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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 7: Barriers to Willing One Thing: Commitment to a Certain Degree


4. Before finally leaving the subject of double-mindedness for a similar examination of purity, the talk should at least touch upon that versatile form of double-mindedness: the double-mindedness of weakness as it appears in the common things of real life; upon the fact that the person who only wills the Good up to a certain degree is double-minded.

At bottom this is the way all double-mindedness expresses itself in relation to the Good, in that it wills the Good only up to a certain degree. But what has been set forth above, what of double-mindedness might perhaps be spoken of as its deceptive transactions in the "big," still had a certain semblance of unity, and of inner consistency, in so far as it was one single thing that was betrayed into one-sidedness, yet this one-sidedness, however strange it may seem, was precisely the double-mindedness in that one-sided person.

It is otherwise with the transactions of daily life, for they are not in the "big." It is rare in daily life, to see anyone who wills some perverse thing with fixed consistency and effort. The transactions of daily life are made in the little things so that double-mindedness presents a much greater diversity within the "individual."

A merchant who deals in only one kind of ware is a rare sight, and so is that double-mindedness which has a certain unreal unity. A merchant generally deals in different wares, and double-mindedness, too, is generally a number of different things. On that account the false road is harder to detect than that clear-cut one. Nay, the false roads cross each other and the right road in the most different ways and the "individual" shares in this crossing in an equally varied way. To be sure his life is distinguishable as falling within double-mindedness. But it is not easy to designate it any more closely, because within this double-mindedness, he is not at one with himself in anything definite, but is tossed about in vacillation by every breeze. For he learns and learns and yet never comes to a knowledge of truth.(Compare 2 Timothy 3:7) Or if he comes almost to it, then he quickly turns further and further away the more he learns of this confused and confusing instruction. In preference to the earlier double-mindedness, this has the Good on its side, in that it wills the Good, even though weakly; and in that it is without the obstinacy that marked the previously mentioned double-mindedness. But upon occasion weakness may be just as incurable.

This double-mindedness is difficult to speak of because it approximates both the one and the other, and because it alters itself continually, changing so swiftly that it may have transformed itself several times before the talk had hardly finished describing a single expression. It plays about gaily not only in all possible colors, but there is not even any law for this play of colors that blends colors and color relations in ever new confusion. Hence there is always something new under the sun -- and yet the old double-mindedness persists. Indeed what makes it even more difficult to speak of, is that in daily life, where it is right at home, double-mindedness, within limits, keeps comparatively to itself, so that a double-minded person, by being a little less double-minded than the others, claims distinction even though his degree of difference is quite within an essential sameness. Hence in the end it would seem as if that true eternal claim that demands purity of heart, by willing one thing, were done away with, as if it had been withdrawn from government, set away in retirement at such a distance from daily life that there simply could be no talk about it. For among the many-colored seething populace in the noise of the world from day to day and from year to year, there is no scrupulous check made as to whether a person wholly wills the Good if he has influence and might, runs a great business, is something in his own and in othersí eyes. "What fright-fully niggardly pettiness," one thinks, "to be so scrupulous!" One does not consider that there is any presumptuousness in what one has spoken. Nay, one drops the clever remark in passing and hurries on, while the remark also hurries on from mouth to mouth amid the many colored seething populace. And in the rush of life, in trade and commerce from morning to night, there is no such scruple about whether a person wholly wills the Good, just so that in his business he is keen, not to say a "thief," just so that he saves and piles up money, just so that he has a good reputation and by good fortune manages to avoid slander (for whether he actually is guilty or not is here of little importance, for neither he nor the world has time to look into that. Slander is merely a danger as an obstacle to his business). "To what purpose such a delay in the midst of busyness?" And in the world, it is always busy. Yes, it is entirely true that this is the way things look in the world, the way they seem in the world, and the way they must seem within the deceptive horizon of the temporal order. But in eternity it will make a tremendous difference whether a person was scrupulous or not.

And yet eternity is not like a new world, so that one who had lived in time according to the ways of the time world and of the press of busyness, if he were to make a happy landing in eternity itself, could now try his luck in adopting the customs and practices of eternity. Alas, the temporal order and the press of busyness believe, that eternity is so far away. And yet not even the foremost professional theatrical producer has ever had all in such readiness for the stage and for the change of scenes, as eternity has all in readiness for time: all -- even to the least detail, even to the most insignificant word that is spoken; has all in readiness in each instant -- although eternity delays.

Oh, that this talk, far from detaining anyone who sincerely wills the Good, or calling anyone away from fruitful activity, might cause a busy man to pause. For this press of busyness is like a charm. And it is sad to observe how its power swells, how it reaches out seeking always to lay hold of ever-younger victims so that childhood or youth are scarcely allowed the quiet and the retirement in which the Eternal may unfold a divine growth. And suppose that busyness in its haste should make a concession, believing even in its superficial wisdom that there is something beneficial in having a busy man on hand who now and then hurriedly proclaims that higher reflection on life about willing the Good in truth. Alas, is this, then, the true relationship? Are almost all to be excused from that which every man should do for himself? But then for the sake of completeness is someone in the midst of busyness to be delegated the task of setting forth that higher claim -- that higher claim, which, if by some means it could be satisfied, even if in feebleness and in imperfection, would command a manís whole mind, his unrelenting industry, his best strength?

Thus in the midst of busyness, double-mindedness is to be found. Just as the echo dwells in the woods, as stillness dwells in the desert, so double-mindedness dwells in the press of busyness. That the one who wills the Good only to a certain degree, that he is double-minded, that he has a distracted mind, a divided heart, scarcely needs to be pointed out. But the reason may need to be explained and set forth, why, in the press of busyness, there is neither time nor quiet to win the transparency that is indispensable if a man is to come to understand himself in willing one thing or even for a preliminary understanding of himself in his confusion. Nay, the press of busyness into which one steadily enters further and further, and the noise in which the truth continually slips more and more into oblivion, and the mass of connections, stimuli, and hindrances, these make it ever more impossible for one to win any deeper knowledge of himself. It is true, that a mirror has the quality of enabling a man to see his image in it, but for this he must stand still. If he rushes hastily by, then he sees nothing. Suppose a man should go about with a mirror in his possession which he does not take out, how should such a man get to see himself? In this fashion the busy man hurries on, with the possibility of understanding himself in his possession. But the busy man keeps on running and it never dawns upon him that this possibility which he has in his possession is rapidly fading from his memory. And yet one hardly dares say this to one of these busy ones, for however rushed he otherwise may be, yet upon occasion he has plenty of time for a multitude of excuses by the use of which he becomes worse than he was before: excuses whose wisdom is about the same as when a sailor believes that it is the sea, not the ship, that is moving.

One hardly dares say this to him, for however rushed he otherwise may be, yet upon occasion when in the company of congenial spirits, he has ample time: "to rob the unripe fruit of ridicule of its wisdom," in order to poke fun at the speaker as one of lifeís incompetents, as a man whom the busy one in his cleverness ignores -- from the exalted viewpoint of his excuses. Then, too, the general approval is everywhere upon the side of the busy one -- everywhere, in the ever-increasing sum of the pressure of busyness, and in the swarming mass of excuses. For like a poisonous breath over the fields, like a mass of locusts over Egypt, so the swarm of excuses is a general plague, a ruinous infection among men, that eats off the sprouts of the Eternal. For with each one who is attacked, there is always just one more excuse for the next person. And while a person cannot, as a rule, prevent a sickness becoming more and more dangerous, more and more malignant, the more it attacks those around him, yet with excuses it is just the reverse. There the sickness seems to become milder and milder, the condition becomes more and more agreeable, the more persons there are attacked by it. And if we all agree that the wretched, stunted state of health of these excuses, is the highest of all, then there is no one to say anything to the contrary. Should there be an "individual" who could not feel easy about yielding, and who raised a strong objection to this widespread practice of excusing, alas, we have not yet heard all; for there is always one excuse held in reserve, that lies in wait at his door and demands of him, "What good does it do for a single individual to insist upon opposing this?" Hence once again with excuses it is even worse than with a virulent disease, for no one dies of a disease simply because others have died of it.

So the double-minded person, then, may have a feeling -- a living feeling for the Good. If someone should speak of the Good, especially if it were done in a poetical fashion, then he is quickly moved, easily stimulated to melt away in emotion. Suppose the world goes a little against him and then someone should tell him that God is love, that His love surpasses all understanding, encompassing in His Providence even the sparrow that may not fall to the earth without His willing it. If a person speaks in this way, especially in a poetical manner, he is gripped. He reaches after faith as after a desire, and with faith he clutches for the desired help. In the faith of this desire he then has a feeling for the Good. But perhaps the help is delayed. Instead of it a sufferer comes to him whom he can help. But this sufferer finds him impatient, forbidding. This sufferer must be content with the excuse, "that he 1 is not at the moment in the spirit or the mood to concern himself about the sufferings of others as he himself has troubles." And yet he imagines that he has faith, faith that there is a loving Providence who helps the sufferer, a Providence, who also uses men as his instruments. Possibly now the desired help comes. Again he quickly flares up with gratitude, basking in a soft conception of the loving Goodness of Providence. Now he thinks he has rightly grasped faith. Now it has been victorious in him over every doubt and every objection. Alas, and that other sufferer has been completely forgotten. What else is this condition if it is not double-mindedness! For suppose, after all, that there should be talk of objections to faith, of incidents and occurrences that seem as it were to cry out against the care of a loving Providence: then that other sufferer who with the excuse that by chance he was not in the mood was turned away sharply by the very one who could have helped him, that other sufferer is an even more powerful objection. But the double-minded one is wholly blind to the fact that at the very moment when he believes faith to have conquered in him, he has, precisely by his action, refuted this conviction. Or is this not double-mindedness that thinks to have a conviction while by his own action a man contradicts it? Is this not, in truth, the sole proof that a man has a conviction: that his own life actually expresses it? Is this not the sole certainty: that oneís so- called conviction is not altered from moment to moment as a result of the different things that happen to one, things that momentarily alter a person and alter everything for a person so that today he has faith, and tomorrow he has lost it, and he gets it again day after tomorrow until something completely out of the ordinary happens, at which time he almost inevitably loses it, assuming that he has ever had it!

Suppose that there were two men: a double-minded man, who believes he has gained faith in a loving Providence, because he had himself experienced having been helped, even though he had hardheartedly sent away a sufferer whom he could have helped; and another man whose life, by devoted love, was an instrument in the hand of Providence, so that he helped many suffering ones, although the help he himself had wished continued to be denied him from year to year. Which of these two was in truth convinced that there is a loving Providence that cares for the suffering ones? Is it not a fair and a convincing conclusion: He that planted the ear, shall he not hear.(Psalms 94:9). But turn it around, and is the conclusion not equally fair and convincing: He whose life is sacrificing love shall he not trust that God is love? Yet in the press of busyness there is neither time nor quiet for the calm transparency which teaches equality, which teaches the willingness to pull in the same yoke with other men, that noble simplicity, that is in inner understanding with every man. There is neither time nor quiet to win such a conviction. Therefore, in the press of busyness even faith and hope and love and willing the Good become only loose words and double-mindedness. Or is it not double-mindedness to live without any conviction, or more rightly, to live in the constantly and continually changing fantasy that one has and that one has not a conviction!

In this fashion feeling deceives the busy one into double -- mindedness. Perhaps after the flaming up of the contrition of repentance, if this turns into emptiness, he had a conviction, at least so he believed, that there is a mercy that forgives sins. But even m the forgiveness he strongly denied any implication that he had been guilty of anything. Hence he had, so he thought, believed in a conviction that such a mercy exists, and yet in practice he denied its existence; in practice his attitude seemed designed to prove that it did not exist. Suppose that there were two men, that double-minded one, and then another man who would gladly forgive his debtor, if he himself might only find mercy. Which of these two was in truth convinced that such a mercy exists? The latter had indeed this proof that it exists, that he himself practices it, the former has no proof at all for himself, and only meets the contrary proof which he himself presents. Or the double-minded one perhaps had a feeling for right and wrong. It blazed strongly in him, especially if someone would describe in a poetical manner the zealous men, who by self-sacrifice in the service of truth, maintained righteousness and justice. Then some wrong happened to this man himself. And then it seemed to him as if there must appear some sign in heaven and upon earth since the world order could no more sleep than he until this wrong was put right again. And this was not self-love that inflamed him, but it was a feeling for justice, so he thought. And when he obtained his rights, no matter how much wrong it had cost those around him, then once again he praised the perfection of the world. Feeling had indeed carried him away, but also it had so enraptured him that he had forgotten the most important of all: to support righteousness and justice with self-sacrifice in the service of the truth. For which of these two is really convinced that justice exists in the world: the one that suffers wrong for doing the right, or the one that does wrong in order to obtain his right?

The immediate feeling is indeed -- primary. It is the élan vital out of which life flows, just as it is said that the heart is the source of life. But then this feeling must be "kept," understood in the sense that one says, "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life."(Proverbs 4:23.) It must be cleansed of selfishness, kept from selfishness. It must not be delivered up to its own devices. On the other hand, that which will be kept must always put its trust in a higher power who will keep it; hence, even the loving mother begs God to keep her child.

In immediate feeling one man never understands another. As soon as something happens to himself, all things seem different to him. When he himself suffers he does not understand the suffering of another and neither is his own happiness the key to understand the happiness of another. The immediate feeling selfishly understands all in relation to itself, and is therefore in the discord of double-mindedness with all others. For only in the well-understood equality of sincerity can there be unity, and in selfish shortsightedness his conviction is continually being altered. If it is not altered it is an accident, since the cause of its exemption is only that by sheer chance his life was not touched by any change. But the stability of such a conviction is mere fantasy on the part of the one whom fate has pampered. Because a conviction is not firmly fixed when all press upon it equally and hold it firm. Rather, its true stability is revealed when everything is changed. It is rare indeed that a manís life is able to escape all changes, and in the changes the conviction based on immediate feeling is a fantasy, the momentary impression simply inflated into a consideration of the whole life.

Perhaps the double-minded one had a knowledge of the Good. In the moment of contemplation it stood out so distinctly before him, so clearly, that the Good, in truth, has all the advantage on its side, that the Good, in truth, is a gain both for this and for the future life. Yes, it lay on his heart, as though he must be able to convince the whole world of it. Perhaps it was not demanded of him that he should go out with his acquired conviction in order to convince others, but the testing that should try this newly won conviction nevertheless was not left out. Alas, I contemplation and the moment of contemplation, in spite of all their clarity, readily conceal a deception; because the moment of contemplation has something in common with the falsified eternity. It is a foreshortening that is necessary in order that the contemplation may take place. It must foreshorten time a good deal. Indeed it must actually call the senses and thoughts away from time in order that they may complete themselves in a spurious eternal well-roundedness. It is here as when an artist sketches a country. The sketch cannot be as big as the country, it must be in-finitely smaller; but on that account it also becomes all the easier for the observer to scan the outlines of that country. And yet it may well happen to the observer, if suddenly he were actually set down in that country where the many, many miles really exist and are valid, that he would be unable to recognize the country, or to make any sense of it, or as a traveler, to find his way about in it. So it will be with the double-minded person. His knowledge has indeed been a sense-deception. What was there, in air-tight fashion pressed together in the completeness of contemplation, shall now be stretched out at its full length. It is now no longer rounded off but is in motion. For life is like a poet, and on that account is different from the observer who always seeks to bring things to a conclusion. The poet pulls us into the very complex center of life.

Now the double-minded person stands there with contemplationís sketch. Time, that was ignored by contemplation, begins to assert its validity. And it is obvious that in all eternity, time has no right to deny that the Good has all the advantage on its side. But it has permission to stretch time out, and thereby to make somewhat more difficult what in contemplation is apparently so plainly understood. So the understanding does not, in this way, simply become less plain because it has become crooked and awry, but rather it has become less plain -- to go by. Now instead of keeping his contemplation to himself and holding himself to the contemplation in order to penetrate time with it in a direct but gradual manner, the double-minded person lets time cut him off from contemplation. Is this not double-mindedness: to be in time without any contemplation, without any distinct thoughts, or to put it more exactly, to be within time deceived over and over again about having or having had an experience of contemplation! The moment of contemplation he had recklessly misunderstood as being earnest, and then as this earnestness really approached, he threw off contemplation, and misunderstood the moment of contemplation as a delusion, until he again becomes earnest in the moment of contemplation. Or perhaps the double-minded one himself admitted that he had done wrong, had acted badly, had gotten upon a false road. But then after reflection it became so evident, so attractive, that punishment really is like a medicine. It seemed to him that no physician had ever made his medicine so agreeable or inviting, as this reflection upon punishment had succeeded in rendering it. However, when the punishment came, momentarily, as a physician knows, it made the condition worse, in order that real health might break through. Then he became impatient. In reflection he had thought himself healed; thought how good it was, when it was all over. In this fashion the lazy man always has a disproportionate power of imagination. He thinks immediately how he will establish himself, and how fine it will be for him when now this and now that is done: he is less given to thinking -- that he should do this and that. And in reflection this looks very inviting, but when he must step out upon the road (for reflection is up above the road) then all is changed. Now instead of keeping the reflection and the estimate to himself, and conforming to them, he throws off reflection. He has lightly taken the reflection in vain, as if it were the healing quality of the medicine, and as the healing is about to begin, he light-mindedly misunderstands the reflection as a delusion. Is this not double-mindedness: to be ill, to put oneself under the physicianís treatment, and yet not be willing to trust the physician, but arbitrarily to break off the treatment! Is this not double-mindedness, when the sick person is perhaps getting into the bath, where the heat increases, but now finding it suddenly too warm he springs out, regardless of all danger! Is it not double-mindedness, when he still has a remnant of deliberation left and with it an intimation that actually he is ill and so he begins to go through his cure all over again -- in the same fashion!

In the recognition, that contemplation and reflection are the distance of eternity away from time and actuality, there is indeed a truth: the knower can understand that truth, but he cannot understand himself. It is certain that without this recognition a manís life is more or less thoughtless. But it is also certain, that this recognition, because it is in a spurious eternity before the imagination, develops double-mindedness, if it is not slowly and honestly earned by the willís purity.

So the double-minded person may have had a will to the Good, for the one who is betrayed into double-mindedness by feeling, or by that distant recognition, he too has a will; but it received no power, and the germ of double-mindedness lay in the inner psychical disagreement. He also has a will to the Good. He is not without intentions or purposes, and resolutions and plans for himself, and not without plans of participation for others. But he has left something out: namely, he does not believe that the will in itself is, or indeed should be, the most solid of all, that it should be as hard as the sword that could hew stone, and yet be so soft that it could be wrapped around the body. He does not believe that it is the will by which a man should steady himself, yes, that when all fails, that it is the will that a man must hold to. He does not believe that the will is itself the mover, but rather that it should itself be mover, that in itself it is fluctuating and on that account should be supported, held firm, that it should be moved and supported by causes, considerations, advice of others, experiences, rules of life. If we, quite properly, should compare the will in man with the headway impetus of a ship in which he (the man) is carried forward: then he believes, on the contrary, that the will, instead of its propelling all, is itself something that should be tugged forward, that there are grounds, considerations, advice of others, experiences, rules of life, that go alongside of and push or pull the will forward as if the will could be compared to a barge -- yes, to a freight barge. But in the same stroke the will is made impotent, "up to a certain degree" discounted in relation to causes, considerations and advice, and in relation to how these react upon one another. He has turned everything around. What for each one, who with the impetus of eternity steers for a better world, would be a hindrance in life, he takes for an advantage in hastening forward, and what should be an advantage in hastening forward, he makes into a delay, or at least into something that is in itself neutral. Such a person must certainly remain in double-mindedness, upon the inland lake of double-mindedness, busy with trivialities, if, instead of charting a course out of all this delaying by means of the will to the Good, he only sails with the speed of the hindrance.

A man enters upon his life, hoping that all will go well for him and with good wishes for others. He steps out into the worldís multiplicity, like one that comes from the country into the great noisy city, into the multiplicity where men engrossed in affairs hurry past one another, where each looks out for what belongs to him in the vast "back and forth," where everything is in passing, where it is as though at each instant one saw what he had learned borne out in practice, and in the same instant saw it refuted, without any cessation in the unrest of work, in multiplicity -- that all too vast a school of experience. For here one can experience everything possible, or that everything is possible, even what the inexperienced man would least believe, that the Good sits highest at the dinner table and crime next highest, or crime highest and the Good next highest -- in good company with each other. So this man stands there. He has in himself a susceptibility for the disease of double-mindedness. His feeling is purely immediate, his knowledge only strengthened through contemplation, his will not mature. Swiftly, alas, swiftly he is infected -- one more victim. This is nothing new, but an old story. As it has happened to him, so it has happened with the double-minded ones who have gone before him -- this in passing he now gives as his own excuse, for he has received the consecration of excuses.

Perhaps at this point a speaker, who was just as double- minded as that double-minded one, and therefore really only wishes to deceive, will describe the willing of the Good for us in an alluring fashion, yet, in an alluring fashion with the prospect of becoming something in the world. Perhaps he will close his description by saying that that double-minded person came to nothing in the world -- just to terrify us. But we do not wish to deceive. Still less do we wish to stir up terror, to frighten by a fraud, which is much like commending a falsehood. We wish only to say that, eternally understood, the double-minded one came to nothing. On the other hand, in the time order, in keeping with his ability and his indefatigable industry, he probably became a well-to-do man, a respected man -- or to a certain degree, a respected man, or at least what a man can become within the circumference of "to a certain degree." And by this it is not denied, that he could readily become the richest man in the world. For that, too, the condition of being the richest man, is only something "to a certain degree." Only the determinations of eternity are above "a certain degree." Like its truths, the time order with all that belongs to it is to a "certain degree"; only eternity and its truth is eternal. Therefore let us not deceive and say that in an earthly sense a man advances furthest in the time order by willing the Good in truth. Do not let the talk be as double-minded as the world is. No, in the time order a man advances furthest, in an earthly sense, by means of double-mindedness, and, it must be admitted, mainly by that double-mindedness that has about it a spurious gloss of unity and of inner coherence.

Behold! Honesty is the most enduring of all. It endures, too, at the time when the rich man becomes poor by his honesty. It still endures when the once rich but later poor man is dead and gone, and when the world has been destroyed and forgotten, and when there is neither poverty nor wealth nor money; or further still, when the once rich, but later poor man has long since forgotten the suffering of poverty, yet his honesty still endures. And yet suppose a man should believe that honesty is only related to money and to money values, that the same thing happens to it as to dishonesty, that it ends with the end of the order of money values. Yes, to be sure, honesty stands related to wealth, and poverty and money, but it also stands related to the Eternal. And it does not stand related in a double-minded fashion to money and to the Eternal, so as to aim at joining itself in a financial relationship -- to the Eternal. Because of this it endures. It does not "to a certain degree" endure the longest of all. It endures. That assertion is, therefore, no mere proverb. It is an eternal truth. It is the invention of eternity.

On the other hand, there is a proverb that says: One needs a little more than honesty to get through this world. But the questions to which these assertions are a reply differ I most widely. It is asked, what is it that endures; and it is asked, how may I pass through? He that merely asks, how may I pass through, has no desire for real knowledge. But he that asks what it is that endures has already passed through; he has already gone over from the time order to eternity, although he is still alive. The one inquires of things only in comparatives. The other questions eternally and if in the hour of temptation, when his honesty is tested, he asks properly, he will receive now, and in the next world he will again receive eternityís answer: Yes, it endures! Yes, it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting,(Ecclesiastes 7:2) for there one can learn, that after a hundred years, all is forgotten. Yes, to be sure, long ago the feast and the gallant brothers were forgotten, but truly the Eternal is not forgotten, not after a thousand years.

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