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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.


Chapter 4: Barriers to Willing One Thing: The Reward-Disease


II. If it be Possible for a Man Really in Truth to Will One Thing, Then He Must Will the Good in Truth.

A. If it be Possible for a Man to Will the Good in Truth, Then he Must be at One With Himself in Willing to Renounce All Double-Mindedness.

Therefore, if it be possible for a man to will one thing, then he must will the Good, for only the Good is one. Thus if it becomes a fact that he wills one thing, he must will the Good in truth.

Oh, that one might be able, at this point, to speak rightly! For at this point what the talk is concerned with is the life that most men lead: they desire the Good, and yet the world is still so filled with double-mindedness. Here, too, the speaker has his own life, his own frailties, his own share of doubleness of mind. Oh, that the talk might not seem to wish to judge or accuse others. For to wish to judge others instead of one’s self would also be double-mindedness. Oh, that the talk might not seem to press demands that are binding upon others but that exempt the speaker, as if he had only the task of talking. For this, too, is double-mindedness, just as it is hidden pride to wish to offer comfort to others but not to be willing to let oneself be comforted. No matter how adroitly, by means of a sad or cheerful mood, he knows how in sympathy to console others, if at the same time he believes that for himself there is no consolation, this is hidden pride and so double-mindedness. Oh, that one might wound no one except to his healing; that the talk might embitter no one and yet be the truth, that the talk along with truth might be sufficiently penetrating to reveal that which is hidden! Oh, that the talk might wipe out double-mindedness and win hearts for the Good! Yet not by persuasion. For this also readily becomes double-minded, to wish to enjoy the pleasure of persuading, to treasure the longing for it, to quiet oneself by it -- and thereby forget what is to be done. Oh, that the talk might repel the listeners from the speaker and attract them only to the Good!

I. In the first place a statement must be made which is easy to grasp: that the man who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.

The Good is one thing; the reward is another that may be present and may be absent for the time being, or until the very last. When he, then, wills the Good for the sake of the reward, he does not will one thing but two. It is now certain that he will not in this way make much progress along the pathway of the Good. For in truth it is as if a man, instead of naturally using both eyes to see one thing, should use one eye to see one side and the other eye to see the other side. This does not succeed. It only confuses sight. However, we are not speaking about this here, except to note that it is double-mindedness. In ancient times this problem was also frequently an object of consideration. There were shameless teachers of impudence(Compare Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic I. 16, 20.) who thought it right to do wrong on a large scale and then to make it appear as if one willed the Good. In this way they thought one had a double advantage: the pitiful advantage of being able to do wrong, to be able to get one own way, to let one’s passions rage, and the hypocritical advantage of seeming to be good. But in ancient times there was also a simple sage, whose simplicity became a snare for the impudent ones’ sophistry. He taught that in order really to be certain that it was the Good that man willed, one ought even to shun seeming good, presumably in order that the reward should not become tempting. For so different is the Good and the reward, when the reward is separately striven after, that the Good is the ennobling and the sanctifying; the reward is the tempting. But the tempting is never the Good. This reward, that we are talking about here, is the world’s reward. For the reward which God for eternity has joined with the Good has nothing bad. in it. It is also quite certain. Neither things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate it from the Good.(Compare Romans 8:38, 39.) Angels cannot will such separation and all the devils are not strong enough to accomplish it. But if the world itself is not Good in its innermost being; if, as the Scripture says, it still "lieth in wickedness,"(I John 5:19) or if it is far from being as one for whom it is a rare exception not to will the Good; if this be so, then earthly reward is of a doubtful character. And hence it is all the more likely that the world will reward what it takes for the Good, what to a certain degree resembles the Good, what, as those impudent ones taught, has the Good’s appearance -- and those impudent ones were not lacking in intimate knowledge of the world. Hence reward is indeed that which tempts.

The question is not difficult. If a man loves a girl for the sake of her money, who will call him a lover? He does not love the girl, but the money. He is not a lover but a money-seeker. But if a man said, "It is the girl I love and she has money," and he should ask us for our judgment, for we have no particular call to judge, then a good answer would be, "It is a difficult matter with this money. Money may have a great influence, one can easily be deceived, and it is very difficult to know oneself." If he were really very intent on this matter he could even wish that the money were not there, just to test his love. For a true lover would say, "The girl has only one fault, she has money."

And what now may the girl say! If she said, "The advantage I wish to have is that it is I that have made him rich," I wonder if she could be called a real lover? For she did not really love him, but the money. If, on the contrary, the two in their love agreed to do a good act with this money which was a hindrance to them, then it would be made possible for them to desire love alone. Let us hope that no one would set about to disturb the innocent fancy of this beautiful thought by telling us, "What life will surely teach that pair!" Alas, there is a wretched knowledge, a shabby acquaintance with the real, that is not merely wretched and shabby but also on all occasions puts on an important front. As though that knowledge were anything but infamy in any person who in a cowardly and traitorous and envious and empty puffed-up manner dares to make such a comment! As if that knowledge were other than contemptible double-mindedness that both wills and does not will, and therefore will only lie, lie about the Good, and lie about the man who is good. Yes, what was once said of memory is applicable to that sort of knowledge, namely, that one might prefer to learn the art of forgetting.(Cf. Themistocles in Cicero’s de Oratore II. 74, 299.) Indeed it is easy enough for one to become schooled in that sort of knowledge. It may be learned readily enough from all the wretched ones, so that one might rather wish and pray, that there was an art that one could learn that would teach him to remain ignorant of such knowledge.

Now about desiring the girl without the money. Let us consider the Good, where all is on a more perfect plane, where earnestness and truth are the innocent fancy of beautiful thought. To will the Good for the sake of reward is double-mindedness. To will one thing is, therefore, to will the Good without considering the reward. In truth to will one thing is to will the Good, but not, therefore, to desire reward in the world. The reward can of course come without a man’s willing it. Even though it is in the outward realms, the reward may come from God. But when a man considers that all reward in the outer realm can become what the world’s reward always is -- a temptation for him, then he must guard himself even against true reward just in order rightly to be able to will the Good. Oh, that he might not forget, that this, even such a desire to guard himself, may once more be a temptation to pride.

But if it be true of the reward for Good in the world, that the reward the world gives is so dangerous, then the Good has almost an edifying quality here in this world (even if this edification is somewhat softened in the blessed smile of eternity). For here the man who in truth wills the Good, by willing one thing, is very rarely led into the difficulty of being tempted by reward. Now, that the Good has its own reward is indeed forever certain. There is nothing so certain. It is not even more certain that God exists, for that is one and the same thing. But here on earth, Good is often temporarily rewarded by ingratitude, by lack of appreciation, by poverty, by contempt, by many sufferings, and now and then by death. It is not this reward to which we refer when we say that the Good has its reward. Yet this is the reward that comes in the external world and that comes first of all. And it is precisely this reward which the man is anxious about, who wills the Good for the sake of the reward. For he has no time to wait, no time, no years, no life to give away -- for an eternity. Hence that reward which comes in the external world is so far from being desirable, that, on the contrary, it is both valuable and encouraging when it does not come in the outer world, so that the double-mindedness in the inner realm may perish, and so that the reward in heaven may be all the greater.

To will the Good for the sake of the reward is, as it were, a symbol of double-mindedness. And a double-minded man according to the Apostle James’ words is, "unsteady in all his ways." Nor does he accomplish anything. For a double-minded man, says the same Apostle, may not expect to receive that for which he prays. Even if such a double-minded one, who wills the Good for the sake of the reward, may puff himself up, appear defiant, and fancy that he has won his goal, even if many blind ones foolishly think the same; yet let us not deceive each other, my listener, or allow a sense-deception to do so. It is quite possible that he will win good things, that are called reward. Still he does not get them as reward, at least not in truth, if it be true that to will the Good in truth is recognizable by one’s willing it without reward. Oh, Thou the Good’s wonderful at-oneness with thyself that protects thee from being deceived! When, for the sake of the reward, a double-minded person only pretends to will the Good, and he seems to get the reward, nevertheless he does not get it. For that which he gets, he does not get as reward -- for the Good. So far is he from getting it as reward that rather at the very moment that he receives the Good, he discovers that the reward has vanished.

Look at the girl who has money. A false lover can perhaps deceive her, so that it appears as if he loved her, although what he really loves is the money. She may joyfully, perhaps even gratefully, continue to live in the fantasy that she is loved. But no one can deceive the Good, nay, not in all eternity! Not in all eternity! Yes, it is just there that one has the least chance of deceiving it. Perhaps here on earth it can be accomplished; not that the Good is deceived, but men may be deceived by the likeness of the Good. Such does not escape the attention of the Good. From time to time it focuses its wrath on such a man and reveals his deception. But often the Good lets the deceiver go his way because the Good knows, in itself, that it is the stronger. Only a weak and effeminate man demands immediate justification, demands immediate success in the outer world, just because he is weak, and therefore must have an outward proof -- that he is the strongest. The one who is really strong and is really the more powerful, quietly concedes a domain to the weakling and readily allows him to give the impression of being the stronger. So with the Good, when it tolerates such a deceiver, it is as if it said to him secretly, "Yes, enjoy yourself with your false appearance, but remember, we two, we shall talk together again."

The double-minded one stands at a parting of the ways. Two visions appear: the Good and the reward. It is not in his power to bring them into agreement, for they are fundamentally different from each other. Only that reward which God for all eternity adds to the Good in the inner realm, only that is in truth homogeneous with the Good. So he stands pondering and reflecting. If he is wholly absorbed in his pondering, then he continues to stand -- a symbol of double-mindedness. But suppose he should tear himself free from the deliberation and should now go forward. Along which way? Ah, do not ask him about that. Perhaps he is able to answer learned questions and to betray extensive knowledge. But one thing he cannot do, one and only one thing he is not able to do: he cannot answer the question about which of the two ways he is taking. By repeated thoughtful pondering in an attempt to see the heterogeneous together, he has somewhat confused his sight. He believes he has found that there is a third way and that it is this third way along which he is going. This third way has no name. For it does not really exist, and so it is obvious that he, if he is sincere, cannot say which way he is taking. If he is sincere, for otherwise he would indeed declare that he is going along the way of the Good, it may even be important to convince men of that -- in order that they may honor him. For honor belongs to the reward which he is seeking after. The third way is the secret which he keeps to himself. And now how does he go along this third way which is narrower than any rope-dancer’s rope, for it simply does not exist? Does he go steadily and firmly like one that has a definite goal before his eyes; like one that scarcely looks at anything around him in order not to be disturbed; like one that looks for one thing alone -- for the goal? No, only a person upon the path of the Good walks in this fashion with only the Good before his eyes.

Does he, then, go like the one that is hunting for every sensation along the broad way of pleasure? No, that he does not do. Does he go like a carefree youth who lightheartedly lets his gaze wander over everything about him on his way? Alas, he is too old for that. How does he go, then? He walks so slowly under the circumstances, because of the difficulty of the way. He feels his way forward with his foot and as he finally plants his foot and takes a step, he immediately looks about at the clouds, notes the way the wind blows, and whether the smoke goes straight up from the chimney. It is, namely, the reward -- earth’s reward -- that he is looking for. And that reward is like the clouds and like the wind and like the smoke of the chimney. And so he asks his way continually. He gives minute attention to the faces of the passing people in order to learn how the reward stands, what the prices are, what demands the time and the people would place upon the Good if they were to give the reward.

What is he really after? Nay, do not ask him about that. Perhaps he would be able to answer every other question with the exception of that one about the way. But this question he cannot answer in definite terms, if he is to answer it sincerely, for the reason that the answer is all too readily at hand: that he wills the Good and detests vice -- when vice seems to be loathsome; that he wills the approbation of good people -- when they are in the majority and possess the power; that he will benefit the good cause -- when it is so good as to confer some advantage upon him. Yet in sincerity he dares not say definitely what he wills. He dares not say loudly and decisively with the full voice of conviction that he wills the Good. He utters it with the dull caution of double-mindedness. For he knows well enough that the Good and the reward are not rationed out together. Let us assume, that by such a careless utterance the Good and the reward came into conflict, and let us assume that he be considered as willing the Good in this manner. Now suppose that the reward is missing, which has previously happened in this world. What would he do then? Would he will the Good and even be willing to forego the appearance of willing the Good? No, definitely not. Does he, then, will the reward? Yes, but he will not plainly admit it. Does he, then, will the Good? Yes, now and then, perhaps, for decency’s sake, as it is called. He pretends, therefore, to will the Good -- for the sake of honor and reward. As a matter of fact he does occasionally will the Good -- to save his face.

This is what happens to the man who hankers after a reward. He is so double-minded that one hardly knows whether to laugh or to weep over him, if one does not know that all double-mindedness is destruction. But if one knows this, he knows well enough what to do, especially when he has his own share of this double-mindedness.

Now this matter of willing the Good for the sake of reward may take a somewhat different form. Perhaps there was a man who really in all sincerity willed the Good. Humbly before God, and quickened in his enthusiasm, he cheerfully understood when the world and when men worked against him. He cheerfully understood that this opposition was the reward, and that there was nothing further to be said about it. Strengthened by God, bracing himself only by his confidence, he almost never desired to be rewarded in any other way by this world. But then he became weary. He clutched after the reward in
the narrower sense, and after an easier understanding of the reward. For in general the closer the understanding lies to misunderstanding, the easier it becomes. He could not bear with the Eternal. He could not endure the opposition of the world and of the people. So first he claimed the reward, under the interpretation that there ought to be an agreement between the Good and the world. Finally, he demanded the reward alone. In this fashion he slipped backwards. Oh, sad end to a good beginning! Oh, Thou the Good’s stern zeal for thyself, that Thou perhaps permit-test him to get the reward in the world, just when Thou hast rejected him; that Thou lettest him get the reward of the world, while he has ungratefully forgotten what a blessedness it is to have Thy reward, while earth withholds her reward from him!

Or he did not begin so high, but simply with willing the Good in truth. Without knowledge of the world, without having conceived in his heart the possibility of what may happen to a man, he piously hoped that the Good would not withhold its reward. Now understood in the light of eternity, this is an eternal and sacred truth. But in the sense of temporal existence, it is foolish and fruitless cleverness. So he went out into the school of experience, for we all go to school as long as we live. Life’s school is for adults and therefore is somewhat more stern than the children’s school, where the attentive and industrious ones come to the fore among those of the same age. So life took him into its stern school. But he resisted. He reduced his demands. He did not wish to deceive the Good. Alas, neither would that help. He believed that as long as he clung to the Good, he possessed a claim upon life. Now it seemed to him as though the Good alone had claims upon him. At this his courage slackened. He looked about him where so many others helped themselves to the reward. The tempter began to frighten him into a feeling of faintheartedness as to why he did not wish to be like the others and as to why he insisted upon running after the vagaries of imagination instead of laying hold of that which is certain. Then his mind was changed. In life it happened to him just as in school it might happen to the superior pupil if there were no teacher. The mediocre would gain the dominance and gain power to seduce the superior pupils, because the good pupil had no teacher in whom to seek protection. And in life there is no visible teacher who encourages the good pupil, for we are all pupils. If the good pupil keeps on, he must find the encouragement in himself. This he did not find. His courage was shattered. Perhaps he did not find what he now sought in the world. And so he went down, he the deceived one, whom the world deceived as to the reward, when he willed the Good and whom the world betrayed most terribly, when it got him to forsake the Good.

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