فصل 26کتاب: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / فصل 26
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Abraham has a message from God. It is a truly awful one: he must sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham is in emotional torment. He loves his son, but he is also a devout man and knows he has to obey God. In this story from Genesis in the Old Testament, Abraham takes his son up to the top of a mountain, Mount Moriah, ties him to a stone altar and is about to kill him with a knife, as God has instructed. At the very last second, though, God sends an angel who stops the slaughter. Instead, Abraham sacrifices a ram that is caught in some bushes nearby. God rewards Abraham’s loyalty by allowing his son to live.
This is a story with a message. The moral is usually thought to be, ‘Have faith, do what God tells you to do and everything will turn out for the best.’ The point is not to doubt God’s word. But for the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), it wasn’t quite so simple. In his book Fear and Trembling (1842) he tried to imagine what must have gone through Abraham’s mind, the questions, fears and anguish as he made the three-day journey from his home to the mountain where he believed he would have to kill Isaac.
Kierkegaard was quite odd and didn’t fit in easily in Copenhagen where he lived. During the day this small thin man was often seen walking around the city deep in conversation with a companion and liked to think of himself as the Danish Socrates. He wrote in the evening – standing up in front of his desk surrounded by candles. One of his quirks was to show up at the interval of a play so that everyone thought he’d been out enjoying himself when he’d really not watched the play at all but had been busy at home writing for most of it. He worked very hard as a writer, but he had an agonizing choice to make in his personal life.
He had fallen in love with a young woman, Regine Olsen, and had asked her to marry him. She had agreed. But he worried that he was too gloomy and too religious to marry anyone. Perhaps he would live up to his family name ‘Kierkegaard’, which means ‘graveyard’ in Danish. He wrote to Regine telling her he couldn’t marry her and returned his engagement ring. He felt terrible about his decision and spent many nights crying in bed after that. She, understandably, was devastated and begged him to come back. Kierkegaard refused. It is no coincidence that after that most of his writing was about choosing how to live and the difficulty of knowing that your decision is the right one.
Decision-making is built into the title of his most famous work: Either/Or. This book gives the reader a choice between either a life of pleasure and chasing after beauty or one based on conventional moral rules, a choice between the aesthetic and the ethical. But a theme he kept returning to throughout his writing was faith in God. The story of Abraham is at the heart of that. For Kierkegaard, it is not a simple decision to believe in God, but one that requires a kind of leap into the dark, a decision taken in faith that may even go against conventional ideas of what you should do.
If Abraham had gone ahead and killed his son he would have done something morally wrong. A father has a basic duty to look after his son, and certainly shouldn’t tie him to an altar and cut his throat in a religious ritual. What God asked Abraham to do was to ignore morality and make a leap of faith. In the Bible Abraham is presented as admirable for ignoring this normal sense of right and wrong and being ready to sacrifice Isaac. But couldn’t he have made a terrible mistake? What if the message wasn’t really from God? Perhaps it was a hallucination; perhaps Abraham was insane and hearing voices. How could he know for sure? If he had known in advance that God wouldn’t follow through on his command, it would have been easy for Abraham. But as he raised that knife ready to shed his son’s blood, he really believed that he was going to kill him. That, as the Bible describes the scene, is the point. His faith is so impressive because he put his trust in God rather than in conventional ethical considerations. It wouldn’t have been faith otherwise. Faith involves risk. But it is also irrational: not based on reason.
Kierkegaard believed that sometimes ordinary social duties, such as that a father should always protect his son, are not the highest values there can be. The duty to obey God trumps the duty to be a good father, and indeed any other duty. From a human perspective, Abraham might seem hard-hearted and immoral for even considering sacrificing his son. But it is as if God’s command is an ace of trumps that wins the game, whatever it is that God commands. There is no higher card in the pack, and so human ethics are no longer relevant. Yet the person who abandons ethics in favour of faith makes an agonizing decision, risking everything, not knowing what benefit there could possibly be from doing so, or what will happen; not knowing for sure that the message is truly from God. Those who choose this path are totally alone.
Kierkegaard was a Christian, though he hated the Danish Church and couldn’t accept the way complacent Christians around him behaved. For him, religion was a heart-wrenching option, not a cosy excuse for a song in church. In his opinion the Danish Church distorted Christianity and wasn’t truly Christian. Not surprisingly, this didn’t make him popular. Like Socrates, he ruffled the feathers of those around him who didn’t like his criticisms and pointed remarks.
So far in this chapter I’ve written confidently about what Kierkegaard believed. But interpreting what he really meant in any of his books isn’t easy. This was no accident. He is a writer who invites you to think for yourself. He rarely wrote under his own name, but instead used pseudonyms. For example, he wrote Fear and Trembling under the name Johannes de Silentio – John of Silence. This wasn’t just a disguise to prevent people discovering that Kierkegaard had written the books – many people guessed who the author was straight away, which is probably what he wanted. The invented authors of his books are, rather, characters with their own way of looking at the world. This is one of Kierkegaard’s techniques for getting you to understand the positions he is discussing and encouraging you to be engaged as you read. You see the world through that character’s eyes and are left to make up your own mind about the value of their different approaches to life.
Reading Kierkegaard’s writing is almost like reading a novel and he often uses fictional narrative to develop ideas.
In, Either/Or (1843), the imaginary editor of the book, Victor Eremita, describes finding a manuscript in a secret drawer in a second-hand desk. The manuscript is the main text of the book. It has supposedly been written by two different people – he describes them as A and B. The first is a pleasure-seeker whose life revolves around his avoidance of boredom by seeking new thrills. He tells the story of the seduction of a young woman in the form of a diary that reads like a short story and mirrors in some ways Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine. The pleasure-seeker, though, unlike Kierkegaard, is only interested in his own feelings. The second part of Either/Or is written as if by a judge who makes the case for a moral way of life. The style of the first part reflects A’s interests: it consists of short pieces about art, opera and seduction. It’s as if the author can’t keep his mind on any one topic for long. The second half is written in a more sober and long-winded style that reflects the judge’s outlook on life.
In case you are feeling sorry for poor jilted Regine Olsen, by the way, after her difficult on–off relationship with Kierkegaard she married a civil servant and seems to have been happy enough for the rest of her life. Kierkegaard, however, never married, never even had a girlfriend after their break-up. She really was his true love and their failed relationship was the source of almost everything that he wrote in his short and tormented life.
Like many philosophers, Kierkegaard wasn’t fully appreciated during his brief lifetime – he died aged only 42. In the twentieth century, however, his books became popular with existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre (see Chapter 33) who were particularly taken with his ideas about the anguish of choosing what to do in the absence of pre-existing guidelines.
For Kierkegaard, the subjective point of view, the experience of the individual making choices, was all-important. Karl Marx took a broader view. Like Hegel, he had a grand vision of how history was unfolding and of the forces driving it. Unlike Kierkegaard, he saw no hope whatsoever of salvation through religion.
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