Johannes Climacus, 1844
The piece begins with a piece of self-effacement. Climacus disavows the importance and originality of this effort, claiming it should not be understood as an effort to save the city. He claims to lack the security of an opinion, and says he strives only to learn how to learn to dance lightly with death.
I Thought Project
Can truth be learned?
The piece begins by outlining the socratic paradigm of knowledge. The problem with learning, as Socrates sees it, is that one cannot seek what one knows, and what cannot know what one seeks. Thus, all seeking must be recollection. Socrates, the teacher, can only be a midwife to knowledge; he cannot create new knowledge. Time and teacher become occasions for recollecting the forgotten knowledge. There is something radically egalitarian about this paradigm. As self-knowledge is knowledge of God, every person can be the center, and every encounter an occasion to discover knowledge.
- - the Christian paradigm
Whereas the teacher and the moment were merely occasions under Socrates, here the moment must have decisive significance, by virtue of the fact that the seeker is not in possession of the truth. The individual is in untruth, outside of the truth. The teacher must give both truth and the condition understanding it, because to be in the condition to understand the truth means to in a certain sense to already be in possession of the truth.
God created the human with the condition for understanding the truth, but the human lost it because of his or her own actions. The teacher is God, who, acting as an occasion, reminds the learner that he is in untruth through his own fault. Acting as more than an occasion, though, the teacher also gives truth and the condition for understanding it.
To be in untruth through one’s own fault is to be in a state of sin. Despite being in the state of untruth through one’s own fault, the individual lacks the capacity to leave that state of untruth. He once had the freedom to truth between truth or untruth, but now, having chosen untruth, he is like a child who buys a toy and wants to swap it for a book. The book seller tells him that, while at one point he could have bought the book, now the choice is gone, because a used toy is useless.
To sum up: the teacher is the savior, deliverer, reconciler, and judge. The moment is the fullness of time.
- the follower
In conversion, the individual becomes a new person, and repents the knowledge that he was in sin through his own fault.
II: God as Teacher and Savior (A Poetical Venture)
While, for Socrates, the student-teacher relationship was fundamentally reciprocal, because the encounter was an occasion for him to become a teacher and the other to learn - it was both sympathetic and autopathetic - the student-teacher relation in Christianity is fundamentally asymmetrical.
God is moved by love of the learner and wants to win him. Love makes difference equal through unity of understanding. How, then, can God achieve this equality, without it becoming an unhappy love, where God and the individual can’t understand each other?
Here Climacus uses the analogy to a king who wants to wed a peasant. He could appear before the peasant in his glory, making the girl ascend in status. This, however, would be a form of self-loss for her, and would ultimately glorify God, without glorifying the girl, which is the goal.
Therefore, for the moment to have significance, and the equality to be achieved, unity must be achieved by the God/King descending. This, however, necessarily remakes the girl/learner; it’s as if wine is poured into an old wine skin. The vessel shatters.
III: The Absolute Paradox (A Metaphysical Caprice)
“The paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow” (36). Thought always pushes toward its own impossibility; the ultimate paradox is the desire to think the unthinkable. The paradox collides against God, the unknown.
Here, Climacus launches into a critique of proofs for the existence of God (which is probably useful to remember for exams). Basically, if God does not exist, it is impossible to demonstrate this. If God does exist, my demonstration is superfluous because it presupposes the existence of God. To demonstrate that the unknown is God would be to provide a definition, not to demonstrate his existence. Demonstration always becomes something else. It’s also backwards to think I could ever demonstrate the existence of anything through logic. I demonstrate that the accused is a criminal, not that a criminal exists. Likewise, if I try to prove Napoleon’s existence through his works, either I include his name in his works, making it a tautology, or I can never link his work back to him. At most, I can link his works back to a great general, etc. I must let go of the demonstration in order for existence to emerge.
Contra Hegel’s notion of relational difference, Kierkegaard’s God is absolutely difference. Humans and God are absolutely difference, and this difference is sin. The paradox has two levels, two aspects which cannot be thought. First, that there exists the absolute difference of sin, and that the positive desire exists on God’s part to annul this and create absolute equality. Both thoughts are equally unthinkable.
Appendix: Offense at the Paradox
A person has a happy relation to the paradox when understanding and the paradox meet in mutual recognition of their difference. Grace determines this.
However, an unhappy meeting of understanding and the paradox is a type of offense, and, by extension, a type of suffering. The particular way in which this offense manifests is irrelevant; it is always offense and always suffering. Offense is misunderstanding of the moment. Every response the understanding gives to the paradox - bewilderments, dismissal, etc - responds to an originates from the paradox. Understanding is predicated on the paradox.
IV: the situation of the contemporary follower
The paradox has two difficulties: that man is God and that the revelation/moment of eternity takes place in time. Both man and God are radically incommensurable, as are time and eternity.
So, in one sense, it seems as if the contemporary witness does not have much of an advantage. He has access to the historical event, but the historical is radically different from the eternal of the revelation. The paradox unites the eternalizing of the historical and the historicizing of the eternal.
Faith in the paradox cannot be an act of will, because the will can only be efficacious once one has the condition to understand truth. One is contemporary by virtue of faith, not by virtue of the historical situation.
Interlude: is the past more necessary than the future?
Coming into existence proves something to be contingent. The actual is no more necessary than the possible; just because something happened doesn’t make it any more necessary than the thing which might have happened. All coming into existence comes by way of freedom. Everything that comes into existence is historical. Even nature is historical, in that it has a past. It is the perfection of the historical to have no history.
What occurred is unchangeable, but not necessary. To regard the past as necessary is to forget that it came into existence. The future is equally contingent. It’s a mistake to think, like Hegel, that the past can become necessary through apprehension, first because the fact that it came into being makes it unnecessary, but more importantly because the historical cannot be made accessible to sense perception. One cannot perceive something coming into being. Thus, I believe in the historical through an act of will. The conclusion belief draws about the past is not a conclusion, but a resolution. Belief is always battling against doubt. While belief affirms that something came into existence, doubt denies it, refuses to draw conclusions, and dwells with the immediate sensation.
so belief is always an act of faith, for both the contemporary and second-hand follower, because the event is never immediately accessible. The incarnation particularly could not have been immediate to the contemporary, because it was not accessible to the senses, and is a contradiction, because if God is necessary, he cannot come into being. Basically, all of our knowledge is tenuous, an act of belief, and this is only heightened vis a vis the incarnation. The historical contemporary gains nothing.
V: the follower at second hand
At most, the historical contemporaries have the benefit of understanding the offensiveness, the magnitude, the absurdity of the incarnation. the stakes of the decision seem clearer, as opposed to the later follower, who receives a domesticated version of the event, by means of a culture which accepts it. The later generation, however, can clearly see the significance and repercussions of the event, if not its radicality.
The advantage all depends on perspective. If the incarnation is a historical fact, the first generation has the advantage. If it is an eternal fact, then everyone is equally close/distant from it. If it is an absolute fact, then it is absurd, because the historical and the absolute/eternal are radically different.
At best, the testimony of the first generation can dissuade the present generation from thinking that the incarnation was in any way a historical fact or fundamentally historically accessible.