Annotating Kierkegaard; an intellectual’s appreciation

I am largely an intellectual because of Soren Kierkegaard.  I mean this primarily in terms of intellectual biography rather than genealogy.  A few days ago I noted briefly my own vocational journey into English at the hands of T.S. Eliot.  That is a true tale. However, at Eliot’s hands and through English alone as an undergraduate I largely wanted to be the next great poet or novelist.  Kierkegaard taught me to think, or at least taught me that thinking was something a Christian could do, ought to do, with whatever capacity God had given him.  Through Kierkegaard I came to Walker Percy, subject of my undergraduate thesis, and then John Updike, subject of my first scholarly essay, and probably too to literary and cultural theory which became a field of my doctoral studies and has remained a passion.   His writerly creativity, his playfulness with language image and authorial personae, never let me believe that critical writing was the inherent inferior to fiction, even if it is often practiced poorly.

In honor of Kierkegaard’s birthday yesterday, I took down some of my old SK from the shelf and blew the dust off.  The old Walter Lowrie paperback editions that were 3.95 back in the day.  The rapturous and pious annotations that fill the margins are now cringe-inducing, but I am reminded of the passions an intellectual engagement deeply felt can arouse.  A lot of the passages are marked over in four or five different colors of highlights and underlining, a way of trying to keep track, I suspect, of the many different readings I gave those book back in the day, a way of tracking the different person I was becoming.  And if I now have moved a long way from those Kierkegaardian roots in to other hipper modes of thinking, I’m also of an age where I’ve started realizing that the newest thing is not necessarily a mark of the best thing, maybe only showing you what you already knew without realizing it rather than what you need to know.

I still think The Great Dane wears well.  His comments on sectarianism, as well as his more general clarity about easy piety, say something to our own age as equally as his.  And, I still wonder sometimes, deep down, whether my first love was not the best.

From Fear and Trembling:

The true knight of faith is always absolute isolation, the false knight is sectarian. This sectarianism is an attempt to leap away from the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a cheap price. The tragic hero expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it. The sectarian punchinello, instead of that, has a private theatre, i.e. several good friends and comrades who represent the universal just about as well as the beadles in The Golden Snuffbox represent justice. The knight of faith, on the contrary, is the paradox, is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections or pretensions. This is the terrible thing which the sectarian manikin cannot endure. For instead of learning from this terror that he is not capable of performing the great deed and then plainly admitting it (an act which I cannot but approve, because it is what I do) the manikin thinks that by uniting with several other manikins he will be able to do it. But that is quite out of the question. In the world of spirit no swindling is tolerated. A dozen sectaries join arms with one another, they know nothing whatever of the lonely temptations which await the knight of faith and which he dares not shun precisely because it would be still more dreadful if he were to press forward presumptuously. The sectaries deafen one another by their noise and racket, hold the dread off by their shrieks, and such a hallooing company of sportsmen think they are storming heaven and think they are on the same path as the knight of faith who in the solitude of the universe never hears any human voice but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility.

The knight of faith is obliged to rely upon himself alone, he feels the pain of not being able to make himself intelligible to others, but he feels no vain desire to guide others. The pain is his assurance that he is in the right way, this vain desire he does not know, he is too serious for that. The false knight of faith readily betrays himself by this proficiency in guiding which he has acquired in an instant. He does not comprehend what it is all about, that if another individual is to take the same path, he must become entirely in the same way the individual and have no need of any man’s guidance, least of all the guidance of a man who would obtrude himself. At this point men leap aside, they cannot bear the martyrdom of being uncomprehended, and instead of this they choose conveniently enough the worldly admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and therein lies his deep humanity, which is worth a good deal more than this silly participation in others’ weal and woe which is honored by the name of sympathy, whereas in fact it is nothing but vanity. He who would only be a witness thereby avows that no man, not even the lowliest, needs another man’s sympathy or should be abased that another may be exalted. But since he did not win what he won at a cheap price, neither does he sell it out at a cheap price, he is not petty enough to take men’s admiration and give them in return his silent contempt, he knows that what is truly great is equally accessible to all.

Either there is an absolute duty toward God, and if so it is the paradox here described, that the individual as the individual is higher than the universal and as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute / or else faith never existed, because it has always existed, or, to put it differently, Abraham is lost.


5 thoughts on “Annotating Kierkegaard; an intellectual’s appreciation

  1. Dear Peter, I really enjoy your blogs but I have to admit I cringed slightly when you wrote, “I am largely and intellectual …etc). I recalled when reading C.P. Snows Two Cultures that he commented on this term Intellectual. I looked it up and it is as follows: ” I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. When I say the intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be distinguished. … Two polar groups: at one pole we have the lterary intellectuals, who incidently while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others. I remember G. H. Hardy once remarkingto me in mild puzzlement, sometime in 1930’s: ‘Have you noticed how the word “intellectual” is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”
    I only cringed very slightly because from reading your blogs I don’t think you meant to hurt us poor sensitive engineers.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dermot. I wrestled some with what term to use. I did not want to use the term academic or scholar, because I don’t think that’s what reading SK did for me. I was moved to be a thinker long before I decided to be an academic or a scholar. I think there are many people who are academics who are also intellectuals, but I don’t think the terms are coextensive. I also think that there are intellectuals who are scholars, but I don’t think intellectualism necessarily leads to the kinds of scholarly research projects that characterize a lot of the academy today. Indeed, there are some ways in which the narrowness and particular expertise of the research agendas of many or most academics today is counter to the spiritual of intellectualism that I think I’m trying to invoke and that I think is worth defending. It is something more like a habit of mind that reflects the belief that developing the life of the mind to its highest capacities is a vocation to which one should devote one’s life.

    In this sense it is not related to the question of a particular career or position in life. Indeed, part of my reason for choosing the word was in recognition that while I am an administrator, I am in some particular senses first and always an intellectual. I do not think people normally think of administrators as intellectuals, which is one reason faculty talk about us going over to the “dark side,” as if in becoming administrators we have abandoned a particular calling. My own sense in keeping this blog and in the other reading and writing that I do this is absolutely not the case, though it is true that for the moment I’ve mostly put aside the academic pursuit of publishing papers–something I don’t see as a sine qua non for the appellation “intellectual.” Indeed, in some respects I think I am more of an intellectual now since I have been able to lay aside the obsessive pursuit of publication which I find can narrow rather than broaden and deepen the mind in some instances. I think it often did for me in any case. So as I am trying to use the term there would be no sense that an engineer or someone else would not be an intellectual since it could be a habit and practice of mind that is found anywhere .

    At the same time, I think it is clearly a habit of being that is not simply folk wisdom or learning from experience. Those things are valuable, but I think that for the intellectual the experiences of life are the ground of thinking and reflection, and bringing that thinking and reflection in to conversation with the thinkers of the past and present. This does strike our current cultural climate as impractical, I think, so there is a way that i want to defend it over and against the need to have a specific practical outcome. This is partially based for me in a religious sensibility that believes that learning and thinking can be their own goods and should seek their own perfection, regardless of any practical consequence. But that may only be because we cannot often see the practical consequence clear at hand. What we call practicality may only be those things that have an identifiable, and so a relatively proximate in time and space, effect. Intellectualism may indeed be practical even though we may not be able to find where those effects actually are. Maybe this is an intellectual version of the chaos theory that suggests the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can lead to monsoon, if we only could understand the connections.

    Well, more than what you needed, I’m sure.

    • Thank you Peter. I do understand and agree with the the points you are making. I was being somewhat provocative in bridling at the word ‘intellectual’. However, I do think the word has connotations of high academic achievements within academe. This does get in the way of promoting the kind of ‘intellectualism’ that , if I undestand you rightly, you wish to promote. Regards

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