In the Enlightenment and early modernity, truth and the concepts surrounding that idea were thought of (and communicated as) mostly academic and abstract intellectual endeavors. Along with Hegel came others who began to think the idea of truth was much more like something that cut deeply into the grain of the real world, the world we actually lived in, and not just an abstract world of ideas. And those primary others were Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. These two thought (all quotes from Caputo) that what,
“…philosophers had been in the habit of calling truth is something of an intellectual fiction, an armchair construction, bred in an academic hothouse rather than grown in the wild of the real world. Truth, for them, on the other hand, is something that is deeply disturbing, filling us personally with ‘fear and trembling’ (Kierkegaard), and sending us back to Greek tragedy (Nietzsche)—as opposed to the frail and malnourished weakling that perishes almost instantly upon making contact with the air outside the academy. Truth is a matter of blood, sweat and tears, something visited upon us in an unguarded moment, forcing us to stare into the abyss…Although they never heard of it, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are the founding figures of the confounding thing that was later to be called postmodernism.”
Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were bachelors and both certainly went against the grain. I think both felt they somehow didn’t belong to the age in which they had been born. They couldn’t just “go along.” The hollow and fake did not sit well with either. Whether one agrees or disagrees with either figure, we should respect and hear their intense honesty and genuine willingness to face into the wind of life and reality. They weren’t all grim and brooding however.
“Among their many innovations, one that I especially treasure is that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche introduced laughter into their books, which represented an unprecedented break with a humorless philosophical tradition (Kant is said to have written jokes into his lectures to lighten the heavy German tone, but they fell like rocks.) Truth cannot be heard, felt or appreciated without laughter, which breaks down the walls within which philosophers had immured their anemic imposter.”
Neither man was a democrat or liberal humanist. They both saw the equalizing forces in western culture at the time as a race to the bottom. Neither were friends of a free press or for the technological advances in the area of communications. They thought the world was becoming cold and machine-like but each had very different ideas regarding how to restore the passion for life and living.
“Kierkegaard hailed the passionate faith of Abraham and the Christian martyrs, Nietzsche the pagan passions of the Greek tragedians, the ‘tragic sense of life’. They each thought life a radically gratuitous event—why was I not consulted (about being born)? Kierkegaard complained. Nietzsche treated life as a piece of cosmic chance, of stupid cosmic luck; Kierkegaard as the grace of an inscrutable but providential God, of divine love. Nietzsche is one of the most brilliant, eloquent and unrelenting atheists the West has ever known. He is the philosopher who infamously declared: ‘God is dead.’ Kierkegaard, on the other hand, was the most brilliant brooding Christian writer of the last two hundred years. His reflections cut so deeply into the fabric of the human condition that not even the most cold-hearted atheists can think they have nothing to learn from him. By the same token, despite the virulence of Nietzsche’s attacks on religion, the insults he heaped upon it, his complete contempt for the religious psychology, religious thinkers return to him again and again for inspiration. Both mounted furious attacks upon Christianity, the one in the name of Christ, the other in the name of the anti-Christ.”
Both thought Europe to be diseased, but both offered radically different cures. Kierkegaard offered a cure of returning to an earlier Christian faith, the faith of the martyrs and Apostles. Nietzsche offered a cure of wiping out that very faith.
“But whatever their differences, truth, they both agreed, is not a matter of thinking but of existing, of living. Not of books but of blood.”
First, we will focus on Kierkegaard. As he looked around his city (Copenhagen) and age (19th Century), he noticed how the advances in technology most certainly made life easier in many respects. He made a connection however to what this new ease of life would mean for “truth.”
“In this modern and thriving city, he observed, the real truth or Christianity was all but dead, suffocated by the prosperity, commerce, distractions, gaiety and quickening pace of life.”
Kierkegaard looked around and saw a thoroughly drenched Christian culture, but one only nominally. Everyone went to church on Sunday and kept the Christian traditions and no one would have had the “poor taste” not to. But in his mind, they did this because it was easy and there was no longer a struggle, a wrestling with God. There were no tears or passion. In fact, the only way to have a good standing in the city and in polite company, was to be fully committed to the outward apparatus and machinery of the church and the mantle of Christianity. Thus, it was a benefit, something to be sought for personal gain and moving forward in society. This is what he called ‘Christendom’ ‘bourgeois Christianity’.
“…where everything was safe and easy, and in which the everyday life of the average Christian was as good as Godless.”
God was not really needed in such a world or city. One gets the sense here that Christendom had become its own grave-digger. It mirrors the tale of the family that works hard for decades, goes through grave trials, and ends up creating an empire only to see the generations afterward squander or not appreciate it, even though it provided their trust funds, college, cars, and so on. When all the heavy lifting has been done and one basks in the comfort created by others, it is easy to lose the very qualities and perspective that built what created the comfort to begin with.
Of course Kierkegaard thought God was needed most in such a city and time. In a world where one thought he was an heir to the culture’s empire simply by birth, he wanted to remind people that one had to choose, to decide, to understand, to reach back and take hold the original mantel. Thus he:
“…first had to disabuse them of the ‘misunderstanding’ under which they labor, that they already are in the truth (Christians), which they are not—whence the pantomime and mockery—and then to persuade them to take up the task of becoming Christian, which of course they thought they had done some time ago…”
His moment in time and place then caused him to think differently about “Truth” and its intensely personal nature. You can’t borrow your Grandfather’s truth and stand under its umbrella. You have to open up your own umbrella—you have to own it. This led Kierkegaard to his take on the subjective nature of truth.
“He is saying that whatever truth is, it does not come easily; it must come packing no small measure of fear and trembling. A real Christian is not one whose name is recorded in the parish registry but a Christian ‘in spirit and in truth’. Truth means living it, in truth, verily, truly, which, said Kierkegaard, is not a matter of the ‘what’ but of the ‘how’; not a matter of what you believe but of how you believe it. Truth, he said, is ‘subjectivity’, an ‘existential’ matter, a matter for the existing individual, who is what is truly ‘concrete’.”
Lest we misunderstand Kierkegaard, he is not saying that truth doesn’t have an objective referent, which he would have located within the Christian narrative and, obviously, to God’s existence. This objective referent is what we are subjectively responding (or not) to. However, he is noting that unless one truly owns and lives that truth existentially, authentically, who cares? In a sense, unless one does that, the truth might as well not have existed for that person. They missed it. Perhaps it was there, but they will never know. One does not stand back, objectively, and God-like gather all the data, observe, test, experiment, and then come to a reasoned, cold, and calculated decision about this God that supposedly exists, as if one were a judge justify his rulings. No, like falling in love, or passionately following one’s deepest dreams and desires, one throws himself into this unknown and fully owns the decision to do so. One dances in the fire. Might they get burned? Yes, that is a risk. However, might they also be saved? How else could love be? It either burns us or saves us. But we can never know unless we risk loving. Such is the case with God, Kierkegaard would tell us.
And of course here is where ‘existentialism’ enters the Western philosophical world. As Caputo notes:
“The word ‘existential’ was destined for the history books. It took the German philosophical world by storm in the 1920s, then the French after the war, and finally washed up on American shores in the 1950s. But we cannot forget that the first people to seize upon the existential character of truth were religious.”
Unfortunately, Kierkegaard, one could argue, took subjectivity too far. The time he lived in, he felt, called for a radical line to be drawn—to rattle the cages. He felt one had to make a ‘leap of faith’; a literal leap in the dark, regardless, throwing all caution to the wind. But that is not really faith. Faith is head and heart settled into one. Faith is reason and emotion—subjective and objective. Faith is not belief or action without evidence or in spite of, but the initial perspective (which flows from head and heart) that considers the evidence and decides (by faith) what conclusions or actions are required. I’m not describing simply what “religious” people do, but all people. No one escapes living by faith. A leap in the dark is presumption if we are assuming God is going to catch us just because we were not willing to check (if it were in our power) to see where bottom was; and it is unwise if we simply were not willing to think it through and reasonably consider the possibilities of our actions. We may dance in the fire, but that doesn’t mean we thought it was water we were stepping into. This radical view of “faith” is what took him to interpret the story of Abraham and Isaac (the attempted sacrifice of Isaac) as a willingness to do whatever God tells us no matter how crazy or wrong. Like Caputo and many others, I think he took this (false) idea of faith too far.
Regardless, Kierkegaard brought back to the Western world the idea that “Truth” had to be about more than just objective facts we could measure and weigh. The fact we could not measure or weigh the truthfulness of something, or prove it mathematically, did not make it any less true. Truth was what we were willing to sacrifice and die for. Truth was what made us get up in the morning to work, toil, strive, love, cry, laugh, and live this life for. Truth was something we could not stand back from and neutrally observe, but the thing we had to give ourselves over to and inhabit. Again, this aspect of truth is a hallmark of being human. An atheist doesn’t possess the truth about things…the truth of things possesses the atheist. My point isn’t that the atheist’s beliefs are true, but that he sincerely believes what he does and inhabits that very truth. And within this sensibility we see the beginnings of the postmodern.
With our next post, we will move on to Nietzsche.