Passion and detachment: Kierkegaard's knight of faith.
When clients come for therapy having lost some thing or person that made life meaningful, what is the balance between acknowledging the significance of this thing or person and encouraging the client to re-engage with life without it or her? In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard provides some guidance. His model of the knight of faith enables the therapist to allow the client to express her grief at the loss of what was central to her life, but through a transformed relationship to this thing or person, to continue to hope and to engage with life.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores the issues raised by Abraham's obedience to God in the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations, which became his life's purpose but he was unable to have a child until he and Sarah were old. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard struggles to make sense of Abraham's joy and equanimity in taking steps to carry out God's command to sacrifice this child, Isaac. These suggest to him that Abraham is a paradigm of faith, a faith which is both inspiring and difficult to emulate, but also necessary if one is to live in the fullest possible way.
For Kierkegaard, the dilemmas faced by Abraham are implicit in situations that a person enters into passionately and as if her whole existence was dependent upon its outcome. Encountering these dilemmas is unavoidable because throwing oneself into such a situation is essential for a meaningful existence.
What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know, except in the way that knowledge must precede all action. It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what the Deity really wants for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live or die.
(Kierkegaard, 1996, p32)
Without this sense of destiny it will be impossible to get to a position of faith. As Kierkegaard says in Fear and Trembling, romantic love provides an accessible example of an experience from which is it ultimately possible to arrive at faith, but it could be anything else in which
an individual concentrates the whole of life's reality. (Kierkegaard, 2005, p46)
But the experience must have the quality of something intensely personal and into which one can throw oneself with one's whole being, with "infinite passion." The particular person or set of circumstances with whom/which one is confronted seems to be issuing a calling to which there is an urgent and immediate demand to respond. Neither detached political affiliation, intellectual belief in some transcendent reality nor vague aspiration (Dreyfus, 2006) are going exert a sufficiently powerful pull. The calling has really got to have a profoundly transformative effect on one's day to day life and to do this it must relate to something immanent and tangible, something that exists now or something that one commit oneself to bringing into being as one's life's project. Once this passion has taken hold, it defines a person and everything within her world. Everything is meaningful and valuable or otherwise on the basis of this. It overtakes everything and it is subsequently impossible to break free of it:
He is not cowardly, he is not afraid to let his love steal in upon his secret, most hidden thoughts, to let it twine itself in countless coils around every ligament of his consciousness- if the love becomes unhappy he will never be able to wrench himself out of it.
(Kierkegaard, ibid p46)
To betray it would be to forget oneself and to display an intolerable lack of integrity:
No! for the knight does not contradict himself, and it is a contradiction to forget the whole of life's content and still be the same ... Only lower natures forget themselves and become something new. (Ibid, p48)
Hence, after having had the calling and responded to it, one is very vulnerable because life is now hanging on one particular thread. This seems foolish, despite the intensity and passion with which it suffuses life, because anything could happen to the mortal being that one is so bound up with or to this project one must bring to fruition. In the case of a person, he or she could die or leave the relationship. The colour will be then be leached out of existence, but one is not free to move on to someone or something else because to do so would be to betray oneself and revert to some lower realm of existence. It would be better to be committed to something that was less fragile, but this isn't possible because the commitment must relate to something has this profound and personal impact and that needs to be something that is an immediate part of one's existence; hence something vulnerable. One could decide not to throw oneself fully into any project, but then one would condemn oneself to leading a passionless and depleted life, in which one flits from one thing to the next, spreading risks and acting
Prudently in life those capitalists who invest their capital in every kind of security so as to gain on the one what they lose on the other (Ibid, p47-48)
Knight of resignation
Somehow it is necessary to preserve the intensity and meaning of the passion, whilst protecting oneself from extreme vulnerability. According to Kierkegaard, failing to do so, or only doing so when one has already lost this thing or person, demonstrates a lack of imagination and courage. Kierkegaard describes how, in making this shift, one need to ally the thing that one loves with something which is abstract from and transcendent to one's concrete existence. In doing so, one needs to renounce the desire for any kind of concrete fulfilment of one's passion. This is the position of the knight of resignation. The physical presence of the person one loves is then no longer necessary and presumably it does not matter whether he or she considers one significant or is with someone else. This gives self sufficiency. The vicissitudes of one's relationship with this person cannot affect one because one's primary relationship is now with the infinite. One expresses one's love for the person through the relationship with God or the ideal, who/which will not fail one. Hence one can hold onto the meaning of the love without being at risk of devastation if one looses it. This is consoling (to an extent):
In infinite resignation there is peace and repose ... which in its pain reconciles one to existence.... The thread is spun with tears, bleached by tears, the shirt sewn in tears but then it also gives better protection than iron and steal. (p51)
Yet the grief and longing remains:
And yet it must be glorious to get the princess, I say so every instant and the knight of resignation who does not say it is a deceiver, he has not had just one desire and he has not kept his desire young in its pain. Some might find it convenient enough that the desire is no longer alive, that the smart of pain has dulled, but such people are no knights. (p57)
It seems as though one is resigning oneself to a depleted world through becoming a knight of resignation. One is detaching oneself from what the world can offer and the consolation is bound up with pain: in its pain reconciles one to existence. There is an ongoing mourning process for thing one lost and who's concrete physical reality one will never be able to possess. One renounces what is of particular importance to oneself in order to loose oneself in something which is universal and transcendent. Whilst Kierkegaard talks of love of eternal being and of God, this is not the personal and intimately known God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that Pascal (Dreyfus, 2006) speaks of. It is an abstract Platonic being.
But this detachment and abstraction provides something very important because it allows entry into something beyond one's immediate isolated reality. It is only by transcending the immediate object of your passion that one gains access to shared concepts and a public moral vocabulary which tells one what is good and bad (Dreyfus, 2006). This allows one to be intelligible both to oneself and others and hence to be rational and evaluate one's position, to engage in a rigorous self honesty. It then enables one to move beyond a position of delusion in which one is convinced that one will be able to project oneself onto the object of one's passion, despite all the evidence pointing otherwise. It gives one the ability to distinguish a powerful impulse or whim (Kierkegaard's lower immediacy) from a passion which is going to entirely define one's life (higher immediacy), so that one doesn't just settle on the first thing that grabs one's fancy:
He first makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too healthy and proud to squander the least thing on getting drunk.
(Kierkegaard, 2005, p46)
This demonstrates self control, because one is able to give up the need for instant gratification and to renounce what is powerfully attractive. It also demonstrates self containment: an ability to live without one's existence depending upon whether one fulfils one's passion or not:
He has grasped the deep secret that even in loving another one should be sufficient unto oneself.
(Kierkegaard, ibid, p49)
There is something dignified about this:
anyone who wants it, who has not debased himself by--what is still worse than being proud--belittling himself, can discipline himself into making this movement (ibid, p51)
Knight of Faith
Through resignation one reaches a position in which one is immune to vulnerability and in which one is able to be rational. However, one pays a high price for this because by moving away from one's concrete existence, one loses the possibility of responding to life and of gaining pleasure from what it can offer. And what would happen if having renounced one's dream, one saw that one could realise it? Going through the effort and pain of the renunciation would make it very difficult to enjoy it were it to actually become available. The question is how one can move from this position, necessary though it is, to a re-engagement with life.
When Kierkegaard explores the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, he finds it impossible to make sense of how Abraham, whilst accepting God's command that he carry out the sacrifice and thus resigning himself to the loss of Isaac, is then able to joyfully continue with his life when God provides the ram for the sacrifice instead. It is very difficult to reconcile Abraham's renunciation of what is of supreme importance to him and his submission to God (or, in other words, with something transcendent and abstract) with his joy in his specific, immanent existence when Isaac is redeemed. There are two striking features of this: that it seems illogical and even contradictory for Abraham to both renounce and embrace life, and that following the near sacrifice, an awareness of the vulnerability of Isaac's existence and hence of Abraham's commitment to being the father of nations must have been indelible. But unlike in the initial stage of the infinite passion when there is a lack of awareness of the risk and also unlike in the stage of infinite resignation, when a considered decision is made that the risk is such that it isn't worth taking, it seems as though Abraham is aware of the extreme vulnerability of his connection with Isaac and yet decides to fully embrace this vulnerability. For the lover this involves
Every moment to see the sword hanging over the loved ones head (p57)
but nevertheless becoming deeply involved with the beloved as if the sword were not there. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham has bound Isaac and is holding the knife in order to sacrifice him, yet he still trusts that Isaac will be saved. Somehow he believes that either Isaac will not be killed, or even if he is, still
God could give him a new Isaac, bring the sacrificial offering back to life. (p39)
It seems as though the distinctions that exist at the level of resignation aren't relevant at this point. Kierkegaard talks about being
closest to being in two places at the same time (Ferreira, 1998, p228).
Hence it's possible to be aware both of extreme vulnerability and also experience tremendous confidence. The very thing that gave meaning can be dead and yet there can still be a belief that this meaning can come back. From the position of the knight of resignation, there is a choice between either forgetting the infinite passion, thus demonstrating a kind of flightiness and superficiality (lower nature), or a detachment from the world and holding onto the pain forever. But from this other perspective, it is possible to find a way to both remember the thing has been lost/ is unobtainable/will probably be lost and without which life is meaningless, and at the same time to live a full, satisfying life. There can be an experience of pleasure in the everyday and even in the mundane even whilst renouncing it.
He drains in infinite resignation the deep sorrow of existence, he knows the bliss of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, whatever is most precious in the world, and yet to him finitude tastes just as good as to one who has never known anything higher, for his remaining in finitude bore no trace of a stunted, anxious training, and still he has this sense of being able to be secure to take pleasure in it as though it onere the most certain thing of all.
(Kierkegaard, 2005, p44-45)
To use language from a very different tradition, this person has let go of his attachment to his infinite passion and with it, to the specific features of his concrete existence. In doing so, he liberates himself to gain a far greater pleasure from it than if he were anxiously holding onto it, frightened of its loss. This pleasure in what is ordinary and even mundane (Kierkegaard talks of pleasure in singing in church, enjoyment of Sunday walks and eager anticipation of a stew for dinner) distinguishes him from the knight of resignation, who can be recognised by his "gliding gait." His down to earth quality is reminiscent for me of the Zen notion of the "ordinary person of no status", the "enlightened" practioner embraces his ordinary humanness and the imperfections and vulnerability of life (Bazzano, 2006).
But at the same time, this appearance of ordinariness and the mood of equanimity belies the intensity of experience of a person in this position. But the intensity has a different quality from that of a raw passion which has not been the object of reflection because now there is an awareness of the absurdity of continuing to desire something when it is impossible to attain it. For the knight of resignation, the lack of logic in a continued pursuit of the passion means that it is necessary to withdraw from it and rise above it. But from this new perspective, the impossibility of realisation of the desire makes it all the more compelling:
But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is to will its own downfall, and so it is the ultimate passion of understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another, the collision must become its downfall. This then is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
(Caputo, 2003, p124)
Looked at in this way, a thought that is easy to come up with is nothing special and this is also the case with a passion that it's easy to satisfy. It is mediocre, it is measured and it stays within safe boundaries (Caputo, ibid). It is only when one attempts to extend one's thinking so far that it is seemingly impossible to think something further that thought is at its ultimate. Similarly it is only when one has so much desire that it can not express itself and cannot be satisfied that it is the fullest passion. Yet this pushes passion and thinking to their limits or beyond their limits, almost to a point where neither thinking nor passion seem to exist anymore, but in another way this is when they are at their height:
Thus the ultimate potentiation of desire would be to discover something that exceeds desire, that desire cannot desire, in a desire beyond desire; to desire something that it is impossible to desire because it is beyond desire's reach. Desire is thus fully extended and reaches its apex only when desire wills or desires its own downfall. What can arouse our desire more than to be told that one cannot have the object of our desire, that it is forbidden or unattainable? Rather than extinguishing desire, does not the very impossibility fire and provoke the desire all the more. Desire is really desire when one desire beyond desire, when the desire of desire is in collision with itself.
(Caputo, ibid, p125)
This is a fascinating and compelling account of desire which fits with Kierkegaard's use of the term infinite passion; a passion without boundaries. It is very difficult to grasp and very difficult to understand how one can reach and embrace such a stance. It cannot be explained through the rationality and logic that characterises the stance of infinite resignation. It seems illogical and absurd and the person who adopts it is aware of this. He or she knows this cannot be done. (Caputo, ibid). He or she does not loose his or her grip on logic; it is just that he is or she is aware that there is a part of existence that cannot be explained using rational concepts. That puts it in the realm of faith, which is how Kierkegaard describes a person who is able to adopt this position: a Knight of Faith. It is actually only because the belief cannot be explained using logic that it can be called faith. As Caputo points out, it is only when something is impossible or apparently hopeless and when one cannot imagine how the future can work out as one needs it to, that faith is relevant. Before that it is a matter of logic and calculation based on what is reasonably foreseeable.
Faith does not come down to believing things just insofar as they are believable, but believing in what has become unbelievable, when it has become impossible to believe.. Before that it was just a poker game and one onere playing the odds. and Then one put our faith in God, or something.. since it is out of our hands. (ibid p132)
But this belief in God is not a belief in some metaphysical being (unlike for the knight of resignation) and it arguably may not require a belief in the God of the Bible. It is more a belief in the possibilities of life, in which God becomes a kind of atmosphere (Dreyfus, 2006), this atmosphere being one in which the possibilities of life remain open. For Kierkegaard, drawing on Matthew 19:6
God is that all things are possible, or that everything is possible is God.
(Kierkegaard, 2004, p71)
The question is, what might these possibilities be? If Isaac is killed, how can God then give Abraham a new Isaac? It seems as though Kierkegaard is talking about a resurrection of meaning which doesn't take away the importance of the very specific relationship with the object of infinite passion. The importance of this person/cause remains, but is somehow transformed into something else which enables meaning to return. This transformation however needs to be such that there is not a simple forgetting, moving onto the next passion, which would be a reversion to a lower nature. Something of the uniqueness of the particular passion remains.
Viewed objectively it is difficult to distinguish this faith from simple delusion. In Sickness unto Death (Kierkegaard, ibid), Kierkegaard talks about the despair of being driven by a belief in possibility without acknowledging one's limitations, which results in losing oneself in wishful thinking, hankering after something or in the melancholic fantastic (ibid, p66). The distinguishing feature of faith is that the knight of faith accepts that making the impossible happen is completely out of his hands and lies in some force beyond him. Furthermore, he is grounded in everyday matters and fully accepts the irrationality of his position.
The manner in which he is to be helped he leaves entirely to God, but he believes that for God everything is possible ... To grasp that humanly speaking it is his undoing and yet to believe in possibility is to have faith. (ibid, p69)
But despite his very ordinary appearance, the knight of faith is incapable of using the shared concepts and vocabulary that are available to the knight of resignation to explain his or her belief:
He knows that it is glorious and benign to be the particular who translates himself into the universal, the one who so to speak makes a clear and elegant edition of himself, as immaculate as possible, and readable for all ... But he knows that higher up there winds a lonely path, narrow and steep; he knows that it is terrible to be born in solitude outside the universal, to walk without meeting a single traveller.
(Kierkegaard, 2005, p90)
Rachel is a woman who was forty one when I began therapy with her two and a half years ago. She was/is an attractive woman and had been very successful in business with a man who was her business and romantic partner and the father of her two young children. She came for therapy because she had fallen in love with another man, Neville, who had made her question the foundations of her current life. She was now separating from her partner and beginning a spasmodic relationship with Neville, who was married. We considered what this relationship meant for her; Rachel felt that it had illuminated her previous existence and shown that its glossy surface (beautiful house, beautiful clothes, and stable family life) was hiding its emptiness. She felt that there was something much more grounded about the way that Neville lived and she was drawn to this. For months, Rachel believed that Neville would leave his partner and was busy plotting the best course of action to encourage him to do so. One of the themes of the work over the first few months was the amount of force that Rachel could apply in order to get her own way in life. She was used to being able to bend almost impossible situations to her will and had used this ability in business to good effect, but was meeting considerable resistance from Neville in applying the same forcefulness to her relationship with him.
Eventually Neville distanced himself from the relationship and this was devastating for Rachel. She felt that she still loved Neville and experienced grief at the thought of not being able to be with him, but believed that a relationship with him was now quite impossible. She appeared to give up on the possibility of having another relationship, which she believed could not equal what she had experienced with Neville. Being with him had made her question how she had lived before she had met him, but she now threw herself back into that lifestyle, embracing the elements of duty in it, resuming work with her ex-partner and attending school plays and charity committee meetings about which that she had previously felt highly ambivalent. In doing so, she reconnected with some of her friends, who had been unable to understand what had seemed like an obsession with Neville. From believing with absolute conviction that she would lead a life full of passion, she now appeared to renounce that, viewing the person that she had been over the previous months as someone immature and unwilling to accept limitations. Whilst I welcomed the strength and honesty of her new stance, there seemed to be something imbalanced in its renunciation of pleasure and immersion in duty. I questioned what had happened to the person who appeared to be so strong and alive and free thinking beforehand.
During this time Rachel became increasingly anxious and depressed and eventually reached a crisis in which she checked herself into hospital and remained there for four weeks. When she came out, she cried in several sessions, something she had very rarely done before. She said that she lost her identity through her previous relationship and that Neville was the one thing that gave her a sense of herself. We considered how she might use the significance of the relationship with Neville to strengthen her sense of identity and enrich her life, even though the reality of it does not exist and is very unlikely to. Although Rachel is aware of this, she believes that somehow, at some point, she will be with him. She decided to buy a cottage in the countryside, to which she could go with her children at weekends and for holidays, and at which she feels calm and grounded. She has also developed her interest in yoga and we have discussed how she can allow life to unfold, rather than attempting to force it to be as she wills.
Arguably, Rachel demonstrates what it is to have a defining passion, to resign oneself to the impossibility of its realisation and then to have faith in possibility. When she came to therapy Rachel had a fixed belief that she would be with Neville, that she had the ability to make this happen and refused to accept any evidence that she might not. She subsequently rationally assessed whether this would be the case and renounced the relationship (knight of resignation), which gave her a sense of maturity and dignity, but was almost intolerable. She has re-emerged with a sense of joy in life. This joy is informed by the meaning of the relationship to her, a meaning that remains, even though the reality of the actual physical relationship currently does not. Her belief that an actual relationship is possible co-exists with her awareness that is highly improbable and without needing to force it.
The following issues emerge from this discussion:
1. If it is impossible by definition for the knight of faith to be understood by anyone else, then this suggests that there is only so far that therapy can take a client. This is clearly the case with certain forms of therapy that are based on persuading the client through the use of logic to change his or her way of thinking. CBT challenging illogical thoughts is certainly not going to help a client be a knight of faith as it will presumably either encourage the client to let go of his or her unattainable passion and hence revert to lower nature, or to become a knight of resignation who is governed by rationality and adheres to culturally agreed norms. If it is at all possible for the therapist to grasp what the client is doing, this will be on an intuitive level and he or she will not be able to clearly explain or justify her insight.
2. The notion that one need to have just one defining passion could be easily challenged along with the need for a fixed identity that is implied by it. As Dreyfus points out, Kierkegaard's notion of an infinite passion is challenged by Nietzsche's arguments for a way of living in which one throw ourselves into one passion and then into the next and in doing so continually re-create ourselves. Nietzsche states that he feels that the air around me is thickening (Gay Science, 2001, aphorism 295) when things remain the same, including constant relations with the same people. Reading Nietzsche, there is a lightness and playfulness that I do not experience in the same way in Kierkegaard.
3. Perhaps however, our Western culture is so seeped in the idea of having a fixed identity, finding meaning and romantic love that one needs to see how to work with this, rather than try and challenge it. Through the model of the knight of faith we can acknowledge that passion confers identity and is world defining, but also that it can be transformed and in doing so allow for life and identity to be fluid.
4. On the other hand, it seems as though Kierkegaard is not just making concessions to the notion of having one defining passion, but arguing that a life without such a passion, a passion pushed to its limits, is deficient. It is only through fully embracing the passion that one can become aware of its impossibility and then take the ultimate step of trusting that nevertheless all things are possible, including what is apparently impossible. This involves letting go and arriving at a position of faith because making the impossible happen is obviously not within our control.
5. An intense life and a calm and balanced life therefore need not be mutually exclusive. The letting go allows for a different and richer experience of passion.
Bazzano, M. (2006). Buddha is Dead: Nietzsche and the Dawn of European Zen. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
Caputo. (2003). The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible quoting Kierkegaard's Writings, vol VII, Philosophical Fragments. In Mark A. Wrathall (ed) Religion After Metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dreyfus, H. (2006). UC Berkeley Oneb Casts, Video and Pod Casts, Philosophy 7. http://onebcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978306
Ferreira, J. (1998). Faith and the Kierkegaardian leap quoting Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, Alastair Hannay, Gordon Daniel Marino eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kierkegaard, S. (2005). Fear and Trembling. Trans. Hannay, A. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Kierkegaard, S. (1996). Papers and Journals. Trans. Hannay, A. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Kierkegaard, S. (2004). The Sickness unto Death. Trans. Hannay, Alistair. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marcia Gamsu is a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in North and Central London and a tutor at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling.
Contact tel: 07932 041 534; e mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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|Title Annotation:||Soren Kierkegaard|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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