Misconceptions Concerning Kierkegaard

First Things has a nice article on Kierkegaard up today:

The two biggest misconceptions about Kierkegaard have to do with his attitude toward the Church, and his general disposition. Because he rebuked the Church so sternly, some people think he was trying to subvert it. On the contrary, says scholar Howard Johnson, Kierkegaard was a “loyal son of the Church,” who “like St. Thomas Aquinas,” or any other theologian until recent times, was “so living in the sacramental, ecclesiological reality” of Christianity that it would never have occurred to him to try to “topple altars.” His critique was constructive, not destructive. …

The second misconception is that Kierkegaard was a perpetual malcontent, the “gloomy Dane,” who could only protest and never find peace and solace. In fact, the moment he committed himself to Christ, unreservedly, Kierkegaard found that peace which was the source and strength of his whole life.

You can read the rest here.

Happy Birthday to Thomas Reid!

Thomas Reid is one of the greatest philosophers you’ve probably never heard of. A contemporary and harsh critique of David Hume, Reid represents the Scottish Common Sense School of Philosophy. Reid was highly critical of the likes of Descartes (and Hume), arguing that the entire Cartesian project of Methodological Doubt was irrational. Basically, Reid argued that there are certain first principles that we do not and cannot reason to, but rather are the conditions from which we reason. Reid was heavily influential for the modern “Reformed Epistemology” movement of Wolterstoff, Plantinga, et. al. Here’s a nice quote from Reid which typifies his sometimes satirical style:

Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke have all employed their genius and skill, to prove the existence of a material world; and with very bad success. Poor untaught mortals believe undoubtedly, that there is a sun, moon, and stars; an earth, which we inhabit; country, friends, and relations, which we enjoy; land, houses, and moveables, which we possess. But philosophers, pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve to have no faith but what is founded upon reason. They apply to philosophy to furnish them with reasons for the belief of those things, which all mankind have believed without being able to give any reason for it. And surely one would expect, that, in matters of such importance, the proof would not be difficult: but it is the most difficult thing in the world. For these three great men, with the best good will, have not been able, from all the treasures of philosophy, to draw one argument, that is fit to convince a man that can reason, of the existence of any one thing without him. Admired Philosophy! daughter of light! parent of wisdom and knowledge! if thou art she! surely thou hast not yet arisen upon the human mind, nor blessed us with more of thy rays, than are sufficient to shed a “darkness visible” upon the human faculties, and to disturb that repose and security which happier mortals enjoy, who never approached thine altar, nor felt thine influence! But if indeed thou hast not power to dispel those clouds and phantoms which thou hast discovered or created, withdraw this penurious and malignant ray: I despise Philosophy, and renounce its guidance: let my soul dwell with Common Sense.

~Thomas Reid (1711-1796)  An Inquiry Into the Human Mind On the Principles of Common Sense


Happy Birthday to Søren Kierkegaard!

There is far too much of Kierkegaard worth quoting. So, here are just a few gems:

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.

Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.

One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger into existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? … How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but was thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? … How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

You have surely noticed among schoolboys, that the one that is regarded by all as the boldest is the one who has no fear of his father, who dares to say to the others, “Do you think I am afraid of him?” On the other hand, if they sense that one of their number is actually and literally afraid of his father, they will readily ridicule him a little. Alas, in men’s fear-ridden rushing together into a crowd (for why indeed does a man rush into a crowd except because he is afraid!) there, too, it is a mark of boldness not to be afraid, not even of God. And if someone notes that there is an individual outside the crowd who is really and truly afraid — not of the crowd, but of God, he is sure to be the target of some ridicule. The ridicule is usually glossed over somewhat and it is said: a man should love God. Yes, to be sure, God knows that man’s highest consolation is that God is love and that man is permitted to love Him. But let us not become too forward, and foolishly, yes, blasphemously, dismiss the tradition of our fathers, established by God Himself: that really and truly a man should fear God. This fear is known to the man who is himself conscious of being an individual, and thereby is conscious of his eternal responsibility before God.

~Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)


Be Wise as Pigs and Innocent as Horses

animal-farmIn his commission of the Disciples, Jesus tells them that they must “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16 ESV). Why the unity of both wisdom and character? Is not simply being a good person enough? In George Orwell’s Animal Farm we are presented with a perfect illustration of why moral virtues must be coupled with intellectual virtues. While Christ uses the metaphor of serpents and doves, Orwell utilizes horses and pigs. In examining Orwell’s characters we can see that both goodness without wisdom and wisdom without goodness are undesirable.

The horse, Boxer, has two defining characteristics. First, he is a morally innocent character. He is obedient, loyal, hard-working, and trusting through and through. One would be hard-pressed to find a more honorable character. Second, he is dim-witted. He is consistently portrayed as lacking any real mental ability. Boxer is introduced by Orwell in a way that unites these two marks of character: “A white stripe down his nose gave him a somewhat stupid appearance, and in fact he was not of first-rate intelligence, but he was universally respected for his steadiness of character and tremendous powers of work” (Orwell, Animal Farm, 4).

Boxer’s lack of intelligence is seen throughout the story. Following the animal rebellion, the pigs come to power and begin the instruction of the animals. “Their most faithful disciples were the two cart-horses, Boxer and Clover. These two had great difficulty in thinking anything out for themselves, but having once accepted the pigs as their teachers, they absorbed everything that they were told, and passed it on to the other animals” (12). The pigs try to teach Boxer to read, but he cannot learn letters passed D, or when he does, he forgets A B and C (21). When Napoleon is able to chase off Snowball, Boxer is deeply troubled, but unable to summon the mental powers to understand why Napoleon did this. After much mental struggling Boxer finally surrenders whatever mind he has left with the motto, “Napoleon is always right” (35). Even when Napoleon recasts Snowball as the villain of the Battle at Cowshed, Boxer knows this is not what happened, but is unable to contend with this falsehood. In spite of his moral unease at this lie, because he cannot think it out for himself, must fall back on “Napoleon is always right” and doubts his own memories (49). Boxer is aware of this defect of mental acuity, but puts off cultivating the mental virtues until retirement: “It would be the first time that he had had leisure to study and improve his mind. He intended, he said, to devote the rest of his life to learning the remaining twenty-two letters of the alphabet” (72). Of course, by then it will be too late for Boxer.

Despite this simple-mindedness of Boxer, he also has an admirable list of moral virtues. He is humble, docile, obedient, diligent, meek, and loyal. When he hears Snowball condemn Mollie’s ribbons, he immediately throws his own straw hat in the fire with all the other human artifacts (14). As Animal Farm is trying to get off the ground, Boxer gets up half an hour earlier than everyone else in order to work and adopts the motto, “I will work harder!” (19). After the first windmill is destroyed Boxer works at night in addition to his day labors (42). At the Battle at Cowshed, Boxer is overcome with guilt when he kills a boy: “‘I have no wish to take life, not even human life,’ repeated Boxer, and his eyes were full of tears (27). When Napoleon sends his dogs after certain other pigs and Boxer himself, Boxer kicks them away and presses one beneath his hoof. Yet even though it was Napoleon who had sent them after him, Boxer looks up to Napoleon to find out what he should do with this dog he has pinned (50). Even after this slaughter by Napoleon and the dogs, Boxer cannot bring himself to blame Napoleon, though he knows something isn’t right. Instead, he blames himself. “I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves” (52).

It is this combination of excellent moral virtue without corresponding intellectual virtue that ultimately ruins Boxer. After the Battle of the Windmill, Boxer is injured with a split hoof and pellets in his leg, yet he “refused to take even a day off work, and made it a point of honour not to let it be seen that the was in pain” (66). Finally, he works himself to exhaustion pulling stones for the windmill (71). In his blind trust of Napoleon, Boxer allows himself to be led off to what he thinks is a hospital. In what is the most tragic of all the events within Animal Farm, Boxer is makes one last effort to save himself:

All the animals took up the cry of ‘Get out, Boxer, get out!’ But the van was already gathering speed and drawing away from them. It was uncertain whether Boxer had understood what Clover had said. But a moment later his face disappeared from the window and there was the sound of a tremendous drumming of hoofs inside the van. He was trying to kick his way out. The time had been when a few kicks from Boxer’s hoofs would have smashed the van to matchwood. But alas! his strength had left him; and in a few moments the sound of drumming hoofs grew fainter and died away…Boxer was never seen again. (73-74)

In stark contrast to Boxer, is the pig Napoleon. Boxer and Napoleon stand as direct opposite of character and intellect. Where Boxer is simple and weak-minded, Napoleon is shrewd and wise. Where Boxer is moral and innocent, Napoleon is corrupt and wicked.

Napoleon’s brilliant mind as a thinker and a politician is quite evident throughout Animal Farm. Napoleon and the other pigs teach themselves to read and write, no simple task (15). Napoleon himself develops the new philosophy of Animalism and establishes the Seven Commandments (16). He becomes the primary teacher to all the other animals (20-21), and all the animals come to acknowledge Napoleon and other pigs’ superior intelligence: “It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decisions had to be ratified by a majority vote” (29). This is primarily because “the pigs were so clever that they could think of a way round every difficulty” (17). Napoleon’s intellectual ability is matched by his political cunning. He is able to out-maneuver Snowball, chase him off, and convince the rest of the farm that Snowball was really their enemy. He does this by convince the animals that their memories of the Battle at Cowshed was wrong, that Snowball had led the charge against them, not defended them (49). Napoleon is also a shrewd negotiator as he is able to play Frederick off of Pilkington in order to sell off the wood at a high price, even though he is cheated by it and the farm suffers an attack (60-63).

Furthermore, Napoleon is as wicked as he is smart, and his wickedness is manifest in his hypocrisy. He takes the cow’s milk for his own consumption (17). He takes away the pups from their mother, one of the very criticisms he had made of Farmer Jones (22). He moves the pigs into the house, again which was forbade to the other animals because the house is a symbol of decadence and evil (41-42). He starves out the Hens to get them to produce more eggs which will be sold off to humans (46). In a vicious demonstration of power, he has numerous animals slaughtered in public (50-51). After the Battle of the Windmill the pigs get drunk, and like most people suffering the effects of a hangover, Napoleon forbids anyone from consuming alcohol with punishment as death. Of course, once the hangover wears off, Nap sets off a special part of the farm just for growing barley. Only the pigs are allowed to consume it (65). Napoleon is also consumed with sex as he is apparently sleeping with all the sows, “producing thirty-one young pigs” (67). He begins wearing ribbons which they had forbade Mollie from wearing (67).

While the other animals are starving, Napoleon and the other pigs consume sugar and other fine goods. “The pigs seemed comfortable enough, and in fact were putting on weight if anything” (68). Of course, he his height of evil and hypocrisy is sending out Boxer to the knacker and using the proceeds of his death to buy whisky (73-75).

From these two examples we can see the importance and necessity of combining intellectual and moral virtues. Both of these are necessary for the fully developed person. Intelligence without morality leads to the great abuses of power that have occurred throughout history. Morality without intelligence leaves one open to the abuse. If you cannot think for yourself, you are at the mercy of those who can. It is in this light that Christ commands his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16 ESV). Paul also applies this same principle in his exhortation to the Ephesians:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph 4:11-14 ESV)

Orwell, in Animal Farm provides a fine example of the importance of uniting the intellectual and the moral virtues. For without both, we see the great catastrophe that can occur both within the individual and in society.

Works Cited:
Orwell, George. Animal Farm and 1984. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.