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Philosophical Fragments by Sören Kierkegaard


Sören Kierkegaard is one of the towering Christian existential thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century. While his literary style was experimental, his writings call for Christian morality; a defense of faith and religion. Among his many books are Training in Christianity, Sickness Unto Death, and Fear and Trembling. Originally published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey in 1936. Translated by David F. Swenson, translation revised by Howard V. Hong. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Preface


Propositio:

The question is asked in ignorance,
by one who does not even know
what can have led him to ask it.

 

The present offering is merely a piece, proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, proprio stipendio. It does not make the slightest pretension to share in the philosophical movement of the day, or to fill any of the various roles customarily assigned in this connection: transitional, intermediary, final, preparatory, participating, collaborating, volunteer follower, hero, or at any rate relative hero, or at the very least absolute trumpeter. The offering is a piece and such it will remain, even if like Holbergís magister I were volente Deo to write a sequel in seventeen pieces, just as half-hour literature is half-hour literature even in folio quantities. Such as it is, however, the offering is commensurate with my talents, since I cannot excuse my failure to serve the System after the manner of the noble Roman, merito magis quam ignavia; I am an idler from love of ease, ex animi sententia, and for good and sufficient reasons. Nevertheless, I am unwilling to incur the reproach of , at all times an offense against the State, and especially so in a period of ferment; in ancient times it was made punishable by death. But suppose my intervention served merely to increase the prevailing confusion, thus making me guilty of a still greater crime, would it not have been better had I kept to my own concerns? It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good. Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him: nolite perturbare circulos meos. Let him who is not so fortunate look about him for another example. When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets. When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like all the rest, and rolled his tub lest he should be the only idler among so many industrious citizens. Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art of making money. It is certainly not open to misunderstanding; it is quite inconceivable that Diogenes should have been hailed as the saviour and benefactor of the city. And it seems equally impossible that anyone could hit upon the idea of ascribing to a piece like the present any sort of epoch-making significance, in my eyes the greatest calamity that could possibly befall it. Nor is it likely that anyone will hail its author as the systematic Salomon Goldkalb so long and eagerly awaited in our dear royal residential city of Copenhagen. This could happen only if the guilty person were by nature endowed with extraordinary stupidity, and presumably by shouting in antistrophic and antiphonal song every time someone persuaded him that now was the beginning of a new era and a new epoch, had howled his head so empty of its original quantum satis of common sense as to have attained a state of ineffable bliss in what might be called the howling madness of the higher lunacy, recognizable by such symptoms as convulsive shouting; a constant reiteration of the words "era," "epoch," "era and epoch," "epoch and era," "the System"; an irrational exaltation of the spirits as if each day were not merely a quadrennial leap-year day, but one of those extraordinary days that come only once in a thousand years; the concept all the while like an acrobatic clown in the current circus season, every moment performing these everlasting dog-tricks of flopping over and over, until it flops over the man himself. May a kind Heaven preserve me and my piece from such a fate! And may no noise-making busybody interfere to snatch me out of my carefree content as the author of a little piece, or prevent a kind and benevolent reader from examining it at his leisure, to see if it contains anything that he can use. May I escape the tragicomic predicament of being forced to laugh at my own misfortune, as must have been the case with the good people of Fredericia, when they awoke one morning to read in the newspaper an account of a fire in their town, in which it was described how "the drums beat the alarm, the fire-engines rushed through the streets" -- although the town of Fredericia boasts of only one fire-engine and not much more than one street; leaving it to be inferred that this one engine, instead of making for the scene of the fire, took time to execute important maneuvers and flanking movements up and down the street. However, my little piece is not very apt to suggest the beating of a drum, and its author is perhaps the last man in the world to sound the alarm.

But what is my personal opinion of the matters herein discussed? . . . I could wish that no one would ask me this question; for next to knowing whether I have any opinion or not, nothing could very well be of less importance to another than the knowledge of what that opinion might be. To have an opinion is both too much and too little for my uses. To have an opinion presupposes a sense of ease and security in life, such as is implied in having a wife and children; it is a privilege not to be enjoyed by one who must keep himself in readiness night and day, or is without assured means of support. Such is my situation in the realm of the spirit. I have disciplined myself and keep myself under discipline, in order that I may be able to execute a sort of nimble dancing in the service of Thought, so far as possible also to the honor of the God, and for my own satisfaction. For this reason I have had -to resign the domestic happiness, the civic respectability, the glad fellowship, the communio bonorum, which is implied in the possession of an opinion. -- Do I enjoy any reward? Have I permission, like the priest at the altar, to eat of the sacrifices? . . . That must remain my own affair. My master is good for it, as the bankers say, and good in quite a different sense from theirs. But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine. I stand ready to risk my own life, to play the game of thought with it in all earnest; but anotherís life I cannot jeopardize. This service is perhaps the only one I can render to Philosophy, I who have no learning to offer her, "scarcely enough for the course at one drachma, to say nothing of the great course at fifty drachmas" (Cratylus). I have only my life, and the instant a difficulty offers I put it in play. Then the dance goes merrily, for my partner is the thought of Death, and is indeed a nimble dancer; every human being, on the other hand, is too heavy for me. Therefore I pray, per deos obsecro: Let no one invite me, for I will not dance.

J. C.

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