Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kierkegaard on Confession II: The Good

Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded. James 4:8

Taking this verse as his text, Kierkegaard begins his discussion of what it is to be an individual before Eternity, and, in particular, what it is to have that purity of heart which wills one thing. There is, in fact, only one thing that can possibly be willed with purity of heart:

For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him; and only by God's drawing nigh to them can they maintain this purity. And he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth. (p. 53)

This will be Kierkegaard's theme throughout the entire discourse: first, he will discuss the fact that only the Good can be willed with purity of heart, or, in other words, that we cannot actually will one thing alone except by willing the Good; second, he will discuss different kinds of double-mindedness, which keeps us from willing the Good alone; third, he will discuss what is required in order to will the Good alone; and finally he will discuss what kind of life on lives in willing the Good alone. I'll discuss this first element here.

It's often not recognized that Kierkegaard likes to express himself in Platonic terms; these terms are adapted, to be sure, but Kierkegaard's Socratism makes him half-Platonist, as it were. We find this in evidence in Section 3 of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. But although he is expressing himself in Platonic terms, he expects the reader, or, rather, the listener (since the work is written to be read aloud), to find what he is saying in themselves and not in Plato or anyone else. We are called to recognize in ourselves that only the Good can be willed without double-mindedness and self-deceit.

We often talk and act as if someone can single-mindedly pursue almost any goal; but if we look a little closer we find that this is not true. Indeed, one of Kierkegaard's major problems in the discourse is to avoid simply giving an endless list of all the ways in which we can squander our lives by being double-minded while deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are not. The discourse can only be manageable if we stick to the most important topic here: the Good itself, which, rich though it is, is single:

For the Good without condition and without qualification, without preface and without compromise is, absolutely the only thing that a man may and should will, and is only one thing....The person who wills one thing that is not the Good, he does not truly will one thing. It is a delusion, an illusion, a deception, a self-deception that he wills only one thing. (pp. 54-55)

The way in which this happens is actually quite clear and straightforward, and can be seen by a few examples. Consider someone who is seemingly single-minded in the pursuit of pleasure. Surely such a man is willing one thing? Ah, but this makes the crucially fatal mistake on which much human self-deception is based, namely, that we are taking the changeable as if it were unchanging. When we say that someone pursues pleasure, we do not and cannot mean that they pursue one solitary pleasure. We are mutable by nature, and pleasure itself is caught up in that mutability. To pursue pleasure is to pursue pleasure after pleasure; what pleases changes. What we really will when we will pleasure is a particular kind of change, a particular kind of variety. Thus pleasure is multiple by its very nature; who wills pleasure as his good cannot will one thing, and therefore cannot have purity of heart. Exactly the same thing happens if we consider riches, honor, and power. To will each of these is not actually to will one thing, but to will a kind of change and variety. Taking any of these things as our good is being double-minded. Only the Good itself does not change, being eternal, and unites everything worth willing in itself:

Shall a man in truth will one thing, then this one thing that he wills must be such that it remains unaltered in all changes, so that by willing it he can win immutability. (p. 60)

Kierkegaard does not say so, but I am absolutely certain that he is following Boethius here. He certainly did have own a copy of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and he refers to or quotes it on a small handful of occasions in his entire corpus. But the argument here is too close to Boethius's to be accidentally connected. In the Consolation, Boethius distinguishes between the goods of Fortune, which are fool's goods, false goods, and true good. The goods of Fortune he recognizes are riches, honor, recognitions, power, and pleasure. The reason that these are false goods is that they are mutable and fractured, multiple. The true good, on the other hand, is immutable and One: it is Good itself, and is God. This is exactly the pattern of reasoning we have here: less Neoplatonically put, but structurally very similar, down to a close overlap in false goods. Even some of the minor points show a clear overlap with Boethius; for instance, Kierkegaard in passing says, "What slave in chains is as unfree as a tyrant!" (p. 60), which is also a claim made by Boethius. Kierkegaard will also later refer to a story mentioned by Boethius, in Section 13. Thus there can really be no doubt: Kierkegaard is providing a nineteenth century adaptation of the Boethian argument. This makes the work especially interesting, since it connects it to the topic of happiness -- Boethius's whole argument is that the only true happiness lies in the Good -- and also with Kierkegaard's interest in the spirit of wholehearted commitment and martyrdom -- since Boethius is under house arrest waiting to die and writes the book to argue that all this is as nothing compared to participation in the Good. And bringing this argument into a set of discourses on preparation for Confession heightens the practical significance of what we are doing in Confession, as Kierkegaard no doubt intends: in Confession we are concerned with our true happiness, with what truly makes life worth living.

Because of this, we must beware of falling into another trap. We often restlessly pursue ever-changing variety as if it could give us happiness, but we also often fall into the trap of thinking that our life is made worthwhile by its "great moments." This is an illusion: great moments pass as other moments do. They are lost in the ever-changing whirl of time, and thus we do not really find the worthwhileness of life in them, and taking refuge in great moments is as double-minded as anything else. It is even often an act of despair: I may fall, but I have done something great. But such a person has given himself over to double-mindedness entirely, willfully allowing himself to drown rather than to shout for help. Such people have willed everything but the one thing that could be willed with purity of heart, the one thing that can save -- and they claim it as an advantage, as the very thing that makes their lives worthwhile. Such people have swallowed the worst sort of lie, and therefore rush to their own destruction.

We are faced, then, with the unrelenting conclusion (and Kierkegaard repeats it several times, with different variations, to bring the point home):

In truth to will one thing then can only mean to will the Good, because every other object is not a unity; and the will that only wills that object, therefore, must become double-minded. (p. 66)

But through the commitment of love and faithfulness, even if we are not yet pure of heart, we can perhaps come to know what purity of heart is, and thus to worship God in spirit and in truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.