CHAPTER 16: KIERKEGAARD TO NIETZSCHE

THE KANTIAN individual finds the test for his maxims in the objective test of the categorical imperative; the Hegelian individual finds his criteria in the norms of the free and rational society. The fundamental doctrine of Sören Kierkegaard is that not only are there no genuine objective tests in morality; but that doctrines which assert that there are function as devices to disguise the fact that our moral standards are, and can only be, chosen. The individual utters his moral precepts to himself in a far stronger sense than the Kantian individual did; for their only sanction and authority is that he has chosen to utter them.

Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813. The radical form of Protestant Christianity which he embraced and his rejection of Hegel’s doctrines both spring from the same source; the fundamental role which he allots to the act of choice. It is not just in morals, but in every sphere which touches on human existence that the relevant criteria lack objective justification. Such justification may be in place in mathematics and in the natural sciences; but elsewhere rational argument can do no more than to present us with alternatives between which we must make our own choices. Some of Kierkegaard’s own writings take the form of such a presentation, various literary devices such as the use of pseudonyms being employed to conceal the fact that it is one and the same man who is advancing the rival claims of contrasting and conflicting positions. But this is not mere irrationalism, an arbitrary exaltation of arbitrary choice. For Kierkegaard believes that rational argument itself shows us that in the end the choice of the individual must be sovereign.

Suppose that one believes that one’s moral position can be rationally justified, that it is a conclusion which can be validly derived from certain premises. Then these premises in turn must be vindicated, and if their vindication consists in deriving them from conclusions based on more fundamental premises, the same problem will arise. But the chain of reasons must have an ending, and we must reach a point where we simply choose to stand by certain premises. At this point decision has replaced argument; and in all arguments on human existence there will be some such point. This argument is applied to moral questions in Kierkegaard’s early work Either/Or.

Here Kierkegaard contrasts two ways of life which he calls “the ethical” and “the aesthetic.” The aesthetic life is that of the man whose only goal is his own satisfaction. What he must avoid are pain and boredom. Romantic love, which exists only to satisfy the passion of the moment and is ever flying to new satisfactions, is his characteristic sexual relationship. Marriage, with its lifelong and inescapable duties, is characteristic of the ethical, which is the sphere of obligations, of rules which admit of no exception. The arguments in favor of the ethical mode of life are put into the mouth of Judge Wilhelm; those in favor of the aesthetic are taken ostensibly from the papers of a younger, anonymous figure, “A.” The two arguments cannot meet, for Judge Wilhelm uses ethical criteria to judge between the ethical and the aesthetic, while “A” uses aesthetic criteria. The argument of each depends upon a prior choice, and the prior choice settles what the conclusion of each’s argument will be. And the reader, too, must choose. But the careful reader may well begin to have doubts here of at least two kinds.

The first is drawn from the nature of Kierkegaard’s own presentation. For while Kierkegaard claims to be neutral between the two positions, one can have no doubt which he favors. He describes the aesthetic state of mind as one of permanent and ever renewed dissatisfaction, of traveling hopefully so as not to arrive. The ethical by contrast appears as a realm of quiet satisfaction in the obligation fulfilled, the limited task well done. The very disclaimer of partisanship by Kierkegaard itself has a partisan effect-in favor of the ethical. But is this just perhaps a flaw in the literary achievement? Could not Kierkegaard have presented a genuinely neutral account of the two standpoints?

Only if we suppose it possible to address an individual who is devoid of desires, goals, and needs prior to the presentation of the two cases. As such, the individual would be almost a man without characteristics. He acquires them only through his choices. But who is this “I” who chooses? And for such a being what can hang in any case upon choosing in one way rather than in another? These questions never receive an answer in Kierkegaard, partly because he treats “the individual” as an ultimate category and partly because he understands the real existence of the individual as being what the individual is “before God.” For Kierkegaard the ethical is only a prologue to the religious, and the religious is necessarily offensive to human reason. One of Hegel’s key faults in Kierkegaard’s eyes was that he tried to present religion in rational terms. But from an authentically Christian point of view Christianity must be seen as bringing the truth to a human reason which does not possess it, which prior to the Christian revelation is alien to the truth. So it is that from the standpoint of a self-sufficient human reason, Christianity necessarily appears as paradoxical and irrational. Christian faith depends not on argument, but on choice, both for the more general reasons cited by Kierkegaard, which I have already mentioned, and for these special reasons. Skeptical objections to Christianity are not in reality grounded on intellectual doubt; they arise from “insubordination, unwillingness to obey, rebellion against all authority.” Hence the important decision is either to do or not to do what God commands in his self-revelation.

The example Kierkegaard invokes is that of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son. This command is contrary, not merely to inclination but also to duty. What God commands is, from the standpoint of the ethical, simple murder. There is thus a break between the highest merely human consciousness and the divine intrusion of the apparently scandalous and absurd. It is important to note that there is not a hint in Kierkegaard of the view taken by some Old Testament critics that the function of this story was to preach the abolition of human sacrifice and to educate the Hebrews into a belief that such a killing was in fact, not what God willed, but murder. The notion of revelation as progressive, as always suited to-but always slightly above the moral level of-those to whom it is addressed, is alien to Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard, then, stands at an extreme point, both in the development of Christianity and in the development of individualism. So far as Christianity is concerned, he poses one horn of a dilemma which had been arising for Christianity ever since the revival of Aristotle in the Middle Ages. Either Christianity accepts the terms of secular reason and argues on these, or it insists on being judged by no criteria but its own. The first alternative leads, as Kierkegaard saw it lead in Hegel’s writings, to the reduction of Christianity to something other than itself; the second leads to Christianity becoming self-enclosed and unintelligible. Theologians who recognize this have sometimes been dismayed by Kierkegaard’s candor. But Kierkegaard’s type of Christianity is in some ways a natural counterpart to his individualism. For it is only when writing from within a Christian position that Kierkegaard can find any reasons for answering the question, How shall I live? in one way rather than another. One may suspect that the need to be able to answer this question is one of the unavowed sources of his Christianity. The choices made by the individual confronting the alternatives of the ethical and the aesthetic, or the ethical and the religious, are according to Kierkegaard criterionless. But if this were genuinely so, how could it be right to choose one rather than the other? Yet the whole point of such choices, and of the pain that the making of them involves, is that one may choose wrongly. Kierkegaard’s conceptual framework makes it impossible to say this, although sometimes Kierkegaard himself is inconsistent enough to use this kind of language. He moves uneasily between speaking from within an order in which God’s will provides criteria for action and speaking as the lonely individual outside all criteria.

Of Kierkegaard’s themes, at least one, that of the irrationality of Christianity, reappears in the strange, ironical pages of Heinrich Heine’s History of Philosophy and Religion in Germany. But here the unintelligibility and unacceptability of Christianity are taken seriously: “Can you hear the ringing of the bell? Kneel down-they are bringing the sacraments to a dying God.” Writing in 1832, Heine connects the intellectual past of Germany with prophecies of a coming catastrophe. The argument is two-sided. On the one hand, there has been a continuous secularization of German life. Catholicism overcomes Nordic heathenism, but at the cost of taking a good deal of it into herself; Luther creates a new German consciousness, partly through the German Bible, but leaves Germany a prey to Protestant spirituality; Spinoza, Wolff, Kant, and Hegel secularize religion finally and replace the supernatural by the natural. But all this took place only in the realm of ideas. Heine says sardonically, “It seems to me that a methodical people, such as we are, must begin with the reformation, must then occupy itself with systems of philosophy, and that only after their completion could it pass to the political revolution. I find this sequence quite rational. The heads that have first served for the speculations of philosophy can afterwards be struck off by the revolution for whatever object it pleases; but philosophy would not have been able to utilize the heads struck off by the revolution that preceded it.”55 But what in fact has happened is that only the surface of life has been touched by these intellectual changes. Christianity is the only bar to the old paganism of the Germans; and critical philosophy, especially Kantian philosophy, has destroyed it. “Christianity-and this is its fairest merit- subdued to a certain extent the brutal warrior ardor of the Germans, but it could not entirely quench it; and when the cross, that remaining talisman, falls to pieces, then will break forth again the ferocity of the old combatants. . There will be played in Germany a drama compared to which the French Revolution will seem but an innocent idyll.”56

The prophecy came true one hundred years later. What is its relevance to the history of philosophy? British moral philosophers of the nineteenth century, as we shall see in the next chapter, essentially found themselves at home in their society. This is not to say that they were passive conformists. Both utilitarians and idealists found themselves among at least the moderate reformers. But the criteria for reform which they proposed were such as they could expect to find echoed by their fellow countrymen. Not so with German philosophers. As with Hegel in his old age, or with his right-wing followers, the German philosophers provided a justification of the status quo-or else they found themselves outside the academic establishment, shunned as critics. Thus German nineteenth-century moral philosophers cannot hope to represent themselves as merely analyzing what is already present in ordering moral consciousness; they see the moral as something they are bound to condemn. Equally, from the other side, ordinary morality finds its sources in romantic rationalism or in the ideals of the Prussian bureaucracy and requires a hostility to the purely critical intellect. Hence the great moral philosophers of the nineteenth century are all anti-German Germans, constructing systems against the moral status quo. Heine is their forerunner, but the great names among them are Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Schopenhauer stands in sharp contrast to both Hegel and Kierkegaard. Against Hegel’s view of every part of the universe having meaning insofar as it stands in relation to a systematic rational whole, and Kierkegaard’s stress on the value of the individual, Schopenhauer sees the universe as meaningless and the individual as having no value. He admired Plato and Kant because they did not attempt to find a rational order in the merely phenomenal; he hated and despised Hegel, whom he thought of as a timeserver. And professional academic philosophers in general he thought committed to supplying metaphysical consolation in return for payment. “By the Greeks they were called sophists, by the moderns they are called professors of philosophy.” But his dislike of Hegel has to be set beside the fact that he attempted to rival Hegel as a lecturer in Berlin by putting on his lectures at the same hour as Hegel’s; Hegel’s lectures remained crowded, Schopenhauer’s were empty.

What is Schopenhauer’s message? The world is the expression of blind striving or Will. We know our own inner nature as Will in direct experience; thought is but one of the outward forms or disguises taken by Will. Life is blind, cruel, meaningless; but we disguise this fact in our theorizing, and in our actions we cling to life through extremes of pain and suffering. The natural world bears witness to the continuous reproduction of the species, and the continuous destruction of the individual. The forms remain the same; the individuals who exemplify them continually perish. (In this we get a hint of Schopenhauer’s relation to Plato and Kant.) Thus experience testifies to the way in which the world is pervaded by pain and destruction, while religion and philosophy try to construct justifications for the universe which will show that pain and destruction have not the last word, and in so doing, they themselves testify to the force of Cosmic Will, which has as its aim the continuing of existence on any terms. Schopenhauer explains religion as the human expression of this desire for continued existence. Were we totally certain of our survival after death, or of our extinction at death, religion would be functionless. Moreover, it is not only in our anxiety to continue existing that we exhibit ourselves as manifestations of Will. We also do so in the way that we devote ourselves to continuing the species; sexual passion overrides all our impulses to avoid suffering and responsibility. Yet the pleasures of passionate love are momentary and vanishing compared with the troubles it brings upon us. We may rationalize our pursuit of various ends and claim to find good in achieving them; the truth is, we are what we are constituted by the blind strivings of Will, and our thinking cannot alter anything about us.

So seriously does Schopenhauer take this that he treats our entire personality as given from the outset. What we are essentially is Will, and unalterable Will. No experience, no reflection, no learning, can alter what we are. Our character is fixed, our motives are determined. It follows that traditional morality and traditional moral philosophy are founded on a mistake, the mistake of supposing that moral precepts can alter conduct, whether our own or that of others. What, then, can moral philosophy do? It can explain the moral valuations which we do in fact make by an analysis of human nature.

If we carry through such an analysis, we discover three basic motives in human nature. The first is our old friend self-interest. On this Schopenhauer has little original to say. The second, however, is the fruit of acute observation. It is malice. Schopenhauer observed, as perhaps no previous philosopher or psychologist had done, the gratuitous character of malice. We do not harm others only when and in order that we may benefit ourselves. And when others undergo misfortunes our pleasure in their misfortunes is unconnected with any thought of our own self-interest. It is pure pleasure: “For man is the only animal which causes pain to others without any further purpose than just to cause it. Other animals never do it except to satisfy their hunger, or in the rage of combat.” The appalling record of human life, of the suffering and infliction of pain, is relieved only when the third motive, sympathy or compassion, appears. To feel compassion is to put oneself imaginatively in the place of the sufferer and to alter one’s actions appropriately either by desisting from what would have caused pain or by devoting oneself to its relief. But the exhibiting of compassion has yet a further significance.

In a moment of compassion we extinguish self-will. We cease to strive for our own existence; we are relieved from the burden of individuality and we cease to be the plaything of Will. The same relief is granted to us in the contemplation of works of art. And in the life of a Christ or of a Buddha we find a systematic disciplining of self and exercising of compassion in which self-hood and striving approach the goal of final extinction. Thus Schopenhauer’s message is in the end an injunction to return to the sources of Buddhist teaching.

A first reaction to Schopenhauer must always be perhaps to note the contrast between the brilliance of his observations of human nature (which go far beyond anything I have suggested) and the arbitrary system-building in which those observations are embedded. He stands out among philosophers by his insistence upon the all-pervasive character of pain and suffering in human life to date. But his general pessimism is as unilluminating as it is striking. Because for him these evils arise from existence as such, he is unable to give any accurate account of them in their historical context; all epochs and states of affairs, all societies, and all projects are equally infected by evil. But he provides an important corrective to the easy liberal optimism of so much of nineteenth-century life; and those who reacted against that optimism find Schopenhauer a seminal influence. Certainly he was this upon Nietzsche.

Nietzsche in fact stands at the point at which all the contradictory influences of the nineteenth century are brought to bear. He was himself only too conscious of this and sought isolation; part of what he admired in Schopenhauer was his ability to cast off academic and conformist ambitions. His loneliness as a character is matched by his resistance to the spirit of the age. He intensely disliked the crude imperialist politics of the German Empire of 1871. He hated Pan-Germanism in all forms and especially in its racialist, anti-Semitic ones. But he equally disliked modern socialism, which he saw as a new incarnation of the Christian values he most despised. Christianity is for Nietzsche at the core of the modern sickness. Why? Because Christianity has led to a systematic devaluation of this world in favor of the next, and thus to a false spirituality. Above all, because Christianity has embodied values that were destructive of all moral values, including its own. Nietzsche sees himself as writing in an age of moral vacuum. He has three tasks: to exhibit the historical and psychological causes of the vacuum; to unmask false candidates for the role of the new morality; and finally, to transcend the limitations of all hitherto existing systems of morality, and by a “transvaluation of values,” to prophetically introduce a new way of life.

The historical background to the present malaise is rooted in Christianity’s victory over the Greeks. Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals begins by attacking “English psychologists” who have argued that the word good was first applied to altruistic actions because these were socially useful. (Nietzsche seems to be referring to the whole utilitarian tradition and to Herbert Spencer: “People tell me,” he writes “that those men are simply dull old frogs.”) In fact, he replies, the egoistic-altruistic contrast is not primitive; for in the earliest uses of good it does not arise. Good was the word used by “the noble, mighty, highly-placed and high-minded”; its earliest uses were “in contradistinction to all that was base, low-minded and plebeian.” As we saw in discussing the history of ‘ἀγαθος’ in Greek, Nietzsche is fundamentally in the right. He is right too when he relates how the word good is in due time used in conjunction with altered criteria; but in place of the actual complexities of Greek and Hebrew history he puts a sharp contrast between the original Greek aristocrat and “the” Jew. The Jew substitutes for the aristocratic morality of self-affirmation the slave morality of envy. The Christian finally exalts the virtues of the weak, the humble, the poor, the oppressed; not in fact because of love of these, but because of a hidden rancor and hate of strength, of pride in life, of self-affirmation. About Jesus, Nietzsche seems to have been ambivalent; on Paul or Luther he feels free to unleash his rage. “Faith was at all times, for example in Luther, only a cloak, a pretext, a screen behind which the instincts played their game-a shrewd blindness about the dominance of certain instincts.”57

Yet now God is dead. The sanction of traditional slave morality has gone. And all the contemporary attempts to replace Christianity are forms of self-deception in one way or another. Kantian ethics pretends to give the endorsement of universal law to the individualist’s moral attitudes. “Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumbfound the ‘common man’ that the ‘common man’ was right.” But Nietzsche’s accusation is that in fact Kant assumes what he sets out to prove. He takes it for granted that we are entitled to make moral judgments and inquires what must be the case if that is so; he never asks, as Nietzsche does, whether we are so entitled. Nietzsche’s reply is that we, in trying to bind others by universal moral judgments, pretend to be speaking in the name of pure practical reason, but are in fact using these judgments as a weapon against those of whom we are jealous. The utilitarians are also attacked on grounds drawn from psychology. “Man does not seek happiness; only the Englishman does that.”58 Not happiness but power is the fundamental human goal. Sympathetic interpreters of the Nietzschean “will to power” have insisted that by power Nietzsche does not mean power over others; he saw the ideal expression of power in the type of personality in which the limitations of self-love have been overcome, but which nonetheless affirms itself. It is when the will to power is not allowed expression, but is hidden and repressed, that it turns into a drive against others, summoning up ideals in the name of which such oppression can be carried out. But Nietzsche’s examples of the type of personality of which he thought well are highly dubious; in what he is condemning he is far more clearly justified. The emasculated asceticism of Wagner’s romantic-Christian Parsifal he abhors; even Cesare Borgia is far healthier than that. (Health and sickness are key words in Nietzsche.) Napoleon is a synthesis of the human and the brutish. Julius Caesar and Spinoza are greatly admired. And in a most vivid and telling phrase Nietzsche speaks of his ideal as “the Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul.” Yet, from all this, does one get a clear picture of the Superman (a bad, but by now unavoidable, translation of Ubermensch-“the man who transcends”)?

The conventional charge against Nietzsche has been that he was the forerunner of Nazism, the prophet of “the blond beast” of later anti-Semitic glorification. The conventional answer has fallen into two parts. The first, which is unassailable, is that while he was the critic of Judaism as religion and as morality, he was equally the critic of Christianity; and that racialism, most of all German racialism (he thought Slavs on the whole superior to Germans, and preferred Poles most of all), was condemned by him in the frankest terms. The second is that the Superman is a morally unambiguous and praiseworthy character. But the difficulty here is to know just what content the notion of the Superman had for Nietzsche. The multiplication of reservations renders everything more obscure. What worries us in Nietzsche is perhaps like what worries us in Kant.

We have already noticed Hegel’s criticism of Kant, that the conscientious moral agent dominated by the form of the categorical imperative is in fact licensed to do anything at all-provided he does it conscientiously. What looked like a restrictive guide to conduct is in fact empty of restriction. So likewise, and more crudely, with the notion of the Superman. In the name of the Will to Power what might one not do? In what does the superiority of the superior type of human being manifest itself in late nineteenth-century terms? Nietzsche was flagrantly misrepresented by his nationalist, anti-Semitic, and finally Nazi sister. But what one must insist upon is that both the violence of Nietzsche’s language and the emptiness of the Nietzschean ideal provided an excellent scaffolding for Frau Förster-Nietzsche to build around. There is a deep historical irresponsibility in Nietzsche. The explanation of it is in part that he believed the mass of men to be beyond redemption anyway. “Not to the people let Zarathustra speak. . To lure many away from the herd, therefore I came.”

We thus end the nineteenth century with the most perceptive of German moralists turning his back upon his own society. It would not be absurd to try to understand this attitude in the light of a society which was about to turn its back upon the whole human tradition of morality. Thomas Mann once spoke of the artist as a seismograph in whose work tremors as yet unobserved are registered. The German philosophers of the nineteenth century signal tremors far beneath the surface of their society; they signal catastrophe to come.