The Biblical Foundations of Kierkegaard’s Monarchism

There’s been much discussion recently of Kierkegaard’s political views. There was even a panel on this subject at the most recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The panel was organized to honor the work of the late Robert L. Perkins, a giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and an early proponent of the view that Kierkegaard’s thought has positive social implications. I was honored to be a part of this panel. My paper was entitled “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff.” The other participants were John Davenport, whose paper was entitled “The Crowd and Populism: Was Kierkegaard Correct that All Politics is Profane?,” C. Stephen Evans, whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” George Pattison, whose paper was entitled “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Lee Barrett, whose paper was entitled “Can Love Be Political?” There was also a respondent, Christopher Nelson, who did a wonderful job of bringing all the papers together in his response. The papers were excellent and the discussion afterward was enormously stimulating. It was one of the best sessions I have ever been a part of. You don’t have to take my word for that, though, Mercer University Press, for whom Bob Perkins worked for many years as the editor of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series is publishing a volume of the papers.

The occasion of this post is not simply to advertise that volume, but to develop one of the points I made in the paper that will appear there in more detail than I made in the paper itself. It is well known that Kierkegaard was a monarchist. “Government [by] royal power is representative,” he writes in a journal entry from 1847, “and to this extent Christian (monarchy)[.] The dialectic of monarchy is world-historically both well-established and unchanging.”

This is an odd assertion for a thinker who insists on a sharp distinction between what he calls “worldliness” and Christianity. It seems likely that it is an allusion to Romans 13:1-7 where Paul asserts that “[e]veryone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (New Living Translation). That is, Paul appears to be saying that a monarch represents God, however imperfectly, in his or her role of governing a people in that the authority a monarch has over his or her people is analogous to the authority God has over all people.

The qualification “however imperfectly” is important, however, because there is no reason to suppose that Paul thought all “governing authorities” were equally good. The meaning of Romans 13:1-7 is more likely, as David Papineau has argued, that any government is better than no government in that it is a force for order, order without which human flourishing is impossible.

“Even a bad state,” observes Papineau,

is much better than none at all. When the hated regimes of Eastern Europe and South Africa collapsed at the end of the last century, their populations had the good sense to carry on recognizing the existing police, courts, and other state institutions until new constitutional arrangements could be made. By contrast, the misguided disbanding of the defeated Iraqi army and police by the US authorities in 2003 created a vacuum for mob rule, and is viewed by many commentators as the main source of the subsequent chaos in the Middle East. (David Papineau, Knowing the Score [Basic Books, 2017] 58.)

Paul reputedly twice escaped imprisonment, torture, and possibly even death by asserting his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:35-40 and Acts 22:24-29). That is, it was the authority of Roman law that enabled him, in those instances, to escape incarceration and hence to continue his ministry. If these accounts are true, they explain, at least in part, why Paul would have had the view of temporal authority that he did and, I believe, by extension why Kierkegaard would have held a similar view.

The view that temporal authority has a divine source commits neither Paul nor Kierkegaard to the view that all temporal authorities are equally good. But the positive role that almost any authority has in establishing the order necessary for human flourishing makes the respect for authority that each of them had make at least a certain amount of sense.

More on Translation

Sachs' Republic coverAs I mentioned before, I’m doing a new translation of the portion of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. There are actually already three English translations of Works of Love, so it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a new translation is necessary. Arguably, the project is defensible simply because it is only a portion of the work, one designed to be easily transportable, unlike the work as a whole, which at over 500 pages in its most recent English translation is not easily transportable. There is another reason, however, for re-translating this portion of Works of Love, and indeed, even for re-translating the work in its entirety. This reason was brought home to me recently in an upper-level seminar I am teaching this term on Plato’s Republic.

I made an important discovery recently, thanks to a couple of my students, about a problem in several translations, including Bloom’s, of Plato’s Republic.. I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on the Republic this term and my students are just fantastic. We’re on Book VIII, where Socrates describes the inevitable dissolution of the aristocratic city on which the majority of the work focuses. The aristocratic city first gives way to a timocracy, or a city whose highest value is honor. The timocracy next gives way to an oligarchy, or a city that values material wealth above all else. Corresponding to each type of political regime is a personality type.

The oligarchical personality type appears to be just. He isn’t really just, though, according to Socrates. He needs to maintain a good reputation for the purposes of contractual relations, but he does this, according to Socrates, by

forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself. He holds them down not by persuading them that they had “better not” nor by taming them with argument, but by necessity and fear. (554c7-d).

One of my students, Atiq Rahman, remarked that it was strange Socrates would say that the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires with some “decent” part of himself, but that despite that, he wasn’t really just, but only appeared to be just. Atiq wanted to know what the Greek term was that was translated as “decent.”

I looked it up. The Greek expression Plato uses in the passage where Socrates talks about how the the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires “with some decent part of himself” is ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The relevant term is ἐπιεικεῖ. It means “fitting,” “meet,” or “suitable” according to Liddell-Scott. It’s related to ὲπιείκεια, which means “reasonableness,” or “fairness,” Paul Shorey’s translation of the Republic for the Loeb Classical Library, translates this passage as “he, by some better element in himself forcibly keeps down other evil desires dwelling within.”

Atiq was right, though, to point out that there was a problem with describing the part of the oligarchical man that holds down his bad desires as “decent.” Neither Bloom’s “decent part of himself” nor Shorey’s “better element in himself” coheres well with the point Socrates is making in the passage because the oligarchical man isn’t trying to be good. He isn’t genuinely virtuous, but only appears to be virtuous. He holds down his evil desires, according to Socrates, out of “fear,” not because he wants to be good, but because he is afraid that by giving in to those desires, he’ll get a bad reputation and no one will want to do business with him. It isn’t any “decent” part or “better element” of himself through which he restrains his evil desires.

It looks like Shorey was aware of the fact that it isn’t actually anything “decent” in the oligarchical man that holds down his “bad desires” because he has a note in which he writes that “ἐπιεικεῖ is here used generally, and not in its special sense of ‘sweet reasonableness’.”

It appears ἐπιεικεῖ is being used here in the purely prudential sense of “fitting.” That is, what holds down oligarchical man’s “bad desires” is whatever it is in him that is, in fact, capable of doing this. It isn’t some morally praiseworthy part of himself. So why have so many scholars chosen to translate it with English terms that have positive moral or ethical connotations? Such translations actually make the passage harder to understand.

Jowett, another student, Mark Sorrentino, pointed out “has enforced virtue,” where Bloom has “decent part of himself” and that is definitely better than either Bloom’s or Shorey’s translations. The best translation of this passage that I have found, however, is, I believe, Joe Sachs’. Sachs has “quasi-decent constraint over himself” for ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The qualification “quasi” is important because it makes clear, as none of the other translations does, that the constraint the oligarchical man exercises over himself only seems to be “decent.”

I haven’t used Sachs translation before, but I am going to consider using it the next time I teach the Republic. It may not be uniformly better than other translations, but it definitely seems deserving of a closer look.

As I said, it’s tempting to think that works that have already been translated many times probably don’t need to be translated anew. In fact, however, as I know from experience, no translation is ever perfect and given that language itself changes over time, it is a good idea to re-translate important works at regular intervals, just to make sure that the language of the translation is keeping up with contemporary usage.

Now back to my translation of the portion of Works of Love that concerns loving someone who had died. I’m excited about this project. I’m designing it with three audiences in mind. First and foremost, it will be a work for the bereaved, a small volume that can be carried easily and read for comfort by those who have lost someone they love.

Second, it will be aimed at people who are attempting to learn Danish. It will have the original Danish text and the English translation on facing pages and an abundance of notes that will explain the reasoning behind various translation decisions including when material has been interpolated in order to make the text read well in English. It will also include more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. In fact, all the English translations of Works of Love include more paragraph divisions than exist in the original because Kierkegaard had a habit of writing very long paragraphs. This translation, however, will have even more paragraph divisions than any of the other English translations. The reason for this is not simply stylistic. Dividing the text in this way into relatively small portions will help readers who are using it as a help to learning Danish in that they will find it much easier to locate particular passages in the original.

Finally, the work will be aimed at students of translation, which is to say at people who intend to become professional translators. Even if such people have no particular interest in Kierkegaard, they will find the notes explaining the rationale behind various translation decisions very instructive.

And given that we will all, inevitably, lose someone we love, they may find it instructive in another way as well.

Kierkegaard Resources

Græsk-Dansk OrdbogThe “Resources” page on this website is getting better and better. It now includes links not only to the most recent edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in Danish and the crucially important Ferrall-Repp Danish-English Dictionary from 1845, but also links to the venerable Ordbog Over Det Danske Sprog (the Danish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary), Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordsprog, a lexicon of Danish saying from Kierkegaard’s time and earlier, Peter Erasmus Müller’s Dansk Synonymik, a Danish thesaurus from 1853, Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the definitive Danish-Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s lifetime, B.C. Grønberg’s Tydsk-Dansk og Dansk-Tydsk Haandorbog, the more comprehensive of the two German-Danish and Danish-German dictionaries Kierkegaard owned, J.C. Lindberg’s Hebraisk-Dansk Haand Lexicon, the Hebrew-Danish dictionary Kierkegaard owned, and Paul Arnesen’s Ny Latinsk Ordbog, the Latin-Danish dictionary that Kierkegaard owned.

Meyers FremmedordbogThere are two conspicuous absences, however, among these resources, because they appear not to be available yet online. The first is Ludvig Meter’s Fremmedordbog from 1853. This is a dictionary of foreign words that had come into Danish by the mid-nineteenth century. This is an absolutely indispensable resource for Kierkegaard scholars because Kierkegaard frequently uses such words and they are generally not found in Molbech. Fortunately, Ferrall-Repp lists many such words in a supplement at the back. Still, the Ferrall-Repp supplement is less comprehensive than Meyer’s and the definitions are very short. The good news is that Meyer’s is still easily available from many Danish antiquarians at reasonable prices. If you click on the image of Meyer to the left, it will take you to the page of an antiquarian where you can purchase the book.

The other conspicuous absence is Paul Arnesen’s Græsk-Dansk Ordbog from 1830. This is a crucial resource not merely for scholars interested in how Kierkegaard understood and used concepts from the New Testament, but also for those who are interested in how Kierkegaard understood and used concepts from classical philosophy. I am very fortunate to own a copy of this book myself. Like Meyer, however, it is still possible to obtain a copy of this book at a reasonable price. Click on the image of Arnesen at the beginning of this post and you will be taken to a page of a Danish antiquarian where you can purchase this book.

I will continue adding resources to the “Resources” page over time and will endeavor to let readers know when new links go up.