Dissertation: Walker Percy


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Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard on the Internet
Stanford University on Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard - by Anthony Storm
Kierkegaard - by St. Olaf College & Howard and Edna Hong
A list of Kierkegaard links
A Kierkegaard bibliography
Kierkegaard - by Andrew Irvine/Boston University
EpistemeLinks: Philosophy Resources on the Internet

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who lived from 1813 to 1855, is often considered the "father of existentialism." He wrote on the nature and existence of human beings, considering as Percy does, the question of who we are and why we are here. A devout Christian, SK also extensively considers faith and the individual's relationship with God. Kierkegaard the author employed "irony" to get his points across - using narrators of many different pseudonyms with diverse personalities, and both fiction and non-fiction formats, to accomplish his goal of conveying his thoughts without teaching or preaching. His thoughts anticipated those of other pivotal thinkers of this time and beyond, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud. Many of Freud's ideas such as the "pleasure principle," the "death drive," and the reason man "sins" echo Kierkegaard's philosophy.

A summary of his work includes the concepts of "dread"; "despair"; "rotation"; "repetition"; "the double movement of infinity," that is, that of the "knight of infinite resignation" and the "knight of faith." Kierkegaard's "stages on life's way" is an ethical developmental paradigm that falls into the "self-realization" type of ethical theories. Walker Percy was profoundly influenced by Kierkegaard's thoughts, and Percy's characters and themes reveal this influence.

Kierkegaard's three "stages on life's way" are the aesthetic, ethical, and religious stages. His discussion of the stages is developmental; one must travel through each. The first stage, the aesthetic stage, is the stage in which man acts in such a way that will bring pleasure or happiness to himself - that is his main motivation and concern. Some may call this a "hedonist" stage, though hedonism takes many different forms, and so does the aesthetic stage, which has different stages within it. The lowest aesthetic stage is that of the least sophisticated individual, one who exists merely to satisfy his physical senses. This may take the form of self-indulgence and an "eat, drink, and be merry" philosophy or a "wine, women, and song" lifestyle. Have fun and enjoy the moment. Higher up but still within the aesthetic stage is the "busy man of affairs" as Kierkegaard calls him. This man is still living for a worldly and selfish pleasure, but instead of the pleasure of the physical senses, the pleasure is that of success in the world, such as making a clever business deal. Engaging in activities in the world that bring success to self, in whatever way one defines that, is still motivated by the pleasure of that success for one's self gain, so is part of Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage. The highest level of the aesthetic stage is more aristocratic - that of the cultivated sophisticate. The appreciation of culture such as art, music, literature may be more refined than the lower levels, but is still motivated by pleasure and pleasure-seeking. (This is not to say the appreciation, study, and/or mastery of art is to be eschewed -- just that the pursuit of art for self-pleasure is not the realization of the fullness of art's purpose.)

Transition: The aesthetic stage, characterized by the pursuit of pleasure as the motivation for one's actions and one's purpose, eventually leads to a satiety and a boredom. Eventually the sought after pleasure ceases to satisfy, and the individual seeks a solution. The solution, if he chooses to remain an aesthete, is "rotation." The aesthete constantly "rotates" the roles, the places, and the people in his life. By avoiding commitment(s) to any one particular thing or person or role in life, and remaining outside of life as a spectator of life, the aesthete can continually pursue new and different experiences of the generalized abstraction of the chosen pleasure, and discard them once he becomes bored, moving on to a new one. In this way, the aesthete avoids intense pleasures or pains associated with close intimacy and commitment (whether to a love, a friend, a cause, a role); therefore, he must continually distract himself with variety of persons, experiences, or vocations. As one might guess, even this solution disintegrates into a cynical apathy...and to the aesthete's conclusion that all actions lead to regret. The aesthete has been merely role-playing up to this point and reveals to no one his true, inner self; in fact, he has no true, inner self to reveal at this point -- the multiple roles are pleasurable distractions for his own narcissistic satisfaction. In reality, his inner self is a splintered, fragmented one. Rather than being free of society's dictates as the aesthete thinks he is, he inadequately defines himself by a multiplicity of socially defined roles, all of which are incoherent and complicated in the one person. Stated harshly, his life is a masquerade of role-playing to hide his inner emptiness.

The Leap: If the aesthete is to leave the aesthetic stage and move to the next, he must abandon it blindly, and take a "leap" into the next stage. He loses his own self, not yet knowing what new self will be created.

Until this point, the aesthete has been "morally neutral" in that his choices are not in the ethical realm; it is not the he chooses evil over good but that he is not even in the sphere of good and evil. In the leap to the next stage, he will choose to enter the realm of good and evil, where every choice is a moral one -- for good or for bad, which did not "exist" for the aesthete before.

The next stage that the aesthete "leaps" into is the ethical stage. It is the result of the distracted aesthete, tired of "rotation," making a commitment to one particular role, in relationship to persons and life. For Kierkegaard, any commitment will suffice (he advocates no one particular dogma or religion or person at this point) as long it is both a commitment to self-perfection as well as to a commitment to other human beings. The ethical person has a genuine and non-fragmented identity, role, and place in life, defined by his commitment to others and self, and has now chosen himself whereas before, in the aesthetic stage, there was no self behind the empty and transient role. In addition, instead of acting for self-pleasure, one's actions in the role are motivated by the commitment to others. The person in the ethical stage considers the needs of others and community when making decisions. A businessman in the ethical stage operates not for the thrill of the deal and the selfish gain (as in the aesthetic stage), but for the benefit of society.

At this point, every decision that the individual makes is an ethical one. The aesthete might have to decide between steak or fish for dinner, or between wearing a suit or sweats to work, but no ethical implications are involved for him. In the ethical stage, the ethics and effects of the situation on others and the world (which is determined by the role or commitment one has chosen) enter into every decision he makes.

The sculpture of Kierkegaard in this photograph is by Knud Nellmose (1908-97). It was completed in 1972 and erected outside of Copenhagen's Marmorkirken (The Marble Church) along with sculptures of thirteen other writers and theologians of Danish national prominence.

The Leap of Faith: The individual's spiritual journey does not end with the ethical stage. This can perhaps best be exemplified with the biblical story about the "rich young ruler" who comes to Christ and asks how he can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ responds that he must obey the commandments. The rich young ruler answers that he has, and Christ knows that he is a good man (ethical sphere) and is ready for the next stage of spiritual growth (religious sphere). So Jesus asks the man to give up everything he has, and come and follow him (Christ). The young man walks away in disappointment, for he cannot make this leap of faith. (Christ's response: It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.)

For Kierkegaard, commitment to others, to a "cause," to a mission or purpose, to our "role" in this life whatever we have chosen that to be, must eventually give way to the ultimate commitment -- to God. (If the individual's commitment to others and to his role in the world remains primary and all that there is for him, it becomes "god" for him.) This leap of faith into the religious sphere is harder than the first leap from aesthetic to the ethical sphere. Before, the aesthete gives up a lousy self and spiritually unfulfilling life for a better one; in this leap, a good and rewarding life (as the rich young ruler in the parable had) is sacrificed.

Does commitment to God ever contradict or conflict with living an ethical life in this world? Does following God ever get in the way of our commitments to others and society? Kierkegaard says, "YES!" He calls this the "Teleological Suspension of the Ethical" and believes that faith in God is logically absurd. Others, including Walker Percy and Gabriel Marcel, disagree with him on this point. However, Kierkegaard's argument for the absurd ironically makes logical sense -- if we are unwilling to sacrifice ALL, everything in this life, including commitments to others and including our ethics, then those things are still before commitment to God.

Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate his point. Perhaps the strongest commitment or bond of love a human can have is that of parent and child; for a father, too, (especially in Abraham's day and culture), the son represented the father's future and "immortality" (through descendants) in this world. There is nothing greater in the world that Abraham could sacrifice, yet he was asked by God to sacrifice his son. Abraham goes to the mountaintop with Isaac and builds the altar; at the last minute, he is stopped by God. Abraham has passed the test of faith; his ultimate commitment was to God. However, his actions which were right in the religious sphere seemed absurd in the ethical sphere:

God's commandment to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was requiring him to act like a murderer...."Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical; that is to say, are there situations in which a man can be forced to disregard ethical demands for a higher authority?" Kierkegaard answers this question in the affirmative; and it is in just this that the paradoxical character of religion is made plain, since it can lead to demands which, from the point of view of ordinary ethics, are unethical.....however, it is a question of a suspension, not an abolition of the ethical, and suspension is temporary. http://www.webcom.com/kierke/.

This is what Kierkegaard means by the "knight of infinite resignation" and "knight of faith." Abraham is the knight of infinite resignation in that he is willingly resigned to lose everything he has for God -- his son, his future, and even his ethics. He is willing to renounce the world, himself, and even his position as a moral agent. Yet he is the knight of faith because he never gives up hope in God. He believes God's promise and goodness, though it was not logical given what he was asked to do. He believes two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time, what Kierkegaard calls "divine madness." This is Kierkegaard's "double movement of infinity." The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world.

In everyday life, those in the religious sphere usually look and act like the rest of us; usually they are not in the process of sacrificing progeny at God's command. But the same willingness is there; were they in Abraham's situation they would have acted as he did. The difference between the ethical individual and the religious one is usually more evident internally. For the knight of faith, having sacrificed all, being willing to sacrifice all, means that life has been taken away and then returned, just as Isaac was for Abraham. As the saying goes, after that "it's all gravy." Everything in life is a gift. In other words, there is independence from the worldly outcome that brings freedom. They are "in the world," but not "of the world." Infinitely resigned to lose everything yet infinitely faithful that they will not, these knights of faith are full of joy, peace, and love.

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Copyright(c) 2002 by Karey Perkins / E-mail: karey1@charter.net