Kierkegaard's Writings, XVIII: Without Authorityby Soren Kierkegaard
"Without authority," a phrase Kierkegaard repeatedly applied to himself and his writings, is an appropriate title for this volume of five short works that in various ways deal with the concept and practice of authority. The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air contemplates the teaching authority of these creatures based on three different passages in/i>
"Without authority," a phrase Kierkegaard repeatedly applied to himself and his writings, is an appropriate title for this volume of five short works that in various ways deal with the concept and practice of authority. The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air contemplates the teaching authority of these creatures based on three different passages in the Gospels. The first of Two Ethical-Religious Essays mediates on the ethics of Jesus' martyrdom; the second contrasts the authority of the genius with that of the apostle. The remaining worksThree Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (1849), An Upbuilding Discourse (1850), and Two Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (1851)are meditations on sin, forgiveness, and the power of love.
"The definitive edition of the Writings. The first volume . . . indicates the scholarly value of the entire series: an introduction setting the work in the context of Kierkegaard's development; a remarkably clear translation; and concluding sections of intelligent notes."Library Journal
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By Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1997 Postscript, Inc.
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"Look at the Birds of the Air; Look at the Lily in the Field."
But you perhaps say with "the poet," and you like to hear the poet talk this way, "Oh, I wish I were a bird, or I wish I were like a bird, like the free bird that, delighting in travel, flies far, far away over land and sea, high in the sky, to lands far, far off—I, alas, who only feel bound and fettered and nailed to the spot, where daily worries and sufferings and adversities manifest to me that I live there—and for all my life! Oh, I wish I were a bird, or I wish I were like a bird, which lighter than all earthly gravity rises in the air, lighter than the air. Oh, I wish I were like the light bird that, when it seeks a foothold, builds its nest even upon the surface of the sea—I, alas, who even at every slightest movement, if I merely move, must feel what a weight rests upon me! Oh, I wish I were a bird, or I wish I were like a bird, free from all considerations, like the little songbird that humbly sings even though no one is listening or proudly sings even though no one is listening—alas, I who have no moment and nothing for myself but am parceled out in having to serve thousands of considerations! Oh, I wish I were a flower, or I wish I were like a flower in the meadow, happily in love with myself, and with that, period—I, alas, who feel this cleft of the human heart also in my heart, neither able selfishly to break with everything nor able lovingly to sacrifice everything!"
So speaks the poet. If one listens casually, it sounds almost as if he were saying what the Gospel says—after all, he does extol the happiness of the bird and the lily in the strongest terms. But now hear more. "For this reason it borders on cruelty for the xi Gospel to praise the lily and the bird and say, 'You shall be like that'—I, alas, in whom that wish is so genuine, so genuine, so genuine; oh, I wish that I were like a bird of the air, like a lily in the field. But it is, of course, an impossibility that I would be able to become like them, and for this very reason the wish to be like them is so heartfelt, so sad, and yet so ardent within me. How cruel, then, of the Gospel to talk this way to me—indeed, it seems as if it wanted to make me lose my mind—that I shall be what I all too deeply feel, just as the wish for it is deep within me, that I am not and cannot be. I cannot understand the Gospel; there is a language difference between us that, if I were to understand it, would kill me."
This is always the way it is with the poet in relation to the Gospel; for him it is just the same as with what the Gospel says about being a child. "Oh, I wish I were a child," says the poet, "or I wish I were like a child, 'alas, a child, innocent and happy' —I, alas, who prematurely became old and guilty and sad!"
How strange, since we quite properly say that the poet is a child. Yet the poet cannot come to an understanding with the Gospel. Underlying the poet's life there is really the despair of being able to become what is wished, and this despair feeds the wish. But the wish is the invention of disconsolateness. To be sure, the wish consoles for a moment, but on closer inspection it is evident that it does not console, and therefore we say that the wish is the consolation that disconsolateness invents. What a strange self-contradiction! Yes, but the poet is also this self-contradiction. The poet is the child of pain whom the father nevertheless calls the son of joy. In the poet the wish comes into existence in pain, and this wish, this burning wish, rejoices the human heart more than wine cheers it, more than the earliest bud of spring, more than the first star that one, weary of the day, gladly greets in longing for the night, more than the last star in the sky that one bids farewell as the day dawns. The poet is the child of eternity but lacks the earnestness of eternity. When the poet thinks about the bird and the lily, he weeps. Meanwhile, as he weeps, he finds relief; the wish comes into existence, and with it the eloquence of the wish, "Oh, I wish I were a bird, the bird that as a child I read about in my picture book. Oh, I wish I were a flower in the field, the flower that stood in my mother's garden." But if, with the Gospel, one were to say to him, "This is earnestness, precisely this is the earnestness, that the bird is the teacher in earnest," then the poet would laugh—and he makes fun of the bird and the lily, so witty that he gets us all, even the most earnest person who ever lived, to laugh; but he does not move the Gospel in that way. So earnest is the Gospel that all the poet's sadness does not change it as this changes even the most earnest person, so that he momentarily yields, succumbs to the poet's thoughts, sighs with him and says, "My dear fellow, is it actually impossible for you! Well, then I do not dare to say, You shall." But the Gospel dares to command the poet, dares to order that he shall be like the bird. And so earnest is the Gospel that the poet's most irresistible invention does not make it smile.
You shall become a child again, and therefore, or to that end, you shall begin by being able and willing to understand the phrase that seems to be intended for children and that any child understands; you shall understand the phrase as a child understands it: You shall. A child never asks about reasons. A child does not dare to; neither does a child need to—and the one corresponds to the other: just because the child does not dare to, it therefore does not need to ask about reasons, since for the child it is reason enough that it shall. Yes, all the reasons together would not to such a degree be reason enough for the child. And the child never says: I cannot. The child does not dare to, and neither is it true—the one corresponds completely to the other: just because the child does not dare to say, "I cannot," it is not therefore true that it cannot, and it is therefore manifest that the truth is that it can, since not to be able is impossible if one does not dare something else; nothing is more certain—the point is simply that it is certain that one does not dare something else. And the child never looks for an evasion or excuse, because the child understands with frightful truthfulness that there is no evasion or excuse for it, that there is no such hiding place, neither in heaven nor on earth, neither in the parlor nor in the garden, where it could hide from this You shall. When one is altogether certain that there is no such hiding place, then there is no evasion or excuse either. When one knows with frightful truthfulness that there is no evasion or excuse—yes, then naturally enough one ceases to find it, since what does not exist is not to be found—but one also ceases to look for it, and then one does what one shall. The child never needs long deliberation, because when it shall, and perhaps immediately, then there is no opportunity for deliberation. Even if this were not the case, when it shall nevertheless—well, even if it were given an eternity for deliberation, the child would not need it; the child would say: Why all this time when I nevertheless shall? If the child were to take the time, it would certainly use the time in some other way, for play, for fun, and the like. What the child shall, that the child shall; that stands fast and has nothing at all to do with deliberation.
So, then, following the instruction of the Gospel, let us in earnest look at the lily and the bird as the teachers. In earnest, since the Gospel is not so extravagantly spiritual that it cannot use the lily and the bird, but neither is it so earthly that it can look at the lily and the bird only with sadness or with a smile.
From the lily and the bird as teachers, let us learn
silence, or learn to be silent.
Surely it is speech that distinguishes humanity above the animal and then, if you like, far above the lily. But because the ability to speak is an advantage, it does not follow that the ability to be silent would not be an art or would be an inferior art. On the contrary, because the human being is able to speak, the ability to be silent is an art, and a great art precisely because this advantage of his so easily tempts him. But this he can learn from the silent teachers, the lily and the bird.
"Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness."
But what does this mean, what am I to do, or what is the effort that can be said to seek, to aspire to God's kingdom? Shall I see about getting a position commensurate with my talents and abilities in order to be effective in it? No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. Shall I give all my possessions to the poor? No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. Shall I then go out and proclaim this doctrine to the world? No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense it is nothing. In the deepest sense you shall make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to be silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is to seek first God's kingdom.
Thus in a certain sense one devoutly comes backward to the beginning. The beginning is not that with which one begins but that to which one comes, and one comes to it backward. The beginning is this art of becoming silent, since to be silent as nature is silent is no art. In the deepest sense, to become silent in this way, silent before God, is the beginning of the fear of God, because just as the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, so silence is the beginning of the fear of God. And just as the fear of God is more than the beginning of wisdom, is wisdom, so silence is more than the beginning of the fear of God, is the fear of God. In this silence the many thoughts of wishes and desires God-fearingly fall silent; in this silence the verbosity of thanksgiving God-fearingly becomes silent.
The advantage of the human being over the animal is the ability to speak, but, in relation to God, wanting to speak can easily become the corruption of the human being, who is able to speak. God is in heaven and the human being is on earth and therefore they can hardly converse. God is infinite wisdom; what the human being knows is idle chatter; therefore they can hardly converse. God is love and the human being, as we say to a child, is a little ninny even in regard to his own welfare, and therefore they can hardly converse. Only in much fear and trembling is a human being able to speak with God, in much fear and trembling. But to speak in much fear and trembling is difficult for another reason, because just as anxiety makes the voice fail physically, so also much fear and trembling make speech fall into silence. The one who prays aright knows this, and the one who did not pray aright perhaps learned this through prayer. There was something that lay very heavily on his mind, a matter that was very important to him; it was very urgent for him to make himself rightly understood by God; he was afraid he had forgotten something in the prayer, and, alas, if he had forgotten it, he was afraid that God by himself would not remember it—therefore he wanted to concentrate his mind on praying with all his heart. Then what happened to him if he did really pray with all his heart? Something amazing happened to him. Gradually, as he became more and more fervent in prayer, he had less and less to say, and finally he became completely silent. He became silent. Indeed, he became what is, if possible, even more opposite to speaking than silence; he became a listener. He thought that to pray is to speak; he learned that to pray is not only to be silent but is to listen. And so it is; to pray is not to listen to oneself speak but is to become silent and to remain silent, to wait until the one praying hears God.
This is why the words of the Gospel, seek first God's kingdom, upbringingly muzzle a person's mouth, as it were, by answering every single question he asks, whether this is what he shall do—No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. Therefore one can paraphrase the Gospel's words in this way: You shall begin by praying, not as if (which we have shown) prayer always began with silence, but because when prayer has really become prayer it has become silence. Seek first God's kingdom, that is: Pray! If you ask, yes, if you mention every single possibility and ask: Is this what I shall do, and if I do it is this seeking God's kingdom, the answer must be: No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. But to pray, that is, to pray aright, is to become silent, and that is to seek first God's kingdom.
This silence you can learn with the lily and the bird. That is, their silence is no art, but when you become silent like the lily and the bird, you are at the beginning, which is to seek first God's kingdom.
How solemn it is out there under God's heaven with the lily and the bird, and why? Ask the poet. He answers: Because there is silence. And his longing goes out to that solemn silence, away from the worldliness in the human world, where there is so much talking, away from all the worldly human life that only in a sad way demonstrates that speech distinguishes human beings above the animals. "Because," says the poet, "if this is the distinguishing characteristic—no, then I much, much prefer the silence out there. I prefer it—no, there is no comparison; it is a distinguishing characteristic infinitely above that of human beings, who are able to speak." That is, in nature's silence the poet thinks that he is aware of the divine voice. In humanity's busy talking he thinks that he not only is not aware of the divine voice but is not even aware that the human being has kinship with the divine. The poet says: Speech is the human being's advantage over the animal—yes, quite true, if he is able to be silent.
But to be able to be silent, that you can learn out there with the lily and the bird, where there is silence and also something divine in this silence. There is silence out there, and not only when everything is silent in the silent night, but there nevertheless is silence out there also when day vibrates with a thousand strings and everything is like a sea of sound. Each one separately does it so well that not one of them, nor all of them together, will break the solemn silence. There is silence out there. The forest is silent; even when it whispers it nevertheless is silent. The trees, even where they stand in the thickest growth, keep their word, something human beings rarely do despite a promise given: This will remain between us. The sea is silent; even when it rages uproariously it is silent. At first you perhaps listen in the wrong way and hear it roar. If you hurry off and report this, you do the sea an injustice. If, however, you take time and listen more carefully, you hear—how amazing!—you hear silence, because uniformity is nevertheless also silence. In the evening, when silence rests over the land and you hear the distant bellowing from the meadow, or from the farmer's house in the distance you hear the familiar voice of the dog, you cannot say that this bellowing or this voice disturbs the silence. No, this belongs to the silence, is in a mysterious and thus in turn silent harmony with the silence; this increases it.
Excerpted from Without Authority by Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong. Copyright © 1997 Postscript, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Howard V. Hong, the former Director of the Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College, is the General Editor of Kierkegaard's Writings. Edna H. Hong is a poet, writer, and translator who has collaborated with Professor Hong on other English translations of Kierkegaard's works.
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