Sunday, 24 November 2013

Dostoevsky's lady of little faith : a Kierkegaardian interpretation

Katerina Khokhlakova is a fairly minor character in Dostoevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov. She is the mother of Lise, the little girl who begins the novel as an invalid, but who later develops a close loving relationship with Alyosha. Madame Khokhlakova in the end is not an especially sympathetic character. She is vain and foolish and is used at times as a sort of comic relief. But the chapter in which she first appears in conversation with Father Zosima is very interesting as it involves a discussion of faith. In this chapter “A lady of little faith” (p. 53-59) she is not referred to by name. The reader only later finds out who she is. Perhaps this is intentional. Her surname sounds slightly ridiculous, like a parody of Ukrainian. It goes well with her later ridiculousness, but she does not at all appear ridiculous in this initial conversation. Rather she puts forward concerns that must touch many readers.

Madame Khokhlakova says to Father Zosima that she suffers from lack of faith. She does not quite dare say that she lacks faith in God, but she lacks faith in the idea of life after death. Really this is just a matter of politeness, for the one issue goes with the other. From a Christian perspective, to cease to believe in life after death is to cease to believe in God. If a person believes in a Christian God, a belief in life after death follows as a matter of course. Although she believed, mechanically as a child, she wonders now if faith came about because of the fear of death, thus that it is a product of man’s fear and unwillingness to accept that after death there is nothing. She wonders if when she dies there will simply be a grave and nothing more. She comes to Father Zosima looking for proof. She wants him to convince her.

Zosima immediately says that there is no question of proof, but that it is possible to be convinced. He says “Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul” (p. 56)

How can it be that by loving others a person will be convinced about the existence of God and immortality? One way to understand this is through an appreciation of the work of Søren Kierkegaard and the Epistle of James. In the Epistle of James the emphasis is on actions. The author of James writes, for instance, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? … faith if it hath not works is dead” (James 2: 14-16). Kierkegaard throughout his authorship shows a great deal of respect for the Epistle of James, which in itself is somewhat surprising as he was brought up a Lutheran and Luther notoriously called James an epistle of straw.

In the first discourse of For self examination (p. 13-51) Kierkegaard looks closely a text in the first chapter of James which includes the following:

“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1: 22-25)


Kierkegaard asks himself “What is required in order to look at oneself with true blessing in the mirror of the Word?” He answers “The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, observe the mirror, but must see yourself in the mirror” (p. 25). How though can a person see himself in a mirror without observing the mirror? If however, we reflect that the mirror is God’s word there may be an answer? Kierkegaard is saying that a person must not look at God’s word and only see the words; rather he must see himself in the words, or see that the words apply to him. What this means is that the words require something of him, and that thing is action.

There are all sorts of ways of putting off action. One of these is to interpret. He writes “God’s Word is indeed the mirror … but how enormously complicated.” (p. 25) He reflects on the fact that the Bible is complicated that there are many interpretations. We don’t know which books are authentic, who wrote them. But if a person looks at the mirror in this way, it will always remain confusing.  The task is to see yourself in the mirror, but what prevents this is if the person continues endlessly to interpret. The problem with scholarship is that it is a way to avoid acting. The scholar can always reflect that he will just come up with a slightly better interpretation of this or that passage before acting on it. The crucial thing however, is not to interpret, but to realise that the text applies to me. Kierkegaard writes that “when you are reading God’s Word, it is not the obscure passages that bind you but what you understand, and with that you are to comply at once” (p. 29). The amount of scholarship required to act according to God’s word is so minimal that all that is required has already been done. We have had for hundreds of years a reasonably accurate translation of the Bible and this contains enough clear statements of required actions to last a lifetime.

The task for Kierkegaard is to take the Bible personally. Thus he writes “If you are to read God’s Word in order to see yourself in the mirror, then during the reading you must incessantly say to yourself. It is I to whom it is speaking.” (p. 40) The reason why this is crucial is that it is instrumental in creating the Christian self. He writes:

“If God’s Word is for you merely a doctrine something impersonal then it is no mirror - an objective doctrine cannot be called a mirror, it is just as impossible to look at yourself in an objective doctrine as to look at yourself in a wall. And if you want to relate impersonally to God’s Word, there can be no question of looking at yourself in mirror, because it takes a personality, an I, to look at yourself in a mirror; a wall can be seen in a mirror, but a wall cannot see itself or look at itself in a mirror” (p. 43-44)

If a person reads objectively he cannot see himself in God’s word for there is no self to see. Reading personally creates the “I” and thus creates the Christian self. Recognising that the Bible applies to the self is instrumental in creating the self which recognises that the Bible applies to it. When the self is objective, like a wall, it can be seen, but it is not self-conscious because it is not conscious of itself as a spirit or a soul and thus it cannot see itself. The self is created when it relates itself to God through relating itself to God’s word. To do this however the self must be personal and it achieves this through relating itself to itself. The self-relation is achieved through the recognition that God’s word applies to it. The self relates to the self that it sees in the mirror of God’s word and thus at the same time relates to itself and to God. The whole passage about correct reading as opposed to scholarship is about how the Kierkegaardian self is created. It is by following God’s word by loving one’s neighbours that the sense of self, the sense of spirit is created. By relating myself to God’s word, I relate myself to God. I see myself in the mirror, relate myself to myself, but also relate myself to another.

Kierkegaard writes that the “The demonstration of Christianity really lies in imitation” (p. 68) From a perspective that sees belief as a matter of reason this is absurd. Kierkegaard is saying that through imitation a doubter will lose his doubts. But if a person doubted due to lack of reasons, why would he imitate? Kierkegaard though is looking at the matter in a different way. By imitating Christ a person demonstrates that he is a Christian. Moreover if Christian belief (faith) is action, which is what has been learned from James, then if a person does not act, he does not really believe it. If he does not believe, then he doubts. The only solution to doubt is action. To act is to cease to doubt, and to cease doubting is to cease looking for reasons.

We can now see an interpretation of how Father Zosima’s advice to Madame Khokhlakova can help her to have faith. If we see faith as a matter of action, then by acting, by loving others, the person automatically has faith. Faith that just contemplates, that fails to act, is a lifeless thing. No wonder then that she does not feel it.

Moreover if Kierkegaard is right, it is through action, through loving others, that the spiritual self, (the self that relates itself to itself and relates itself to others and indeed God) is created. If a person fails to act, if he fails to follow God’s word, he will lack any sense of the spiritual. Only when a person relates to God’s word does he relate to God and in doing so create the soul.

In this sense it may even be that the atheist is right. He does not believe in the soul, he does not believe in immortality. He is right as for him these things are not. Only by acting in a loving manner does a person develop faith and with it the sense of himself as a soul, as a spiritual being. Perhaps only in this way does he enable God to create this immortal soul. If this is so, then how we live our lives really is decisive. Not because God will punish us, but because if we have not related to him at all, there is nothing for him to save.

We see as the conversation between Madame Khokhlakova and Father Zosima continues that she is attempting to avoid action. She dreams of great, kind deeds. She dreams of being a nun of giving up everything, of not being frightened by sores and dirt. Father Zosima brings her back down to earth by saying maybe one day you will actually do a fine deed. She realises that her dreams of acting kindly would fail as soon as someone showed ingratitude. Father Zosima comes up with a similar anecdote of a Doctor who hates people individually but loves humanity. Again we see someone who loves in theory but not in practice. What is to do be done? Zosima is very kind and gentle. He thinks that it is a lot if the person is already aware of his fault, aware of his lack of action. The key is to begin acting. He says “Do what you can and it will be reckoned unto you. You have already done much if you can understand yourself so deeply and so sincerely” (p. 57). This however only works if the person is sincere and genuinely repentant about his lack of action.

Zosima compares active love with acting in dreams. This is similar to the idea in Kierkegaard about someone who follows Christianity in theory and someone who follows it in practice. But whereas Kierkegaard can be strict Zosima is very very gentle. He accepts that we are weak. Active love is difficult. It is a matter of action, and day to day action, not just one glorious act. It needs perseverance and endurance and patience. But even if someone is as weak as Madame Khokhlakova, there is hope for her. Even if she finds in the end that all her efforts at active love have failed, that she is as far as ever from her goal, then she will find that the miraculous and mysterious power of God is enough to save her and that He always has been guiding her.

In Zosima’s view it is enough to strive to love actively. He expects so very little of us. No more than the mere act of striving. This striving is like Grushenka’s story (later in the novel) of the gift of an onion. The solitary good act in a life of wickedness can be enough to pull us out of the pit. God perhaps then does not need more than our striving to be doers of the word. Perhaps this is enough to create the self for him to save. Perhaps in the striving alone there is enough self-relation and enough relation to another for the Christian self to come into existence.

Zosima’s account is very gentle as compared to Kierkegaard’s strictness. But that is not to say that Kierkegaard would not have sympathised with Zosima’s view. After all Kierkegaard continually recognised our inability in the face of Christianity’s demands, our powerlessness in the face of Christ’s example. Madame Khokhlakova is powerless. She thinks that she can do nothing. But so long as she tries just a little and so long as she does not use this sense of powerlessness as an excuse, she like all of us can gain faith. Dostoevsky’s account of faith is very gentle. In the end we only need to give the tiniest thing. One good dead is enough to save us. But this gentleness only works if we do not deceive ourselves. It is for this reason that Zosima warns above all against lies. How can a self look in Kierkegaard’s mirror if it is not honest with itself? A lie destroys the self’s relation to itself and if a person can not even find himself in the mirror how can he expect to find God?

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

For Self-Examination, translated by Hong and Hong, Princeton University Press, 1990.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

If God does not exist everything, is permitted: a Kierkegaardian perspective

In the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan’s philosophical and theological ideas are complex and develop in the course of the novel. However, near the beginning of the novel in Book 2 Chapter 6 an idea is attributed to him by a character named Miusev. He reports that at a recent meeting Ivan began by saying that if love has existed between people it is only because they have believed in immortality. Moreover without the belief in immortality there would be no morality and everything would be permitted. If someone ceases to believe in God, then logically he should be an egoist and even become an evil doer. Ivan is asked by the Elder Zosima if this is his view and he says “Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.” (p. 70) The Elder seems to commiserate with Ivan, accepting that indeed he neither believes in God nor in immortality.

There is no need however, to go into the ins and outs of Ivan’s theology, nor be overly concerned about who said what and when in the novel. The idea that is being put forward is that morality and love of other human beings in some way depends on immortality with the implication that immortality depends on God. The implication is that God and immortality are really one and the same belief or at least interconnected. To cease to believe in the one is to cease to believe in the other.

But why should this be so? It is worth investigating in what way morality is dependent on belief in God or perhaps more accurately in the existence of God. 

Let’s look at the situation from the point of view of someone contemplating doing wrong. If by wrong we mean something like theft or murder, why do I not do these things. One reason is that there are laws and there is the police and I realise that if I commit a crime there is a reasonable chance that I will be caught and punished. I therefore decide out of self-interest not to steal from a shop or to commit murder, because I don’t want to end up in prison or have some other punishment given to me.

The problem with this is that if everyone thought in this way, law would rapidly collapse. The population of a country massively outnumbers the police. If everyone sat waiting for their chance to break the law, when they thought there was a chance of getting away with it, how could the police catch all of them? The law works only insofar as a minority of people are criminally minded. The majority do not break the law because they are scared of the police or punishment, but because they think breaking the law is wrong. But from where do we get this other sense of wrong, meaning morally wrong?

Moreover, what of things which most of us consider to be wrong, which are not illegal? Why should couples remain faithful to each other, why should we not tell lies? Is it that we fear that if we are unfaithful perhaps our marriage will break up, or if we tell lies then no one will trust us further? But what if we know at this moment that we can tell a lie and get away with it? What if we are in another country when we have the chance to be unfaithful? And yet we might choose not to be. Why do people act sometimes in a way that suggests self-sacrifice, why are people kind and altruistic?

It’s worth focussing on how we actually learn morality. We learn morality normally from a mother who watches. From an early age, she sees me do something and says don’t do that. If I continue to do the thing which is wrong she may punish me. Let’s say I steal sweets from the sweet jar. The first time, she says don’t steal sweets. It’s wrong. And so I learn not to steal sweets while she is looking. I may think that I can steal sweets when she is not looking and so when she is in another room I creep up to the jar and steal a sweet. But mother is cleverer than me, she has counted the sweets. I’m asked did you steal a sweet. I say no. She knows better. She counts out the sweets, one is missing. I’m punished, moreover she shows disapproval and I want that approval. I feel shame. In time I don’t steal from the sweet jar even when I know that I could get away with it. This feeling of guilt is developed in a myriad of ways such that eventually about a whole mass of matters I have an internalised sense of guilt when I contemplate doing wrong. This is what we call conscience. It is based on the the idea of mother somehow overseeing what I do, even when she is not there.

But when I grow up and can reason about these things, why do I not realise that I can throw off this conscience? Mother is now far away. I know that she will not discover if I take from the sweet jar. Who else can be overseeing me. The police observe. And so I should be careful not to be caught. But this is simply a matter of self interest and we are back to the idea of morality being simply a matter of law.  What about God? Can he take the role of the mother watching to see if I steal from the sweet jar? Perhaps. But if I begin to study philosophy I quickly realise that this whole matter of God’s existence is rather uncertain. Descartes is not even certain of the existence of the outside world. Perhaps all my perceptions are deceptions.  Any course of philosophy seems to see scepticism win out. First year philosophy classes are dominated by questions like “How do I know the sun will rise tomorrow?” But if I don’t even know this, how can the fact that a God who might exist might be observing me steal from the sweet jar, motivate my behaviour? Is God indeed not just an extension of the observing mother, who created my conscience in the first place?

Moreover I quickly realise when studying philosophy that there are lots of systems of morality that do not depend on God. Each major philosopher seems to have such a system. One says that I should do that which leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Another thinks that I should imagine what would happen if everyone followed a course of action and act accordingly. There are any number of such systems and they don’t all mention God. But why should I follow such a system? Who is to make me? Perhaps its in my self interest to do so. But that is not morality. That is just another form of egoism. Perhaps I realise that its my duty to follow a particular philosopher’s system of morality. But why should I follow my duty? Perhaps I realise that rationality calls for me to follow a particular morality. But then why be rational? Let me be irrational just so long as I get what I want.

This is our problem. Either I follow the system of morality out of self interest in which case it is really the same as law (Just a matter of pragmatism and self-interest), or I follow the system out of duty. But then I already am moral. But whence this morality as it can not be coming from the system? There is obviously circularity here.

The problem of morality goes far back. The problem is stated as well as anywhere in Plato’s Republic with the story of the ring of Gyges. If I had the ring of Gyges which makes me invisible, such that I could get away with any crime, would I refrain from doing so. Only if I I would refrain from doing wrong, even if I could get away with it, can I be said to be truly moral. 

The idea of the watcher is present here also. If no one can watch, because I am invisible would I steal from the sweet jar. I don’t steal from the sweet jar, even when mother is not around, because she has shown that sometimes she knows better than me. Eventually I internalise this into conscience and I don’t steal even when I know I would get away with it, because I have this thing called conscience taught by my mother. But what if I realise that I’m being a mug, that this conscience thing is just a fraud? Why then not put on the ring of Gyges and do what I wish so long as I can get away with it?

Of course, here God can play a role. Even if someone wears the ring of Gyges and can do what he likes on Earth, God observes him. The idea of God and with it the idea of immortality is the idea that even if you get away with immorality on earth, even if you are a criminal who is never caught by the law, still God watches. God is the ultimate mother and the fundament which underpins conscience. God’s justice, the fact that he can reward or punish can be seen as a reason to be moral, for it may seem to solve the problem of the ring of Gyges. Even if I am to get away with evil here and now, it may not be rational to do so if I am to be punished later in eternity. God is like a universal police force. The lawbreaker may not be sent to prison on earth, but there is the equivalent of prison after death. Is this the reason that Ivan thinks that if there is no immortality then everything is permitted?

The observant mother is now in the transcendent sphere and able to judge according to how I lived my life. There is no chance that I can escape detection. All my sins will be found out. But this is our problem. If I do good in order to gain salvation or to avoid hell, then this is really no different from law. It is my self interest in the long run to do good. Out of egoism and selfishness, it would be rational for me to choose to do good in order to obtain a reward and to avoid punishment. But this is no more morality than the person who is law abiding solely because he fears the police. The police have simply been transferred to a transcendent realm with powers to detect every crime even those committed with the ring of Gyges.

Perhaps the solution is in this way. The idea that I can treat God as a policeman who rewards and punishes like the police and the courts is to misunderstand the nature of God. Salvation both does and does not depend on what I do, how I live my life. My actions are both necessary and unnecessary. Salvation is by faith alone and by good works. In Kierkegaardian terms, salvation is a matter of both Religiousness A and Religiousness B, inwardness and externality, relation to self and relation to other. In the Reformation debate between Protestantism and Catholicism we must hold together both sides of the argument even though they contradict each other, we must have both Luther and the Pope, works righteousness and faith alone.

What this means can be explained in the following way. I must believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation. This is Kierkegaard’s religiousness B and decisive Christianity. Therefore I must want to witness to the truth and imitate the life of Christ as far as is possible. The lesson that Kierkegaard has to teach us indeed is that my faith is my action. This is the importance of the Epistle of James in his work. What is it is to suppose that someone has faith. It is to see that he acts in certain ways. This was the lesson from Wittgenstein. How can I know if I can whistle a tune? I must whistle it. How can I know if I have faith? I must act according to it. There is no faith without action. Once I understand that faith is action, then there can be no question of faith without it. But and here is the crucial point. Although I believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation, I cannot bargain. God’s choice is free and from the point of view of eternity already made.

Thus I cannot act in order to obtain a reward and to avoid a punishment. I recognise from my faith the need to act as a Christian or try to act as a Christian. I also recognise that these actions are crucial. Following Kierkegaard again, only through relating to other people, through living the Christian life, do I create the self that God can save. But I must trust in God. I realise when faced with God that nothing that I could do would be enough. Therefore I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace for my salvation.

This is not something that can be understood, for it depends on a Kierkegaardian paradox. Christian morality is the paradoxical unity of salvation by faith alone and salvation by means of good works. This is a genuine contradiction, and something that we cannot understand. A similar contradiction exists in the two ideas that salvation is a matter of predestination while how I live is decisive for whether I obtain salvation. This is to look at the matters from the point of view of eternity and from the point of view of temporality. The combination of the positions is the truth. Just as Christ was the eternal in time. So my salvation is the eternal in time. It is an absolute paradox and a matter for faith, not for reason. It is for this reason that the Bible at times seems contradictory on this matter. The thief on the cross will be with Jesus today in paradise, but salvation is a matter of waiting until the Day of Judgement. But this too is just the paradoxical combination of the eternal point of view with the temporal point of view. We cannot expect to fully understand these matters. Here indeed is is something that cannot be fully expressed, something that defeats language and thought.  

Thus I believe both that my good works are decisive for my salvation, that how I live my life is crucial and that nothing I do could ever be good enough. I am saved from egoism by my realisation that God’s choice is free and that I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace. Thus I am not acting in order to gain salvation, for there can be no bargaining with God. Faith is action. It can even be said that I am saved by faith alone. For when I understand that faith is not, or not merely a matter of inwardness, I realise that faith is simply what I do.

If faith is only inwardness, it is only the relationship to the eternal. In Kierkegaardian terms this is paganism the relationship to God. The incarnation brings the eternal into time and enables us to relate externally. The only way to relate to Christ as a Christian is to love Christ and to try to live as he did. This means action. Once I understand this then action inevitably follows.

It is the free choice of God that makes Christian morality and means that it is neither a matter of law nor a matter of egoism. God’s free choice means that Christianity can never be a matter of self-interest. I have no guarantee, no matter how saintly I live my life. Thus we have the Bible story of the The workers who turn up late getting just the same. I can not gain God’s perspective. But I know that God is love and therefore I have hope.

But what I realise also is that finally my way of relating to God is through Christ. When I try to relate to the eternal, the infinite, the omniscient and omnipotent then I deal with what I is forever distant and remote from my life. I can try to relate inwardly and I can have a sense of this faith, but it is not concrete. It's like the idea that I can whistle the tune. Until I actually do whistle it, there is no whistling. Likewise with faith, it comes into existence through my actions. But when I begin relating to Christ, through imitation, witnessing. I relate to something, someone concrete. I can follow his lead. And through the fact that Christ is paradoxically both God and man, I in this way relate to God.

In Kierkegaardian terms it is the paradoxical combination of religiousness A (relating to God, through inwardness), (the eternal), (relation to self), (Protestantism, salvation by faith alone, for it has already from the point of view of eternity been determined), and religiousness B (Relation to Christ), (the temporal), (relation to another), (Catholicism, the idea that my salvation is not yet determined and depends on how I live my life). It is this combination that creates morality.

It is this combination also that creates the self that can be saved. This shows indeed that God is the fundament of morality. If God does not exist then ultimately everything is permitted. It is for this reason that Ivan is to be pitied. Through his lack of faith he puts himself in a position, which makes it impossible for God to save him, for he has no self to save. Following Grushenka’s story in the Brothers Karamazov, God needs at least one onion in order to grab the self.

For Ivan, God is dead and everything is permitted. The unbeliever unbelief is for him the truth for he has put himself in a position where God can not help him. This is his eternal punishment. His eternal punishment is not that God judges him and condemns him, but that God cannot even judge him, cannot even notice him. His hell is that his atheism turns out, for him to be quite accurate. 

Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992




Monday, 11 November 2013



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Friday, 8 November 2013

The essence of Kierkegaard

Of course the best strategy for reading Kierkegaard is to read everything that he wrote. There’s hardly one of his books that does not have something interesting in it. Moreover he’s unusual as a thinker in that he developed his thought by producing a series of works, which only really make sense together. Kierkegaard can be seriously misunderstood if some particular works are treated in isolation.

But where to start? I think this depends on what you are looking for. Kierkegaard is one of those unusual philosophers/theologians, who is genuinely a fine writer. Anyone who has struggled their way through Hegel or battled with the style of Kant, will be grateful that Kierkegaard can really write. Some of the best examples of his style are those works which at times read rather like novels. These works include Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way.  

Naturally in order to appreciate Kierkegaard’s style fully it’s best to read him in Danish. But then this can be said of nearly every author and no one can learn every language. Still Danish is not that difficult to learn to read. It’s about as close to English as any language gets and has a ridiculously simple grammar. The downside is that Danish pronunciation is quite hard and they seem to swallow about half of each word, making it difficult to understand and recognise words that you know. But still it only takes a few months of study to read Kierkegaard in the original, which compares favourably with say Dostoevsky who is liable to remain a struggle for a learner of Russian even after many years.

Works like Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way, are brilliant examples of Kierkegaard’s ability to write well. They are full of ideas and anecdotes, witty asides and advice. But if you want to get at the heart of Kierkegaard’s thought it must be recognised that these works represent early stages on the way. In the end Kierkegaard is going to describe what he thinks Christianity ought to be. That is the essence of his thought. Everything in his authorship builds up to his description of how a Christian ought to live his life and what is involved in becoming a Christian. Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way describe the aesthetic and the ethical stages of life. They do not really deal therefore with the essence of Kierkegaard at all.  

There is, of course, a lot in Kierkegaard that does not particularly deal with Christianity or does not deal with it much. There is much therefore for people who are not interested in Christianity or even for those who find Christianity distasteful. But this is all rather to miss the point of Kierkegaard. The essence of his thought is his attempt to put forward a radical interpretation of Christianity and to encourage people to live a Christian life. But for someone who is interested in finding out about this, where do you start?

Fear and Trembling, which deals with the famous “leap of faith” might be thought of as a good place to start. It is well worth reading and gives a good taste of Kierkegaard. But it is not really necessary in order to understand the essence of Kierkegaard, partly because its focus on Abraham tends to make it likewise a stage on the way to Christianity. The two books that I think are the best starting points are Philosophical Fragments and The Sickness unto Death. Both of these works are vital, but The Sickness unto Death is at times difficult and heavy going, so it might be worth starting with Philosophical Fragments. 

The Fragments presents a number of crucial ideas. One of the most important is that faith is belief in an absolute paradox, which in Christian terms is that God became man. This absolute paradox is literally a contradiction. The eternal became temporal, means that the eternal is both eternal and not eternal, both temporal and not temporal. In the end the absolute paradox must be understood such that God is both God and not God. Attempts to water down this paradox or explain it away, or mediate it, will again mean that the point of Kierkegaard is missed. Anyone who is afraid of contradiction who is offended by attempts to overthrow logic should probably avoid Kierkegaard.

The Fragments also describes Religiousness A (or the Socratic) and Religiousness B. Religiousness A corresponds to the self’s relation to itself and to the relation to the eternal, it is concerned with hiddenness and subjectivity. Religiousness B corresponds to the relationship of the self to the other is concerned with the temporal, becoming revealed, outwardness and objectivity or transcendent truth. It is crucially the paradoxical conjunction of A and B which gives rise to decisive Christianity.

The Sickness unto Death develops Kierkegaard’s theory of the self and shows how selfhood is a matter of faith. It is the paradoxical combination of the self’s relationship to itself and its relationship to another i.e.  God. This understood together with the Fragments means that we should understand that becoming a self is a matter of paradoxically combining religiousness A and B. 

The description of religiousness A and B is developed still further in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Fragments. But it is important to remember that most of the Postscript is concerned with religiousness A. Only towards the end is B described. This is what makes Kierkegaard such a difficult writer to understand. Whole chunks of the Postscript are not really what they seem and taken out of context can seriously mislead the reader. Kierkegaard is putting forward a position, only in order to oppose, it in order to put forward its opposite and to combine the two. Paradox really is the essence of his philosophy.

Kierkegaard’s authorship contains a long series of religious works like 18 Upbuilding Discourses, Christian Discourses, Works of Love. But it is vital to realise that these do not describe full Christianity, they are all more or less within religiousness A or on the boundary of that stage tending towards Christianity, but not really reaching it. Only with a few later works does Kierkegaard finally describe decisive Christianity. One of the best examples is For Self Examination and Judge for Yourself! Practice in Christianity is another work within decisive Christianity, but Kierkegaard rather admits that here he perhaps went too far.

For Self Examination, provides the blueprint of how someone should live a Christian life. They should be “doers of the Word” following the example of the Bible’s Epistle of James, they should follow Christ and strive to live as he did. This means living openly, striving to literally follow the teaching of the Bible. Above all Kierkegaard has has the message that theological interpretation of the Bible is a barrier to action. The Christian should stop interpreting and start acting. 

What is vital to realise is that much of what is most famous about Kierkegaard is not the essence of his thought. Many of the famous ideas like “Subjectivity is truth”, “hidden inwardness” and the single individual’s solitariness are part of religiousness A. The tendency to interpret Kierkegaard as a thinker concerned only with individuality is to misunderstand that the emphasis on individuality is a part of religiousness A and should only be understood in combination with the idea that the self not only must relate to itself but must also relate to other people.

Kierkegaard is often wildly misunderstood. But by reading just three of his short works you can understand the essence of his thought, indeed if you want to just leap to the endpoint you can understand him by reading just one of his works, For Self-Examination. That work alone will tell you all that you need to know. 


Saturday, 2 November 2013

The teleological suspension of the ethical and the great man theory of murder : Raskolnikov and Abraham as knights of faith or murderers

In Crime and punishment Raskolnikov gets into a discussion with Porifry, the investigator, about  an article Raskolnikov wrote for a periodical. Porfiry notices an interesting hint in the article whereby “the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary” (p. 259) Raskolnikov qualifies this statement. He does not think, for instance, that the extraordinary have a duty to transgress, but that they do have the right to.  One way for instance that this transgression might be allowed is “in the event that the fulfilment of of his idea - sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind - calls for it” (p. 259) He says, for instance, that if the discoveries of Newton could only come about by the deaths of one or even one hundred people that it would be justified and Newton would have the right, even the duty to remove those people. It does not follow that Newton has the right to kill whomsoever he pleases or to steal. Only if these deaths are for the sake of something great is it justified. He goes on to list certain great men like Napoleon who shed innocent blood along the way and moreover in creating new laws transgressed the old ones. From this he develops the idea that “not only great , but even those who are a tiny bit off the beaten track - that is, who are a tiny bit capable of saying something new  - by their very nature cannot  fail to be criminals - more or less to be sure” (p. 260)

Before looking at this in any greater detail it might be worth pointing out how this is similar to another story concerning murder. In Fear and trembling, written by Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, there is a long discussion of Abraham setting out to murder Isaac. The section however that most directly corresponds with Crime and Punishment however, is the one with the heading “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” (p. 54) Kierkegaard describes the ethical as the universal which applies to everyone at all times. The single individual has his telos or goal in the universal and has the task to annul his singularity in order to become the universal. To assert his individuality is to sin and he must surrender this individuality in order to rest once more in the universal. Kierkegaard admits the consistency of this view, but if it is maintained, then Hegel is right and moreover Abraham is a murderer. On the other hand “Faith is namely the paradox that the single individual is higher than  the universal” (p. 55). This alternative is literally against logic. He writes therefore  “This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought” (p.56) It is for this reason that he asserts that “The story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical” (p.56) The telos for Abraham, the reason he sets out to murder is “because God demands proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can prove it” (p. 59-60)

Let’s look a little more closely at the comparison between these texts. For Raskolnikov there does not seem to be anything particularly paradoxical about Newton committing murder in order to develop his theories. He would appear to be using some sort of utilitarian idea that if a greater good emerges from an evil action, then  it is justified. Thus a discovery that will benefit millions is justified by the deaths of a few. We think this way quite commonly with regard to war. Killing these innocent Germans is justified by the need to defeat Hitler. But the basic idea of the universal ethical applying to everyone, but that under certain circumstances an individual may transgress is clearly similar to the idea presented in Fear and Trembling. Raskolnikov is suggesting that anyone with individuality, with the ability to say something new, is something of a criminal. Kierkegaard is saying something similar with the suggestion that anyone who wants to be a single individual, who wants to have faith likewise transgresses against the universal.

Lets look at these individuals practically. We know that Raskolnikov is a murderer of a pawnbroker. Is the justification for this murder his theory that he developed in his article? It’s not clear that it is, though perhaps the theory contributed to the state of mind, which led him to murder. He is poor, but thinks that he has the potential to do great things, if only he had some money to get started. Let’s imagine that he gets away with the murder and goes on in life to create great things, a cure for cancer, a solution to poverty etc, etc. Would then the murder that got him started be justified? Obviously this depends on whether we are willing to follow the utilitarian theory of ethics, by which the murder could under certain circumstances be justified, given that it led to a greater happiness. But what of the poor pawnbroker? It did not help her happiness. The more deontological side of ethics cries out that this murder was wrong, that we cannot use people, that they are not a means to an end. But crucially all this depends on Raskolnikov getting away with it. But so too does it apply to the other great men. If Newton needs to kill a hundred people to develop his theories, but gets caught immediately, as soon as he has killed the first of them, he will straight away be tried, convicted and executed. The same goes for Napoleon. If he starts a coup and kills hundreds, all will be well if he wins and becomes the Emperor. But if he loses, he will be tried as a traitor. It may well be possible for these people to justify themselves with hindsight. History may judge them kindly. But the risk for the individual who acts outside the bounds of the law and the ethical is that history will not be there to judge. These people are not great yet. And so the law will see no mitigation.

Let’s take Abraham. He acts because God commands him and to show his faith. He acts for the sake of this telos or goal, which he takes as being higher than his duty to the ethical, his duty to Isaac. But just as when Raskolnikov murders for the sake of a higher goal, we still have to take into account the interests of the pawnbroker, so there is a danger that in Kierkegaard’s account he forgets to take into account the interests of Isaac. Abraham wants to fulfil God’s command, wants to show his faith. But what of what Isaac wants? Perhaps he too wants to fulfil God’s command and show his faith.

But again let’s look at Abraham’s situation practically. What would have happened to Abraham if he had actually killed Isaac. Let’s imagine that a person today felt that he was commanded by God to kill his son. What would happen if I took my son to a mountain a killed him with a knife? When caught by the police, what would happen if I said God commanded me to do it as a test of faith? I would immediately be tried for murder and would most certainly be detained in a prison or in a mental hospital. Abraham too would have faced whatever laws existed when he lived. No doubt these would have been rather harsh, an eye for an eye etc. Abraham is only really justified in two circumstances. Either he gets away with the murder, no one finds out, or he doesn’t have to commit the murder, the sheep is provided.

But how does this affect individuality? Of course there are genuine moral dilemmas, where individuals must make up their minds in difficult circumstances. As Sartre asks somewhere, should I look after my aging grandmother or join the resistance? There are instances like Napoleon where someone must dare in order to succeed, where the risk is great and failure may mean death. But these situations are relatively rare.

What strikes me as odd in both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky is the idea that it is not possible to express individuality, to be a single individual with something new to say, without being a criminal in some way. There are laws that apply to everyone. But these laws only apply to certain things, aspects of life that affect everyone else. There are massive areas of private life which are unconstrained by law, especially if laws are written such that I have the liberty of a liberal morality that says so long as I harm no one else I may do as I please. In such circumstances I can think what I please, write what I please. What need have I for criminality?

Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling is deliberately putting forward an extreme example of faith. Abraham’s example does transgress the universal. But most faith even if it is likewise a belief in a paradox and an acceptance of the absurd, need not transgress universal morality. If as a Christian I believe the paradox of God made man who died but rose again, but who left me with an example to imitate and the task to follow him and live how he lived. Here my faith does not require me to transgress the universal. Quite the reverse.

There may be a teleological suspension of the ethical, but as Kierkegaard will develop in works such as “For Self Examination” our task is to be doers of the Word, followers of the Book of James and that requires no such heroics. And yet the task is far more difficult than that faced by either Abraham or Raskolnikov. So difficult indeed that almost no one, except perhaps a saint, is able to do what is required.

Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment translated by by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London, Vintage, c1992

Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling ; Repetition edited and translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong, Princeton, Princeton University Press, c1983.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

On translating Dostoevsky

I first read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was a student. I just picked up the Penguin Classics edition from a second hand book shop. I didn’t think about the translation at all, partly because I knew just about as much Russian at that time as I did Chinese. A little later I read the Brothers Karamazov in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. There was something on the cover about it being a new translation. I read it and, insofar as I thought about the translation, liked it. But how could I judge? Well of course I couldn’t really. I still didn’t know a word of Russian. 

I began learning Russian, more or less by chance some years ago. I found that setting myself goals, short term and long term was an aid to motivation. My long term goal was to read Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin in Russian. It took me five or six years. When I first tried to read Russian literature after a couple of years study, I gave up. I could read adapted texts reasonably well and could speak fairly fluently, but whenever I tried reading one of the 19th century classics, I was faced with a barrier. The first barrier was that I just did not know enough words. I would look up nearly every word on the first page, which meant that I would struggle to read one page in an hour. But even when I had looked up every word I still struggled, because the grammar of literary Russian was almost totally unfamiliar to me. It was full of grammatical constructions that are almost never used now in everyday speech. These constructions had been glossed over by my teachers, who were focussing on getting their students to talk. So after struggling through a couple of pages of a novel, I would give up. Eventually I thought the task was quite impossible. I learned Hebrew instead and found it on the whole easier than Russian.

After a couple of years off I came back to Russian literature with a new found determination. I picked a short Russian novella that I liked “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and read it in conjunction with an English translation by David McDuff. I think by this time I had read his translation of Dostoevsky’s Idiot which I liked. What struck me about ready Lady Macbeth was how different the Russian text was from the English text. McDuff had produced a readable translation, even a very fine translation. But at times it read like a paraphrase. There were times when in my struggles to understand the Russian text, the translation was not particularly helpful. I could sometimes not find in the translation the sentence I was trying to understand.

But I persevered. I read another short Russian novel; The dawns are quiet here by Boris Vasilyev and then thought I was ready for Pushkin. I picked Nabokov’s translation as my aid. I’d read Onegin in a verse translation by Charles Johnson. But I realised from the beginning that this translation would not help me for despite its merits as poetry it was too distant from Pushkin to be of much help.

The problem of translation struck me then. Pushkin is a truly great writer. But in reading him in English I would not be reading any of Pushkin’s words. Think about translating Shakespeare into Russian. Shakespeare knew no Russian, so not one of Shakespeare’s words would make it through. Some of Shakespeare’s themes and plot would get through, but what of the beauty of Shakespeare’s language? None of that would survive. It could be recreated perhaps, but only if the translator was Shakespeare’s equal. But that hardly seemed likely. Well Shakespeare, at least, in Russian was translated by Boris Pasternak. So at least his translator was a good poet even if he was not a Shakespeare. In finding a translation of Pushkin, I reasoned that I needed someone who fully understood the Russian text, but also was a very good writer of English. But wasn’t Nabokov just that. He had written some fine novels in English. He was one of the few writers who could write novels in a second language. 

His translation of Onegin is a work of genius. It is so close to the Russian text that I was able almost to see a correspondence between every English word and every Russian word. He enabled me to read Pushkin in Russian and his translation acted as my guide. Of course his translation had faults. He sometimes used unreasonably obscure English words as if showing off his erudition and vocabulary. But perhaps the biggest problem for someone who doesn’t know any Russian is that Nabokov’s Onegin does not and really does not attempt to convey much of Pushkin’s poetry. It is written in verse, but Nabokov can hardly be said to write great verse when he translates Pushkin. To paraphrase Robert Frost, the poetry has been lost in his translation. Is there any point in someone reading Nabokov’s Onegin? As an aid to helping someone understand the Russian it is brilliant, but for someone who knows no Russian it doesn’t really come close to Pushkin. It gives a good idea of the plot of Onegin, but the plot really is of small consequence. The only thing that matters about Pushkin is the beauty of the language and Nabokov does not even attempt to reproduce that.

Having finished Onegin, I began to gain some confidence. I had reached my goal. I read slowly, sometimes very slowly, but I could read Russian. I read some stories by Turgenev, some long novellas by Tolstoy, but I began thinking about reading a long Russian novel. My reading speed had increased and I thought of the possibility of reading The Brothers Karamazov. I tried out a page or two and thought the task not impossible. For the translation, that would help me on my way, I chose the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. I’m very glad that I did. For the most part, this translation follows Dostoevsky’s text very closely. 

My method of reading had developed somewhat since I began seriously reading Russian. To begin with when I read Lady Macbeth, I had read the English sentence first and then translated the Russian with the aid of a dictionary. When my confidence improved I began to read the Russian text first and then checked my understanding with the translation. After I improved still more I only checked the translation when I struggled. So I didn’t read everything that Pevear/Volokhonsky had written in English. But when Dostoevsky’s grammar defeated me, when he used archaic vocabulary or old-fashioned slang or words that simply were not in the dictionary, I turned to their translation. It almost always provided me with help.  I would say that their translation is about as close to Dostoevsky’s text as it is possible to get. No doubt this is partly to do with the combination of a native Russian speaker and a native English speaker combining to produce the translation. Of course the translation is not completely literal. People who know no Russian are perhaps not always aware of quite how far Russian is from English. To try to produce a word for word literal translation would be senseless, leading to sentences like “To me is twenty years” rather than “I am twenty”. Nevertheless Pevear/Volokhonsky seem to strive to produce as literal translation as possible. Moreover they succeed.


The benefits of this sort of translation are obvious to someone like me, who wants to read the Russian text, but who still finds the Russian original at times fairly difficult. But what about someone who knows no Russian? Here it depends on what you are looking for.  The problem remains that Dostoevsky is a great writer, but the translator, unless he is a great writer, can not reproduce this greatness. The plot and the ideas in Dostoevsky can be reproduced, but the greatness of Dostoevsky also consists in the language that he wrote. In reading Dostoevsky a reader wants a faithful translation, but he also wants one that is well written. There is a balance. A very close translation that gives the reader clunky English prose can hardly be said to be faithful to the aspect of the original, which is its literary and linguistic brilliantness.

It’s here that Pevear and Volokhonsky sometimes fail. Because I read Russian slowly, I have sometimes read their translations without checking the Russian original. When I read their translation of Chekhov's stories I found little in the translation which suggested to me that Chekhov was a great writer. Likewise, I’ve found some of their translations of Dostoevsky, which I have not yet read in the original, tough going and rather dull. Whether it's Dostoevsky or Pevear, Demons and Notes from Underground are horribly written.

All translation is more or less paraphrase, especially with Russian. In striving to be as literal as possible, it maybe that Pevear/Volokhonsky sometime sacrifice style for the sake of being literal. This is of great benefit to people like me. I would always choose their translations precisely because I know that they will stick to the text. But just as Nabokov’s translation misses Pushkin’s poetry, so Pevear/Volokhonsky don’t really give me the sense that Dostoevsky produced anything more than brilliant ideas and insights into human nature. They don’t show me a great novelist. Perhaps no translator can do this. But we can not learn every language. So other than giving up in despair we have to find the translator who is the best writer.

Pevear, is not supposed to be a particularly competent Russian speaker and could not translate Dostoevsky on his own. His wife translates literally while Pevear produces a paraphrase. It could be that this method is itself partly the reason for the rather clunky English that sometimes results. A translator really has to be able to understand the text that he is translating, otherwise he is only really seeing as through a glass darkly. The traditional translator, who knows both languages fluently, at least grasps the nuances himself.

I will continue to use Pevear/Volokhonsky as they serve my purpose. But for those who know no Russian it might be worth finding the translator who is the best writer. That way you might at least approach what made the writer a great writer in the original. Translation must be a balance between literalness and style. If I were to read Shakespeare in Russian I would prefer to read someone who in translating produced beautiful Russian, than someone who in seeking to be as literal as possible spelt out every pun and made Shakespeare dull and ugly.

Translations serve different purposes and each has its virtues and its defects. I am grateful to Pevear/Volokhonsky for what they have done. They are brilliant in the way that Nabokov was brilliant, but they are not beyond criticism and there are other translators worthy of being read.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Kierkegaard & the Exorcist

Kierkegaard is like the Exorcist. He makes Christianity heroic. 

I first came across Kierkegaard and the Exorcist when I was an undergraduate. Fear and Trembling came out in Penguin Classics and a friend, for some reason bought a copy and then lent it to me. The Exorcist was still banned back then in the 80s, but someone had come across a copy and we watched in a room full of students, from a distance a not especially good copy of the film. But somehow both of these events had a lasting importance.

Reading Fear and Trembling I was initially a bit embarrassed by the Christianity. I thought this thinker would be great if only he didn’t go on about God so much. At the time I was quite a militant atheist. But something made me want to read further. I realised that there was something here for me. I found most of the philosophers that we studied dull. They were concerned with problems that were at best abstract, at worst artificial. After I’d got over the initial thrill of Descartes’ scepticism the whole debate seemed sterile and lacking in importance. Perhaps this is looking at events from a future perspective. It’s always difficult to reflect back on events of some years ago, without using the present perspective as the lens through which we interpret. Anyway I resolved to do my undergraduate dissertation on Kierkegaard. We’d actually had a little course on the Philosophical Fragments, which must have been unusual at a British university at that time.  I took that as my point of departure and set out to read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript. These two works formed the main basis of what I wrote. I read very little secondary literature apart the bare minimum to play the game. But rather just came up with some ideas from my reading.

After this I decided to study Kierkegaard further and went to Cambridge for this purpose. Along the way I learned Danish. I started with an evening class, once a week and worked my way through a teach yourself Danish book. I then set off to read one of Kierkegaard's books in Danish and chose Repetition, because it was short and because I liked it. I looked up nearly every word on the first page, but continued and by the end could read Kierkegaard reasonably well. I first went to Denmark that summer before going to Cambridge. There I began to speak and to understand better, for he Kierkegaard is really much better in Danish.

Over the next four years I read nearly all of Kierkegaard, much of it in Danish, or at least I checked the text when it seemed necessary. I also found that I had come to believe. I can’t point to a moment when this happened, but occasionally I would go to Kings College chapel. I’ve never been much of a church goer, but somehow I found that I had a sort of faith.

Kierkegaard had provided the answer to my doubts with perhaps the only answer possible. Accept them. His discussion of faith was perfect for a sceptic. If I thought that Christianity was absurd and ridiculous. He agreed. But he showed the possibility of believing anyway. I grasped that possibility through him. Moreover he showed Christianity to be brave. Here was an abyss. Here was the need to leap over that abyss. Here was risk. Here was the need for bravery.

I had associated Christianity with wetness. An Archbishop spoke in a funny voice, all vacillation. The Christianity I heard about was just left-wing politics with a little God added to the mix. If something was hard to believe, like the Virgin birth, it could easily be watered down. If a part of the Bible didn’t fit in with modern life, it could be dropped. It all seemed so weak and I wanted nothing to do with it.

But then I saw the Exorcist again and here  once more was something a little more heroic. Here was a priest, Father Karras  who was like a boxer. He trained as if he was going to  go 15 rounds with some middleweight. He was intelligent. But this man was going to fight the Devil. Literally the Devil. He too had to make a leap of faith, for in the beginning he did not even believe in exorcism. The idea of possession to his modern mind, trained in psychiatry, seemed preposterous, something from the Middle Ages. So he too had scepticism. 

With the arrival of the Exorcist, Father Merrin, we meet another sort of Christian heroism. This man believes in possession and despite his physical weakness, his heart condition, despite the fact that he knows the exorcism may kill him. he takes on the Devil.

Each priest fights in his own way and each gives up his life, a martyr for his faith. Here despite the films trappings of horror, I began to realise was an attractive form of Christianity. Here were heroes, not weaklings.  

I think it was for the same reason that Kierkegaard emphasised going back to early Christianity. For at that time it was not easy to be a Christian. There was the risk of martyrdom. It was not just a comfortable part of bourgeois life.

The vision of heroic christianity portrayed by Kierkegaard and the Exorcist is not the whole story. It is certainly not the whole story in Kierkegaard. For his emphasis in the end is on practical Christianity and living a Christian life. But the idea that Christianity might require bravery of me, this strand in Kierkegaard’s thought, at least made the whole thing more attractive than the Christianity that had always been presented to me up until that point. Here were people I could admire.  By emphasising the difficulties involved in Christianity, Kierkegaard makes it something that seemed worth having. Moreover, by presenting a vision of Christianity which is not watered down, which follows the traditional view of Christianity literally, which takes the Bible seriously, he doesn’t tame it and make it domesticated for the present age. His idea is that if we find something in Christianity difficult it is up to us to change. I should not expect that Christianity should accommodate itself to my difficulty.  Rather I must change to fit in with Christianity. The same goes for the Exorcist. The present age is sceptical about demonic possession, but it is Father Karras who must change. The traditional view of Christianity prevails. Demonic possession is another absurdity. How could anyone believe such stupid superstitions? But Father Karras quite literally leaps and in the end is a true knight of faith.