Existentialism is essentially a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Most of the living “existentialists” have repudiated this label, and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing they have in common is a marked aversion for each other. To add to the confusion, many writers of the past have frequently been hailed as members of this movement, and it is extremely doubtful whether they would have appreciated the company to which they are consigned.
Existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists—Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre—are not in agreement on essentials. Such alleged precursors as Pascal and Kierkegaard differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians; and Pascal was a Catholic of sorts, while Kierkegaard was a Protestant’s Protestant. If, as is often done, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold, we must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, Ortega, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism. The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life lies at the very heart of existentialism.
The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life is the heart of existentialism. It is a timeless sensibility that can be discerned here and there in the past—but it is only in recent times that it has hardened into a sustained protest and preoccupation.
It may be best to begin with the story of existentialism before attempting further generalizations. An effort to tell this story with a positivist’s penchant for particulars and a relentless effort to suppress one’s individuality would only show that existentialism is completely incongenial to the writer. This is not meant to be a defense of arbitrariness. A personal perspective may suggest one way of ordering diffuse materials, and be fruitful, if only by way of leading others to considered dissent.
In some of the earliest philosophers, such as Pythagoras and Heraclitus and Empedocles, we sense a striking unity of life and thou ht; and after the generation of the Sophists, Socrates is said to have brought philosophy down to earth again. In the Socratic schools and in Stoicism a lift later, philosophy is above all a way life. Throughout the history of philosophy other, more or less similar, examples come to mind, most notably Spinoza. It is easy, and it was long fashionable, to overestimate the beautiful serenity of men like these, and it is well to recall the vitriolic barbs of Heraclitus, the inimitable sarcasm of Socrates, and the passions of Spinoza. Even so, it is an altogether new voice that we hear in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.
The pitch is new, the strained protest, the self-preoccupation. To note a lack of serenity would be ridiculous: poise does not even remain as a norm, not even as an element of contrast; it gives way to poses, masks-the drama of the mind that is sufficient to itself, yet conscious of its every weakness and determined to exploit it. What we perceive is an unheard-of song of songs on individuality: not classical, not Biblical, and not at all romantic. No, individuality is not retouched, idealized, or holy; it is wretched and revolting, and yet, for all its misery, the highest good.
The bias against science may remind us of romanticism; but the Notes from Underground are deeply unromantic. Nothing could be further from that softening of the control which distinguished all romantics from the first attack on classicism to Novalis, Keats, and Wordsworth. Romanticism is flight from the present, whether into the past, the future, or another world, dreams, or, most often, a vague fog. It is self-deception. Romanticism years for deliverance from the cross of the Here and Now: it is willing to face anything but the facts.
The atmosphere of Dostoevsky’s Notes is not one of soft voices and dim lights: the voice could not be shriller, the light not more glaring. No prize, however great, can justify an ounce of self-deception or a small departure from the ugly facts. And yet this is not literary naturalism with infatuation with material circumstances: it is man’s inner life, his moods, anxieties, and his decisions, that are moved into the center until, as it were, no scenery at all remains. This book, published in 1864 is one of the most revolutionary and original works of world literature.
If we look for anything remotely similar in the long past of European literature, we do not find it in philosophy but, most nearly, in such Christian writers as Augustine and Pascal. Surely, the differences are far more striking even here than any similarity; but it is in Christianity, against the background of relief in original sin, that we first find this wallowing in man’s depravity and this uncompromising concentration on the dark side of man’s inner life.
In Rousseau’s Confessions, too, his Calvinistic background has to be recalled; but he turned against it and denied original sin, affirmed the natural goodness of man, and blamed his depravity on society. Then he proceeded to explain how an depravity could be abolished in the good society, ruled by the general will.
In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground no good society can rid man of depravity: the book is among other things an inspired polemic against Rousseau and the whole tradition of social philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through Hobbes and Locke to Bentham, Hegel, and John Stuart Mill. The man whom Dostoevsky has created in this book holds out for what traditional Christianity bas called depravity; but he be1ieves neither in original sin nor in God. and for him man’s self-will is not depravity: it is only perverse from the point of view of rationalists and others who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality.
Dostoevsky himself was a Christian, to be sure, and for that matter also a rabid anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and anti-Western Russian nationalist. We have no right whatsoever to attribute to him the opinions of all of his most interesting characters. Unfortunately, most readers fail to distinguish between Dostoevsky’s views and those of the Grand Inquisitor in Ivan’s story in The Brothers Karamazov, though it is patent that this figure was inspired by the author’s hatred of the Church of Rome; and many critics take for Dostoevsky’s reasoned judgments the strange views of Kirilov though he Is mad. As a human being, Dostoevsky was as fascinating as any of his characters; but we must not ascribe to him, who after all believed in God, the outlook and ideas of his underground man.
I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written. With inimitable vigor and finesse the major themes are stated here that we can recognize when reading all the other so-called existentialists from Kierkegaard to Camus.
Kierkegaard was dead nine years when Notes from Underground was published first in 1864. He had not known of Dostoevsky nor did Dostoevsky know of him. Nietzsche, on the other hand, read Notes from Underground in 1887 and was impressed as rarely in his life; and a year and a half later, toward the end of his career, he heard of Kierkegaard, too late to secure any of his books. Henceforth, the sequence of our major characters is clear. It is only at the beginning, faced with Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, that we do better to reverse the strict chronology and start with Dostoevsky.
Kierkegaard confronts us as an individual while Dostoevsky offers us a world. Both are infinitely disturbing, but there is an overwhelming vastness about Dostoevsky and strident narrowness about Kierkegaard. If one comes from Kierkegaard and plunges into Dostoevsky, one is lost like a man brought up in a small room who is suddenly placed in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. Or you might even think that Dostoevsky had set out to deliberately make fun of Kierkegaard. Those, on the other hand, who listen to the Notes from Underground as to an overture, are well prepared when the curtain rises to hear Kierkegaard’s account of how he first became a writer. Even his Point of View for My Work as an Author won’t be altogether unfamiliar. It is as if Kierkegaard had stepped right out of Dostoevsky’s pen.
The underground man pictures the ease of the “crystal palace” as a distant possibility and tells us that some individual would certainty rebel and try to wreck this utterly insufferable comfort. And Kierkegaard, not exiled to Siberia, as Dostoevsky was as a young man, but well-to-do in the clean, wholesome atmosphere of Copenhagen, sees how easy life is being made and resolves, “to create difficulties everywhere.”
If it is the besetting fault of Dostoevsky criticism that the views and arguments of some of his characters are ascribed, without justification, to the author, the characteristic flaw of the growing literature on Kierkegaard is that the author is forgotten altogether and his works are read impersonally as one might read those of Hegel. Nothing could be less in keeping with the author’s own intentions. Hence it is well to begin a study of Kierkegaard with The Point of View for My Work as an Author.
How strange Kierkegaard is when he speaks of himself, and how similar to Dostoevsky’s underground man—in content, style and sensibility! There is something novel about both which may be brought out by a brief contrast with Heinrich Heine. Heine’s self-consciousness is almost proverbial and at one time embarrassed romantic readers; but the strain in Heine is due largely to the tension between reverie and reason. Kierkegaard’s self-consciousness, like the underground man’s, is far more embarrassing because it comes from his humiliating concern with the reactions and the judgments of the very public which he constantly professes to despise. That he was physically misshapen might have remained without effect on his style and thought; but, like the underground man, he was inwardly out of joint—so much so that Heine seems quite healthy by comparison. How fluent is Heine’s prose, and how contorted Kierkegaard’s! Their love of irony and even vitriol they shared; but Heine’s world is relatively neat and clean-cut: even his melancholy seems pleasant compared to Kierkegaard’s. They were contemporaries who died within a year, and yet Heine seems almost classical today, and Kierkegaard painfully modern.
Both concerned themselves with Hegel: Heine even knew him personally, while Kierkegaard, a little younger, heard only the diatribes of the old Schelling after Hegel’s death. Heine came to part with Hegel because the philosopher was not liberal enough for him and too authoritarian. For Kierkegaard, Hegel was too rational and liberal. Heine cannot fairly be called a romantic because he steadfastly refused to give up the ideals of the Enlightenment and because he would not curb his piercing critical intelligence to spare a feeling. Kierkegaard escapes classification as a romantic because he, too, rejects the dim twilight of sentiment as well as any lovely synthesis of intellect and feeling, to insist on the absurdity of the beliefs which he accepts.
Dostoevsky is surely one of, the giants of world literature; Kierkegaard, one of its great oddities: an occasionally brilliant but exasperating stylist, a frequently befuddled thinker, yet a writer who intrigues and fascinates by virtue of his individually. His own suggestion for his epitaph is unsurpassable: “That Individual.”
Kierkegaard not only was an individual but tried to introduce the individual into our thinking as a category. In the vast thicket of his unpruned prose it is not easy to discover his importance for philosophy. He was an aggressive thinker, and the main targets of his attacks are
Hegel, of whom he lacked any thorough first-hand knowledge, and Christianity as it existed for approximately eighteen centuries, which seems at first glance to have no immediate bearing on philosophy. In fact, Kierkegaard was in revolt against the wisdom of the Greeks: it was the Greek heritage that he attacked both in philosophy and in Christianity.
Owing to the vast prestige of Greek philosophy, which in turn was influenced by a profound respect for mathematics, Western thought has made its calculations, as it were, without the individual. Where something of the sort is recognized at all today, it is customary to blame secularism and to preach a return either to the Middle Ages, as if the individual had been central then, or to Plato’s belief in the eternal verities or values. Kierkegaard, however, was anti-Platonist no less than an anti-Hegelian, and an anti-Thomist no less than an anti-Copernican. He sweeps away the whole conception of a cosmos as a mere were distraction. “And it came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only one, Isaac, whom thou lovest.” This is for Kierkegaard man’s situation, la condition humaine, man’s fate. The world has no part in it; it is no help. Here is man, and “one thing is needful:” a decision.
Kierkegaard rejects belief in the eternal verities, as well u Plato’s trust in reason as a kind of second sight. Ethics is for him not a matter of seeing the good but of making a decision. The crucial difference between an informed and uninformed, a reasoned and unreasoned, a responsible and irresponsible decision, escapes Kierkegaard. Yet he is unquestionably right that reason cannot absolve us from the need for decisions, and he see. that Greeks and Christians and modem philosophy have tried to important fact. They have tried to escape the need for choices whether they sought refuge in attempts to contemplate what is eternal or in analysis of moral terms, whether they tried to prove their Weltanschauungen or tried to prove the superiority of Christianity or, perhaps, God’s existence. Kierkegaard attacks the proud tradition of theology, ethics, and metaphysical as a kind of whistling in the dark, as self-deception, as an unrelenting effort to conceal crucial decisions that we have made and must make behind a web of wholly secondary and at times invalid, demonstrations.
At least by implication, Kierkegaard contests the dualistic legacy of Plato and the popular conception of the soul or self as substance, comparable to the body. The self is essentially intangible and must be understood in terms of possibilities dread, and decisions. When I behold my possibilities, experience that dread, which is “the dizziness of freedom,” and my choice is made in fear and trembling.
These are motifs that remain central in all so-called existentialism: we recognize them in the non-denominational religiousness of Jaspers and in Sartre’s atheism as well as in the mutually opposed theologies of Barth and Bultmann. Herein lies Kierkegaard’s importance for a vat segment of modem thought: he attacks received conceptions of Christianity, suggest a radical revision of the popular idea of the self, and focuses attention on decision.
He is a man in revolt, and even if one quite agrees that a revolt was called for, one may yet regret that, he went much too far, and that his followers have not seen fit to redress his excesses. Instead of offering a circumspect critique of reason indicating what it can and cannot do, he tried a grand assault. Instead of questioning to what extent mathematics or the other sciences are valid models for philosophy, or ethics in particular, he had recourse to patently invalid arguments. Instead of asking whether Descartes’ fine ideal that our reasoning should be clear and distinct, reinforced since by the tremendous progress of the sciences, might not eventually lead philosophers to concentrate on logic and trivialities to the neglect of large and certainly important areas, Kierkegaard rashly renounced clear and distinct thinking altogether.
Kierkegaard’s central error is epitomized by his two epigrams: “The conclusions of passions are the only reliable ones” and “What our age lacks is no reflection but passion,” This was not true in the 19th century, much less is it true today. Even those who share his violent distaste for desiccated writing should not find it difficult to see that his diagnosis is mistaken and that his prescription would be fatal. Reason alone, to be sure, cannot solve some of life’s most central problems. Does it follow that passion can, or that reason ought to be abandoned altogether?
At this point Kierkegaard fans back into Plato’s dichotomy of reason and belief, of mathematics and mere myth, as if, where mathematic certainty is unattainable, we must be satisfied with stories which cannot be questioned. (Plato’s myths, of course, are beautiful—but never scrutinized or simply countered with a rival story which might make a different point with equal grace.) This spurious alternative—that where reason cannot offer certain knowledge it is altogether impotent-was made more fateful yet by its revaluation in Christianity. Plato had maintained on the whole that in the things that matter most reason is competent, while in Christianity the position gained adherents that those questions which our reason can decide are eo ipso not of ultimate importance while the most crucial statements must be above rational scrutiny. St. Thomas was one of those who opposed this position, but rational scrutiny was allowed by him—insofar as it was allowed at all—only against the background of the stake for heretics which he specifically affirmed. Kierkegaard, of course, was far closer to Luther: anti-philosophical and individualistic. A little more subtly, to be sure he echoes Luther’s famous dicta: “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason” and “You must part with reason and not know anything of it and even kill it; else one will not get into the kingdom of heaven” and “reason is a whore,”
A Story with a Moral