Something on Johannes de silentio

IMG_3634Adam Kirsch’s inexplicable addition of a definite article in front of “Silentio” in his mention of Johannes de silentio, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published what is perhaps his most famous work, Fear and Trembling (see the post just before this one), got me thinking again about that pseudonym and how little attention has actually been paid to it.

It is generally presented as a straightforward name, like Constantin Constantius, Johannes Climacus, and Vigilius Haufniensis, the pseudonyms Kierkegaard used for Repetition, Philosophical Crumbs, and The Concept of Anxiety, respectively. It isn’t a name, though, at least the de silentio part isn’t. It’s a description. Kierkegaard’s other pseudonyms use upper-case letters to begin what functions as the surname. Johannes de silentio doesn’t. The pseudonym appears in all caps on the original title page, but only “Johannes” is capitalized at the end of the preface (see the illustration for this article).

Part of the reason scholars have missed this, is that translators have missed it. Alasdair Hannay got it right in his translation for Penguin, but both Princeton translations, the first by Walter Lowrie, done in 1941, and the second by Howard and Edna Hong, done in 1983, get it wrong. Unfortunately, the Princeton translations are the ones that have long been preferred by scholars. The result is that this point about the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published Fear and Trembling has gone unnoticed.

Johannes de silentio is typically taken, as Kirsch does in his review, to mean John of Silence, or John who cannot speak. Since, however, the “de silentio” is clearly a description rather than a surname, Johannes di silentio could be interpreted to mean John from silence, which is to say, not John who is silent, but John who is attempting to break a silence, John who is attempting to explain what is perhaps inexplicable: the situation of Abraham.

Hannay actually discusses this in the introduction to his translation of Fear and Trembling. We notice, he writes

that Kierkegaard has given his author the name ‘Johannes de silentio’, which is allegedly borrowed from one of the Grimms’ fairy-tales, ‘The Faithful Servant’. Kierkegaard’s John of Silence is not, however, at all a silent person. If he was he wouldn’t be an author. Nor was the faithful servant in the fairy-tale. He told his master, the young king, of three dangers threatening him, though realizing that in doing so he would be turned to stone. (To anticipate a further connection with Fear and Trembling, when the royal couple later got two sons they gave the lives of these in sacrifice in order to bring Johannes back to life, whereupon Johannes brought the children back to life.) (p. 10.)

Hannay was right. Johannes, the putative author of Fear and Trembling, is far from silent. Like his German counterpart, he warns of three dangers. Kierkegaard’s Johannes arguably attempts, through his description of the situation of Abraham, to warn his readers of three dangers presented in the form of questions that comprise the three Problemata of the work.

The connection between the fairy tale and the subject of Fear and Trembling is even closer, however, than Hannay suggests. The royal couple didn’t volunteer the lives of their sons in order to bring their faithful servant back to life. After faithful Johannes was turned to stone, the king, realizing what had happened, was so grief stricken that he took the stone statue of Johannes and placed it beside his bed.

Once when the queen was at church, the story reads

and the two children were sitting beside their father and playing, he again looked sadly at the stone statue and said, “Oh, if only I could bring you back to life again, my most faithful Johannes,”

Then the stone began to speak and said, “You can bring me back to life again if you will in return give up what is dearest to you.”

The king cried, “For you I will give up everything I have in the world.”

“The stone continued, “If you will cut off the heads of your two children with your own hand, then sprinkle their blood on me, I shall be restored to life.”

The King was horrified when he heard that he would have to kill his own dearest children, but he thought of faithful Johannes’s great loyalty and how he had died for him, then drew his sword and with his own hand cut off the children’s heads. And when he had smeared the stone with their blood, it returned to life, and faithful Johannes stood before him again, healthy and well.

He said to the king, “Your faith [Treue] shall not go unrewarded,” then taking the children’s heads, he put them on again, then rubbed the wounds with their blood, at which they became immediately whole again, and jumped about and went on playing as if nothing had happened.

Kierkegaard was a lover of fairy tales and among his many collections of fairy tales was the second edition of Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, where the story in question, “Der treue Johannes,” or “Faithful Johannes,” appears as number no. 6.

Kierkegaard was likely taken by the title “Faithful Johannes” (my emphasis), as well as by the strength of the parallel with the Abraham story.

In fact, the fairy tale puts a decidedly Christian slant on the story because in “Faithful Johannes” not only is the king is required to sacrifice the lives of his children if he wishes to rescue Johannes, the king does this because Johannes “had died for him” (für ihn gestorben war).

Perhaps the silence that Johannes, the author of Fear and Trembling, is attempting, in a somewhat cryptic way, to break is the silence concerning Kierkegaard’s severing of his engagement with Regine Olsen. That is, perhaps he is attempting to communicate, not merely to his former fiancée, but to all of literate Copenhagen, the reasons behind what many viewed as his callous and unprovoked violation of social convention, not to mention of an innocent young woman’s trust.

This is not the first time, of course, that such an explanation has been offered for Fear and Trembling. I think it may be the first time, however, that the parallel to the Grimms’ fairy tale has been explored in depth and that the decidedly Christian slant the story places on the requirement of filicide as a demonstration of faith has been exposed.


Kierkegaard and von Balthasar on Anxiety

41yorNv6sLL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My sister-in-law Kelly Foley is a devout Catholic with a growing interest in theology. She has begun reading Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety. (Way to jump in at the deep end. My sister-in-law is no intellectual slouch!) She asked me if I were familiar with the book because it begins with a reference to Kierkegaard. I was familiar with von Balthasar, of course, but not with that particular book. This was obviously a significant lacuna in my theological background, so I promptly purchased an ebook version of it and began reading it.

“Schelling, Hegel, and Baader … were the immediate influences” writes von Balthasar in his introduction,

that prompted the Dane to treat this theme as a theologian, even if only in an introductory manner (as he puts it, “psychologically” rather than “dogmatically”). He never could bring himself to write a dogmatic tract, and he deliberately posed his questions within a psychological framework-intending, of course, to let the inquiry lead eventually into inevitable dogmatic truth. As a result, anxiety remains for him a matter of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness, and God and Christ are rarely mentioned explicitly in this work, which was in fact meant to be an exclusively Christian book. (31-32).

“[I]f a theologian is to give this topic the treatment that is due to it,” observes von Balthasar he must “continue along more dogmatic lines the work that Kierkegaard began” (34).

“[I]t will become evident,” writes von Balthasar, “whether the biblical approach can be more instructive and more profound than the great-Danish thinker’s “psychological” approach” (38).

My immediate response to this assessment of Kierkegaard’s treatment of anxiety was the judgment that von Balthasar had failed to take into account what is arguably the companion volume to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety — The Sickness Unto Death. While the former is indeed described by its pseudonymous author as “a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin” (emphasis added), the latter is described as “a christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening” (emphasis added). That is, The Sickness Unto Death involves precisely the dogmatic approach to the psychological phenomenon of despair that von Balthasar faults Kierkegaard for failing to involve in his analysis of anxiety in his eponymous book.

Ah yes, you may be thinking, but anxiety and despair are different psychological phenomena. But are they? “[D]eep deep within the most secret hiding place of happiness,” writes Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death, “there dwells also anxiety, which is despair” (SUD, 25). Some readers might object that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death is the most problematic of all their translations and that the equation of anxiety with despair there may be the result of an error in translation. It isn’t. The Danish for the passage reads: “[I]nderst inde i Lykkens Forborgenhed, der boer ogsaa Angesten, som er Fortvivlesen” (emphasis added). Anxiety and despair are two different phenomenological expressions of the same ontological state — sin. Anxiety is, arguably, despair that refuses to recognize itself as such.

There is, thus, a limit to which anxiety can be understood when approached merely psychologically. Von Balthasar is right about that. It would appear that he fails to appreciate, however, that Kierkegaard was well aware of this. The very last line of The Concept of Anxiety reads: “Here this deliberation ends, where it began. As soon as psychology has finished with anxiety, it is to be delivered to dogmatics” (CA, 162). That is, arguably, precisely what Kierkegaard did five years later in The Sickness Unto Death where he identifies anxiety with despair.

The introduction to The Sickness Unto Death begins with a quotation from The Gospel of John where Christ responds to the news that Lazarus is ill with the declaration that “This sickness is not unto death” (John 11:4). This clearly indicates the dogmatic, as opposed to merely psychological, nature of book’s approach to understanding the experience of sin. Sin, which is to say despair, is the sickness unto death according to Kierkegaard.

“Sin Is Not A Negation But A Position” is the heading that begins chapter three of The Sickness Unto Death. “That this is the case,” continues Kierkegaard,

is something that orthodox dogmatics and orthodoxy on the whole have always contended, and they have rejected as pantheistic any definition of sin that made it out to be something merely negative—weakness, sensuousness, finitude, ignorance, etc. Orthodoxy has perceived very correctly that the battle must be fought here, or as in the preceding portion, here the end must be fashioned very firmly … orthodoxy has correctly perceived that when sin is defined negatively, all Christianity is flabby and spineless. That is why orthodoxy emphasizes that there must be a revelation from God to teach fallen man what sin is, a communication that, quite consistently, must be believed because it is a dogma (SUD, 96.)

So von Balthasar’s claim that Kierkegaard “never could bring himself to write a dogmatic tract” on anxiety and that “[a]s a result, anxiety remains for him a matter of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness” is simply false. The Sickness Unto Death is Kierkegaard’s “dogmatic tract” on anxiety. Von Balthasar failed to appreciate this for the simple reason that anxiety is subsumed there under the larger heading of “despair.”

This brief examination of von Balthasar’s criticism of Kierkegaard’s treatment of anxiety is an example of a new philosophical genre known as “flash philosophy.” Flash philosophy takes its name from flash fiction, which is essentially very short short stories. Flash philosophy is thus very short philosophical articles. I’ve created a website, Flash Philosophy, dedicated to publishing such short philosophical articles. I invite interested readers to take a look at the website and to send me any material they have that they think might be appropriate to publish there.

Kierkegaard on Women

View of Dublin

As I explained in my most recent post, I chaired a session at the last annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. The session was sponsored by the Søren Kierkegaard Society, so all the papers were on Kierkegaard and they were all excellent. My last post looked at two of the papers. This post will look at the third paper “Gender and the Practical Dimensions of Kierkegaard’s Existential Philosophy,” by the Irish scholar Siobhan Marie Doyle. Doyle’s was one of the best defenses of Kierkegaard against the charge of sexism that I have ever heard. It also raises a very important philosophical question concerning what it means to charge someone with an -ism. What is sexism? What is antisemitism? Are occasional sexist remarks enough to qualify one as “sexist”? The question is equally pressing, of course with respect to the issue of antisemitism. Kierkegaard, as has been well documented by the Danish scholar Peter Tudvad, made some truly horrific remarks about Judaism, but many scholars are reluctant to classify him as antisemitic because there appears to be no foundation in his thought for such a charge. Does a person need to have a world view in which the gender, race, or religion in question figures as deeply flawed, or can genuine prejudice exist alongside an essentially egalitarian world view as a kind of psychological anomaly? These are important questions that deserve more attention than they have been given.

I’m not going to look at those questions now, however. What I want to do now is to summarize for you Doyle’s excellent paper. The paper is divided into two parts. The first part looks at what Doyle keenly observes is Kierkegaard’s “apparent ambivalence toward the feminine throughout the course of his authorship.” Sometimes he praises them and other times he excoriates them. It is indeed hard to figure out what his general view on women is, if, indeed he has one. The second part of the paper looks at Kierkegaard’s “call for the equality of all people, as presented in his ethical work: Works of Love.” Doyle is clearly using “ethical” here in the sense of Kierkegaard’s Christian ethics, rather than the ethical as the state of existence that precedes the religious. Christianity does indeed have its own ethics according to Kierkegaard and Doyle is correct in that it is the ethics of neighbor-love as expressed in Works of Love.

Doyle draws heavily on deliberation II A, B, and C in Works of Love as providing “solid evidence of [Kierkegaard’s] personal belief in the equal status of women and men.”

For Kierkegaard, she writes, “our apparent dissimilarity is merely ‘a cloak’ that disguises our actually similarity.” She then quotes a passage from Works of Love to illustrate this

Take many sheets of paper, write something different on each one; then no one will be like another. But then again take each single sheet; do not let yourself be confused by the diverse inscriptions, hold it up to the light and you will see a common watermark on all of them. In the same way the neighbor is the common watermark, but you see it only by means of eternity’s light when it shines through the dissimilarity (WOL, 89.)

If we are to take this passage seriously, and Kierkegaard clearly meant us to do that, then it becomes very difficult to argue that Kierkegaard considered women as inherently inferior to men, or indeed that he considered people of other races, cultures, or religions, including Judaism, as inherently inferior to white Europeans Christians. Nowhere does Kierkegaard ever suggest that there could be anything about a person that would exclude him or her from the category of “neighbor.” He is a humanist, in the religious sense of that term, through and through because he believed that all human beings were created by God and hence were equally valuable as God’s creations.

So why, then, does he say the terrible things he sometimes says about women? And why does he say the terrible things he sometimes says about Jews? In the first instance, it appears that what Kierkegaard generally takes aim at in his negative remarks about women is more the socially-constructed category of the feminine rather than what one might call the essentially feminine. That doesn’t excuse what he says, of course, but social constructions of gender have been problematic throughout history so it is possible to have a certain sympathy with his occasional attacks on “the feminine” understood that way.

His attacks on Judaism, on the other hand, are harsher and hence more disturbing. They arguably go beyond what would have been considered socially acceptable in 19th-century Denmark. There are negative references to Judaism early in his authorship, but they are relatively mild. His view of Judaism early on appears to have been that, like aesthetic and ethical world views, it was incomplete. His views turn more negative, however, toward the end of his life. Scholars have tended to ignore the virulently antisemitic remarks Kierkegaard made late in life out of a sense, perhaps, that they were anomalous. They certainly do not fit with the beautiful passage Doyle quotes from Works of Love. So where do they come from?

My guess is that they are a product of the persecution Kierkegaard experienced at the hands of the satirical newspaper Corsaren. The attack was initiated by Meïr Aaron Goldschmidt, the editor of Corsaren and a Jewish intellectual for who Kierkegaard had a great deal of respect. The attack has long been thought to have been confined to 1846. Tudvad revealed, however, in his book Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) that, in fact, the attack extended from 1846 right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855! Few people would be able to maintain their psychological equilibrium under such conditions. It appears that that may have been a battle that Kierkegaard lost, finally, in the end.

I examine this issue in more detail in an essay entitled “Kierkegaard: The caricature or the man?” in the January 2020 issue of the Dublin Review of Books. I thought it would be appropriate to draw your attention to this essay in my post on Doyle’s excellent paper because Dublin is her home town!