Greek Ethics versus Sin in Kierkegaard: Reading The Concept of Anxiety IX

In paragraph 1o of the Introduction, Kierkegaard casts doubt on the ethical status of Aristotle’s ethics. What he rejects in particular is the lack of the ideal, as he sees it. The emphasis on luck in Aristotle is treated with suspicion, that is Kierkegaard refers to how for Aristotle, virtue is not enough for happiness, which requires health, friends, possessions and family. We could add to this that the whole idea of virtue in Aristotle is tied up with happiness rather than ideal ethics, and that this is true of antique ethics in general. Ethics something ideal for Kierkegaard and requires some capacity for self-discipline. Kierkegaard explains the non-ideal nature of ethics in the Ancient Greek world as an aesthetic aspect. Aesthetic for Kierkegaard refers to the experience of the moment, to an aesthetic attitude to life and the imaginative world of the arts. It seems to be a unique moment in the history of ethics for Kierkegaard, aesthetic ethics in Greece. I suspect that we should largely see that as a contrast with ancient Jews who were is some kind of relation with Greeks across the eastern Mediterranean world, even before the conquests of Alexander the Great. I also suspect that the famous lines of Saul of Tarsus/St Paul in I Corinthians I are relevant here:

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preached Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness

Paul does not mention aesthetics of ethics here, the point is that the Greek mentality seeks a worldly kind of wisdom below the threshhold of the foolishness given to believers. The limitation of Jewish mentality is to seek a sign which is too literal. Christ-God on a cross goes against the idea of God, so that crucified Christ is an impediment to Jews and foolish for the Greeks. The crucifixion goes against the Jewish conception of God and agains the Greek conception of wisdom, a worldly conception compared with the Jewish obedience to the laws and scripture of one God. The Jews have a the capacity for an ethics of self-discipline lacking to the Greeks.

However, it is not at all likely that Kierkegaard simply wrote to place the Jews above the Greeks in the sphere of ethics. The implication is also that the Jewish mentality lacks the aesthetic. For Kierkegaard the ethical must refer to the subjectivity of the aesthetic and cannot be fully grasped as just law to which we submit, a view conventionally associated with Kant and also with the image of the attitude of Jews to law created in the New Testament. There must be a way that subjectivity relates to law, and that comes from the way that subjectivity has a relation with itself, which is an absolute relation when grasped properly.

Aristotelian ethics, and Greek ethics in general,  lacks the capacity to grasp sin, and it is the topic of sin that Kierkegaard is devoted to in The Concept of Anxiety. Sin provide the means for a complete understanding of subjectivity,  how subjectivity can have an absolute relation with itself, and have a relation with the absolute, God, which is tied up with that self-relation. Another aspect of Kierkegaard’s view of the Ancient Greek world is that he thinks it protects the individual from isolated individuality, since the individual is always thought of as part of a family, a people, and a state, which remove large parts of individual responsibility. The reference in paragraph 10 to the importance of family for happiness and aesthetic ethics in Aristotle is increasingly meaningful if we think about how for Kierkegaard the ancient family provides a form of inheritance which protects the individual from responsibility, as opposed to Christian sin which always brings us back to individual responsibility in the nowness of hereditary sin.


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