Kierkegaard and MacDonald on Genuine Community

I recently discovered a thinker whose views are very similar to Kierkegaard’s and that has given me an opportunity to share once again my thoughts on Kierkegaard’s views on the nature of genuine community. Kierkegaard famously disparages what he refers to as “the crowd” and its “leveling” tendencies, but that does not mean he had a negative view of all collectivities. He makes very few references to positive collectivities, but that was likely first because he felt they were exceptionally rare, and second, and more importantly, because he felt describing such collectivities wasn’t his specific life’s task. His task, as he conceived it, was to encourage people to separate from the crowd, to become individuals.

Christianity, writes Kierkegaard in Works of Love, turns our attention completely away from the external, turns it inward (WOL, 376). In the stillness of God’s house, he writes in Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, “[t]here is no fellowship—each one is by himself; there is no call for united effort—each one is called to individual responsibility” (TDIO, p. 10). 

And yet, he continues later in the same work, “in the stillness, what beautiful harmony with everyone! Oh, in this solitude, what beautiful fellowship with everyone!” (TDIO, p. 38).

It may appear that Kierkegaard is contradicting himself here, but I don’t think he is. I think what he means is that in the stillness before God, there is no “fellowship” in the sense that there is no escaping into the crowd, no hiding behind others, no opportunity for leveling reassurances that after all, it is unreasonable to expect moral perfection. 

“God wants each individual,”writes Kierkegaard, for the sake of certainty and of equality and of responsibility, to learn for himself the Law’s requirement. When this is the case, there is durability in existence, because God has a firm hold on it. There is no vortex, because each individual begins, not with ‘the others’ and therefore not with evasions and excuses, but begins with the God-relationship and therefore stands firm (WOL, p. 118).

God is the “middle term” for Kierkegaard in any genuinely loving relationship, whether that relationship is one of preferential love or neighbor love. But when God is the middle term, then genuine community is possible. 

That brings me to my discovery. I take painting lessons. I have to drive more than an hour every Saturday to get to my painting class. I enjoy the drive because the landscape through which I drive is mostly rural. Still, the drive is nicer if I have something to listen to. Sadly, the radio in my 1999 Mazda Protegé long ago bit the dust, so I have to stream whatever I listen to on my phone with the help of a small bluetooth speaker. I like to listen to books, when possible. I found something called The Hope of the Gospels, by George MacDonald on YouTube. I’d never heard of MacDonald, but I like theological works, so I thought I would give it a try. 

It was amazing! MacDonald’s writing is every bit as beautiful and inspiring as Kierkegaard’s best edifying writing and there is an uncanny similarity of views between the two. 

“Although I say, every man stands alone in God,” writes MacDonald in Miracles of Our Lord, “I yet say two or many can meet in God as they cannot meet save in God; nay, that only in God can two or many truly meet; only as they recognize their oneness with God can they become one with each other” (The Complete Works of George MacDonald, p. 13,394)

What MacDonald is describing is precisely the “beautiful fellowship” with others that a genuine God relationship not only makes possible according to Kierkegaard, but actually necessary.

“Christianity,” according to Kierkegaard, “turns our attention completely away from the external, turns it inward, and makes every one of your relationships to other people into a God-relationship (WOL, p. 376). “God just repeats everything you say and do to other people; he repeats it with the magnification of infinity. God repeats the words of grace or of judgment that you say about another; he says the same thing word for word about you (WOL, pp. 384-385). 

But this unity of the divine and the human as exemplified in the neighbor is not merely for purposes of judgment.

“Love is a need, the deepest need, in the person in whom there is love for the neighbor,” writes Kierkegaard, “he does not need people just to have someone to love, but he needs to love people. Yet there is no pride or haughtiness in this wealth, because God is the middle term, and eternity’s shall binds and guides this great need so that it does not go astray and turn into pride. But there are no limits to the objects, because the neighbor is all human beings, unconditionally every human being” (WOL, p. 67). 

“All communities are for the divine sake of individual life,” writes MacDonald, “for the sake of the love and truth that is in each heart, and is not cumulative—cannot be in two as one result. But all that is precious in the individual heart depends for existence on the relation the individual bears to other individuals: alone—how can he love? alone—where is his truth? It is for and by the individuals that the individual lives. A community is the true development of individual relations. Its very possibility lies in the conscience of its men and women. No setting right can be done in the mass. There are no masses save in corruption. Vital organizations result alone from individualities and consequent necessities, which fitting the one into the other, and working for each other, make combination not only possible but unavoidable. Then the truth which has informed in the community reacts on the individual to perfect his individuality. In a word, the man, in virtue of standing alone in God, stands with his fellows, and receives from them divine influences without which he cannot be made perfect” ( The Complete Works of George MacDonald, p. 13,393).

Kierkegaard could not have said it better himself!

I am devouring everything MacDonald wrote, at least all the theological writings. Theological writings were not all he wrote. Kierkegaard and MadDonald have more in common than the substance of their theologies. Kierkegaard, as is widely known, loved fairy tales. MacDonald loved them as well. In fact, he actually wrote fairy tales and it appears his fantastical works were enormously influential on a number of later thinkers including J.R.R.Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.

Unfortunately, the only hard copy edition of MacDonald’s collected theological writings that I have been able to find is part of his much larger complete works that retails on Abebooks.com for $1,980.53, which is just a little more than my current book-buying budget allows. Fortunately, there is an ebook version of MacDonald’s complete works that is available through Amazon for a measly $1.99! 

It is profoundly mysterious to me that MacDonald is not better known. There is a George MacDonald Society, but I’ve never seen any sessions devoted to his works at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I’ve been attending the annual meetings of the AAR for more than twenty years and I had never run across his name before. I would’t go so far as to argue that no attention has ever been paid to MacDonald at the AAR, but if there has been any attention given to MacDonald, it has been very slight, and it appears no attention whatever has been given to the relation between MacDonald’s thought and Kierkegaards. 

That has got to change!

The Meaning of “Ethics” in Fear and Trembling

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I belong to a really wonderful philosophy of religion reading group. We’re reading Eleanor Stump’s Wandering in Darkness. We just finished the chapter that looks at the story of Abraham and Isaac. Stump contrasts her interpretation of the story with Kierkegaard’s, famously put forward in Fear and Trembling. She acknowledges that she is not a Kierkegaard scholar, and that her interpretation of Fear and Trembling is not intended as a contribution to Kierkegaard scholarship, but explains that she’s using the story to “bring out the salient features of [her] differing interpretation.” Readers, she continues “should feel free to take the section of this chapter on Kierkegaard’s reading of the story as only a Kierkegaard-like interpretation” (p. 260).

Unfortunately, Stump’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t very “Kierkegaard-like.”

“[A]s I understand him,” writes Stump,

Kierkegaard takes Abraham to be caught in a dilemma; but he thinks that that dilemma is resoluble, because he supposes that God’s command produces a “teleological suspension of the ethical” for Abraham. The ethical prohibition against the killing of an innocent child is overridden by God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. That Abraham understands and accepts this feature of his situation is part of what makes him a hero of faith for Kierkegaard (pp. 260-261).

For Stump, on the other hand, there is no dilemma. “If we read the episode of the binding of Isaac,” she argues, 

in the context of the whole narrative of Abraham’s life, in which Abraham’s double-mindedness about God’s goodness is manifest, and especially if we see that episode against the backdrop of the expulsion of Ishmael, then it is clear that God is not pitting his authority against morality in asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, as Kierkegaard apparently supposed. … God’s demand for Isaac and the requirements of morality are on the same side in this story (p. 303).

“The faith that makes Abraham the father of faith,” she continues, “has its root in Abraham’s acceptance of the goodness of God, Abraham’s belief that God will keep his promises, and Abraham’s willingness to stake his heart’s desire on that belief” (p. 304).

That is, Stump argues that God has repeatedly shown Abraham that he is trustworthy hence ethics requires that Abraham accept God as trustworthy. That, according to Stump, is what ethics demands. There’s no dilemma, no conflict between the requirements of ethics and God’s command. What God commands is precisely what the moral law requires. 

Stump’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is not new. Many people have interpreted Fear and Trembling in the way Stump does. It is arguably difficult not to interpret it this way, given that Kierkegaard himself coined the phrase “teleological suspension of the ethical” (teleologisk Suspension af det Ethiske). Yet, there are ample clues in the work itself that Kierkegaard does not mean to suggest that God’s commands would ever conflict with genuine moral or ethical obligation.

But if Kierkegaard is not trying to argue that God’s command can potentially be in conflict with our ethical obligations and that when it is, our duty to God supersedes those obligations, what is he doing in Fear and Trembling? 

One doesn’t have to know a lot about Kierkegaard to take issue with Stump’s reading of Fear and Trembling. In fact, one only needs to have read the introductions to Alastair Hannay’s and Sylvia Walsh’s translations of the work to get a decent idea of what sort of “dilemma” it presents. 

“The opening pages of each of the three problemata,” explains Hannay 

all follow a uniform pattern. First the ethical is defined as the universal, then a consequence drawn from this, followed by the observation that to accept this consequence is to concede that Hegel’s account of the ethical is right. Thereupon our author claims that if Hegel’s account is indeed right, then Hegelians have no right to talk of faith or to give credit to Abraham as its father, for according to each of the consequences in question Abraham must stand morally (even criminally) condemned. The three consequences of defining the ethical as ‘the universal’ are: (i) that the individual’s moral performance must be judged by its underlying social intention; (ii) that there are no duties to God other than duties that are in the first instance to the universal; and (iii) that it is a moral requirement that one not conceal one’s moral projects or the reasons one has for failing to carry them through. In each of the problemata Abraham is shown to infringe the principle of the ethical as the universal by failing to conform to the consequence, or implicated requirement, in question. Abraham acts as though there were a superior measure of moral performance that made social intentions irrelevant; he supposes himself to have an absolute duty to God that overrides the ethical defined as the universal; and he cannot reveal his intention to the parties concerned. (p. 28)

“Hegel defined ethical life (Kierkegaard uses a Danish expression, ‘det Sædelige’, which is a direct translation of Hegel’s ‘das Sittliche’),” Hannay continues, 

as the identification of the individual with the totality of his social life. The basic idea behind an ethics of Sittlichkeit is that public morality, or the principles of social and political cohesion underlying any actual society, are expressions of universal human goals. If there is a human telos (goal) at all, that is where it finds expression. Thus in order to become moral the individual should conform to, and begin to want to act in accordance with, the principles of public morality that any State must be based on. ‘The State’, says Hegel, ‘in and by itself is the ethical whole.’ This is precisely the idea of the ethical as the universal which the problemata present as a hoop that Abraham must jump through in order to prove the morality of his action. Abraham consistently fails.

It isn’t merely, or even primarily, Hegel that Kierkegaard has in mind, I would argue, when he refers to “ethics in the sense of social convention.” It’s Hans Lassen Martensen, his former teacher and eventual Bishop of Copenhagen. “De Sædelige” is the title of the first section of the first volume of Martensen’s Den christelige Ethik (Christian Ethics). Sædelighed, which according to Martensen, has its foundation in the family unit, is the foundation of Christian ethics. Den christelige Ethik was not published until after Kierkegaard’s death, but Martensen was an ardent follower of Hegel from the beginning of his philosophical career and is repeatedly and mercilessly caricatured as such by Kierkegaard.

“The general thrust of Protestant liberal thought from Kant to Hegel,” observes C. Stephen Evans in his introduction to Sylvia Walsh’s translation of Fear and Trembling (Cambridge, 2006), 

has been to understand genuine religious faith in ethical terms. Kant himself had closely linked true religious faith to the ethical life: “Apart from a good life-conduct, anything which the human being supposes that he can to do to become well-pleasing to God is mere religious delusion and counterfeit service of God.” When Kantian ethics is converted by Hegel to Sittlichkeit then the equation of faith with the ethical sets the stage for the triumph of Christendom and the identification of religious faith with social conformism. (p. xxix)

“Kierkegaard thinks that genuine faith,” continues Evans, “requires an individual relation with God that is personally transformative.” According to Kierkegaard, argues Evans, faith in God “is not reducible to fulfilling one’s social roles.” Such faith serves as the basis, he observes, however, of a renewal of the self and of social institutions. 

Only ethics in this new, specifically religious sense really counts as ethics for Kierkegaard because only through a transformation of the individual is there any hope of that individual’s conforming his or her will to the substance of the moral law. Outside of Grace, guilt is too debilitating, to corruptive of the subjective determining ground of the will. 

Hannay’s own view is that Kierkegaard “envisages some alternative” to the Hegelian principle of morality whereby there is no genuine conflict between what ethics requires and what God commands. Not only that, Hannay goes so far as to assert that Johannes de silentio, the pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, envisages such an alternative. 

Evans doesn’t give Johannes de silentio so much credit as Hannay does, but they agree that the view of ethics that equates it with Sittlichkeit/Sædelighed was not one to which Kierkegaard himself subscribed. Such a view is amply supported by the repeated qualifications of “the ethical” in Fear and Trembling as “the universal,” and at least one completely unequivocal reference to “the ethical in the sense of social convention” (Det Ethiske i Betydning of det SædeligeSKS 4, p. 153/SV, 2nd ed. III, p. 123). Unfortunately, the allusion to Hegel is obscured in both the Hongs’ and, more surprisingly, Hannay’s own translation of the relevant passage. The Hongs have “[t]he ethical in the sense of the moral” (p. 59) and Hannay has “[t]he ethical in the sense of ethical life” (p. 88). 

That Kierkegaard envisages an alternative to the Hegelian view of ethics is widely recognized by scholars. Kierkegaard is a famous opponent of Hegel on this point, as well as on many others. Scholars are familiar with Kierkegaard’s hyphenated expression “ethical-religious.” Ethics cannot ultimately be separated from religion, according to Kierkegaard, in the manner that both Hegel and Martensen try to do. More particularly, ethics cannot be separated from Christianity, as is clear in, for example, Kierkegaard’s ethical treatise Works of Love. 

If there is a God, then there is a way that God wants his creatures to relate to him (or her or it). That is, if there is a God, then the proper relation to God is the individual’s telos and insofar as the proper relation to God is going to involve relating in a particular way to the rest of creation, then ethics is subsumed under religion which means there cannot be any conflict between ethical duty and religious duty. The two are the same. 

One doesn’t need to be a Kierkegaard scholar to appreciate this. Not only is the logic of the above identification of ethical and religious duty unassailable, Kierkegaard has left ample clues in Fear and Trembling to indicate that “the ethical” as it is presented there ought always to have quotation marks around it in that there is another higher ethics in the background, an ethics not unlike the one that Stump defends in her effort to provide an ethical justification for Abraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice his son. 

Except that Abraham isn’t actually willing to sacrifice his son, on Stump’s reading. His faith is that God won’t actually ask him to do it in the end. 

Stump’s reading of the Abraham story has some very compelling elements, including the creative and original use she makes of Abraham’s earlier effective sacrifice of Ishmael. I would argue, however, that if Abraham’s faith was simply that God’s goodness would mean that he would not, in the end, require the sacrifice of Isaac, then Abraham comes off not as the father of faith, but merely as a really nice guy, unwilling, as Rhett Butler observes of Melanie Hamilton, to think ill of anyone she loves.

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.