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Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing 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. This book was first published by Harper in 1938. It was translated from the Danish and contains an introductory essay by Douglas V. Steere. Prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Willie Brock.


Translatorís Introduction by Douglas V. Steere


When lifeís weather is fair there are not many who read the Book of Job or Pascalís Thoughts. Yet in times of outward or inward searching these books seem to many to be the one thing needful and men seek them out.

Søren Kierkegaard is being discovered by the English-speaking world after something over three-quarters of a century of complete neglect. The creative writing of this Danish Pascal was nearly all done in a phenomenally productive six-year period between 1842 and 1848. Kierkegaard died in 1855 at the age of forty-two. The neglect of one who has influenced German theological thought for forty years and who more recently has been openly acknowledged as a formative force upon the minds of such divergent figures as the German philosophers, Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger; as Karl Barth; as the lay Catholic thinker, Theodore Haecker, the Jesuit Pryzwara; and as the Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno can scarcely be charged to the insularity of the English-speaking religious and philosophical world or to the mere barrier of language. This insularity has been penetrated by far less significant continental and Scandinavian figures, and admirable translations of Scandinavian literature have been available for several decades. A deeper reason must be sought for this Anglo-Saxon neglect and for the present quickening of interest.

The Liberal theologian of England and America is described with commendation by Dean Inge in the closing chapter of his Types of Christian Saintliness: "His Ďauthorityí is the best available judgment of civilized humanity which is the Liberalís Great Church. Theological Liberalism is thus a kind of consecration of all the best ethics and science and philosophy regarded as the manifestation or revelation of the will of God to man." This broad, liberal creed supported by a set of idealistic categories that never questioned seriously the progressive revelation of the mind of God in the existing personal and social relationships of man has been too much at home in this prosperous world to need to call out a rebellious Danish religious prophet who challenged the very categories of its thought. But the World War and the condition of soul revealed by the subsequent social, political and economic unsettlements as well as the open contempt for Christianity shown by the new economic and nationalistic religions have forced liberal Christianity to search its very foundations in order to see what is unique in its Christian faith; to ask whether Christianity is simply a synthesis or amalgam of all the finest world thought; to ask where the spring of its dynamic, of its power, of its revolutionary character is to be found; to ask why Christianity is on the defensive, instead of on the offensive; to inquire what the Christian religion demands of a man. It is this mood that is opening the Anglo-Saxon mind of our time to such a radical Christian thinker at Søren Kierkegaard.

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is the first of Kierkegaardís Edifying Addresses to be translated into English. It was written in 1846 and was included in the volume of Edifying Addresses of Varied Tenor that appeared in Copenhagen on March 13, 1847.

In the two important volumes Either-Or and Stages on Lifeís Way, Kierkegaard from 1843 onwards had explored from within the Esthetic and the ethical ways of life, and had done it with an imaginative insight and a dramatic richness scarcely surpassed in the history of literature. Here the Esthetic way of life and the ethical way of life are personified in well-drawn characters and presented in meticulous detail down to their most subtle refinements. Both of these ways of life are shown to be ultimately unstable in one who is aware of their full implications, and to point beyond themselves to the religious way of life, different aspects of which are represented in Fear and Trembling, Repetition, the Concept of Dread, Philosophical Fragments, and the Final Unscientific Postscript.

All of these works were issued not under Kierkegaardís own name but under pseudonyms. They are indirect. They prepare the way. They are intended to unsettle the reader by revealing to him the true character of the dwelling he has inhabited.

But simultaneously with these works, there appeared regularly from 1843 onwards, some twenty Edifying Addresses, always bearing Kierkegaardís own name. These are direct. They plunge abruptly into the religious way of life itself and explore it from within.

The title of Edifying Addresses (Opbyggelige Taler) sounds quaint and uninviting to the ears of this century. An "address" sounds formal and reminiscent of the days of rhetoric and of ponderous oratory. Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, like the rest of this series, is really not an address in the ordinary sense at all. It was never spoken aloud to an audience. Like all of Kierkegaardís Edifying Addresses which are really unpreached sermons, it was written for men and women to speak aloud to themselves. It was aimed at an audience who read and who pondered what they read. Kierkegaardís own life-long practice of reading sermons aloud to himself convinced him that there was no more effective way to engage with them. In creating these addresses he always spoke them aloud sentence by sentence before he set them down. This may account for the unusual degree of intimate intensity that characterizes them.

The addresses are written to "edify." The Danish word "opbyggelig" means literally "upbuilding," and in spite of the modesty of his prefaces in which he protests that he is without authority and that he makes no pretense of being a teacher, Kierkegaard expressed in his title precisely what he intended for them to do. They were not written as the present-day mind would perhaps prefer them: to entertain, to instruct, or to provoke -- but to "upbuild." Yet for Kierkegaard the "upbuilding" of a life could not take place by building on another room like one of the regular additions to a New England farmhouse, or like an interior remodeling that altered a few partitions. No, it was rather an "upbuilding" that called for a costly abandonment of the security of the old under walls. Men must build on a new foundation. They must bottom themselves in a new center. "There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway," declared Meister Eckhart, "but not the other half." The story of the nun, Dame Morel, in the reform of Port Royal, who was ready to give up all of her luxuries but one -- all but the key to her little private garden -- is the story of men everywhere whom Kierkegaard sought to lay hold of in these Edifying Addresses. They wish to keep at least one key back. As Christian swimmers they long to keep one foot on the bottom. Kierkegaard sought to draw them out into water that is 7o,ooo fathoms deep where life depends not upon half-measures, but upon faith.

These Edifying Addresses call for self-examination. They "unconditionally demand the readerís own decisive activity, and all depends on this." They often explore a text and are never troubled if the same text has already been used in several previous addresses. They explore it slowly and deliberately. They look at each facet. Like a spiderís web they throw out their main supporting filaments and then from the center outwards they weave around them strand by strand until the web is complete. They would leave no way of escape for one who enters. They would track down evasion into its hidden ways, they would expose every attempt to simulate, they would bring the reader into the very inmost demands of existence within the religious mode. They require patience on the part of the reader, but if he follows them through to their conclusion he can scarcely escape their grip upon his life.

Kierkegaard had a true and realistic respect for the resistance which a manís mind offers to an idea, especially if it is an idea that demands costly action on his part. As a writer he knew how difficult it was to get his own thoughts embodied in suitable words. He suggests that if this is hard, it is ten times as hard to get these words of his to redistil their meaning into the thoughts and into the will of another. He was always ready, therefore, to take infinite pains with what he wrote, and the Edifying Addresses were all written over at least three times before they were finally published.

Eduard Geismar, the Danish scholar whose Kierkegaard studies have extended through a life-time, has written of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing: "It seems to me that nothing that he has written has sprung so directly out of his relationship with God as this address. Anyone who wishes to understand Kierkegaard properly will do well to begin with it."( Søren Kierkegaard -- Eduard Geismar, p. 470. German edition, -- Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Gottingen, 1929.) The fact that this address was written as a spiritual preparation for the office of confession does not limit its interest to those who observe church occasions. This office can be celebrated at any moment in the heart of one who is made ready.

Central in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard is his master category the individual. All of his thought ultimately had to pass through the needleís eye of whether or not it compelled men to face their sovereign responsibility as individuals. And this, too, was the pass of Thermopylæ at which Kierkegaard stationed himself to defend the individual against any philosophical, political, or religious teaching that tended to slack off this consciousness of the individualís essential responsibility and integrity.

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, like his other Edifying Addresses, is directed in the preface to hiin Enkelte, "that solitary individual." Yet in this address Kierkegaard succeeds with an exceptional directness in laying bare what it means to become an individual. The "indirect" method of insinuation which characterizes his approach to this problem in so many of his works is laid aside here. In one whole section with a relentless persistence he makes almost a choral refrain of the question, "Do you live as an individual?"

Kierkegaard apparently intended to attach a much longer preface to Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing than the one which appeared there. In this original preface he explained the dedication to hiin Enkelte "that solitary individual" and emphasized the importance of this category of the individual to his thought. This important preface which he later expanded somewhat, was followed by a second one on the same theme, written in 1847 and 1849, and by a postscript added in 1855. All three of these have been preserved and were attached as a supplement to the posthumously published The Standpoint of My Activity as an Author which appeared in 1859. In these notes he wrote of the Edifying Addresses: "I marked my writings to which I attached my name with the category of the individual from the beginning; and it continued like a formula to be repeated in stereotyped fashion so that the individual is not a later invention of mine but has been there from the beginning."(Collected Works, Vol. XIII, p. 605.)

When Kierkegaard speaks of hiin Enkelte in his dedicatory preface, he means more than we do by our words "that individual." The nearest English expression that approaches it is "that solitary individual." He means the individual as separated from the rest, the individual as he would be if he were solitary and alone, face to face with his destiny, with his vocation, with the Eternal, with God Himself who had singled him out.

Perhaps Descartes was on the right road when he sought to isolate the individual I in man from all other experience and make it the starting point for his system. But he was wrong and even culpable in not pressing on in his exploration of the I beyond its capacity to think, for thought, Kierkegaard would insist, is not its most unique endowment. Here in the core of the I is a center from which choice springs, from which responsibility for oneís acts springs, from which the ultimate sense of uneasiness and weariness with anything that is short of the highest of all in reality ultimately issues, from which remorse and repentance arises.

Allow this center in a man to remain dulled by the crowd; allow it to continue dissipated by busyness; permit it to go on evading its function by a round of distractions, or to lull itself by a carefully chosen rotation of pleasures; abandon it to its attempt to drug, to narcotize suffering and remorse which might reveal to it its true condition; let it wither away the sense of its own validity by false theories of manís nature, of his place in the social pattern, of his way of salvation; in short, allow any of these well-known forms of domestication of manís responsible core as an individual, to continue unchallenged, and you as a thinker and a friend of men have committed the supreme treason!

"In oneís friend one shall have oneís best enemy," wrote Nietzsche, and in Kierkegaard the reader finds that he is confronted with a merciless enemy to every form of gregarious domestication within himself. Kierkegaard does not risk smothering his reader with leniency. He is prepared to be hard, to wound in order to heal, to use the knife. Kierkegaard conceived it his function as a writer to strip men of their disguises, to compel them to see evasions for what they are, to label blind alleys, to cut off menís retreats, to tear down the niggardly roofs they continue to build over their precious sun-dials, to isolate men from the crowd, to enforce self-examination, and to bring them solitary and alone before the Eternal. Here he left them. For here that in man which makes him a responsible individual must itself act or it must take flight. No other can make this decision. Only when man is alone can he face the Eternal. And the act that is called for at this point is not one of mere noetic recognition. When all is known that can be known, the responsible core of the will in the man has still to yield. He must act, he must choose, he must risk, he must make the leap. For in an existence where qualitative differences remain, there is no other entry into the deepest level of existential living as an individual. Only by this leap on faith could one know the release of guilt, the sense of commitment, the acceptance of a vocation, of a calling in whose service is perfect freedom. For in any lesser service there is servility. Only the Omnipotent One dares exercise that restraint of true love that makes Its associates free and heightens, not debases, the individual core of responsibility and integrity within them. "The consciousness of oneís eternal responsibility to be an individual is the one thing needful."

Only in the light of this his central task can Kierkegaardís attacks upon the philosophical speculation of Hegel or upon the social, political and ecclesiastical life of his day be understood. Hegel tended always to make the individual a mere passing-point, a moment, in the cosmic process, and to insist on the individualís gaining his concrete ethical significance through being identified with the social, religious, and political institutions of his time. Man is to be saved by identification with a set of external arrangements. This for Kierkegaard is the ultimate blasphemy. For instead of heightening his core of responsibility and integrity man is invited to do what he is already enamored with doing, to join the crowd, the mass, to be dissolved into the organic whole. To become a set of relations within the whole is all too congenial to modern man, Kierkegaard believed. "It must be apparent to anyone with even a little dialectical skill, that one cannot attack the (Hegelian) system from within. Outside of it, however, there is only one free seminal point Ďthe individual,í ethically, religiously, and existentially accentuated."(Ibid., p. 604) It was with this creative category of the individual that Kierkegaard attacked the Hegelian system.

All of these changes of outer arrangements, whether they be ecclesiastical, social, or political, seemed to Kierkegaard to gloss over the real problem -- which was the awakening of the individual. Hence his profound disappointment in Lutherís having allowed himself to be lured eventually into a mere rebellion against the Pope, a casting off the yoke of the monastic system and of ascetic practices, instead of laying on men the even costlier responsibility of their vocation before God. The inward reformation was yet to come. Kierkegaard believed himself to be its prophet. Here, too, was rooted his disappointment and impatience with the social revolutions of 1848 that believed by an upheaval of mass external arrangements to be able to resolve the basic problem of men. "In the future each effort at reformation, if its leader be a true reformer, will direct itself against the mass as such and not against the government," he wrote in his Journal amid the rumblings of 1847. Such an attempt as Tolstoyís to find inwardness by becoming poor with the poor, or Leninís utopian endeavor to usher in a kind of social salvation by making all of the proletariat rich would only have met with Kierkegaardís contempt. For they still rely on outer arrangements, they are still concerned primarily with "housekeeping," and the deeper problem is left untouched.

The effort of Gruntvig and his school to whip up the national pride of Denmark by recalling it to the Nordic sagas and its glorious history, Kierkegaard felt to be so much public flattery and a violent poison to the real individual need of the soul. The comfortable Danish church in general he found to be blind to its compromises with bourgeois life which had reduced it to a low-pressure form of Christianity. This church stood out for him in sharpest contrast to the primitive Christian community.

All attempts at mass prescription, all things attainable in the mass as such, in fact the very notion of the crowd, of the mass, drew the most violent invective Kierkegaard had at his command. For he believed the crowd, the mass, to be a hiding-place in which the individual may abdicate his true quest for inward intensity and responsibility. The crowd is a sink of cowardice in which individuals are relieved of individual responsibility and will commit acts they would never dare to do alone. When a man is to be executed by shooting, not one executioner shoots, but several. When the noble Caius Marius was seized, no individual soldier dared touch him, but a crowd of them had no such restraint. "Take the highest of all, think of Christ -- and think of the whole human race, all that have been born and will be born. Now the situation is one where Christ is alone, so that someone as an individual alone with Christ stepped up to Him and spat upon Him: the man was never born and will never be born, who possesses the courage or the audacity to do this: that is the truth. As they became a crowd, however, they had the courage to do it -- oh, terrible falsity."(Ibid., p. 594.) The mass flatters, the mass excuses, the mass condemns, the mass counts heads, the mass pronounces on truth, and in all these things the mass, for Kierkegaard, is that which is both false and debasing. To speak of social salvation, of salvation by group, by tribe, by race, by class, by nation, is for Kierkegaard an act of spiritual betrayal.

This isolation of man from the flock, from the mass, from the crowd and the heightening of his consciousness as an individual which the Eternal accomplishes is a central theme of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. Before the quiet gaze of the Eternal, there is no hiding-place. As individuals we are what we are before God, and no mass opinion affects this in the least. Kierkegaard believed that his generation was seeking to live in mere time and to make the Eternal superfluous. He reminded them of the Eternalís power to dissolve away time and to separate the crowd into individuals. In memory, in conscience, in remorse, in work at a calling, in the solitude, the Eternal still impinges upon the individual and awakens him to a consciousness both of himself and of his responsibility and of his worth to the Eternal.

In this polemic against the mass, the crowd, Kierkegaard could never be justly accused of parading a new snobbish aristocracy, a small upper-house of supermen. "The reader will consider that here the mass is not . . . a common herd. God in heaven, what if the religious way should fall into such an inhuman division of mankind! No, the mass is a number, the numerical. A number of the nobility, the millionaires, the highest dignitaries, etc., can through the use of the numerical quite as readily become the mass."(Collected Works, Vol. XIII, p. 593.) "It is Ďthe massí -- not this one or that one -- that is now living, now dead, not a group of menials or of aristocrats, of rich or of poor, but the mass understood in a purely conceptual sense -- which is the false. For as a man is in a crowd, he is released from repentance and responsibility or at least is weakened in responsibility for himself as an individual."(Ibid., pp. 593-594.) Again in his Journal for 1847 he wrote, "I long to call the attention of the mass to its own doom."

In the world, the native differences of gifts in men are obvious. And in this world the drift toward perpetuating these inequalities by one form of aristocracy or another is powerful. Kierkegaard saw only one solvent for these obvious inequalities, only one root of enduring equality between all men. That equality is in the equality of concern which a loving Eternal Father has for each individual that has ever existed. Hence only in the Christian sense of being children of a common Father are we all equal. To those impatient political enthusiasts who talk loudly on how futile and impractical religion must always be, and who are bent on legislating human equality into existence, Kierkegaard offers a word of counsel, "Only that which is religious can with the assistance of eternity press the equality of men through to its ultimate conclusions: the reverent, genuine, unworldly, true, the only possible equality between men. And therefore that which is religious, may it be said to its glorification, is also the true humanity."(Ibid., p. 590.)

In his brief essay on the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle he returns to this theme. The genius, an aristocrat of the spirit, has had gifts lavished upon him by nature that distinguish him from his fellows. The apostle may be a commoner, a fisherman, a one-talent man by nature, or he may have ten talents -- yet all that he has is dedicated to the service of the Eternal and as such is lifted up. The genius speaks with brilliance and charm. The apostle speaks with authority. The way of the genius is a way closed to all but a few. The way of the apostle is a way open to all as individuals -- even to the genius himself if he can forsake the absorbing satisfactions of a brilliant self-sufficiency and be ready to will one thing. Kierkegaard knew himself as only a genius, only an aristocrat of the spirit. He would never style himself an apostle or claim to speak with authority. God alone could judge of that, God before whom all men irrespective of their talents are really equal.

The root of equality is therefore grounded in this unchanging personal relation between the individual and God, not in the secular whim or political fashion of the crowd. Here, too, in the personal concrete particular category of the individual as opposed to the mechanical abstract impersonal category of the crowd or the mass, Kierkegaard found the root of enduring neighbor-love. There is nothing in Holy Scripture, he points out, about loving man in the mass -- only about loving your neighbor as yourself. For then you separate him out of the abstract mass or public, and he becomes an individual. And when you love him as yourself you testify to that deep equality of all men as individuals before God. And you do it personally. "That one shall honor each individual man, without exception, each man: that is truth and is reverence and is neighbor-love."( Ibid., p. 597. This is also the theme of his Works of Love.)

Little needs be added here to what has already been written in English about the bare facts of Kierkegaardís life. He was a sufferer. The melancholy shade of his fatherís closely held sin, the breaking of his engagement with Regina Olsen, the public ridicule to which his sensitive nature was exposed by the public attack of the modish Copenhagen journal Corsair, the disillusionment with Bishop Mynster and the church in his closing years, all bore in upon him. What is significant about Kierkegaard is the use he made of this suffering. He refused to seek invulnerability. He accepted the suffering, he lived with it, he searched it, and he found its costly meaning for him -- that he was to live as one called under God -- to live as a lonely man -- to live for an idea. Through suffering he found, and later was kept in his vocation. For his intense nature this pressure of suffering meant debauchery, insanity, suicide -- or the penetration of the sorrow for its message. A Journal entry in 1843 reads, "The most important thing of all is that a man stands right toward God, does not try to wrench away from something, but rather penetrates it until it yields its explanation. Whether or not it turns out as he wishes; it is still the best of all."

Seldom in the history of literature has there been seen such productivity as was released in him between the years of 1842 and 1848. In the single year 1843, he published in February, his long Either-Or; in May, Two Edifying Addresses; in October, three of his works Fear and Trembling, The Repetition and Three Edifying Addresses appeared on the same day; and in December, a further volume of Four Edifying Addresses.

He found in his writing a form of worship of God, and in the exercise of his calling as a writer whose every page was composed as under the scrutiny of God, he found his healing. If one is as weak as he is, and has so much to do, he will soon learn what it is to pray, he suggests. And he describes his vocation as a writer as literally living with God as one lives with a Father. He rises in the morning and gives thanks to God. Then work begins. At a set time in the evening, he breaks off and again gives thanks to God. Then sleep. So he lives. The twelve-hour day of writing when his production was at its height is broken only by a midday walk among the common people in the østergade. This keeping of sorrow and remorse silently between oneself and God keeps a man humble and acutely aware of the service he owes to God. Buried in this center, these sufferings release light that has no fear of darkness. And rarely in religious literature has suffering been treated with such delicacy and penetration as in Kierkegaardís own writings.

His vocation, his calling, is not your calling. No one could be more faithful than Kierkegaard in pointing that out. But do you know what is your calling, what is your vocation, and have you accepted it? It is these questions that he asks again and again in the closing sections of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.

In his Journals he makes a comment on the function of an introduction to a book. It should serve to unclothe the spectators from their diverse preoccupations and get them ready for the real bath. Kierkegaardís own brief preface to Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing does little more than begin this process, and tempts me to suggest that one who is not familiar with other works of Kierkegaard, will find himself still better prepared for immersion in this address if he turns immediately to Section Twelve and reads from that point to the end. By the use of a brilliant analogy this twelfth section begins by describing the true and the false way of reading or listening to a devotional address and the following sections set forth with pointed directness the central issue of what it means to be an individual. After reading this, the address should then be read through from beginning to end, read "willingly and slowly," read "over and over again," and given "the readerís own decisive activity, and all depends on this."

The translator wishes to express his thanks to Professor Eduard Geismar for suggesting the undertaking of this work; to Professor C. C. J. Webb and Hanna Astrup Larsen for corrections and suggested improvements in the translation. The translation and notes are made from the eighth volume of the standard Danish edition of Kierkegaardís Collected Works edited by A. B. Drachmann, J. L. Heiberg, and H. O. Lange and published by the Gyldendalske Boghandel, Copenhagen, 1903-06. The fifteen sectional divisions and headings have been supplied by the translator.

Douglas V. Steere

Haverford, Pennsylvania.

March, 1938.

 

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