Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book III

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 2 ‘Tarquinius and Brutus: Political Fear and Trembling’. This is the very end of the chapter, the concluding section ‘The political meaning of fear and trembling’ together with a few preceding paragraphs. It tends to be easy when extracting to take the end of chapters, but I am not doing that in an automatic way I went through the chapter to see what might work best as an isolated excerpt and will do so for subsequent chapters.

Kierkegaard is certainly concerned with death and the attempt to overcome death, which from his Christian point of view is part of the struggle with sin, because it is the original sin which led humans to face death. Obedience to God also means that we have to contemplate the possibility of taking the lives of others, if God so commands. As the sermon which finishes Either/Or, the ‘Utimatum’ suggests, we cannot question God’s acts in bringing mass death in some passages of the Bible.  That is the central problem of Fear and Trembling, applied to a father commanded to kill his own son.  The problem for ethics, including politics, is that it cannot deal with these issues, without going beyond the terms of ethics strictly speaking. There is no ethical term which can explain why we should obey God, which in part means obeying our own subjectivity in its absolute relation with the absolute; and there is no ethical term which explains why we should follow ethical laws, leaving us to refer to our power of choice, which means our subjectivity, and that is real subjectivity in its absolute relation with the absolute. War has the same function within ethics as politics, inescapable but disruptive as part of politics. Killing people in war is necessary to defend the political community, or at least the willingness to carry out such acts, but can never be justified by justificatory political concepts alone. Principled pacifism is one reaction to that, it is a reaction which necessarily reduces the scope of politics, of the decisions the political community makes, and fits best with anti-political moral absolutism.

What unifies all these discussions of law, sovereignty, the state and war, is an interest in the moments where consensus and consent breaks down, or has not even appeared yet. Laws conflict, individuals confront each other outside the context of established laws and institutions, individuals refuse to accept the authority of established laws and institutions, revolutionary governments try to implement ideals, law following people observe revolutions in other countries that try to implement their own values, states take it upon themselves to go to war and therefore oblige citizens to sacrifice themselves in war. These are all moments where the idea that the state, political institutions, and laws are based on rationality, consent and on social consensus come under strain. Kant, Fichte, Humboldt, and Hegel are all concerned to give the state, political institutions and laws normative foundations.  Unlike what goes on in ‘normative theory’, i.e. Analytic political philosophy now, they feel obliged to deal with the difficult moments, with the moments where individuals are faced with the naked capacity for arbitrary violence at the heart of the state, or the arbitrary violence of individuals who have different norms. There is a recognition in Kant, Fichte, Humboldt  and Hegel, shared by Kierkegaard, that the norms at the basis of the political community are never completely consensual, are never completely consented to by those are under that state.  That is why Kierkegaard can make such a powerful analogy between the arbitrary violence of a king, and the arbitrary violence of God, or the individual who takes individuality, and the subjectivity of the distinct individual seriously.  There is no law, or norms, of any kind without the moment of choice, that is arbitrariness; and without the capacity to defend and enforce those choices, that is the necessary possibility of violence.

Returning to the quotation at the head of the chapter, Kierkegaard accepts the supremacy of existing political order, though it is significant that he feels the need to distinguish himself from those most radically in opposition to the government.  Presumably Kierkegaard found that his devotion to the single individual over conformity to existing ethical standards made him of interest to radical opponents of government. He did have that kind of effect in Denmark and his funeral is a good example. Kierkegaard who claims devotion to established political order refused the services of an established church priest, during his death struggle. The funeral service was attended by those who wished to make an oppositional gesture, including his nephew, who made a speech protesting at the involvement of the established church.  Kierkegaard rejected the transformation of his thought into political opposition, but was himself well known for criticism of the established church, including two succeeding primates of the Danish national church (Mynster and Martensen). The criticism of the crowd is one way in which Kierkegaard separates himself from organised radical politics. That raises the question of how far we can take Kierkegaard as apolitical conservative and how far as the radical creator of a form of individualism and anti-conformism which must be corrosive in relation to any religious and political order. Kierkegaard accepts order but has an unsettling sense of the violence which inhere in the preservation of order. That is something he is conscious of in monarchical authority (Tarquin) and the republican order (Brutus), even if it did originate in revolt against an older order.  The hope he expresses in Point of View for an establishment devoted to promoting good can have a very radical outcome.  Any government is open to criticism on the grounds that public good is sacrificed to the private benefits of people in government, individuals close to the government, and parts of society from which the government seeks support.  Kierkegaard wishes to be associated with political conformism, but his view of the single individual, his understanding of the dark side of power, and his questioning of authority all point towards a politics of radical individualistic non-conformism.



5 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book III

  1. l’ve just finished reading Fear and Trembling. l was blown away by K’s demand that religion go beyond ethics. Because I see modernist Muslim hermeneutics doing that reduction and am looking for ways that preserve the Qur’an from such reductions. At the same time Islam is focused on community, so there must be a way to consolidate that richer understanding socially. I could see that K struggled with a similar dilemma. I think he has weaned me off Hegel, but left me without an answer.

    Your post was similarly tantalizing. I suppose we are all victims of K?

    One more thing. I’m trying to understand this sentence:

    “There is no law, or norms, of any kind without the moment of choice, that is arbitrariness; and without the capacity to defend and enforce those choices, that is the necessary possibility of violence.”

    How does the state’s need for violence coincide with the individual’s need for arbitrariness?

    One of the knight of faith’s mysteries as K describes them is that they are outwardly indistinguishable, and even embrace normal life with gusto. As far as I can see, the arbitrariness must be internal, a function of meaning.

    • Hello, thanks for your generous comment and question.

      The question of violence does not just arise at the state level. If you say there are laws (could be ‘natural’ laws not recognised by the state) then you raise the possibility of violence to enforce and defend those laws. If there is a law against theft, I am entitled to use violence to defend myself. If the state recognizes or makes law (some people would argue genuine laws exist outside the state so are recognised rather than created by the state) that is choice, and a choice it enforces with violence. Even from a pacifist point of view self-defense against unprovoked violence against my person or property is justified, or at least in defense of my person from physical harm. There is a choice there about what ethical or legal rules constitute grounds for self-defense, so I would say that is evidence that law (or very strongly obliging ethical principles) include violence and choice as necessary conditions. We can separate the legal or ethical principles from the moment of choice and the moments of violence to defend laws/rules, but they are necessary to existence of laws (and ethical principles or rules of some kind).

    • On the question of internal arbitrariness in meaning, yes there is always the question of interpretation, but as far as ı am concerned that itself arises from the basic conditions of laws/rules, interpreting laws is about adopting rules of interpretation, and general legal/ethical principles that govern interpretation of particular laws.

  2. I can see you’re using a Turkish keyboard 🙂

    I’d like to hear more in future posts about how your Turkish students are doing with Kierkegaard.

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