Review of The Concept of Dread by Soren Kierkegaard
When the editors of the Journal asked me to review a book by Kierkegaard, I agreed at once, for I had not yet seen any of the books of this man who lived a century ago but whose work has in our time occasioned a furor among my theological friends, and my curiosity was aroused. The reading of the book left me puzzled, for much of it was so badly written that the meaning remained obscure. I could heartily subscribe to what Alexander Dru wrote to Lowrie: "As for Kierkegaard, I am at this moment going through the proofs of our translations. It is a question whether I dislike you or myself most while reading them, and I usually settle it by answering that more than either I loathe Kierkegaard. One of these days I am going to say what I think of his vile, slovenly style, his clumsy unnecessary terminology." This utterance gave me some comfort, but it did not help me to understand the book any better. Written with an assurance which at times approaches arrogance, the book was clearly an attempt to read on the whole psychology of dread from his own experience and could only be understood by one who knew something about the man himself.
Accordingly, I asked at the libraries of the university for Lowrie's biography, only to find that the two copies in one of them and the sole copy in the other were "out," owing to the interest current at that time which had been aroused by the lectures of a popular speaker who was expounding and recommending Kierkegaard to his audiences. Eventually, I secured a book by Kaeker, translated from the German by Dru, and also the volume Kierkegaard, His Life and Thought, by E. L. Allen. With these aids I had something of a clue to the under-standing of the man whose name seems to be on the lips of most contemporary theologians at the moment.
I was now able to understand why men with the most divergent views could equally adhere to Kierkegaard. The date, itself, of this book is given as 1834 by one translator and as ten years later by another. Paradoxes and "dialectic" contradictions abound, and divergent "schools" have arisen, each insisting that the others are in error.
From the biographies we learn that the author was born in Copenhagen in 1813, the son of a wealthy retired merchant and a former servant whom his father had married "to pre-serve his and her good name." His father was fifty-seven years old at the birth of his son and lived to be eighty-two, to the great distress of the son, who considered that his father's great age was not a divine blessing but a curse. For many years the elder Kierkegaard had, in his retirement, been a student of theology, but nothing could bring him consolation or alter his "silent despair" as he brooded over the fact that "once as a child, while herding flocks on the heaths of Jutland, suffering greatly, in hunger and want, he stood on a hill and cursed God." The son's knowledge of this mortal sin of his father made him, in turn, suffer all his life from "inborn dread." Later, there occurred what Kierkegaard called "The Earthquake," the nature of which he would never reveal but which Allen thinks was probably the knowledge of the circumstances of his birth and his narrow escape from being a bastard. At one time his conflict with his father made him leave home and live by himself-a most unusual event in Copenhagen in those days-but he returned and thereafter considered his father's influence the most important in his whole life. Second in importance was "a woman's loving lack of understanding."
At seventeen he entered the university, but he neglected his studies, worked little, was often drunk, and sowed his crop of oats, frequently thinking of suicide. After ten years he took his degree of Master and before long was engaged to marry Regina Olsen, but, after a little more than a year, he broke off the engagement to the scandal of the town and the profound grief and humiliation of the girl. Smarting under the criticism of his acquaintances and distressed by the sufferings of Regina, he began to try to justify himself before her and the community by writing book after book, published under
(402) various pseudonymns. As " Hilarius Book-binder," "William Afham," "Viktor Eremita," "Constantine Constantinius," "John the Seducer," "Johannes de Silentio," and such like, he sought to explain his conduct to Regina, to set himself right before his fellows, and to make his peace with God.
Kierkegaard inherited a competency and never had to work for a living. His whole life was spent in his attempts to get out of one trouble and in efforts to get into another. His life can be measured by enumerating the major difficulties which distressed his soul. There was the revelation of his father's heinous childhood blasphemy, there was "the earthquake," and then the long turmoil following his unhappy lave affair. Out of this, still another developed. It is not remarkable that the numerous books he wrote to justify himself in jilting Regina and in which the references were disguised as the work of writers with the transparent pen names and with the obvious comparisons of himself with Abraham, Don Juan, Job, and Socrates, should tempt satirists to hold him up to ridicule, and this was done with a vengeance. The at-tacks appeared in a not-too-respectable weekly and in a literary annual for 1846. He was greatly embittered, gave up his plan to seek ordination into the ministry, and eventually wrote other books to justify his religious convictions, now substantially modified.
The last battle was the most furious. At the funeral of a bishop who had been his friend and the friend of his father, the deceased was referred to in the sermon as "a link in the chain of witnesses that extended from the apostles to his own time." Instead of considering this laudation as a pious convention, Kierkegaard was infuriated and proceeded to attack the church it-self in language "whose scorn and bitterness passed all bonds." He wrote in terms so violent that his arrest was contemplated, and he thought, even hoped, that he would be apprehended and martyred. Nothing of the kind happened, however, and in the midst of the controversy he died at the age of forty-two.
He was savagely contemptuous of "the mass," insisting that the solitary individual alone has value. "A majority vote is an indication of an untruth. Truth is possessed by individuals in the solitude of their private reflections, but is dissipated once the individuals form a mass and the decision is left to it." He came to reject infant baptism and, since he still held to the doctrine of original sin, opposed marriage altogether. "Propagation of the race is sinful. The bridal couple advancing to the altar to get the blessing of the minister is a comedy and a crime." He also opposed confirmation and church services, declaring that "if you refuse to take part in the public worship of God you will be burdened with one great sin less." Even the very apostles, he declared, took a false step when they baptized their thousands at Pentacost, making Christians already by mass production. His message seemed to be for males, for he declared that woman is the supreme enemy of spirit—the bait by which the devil draws young men into their snare.
The enthusiastic Kierkegaardians of our day do not, obviously, base their allegiance on these teachings of the master. Among the acceptable doctrines which appeal to our contemporaries are: original sin, the supremacy of faith over reason, and the value of "existential truth." His "teleological suspension of the ethical" receives less emphasis. In this "moral form of evil" faith takes precedence over the ethical. Abraham knew it was wrong to sacrifice Isaac, but he was willing to do it if God said so. This revelation seems to have come to our author after he had done wrong to the woman to whom he had been pledged.
"Existential thinking" means that truth is won by a decision and not by reasoning. It achieves the "existence," not caring for the "essence." Existential truth is truth that is known to a personal self and is discovered in a crisis. Faith is the crucifixion of reason, for a man must strangle his intellect in order to believe, but the salvation of one's soul is worth it. The object of faith may even be what one's conscience condemns as sin. A more complete antithesis to our modern spirit could scarcely be imagined.
As to the volume under review, This Concept of Dread, it is concerned with the reality of sin and its relation to anxiety both before and after the sin. There is much space devoted to Adam, and the similarity and essential identity of Adam with the rest of us is emphasized. Adam is no more to blame than we are, for we sin when we are free. We make a "qualitative leap." Adam was created, Eve farmed from his rib, and, since woman is weaker and more sensual than man, she seduced him. But Adam could riot really have understood God when he was told about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, since he had not done evil. No more could he understand the meaning of the threat of
( 403) death. It is recorded in the sacred book that the serpent spoke to Eve and was cursed by the Deity for his part in the fall. At this Kierkegaard balks, preferring "to admit bluntly" that he can associate no definite thought with the serpent. Therefore, there was no serpent. This is typical of the use he makes of the scriptures. As C. C. Morrison recently wrote of Reinhold Niebuhr, his teaching is "biblical but not bibliolatrous." He uses discrimination in deciding what portions of the scriptures to accept and exercises his liberty in rejecting freely when it seems best—a highly convenient method of hermeneutics and exegesis.
In the second of the five chapters, dread is defined as original sin. "Sin enters by dread but sin brings dread with it." The book is advertised as "largely psychological," and the jacket proclaims that it will insure the author a conspicuous place among psychologists; but his method is that of intuition and insight, and he declares that a man who has concerned him-self with psychology can construct his examples at once, which may not have any authorization of the "factual sort" but do, nevertheless, have a different kind of authority. And this is very true, for the whole psychology of dread is read off from his own experience. We have here, therefore, an interesting human document giving insight into the mental processes of a sick soul, tormented with a sense of guilt, depressed by an "inborn dread," and burdened with a profound and incurable melancholy. It tells nothing of normal men, but much of what we know of the normal is learned from studying the pathological.
The mind-body problem concerns modern psychologists hut not Kierkegaard. He insists that there are three-body, soul, and spirit. It is not easy to know what is meant by spirit except that it synthesizes the other two. As best I can make out, spirit is what beasts can never have and what all the angels are. Angels are pure spirit, have no history, and did not come into being by generation. The word "spirit" is used very frequently, but its meaning still eludes the reader, at least this reader.
One revealing chapter is largely concerned with the genius, of which there are two classes: the "immediate genius" and the "religious genius," to which latter group he considered himself to belong. He was conscious of being a genius to whom the external fact means nothing; therefore, no one can understand him. "Genius is outside the general." The genius is not "as most people are," nor is he ever content with being like others, for he is primitively concerned with himself, while all other men and their explanations are no help to him. And just as fate catches the "immediate genius," so does guilt catch the religious genius when by himself he sinks before himself into the consciousness of sin. "The more profoundly guilt is discovered, the greater the genius."
A highly significant portion of the book is about the demoniacal, for Kierkegaard believed at times that he was possessed of devils who made him dread the good instead of the evil. In a passage in the fourth chapter, which Lowie declares to be an intimate self-revelation, is a typical utterance of a melancholic: "What the shut-up keeps hidden in his close reserve may be so terrible that he dare not utter it even in his own hearing, because it seems to him as though by this very utterance he were committing a new sin, or as though it would tempt him again."
As to psychology, his final conclusion is that it cannot go very far in its explanation of dread and that it has nothing to do but to deliver it over to dogmatics.
This reviewer can, in no sense, claim to "understand Kierkegaard," for the more than thirty of his books that have been done into English in the last ten years are too many, and I have neither time nor taste for the task. But I can claim to have "discovered" him for myself, and I have read enough to understand how Karl Barth, the Swiss, can, from this source, justify his scholasticism, while American adherents loudly condemn such an interpretation. In the course of his embittered life he contemplated suicide, planned to take holy orders, seriously considered being a monk, and ended by attacking fiercely organized Christianity. Had he lived, one biographer suggests that he would have ended as a humanist—but this is going outside the record. His books represent not only different moods but different doctrines, and, just as Kierkegaard took from the scriptures what pleased him, so the interpreters of this man will in all likelihood find what they seek.
For the sociologist the point of greatest interest is not the accuracy of any interpretation but rather the extraordinary fact-and it is extraordinary-of the great vogue which this author enjoys in these war years. Each reader will have his opinion, but I venture to state my own.
There is a current reaction against the scientific method and all it implies. Neoscholasticism, now so vigorous, is but one symptom. Epithets are hurled and men berate "scientism," which they blame for our present woes. Science and "the machine" are said to cause our wars. Faith is lacking, and so the world is bathed in blood. And yet there was once a war which ran for thirty years at a time when there were no machines in the modern sense, and the seventeenth century witnessed Christians killing other Christians for the sake of a creed. Half the population of Saxony were exterminated in an age when all Europe professed the Christian faith.
But still many are bewildered and many grape in darkness and in dread. They have lost faith in the ability of men to solve our problems and yearn for some absolute authority. Because scientists have not yet solved all our problems, they belittle what we have done and deprecate the efforts of those who are striving to discover the secrets of nature, all nature, including human nature, so that our lives may have intelligent direction.
They have lost their nerve. They cry out that we should have ideals, not realizing that such an appeal is sheer magic if it neglects to discover the conditions under which this is possible. To such men Kierkegaard offers comfort. "Truth is won not by reasoning but by decision." Faith laughs at logic. Neglecting his sarcastic wit, his scorn of his fellows, his hatred of the World, the bewildered find in Kierkegaard the summons to an absolute authority which will not only relieve them and others from the drudgery of research but will make them happy in the belief that scientific research, at least in the field of personality, is futile and undesirable.
Lake Forest, Illinois