Knowledge is Not Equal to Possession

To know what a human soul is, what this means, is still a long way from beginning to gain one’s soul in patience, and it is a knowledge that exhibits its difference from that gaining inasmuch as it does indeed grow in impatience. And even though this knowledge may have its significance, it often deceived a person the very same way the world does, in that he thought he possessed it, whereas it was his knowledge that possessed him.

Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, “To Gain One’s Soul in Patience”

SK here is reflecting on Luke 21:19: “In your patience you will gain your souls.” (Side note: this is the weird Scripture reference in That Thing You Do! when Guy asks his uncle when the records they just recorded will be made. He responds “Luke 21:19,” and the bass player simply responds by quoting the verse (in what I think is KJV) — “In your patience possess ye your souls”)

Whether Kierkegaard and I seem to have the same concerns about knowledge, or whether reading him has formed how I personally think about knowledge and its temptations, I do not know. This particular discourse was difficult to read, but the gist of it was simple. He reflects on the fact that we gain our souls in patience. For SK, it is the act of being patient itself that is the way in which we gain our souls. The “in” here is key for him — he doesn’t think it is “through” or “by” patience, for that would indicate that we can practice patience, gain our soul, and then be done with patience. No, quite the opposite. It is, in some ways, the act of patience wherein our souls are gained.

Near the end of the discourse, he flips over to those who come at this discussion by asking what a soul is in the first place (which is where the quote above comes from). The question of knowledge is simply another way of being impatient for SK. And, in some ways, it’s an even more devious form of impatience, because it covers itself up by being distanced and seeming wise by asking the question. Those who ask such questions are simply delaying the requirement of the verse itself. It’s another way of attempting to turn what should be subjective knowledge into objective knowledge.

This is probably the ultimate temptation for academics like myself. I want knowledge, and as much of it as possible, before making a decision about how I ought to live. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in some cases, the doing is the knowing.

Kierkegaard’s Reflections on Job — On Becoming a Human Being

In the Upbuilding Discourses, SK reflects on two simple verses in Job:

Then Job arose, and tore his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped, saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord (1:20-21)

First, he gives a general reflection on the passage, and Job’s significance for humanity at all times:

When one generation has finished its service, completed its work, fought through its struggle, Job has accompanied it; when the new generation with its incalculable ranks, each individual in his place, stands ready to begin the pilgrimage, Job is there again, takes his place, which is the outpost of humanity. If the generation sees nothing but happy days in prosperous times, then Job faithfully accompanies it; but if the single individual experiences the terror in thought, is anguished over the thought of what horror and distress life can have in store, over the thought that no one knows when the hour of despair may strike for him, then his troubled thought seeks out Job, rests in him, is calmed by him. (110)

He then focuses in on the final two clauses of the verse: “The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The Lord gave:

With thankfulness resting in his soul in quiet sadness, he said a gentle and friendly farewell to everything all together, and in this farewell everything vanished like a beautiful recollection — indeed, it was as if it were not the Lord who took it away but Job who gave it back to him. (116)

Then, speaking of the person who, when faced with a Job-like situation, cannot be thankful for the goodness of what was given in the first place:

What his soul had delighted in, it now thirsted for, and ingratitude punished him by picturing it to him as more delightful than it had ever been. What he once had been able to do, he now wanted to be able to do again, and ingratitude punished him with fantasies that had never had any truth. Then he condemned his soul, living, to be starved out in the insatiable craving of the lack. (117)

The Lord took away:

How powerless is the assailant’s arm, how worthless the schemer’s cleverness; how almost pitiable is all human power when it wants to plunge the weak person into despairing submission by wrenching everything from him and in his faith he says: It is not you, you can do nothing; it is the Lord who takes away. (121)

Blessed be the name of the Lord:

Just as faith and hope without love are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, so all the joy proclaimed in the world in which sorrow is not heard along with it is but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal that tickle the ears but are repulsive to the soul. (122)

What I really love about Kierkegaard’s work in the Upbuilding Discourses (and this might be my favorite one so far — it’s written in a trio from 1843, at the peak of the early part of his writing career) is his interest in entering into the realities of human life. Kierkegaard is demanding and time consuming to read. He can be difficult at times, and his work is often complex and hard to follow.

But his work here is clearly filled with passion and interest for what it means to be human, and what it means to live in real life. These discourses are some of the few early works that he wrote in his own name, and not under a pseudonym, which I take to mean that this is what he wanted people to remember him for. That all our philosophizing and theologizing and rationalizing has a telos: to become a human being.

Remarks on Knowledge from Kierkegaard in the Upbuilding Discourses

Kierkegaard’s infamous claim, that “Subjectivity is truth” is, in my opinion, commonly misunderstood. As we all know, my thesis was on this very concept — that Kierkegaard basically argues that there are more ways of knowing things (specifically, ethical and religious truths) than simply having head-knowledge of them (roughly defined, via Kierkegaard, as either strict or loose objectivity).

In my thesis, I focused on Kierkegaard’s books written by the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. This pseudonym seemed to be meant to address the philosophical problems (especially as it relates to knowledge and faith) that surround religious faith. What I didn’t realize is that he addresses these concerns elsewhere — under his own name! Throughout the course of the first half of his writing career, he published like crazy, both under pseudonyms and his own name. The writings under his own name mostly included what he called “upbuilding discourses”: short religiously-themed tracts that were reflections on scriptural passages. Theoretically — although there is some debate about this — the writings under his own name were meant to be understood as Kierkegaard’s own. The pseudonyms did not necessarily function this way. To facilitate dialogue and play the Devil’s advocate in philosophical and artistic circles, Kierkegaard often wrote in favor of mutually exclusive philosophical positions.

But, that’s neither here nor there for this particular post. I’m writing now because, as I was reading through one of the discourses (“Strengthening in the Inner Being”), I found a couple of short paragraphs on knowledge that struck me. Bear with me for a moment, as Kierkegaard’s notoriously clunky writing comes out in full force here:

Through every deeper reflection that makes him older than the moment and lets him grasp the eternal, a person assures himself that he has an actual relation to a world, and that consequently this relation cannot be mere knowledge about this world and about himself as a part of it, since such knowledge is no relation, simply because in this knowledge he himself is indifferent toward this world and this world is indifferent through his knowledge of it. Not until the moment when there awakens in his soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world… only then does the inner being announce its presence in this concern.

This concern is not calmed by a more detailed or a more comprehensive knowledge;  it craves another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that does not remain as knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into an action the moment it is possessed

Clunky, right? I don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over. What I see going on here is Kierkegaard riffing (in the middle of what could be thought of as a pseudo-sermon) on what “counts” as knowledge. When a person deeply reflects on the world, and attempts to “grasp the eternal,” this creates a strange situation where a person is “indifferent” to the world, and the world is “indifferent” to the person. In other words, head-knowledge of something in some ways separates us from the thing we are trying to know. We objectivize the thing we are trying to know, and therefore cannot truly know it. And pursuit of a more comprehensive knowledge of that thing that we are trying to know doesn’t mitigate this problem. My knowledge, for it to really be knowledge, must translate into action.

Basically, I can be reflective on the world all I want. I can try to know it, objectify it, understand it. But until I subjectively know that thing that I want to know — by experience or by action — I don’t truly know it at all. How many of us walk around all day “knowing” that God exists (or doesn’t exist), knowing that the Bible is true, that Jesus is Lord, etc., etc., but do not consciously live in that reality? And if we don’t live in that reality, we do not ultimately know those things as true.

Kierkegaard on Rome, and Perhaps on the Internet

In his upbuilding discourse entitled, “Strengthening in the Inner Being,” Kierkegaard describes Rome during Paul’s time as follows,

In the world’s capital, in proud Rome, where all the splendor and glory of the world were concentrated, where everything was procured whereby human sagacity and rapaciousness tempt the moment in the anxiety of despair, everything to astonish the sensate person, where every day witnessed something extraordinary, something horrible, and the next day had forgotten it upon seeing something even more extraordinary…

In the capital city of the world, in tumultuous Rome, where nothing could withstand the unbridled power of time, which swallowed everything as quickly as it made its appearance, which consigned everything to forgetfulness without leaving a trace…

This sounds an awful lot like the internet in the present day. The internet has become the place in which we are lost in the power of the moment. It is where wealth, power, prestige, the social, the intellectual, and the political congregate. It is so easy to get lost in its grip, because it has “everything to astonish the sensate person, where every day witnessed something extraordinary, something horrible.” And further, the next day, those horrible, extraordinary are forgotten and replaced by “something even more extraordinary.”

I’d be willing to bet that Kierkegaard is not only attempting to describe Rome in Paul’s time, but modernity in his own time. What I’m guessing he didn’t understand is that his description would only gain in power as modern humans globalized and became interconnected in ways unfathomable in the mid-1800s.

He goes on to describe the difficulty with which humans remain “strengthened in the inner being” when faced with adversity or given good fortune, because humans are so likely to focus in on their current situation as being definitive of what life is really like. What I wonder is — how difficult is it to maintain a strong inner being when the internet and the ubiquity of the social is so easily distracting? How can I become a whole person, or work towards the telos of the human life, if my attention is constantly pulled this way and that?