Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Søren Kierkegaard & Friedrich Nietzsche

I recently did an essay in an exam on the philosophy of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Contrary to most of my examinations this year, I thoroughly enjoyed writing this one; the majority of my chosen subjects revolve around writing in some form or another, be it essays, cross-examinations of sources, book reviews, etc., so after a string of three consecutively heavy exams, you can imagine the state of distress that I found myself in. The fourth in line was this paper on the Philosophy of Religion. Fortunately, as a part of the course, students are able to choose any area of philosophy and ethics and that is what led me to these two men. What I'd like to do is just write a bit about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and how their unique outlooks on philosophy, psychology and religion have altered my perceptions of the world. I hope that the readership of my blog can get as much out of my interpretations of their works as I have out of the original works over the past few months.

I initially began with the idea of doing an in-depth study of existentialism, a philosophy which I had had only brief contact with, but which nevertheless I felt a fondness for. Through research I soon found that contrary to my prior beliefs, existentialism is not infact a distinct set of philosophical ideas, but a style of philosophising in which the existence of the individual is central, and all other knowledge is secondary to the knowledge of the self. Obviously there is a huge number of philosophers that display existential thinking in their work, and it would have been extremely difficult for me to gain a comprehensive knowledge of all philosophers that exhibited an existential way of thinking. During my period of researching existentialism, I found a man largely considered as the main forerunner of existential thought: theologian Søren Kierkegaard. Alongside him, there was a name that kept cropping up everywhere: Friedrich Nietzsche. Something about both men inspired a genuine fascination in me, and I became aware that philosophical academics frequently make comparisons between the two men who, although they had never met, were contemporaries and explored some similar territory throughout their lives. What's more, both men began in similar positions; both brought up as devout catholics; both enthusiastic theology students; both hopeless romantics and both with their hearts rooted firmly in philosophy.

Søren Kierkegaard was brought up in Denmark by his father, a Catholic whose wish it was for his son to become a theologian. Throughout his life, Kierkegaard's single biggest influence would be his own father, a man who he had a deep respect for and whose wishes he was all too keen to adhere to. According to his father's wishes, the young Søren went on to study theology at Copenhagen University, where he also acquired a love for literature and philosophy. His university thesis, entitled On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates was largely shunned by the academic community of Copenhagen University who felt it to be too informal and witty to be considered a serious academic thesis. Soon after, he wrote what is considered one of his best works: Either/Or, a book laid out as two letters addressing the Aristotlian question 'how should we live?'. Later the same year Kierkegaard's seminal Fear and Trembling was published; a book intended as a focussed meditation on faith in religion.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard puts forward his ideas about the role of faith in religion, which he tells through an in-depth exploration of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In the original biblical tale, God commands Abraham to take his only son Isaac to the mountain of Moriah and kill him as a sacrifice to God to show his faith. Reluctantly and with a heavy heart, Abraham wakes Isaac up early one morning and travels with him to the mountain of Moriah. On their arrival, Isaac is still unaware of his father's intentions and taking advantage of this, Abraham holds Isaac down and holding his knife, is about to kill him. But just before Abraham plunges the knife into his son, an angel appears to stop Abraham and signals to a nearby bush, where a lamb lies, tangled. Abraham releases his son and instead sacrifices the lamb. This trial set by God is seen by Christians to be a test of faith, a test in which Abraham supposedly succeeds.

Kierkegaard proceeds to explain several interpretations of this story in relation to the faith of Abraham, a man who is commonly seen by Christians as what Kierkegaard describes as a 'Knight of Faith', or in other words, a man of pure religious faith. On the one hand, Kierkegaard agrees with the view that Abraham did have pure faith; he set off with Isaac with the sole intent of ending his life and only stopped when an angel appeared bearing a message from God himself. On the other hand, Kierkegaard poses the question that if Abraham had truly had pure faith in God, he would not have stopped at the angel's insistence and instead he would have killed Isaac according to God's wishes. With this comes Kierkegaard's own acceptance that he far from exemplifies any notion of pure faith. The book inevitably caused an uproar amongst fundamentalist Christians who resented Kierkegaard's questioning of faith and the bible.

I personally found the ideas put forward in Fear and Trembling thoroughly refreshing, and a welcome change to the idealistic concept of faith generally adhered to by most branches of Christianity. Kierkegaard rejects the idea that one either has faith or does not and in doing so rejects the idea that any human's beliefs and faiths can be categorised into a binary 'yes or no', instead suggesting that we all stand on a scale between absolute 1 and 0. The idea that no person can function in 1s or 0s, which is what I feel Kierkegaard is getting at, is for me a beautiful idea.

Nietzsche's life began much the same as Kierkegaard's: he was brought up as a Catholic and was an extremely talented theologist. Nietzsche's family life was very female-dominated mainly due to the death of his brother and father when he was still young; he was brought up by his mother, and also shared a house with his sister, his grandmother and her daughters. From an early age, Nietzsche showed a strong interest in theology and studied it alongside classical philology throughout his adolescence, eventually going on to become the youngest person ever to receive a professorship in classical philology from the University of Basel at age 24.

Nietzsche's ideas later in his life were heavily informed by his experiences as a theologist, which brought him into contact with many religious idealists, whom he had a great contempt for. Nietzsche's philosophy also shows a preoccupation with morality and what he called the 'genealogy of morals'; the idea that morality is simply passed down through generations and blindly accepted by each generation as an objectively good moral code. He was also extremely wary of religious people, in particular the clergy, whom he felt benefitted greatly from their position and offered Christian morality to the masses as a form of self-preservation. Nietzsche spoke of modern morality as a form of the 'herd instinct in the individual'; an instinct which in his eyes made the human race increasingly weak and hampered the emergence of the ubermensch, or the superior being. For Nietzsche, Christian morality promoted weakness by alienating the strong who had the power to destroy the group (murderers, powerful people of an unpredictable nature, etc.) and allowing the fearful majority to flourish. Contrary to popular belief however, Nietzsche did not advocate Eugenics as a way of solving this issue. Instead, he proposed that people simply take a different approach to their lives and to think of the bigger picture. Although the idea of a perfect being sounds ridiculous, I think the point that Nietzsche was making was simply that in the modern world, people are more likely to survive out of cowardice than out of bravery and courage.

The style of Nietzsche's writing differs greatly from that of his peers. He disliked the traditional style of philosophical discourse and wanted instead to mix fiction, allegory and philosophy together into works of metaphorical depth as well as philosophical depth. The most obvious example of this style is in his best-known work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) in which he used the character Zarathustra to put forward his ideas in a fictional context. Thus Spoke Zarathustra was focussed heavily on infinite regress; the idea that one is forced to live one's life over and over in an eternal loop. The character of Zarathustra acts as a prophet (or anti-prophet depending on which way you look at it), ironically bringing a message which strongly opposes both Christian and Jewish moral-systems.

I think that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard's enduring popularity is largely due to their individual approaches to philosophy. Both outright refused to simply take what they were given at face value, and continued throughout their lives to question all things that most people take for granted or simply decide to live with. For me, this is a good model by which to live one's life; striving for more and trying to impose a change in attitude in all people that one can reach out to.