Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VII

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 7 ‘Tragic Community’. The extract below is from the last two paragraphs of the section on ‘Modern democracy’, which look at Kierkegaard’s account of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and the first two chapters of the concluding section ‘The return of antique tragedy’. The themes here the relation between Christian individuaity and democracy, antique city politics and fear of the individual who stones outside or in tension with the public sphere.  Kierkegaard’s writing on these themes is full of tension between admiration for ancient republican spirit and the apolitical foundation he finds in a Christian orientation towards the absolute within the individual and in God. Kierkegaard’s own writing style and focus on aesthetic references is a result of or reinforcement of those tensions.


Thinking about Kierkegaard’s political assumptions, the relation of the Don and his servant Leporello itself has elements of democracy challenging aristocracy. Kierkegaard puts this in the context of  the way that the Middle Ages places before its own consciousness an individual as representative of ‘the idea’ (a general idea, a general type), and then places another individual alongside him in relation to him. The relation is usually comical and is one in which one individual makes up for the other’s extreme qualities. These couples include: the king and the fool, Faust and Wagner, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Don Juan and Leporello. The story of Don Giovani comes from the Medieval Spanish story of Don Juan. The duality, particularly that between the Don and Loporello, is something that emerges in the Middle Ages, in Kierkegaard’s analysis, as the conflict between the flesh and the spirit within Christianity becomes a subject of reflection.  That is why Medieval culture created personified forms of both forces, according to Kierkegaard. In this duality, kingship and aristocracy are challenged by the people, by a representative of the democratic mass. Though the point of the dualities is partly to mock the less aristocratic one, the democratic voice gets its own heroism. The strongest example is the role of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote.

Kierkegaard’s implicit account of the transition between the aristocratic and the democratic, is one which prefers the democratic to the aristocratic , but also sees them as belonging with each other, as incomplete without the other. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for constitutional revolution in Kierkegaard, the democratic age has a structurally superior position, because that is the political equivalent to the spiritual meaning of Christianity.  The polis appears in Kierkegaard as appealing to the people as a whole in its foundation, and the universality of Christianity is emphasised  particularly with regard to love. The equalisation of humans as separate from God, spills over into political thought, even if Christianity has often been part of power, and even of the subordination of humans in unfree labour.  Christianity adds universality to the polis, but also at the same time weakens the passionate focus of the polis on itself. Once that focus is lost, democracy cannot be connected with the complete social, legal, cultural, institutional, and religious identity at its origin.  That loss is tied up with the advance of Christianity, and the suggestion that the individual person finds itself at a universal and abstract level. God replaces the polis.  Moments of repetition unify the individualism of Christian modernity with the intense republicanism of the polis..

There is an implicit reference to political repetition in Two Ages, and that is dependent on the loss of the Greek polis with with its sense of individual embedment in strong communities of family, state, and pagan religion. It is significant that in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard refers to the crime of lack of civic duty in Athens, using the Ancient Greek word, άπραγμοσύνε, which confirms that Kierkegaard regards Christianity as what belongs to a world, or shapes a world, in which the ancient sense of belonging to the political community has disappeared.

It is significant that in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard refers to the crime of lack of civic duty in Athens, using the Ancient Greek word, άπραγμοσύνε. To some degree, Kierkegaard suggests that Christianity belongs to a world, or shapes a world, in which the ancient sense of belonging to the political community has disappeared. The context in Philosophical Fragments is that Kierkegaard, using the pseudonym of Johannes Climacus writes a preface which suggests that the text is a very minor contribution to the discussions of the time.  Kierkegaard/Climacus compares himself with Diogenes (of Sinop presumably), according to a story in which while the citizens of Corinth prepare for an attack by Philip of Macedon, Diogenes moves the tub around, in which he lived so as to avoid being the only lazy person in the city. In this case Kierkegaard undermines the importance of what he writes by suggesting that it is just a gesture so that he can seem to participate in the great discussions on the time, while setting up a discussion about the limits of communication and understanding, with regard to the paradoxes which appear in fully developed philosophy, and which are necessary to Christianity, in Kierkegaard’s view. The irony is such that Kierkegaard is claiming that the text is superior to discussions of his time. So the crime of άπραγμοσύνε is committed more in a claim to superiority than in a withdrawal from the public duties of citizenship.  That suggests another way of understanding Kierkegaard’s attitude to the political part of ethics.




Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VI

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 6 ‘Ethics and Legal Community’.

After a regrettably long  break I’m back. A combination of travel in England, preparing a presentation on Nietzsche and virtue theory (a topic I’ve been interested in for some time, but I wanted to do some new work and thinking for the paper)  urgent work on preparing a co-edited book on Nietzsche and politics (more news when it is published later this year), working on proposals for new publication projects, and getting three courses started which are largely new in content (should feed into writing, including blogging, over time but start up demands on time and energy are considerable), knocked me out. I’m still busy enough, but I think I can get back to regular blogging now.  

Today’s extract focuses on William in Either/Or, also known as Judge or Assessor William. His letters in Either/Or I to an unidentified friend, who might be the author of Either/Or I, or The Diary of a Seducer, which concludes Either/Or I. All figures created by Kierkegaard within his philosophical fiction of course, all featuring within the pseudonyms and philosophical fictions he created over his career.  The total effect of which, at least to my way of thinking, is to create a body of work where all individual works are literary explorations of a fictional author, whether or not the works are ‘signed’ by Kierkegaard or a pseudonym, and in which we can never say for sure what is part of a fictional point of view and what is Kierkegaard’s own argument. Even the most ‘religious’ signed texts use rhetorical strategies and an implied authorial point of  view which is never absolutely the same as that of ‘Kierkegaard’. The issues raised in the extract below are round William’s attempts to integrated law, politics, friendship, and Christianity in harmony that is not possible for Kierkegaard, as we must accept the absoluteness of religion in relation to the others, as sovereign over  though without ever subsuming them into itself, without certainty ever emerging about what religions requires in other sprees except a willingness to see that they are relative in relation to God the Absolute. The extract is from the end of the section ‘The Judge and his Friend’.


William’s letters deal both with: friendship, the friendship for the man to whom the letters are addressed; and with love, the love between him and his wife. Both stand in contrast to Christian love, as explored by Kierkegaard in Works of Love [Kjerlighedens Gjerninger, 1847], which is love of the neighbour, that is love for all.  William’s understanding of marital love argues for its compatibility with romantic love, and that marital love over time is the only way that love can be properly understood as opposed to the romantic attitude of the Young Man. There is a political dimension in some of this, in that Nero (184-188/II 167-171) appears in the second letter, along with a mention of Caligula as an example of the individual who cannot deal with love, as a relation of equality, and has an aesthetic attitude. Nero is one of the more standard examples of tyranny from antiquity, and was the oppressor of the philosopher Seneca who was forced to commit suicide due to Nero’s paranoid anger. Seneca is only second to Socrates as the example of the philosopher martyred to political power. The Nero reference in Either/Or II connects back to a brief reference in Either/Or I  to Pelagianism (137/I 211) in the section on Scribe’s play The First Love. The point is that the aesthete is an autocrat in the same way that a Pelagian believes that the human individual can command grace. Pelagius was the antagonist of Augustine who argued that grace comes from individual human will, as well as the will of God. Kierkegaard develops the view that the tyrant is unable to understand grace from God, and therefore Christian love, because he is unable to accept anything above his own will. In this instance at least, Kierkegaard is implicitly a critic of absolute monarchy, as worse than the more republican understanding of the role of the state leader. This is the sense in which Plato and Seneca were republicans, and both influenced early modern republicanism, because they believed that the monarch must be restrained by law and morality above his will.

As we have seen, friendship is a part of antique republicanism, and of some republican influenced early modern thinking like that of Montaigne in relation to Etienne de la Boétie, the author of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude). Montaigne is monarchist on the more explicit level, but implicitly republican in his attitude to the defects of the French monarchy and its laws, and to the absolute requirements of friendship, even against the state (Fontana 2008). In Either/Or II, William’s attitude to friendship is remote from a political role, but is suggestive of a modern civil society where there are remnants of antique republican virtues.

William is educated and sincere, but he is not an imaginative or deep thinker, and there is a lot implied by his thoughts which his thoughts cannot incorporate. Friendship, martial love, modern civil society, and Christian love are not compatible to the degree that he assumes. He refers to the necessity of choice of the aut/aut (either/or), when addressing the young man, but he does not see all aspects of choice.  He tells the young man to choose the ethical over the aesthetic, in a way that assumes that Christianity will be adequately captured in the process. His understanding of depth of love over time, does not extend to repetition, that is the topic explored in Repetition [Gjentagelsen, 1843] and Concluding Unscientific Postscript [Afflutende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift, 1846] .  William thinks that the individual should accept universality, should find a station or duty, a very Fichtean view, and should accept the duty to marry. All of these conflict with Kierkegaard’s view of the relation between individual and social goals.  William criticises the mystic for separating himself from society, and while Kierkegaard was no mystic, the ways in which William criticises the mystic cannot be his own view, since it is clear that Kierkegaard thinks we should be ready to separate ourselves from social bonds and worldly concerns, and that a fully believing Christian is someone who at least makes some gesture in that direction. William criticises Aristotle for putting the state at the highest level, but his ‘letters‘ do accept the idea that the individual is defined by rules which ultimately refer to the state. Marriage, which William thinks is a universal duty, is defined by civil laws even where religious ceremonies are standard, and William himself is one of judges who interprets civil laws, that is those laws which originate in the state.
Civil law is an impersonal relation apparently distant from love. Kierkegaard demonstrates intriguing ambiguity about this though, when he has William act as the voice of law and of Christian ethics in Either/Or.  Kierkegaard leaves a lot to the reader to decide. There is no clear message from Kierkegaard about whether William is a adequate and apt defender of Christian love. We do not have the voice of his wife to explain how she experiences their marriage. The overall effect of the Judge’s letters is to suggest someone who understands Christianity in the abstract, but now how to make it alive, how to live it from moment to moment. He is certainly not concerned with challenging law, and the authority of the courts, from the point of view of love, and faith. It is true that Kierkegaard would also surely wish to recognise that law is part of the highest ends of the social individual and that views about law and laws, about how it can serve the highest ends, will lead to some encounter with the state and with politics, but as we have seen Kierkegaard finds conflict between these elements.