The Spiritual Fire‑Marshal 1855

When finally the right man arrives, he who in the highest sense is called to the task ….

What do you do when you see a fire blazing and the house about to burn to the ground? Or when you meet a sick person and think you’re sure you have the remedy?

Soren Kierkegaard compared the material and spiritual worlds in his short essay What Says The Fire Marshall? (The Instant Number 6 August 23, 1855)

I can see that his essay “The Crowd is Untruth” influenced his approach to the crowd and solving problems. (On the Dedication to “That Single Individual”)

“There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.”

What Says the Fire-Marshall?

“That a man who in some fashion or other has what one calls a “cause,” something he seriously purposes to accomplish—and there are other persons who make it their business to counteract, and antagonize, and hurt him—that he must take measures against these his enemies, this will be evident to every one. But that there is a well-intentioned kindness by far more dangerous, perhaps, and one that seems calculated to prevent the serious accomplishment of his mission, this will not at once be clear to every one.

When a person suddenly falls ill, kindly-intentioned folk will straightway rush to his help, and one will suggest this, another that—and if all those about him had a chance to have their way it would certainly result in the sick man’s death; seeing that even one person’s well-meaning advice may be dangerous enough. And even if nothing is done, and the advice of neither the assembled and well-meaning crowd nor of any one person is taken, yet their busy and flurried presence may be harmful, nevertheless, inasmuch as they are in the way of the physician.

Likewise at a fire. Scarcely has the alarm of fire been sounded but a great crowd of people will rush to the spot, good and kindly and sympathetic, helpful people, the one with a bucket, the other with a basin, still another with a hand-squirt—all of them goodly, kindly, sympathetic, helpful persons who want to do all they can to extinguish the fire.

But what says the fire-marshal? The fire-marshal, he says—well, at other times the fire-marshal is a very pleasant and refined man; but at a fire he does use coarse language—he says or, rather, he roars out: “Oh, go to hell with your buckets and hand-squirts!” And then, when these well-meaning people feel insulted, perhaps, and think it highly improper to be treated in this fashion, and would like at least to be treated respectfully—what says the fire-marshal then? Well, at other times the fire-marshal is a very pleasant and refined gentleman who will show every one the respect due him; but at a fire he is somewhat different—he says: “Where the devil is the police?” And when the policemen arrive he says to them: “Rid me of these damn people with their buckets and hand-squirts; and if they won’t clear out, then club them on their heads, so that we get rid of them and—can get at the fire!”

That is to say, in the case of a fire the whole way of looking at things is a very different one from that of quiet every-day life. The qualities which in quiet every-day life render one well-liked, viz., good-nature and kindly well-meaning, all this is repaid, in the case of a fire, with abusive language and finally with a crack on the head.

And this is just as it should be. For a conflagration is a serious business; and wherever we have to deal with a serious business this well-intentioned kindness won’t do at all. Indeed, any serious business enforces a very different mode of behavior which is: either-or. Either you are able really to do something, and really have something to do here; or else, if that be not the case, then the serious business demands precisely that you take yourself away. And if you will not comprehend that, the fire-marshal proposes to have the police hammer it into your head; which may do you a great deal of good, as it may help to render you a little serious, as is befitting so serious a business as a fire.

But what is true in the case of a fire holds true also in matters of the spirit. Wherever a cause is to be promoted, or an enterprise to be seen through, or an idea to be served—you may be sure that when he who really is the man to do it, the right man, he who, in a higher sense has and ought to have command, he who is in earnest and can make the matter the serious business it really is—you may be sure that when he arrives at the spot, so to say, he will find there a nice company of easy-going, addle-pated twaddlers who pretending to be engaged in serious business, dabble in wishing to serve this cause, to further that enterprise, to promote that idea—a company of addle-pated fools who will of course consider one’s unwillingness to make common cause with them (which unwillingness precisely proves one’s seriousness)—will of course consider that a sure proof of the man’s lack of seriousness. I say, when the right man arrives he will find this; but I might also look at it in this fashion: the very question as to whether he is the right man is most properly decided by his attitude to that crowd of fools. If he thinks they may help him, and that he will add to his strength by joining them, then he is eo ipso not the right man.

The right man will understand at once, as did the fire-marshal, that the crowd must be got out of the way; in fact, that their presence and puttering around is the most dangerous ally the fire could have. Only, that in matters of the spirit it is not as in the case of the conflagration, where the fire-marshal needs but to say to the police: rid me of these people!

Thus in matters of the spirit, and likewise in matters of religion. History has frequently been compared to what the chemists call a “process.” The figure is quite suggestive, providing it is correctly understood. For instance, in the “process of filtration” water is run through a filter and by this process loses its impurities. In a totally different sense history is a process. The idea is given utterance—and then enters into the process of history. But unfortunately this process (how ridiculous a supposition!) consists not in purifying the idea, which never is purer than at its inception; oh no, it consists in gradually and increasingly botching, bungling, and making a mess of, the idea, in using up the idea, in—indeed, is not this the opposite of filtering?—adding the impurer elements which it originally lacked: until at last, by the enthusiastic and mutually appreciative efforts of successive generations, the idea has absolutely disappeared and the very opposite of the original idea is now called the idea, which is then asserted to have arisen through a historic process by which the idea is purified and elevated.

When finally the right man arrives, he who in the highest sense is called to the task—for all we know, chosen early and slowly educated for this business—which is, to throw light on the matter, to set fire to this jungle which is a refuge for all kinds of foolish talk and delusions and rascally tricks—when he comes he will always find a nice company of addle-pated fools and twaddlers who, surely enough, do think that, perhaps, things are wrong and that “something must be done about it”; or who have taken the position, and talk a good deal about it, that it is preposterous to be self-important and talk about it.

Now if he, the right man, is deceived but a single instant and thinks that it is this company who are to aid him, then it is clear he is not the right man. If he is deceived and has dealings with that company, then providence will at once take its hand off him, as not fit.

But the right man will see at a glance, as the fire-marshal does, that the crowd who in the kindness of their hearts mean to help in extinguishing a conflagration by buckets and hand-squirts—the right man will see that the same crowd who here, when there is a question, not of extinguishing a fire, but rather of setting something on fire, will in the kindness of their hearts wish to help, with a sulphur match sans fire or a wet spill—he will see that this crowd must be got rid of, that he must not have the least thing in common with this crowd, that he will be! obliged to use the coarsest possible language against them—he who perhaps at other times is anything but coarse. But the thing of supreme importance is to be rid of the crowd; for the effect of the crowd is to hamstring the whole cause by robbing it of its seriousness while heartfelt sympathy is pretended. Of course the crowd will then rage against him, against his incredible arrogance and so forth. This ought not to count with him, whether for or against. In all truly serious business the law of: either—or, prevails. Either, I am the man whose serious business this is, I am called to it, and am willing to take a decisive risk; or, if this be not the case, then the seriousness of the business demands that I do not meddle with it at all. Nothing is more detestable and mean, and nothing discloses and effects a deeper demoralization, than this lackadaisical wishing to enter “somewhat” into matters which demand an aut—aut, aut Cæsar aut nihil, this taking just a little part in something, to be so wretchedly lukewarm, to twaddle about the business, and then by twaddling to usurp through a lie the attitude of being better than they who wish not to have anything whatever to do with the whole business—to usurp through a lie the attitude of being better, and thus to render doubly difficult the task of him whose business it really is.” (Soren Kierkegaard, The Attack Upon Christendom (1854-55 – The Instant Number 6 August 23, 1855) (public domain)

(aut—aut, aut Cæsar aut nihil – either/or, either Caesar or nothing!) “To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself, is the formula for all despair, and hence the second form of despair (in despair at willing to be oneself) can be followed back to the first (in despair at not willing to be oneself)” Sickness Unto Death (1849)

Soren Kierkegaard the Christian thinker

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