The Personalist Project

Accessed on June 25, 2018 - 4:24:34

Is Kierkegaard expecting too much from mere mortals?

Jules van Schaijik, May 10, 2012

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.