The Personalist Project

A couple of weeks ago, in a post on our member forum, Rhett Segal criticized Søren Kierkegaard for “his categorical rejection of any mixed motives relative to the pursuit of the good. To call for the elimination of any desire for reward or the elimination of any fear of punishment is to deny human nature.”

I just found a great passage in Romano Guardini’s The Lord that confirms and amplifies Rhett’s point.

Guardini notices that whereas Christ often emphasizes the rewards we gain and punishments we avoid by being good, modern ethicists commonly disapprove of such ulterior and mercenary motives. Genuine morality, they insist, does not need to be threatened or beguiled into goodness; it chooses the good freely and for its own sake. Guardini partly agrees and comments:

There is something rich, magnanimous, kingly in freedom of this kind which considers itself degraded by the mere thought of ‘payment.’ The purely moral value has majesty… it needs no further justification. Indeed, any additional motive would only lessen its intrinsic worth. The purity of the act is threatened by thought of “reward.” I do not want to do a thing for reward; I prefer to do it for its own sake, which for me is sufficient.

The last lines of this passage already begin to reveal the problem in this ethical view: namely, that it is dangerously flattering to our ego. In this context, Guardini thinks, Jesus’ sayings about reward and punishment must be understood as “a warning-call to humility”:

What the New Testament says is this: At the root of your “pure ethics” lurks the possibility of a monstrous pride that is particularly difficult to unmask. To desire good for its own intrinsic dignity, and so purely that the pleasure of goodness is the sole and entirely satisfying motive behind our virtue — this is something of which God alone is capable… [Modern man] places the moral attitude and the divine attitude on a par. He has so determined the moral attitude that the ego behind it can only be God, tacitly taking it for granted that human ego, indeed all ego, actually is God. Here lies the moral pride of the age, at once terrible as it is tenacious.

The last part of this passage clearly does not apply to Kierkegaard. He is free from the hubris that would place the human and the divine ego on the same level. But I am not so sure if he is entirely innocent of aspiring to a moral purity in human beings that is beyond their capacity as mere creatures. It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of Christianity that an overly exalted view of man arises out of an extra pious, ardent, and sincere religious devotion.

Comments (6)

Devra Torres

#1, May 10, 2012 10:03pm

There's the danger that it's too much to ask, but also the danger that it can turn the subject in on himself and an introspective examination of his own motivation.  Something I loved about the Church, as a new convert learning about Confession, was the distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition, and how God is willing to accept the latter, though He doesn't say aspiring to the former is hopeless, either. That way we can keep our focus on Him, keep our peace of mind, and let Him sort out how much "credit" we do or don't deserve. 

Jules van Schaijik

#2, May 11, 2012 8:36am

You're right Devra. And it seems as if Kierkegaard suffered from the danger of excessive and debilitating introspection as well.

This is sadly ironic because K. is the very person who so sharply criticizes the "aesthetic mode of existence" for being a flight from reality. The mere aesthete likes to reflect on life, and to play at it, without ever actually committing himself to it, and living it. The following journal entry shows that Kierkegaard was aware of his own tendency to do the same thing:

Unfortunately, my life is far too subjunctive; would to God I had some indicative power ( - Journals, 1837)

Rhett Segall

#3, May 13, 2012 11:10am

Our discussion of Kierkegaard’s “purity of will” recalls Dietrich von Hildebrand’s analysis of pride. DvH insists that any pleasurable contemplation of our gifts is wrong.

In our awareness of our own perfections, three degrees can be distinquished. First, our mere consciousness of knowledge of them, registering them as plain facts. Next—and here begins perversion—the pleasure we take in them… why should it be wrong of man to delight in his own values even in the sense of taking delight in objective value? ...humility, indeed, proscribes all contemplation of one’s own values, nor does it even tolerate any keen consciousness of them. (Transformation in Christ, p.145 italics mine)

Concerning one’s natural gifts (other than moral values) he says “that  …he should always live in the consciousness of being an unworthy servant inadequate to the greatness of his task”. (Ethics, p 397) The only valid response to our gifts is thankfulness to God, but no pleasurable contemplation of them.

In our recent high school play the students were terrific. It seems to me that K and DvH would raise an eyebrow  if the students bask in an outstanding performance.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, May 13, 2012 8:30pm

Rhett Segall, May. 13 at 10:10am

It seems to me that K and DvH would raise an eyebrow  if the students bask in an outstanding performance.

You're right that the quotations you cite indicate this conclusion. But I can't believe, especially regarding DvH, that they represent his whole mind on the issue. I suspect there are other passages in his work that would provide the needed balance them.

However that may be, I certainly agree that there is a natural and innocent pleasure persons may take in the approval of others, and in their own excellences. More than that, in and of itself such pleasure is wholesome and fitting. A person who does not feel it is strangely alienated from himself. (Ideally, of course, this pleasure is accompanied by gratitude and an attitude of "to God be the glory".)

The key truth I think von Hildebrand wants to point out, is that we should not contemplate our own perfections. That is something very different from being aware of them (almost in spite of ourselves!) and delighting in them.

Rhett Segall

#5, May 15, 2012 7:42pm

Thank you Jules for your very perceptive and masterfully articulated response to my posting. It's beautifully expressed and most helpful in my efforts to deal with an aspect of DvH's analysis of spirituality that I've had great difficulty coming to terms with. I've studied many of his works for years and the only place where I've seen him give some wiggle room for healthy pride is in the "Acknowledgements" section to "What is Philosophy" where he says: "I am proud to say (Dr. william Marra) was once my student"

Devra Torres

#6, May 16, 2012 12:25am

This reminds me of the part in C.S.Lewis' Great Divorce where someone is explaining to an artist ghost how wonderful it will be when he can rejoice in the beauty of one of his own paintings just as if it had been painted by someone else, and he tries but fails to work up some enthusiasm for the idea.

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