K as a proto-existentialist. I’m just saying: he’s, in a sense, more of an orthodox Christian than you might think.”

I take that preoccupation to be more Kantian than Christian–the possibility that reality in itself might be so radically otherwise than the phenomenal world as to defy reason. And Kant’s feeble “room for faith” I don’t take to be Christian at all. If we must lump, I’d lump Kierkegaard, existentialism, and Kant all under Cartesianism, or failed anti skepticism, which is to say, either disallusioned, nostalgic, or bitter ex and failed Christians, the ones sitting under the yew trees hoping the sisters will pray for them. I suspect real orthodox Christians don’t need to syllogism or leap their way into the pretense of faith, nor do they pretend, as the existentialists did, that arbitrary prejudices are invented or created, much less committed values.

There are believers and skeptics, and never do the two meet, though many flip between the two. I think it’s obvious which lump Kierkaagard belongs to.

19

John Holbo 07.18.16 at 12:34 am

Also my iPad seems convinced it is the Nicean Creed. Sorry. My iPad is an orthographic heretic of some sort.

20

bob mcmanus 07.18.16 at 1:16 am

Sickness Unto Death, K’s most playful, funniest, most compassionate book, never gets enough love.

It was somewhere between “not yet a self” and “bad artist” than I glomped onto K as a relentless humorist. K is attracted to Catholic asceticism, but remains radically Lutheran at heart, if not Calvinist or predestinarian.

“God is Love, and Thou Art Saved. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what you think. Thou art saved. You know it. Everything now becomes entertainment or self-punishment. Lighten up.”

And sin is irony, because we have inadequate words with which to praise and express our joy. Negging on God, cause bashful.

21

casmilus 07.18.16 at 8:32 am

I read as much of “Either/Or” as anyone could be expected to. It was the first bad postmodern novel.

My favourite quote about Kierkegaard is from the Guardian on-line comments from an article about him: “Kierkegaard is my favourite writer but I’ve never read his books.” Perfectly summary of the inanity inspired by the cheap little fake.

22

casmilus 07.18.16 at 8:38 am

@19

“Sickness Unto Death, K’s most playful, funniest, most compassionate book, never gets enough love.”

I read it when I was being treated for leukaemia. It came across as shallow and silly as everything else I’d read by him.

If I had to spend my last day of life listening to someone reading from a modern philosopher, I would rather have anything by Saul Kripke than anything by the Dane. The former was a serious thinker who took his topics seriously and had original thoughts about them, even if we find all the rigmarole about rigid designation to be question-begging and so on. The latter was just a gentleman amateur who recycled drawing-room opinions in fashionable jargon, and his posthumous reputation is a consequence of the collapse of christian faith and the rising demand for an ersatz version, at least amongst educated westerners.

23

ZM 07.18.16 at 9:37 am

John Holbo,

Oh, I get it.

“But this seems safe: exactly how God and Son can be equal, in any substantial – nay, consubstantial – sense, is a bit of a headscratcher. How can a Being with the properties we regard as immortal, eternal, outside of time – be mortal, finite, born at a time and died a bit later? Kierkegaard is most concerned that we should really scratch our heads about this.”

This is since the Son was a spiritual being first, born before time, then only later on after time had been going on a long while he was incarnated as a human. His spiritual body didn’t die when he was crucified, only his physical body did. As a spiritual being the Son is consubstantial with the Father, who got incarnated as a human.

“Here’s a quick gloss: suppose you are an artistic perfectionist. But you just screwed something up on the canvas. It can’t be erased. It’s there. How is one’s commitment to perfectionism consistent with proceeding past this point? It isn’t. You’re screwed. Forgiveness won’t make it perfect. “

Absolution does not make what happened not-have-happened, it only provides absolution for what has happened. When I did my assignment on Foucault before he died he said something similar to what you are saying, that he made an indelible mark and wished he never wrote anything. This was interesting for Foucault because he styled his work as doing an archeology of other people’s thinking, or a deconstruction etc, but before death he acknowledged he made an architecture of a sort as well. As you say, nothing will ever change what Foucault wrote. Even if he decided to withdraw everything from sale, the work still would have existed.

Anyhow even with making a mistake in a painting there are a number of things you can do to fix it — smudge some linseed oil onto the bit you messed up and lift up the mistake that way, if you painted it thick then use a palette knife to lift it off and paint in the area thickly again, paint over the mistake with thicker or darker paint, or paint white or light green paint over it and then start that bit again, or change your concept for the painting to incorporate the mistake etc. etc.

“Now: spiritual life is like that, too. There are stains and, so it might seem, they can’t come out. What’s done is done. As Aristotle says: this power – to make what happened not-have-happened – is denied even to the gods. Except Christianity promises a fix. A real fix. You can repent and be forgiven and, even, born again? So how does it work? This is why only Christianity ‘works’ religiously, for K. Because religion’s job is to take out stains that, necessarily, don’t come out.”

I don’t think a sin is like a mistake on a painting exactly. It isn’t just a mistake. And a painting is made of matter, and a spirit is made of spirit. Sins are actions not matter and not spirit. The idea is if you commit a serious sort of sin you have damaged your soul and your relationship with God.

Apart from eternal sins you can do things to fix the sin, like fixing the painting. Like confessing and doing acts of penance etc.

When you see how easy it is to fix a painting, it must be even easier to fix a soul, since spirit is even more malleable than a painting not being made of matter.

Also, as I said, the idea is that the sin — which is an action — has damaged the soul of the person who committed the sin, and damaged the relationship between the person and God. This is quite distinct from someone making a mistake on a painting, unless you think someone painted something which damaged their soul, and then it is the same I suppose, the painting being a sin. I think this would have to be a sin of commission though, rather than an accidental sin, since how could an accidental mistake on a painting damage someone’s soul? Surely, it would be that the person did not simply make a mistake in what they painted, but in fact they painted something where the painting constitutes sinning for it to be likened to a sin. How can accidentally making a mistake painting be likened to a sin? A sin is an act of evil, not a mistake like tripping over or painting a wobbly line where a straight line is meant to be.

Also, forgiveness is something that the penitent should work towards, repenting, confessing, and then either by acts of penance if you are Catholic, or else by reading the bible a lot and mediating on scripture if you are Lutheran. I think the acts of penance is a bit better really. Plus we have gaol and damages and community service etc. as well but you are not meant to mix Church and State, so the gaol and damages and community service is not part of the religious penance I guess, only the State justice, although in Crime And Punishment the character goes to Siberia which is mixing Church and State, but probably in those days Church and State was mixed in Russia.

Although the penitent has to work towards being forgiven, what God freely gives is Mercy.

This year is the Extraordinary Year of Mercy so happily I have a Archbishop’s letter at hand about Mercy.

In the Old Testament God tells the people at Mount Sinai “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” ; in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. The Archbishop asks “Be perfect. Be holy. How can we live up to these expectations? In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes it much simpler. He says “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful”. Luke is telling us that the way to be perfect and holy is to be merciful. Simple? Yes. Easy? No. Mercy is “the loving kindness and compassion shown to those who offend” [Catechism of the Catholic Church]…. The Catechism teaches us there are two kinds of “works of mercy” : spiritual and bodily [or “corporal”]. The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbour in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.”

To be honest, I think I am more interested in how to get people to repent and do acts of penance and go to gaol, rather than in me having to be merciful and forgive people who aren’t even one bit sorry. I don’t think Kierkegaard seems to have suggestions for how to philosophically deal with these sorts of unrepentant wrongdoing people. Although I am pleased he thinks Descartes wrote a tautology.

24

ZM 07.18.16 at 11:55 am

John Holbo,

This is an interesting paper looking at Kierkegaard’s work on forgiveness in relation to Aurel Kolnai’s work on the logic of forgiveness: “Forgiveness in Kierkegaard‘s Ethic of Neighbour Love” by John B. Howell.

One author cited looks at the difference between a Nietzschean philosophy where forgiveness could be seen as a lack of self-respect, another author looks at how to deal with unrepentant wrongdoers, you have to see them as kind of innately bad and not really a person in the philosophical sense apart from seeing them in terms of their biography where their wrongdoing to you is just a part of a larger picture of them as a person who is like that.

“Ralph inflicts some wrong upon Fred, which results in Fred having feelings of indignation and adopting a “retributive” attitude. Forgiveness will consist of Fred coming to “nullify” this feeling of indignation and this retributive attitude in some way — but it is essential for the process to be a process of forgiveness that these feelings and attitudes be present at some point. Otherwise Fred may degenerate into condoning Ralph‘s wrongdoing instead of forgiving it.

For Kolnai, ―condonation means that Fred is clearly aware of Ralph‘s wrongdoing, insult, offence or viciousness and per se disapproves of it but deliberately refrains from any retributive response to it.

Condonation is closely related to forgiveness, but ―it does not presuppose and nullify the original retributive position but quasi-automatically loves or cleaves to the wrongdoer rather than hating the sin and placing the emphasis on ideally separating it from the sinner. Condonation is a serious danger to forgiveness, and forms the first part of the logical paradox Kolnai is constructing. It is worth quoting Kolnai at length here:

“Condonation is thus virtually ‘conniving’ and immoralistic; in its graver forms, it is not only undignified and self-soiling but also unfair in so far as it may reveal that Fred is ready to put up with a starkly offending Ralph while being perhaps mercilessly hard on a far more lightly offending and possibly even repentant Robert. To condemn all condonation might, however, amount to overseverity; for it seems plausible that without condoning some faults we could not possibly live together with others, nor, for the matter of that, with ourself. But, just as it is highly undesirable to live at peace with our own misdeeds and vices, it is, generally speaking, also undesirable to condone those of others, seeing that it similarly means silencing and neutralizing the retributive attitude to moral disvalue even where it particularly concerns us. It is well known that those who practice submissive meekness before evil, and danegeld-paying to aggressors and blackmailers often resort to gross and refined techniques of exculpation and also parade the ‘sublime’ tinge of forgiveness; the point need not be labored. Thus condonation very easily takes on the semblance of forgiveness and may therefore be seen as constituting the first term of the logical dilemma: Forgiveness is objectionable and ungenuine inasmuch as there is no reason to forgive, the offender having undergone no metanoia (Change of Heart) but persisting in his plain identity qua offender. The contrast lies between genuine forgiveness with its backbone of a crystal-clear pro response to value and con response to disvalue on the one hand and condonation with its innuendo of spineless accompliceship, or ‘compounding with’ disvalue, on the other.”
….
Thus condonation represents the first horn of Kolnai‘s logical dilemma for forgiveness. Unless one requires repentance, a change of heart, one cannot forgive. To ―forgive‖ without a change of heart is not to forgive at all, but to condone.

Kolnai has already hinted at the other horn of the dilemma. “At the other end of its spectrum, forgiveness seems to collapse in mere redundancy, or the mere registering of moral value in the place of a previous disvalue.”

If Ralph has truly repented, has had a change of heart, and has mended his ways, one might argue that Fred now has a moral obligation to change his attitude toward Ralph. If Fred fails to do this, he is open to the charge of vindictiveness, a morally inappropriate attitude and distinct from the attitude of retribution.

Normally this change in attitude and feeling would be what one calls forgiveness; but ― “the objection arises that forgiveness has now lost its ground and raison d‟etre: that there is no room for it, seeing that there is nothing to be forgiven.” By repenting of his wrongdoing, Ralph has in effect canceled out the wrongdoing itself, and thus forgiveness is unnecessary.

And so the dilemma is complete. “Either the wrong is still flourishing, the offence still subsisting: then by forgiving you accept it and thus confirm it and make it worse; or the wrongdoer has suitably annulled and eliminated his offence, and then by harping on it further you would set up a new evil and by forgiving you would only acknowledge the fact that you are no longer its victim. Briefly, forgiveness is either unjustified or pointless.”

I do not pretend to be convinced by Kolnai‘s paradox, nor do I propose to argue against it extensively here.

Many would argue that the second horn seriously misunderstands the nature of certain injuries or offenses.

Wrongs are not like monetary transactions; they cannot always be catalogued quantitatively. There may be offenses against one‘s person that can never be “balanced”, no matter how much repentance, apology, or money is thrown one‘s way. And so forgiveness may still have something to do in the face of extreme repentance and even reparation.

Similarly, simply because one forgives in the absence of repentance does not mean that one is morally spineless or condones the wrong done; that person may have other compelling reasons for forgiving.
….
While I think any logical threat to forgiveness attributed to Kolnai‘s dilemma is greatly overstated, I do think it helps to bring into focus some of the main issues with which those interested in forgiveness should be concerned. Simply, an understanding of forgiveness should take very seriously the moral wrong involved (that is, avoid condoning the wrong) and should at the same time leave something significant for forgiveness to do, that is, it should make room in the act of forgiveness for real moral meaning.
….
[Jeffrie] Murphy‘s 1982 “Forgiveness and Resentment” opens with a passage from Fay Weldon‘s novel, Female Friends, in order “to set a certain tone.” The passage “conveys the rather Nietzschean thought that forgiveness might actually be harmful and wrong—a weakness or vice, in short, instead of the virtue which conventional Christian wisdom takes it to be.”

Murphy chooses to set this tone because, while he thinks there is much to be said in favor of forgiveness, he also thinks there is much to be said against it, and since he takes the prevailing winds of thought to be decidedly in favor of forgiveness, he elects to emphasize the other side of the issue.

He further notes that “forgiveness, like love, is a topic that tends to elicit respectful piety rather than serious thought from those who consider it: I want none of this.” Forgiveness has been neglected by moral philosophers along with other interesting and important elements of the moral life that focus upon the role of feelings in the moral life. Forgiveness is ultimately concerned primarily with how one feels and not how one acts.
….
In addition, feelings often have consequences in action or public policy. For example, “resentment or hatred toward criminals may have something to do with our willingness to let prisons remain the inhuman pestholes they now tend to be.” The level of one‘s resentment is often unjustified, and resentment itself represents a barrier to the restoration of moral equality. So the good side of forgiveness is easy to see. “Forgiveness heals and restores; and without it, resentment would remain as an obstacle to many human relationships we value.”

But forgiveness has a bad side as well. “A too ready tendency to forgive may be a sign that one lacks self-respect.” If one does not react with a resentful attitude when one is wronged, it may indicate that one either does not think one has rights or that one does not take them very seriously. “Forgiveness may restore relationships, but to seek restoration al all costs—even at the cost of one‘s self-respect—can hardly be a virtue.”

Murphy is even more concerned with what a lack of self-respect might mean for morality in general. If one tends to overlook offenses committed against oneself, one may tend to overlook offenses in general. Murphy reasons thus:

“If it is proper (perhaps even sometimes mandatory) to feel indignation when I see third parties morally wronged, must it not be equally proper (perhaps even sometimes mandatory) to feel resentment when I experience moral wrong done to myself?

Just as the psychopath who feels no guilt, shame, or remorse for the wrong he does can be said to lack a true appreciation of morality, so too can the person who feels no indignation or resentment be said to lack a true appreciation of morality.

Morality, in short, is not simply something to be believed; it is something to be cared about. This caring includes concern about those persons (including oneself) who are the proper objects of moral judgment.”

Finally, if forgiveness is to be acceptable to Murphy, it must be “consistent with self- respect, respect for others as moral agents, and allegiance to the rules of morality i.e., forgiveness must not involve any complicity or acquiescence in wrongdoing.”

“Why should I forgive him?” [Cheshire] Calhoun says this question is usually answered by giving a reason one deserves forgiveness, or by noting that the resentment one is holding onto is causing too much harm. The problem, however, is that forgiveness offered for these reasons is ―disappointing.
….
Calhoun addresses the common condonation objection to views of forgiveness which do not require some sort of repentance or atonement. Calhoun thinks this objection rests on two assumptions that, as empirical statements, are false:

1) In every unrepentant case, failure to protest sends a condoning message; and
2) Sending this message will always have some significant and morally objectionable consequence.

However, Calhoun does think that one can condone in forgiveness by “minimizing, rationalizing, or ignoring injuries,” and “by telling a story that unrealistically portrays the wrongdoer as more deserving of benevolent attitudes than in fact he is.”

This condonation will result in only a minimalist forgiveness. In order to forgive without condoning, one would have to tell a story of aspirational forgiveness. The problem, however, is that there seem to be only stories of desert.

And so Calhoun seeks to give the basic components of a story of aspirational forgiveness.

First, the story “would begin by connecting misdeeds to the agent‘s true self” instead of separating them, as in desert stories. The problem with telling such a story, however, is that connecting a wrongdoer to his wrongs shows that such an individual “is not an appropriate object of reactive attitudes, that he is not a person.”

The unrepentant and unexcused wrongdoer calls into question his very status as a moral agent, his very status as a person. And so instead of telling aspirational stories, we tell stories that in some way deny that the wrongdoer is fully a person.

We tell stories in order to indicate that we should not have expected goodwill from the wrongdoer in the first place; and we only expect goodwill from a person. But these stories are told only when stories of desert have failed.

The idea that only exceptionally flawed individuals could intend harm and refuse to reform even when they understand they are wrong is a product of the normal person‘s need to make moral sense of her choices and actions. “To be a normal person is to identify the most sensible (or, if you like, rational) thing to do with the morally justified thing to do. It is, thus, to be continually open to demands for better behaviour.”

Calhoun also thinks that our insistence on the importance of forgiveness rests on the same assumption. To treat someone as a person is just to hold him to a certain moral standard, and restrictions on who is deserving of forgiveness are also based on this standard.

Such stories do not wipe away wrongdoing or sins; instead they emphasize the rationale behind their commission or omission.

Aspirational stories do not tell us that, given the chance, the wrongdoer would act differently; instead, they tell us the exact opposite.

And so, for Calhoun, aspirational forgiveness ultimately means that “one stops demanding that the person be different from what she is.”

Such forgiveness cannot be obligatory, for the sort of sympathetic entrance into another‘s life necessary is unduly burdensome, and human beings cannot be obligated “to refrain from demanding that persons make moral sense of their actions,” for this is part of what it means to treat someone as a person. But viewing someone biographically is also part of what it means to treat one as a person.”

https://baylor-ir.tdl.org/baylor-ir/bitstream/handle/2104/5414/john_howell_phd.pdf?sequence=1

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Yan 07.18.16 at 2:25 pm

#19-20

Funny thing is, I’m not so sure Bob and casmilus’s takes on K are so far apart, and the difference may be more in tone than content.

There’s some truth to the charge that K was an amateur and a “cheap little fake”–I suspect he might have even relished the accusation–but I don’t know that these are the grave crimes C seems to think them, especially when K is so open and good humored about his fakery.

Maybe C (maybe ZM too?) didn’t notice the humor that bob highlights and summed up so perfectly: “It doesn’t matter what you believe or what you think. Thou art saved. You know it. Everything now becomes entertainment or self-punishment. Lighten up.”

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ZM 07.18.16 at 2:46 pm

Yan,

“Maybe C (maybe ZM too?) didn’t notice the humor that bob highlights and summed up so perfectly: “It doesn’t matter what you believe or what you think. Thou art saved. You know it. Everything now becomes entertainment or self-punishment. Lighten up.””

Um, this is not at all proper Lutheran theology. Is that supposed to be the irony?

Lutherans don’t think good works make people more or less likely to go to Heaven, what they think is that faith alone and God’s grace determines whether someone goes to Heaven.

So you can see what matters is precisely “what you believe” and “what you think”.

If you have genuine faith in God and Christ then by God’s grace you will, according to Lutheran theology, go to Heaven.

If you “believe” and “think” something else, then you are damned eternally to Hell in Lutheran theology technically.

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Tyrone Slothrop 07.18.16 at 3:42 pm

I walk with Yan on this…

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Yan 07.18.16 at 5:13 pm

ZM,

I think K is a bad Lutheran (more controversially, I think he playfully and/or perversely redefines Christianity to the point of not being a Christian at all. I sincerely think he’s a reluctant closet atheist.)

But your points about doctrine get to the heart of a serious dilemma in his work. He says very explicitly that faith is not about what but how, giving as an example a baptized Christian praying in church who might not have true faith in contrast to a “pagan” praying to an idol who might in fact demonstrate true faith–paradoxically, in his playful and perverse definition, be closer to a true “Christian”.

Whenever I teach K, a student raises the question, “if ‘truth is subjectivity’ and only the how matters, why then choose Christianity over another religion, or over no religion at all, or Lutheranism over Catholicism, etc?”

I’m not sure what his answer is. My best guess is: “why not? By all means choose something else if you like, but practice it with real faith.”

I suspect he also thinks that of the religious traditions that dominate his world (and thus the ones he can most effectively use to reach his audience) the Protestant trad it ion is more amenable to the twisting he wants to give, and that atheism is off the table either because it narrows his audience too much and also because he may think, against the existentialists, that it’s hard to uncouple atheism from despair…

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S 07.19.16 at 3:20 am

For (comparative) lighter commentary on Kierkegaard, how about some Walker Percy? http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2643/the-art-of-fiction-no-97-walker-percy

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ZM 07.19.16 at 3:41 am

Well if the baptised Christian doesn’t have true faith, then according to Lutheranism they would go to Hell, since having faith is the reason in Lutheranism you receive God’s grace and go to Heaven. So Kierkegaard’s Lutheran theology is correct in that bit. Anyhow, I have never read any books by Kierkegaard, I was just interested in the theology aspects.

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Maria 07.19.16 at 1:33 pm

Many thanks for the recommendation. FAT it is, and if I get through it Sickness Unto Death.

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Maria 07.19.16 at 1:35 pm

Ha! Just looked it up and realised I’d read a novel by Amelie Nothombe, Stupeurs + Tremblements, some years ago. Had no idea it was about that.

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