Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Individuality and Alienation in Fear and Trembling:

Throughout my undergraduate degree, and into the present, Soren Kierkegaard has played a prominent role in my intellectual and spiritual formation. That said, my thoughts of Kierkegaard would not qualify as hagiographic. There remains an aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought that I continue to wrestle with, namely: his placement of alienation as an ideal for the devout Christian. So, a major thrust of this essay will be an attempt to understand Kierkegaard in light of what I am presupposing is Kierkegaard’s false dichotomy: personal communion with God over against fellowship with a community. In this essay I will first articulate where this false dichotomy is in Kierkegaard’s writing, why it is an error, then I will provide a sympathetic explanation of how Kierkegaard could have regarding alienation as necessary for the knight of faith. In order to show this I will be primarily concentrating on his work Fear and Trembling (with particular interest on sections of “Problema II: Is there an Absolute Duty to God”), I will also supplement my argument with selections from his journals.

Towards the latter half of Fear and Trembling’s “Problema II” we see Kierkegaard’s over-emphasis of the individual most clearly. Kierkegaard has been developing the contrast between the tragic hero and the knight of faith; it is here where Kierkegaard (almost as an aside) discusses the “sectarian”: “The tragic hero expresses the ethical and sacrifices himself for it. The sectarian Master Jackel has instead his private theatre” (106). Now, there are of course many of these “sectarians,” who fit Kierkegaard’s caricature, Jim Jones and David Koresh are, perhaps, two examples. But as is often the case with caricature, it is over stated. Kierkegaard makes no room for a community of faith that understands both communal and personal duty to God. In essence, part of the Kierkegaardian knight of faith’s duty to God is suffering alienation from all forms of community, be them filial, social, religious, or all three. Kierkegaard goes on,
The knight of faith, on the other hand, is the paradox, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections and complications. This is the terror that the puny sectarian cannot endure. Instead of learning from this that he is incapable of greatness and plainly admitting it, something I cannot but approve since it is what I myself do, the poor wretch thinks he will achieve it by joining company with other poor wretches. But it won’t at all work, no cheating is tolerated in the world of the spirit (106-107).

Here Kierkegaard is an unabashed polemicist. For in the section “Problema II: Is there an Absolute Duty to God” Kierkegaard offers no rational argument as to why the “sectarian” is excluded from being a knight of faith. Instead, he refers to a group who might surround a “sectarian” as “connections and complications”, hardly complimentary. Furthermore, he excludes Paul who, while imprisoned wrote to the church in Philippi with thanksgiving due in no small part to their solidarity with him and concern for him (4:10-15). Though the latter case from Philippians may not share the subtleties of the story of Abraham, Paul fits neither under the label “knight of infinite resignation” nor under the banner of “tragic hero”, Kierkegaard’s two other types. Paul is unquestionably—in Kierkegaard’s own description—a knight of faith. This is because: (1) Paul’s suffering does not find repose in the ethical (therefore he is not the tragic hero) (2) and Paul believes that God’s promises do not end in the act of resignation but return again after the act of resignation is made (therefore he is not a knight of infinite resignation). Why does Paul, though clearly a knight of faith, not suffer alienation from community? To answer that question we must look at the term “ethical”. A ethical is a comprehensive system of ethics that provides a type of infrastructure for civilization. Kierkegaard, working against the Hegelian “ethical” (Kierkegaardian “ethical”), writes about a specifically Hegelian universal, but if a ethical is defined as it is above it would not be contradictory to have two competing ethical systems. It is because of this that I feel at liberty to speak of two ethical system, one belongs to “the world”—this is the “the ethical” that Kierkegaard writes against; the second is that of “the new creation” and belongs to God. Or to use Augustinian language, there are two cities: Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Now, behind the Pauline story mentioned above there are these two ethical systems at work: (1) there is the empire-ethical (epitomized by Rome) which sent him to prison because he did not work within the ethical framework of it but instead worked at subverting it (2) and the “counter-ethical” that is represented by the church in Philippi. It is the second that Paul finds solidarity with in Philippi, and it is the second that Kierkegaard neglects to mention, creating instead a false dichotomy between personal communion with God and fellowship with community.

The Kierkegaardian apologist, a voice I often feel swelling up in me, might respond, “Well he never put his name on Fear and Trembling, it was the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio”. Of course that is an important objection. The purpose then for Kierkegaard’s over-emphasis on individuality, particularly in so far as it relates to the alienation of the individual, could be seen as a tool to awaken the spiritually lethargic. In this light Fear and Trembling is an ultimatum to Christendom, they must choose: is Abraham a monster or truly the father of the faith. Here there is nothing but the either/or—there is no lukewarm or indifference in deciding. Kierkegaard gives us the black and white. But, while I am sure Kierkegaard’s framing of “the individual” in Fear and Trembling has rhetorical aims, it is a reduction to think the voice is only the pseudonym’s. In Kierkegaard’s own journal he writes, “A man’s measure is how long and how far he can endure being alone without the understanding of others. Someone who, even in the decisions of eternity, could endure being alone a whole lifetime is the furthest from the infant, and from the socializer who represents the animal side of humanity” (606). And also,
Bernard of Clairvaux preaches crusade; under the open heavens […], thousands upon thousands are forgathered; before he can even finish there comes thundering from the throng: The Cross, the Cross!—that, you see, is to work in the direction of the animal category, working people together—into a mass.
O Socrates, noble sage! In the midst of the crowd, surrounded by these thousands upon thousands, you work—to split the ‘mass’ up and seek ‘the individual’ –that is the spirit category of human being.
And Bernard is a Christian, and it takes place in Christendom. And Socrates is a pagan—yet there is more Christianity in the Socratic way than in Bernard the Saint’s.

While there is little doubt to whether Kierkegaard had rhetorical purposes in mind while writing Fear and Trembling, there is also little doubt that the alienation of the individual from a given community was a prerequisite for the knight of faith.

So, presupposing Kierkegaard’s deep Christian faith, how can we understand the importance he puts upon the knight of faith’s alienation? Surely, with Abraham the alienation was a prerequisite, this being the case because Abraham was neither amoral nor immoral and therefore would have understood the gravity of the Mt. Moriah incident. But this paper has argued that Kierkegaard saw alienation not specific to Abraham but part of every Knight of faith’s journey. Further this paper has argued that it is not always the case that the knight of faith must bear the weight of alienation. There is often a “counter-ethical” because of the “counter-ethical” community’s like-mindedness the knight of faith, at least, has the potential to find sanctuary in the arms of community.

Taking Kierkegaard’s devout faith into account, then, what explanation is there for his view of individual alienation? Here it seems correct to say, in view of his journal entries and published corpus, that his opinions on alienation stems more from his personal experience as a fervent disciple in the midst of a decadent and spiritually lethargic age. Christendom’s sense that it had stopped “becoming” and was now “being”—that it had reached a cultural peak in which it could find repose not only infuriated Kierkegaard; more importantly though it provided little or no “counter-ethical” community by which he could fellowship with other like-minded people, because of this Kierkegaard, out of a forward yearning naturally arrived at his grave conclusion: alienation is necessary for the knight of faith.

Works Cited & Referenced

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Essential Kierkegaard. Trans. Howard & Edna Hong. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Papers and Journals. Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin, 1996