The Kierkegaardian Paradox:
An Exploration of Post-Modern Existentialism
“The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think. This passion is at bottom present in all thinking, even in the thinking of the individual, in so far as in thinking he participates in something transcending himself. But habit dulls our sensibilities, and prevents us from perceiving it”. – Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments (46)
Soren Kierkegaard used Johannes Climacus to communicate his philosophies of how the idea of self fits into the grand eternity of faith. This quotation explains many facets of Johannes Climacus’ thoughts on the historical-eternal. In this quotation, found at the beginning of Chapter 3, The Absolute Paradox, Climacus’ is explaining paradox in the context of Socrates and human thought. This quotation provides a peek into Kierkegaard’s existential views, religious biases, and literary writing style.
Climacus believes that at the foundation of all thinking is the idea that the human can understand and transcend something outside of her rationality. This inherent belief allows humans to forget the reality that some things, like God and Christianity, cannot be explained or understood by human thought. However, every human still believes they can comprehend it. The paradox is something that the mind cannot grasp and understanding that the mind cannot grasp it is a relevant step in understanding Kierkegaard’s philosophy on religion.
This statement does include Kierkegaard’s bias towards Christianity, against Hegelianism and the Socratic Way. Although the character of Climacus claims to not be Christian in his other piece, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est, his religious views are seen throughout the book. The quote clearly fits in with what Kierkegaard felt about understanding Christianity intellectually. Unlike Hegelianism, the philosophical system explaining everything, which demoted Christianity by cultivating rational thought to understand the “modern” existence of God, Kierkegaard believed God transcends human rationality. For Socrates, the Truth was self-actualization, something already inside humans that a good teacher could help the individual to realize and resurface. The Greek tradition was in complete opposition to God. Kierkegaard had sympathy for the Greeks but he was staunchly Christian. For him, the truth was the coming of a one-time teacher, Jesus Christ. The difference between Socrates and Kierkegaard is the difference between reforming and transforming. The Greeks believed the truth allowed the individual to become a better version of herself while Climacus wrote about how the truth completely re-created the individual. Christianity also highlights the idea of eternal life with God in heaven. The truth for Kierkegaard is eternal and has no history. The truth is not an individual revelation that is meaningless when considering eternal life.
Climacus’ absolute paradox is that man is absolutely different than God because Jesus was both man and divine. Jesus is divine because he was conceived without sin and he did not sin. The basis of absolute paradox is the realization of human sin and the leap of faith that humans take when they begin to believe something that cannot be explained logically, “for in its most abbreviated form the paradox can also be called the moment . . . he acquires the consciousness of sin, for just as soon as we assume the moment, everything goes by itself (64).” This moment, when the learner becomes the “untruth,” the opposite of God and the embodiment of sin, is just the beginning of the paradox. The Moment is also viewed by Climacus as the coming of Jesus to save humanity from sin. Once someone realizes they are sin and different than Jesus, which is something that cannot be explained logically, they can understand that Jesus is God and savior, “But one who gives the learner not only the Truth but also the condition for understanding it, is more than a teacher” (80) and be transformed into a creature of faith. Jesus appeared as a carpenter to relate with people so they could receive the message of Christianity, “The God’s presence in human form, aye in the humble form of a servant, is itself the teaching, and the God must give the condition along with it or the learner will understand nothing” (69). The example Climacus used to explain this was of the King who dressed in peasant’s clothing. This element of nobility in disguise is executed in many folk and fairy tales in order for the main characters to believe what the powerful are saying. In The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, the King appears to the shepherd boy in poor clothing to tell him about his future of finding a hidden treasure. In the story the boy says that he was glad the king appeared like a pauper or else he probably would not have believed his message. In Climacus’ opinion, man is servant, especially to God, and Jesus appeared as God in disguise as man in order for man to relate to him and his teachings.
This quote also provides a glimpse of the man behind the pen name. Kierkegaard’s main ideas on the individual and his post-modernist philosophies are seen through his work by Climacus. The quotation is existential because it mentions the “thinking of the individual” in terms of “something transcending himself.” Kierkegaard placed value on the meaning of existence and of the individual finding his place in this complicated web of faith. He wrote about how the individual is unnecessary but that humans want to become necessary which they can only achieve by having faith in God. This faith is something irrational, the leap away from rationality. Perhaps humans can have both faith and logic but cannot implement the two within the same idea.
In many ways, it seems like Kierkegaard’s martyr personality glimmers throughout the Climacus character. He mentions how God is free of a woman’s love (70) and only seeks the love of the disciple and he likens this to a free bird. In this same way, Kierkegaard broke his engagement to Regine Olson because he felt his melancholy unworthy of this love. His writing style is riddled with stories and analogies like these to help explain his standpoint, albeit with a bit of self-pity. Climacus’ writing has a thought pattern of post-modern circles. His post-modernist ideas are represented because he rejects the necessity to question the irrational because it’s Hegelian “modernism” to question what cannot be explained. However, he still continues to explain concepts in cyclical fashion. He first mentions the importance of the teacher-savior in Chapter II, and then returns to the “contemporary disciple” in Chapter IV. Climacus discusses the Absolute Paradox and then links it back to the Moment. His philosophy in this book is all interrelated and part of the same whole. His thought pattern is a bit confusing and hard to follow, because like faith it is something that is not concrete and therefore hard to grasp. For Kierkegaard, the point is not to explain the existence of God but rather understand that faith is a concept that cannot be belittled into meaninglessness. The quote about the paradox provides insight into the all-encompassing Christian philosophies of Climacus and Kierkegaard. Although very biased by his religion, Kierkegaard expounded his subjectivist theory that made him the father of existential thought.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Philosophical Fragments or A Fragment of Philosophy. Trans. David F. Swenson. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962.