Kierkegaard on the Limits of the State II: Religion to Politics

The last post looked at Kierkegaard’s highly critical views of the state church in Denmark to establish his negative view of the idea of a Christian nation or a state led church. Carrying on from the points more addressed to Christianity to those points more addressed to the nature of the state, Kierkegaard is strongly condemnatory of the employment of 1 000 clerics by the state.  I can’t see any basis for that figure which is presumably at least as much used for its symbolic convenience as for its reference to the actual number of priests funded by Danish tax payers. The claim is made, going beyond church issues alone, that 1000 poets employed by the state would not be good for poetry. The comparison between poets and priests is particularly signifiant for Kierkegaard who was strongly concerned with the relation between the aesthetic and the religious. The decision to compare priests and poets is suggestive of an assumption that while religion might be higher than aesthetics, it is not the abolition of the aesthetic, and the religious point of view is always confronted with the kind of subjectivity that appears in poetry, and is necessary to poetry. There is a general suggestion that the state has a killing effect on areas in which it becomes involved. This applies most directly to the poetic and religious as what has the most individualising appeal. The importance of individuation runs throughout Kierkegaard. To some vey significant degree, Kierkegaard’s arguments for Christianity include the idea that this is the only, or certainly best, way of becoming an individual in the strongest sense, though it only does by placing extreme demands on individuality.

These considerations on the negative effects of the state being present in poetry and religion, might still leave a lot of possibilities for a large and interventionist state. There is little in Kierkegaard to suggest that he thought in that way though. He gave large amounts to charity, and though he did not demand an end to any state role in maintaining the income of the poorest, he does not demand more such activity from the state either. He does compare the church with law courts, without any suggestion that the state should withdraw from the provision of a criminal justice system, or any aspect of administrative and civil law covered by state courts at that time. There seems to be an implicit distinction between what belongs to the state and what belongs to civil society, particularly with regard to the interaction of subjective individuality within civil society.

State sponsorship of Christianity produces the wrong kind of Christianity,  which is not that of the development of individuality, and that is the implicit fear about a generally extended role for the state. The argument is not then oriented to the growth of commercial life, or even the security of individual rights, which classical liberalism  argued would be enhanced by an appropriately limited state. However, the idea of a general strengthening of personality and growth of culture (the ideas of growth and culture are of course closely linked in basis), was part of such arguments in Humboldt, Hume and Smith. Kierkegaard can be seen as radicalising those arguments, so that the growth of the most inner driven aspects of cultural expression, of the forms of communication most obviously caught in a tension between subjectivity and communication, is what is enhanced by the limitation of the state. We might looks for some precedent in Kant’s discuss ion of the sublime and the beautiful as part of subjective reflective judgement.

Ideas of state form are not very important to Kierkegaard, or not in any direct way, but we can see some engagement with that question. Kierkegaard’s default seems to be preference for a strong monarchy, even an absolute monarchy, but he does at times acknowledge that the relations between ruler and ruled need to change, suggesting a recognition of consent, and evolution in how that consent is given, as necessary to political life. Eve n revolution sometimes gets a favourable thought as a way in which individuals try to find the kind of absolute political unity, provided by absolute monarchy. Not that Kierkegaard ever advocated any form of government unlimited by law and custom. Monarchy he sees as something to be separate from religion, removing a pillar of the Danish monarchy, and of monarchy in general.  He has an attachment to Copenhagen as a world in itself, which is often just part of the background, as in his repeated use of the tension between the duty to go to church, and to visit the Deer Park, then as now a major feature of the city. Sometimes a deep sense of belonging to Copenhagen as the kind of community where the individual can belong emerges. Looking for an implicit political theory in Kierkegaard, we can see a limited monarchy and strong communities at more local level, presumably incorporating forms of city or local self government.

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