At 200, Kierkegaard is needed more than ever

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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