Kierkegaard’s advice on how to subjectively relate to the uncertainty of death: The “right” way is the pathless way
In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan Ilych, struck by a terminal illness, comes “face to face with his own mortality and realizes that, although he knows of it, he does not truly grasp it,” (1) since “death is always uncertain” (2). For the purposes of this essay, I will show how Ivan Ilych can effectively grasp the uncertainty of his own death. Firstly, I will illustrate how, according to Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Climacus, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, one can subjectively seek knowledge of what it is to die by using the concept of essential knowing—that is, by asking what death “means to you” as an individual whose essence is existence. Secondly, I will apply Climacus’ teachings to clarify how Ivan Ilych managed to subjectively relate to the uncertainty of death by seizing the moment in passion at the end of his life. I draw from the model of the servant Gerasim, a character in Tolstoy’s novella. Lastly, I will consider a problematic contradiction in Kierkegaard’s philosophy that might arise when one attempts to subjectively relate to the uncertainty of death. Yet, I argue that one needs to be charitable in criticizing Kierkegaard’s philosophical project. His works, because he wrote under pseudonyms, and his life, because he failed to become a knight of Christian faith, are merely suggestions for becoming subjec- tive: the “highest task set for human beings” (3). Therefore, I advise Ivan Ilych that the “right” way to grasp the objective uncertainty of death is to seize the moment in passion for the infinite by taking the pathless way. To understand how Ivan Ilych can subjectively seek knowledge of what it is to die, I will clarify the distinction between the objective and subjective search for knowledge. Granted that there are significant objective truths “out there” in the world—say, mathematical laws, for example—Climacus claims that what matters is not the objective truth itself, but how human beings as existing in the world relate to these objective truths. Individuals can relate to them either by objective reflection or subjective reflection (4). Early modern epistemologists, such as Descartes, took the path of objective reflection to tackle the fundamental question of how to gain knowledge. They chose to mirror truth as an object disconnected from the individual human being. This objective mode of reflection creates an impersonal relation between subject and object, which philosopher Rick Furtak calls “the scandal of modern philosophy,” because it over-theorizes truth, remaining indifferent to the subject’s existence.5 Suppose I, an epistemic agent, relate to the physical law “water boils at 100°C” by objective reflection, meaning I come to know the law abstractly. There is no interest for me in knowing that “water boils at 100°C,” unless I can make it personal to my own life by understanding—hence knowing—how to use this law. For example, by concretely applying the law to my everyday life because I want to boil rice, I’ve come to make this law personal to my life. What matters to me, as an individual who exists in the world, is how I can relate to the objective truth that “water boils at 100°C” by subjective reflection, or better, by subjectively seeking knowledge. Simply put, if the law sits in a textbook, I might learn it by memory, relating to it objectively as an abstract piece of knowledge in my mind. Only when I relate to it subjectively, by applying it in a concrete situation of life, do I come to know the law by heart. Conversely, the path of subjective reflection implies that knowledge belongs to the individual who essentially exists in the world, someone whose existence is the fundamental and first feature of being alive in the world. Thus, the knower is the one who exists because existing is what is essential. Climacus refers to this knowledge acquired by subjective reflection as essential knowing. This is also known as the ethical knowledge “that relates to the knower, who is essentially someone existing” (6). Ethical knowledge is the most important kind of knowledge for Climacus because it forces us to think about our own existence, the fundamental feature of being human. To demonstrate the importance of ethical knowledge, Climacus recalls the figure of Socrates, whose merit was “to be an existing thinker, not a speculator who forgets what it is to exist” (7). Socrates was concerned with obtaining practical wisdom rather than acquiring items of theoretical knowledge simply for the sake of knowing. As someone who existed, Socrates was interested in what existence meant to him and how he ought to live a “good” life as an “active” moral agent rather than a “passive” observer (8). On this line of thought, Climacus asserts that “the ethical [i.e. becoming subjective] is [...] the highest task for human beings,” (9) which is “over only when life itself is over” (10). As a result, the ethical question humans cannot dismiss is what it is to die (11). To grasp what it is to die, Climacus lists ordinary beliefs people hold about death (12). For instance, people believe there are different kinds of deaths. Science states that with death comes rigor mortis: post-mortem rigidity. That is an instance of understanding death by objective reflection. However, Climacus argues that when one inquires into death by objective reflection one can learn countless objective facts about death and yet remain “very far from having grasped death” (13). As a result, Climacus says that death is objectively uncertain. The problem with death being so uncertain is that the fear associated with this uncertainty spreads “into every thought” (14). Especially, “[i]f death is always uncertain, if I am mortal, then this uncertainty cannot be understood in general terms,” because someone living cannot approach death without dying (15). Hence, the solution Climacus proposes is to undertake subjective appropriation of objective uncertainty. Firstly, to grasp death, one must think about it in every moment of his life, “for since [the uncertainty of death] is there at every moment, it can only be overcome by [one’s] overcoming it at every moment” (16). Again, since the fear associated with not knowing what to expect of death in objective terms is always there, one must always confront this fear in order to overcome it. Moreover, one should not simply ask what it is to die, but rather what death “means to me.” This suggests there is an ethical question involved in how to give meaning to the uncertainty of death by actively thinking about it—that is, in forming an intention of how to live a “good” and meaningful life before death comes. As Climacus articulates it, in thinking about the objective uncertainty of death in every moment of one’s life, the living individual prepares himself to die and alters his perspective on how he ought to live (17). Above all, stated by Climacus, the single best way to subjectively relate to the objective uncertainty of death is to seize the moment in passion (18). In The Concept of Anxiety, another Kierkegaardian pseudonym, Vigilius, argues that the moment is the eternal figurative place in which “time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited” (19). That is, when the finite time and the infinite eternity clash, they produce the present moment. When a present moment adds to another present moment and so on, temporality is created. Furthermore, as Mark Bernier highlights, this temporality is “neither determined by the future nor the past, but remains open,” which means that the moments which make up temporality are always present (20). And, in their being always present, they are eternal. However, paraphrasing the Latin poet Horace: while we speak, the present moment will already have fled (21). To make the present moment the eternal moment, one has to seize it in passion for the infinite. Let me explain what I mean by using another passage by Horace. When I say that one has to seize the present moment in passion for the infinite to make it eternal, I am referring to an analogous meaning to Horace’s quote carpe diem. That means to grab the present moment: to make it eternal before it is too late. Similarly, to seize the moment in passion for the infinite is to turn the present moment into eternity before death comes. Seizing the moment in passion for the infinite is, according to Climacus, “the highest truth [...] for someone existing” (22). That is because, for Climacus, it corresponds to the highest subjective stage of existence: the ethico-religious stage. The other two existential stages in order correspond to the aesthetic and the ethical stage. In the aesthetic stage the individual is immersed in sensorial experiences and exposed to the infinite possibilities of imagination that give him short-term pleasure. In the ethical stage the individual needs to choose one of these possibilities, in order to have a meaningful and particular existence. That is, to subjectively relate to the uncertainty of death. Finally, in the ethico-religious stage, the objective uncertainty of death is overcome by having faith: in Climacus’ words, trusting in God’s will that whatever happens will be good for you (23). For Kierkegaard personally, seizing the moment in passion for the infinite meant overcoming this uncertainty with Christian faith—a blind faith in God—to reach the ethico-religious stage of existence. However, Bernier rightly points out that, although it is not immediately clear, Climacus could seize the moment in passion for the infinite at the ethical stage of existence too. For Bernier, “the highest rational stage, [...] is to make a wholehearted commitment to something” more general: to choose a passion that allows the individual to make sense of their own life (24). This choice, though, does not need to be the commitment to God that Kierkegaard tried to make in his life. Again, Bernier notices that it all depends on “the attitude one takes with respect to” the task of living a “good” life, independently of faith in God (25). Overall, Bernier thinks that Climacus allows for different ways to seize the moment in passion for the infinite, as long as one makes a wholehearted commitment to something. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, as an imminent death approaches, the protagonist Ivan Ilych realizes he did not have the “right” attitude towards life. During his life, Ilyich worked as a functionary of the Russian state in the nineteenth century. From the outside it looks like Ilyich had the most decent life: a respectable job, a loving family, and a close group of friends. However, we soon learn this is all a façade. Ilyich’s main goal is to be accepted by the members of the Russian aristocratic society and to constantly increase his wage. We also learn how few and superficial Ilyich’s interests are, including drinking and betting. One day, though, Ilyich suffers a terrible accident that radically changes his life. After falling from a chair, he begins to suffer from an invisible pain that no doctor can cure, and soon this pain turns into a terminal illness. A few days away from his death, the delirious Ilyich starts thinking about death and realizes his life has been a failure. His friends do not care about him; they only care to gossip about his illness. He will not be remembered by anyone for his dull and average career. He cannot even take pride in a loving relationship with his closest relatives because they only care about his inheritance. When the illness strikes him, Ilych knows he has to die, having learned from a textbook that “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” but he is not able to grasp this abstract item of knowledge (26). The way he relates to the fact of death is utterly objective. It seems impossible to him, a concrete human, that death could concern him too. Similarly, his family and friends deceive themselves by believing death does not concern them. In facing the reality of his imminent death, a desperate Ilych asks himself general questions such as, “[W]hen I am not, what will there be?” (27). But, as Climacus demonstrated, there is no objective answer to Ilych’s question of what happens when one is dead, as no one survives to witness it (28). Eventually, the attitude of love, compassion, and pity Gerasim, his servant, shows to him forces Ilych to understand that his life was a waste because he did not live as he should have. By taking care of him as his death approaches, Gerasim shows Ilyich what he lacked in his life. Indeed, Ilyich never took care of others with genuine concern, but only cared about himself and his business. He never committed to responsibilities or tried to do anything more than what was required of him at work or in familial contexts. Ivan was receiving, never giving; he never actively worked towards an objective, but always felt entitled to ask for more—a raise at work or more respect from his family. Most importantly, Gerasim teaches him how to approach the uncertainty of death with passion, even if Ivan has only a few days left to live. Indeed, Gerasim’s joyous and sage approach to death’s uncertainty—he utters, “We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge?”—inspires Ivan Ilych to embrace the right way to live by welcoming death at his deathbed with sheer joy (29). He finally makes a wholehearted commitment to the present moment and its uncertainty. Krishek & Furtak call this joyous acceptance of the objective uncertainty of death “trust in uncertainty” (30). That is how human beings “discover the meaning of life: by being [...] receptive and accepting whatever happens” (31). In other words, being receptive is a matter of listening in silence without complaining. This is what Ivan Ilych eventually does at the end of his life, without complaining about his pain and his fear of death. Instead, his acceptance is a matter of avoiding resistance to change and welcoming death (32). Having applied Climacus’ teachings to Ivan Ilych’s case, I argue that Ivan Ilych should have lived his life by taking the pathless way. The pathless way is not an objective way equal for everyone, but a shapeless way that Ivan should have shaped according to his own subjective experience of life and death. Therefore, the “right way” to subjectively relate to the objective uncertainty of death for Ivan is to trust this uncertainty without necessarily having faith in God, as Climacus’ emphasis on the ethico-religious stage of existence suggests. The right way means seizing the moment in passion for the infinite, welcoming this uncertainty, joyfully accepting whatever happens, and making a wholehearted commitment to the inevitability of death in order to appreciate life’s surprises, as Gerasim did. Admittedly, there is a problematic contradiction for Climacus in claiming that there is a single best way to subjectively relate to the uncertainty of death. As I said earlier when discussing Bernier, I argue that Climacus allows for other ways of equal worth to make a wholehearted commitment to life and the uncertainty of death. In more detail, I argue that we should be charitable when criticizing Kierkegaard’s philosophical project of defending subjectivity as an authoritarian project that falls into objectivity. The contradiction is apparent for two main reasons (33). Firstly, the contradiction enters Kierkegaard’s works. Indeed, advocating for a single best way to subjectively relate to the uncertainty of death is to make an objective—almost authoritarian—ethical claim of how one should live his life (34). It is important to highlight that Climacus is not simply concerned with a metaphorical faith, such as trusting uncertainty in the place of trusting God, but “precisely with the problem of becoming a Christian subject” (35). Nonetheless, Climacus insightfully asserts that “[i]t is the passion of the infinite and not its content that is decisive” (36). This alludes to the fact that seizing the moment in passion for the infinite merely provides a “how,” a form—a pathless way—whose “what,” whose content, changes for every distinct individual. Furthermore, although Climacus seems to be mainly interested in Christian faith, he also claims that “he has no opinion of his own,” as the constant use of pseudonyms in Kierkegaard’s works are all subjective (37). This points to the fact that his works neither equal Kierkegaard’s subjective point of view, nor do they refer to a possible objective take on what the absolute truth is. They offer mere suggestions, not orders, of how to seize the moment in passion for the infinite in the most personal way. Again, a striking example of this is the trust in uncertainty shown by Gerasim, who, in his appreciation of life’s simplest pleasures, in his humility and in his exercise of love, pity and compassion, accepts mortality with joy. Secondly, the contradiction enters Kierkegaard’s life. Worryingly, it seems that “[i]f we are to understand Kierkegaard and not simply make use of certain of his insights—we must keep in mind that he was throughout his life concerned with what it meant for him to become a Christian” (38). This implies that Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy cannot be separated from his endorsement of Christian faith in his life, which has led many philosophers to define Kierkegaard’s project as an archetype of Christian existentialism: a type of existentialism whose fundamental features include faith in God (39). Nevertheless, I support Holmer’s interpretation of the Kierkegaardian narrative of the stages of existence, which separates Kierkegaard’s faith from his philosophy. Indeed, it aligns with my previous interpretation of Climacus who, I have argued, allows for different ways to seize the moment in passion without implying there is a single best way to do this. For instance, by either making a wholehearted commitment to life at the ethical (non-religious) stage of existence or at the ethico-religious stage by having faith in God (40). Similarly, Holmer argues that Kierkegaard’s works “are a presentation of kinds of possibilities, [hence the stages of existence, specifically the ethical and the ethico-religious] which are neither true or false”(41). That is, again, whatever possibility the individual chooses, whatever stage of existence to seize the moment in passion for the infinite, he is not making the wrong choice, as long as this individual is showing the right attitude to relate to the uncertainty of death, hence by subjective reflection. Thus, an individual like Ivan Ilych can choose to become subjective by simply becoming ethical. That is, by trusting death’s uncertainty, without necessarily trusting a Christian God, as Kierkegaard aimed to do. Furthermore, even if one grants Kierkegaard’s faith is inseparable from his philosophy, Kierkegaard’s attempt at becoming a knight of Christian faith, meaning a devoted believer in God, was a failure. According to his extensive personal journals, he struggled all his life to find something for which to live and die. As he was never convinced that faith was the answer to his questions, he never became a devoted, fully committed believer (42). Moreover, any other attempt at becoming ethical was not successful. For example, he once fell in love with a Danish aristocrat and he proposed to her. However, before marrying her he changed his mind and left to pursue the path of faith (43). Insightfully, McLane emphasizes that Kierkegaard presumably took the path of Christian faith only out of existential frustration. This does not necessarily prove that Christian faith is not the “right” way to live a good life for anyone, but it was not the case for Kierkegaard. As McLane concludes: “Whether Kierkegaard is correct in thinking that man’s true need is for God and that Christianity satisfies this need—these are questions that can only be decided by each individual for him” (44). In conclusion, I have argued that Kierkegaard’s works, since he used pseudonyms, and his life, since he failed at becoming a knight of Christian faith, show that there is no single best way to seize the moment in passion. Therefore, we should be charitable when criticizing Kierkegaard’s authoritarianism in advocating for subjectivity, since he was also trying to make sense of death—and life—in his own way. Eventually then, I, Young Climacus, argue that in order to grasp the uncertainty of his own death Ivan Ilych should have taken the pathless way, trusting this uncertainty: accepting whatever happens, hence living a caring and mean- ingful life as someone who essentially exists in the world. As Lorenzo de’ Medici proclaimed: “Chi vuol essere lieto, sia:/Di doman non v’è certezza” (45).
1 Tolstoy, Leo, The Death of Ivan Ilych: Annotated (English Edition), 262. 2 Kierkegaard, Soren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 139. 3 Ibid, 132.
4 Ibid, 138.
5 Furtak, Rick, “Chapter 5: The Kierkegaardian Ideal of ‘Essential Knowing’ and the Scandal of Modern Philosophy,” Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript: A Critical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 210), 87. 6 Kierkegaard, Soren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 166.
7 Ibid, 173.
8 Furtak, Rick, “Chapter 5: The Kierkegaardian Ideal of ‘Essential Knowing’ and the Scandal of Modern Philosophy,” 110. 9 Ibid, 136. 10 Ibid, 132. 11 Ibid, 108. 12 Kierkegaard, Soren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 139.
13 Ibid, 142. 14 Ibid, 139. 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid, 140.
17 Ibid, 141.
19 Kierkegaard, Soren, “The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 152. 20 Bernier, Mark, “Chapter 2: The Kierkegaardian Self,” The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 18. 21 Horace, The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (London 1882), Ode 1.11. 22 Kierkegaard, Soren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 171. 23 Ibid, 141.
24 Bernier, Mark, “Chapter 2: The Kierkegaardian Self,” 23.
25 Ibid, 24.
26 Tolstoy, Leo, The Death of Ivan Ilych: Annotated (English Edition), 854.
27 Ibid, 827.
28 Brombert, Victor, “Tolstoy: ‘Caius is Mortal,’” Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2013), 19. 29 Tolstoy, Leo, The Death of Ivan Ilych: Annotated (English Edition), 953. 30 Krishek, Sharon and Rick Furtak, “A Cure for Worry? Kierkegaardian Faith and the Insecurity of Human Existence,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion no. 72 (2012), 171. 31 Ibid, 168. 32 Ibid, 171.
33 McLane, Earl, “Kierkegaard and Subjectivity,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion no. 8 (1977), 231. 34 Ibid.
35 Ibid, 216.
36 Kierkegaard, Soren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 171.
37 McLane, Earl, “Kierkegaard and Subjectivity,” 216.
38 Ibid, 218.
39 La Vergata, Antonello and Franco Trabattoni, Filosofia, cultura, cittadinanza 3: Da Shopenhauer a oggi (Milan: RCS Libri S.p.A, 2011), 49. 40 McLane, Earl, “Kierkegaard and Subjectivity,” 215.
42 Ibid, 217.
43 Ibid, 227.
45 In English: “Be happy if you want to,/For tomorrow is not certain.” (Getto, Giovanni, “L’enigmatico Lorenzo,” Lettere Italiane 31, no. 1 (1979): 78).
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