Dissertation: Walker Percy
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.
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:
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.
Copyright(c) 2002 by Karey Perkins / E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org