Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book IX (final)

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 9 ‘Conclusion’. I’ve reached the end of this series rather later than I had anticipated, it’s been a tiring two semesters (3 weeks away from the end of classes in the 2nd semester) due to the amount of new material I gave myself to teach and the existence of some other unavoidable responsibilities in my academic work. After some digestion, I intend for the teaching preparations to feed into my blogging and in a rather more long term way into my publishing. Unfortunately blogging has been slower than I hoped for months. Looks like I’ll have a serious task to complete this week, and then I should  have a bit more time for writing posts. For now the brief conclusion to my book Kierkegaard on Politics, which places Kierkegaard’s approach to politics in general, historical, and literary terms, ending with a very compressed account of his approach and how to continue it.


Where should we place Kierkegaard in political theory?  The most illuminating comparisons are with those writers who deal with an existential commitment to politics and direct experience of its phenomenal forms, or ifs ways of being in the world, either from personal experience or style of thinking. In addition, those philosophical essayists who did not develop a complete political theory, but who have important things to say about government, the state and law, as part of general considerations on life and human thought.  These are the two groups of writers who draw attention to particular judgement  in political action, the difficulties of harmonising individual action, law and sovereignty; subjectivity, political forms, and types of power. Before Kierkegaard that includes Machiavelli (1995, 2003) among those who focused on political thought, along with Montaigne (Essays in Montaigne 2003) and Pascal (1966) among those for whom politics appears in a more occasional way. Since Kierkegaard,  it is Tocqueville (1966, 1970), Nietzsche (1994); Weber (1994, particularly ‘Between two Laws’ and ‘The Profession and Vocation of Politics), Schmitt (1985a, 1985b, 1986, 1996, 2007), Arendt (1990, 1998), Derrida (particularly in The Politics of Friendship, 1997), and Foucault, particularly in his writings on antiquity 1985, 1986, 2001, 2005, 2010, 2011), who have contributed most along those lines.

That leaves Kierkegaard open to many political interpretations and uses by thinkers of many different persuasions. The history of his political theory reception confirms this.  One achievement of Kierkegaard in political thought is then to suggest a way of making political judgement, of understanding the place of the human individual within political community.  His own apolitical, and even anti-political, attitudes are an advantage in providing a point of view for interpreting the modern world, in which politics as participation, or as any kind of direct encounter with sovereignty, seems remotes.  Even in a giant political unity like the Roman Empire, sovereignty had a kind of sacramental dramatic aspects, reflected in the provinces, lacking in the modern world. We might think here of Foucault’s account of changing forms of punishment from ritual imposition of personalised sovereign power to a rationalised disciplinarity, in Discipline and Punish (1991), or Weber’s account of legal-rational authority, of sovereigns operating through law.  There has been a growth of the extent of commercial and civil society, which makes the individual and the social relations of the individual, seem remote from relations with sovereignty and with the political community.

The closest to Kierkegaard amongst thinkers since the mid-twentieth century include Arendt, MacIntyre, Fleischacker (1999) and Geuss (1996).  All show some historical awareness of changes in political community and their relation to individuality.  Arendt brings out the tension between the ideal of political participation and the consequence of routinisation of politics. MacIntyre brings out the tension between different ways of belonging to a community and relating to political power within it, and the difficulty of ending the resulting conflicts. Fleischacker brings out the importance of a well developed self-relationship and autonomy, in relation to the political community. Arendt is the closest in literary talent and in political ambiguity. Fleischacker is closest to the egalitarian and the liberal aspects of Kierkegaard. MacIntyre is closest to the conservative, hierarchical and traditionalist element in Kierkegaard. Geuss brings out the element of religious passion for equality applied to the secular sphere, in conjunction with an ambiguous sympathy for antique ideas of private individuals finding their goals in the sphere of public affair. They express differing views about the value of political life for the human community, corresponding to Kierkegaard’s own ambiguity.

An ideal Kierkegaardian political thinker would have a passion for writing and a high level of literary style, comparable with Franz Kafka to mention one literary author strongly affected by Kierkegaard, and one whose writings have enigmatic religious and political aspects. The protagonists in The Trial and The Castle seem to be both oppressed by some mysterious power which could be supernatural or could be legal state institutions; they could also be seen as guilty characters experiencing the cost of selfishness and irresponsibility. The paradoxical nature of law and state power is suggested, it could be unjust or the product of an incomprehensible justice. None of this is the direct expression of claims in Kierkegaard, but there is considerable resonance with the paradoxical view Kierkegaard takes of ethics, law and political claims.

Kierkegaard provides reasons for putting the individual at the centre of politics, just as the individual is always at the centre of aesthetics, ethics and religion. The primary concern of the individual must be orientation towards God and the absolute, as understood through the Bible. Kierkegaard never recommends complete rejection of the world though, so it is in the spirit of Kierkegaard to think about his ideas work in relation to politics. The subjective nature of the individual, its capacity for self-relation and relation with the absolute, within itself and externally, is why the individual has value. The individual is faced with a cost of individualism, the loss of antique unities of self, state, family and religion, in which it can find a place. Individualism taken seriously leaves the individual without a place because of those absolute aspects of individual subjectivity. So politics must become the best possible attempt to reconcile the absolute value of the individual with political and social structures. Politics can be sen as itself stretched between those opposing poles and requiring individuals to find some strength from inside; or as only justly stemming from the basic form of human community in individual love for all other individuals.

Political thought in the spirt of Kierkegaard will emphasise the difference between antiquity and modernity, the different kinds of individual flourishing possible in those periods, the need for a Christian influenced modern individualism to learn from antique forms of individual belonging to a participatory polity, the tension between idealism and pragmatism in politics, the tragic relation of individuals to ethics, the tragic relation of state violence to ethically based laws, the mixture of dictatorship and consent in any possible polity, the need for general principles to influence practice, the irony of all communication including communication of ideas about the public good, the embedding of individual, universal and absolute values in national culture and language. Most fundamentally Kierkegaardian political thinking must put the single individual at the centre. For Kierkegaard the highest goal of the single individual must be to find God according to Christian definitions. Adapting that idea of absolute goals to secular life, we can say that a Kierkegaard influenced political thought will see laws and political institutions that promote the single individual who will be able to see absolute goals, above politics. Single abstract ideals must be tested in movement, kinesis and action for Kierkegaard, we can say that political thought should include discussion of how individuals can put those thoughts into practice, along with nothing the tension of passion and reflection in politics.

Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VIII

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 8 ‘Political Irony’. This is the most wide ranging chapter of the book, because I followed Kierkegaard’s own discussion of irony in antique and modern aspects in The Concept of Irony. That structure itself suggests a parallel with the distinction between ancient and modern understanding of liberty, which I think goes back to Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury during the 17th century, but was formulated explicitly by Benjamin Constant in the early 19th century. We could turn it into the difference between Greek and Roman liberty, and enter into many other complications. Partly because of those kinds of complications I have not said much about how Kierkegaard’s attitude to antique and modern aesthetics , religion, and politics relates to the political theory discussion of antique and modern liberties. I have just indicated the parallels. I am engaged in further work on this topic, particularly round Foucault and hope to look at at it further in relation to aesthetic and literary concepts  later, which will certainly include a return to Kierkegaard. For the purposes of this book, I wanted to focus on Kierkegaard and just indicate the various contexts for reading Kierkegaard in a political way. The extract below is from the end of section of the chapter on ‘Possibility and Actuality’.


Kierkegaard builds up his view of possibility and actuality, as aspects of the aesthetic and the ethical, but what Kierkegaard also suggests in Concluding Unscientific Postscript is the value of taking all possibilities seriously as real, that is concentrating on the Aristotelian move from possibility to reality, the movement of potentiality (Carlisle 2006).  The word in English used by Aristotle is kinesis, since Kierkegaard uses the Greek original κίνεσις pronounced similarly to the English word. Aristotle’s use of the term concentrates on a meaning of κίνεσις which is more physicalist than Kierkegaard’s own discussion of it as the movement from potentiality to actuality (1992a, 342/VII 296). The context in which Kierkegaard refers to κίνεσις is of the movement from ethical abstract to deed, and the criticism of ethical eudaemonism. It is the movement, or leap, from ethical abstraction to action which counts, not the abstract commitment to ethics. That movement is never at this moment, but has always happened or will happen. It evades our awareness of the present moment, so disrupting time and presumably for Kierkegaard directing us to eternity away from normal temporality. Abstraction is equated by Kierkegaard with a Parmenidian world of is without change, while the act, and the movement of κίνεσις towards it, requires time for the process of change. Κίνεσις does not happen in an instant, but as a process. The criticism of eudaemonism, which could extend to all antique ethics, is of the idea that the good is its own reward, which could be taken as inherent to the antique association of ethics with living well, flourishing of life, the good or happy life. Kierkegaard argues that eudaemonism is undermined by κίνεσις because doubts creep into the mind during the time it takes to get from thought to deed.

Time and κίνεσις undermine antique ethics because the possibility of reflection, which requires time, is the possibility of doubt about what should be done.  The existence of this kind of gap between human living and the act which conditions human living, undermines the idea that the rules of such acts spring emerges from living, in a largely pre-reflective way.  Antique ethics does of course allow for reflection, and its benefits, but sees them as expressions of our nature, and the flourishing of our natural being. If we consider this to be applicable to politics, and the ethics of Plato and Aristotle certainly does include politics, then we can draw the following conclusions. Firstly, political acts cannot be the pre-reflective outcome of the life of the community.  Secondly, the life of the community does not gives us political acts without deliberation and movement.  Thirdly, political acts are the result of time and deliberation.  Fourthly, politics cannot be said to an area in which we have reward in doing what is good in an immediate way.  Fifthly, political theory refers to a world of unchanging ‘is’, disrupted by the time and κίνεσις of concrete political acts.  We can see this as part of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, since Hegel thinks of the state as belonging to Sittlichkeit, or the customary life of the community, taken to be constituted by mores with ethical status.

Political theory does not guide political acts in any automatic and predictable way; politics does not rest on the immediate reward of doing good. These are claims which are directed against Aristotle as well as Hegel. Politics is not part of human nature or the highest good on Kierkegaard’s account of κίνεσις in ethics. One side of that is clearly a rejection of politics, but the other side is that it could be taken as just a rejection of the over idealisation of politics. Outside the highest ethical good, or immediate product of ethics, the framework of politics may be emancipated as a sphere of non-moralistic human practices characterised possibly by terms such as play, competition, contestation, struggle, competition, contingency and pragmatism. Going further than that, ethics itself is diminished by Kierkegaard as something non-ideal in relation to theory, so maybe ethics should be characterised in the same way as politics. Kierkegaard does not give ethics as abstract system a high status. The discussion of κίνεσις, of the interruptions between abstraction and action, taken with the other aspects of Concluding Unscientific Postscript is a call to appreciate the role of subjectivity in ethics. Kierkegaard builds on the German Idealist concern with human practice and consciousness, in looking for a more subjective theory of ethics than Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, and looks for a theory of subjectivity which does not collapse into pure relativity and contingency.


Ancient Rome Open City to Refugees: Antique Republics and Inclusive Citizenship

A story in the Britsh press about archaeological investigations in Rome that suggest the city is about 150 years oldler than its legendary foundation in 753 BCE reminds me of the apparent characteristic quality of early Rome, its openness to refugees, vagrants, and everyone in search of a new home.  At least this is the impression we get from Livy’s History of Romeand it makes sense given that Rome did keep getting bigger as as a city and greater in the reach of its power through alliances ansd aborption. We can also think of how the foundational mythology, we see in Virgil’sAeneid, represents Rome as the product of refugees from Troy.

Romans do not appear to have had the Greek tendency to only accept citizenship through inheritence, or the Carthaginian tendency for an ethnically distinct originally foreign elite to rule over a hetereogneous body of ordinary citizens from the region.  The story of Romulus and Remus itself suggests that Roman sovereignty originated with an elite that maybe came in part from outside, but soon became part of the whole population of the city.The openness of Rome appears to have been maintained through expansion in Italy, then imperial expansion across the Mediterranean world during the Punic Wars, and on throughout the Emperors. The second Rome, Constantinople, was filled with the marginals of the Empire willing to move to a new home and new oppotunities.

The open status of the city of Rome was a feature of the Imperial and early kingly, as well as Republican periods, but that it was a feature of  the Republican period, should cause us to challenge some assumptions about Republican political theory resting on ideas of  small self-contained city state unwelcoming to foreigners.

The Skinner-Pettit style of Neo-Roman liberty, or Roman republicanism, does not really capture this, as the orderly institutionalism of Pettit’s approach in particular, is far too ordered and rationalised to accommodate the tensions and strains that arose from the incorporation of new inhabitants into Rome. The failure of the Republic to resolve those tensions led to to its transformation into a politcal autocracy, in the period from Marius to Augustus, but we should not ignore its approximately five centuries of life, in a form of life much more disorderly and conflicted than the Cambridge School or Pettit suggest, at least in their more stereotypical moments.

Arendt’s ‘Athenian’ republicanism, which does refer to the most open of the Greek city states is more appropriate for understanding these features of Rome, regardless of her suspicions of the Roman understanding of politics at the theoretical level. It is Arendt who did more than any other political thinker of any time to make us think about refugees and stateless people, and how such situations are linked to the worst abuses of state power.Sadly Arendt’s concerns in this area are all too relevant at present, even in the most established democracies.

It follows then, or so I believe, that very classically grounded republican political thought is less in conflict with individualistic liberal, including libertarian, political thinking than is often presumed, particulary with regard to open borders.

Of course, we should avoid idolatory of Ancient Rome or Greece, to the excluson of other republics in the region. As suggested above, Carthage is a model worth considering, in part because it did allow for pluralism of some kind in the composition of the ciitzen body, if in a rather herarchical manner.

No doubt, the People and Senate of Rome were not always delighted by newcomers. Of course, many of those ‘welcomed’ to Rome were slaves. Even there, we can offer the qualification that slaves were often freed, becoming maybe notable philosophers (as with Epictetus) or the fathers of Emperors.

We might also draw out the thought here that Livy’s History of Rome is one of the most important of all books, with regard to political ideas and social philosophy, as well as history,  informing Machiavelli’s view of Rome in the most obvious way in Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Vico’s view of Rome and all antiquity in the New ScienceMontesquieu’s view in The Spirit of the Laws and Considerations on the  Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and  their Decline, and so on.

In short, the greatness of Rome drew on its openness to refugees and incomers across bordes. We sould understand the Roman Republic through the waves of newcomers and the creative tensions of life together.

Cross posted at the group blog NewAPPS