Friday, May 04, 2012

Kierkegaard on Confession IV: Commitment

Having discussed common forms of double-mindedness, Kierkegaard continues Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing by looking at what purity of heart requires, in light of the previous argument. And he boils this down to two things: to do all things for the Good and to endure all things for the Good. While all who are pure of heart will to some extent do both, Kierkegaard holds that the two actions divide the population: some people are so situated as to be primarily doers, active people, and some are so situated as to be primarily endurers, sufferers. He takes the task of each in turn.

(1) To will the Good in truth one must do all for the Good.

We are first hit with the 'all'. It seems that describing the active task of the pure of heart will take forever. What is required to will the Good will be infinitely diverse, because it could require radically different things from different people. But Kierkegaard suggests that there is in fact something in common to all these things, which allows us to say something about the task in general, and that common element is "the act of commitment to will to be and to remain loyal to the Good" (p. 123). Whatever else it may require, it requires commitment to be loyal, and to remain loyal, to the Good. This also has the benefit of avoiding a potential problem. Since different people do different things, there's a temptation to think that the person who does the most things, or the most obvious things, is really the one doing all for the Good. But willing the Good in truth is not a competition like this; someone who does little may be just as committed to the Good as someone who does much. What matters for the individual, and what matters with respect to the Good, is simply commitment to the Good. Also, recognizing that commitment is key allows us to shed light on the task of doing all for the Good by looking at what threatens commitment. And what does threaten commitment? Cleverness.

Cleverness is both a useful ability and a dangerous one. What makes it dangerous is that cleverness is, among other things, both our excuse-making ability and our appearance-manipulating ability. It is that whereby we can deceive ourselves and others, and, as we already have seen, self-deceit is deeply involved in double-mindedness. In the case of the active task, cleverness may work inwardly, in which it seeks out evasions, and it may work outwardly, in which it constructs deceptions.

Cleverness working inwardly is evasive, trying to stall or put off serious decision, and it does so in such a way that the evasion is presented as a good. To flee your post in battle is very shameful; but this can be avoided if you cleverly make sure that you yourself are never in the battle at all. The same cowardice could be operative in both cases, but it's the second one, the one created by cleverness, that is less obvious about the cowardice, even to the person doing it. It is by evasion that cleverness convinces us that true commitment and loyalty is too risky, and the list of excuses it can give to back this up is endless: it's too dangerous, it's beyond our power, what little we can do is not enough, we have obligations to family, we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket, and so on and so forth. These are the kinds of things that might be perfectly fine if you were talking about minor issues of practical life. But when we are talking about commitment to the Good, in each case these excuses carry a little lie about the Good -- that the Good has no power, that the Good is like any other goal, that any other commitments could have any real value apart from being part of our commitment to the Good, and so forth.

Cleverness also works outwardly, turning appearances to one's advantage:

The clever one knows just how the Good must be altered a tiny particle in order to win the world's good will. He knows how much should be added to it and how much should be subtracted. He knows just what ingratiating thing should be whispered in men's ears, what should be entrusted to their hands, and how the hand should be pressed, how it should be swung away from truth's decision, how the turning should be done, and how he himself in suppleness should shift and turn--"in order that he can accomplish all the more for the Good." (p. 132)

But there is a lie in all of this, which is that the Good in any way needs human beings for victory, and that the Eternal can ever be fooled. It is, as with evasion, all a way of falsely pretending that the Good itself is not good enough.

In reality, commitment requires that we not try to help ourselves by evasion or by deception, but firmly stick to the Good. Kierkegaard points to Christ as an example here. Surely if he was who he said he was, he could have been more clever about how he brought the truth to people, appearing in glory for all to admire, setting himself up as king, marrying like a good rabbi and becoming a great and famous teacher. This is what clever and intelligent people thought at the time. And when he was dying on the cross, could you have honestly looked around and said that he had accomplished much at all for the Good? If you put all the great teachers of mankind together, is there any one of them who had accomplished so little as Christ had by the time he died, especially in comparison with what people were expecting? How very uncleverly he acted; doing some minor things in a backwards province he failed to avoid being crucified. But at the very same time, he, seeing farther, could say: "It is finished." The work was done. We should keep this in mind in whatever we do.

(2) To will the Good in truth one must endure all for the Good.

The difference between the active task and the passive task is that the active task is the means whereby the Good brings its victory into the world; but the passive task is the means whereby the Good is victorious in the sufferer. As with the active task, we are struck here by the word 'all', and here as well Kierkegaard identifies something in common with all endurance for the Good, which he calls the wish. The wish is not an ordinary wish, that comes and goes. It endures. It is both the sore spot of suffering and the perseverance in it. Kierkegaard is less clear about this suffering commitment than he is about the active commitment, but the basic idea is that we refuse to accept relief from our sorrows except through the Good itself. The great temptation of the one whose primary task is to suffer for the Good is to try to kill the wish with some temporal relief. But the wish, although a wound, is a wound that must be prevented from closing until the Good itself heals it; otherwise it never really heals, but simply makes things worse. The pain of the wish, the longing ache it carries, is living pain, the thing that goes with the flesh not being dead yet. Trying to kill the wish is "a kind of spiritual suicide" (p. 149). And in particular what keeps the wish going, and us spiritually alive, is the longing inherent to faith, hope, and love. Under the pain of the wish, the sufferer remains committed to the Good. And this, it is important to recall, is the one thing that matters. The one whose primary task is to endure has the hardship of being only a burden to others; accomplishments in our usual sense are closed off to such a person. But the highest accomplishment is still possible: commitment to the Good.

The sufferer has the same problem as the doer, though, because cleverness seeks out evasion. The sufferer has one advantage, in that outward-working cleverness is of little use to such a person, and therefore deception is not a major temptation. But evasion remains, because cleverness can still work inwardly. Instead of commitment to the Good, cleverness tries devices of temporal, and temporary relief, holding out earthly hopes that seem more certain but are of less worth. The excuses here are also legion: who knows what may happen, maybe we'll get lucky, commitment to the Good is too hard, etc. A pain-reliever is substituted for the cure; the sufferer is double-minded in wanting to be cured, but not wanting to be cured as well, and therefore grasping at less than the highest consolation, the one consolation that matters.

Kierkegaard wants to avoid a common line people take against these failures due to cleverness, in both the active task and the passive task, which is that cleverness of this sort gets you nothing. On the contrary, says Kierkegaard, we should be quite frank in saying that cleverness does get you something. That's why people keep trying to be clever. And we should always avoid the danger of framing things so that we talk about the Good as if we are to will the Good in order to get something else. Evasion and deception get you plenty; they just don't get you the Good, and thus nothing worth having. The real line we should take is to point to the power of memory. As we often say, you have to live with yourself, have to live with the fact that you are the sort of person who did that. And even if you yourself don't remember -- the Eternal never forgets.

What, then is the best way to avoid misusing cleverness to evade and deceive? Use it to expose our own evasions and deceptions:

Cleverness is indeed a great power, yet it is greated by him as an insignificant servant, as a shrewd contemptible one. He hears the servant, to be sure, but in action he is not guided by him. He uses cleverness against himself as a spy and informer, which informs him instantly of each evasion, yes, even gives warning at any suspicion of evasion. (p. 140)

Kierkegaard's thoughts on cleverness end up being a generalization of Plato's attacks on sophistry and oratory in the Gorgias and the Republic; in the Gorgias, for instance, Socrates argues that the primary use of oratory is not in getting out of responsibility but in getting punished when you should be punished, and Kierkegaard's argument generalizes this to the kind of sophistry and oratory we use on ourselves.

Knowing what double-mindedness is, and what purity of heart requires, naturally raises the question of what we ourselves should do. And thus Kierkegaard will turn to this in his final chapters.

Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, Steere, tr. Harper (1956).

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