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At 200, Kierkegaard is needed more than ever

June 24th, 2013 - 4:08 am

At 200, Kierkegaard is needed more than ever
[crossposted from Asia Times Online

The bicentennial of Soren Kierkegaard’s birth passed on May 5 unremarked by the political caste, although a dozen scholarly festivals quietly honored his anniversary. That is a hallmark of our intellectual poverty. The casual reader knows the Danish philosopher as the midnight reading of angst-ridden undergraduates and the stuff of existential pop psychology.

That is a sad outcome, for Kierkegaard is one of most rigorous philosophers, despite his exhortative style. He asserted the primary of passion, not in the vulgar sense of aroused emotions, but as the primary ontological substance from which our world is built. In a passion-torn world, we should ignore the pop versions and read him more closely.

If asked, “Who is your favorite political philosopher?,” as were the Republican candidates in the 1980 presidential primary, I would have answered, “Kierkegaard.” (Actually, it’s Franz Rosenzweig, but no-one has heard of him).

Of course, I would have lost. Passion is passé. Kierkegaard’s outlook is close to that of the radical Protestants who fought the American Revolution and the Civil War, but at odds with the main currents of modern conservative thought, that is, classical political rationalism and Catholic natural law theory. Kierkegaard still has a redoubt at St Olaf’s College in Minnesota, which sponsors translations and maintains a library of scholarly materials, and a few other Protestant institutions. But one never hears his name in a political context.

Closer to the conservative mainstream is my friend Peter Berkowitz in his 2012 book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. As Stanley Kurtz summarized his view at National Review, “By moderation Berkowitz means something a bit different than the everyday use of the word, otherwise Buckley and Reagan wouldn’t qualify. Political moderation, says Berkowitz, “doesn’t mean selling out causes or making a principle of pragmatism.” A true understanding of moderation can even dictate strong stances and bold opposition to popular movements. Real political moderation, Berkowitz explains, means balancing worthy yet competing principles and putting them effectively into practice.” As a matter of practice, Berkowitz “calls on conservatives to make a peace of sorts with both the sexual revolution and the fundamentals of the New Deal welfare state, without, on the other hand, surrendering either their fundamental principles or their core battles.”

There is much wisdom in Berkowitz’s view. Still, I disagree with him on two grounds.

First: Whether we think it expedient or not, there is ultimately no compromise with the so-called sexual revolution, because it eventually will kill us: if we fail to subordinate sexual passion to family life, we will join the demographic death-spiral that likely will reduce Europe’s population by nearly half, from today’s 767 million to just 395 million at the end of this century, with nearly half of the survivors over the age of 60. There is no risk in not putting up a fight. I elaborated this argument in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die and in reviews of recent books by the Catholic writers Mary Eberstadt and Robert P George.

Second: Acts of passion won us the right to be moderate, temperate compromising in the first place. America’s founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the revolutionary cause at a moment when they enjoyed more freedom as Englishmen than the citizens of any other country in the world, and when taxation without representation did not prevent them from living in peace and relative prosperity. Never before or again in modern history did men of property and station make such a reckless gamble. In fact, most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were impoverished by the war, and many would have hanged if the American cause had failed. This supremely immoderate act was motivated by a passion for liberty, mostly with a religious foundation.

America was founded by Puritans fleeing Europe’s collective suicide in the Thirty Years War, and it became a magnet for German as well as English Protestant radicals who had no stake in the European system that emerged from it. They had lived through the catastrophic failures of European society and were ready to take great risks to create something better.

All the more so was the Civil War an act of passion. 750,000 Americans died, including 465,000 Union soldiers. The Southern secession threatened the freedom of northerners not at all, and impinged only marginally on their prosperity, yet they died in now-incomprehensible numbers to free slaves. They marched to Julia Ward Howe’s gloss on Isaiah 63, with its apocalyptic image of a God in bloodstained garments trampling the nations in a wine vat. Lincoln evoked the biblical God of Justice in his Second Inaugural commitment to pursue victory no matter what the cost.

Even if every drop of blood drawn by the lash had to be repaid by one drawn by the sword, the judgments of the Almighty were true and righteous altogether, Lincoln said. More immoderate words than the never were uttered by an American leader. Lincoln didn’t expect people to like them, as he wrote to Thurlow Weed: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there is a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, though, in this case would be to deny that there is a God governing the world.” Modern conservatives often cite Edmund Burke’s defense of English moderation against the destructive passions of revolutionary France. That is well and good, but Burke was a bystander to our great events. Burke supported the American Revolution, but from a comfortable seat in the English parliament, not from a hut at Valley Forge.

These are historical observations, to be sure, and one can only object that if Alexander had listened to Aristotle, or George III had listened to Edmund Burke, or Jefferson Davis had listened to Lincoln, these terrible things need not have taken place. All the more so should we preach moderation, one might argue on the strength of the historical record, to avert repetitions of impassioned disaster. The German refugee scholar Leo Strauss, an inspiration to many secular conservatives, saw in classical moderation an antidote to the destruction passions unleashed by Nazism.

All the history lessons in the world will not persuade the passionately moderate. Because we cannot re-run the tapes of the events, arguments from history never can be definitive.

That is why philosophy is indispensable as a guide to understanding history, and why Kierkegaard is an important of political philosopher. Consider his approach to the paradox of Socrates, in contrast to Leo Strauss’ “esoteric” reading. We have three quite different portraits of the philosopher. In addition to Plato’s sage, there is the comic playwright Aristophanes’ derogatory depiction of an impudent meddler, as well as the soldier Xenophon’s picture of Socrates as an avuncular character who dispenses advice on commonplace matters, something like an Athenian Mark Twain.

Kierkegaard and Strauss both tried to derive the real Socrates from these conflicting accounts, but in radically different ways. Strauss argued that Socrates taught a public version for the unwashed masses and an esoteric version to be understood by true philosophers who can read between the lines. Plato’s recommendations in The Republic to hold wives in common, for example, should be understood as a reduction to absurdity, according to Strauss. Subsequent academic criticism has not been kind to Strauss’ esotericism (see, for example, Moshe Halbertal’s 2007 book Concealment and Revelation). The trouble with the esoteric argument is that it gives the analyst unlimited license to project his own views onto the hapless subject of investigation.

Kierkegaard in his doctoral dissertation on irony proposes a startling solution: all three portraits of Socrates are true. He was the meddler who roused Athenian youth against their elders, and the avuncular interlocutor of practical men, and the investigator of Parmenides’ theory of being. Kierkegaard asks, “But what was Socrates actually like? … The answer is: Socrates’ existence is irony … Along with Xenophon, one can certainly assume that Socrates was fond of walking around and talking with all sorts of people because every external thing or event is an occasion for the ever quick-witted ironist; along with Plato, one can certainly let Socrates touch on the idea.”

The actual Socrates lived and argued in an Athens already ruined by 27 years of war with Sparta, its empire shattered, its allies dispersed, its culture demoralized.

Socrates, according to Kierkegaard, was an ironist rather than a prophet: he looked backward to criticize past failures, but could not look forward to propose a remedy to these failures, for remedy there was none. The Athens of Socrates’ generation already was doomed. The greatest mind of the subsequent generation, namely Aristotle, could do nothing better than tutor Alexander the Great, the butcher of the Greek city-states and the gravedigger of their culture.

The weakness in classical political rationalism, in Kierkegaard’s view, is simply this: the classical rationalists were the hapless losers of the great political and intellectual battles of the turn of the 5th century BCE, a momentary efflorescence of intellectual criticism that came too late to count. That may explain why Socrates chose to drink poison rather than abandon his homeland.

Kierkegaard’s portrait of Socrates the ironist offers a corrective to the usual way Plato’s hero is presented, as a source of eternal verities. As a philosopher, though, Kierkegaard accomplished something far more important. I recommend Michael Wyschogrod’s Kierkegaard and Heidegger: the Ontology of Being, available in electronic edition through Prof Wyschogrod is celebrated for his religious writings – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told me once that his work is the closest thing that Jews have to a systematic theology – but Wyschogrod still considers his 1954 volume on Kierkegaard and Heidegger his most important book. It is not really possible provide an adequate summary of his view in a short essay. To attempt violates the spirit of philosophy, which demands that the learner live through the problems from the beginning. In the hope of stirring interest in Wyschogrod’s superb book, though, I will do my best.

From the Greeks we inherit two conundrums which tormented philosophers for the next millennium and a half. Both involve the concept of Being, the most elusive notion in abstract thought. It is something that all of creation must possess, but seems impossible to define.

A generation prior to Socrates, Parmenides taught that all things partake of Being, concluding that there could only be one Big Thing. Multiplicity and diversity were mere illusions. To say that A has a form of Being distinct from B is the same as to say that A partakes of Non-Being with respect to B. But Non-Being is something that we can neither utter nor envision, Parmenides taught: the moment we attempt to think about Non-Being, we are thinking about something, and every something partakes of Being. Without Non-Being we cannot distinguish A from B, and thus Parmenides claims that there cannot be many things, but only one thing. The classic exposition of this problem is Plato’s dialogue “Parmenides,” recounting a conversation between the young Socrates and the older philosopher. I have never been sure whether to read this as a treatise in ontology or an Athenian precursor to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine. Both ways of reading the dialogue probably are right. Modern logical philosophers, to be sure, dismiss Parmenides’ argument as word-play, but that is too glib.

The second paradox involves the analysis of Being. As St Thomas Aquinas taught, there are two components to Being. The first is the essence of a thing, namely what it is (a fish or a bird, for example); the second is whether the thing exists at all. Everything must have an essence, or the qualities that make it a recognizable object. But not all essences exist, for example, Every Flavored Beans or Floo Powder. We can define magical things with great precision, but that doesn’t bring them any closer to existence.

That is why Aquinas asserted that existence precedes essence. That was also the meaning of “existentialism,” long before Sartre degraded the idea into the bland assertion that we can define our essence to be whatever we want it to be. More paradox lurks in the tall grass, though. Just what is existence? Once we attempt to define “existence,” we enquiring about the essence of existence, and down we go into the rabbit hole once again. That is why modern logicians dismiss the whole business as a word game.

But we cannot walk away from the issue of Being. As Kierkegaard explained, what we cannot evade is the problem of our Being. We should consider our condition as mortal humans who are caught between mortal existence and eternity. We live in irresoluble, sometimes unbearable tension between the pull of the temporal and the eternal. We can shut mortality out of mind, to be sure, but the specter of eternity will creep up on us one way or another. How we stand with respect to eternity ultimately defines our Being. This is not an intellectual exercise (our intellect can spit out any number of possibilities), but an impassioned stance. Because our life is circumscribed by mortality, and our Being is an irresolvable tension between eternity and mortality, it is our passion that defines us – for better or worse.

What Kierkegaard teaches us is that we cannot deny passion. This can take the form of an impassioned move towards the Eternal, or a perverse turn towards tribal fanaticism. Stripped of its religious content, Kierkegaard’s existentialism terminates with Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre, who leave angst-ridden humanity to invent its own identity. Heidegger defended Nazism as the authentic expression of German identity in his time. He “solved” the problem of Non-Being by equating it with boredom, perversion and destruction, an idea he cribbed from Goethe’s Mephistopheles (who in turn cribbed it from Ecclesiastes). Sartre opened a Pandora’s Box of self-invention that inspired the cultural meltdown of the 1960s. It is easy to see why reasonable people would prefer supposed eternal verities of the Greeks to Kierkegaard’s powder-keg of passion.

The trouble is that the Greeks, like today’s Europeans, died out for lack of interest in their own lives. The Europeans for the most part are phlegmatic, rational, dispassionate and moderate, immune to the blandishments of the tribalism that landed them into two world wars during the past century, and estranged from the religion of their forbears. The Europeans, one might say, are Stoics, adherents of the philosophy that prevailed in the Hellenic world during the three centuries following the Alexandrine conquest. And like the Greeks, they are dying out from their own infertility. By the time the Romans came along, the Greeks couldn’t field a dozen regiments of phalanx-men.

Kierkegaard helps us to understand the passions of our opponents when they descend into despair and nihilism. More importantly: He reminds us that that an impassioned commitment to the sanctity of the individual undergirds the institutions we inherited from the Revolution and Civil War. We must renew this commitment or lose them.

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I went back and read your piece a little closer. You draw a distinction between Strauss and Kierkegard in their reading of Plato. I suspect your knowledge of how Strauss read Plato is drawn entirely from the contentious secondary literature about him. It is not much exaggeration to say that the detection of Socratic irony is at the center of his exegeses of the texts. But how would you know that unless you had access to the transcripts of Strauss' classes. Thanks to my mentor, Seth Benardete who shook them loose, I was able to purchase the transcripts, otherwise unavailable. Happily, the transcript of Strass' class on the Symposium is in print from the U of Chicago Press.

Here's an anecdote about Straussian interpretation which you may not have heard. "Why is Alan Bloom the most important person is Plato's Republic? Because his is not even mentioned once."

41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
A man worships God because God is ultimate reality.

For the rest: Deuteronomy 29:29 "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong unto us and our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law."
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
On Berkowitz's main point of making peace with the sexual revolution and the welfare state, that is just the kind of "moderate" that we don't need. These days if you are for simply slowing the rate of growth of government, you are an extremist. If you want actual cuts, you are considered beyond the conversation. We don't need a philosopher like Kierkegaard, as interesting as he was, to address this. Tocqueville is more to the point, and he warned us that without free associations of the kind he saw all across America in the 1830s, democracy would lead to despotism because the state would continue to grow and take away our liberties so slowly that no one would even notice. Those free associations are nowhere near as strong as they were in the 19th century, and Obama is trying his best to destroy what remains of that spirit.
Tocqueville wrote:
" I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."
Berkowitz undoubtedly knows this, so why does he ignore what is so obviously true? Tocqueville was astonishingly ahead of his time.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
I and I alone of living humans have sussed out one of Plato's major dialogues. It took a very long time to do so. For the sake of honor and admiration, I have written out my findings. I offer it for its own sake and as a paradigm for sussing out other Plato dialogues. (Actually some of the dialogues are not esoteric nor particularly problematic as to meaning, aside subsidiary topics such as the divided line in the Republic. But most of them are a great mysterium.) My article is online at
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
uh, France and UK have no fertility problem

nor they have a problem of self assertment, it will become more evident when the EU will collapse, that isn't seen as a benefitful organisation anymore

probably that a new era of philosophers will come out from that

unlike Germany

42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
David, David, David ... Many of us have heard of Franz Rosenzweig and have read through "Star of Redemption"... Your essays on his life and work in First Things introduced him to a broad readership. I urge you to turn them into a book while you have the time and energy.

As for Kierkegaard, I've been reading him since I was 15 years old and still return to him. Although he wrote of passion, he was always a Master of Irony himself, and held himself aloof from the life of passion. He lived a solitary life, with few close friends, breaking off his one chance for wedded passion, and most tellingly, using one pseudonym after another to deflect being identified personally with any of the positions he argued through them. He often wrote with the most astounding passion and metaphor (in my view far more lyrically than Nietszche) but he did all as a form of "indirect communication" so that these passions would not be identified with him.

When at the end of his life he admitted to having written the pseudonymous works, he insisted that the views of the pseudonyms were not his. Altogether a very complicated and ironic man, far from the bluster of Byron, Shelly or Heine. He was in many was an anti-Romantic, yet without going toward Classicism, either. He was sui generis, "THAT individual" …

I have encountered Wyschgorod's book over the course of the years, but never spent time with it. At the time it was written Heidegger had just started his "kehre", so that 1954 book is only a partial view of his thought. FOr that reason, I always put it back on the shelf when I encountered it. Maybe I should've read through at least the Kierkegaard portion of the book.

The affinity between Kierkegaard and Roman Catholicism is actually well known. One of the wisest Kierkegaard scholars of the last century, Walter Lowrie, wrote that "in the Journals of the last five years … there are nearly one hundred [entries] which … express appreciative (comparatively at least) of Catholicism and monasticism. S.K.'s contemptaries, though of course this source of information was closed to them, were disposed to conjecture that, if S.K. had lived longer, he must have felt compelled to take refuge in the Church of Rome …" (Inroduction to "The Attack Upon Christendom", xvi). Lowrie further relates that Fr. Erich Pyzywara's book, "Das Geheimnnis Kierkegaards" -- which endeavored to show that Kierkegaard was essential a Catholic in his way of thinking -- succeeded so well that upon reading it Karl Barth said that "if I were to follow Kierkegaard, I might as well go over there" pointing to the Vatican.

So maybe those "Catholic natural law theory" thinkers aren't so far form S.K.'s final position after all ...
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
I enjoy philosophical discussions greatly. I prefer philosophies written with brevity (such as the Presocratics, because we only have fragments); and tinged with mysticism (Indian philosophy, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, etc.). I find European metaphysics burdensome, too wordy, too explanatory. I consider philosophy an art form, a scaffolding of words, a mental model, not a consolation (because thought alone can't answer the great questions of the soul); for, as a believer, I believe only revelation can do this. I see philosophy as an aid to meditation, a source of wonder towards the liminal threshold where words, like poetry, intimate rather than explain. Philosophy doesn't stop wars, make one happy, or increase righteousness. It only helps if you have something else already. Maybe Kierkegaard is different. My favorite book of philosophy is The Shape of Ancient Thought, comparing early Indian and Greek philosophy.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment

Thanks for offering this to PJM readers.

Your gift for re-working a few grand themes to provide deep insight on the political/strategic problems of the day is a marvel. For example, the insight, “Kierkegaard helps us to understand the passions of our opponents when they descend into despair and nihilism”, is more valuable as a beginning to understanding the Muslim world than all the silly posts scrutinizing Koranic verses to support one or another POV.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Should have written, “a few Koranic verses”. Of course a deep and focused study such as Lewis’ “Political Islam”, written by an expert who also understands the underlying historical and cultural factors is of great value.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
OK, I'll give Wyschogrod a go. Heck, 1954 was only yesterday. This is definitely a different path through the philosophical thicket than I have travelled in the course of a lifetime of occasional reengagement with the philosophic ferment I encountered at Columbia in 1960. Kierkegaard is someone I believe I have never properly understood - so perhaps this is way in. I find I come back to Felipe Fernández-Armesto's Truth for yet another interesting way through the philosophical thicket which is indeed full of rabbit holes. The late philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser gave, I believe, the ultimate riposte to philosophic rabbit holes: "If there were nothing, you'd still be complaining!"
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
In fact, I riffed on Morgenbesser's comment a few months ago in my Asia Times column:
I had a couple of classes with Morgenbesser as an undergraduate, although at the time I couldn't really follow his presentation of symbolic logic.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
I’ve worked through a few of Wyschogrod’s essays in “Abraham’s Promise” on Sabbath afternoons and, IMHO, they are well worth it.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
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