Friday, March 16, 2012

Speaking of Kierkegaard

Mentioning in the previous post that I had read of a connection between Ibsen and Kierkegaard, it occurred to me that I should say something about the Danish philosopher, since I worked through a selection of his writing in the first year of my reading plan, before I started this blog. I’ve had an interesting time this morning reviewing my notes about Kierkegaard and reading about him in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Kierkegaard is deep and difficult, and I have no confidence that I’ll represent him faithfully, but with diffidence I can at least share a couple of my reactions.

The collection I read through started with large portions of Either/Or, and in the first part of this book, Kierkegaard, whom I had heard described as a Christian philosopher, shocked me with his whole-hearted embrace of hedonism (which he called the “aesthetic” life). If you’re going to be a hedonist, he says in effect, do it right: make your own choices, live passionately, and stay free from external commitments. The second part of the book, though, presented a better way: the ethical life. A human should forego the selfishness of hedonism, embrace responsibility, and make ethical choices – the first of which is to choose to live an ethical life. In other works, Kierkegaard reaches even higher and recommends a religious life, a fully conscious, persistent, passionate choice to believe in Christ despite the apparent absurdity of the idea that an infinite, transcendent God took on finite flesh.

In the last few years, any discussion of a hierarchy of life always makes me think of Aristotle’s hierarchy of the souls: the nutritive, the sensitive, and the rational. According to this division, plants have a nutritive soul only: they live and grow but have no senses and no means of reason. Non-human animals add to the nutritive soul a sensitive soul: they respond to sensations of sight, sound, bodily needs, and so on, but have no means of deliberating and determining, for instance, that a hunger pain should be ignored temporarily for the sake of a higher good. Humans, with their rational souls, find themselves one step higher on this ladder, a ladder whose levels correspond to the arrangement of the human body: the nutritive soul operating most obviously in the gut, the passions of the sensitive soul having their higher seat in the breast, and the rational soul topping the body and residing in the head. While the nutritive soul is beyond control (you can’t choose to stop or start growing), the sensitive soul, Aristotle teaches, needs the disciplined control of reason if one is to live ethically. Aristotle’s two higher souls correspond perfectly to Kierkegaard’s two lower forms of human life: Kierkegaard’s aesthete lives to indulge the appetites of the sensitive soul, and his ethical person keeps the appetites in check through the control of the rational soul.

Aristotle, though, can offer nothing exactly parallel to Kierkegaard’s religious life. To find a recognition of this third level, we’ll turn to the apostle Paul, who may well have read Greek philosophy. Like Kierkegaard, Paul talks here and there about three kinds of people. In Romans 7, he compares a sarkikos (i.e., fleshly) life to the pneumatikos (spiritual). And in the second chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, he compares the psychikos to the pneumatikos. Some translations render psychikos as “natural”; The RSV translates it “unspiritual.” But isn’t it clear that the word comes from psyche? If we translate the word “soulish” (here the generic and specific uses of “soul” make things a little confusing), a system of three levels of human life comes to view:

(1) The sarkikos, fleshly life (= A’s sensitive = K’s aesthetic) devoted to fulfilling every passion and desire presented by the senses.
(2) The psychikos, soulish life (= A’s rational = K’s ethical) in which desires have been shaped and disciplined by reasoned, ethical choices.
(3) The pneumatikos, spiritual life (= K’s religious) in which the Spirit of God reigns over both desire and thought.

I’m not sure how to end this post. If my depiction of this ladder makes any sense, no further point could top the conclusion it drives us to: that we all spend a shameful lot of time on the lower rungs.

No comments:

Post a Comment