One has just been sent out as a biblical dove, has found nothing green, and slips back
into the darkness of the ark -- Kafka

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shestov on Kierkegaard

The chain of being/reading goes: Milosz was told (commanded) to read Shestov by Sorana Gurian; Shestov was told (forced) to read Kierkegaard by Husserl (according to Shestov, Kierkegaard was not yet a big deal in the the France of the 1930's); R L Swihart was told (armtwisted) to read Shestov by Milosz.

Anyway, certainly Shestov found a kindred reflection in Kierkegaard.

To close the week, and the week of the Absurd, I leave a few words from Shestov on Kierkegaard (in "Kierkegaard as a Religious Philosopher," see

  I concluded the previous section with those words of Kierkegaard's that are never to be forgotten if you wish to penetrate into the essence of his philosophy: "Only terror reaching despair develops a person to his highest." That is why Kierkegaard was so irresistibly drawn by the Book of Job which, in his view, is the most human book of the whole Bible. That is why he also made the decision, unheard-of in its absurdity and for us completely incongruous, to set Job as a thinker over against Hegel and the Greek symposium. After all, Job also decided to throw down a challenge to all of our indisputable truths only when the terrors and misfortunes befalling him surpass all imagination. Here is how Kierkegaard tells of this in his Repetition: "The greatness of Job is therefore not that he said, 'The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord' - what he indeed said at first and did not later repeat... The greatness of Job lies in the fact that the passion of freedom is not choked or calmed in him by any false expression... Job demonstrates the compass of his world view through the firmness with which he knows how to eschew all crafty ethical evasions and cunning wiles." Everything that Kierkegaard says of Job can also be said of himself. And here is the closing passage in which Kierkegaard says, "Job is blessed and received everything back again double. This is what people call a repetition... Thus there is a repetition. When does it come? When did it come for Job? When all conceivable human certainty and probability was on the side of impossibility." And, according to Kierkegaard's deep conviction, this repetition will "obtain a very important role in the newer philosophy," for "the new philosophy will teach that all of life is a repetition."

     The new philosophy means the existential philosophy. This philosophy begins where all conceivable human certainty and probability bears witness to impossibility, i.e., the end, and where speculative philosophy falls silent. For Hegel, for the participants in the Greek symposium, there is here nothing more to do - they can neither begin anything nor continue anything. They do not wish and do not dare to oppose the instructions and commandments of reason. They are completely under the power of the conviction that to reason and only to reason is it given to define the boundaries of the possible and the impossible. They do not even dare to ask from where this unshakable certainty of the omnipotence of reason came to them. This seems to them tantamount to the readiness to place absurdity and nonsense in the place of reason. Could one decide to take such a step? Could a person sacrifice his reason? Could he forget the divine Plato's warning that the greatest misfortune that can happen to a man is to become a misologos, i.e., a hater of reason?

     But is it really a question of sacrifice here? It turns out that Plato did not foresee everything. Reason is indeed necessary, very necessary for us. Under the ordinary conditions of our existence it helps us to cope with the difficulties, even the very great difficulties, that we run up against on our life-path. But it also happens that reason brings man the greatest misfortune, that from a benefactor and liberator it is transformed into a jailer and hangman. To renounce it does not at all mean to sacrifice anything. Here there can be only one question: How is this hated power to be thrown off? Indeed, even more than this: man ceases completely to ask, as if he sensed that in the very asking a concession to the boundless pretensions of the truths disclosed to us through reason is hidden. Job does not ask: he cries, weeps, curses (could Pascal perhaps have had Job in mind when he said, "je n'approuve que ceux qui cherchent en gémissant"?); in a word, he raves, and the edifying speeches of his friends who came to comfort him provoke in him attacks of fury. He sees in them only an expression of human indifference- and human cowardice which cannot bear the sight of the terrors that have befallen him and which cloak their perfidy with exalted words of morality and wisdom. Reason attests "passionlessly" to the end of every possibility, and ethics, which always follows on the heels of reason, comes with its pathetic exhortations and edifying speeches that man is obliged humbly and meekly to bear his fate, no matter how terrible it may be. To this Kierkegaard, just like Job, has only one answer: it is necessary to kill, to annihilate the repulsive monster that has usurped for itself the right to pass sentences in the name of reason over the living person and to demand of him, in the name of morality, that he consider the sentences that have been passed as eternally indissoluble and holy. "My unforgettable benefactor, much-plagued Job!" writes Kierkegaard.
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