The Crisis

It’s too bad Kierkegaard was discovered in the middle of two world wars and the rise of Germany. The war and its effects on civilization overshadowed any positive aspects of Kierkegaard’s writings. Crisis was the new word for the “spirit of the age” and Christianity was blamed as well as praised by the intellectuals of the time.

His writings were used as biographical material for a psychoanalytical description of him as a tortured soul who was abused by his religious surroundings. This was started at early as 1914 when David Swenson wrote his monograph and continued with Walter Lowrie when he wrote his biography about Kierkegaard in 1938.

The following quotes come from several books that discuss the crisis and how it came into being since the time of Descartes and Hegel. Hegel was influenced by the French Revolution and noted how change could be brought about by disruption of the social order.

“Kierkegaard’s spirit and accent are, in fact, those of the twentieth rather than of the nineteenth century. But while the psychological miseen-scene is so similar the denouement is different. Kierkegaard claims to have ridden the rapids of catastrophe and passed beyond them to a more profound and serene ocean of spiritual integrity.

Where the modern spirit, for the most part, as in the case of T. E. Lawrence, finds itself baffled and bogged in despair, Kierkegaard seems to have broken through; where these reach a dead end, he finds a new beginning, where the contemporary consciousness appears to begin and end in conflict, Kierkegaard seems to begin with conflict but to end with co-ordination.”

The terrible crystal: studies in Kierkegaard and modern Christianity, by M. Chaning-Pearce 1941

When a man jumps off a cliff, he doesn’t defy the law of gravitation; he merely illustrates it. Similarly, when a culture or a civilization jumps off a cliff, it doesn’t defy the ontological conditions which sanction it, or the nature of man, or the nature of God, or the nature of man’s destiny under God. It merely illustrates them. In short, at the point of crisis, our reasonings are thrust against the ultimate nature and meaning of things. The religious and metaphysical understanding of man is thus renewed.

From this it will be seen that a culture, or a civilization, which has gone wrong on first principles is fundamentally in dialectical conflict with itself. It is like a many-headed hydra, growing lustily at first and breeding many heads. At length, however, it goes mad through willful opposition of the heads, which tear and rend each other until it has destroyed itself. This action, when thus fatally determined, is a negative clarification of what was implicit from the beginning—of what was “in the nature of the beast.”

Today we see many vicious opposites tearing and rending each other and threatening to destroy what men have known and cherished as the “West.”

The West confronts its own principles deflected upon it violently from the East. This presents to the Western consciousness a perspective that is entirely new, and for which there is no precise historical precedent. The cataclysmic conflict of forces throughout the world is the external evidence of a deep inner cleft within the spirit of modern man.”

The Crisis of Faith, by Hopper, Stanley Romaine 1944

“The crisis toward which the modern world was slowly but surely moving was early diagnosed as a disease of the human mind by some advanced thinkers who dared to take their stand against the spirit of the age” and some of whom fell as victims in a valiant struggle against forces which were as powerfully alive within their own selves as in their surrounding world.

The German poet Goethe, usually given to optimism, grew doubtful and melancholy when he weighed the progressive trends of the early nineteenth century against the chances of human happiness. “Men,” he wrote, “will become more shrewd and clever, but they will not be better or happier. I see a time approaching when God will no longer be pleased with man, when He will have to smash His creation to pieces in order to rejuvenate it.”

And Friedrich Nietzsche was to write half a century later: “Oh thou proud European of the nineteenth century, art thou not mad? Thy knowledge does not complete Nature, it only kills thine own nature. . . . Thou climbest toward heaven on the sunbeams of thy knowledge — but also down toward chaos. Thy manner of going is fatal to thee; the ground slips from under thy feet into the dark unknown; thy life has no stay but spiders’ webs torn assunder by every new stroke of thy knowledge.”

goethe to schopenhauer

In the interval between these apprehensive warnings of Goethe and Nietzsche, the imposing system of G. F. Hegel’s metaphysical idealism had risen as a final attempt to unify science, philosophy, and religion. But Hegel’s own “dialectical method” was seized upon by the radical “Young’ Hegelians” in Germany and England to destroy their master’s idealistic premises. Taking their cue from Auguste Comte’s positivism, they developed a dialectical “historic materialism” which saw in history no longer any issues involving problems of true and false, right and wrong, good and evil, but merely questions of fact and material force.Even while Hegel was still alive, the inductive method of the natural sciences began to replace the deductive reasoning of the Hegelian system. Comte’s positivism became first a powerful rival of Hegelianism and then its triumphant conqueror.”

“The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset compares contemporary man with a traveler in a motorcar the mechanism of which is a complete mystery to him. Man without God resembles the traveler without an experienced chauffeur: the car races at full speed, but the traveler has lost control. The world moves at full speed toward events over which man is no longer master.”

“Emmanuel Mounier distinguishes between two types of nihilism, one of which is creative and “preliminary,” while the other is destructive and final. Creative nihilism points to the dark abyss of nothingness in order to warn and to rescue; it calls “nothingness” by name in order to reveal and save the splendor of “being” which lies buried in its hidden depths. This is the nihilism of Nietzsche and of Heidegger.

Destructive nihilism, on the other hand, grows out of a frustrated desire to be creative in the attainment of knowledge or in the domination of life and nature. It resembles the primitive reaction of the child taking vengeance on the object or subject which refuses to be subservient to his wishes or whims. The destructive nihilist is possessed by a horrible intoxication, a raving despair which drives him to the demolition of his home, his work, and his self.”

“The Socratic method consists, according to Kierkegaard, in leading the reader to a point where he finds out for himself what the author has been trying to convey to him, without the need of “direct communication.”

To accomplish this, Kierkegaard needed a number of sharply profiled individual characters whose thoughts and actions he could experimentally develop to their extreme possibilities. This is the explanation of the use of the many pseudonyms in Kierkegaard’s works. “With my left hand,” he says, “I gave to the world ‘Either/Or’ (i.e., pseudonymous “indirect communication”), and with my right hand ‘Two Edifying Discourses'” (i.e., “direct communication” over the signature of his own name). In the last analysis, to be a philosopher means for Kierkegaard to understand oneself as a creature of God.” (23)

“Hegel, starting out as a theologian, had in the end denounced all theology. Step by step he had transformed Christian dogmatics into a gnostic theory of knowledge: Redemption was interpreted as the redeeming force of love; the Holy Trinity became “the dialectic of the Absolute Mind”; the God-Man was transformed into a man who had experienced his identity with the Absolute; and the Holy Spirit appeared as the communal spirit of social life.

Was Kierkegaard’s view then unduly gloomy when he saw in Hegel the most ingenious and therefore the most dangerous modern enemy of Christianity?

Kierkegaard himself, on the other hand, had started out as a speculative writer and ended as a theologian who denounced philosophy. He became “a Protestant monk,” a lonely Christian who deeply, in fear and trembling, experienced the agony of Christ on Mount Calvary, almost forgetting its sequel, the gladness of Easter. He took a forceful stand against Hegel’s fatalistic theory of the predetermined evolution of the world spirit. Far from conceiving of Christianity as one phase among others in an evolutionary cosmic process, the Christian dispensation was for him a unique occurrence of absolute and incomparable value and validity. For him, therefore, the individual’s concern was with faith and salvation rather than with the “objectivations of the World Spirit.”

There is ample justification for accepting as essentially correct Kierkegaard’s contention that Hegel’s goal, as revealed in the concluding paragraphs of his Philosophy of History, was the secularization of religion and the divinization of nature and worldly prudence. God must become man, so that the philosopher may become God, or, to use Hegel’s own phraseology, a representation of objective truth, of absolute being, of self-conscious Idea; so that in the end all opposites may be identified and neutralized: God, World, and Man are One Idea.

Against the backdrop of the Kierkegaard-Hegel antithesis, the present condition of Christianity in the world stands out more clearly.

The contemporary philosopher who chooses his stand on the side of atheism and paganism is no longer apologetic about it and therefore perhaps more sincere than Hegel. Kierkegaard had tried desperately to resolve the thought — extension, spirit — nature, soul — body dualisms and antinomies which Descartes had bequeathed from one generation of philosophers to the next.

The Existentialist Revolt by Kurt Reinhardt 1952

“Philosophy concerns itself only with the glory of the Idea mirroring itself in the History of the World. Philosophy escapes from the weary strife of passions that agitate the surface of society into the calm region of contemplation; that which interests it is the recognition of the process of development which the Idea has passed through in realizing itself to the Idea of Freedom, whose reality is the consciousness of Freedom and nothing short of it.

That the History of the World, with all the changing scenes which its annals present, is this process of development and the realization of Spirit, this is the true Theodicies, the justification of God in History. Only this insight can reconcile Spirit with the History of the World viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day, is not only not “without God,” but is essentially His Work. ”

Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History (p. 476)

The private thinker Job is contrasted with the world-renowned Hegel, and even with the Greek Symposium—i.e., with Plato himself. Does such a contrast have any meaning and has Kierkegaard himself the power to realize it? That is, to accept as the truth, not what was revealed to him by the philosophical thought of the enlightened Hellene, but what was related by a man half-mad from horror and an ignorant man at that—the hero of a narrative from an ancient book? Why is Job’s truth “more convincing” than the truth of Hegel or of Plato? Is it really more convincing?

It was not so easy for Kierkegaard to break with the world-famous philosopher. Kierkegaard exchanged Hegel and the Greek Symposium for the fiery speeches of Job. Can contemporary man reject Socrates and expect to find the truth in Abraham and Job?

Lev Shestov (1866-1938), Kierkegaard & the Existential Philosophy

authors inspired by kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka are the three prophets, each in his own way, of nihilistic absurdity.

By taking “the leap” into faith, Kierkegaard escapes the consequences of dread and despair that the vision of the infinite absurd induces, but the religious solution he advocates precludes the birth of tragedy.

Hailing the death of God, Nietzsche spells out all the metaphysical implications to be drawn from a God-abandoned world. He is our key figure of Promethean defiance, the instigator of the modem revolt. It is he who, at the start of our inquiry, best illustrates the difficulties that attend the modern writer’s effort to derive the tragic vision from nihilistic premises.

In the case of Kafka, the impossibility of either affirming or rejecting life reaches a climax of ambiguity. The absurd is enthroned. Camus, like Sartre, transcends the myth of Sisyphus by showing how man can live in a universe that is without ultimate meaning.

The tragic vision in twentieth-century literature. Glicksberg, Charles Irving 1963  See also Literature and Religion 1960

Kierkegaard wrote about Goethe and Hegel in his Concluding Postscript as well as his Journals. He thought an all-encompassing system of religion or philosophy would bring civilization to a standstill. Final causes were ignored by Descartes and modern philosophers followed his strategy. Kierkegaard was for teaching the doctrine of God as the final cause because for him it gave civilization a hope that was worth living for.

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