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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 9: The Price of Willing One Thing: The Exposure of Evasions


But the one who in truth wills the Good, puts cleverness to an inward use: in order to prevent all evasions and thereby to help him enter into and persist in the commitment.

Cleverness is indeed a great power, yet it is treated by him as an insignificant servant, as a shrewd contemptible one. He hears the servant, to be sure, but in action he is not guided by him. He uses cleverness against himself as a spy and informer, which informs him instantly of each evasion, yes, even gives warning at any suspicion of an evasion. Now just as the thief knows the hidden way -- and goes by it, so the authorities also know it and go by it in order to detect the thief, but the knowledge as knowledge is the same in both cases.

This is the way he makes use of cleverness. I do not know whether it is true that at each manís birth two angels are born, his good and his bad angel. But this I do believe (and I will gladly listen to any objection, although I will not believe it) that at each manís birth there comes into being an eternal vocation for him, expressly for him. To be true to himself in relation to this eternal vocation is the highest thing a man can practice, and, as that most profound poet has said: "Self-love is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting."(Shakespeare in Henry V, Act 2, Scene 4.) Then there is but one fault, one offense: disloyalty to his own self or the denial of his own better self. One who is guilty of such a fault is not like a thief or a robber. The civil authority will not lie in wait for him. This fault may begin its course in complete silence so that none will be aware of it. Is it, therefore, perhaps of no account? Certainly many believe that a man can search out and grasp the Truth just as well, creatively express the Beautiful just as well, vitally perfect the Good just as well, even if, in order to win some advantage in the world, he was secretly a little unfaithful to himself, even if he did shift the boundary stones of his inner life a particle by Just a shade less scrupulousness, so that even though he had won this material advantage by doubtful means, yet he "can truly work for the Good, the Beautiful, and the True." So low an estimate of the Good and the Beautiful and the True is expressed by this as to think that it ought to be able to make use of anyone as a serviceable instrument from whom to elicit a harmonious strain, anyone -- even the one that had polluted himself!

Yes, man can deceive himself and men. But when eternity listens attentively, listens in order to discover whether the playing of the strings is pure and in time with itself -- alas, it instantly detects false tones and hesitation. It rejects such a man just as a connoisseur rejects a stringed instrument when it is damaged. Alas, it is indeed a sorry cleverness (however much it boasts of the material advantage that it won as a proof -- of its folly; however much it points to the badges of distinction and thereby again to -- the hidden dejection within), a sorry cleverness that deceives itself about what is the highest of all. The only genuine cleverness is that which helps a man in all devotedness truly to will the Good.

The one who truly wills the Good, therefore, makes use of cleverness against evasions. But by this does he not achieve something great in the world? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But one thing definitely he does become: he becomes a friend, a lover of memory. And so when in a quiet hour, memory visits him (and already at this point how different it is from that visit when memory threateningly knocks at the door of the double-minded man!), then it says to him, "Do you remember that time, that time when the good resolution conquered within you?" And he answers, "Yes, dear one!" But then memory continues (and between lovers memory is so dear that they almost prefer to the sight of each other the whisper of memory when they say, "Can you remember that time?" and "Can you remember that time?"), memory continues, "Can you remember all the hardships and sufferings you endured for the sake of the resolution?" He answers, "No, dear one, I have forgotten that -- let it remain forgotten! But when in the toils of life and struggle, when in my troubled thoughts all is in confusion, it may seem to me as if even that was forgotten which I know I had willed in sincerity. Oh, thou hast thy very name from that act of remembering, thou messenger of the Eternal: Memory. At that hour, visit me, and bring with thee the long-desired, the strengthening meeting with thyself once more." And memory answers in parting, "I promise you that, I swear it to you by all eternity." Then they part one from another, for so it must be here in the world of time. Deeply moved, he takes one more look after memoryís vanishing form as one looks after a glorified saint. Now it has gone and so has the quiet hour. It was only a quiet hour, it was not some great moment -- on that account he hoped that memory would keep its promise. He preserved in his own soul that stillness in which he met with memory when it was pleased to visit him. To him this is his reward, and to him this reward is above all others. Yes, just as a Mother, who carries her beloved child asleep at her breast along a difficult road, is not troubled about what may happen to her, but only fears that the child may be disturbed and upset, so he, too, does not fear the troubles of the world on his own account. He is only troubled lest these should upset and disturb that possibility of a visit that slumbers in his soul.

The one who in truth wills the Good also uses cleverness on the outer world. It is no disgrace to be clever; it is a good thing. It is no disgrace that the authorities are clever, that they shrewdly know how to trace the criminalís hidden trail in order to seize him and make him harmless. In so far as the good man is clever, he, too, knows, how in the very face of truth the world wishes to have the Good made agreeable, how the crowd desires to be won -- the much feared crowd, who "desire that the teacher shall tremble before his hearers and flatter them." He knows all about this -- in order not to follow it, but rather by the very opposite conduct to keep as free as possible of these deceptions, that he himself may not adopt any illicit way of deriving some advantage from the Good (earning money, distinction, and admiration) and so that he may deceive no one by a figment of the imagination. Whenever possible he will prefer to withdraw the Good from contact with the crowd. He will seek to split the crowd up in order to get hold of the individual or to get each by himself. He will be reminded of what that simple old sage remarked in ancient times, "When they meet together, and the world sets down at an assembly, or in a court of law, or a theater, or a camp, or in any other popular resort, and there is a great uproar and they praise some things which are being said or done, and blame other things, equally exaggerating both, shouting and clapping their hands, and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of the praise or blame -- at such a time will not a young manís heart, as they say, leap within him?"27 And indeed this is exactly what is necessary in order in truth to will the Good -- that a manís heart should leap, but leap with the unspoiled quality of youth. And therefore the good man, in case he is also a clever one, will see that if anything is able to be done for the Good, then he must try to get men to be alone. The same persons, who singly, as solitary individuals are able to will the Good, are immediately seduced as soon as they associate themselves and become a crowd. On that account the good man will neither seek to secure the assistance of a crowd in order to split up the crowd, nor will he seek to have a crowd back of him, during the time that he breaks up the crowd in front of him.

But just how the good man will make use of cleverness in the outer world does not permit of being more precisely specified in general terms, for that which is necessary can be totally different with respect to each time and to the out into the desert and lived on locusts knew how, in relation to his circumstances of each time. That stern prophet(John the Baptist) who went out into the desert and lived on locusts knew how, in relation to his contemporaries, he ought to express this decisively: that it is not the truth that is in need of men, but men who are in need of the truth. Hence they must come to him, come out into the desert. Out there, there was no opportunity for them to be able to decorate the truth, to be able most graciously to do something for it; out there where the ax did not lie in the woods, but at the foot of the solitary tree, and where each tree that did not bear good fruit was bound to be chopped down. Yes, to be sure, there have been self-appointed judges since that time, who have erred and chopped away at the whole forest -- and the crowd found it most flattering. Again, there was that simple wise man, who worked for the Good under the form of a joke. He knew by his cleverness exactly what his frivolous people needed, in order that they should not simply take the earnestness of the Good in vain, and thereby be led to pay the wise man a good deal of money as a reward for having deceived them. The form of the joke prevented their misusing the Goodís earnestness; the opposition of the joke, on the other hand, made their frivolity obvious: it was the judgment.

Without this cleverness, the frivolous ones would in all probability have imitated him in being earnest. Now, on the contrary, he confronted them with the choice, and see, they chose the joke. They never even noticed, that there was anything earnest in it -- because there was no earnestness in them. This was the judgment, and the judgeís conduct. His art was paganismís highest ingenuity, for the Christian type has still another consideration.

Yet this, too, may not be generalized upon. It applies only to that initiated one, whose secret it is, so that by paying close attention to such an individual, one can learn to know a whole generation, concluding from him, from the form he found it necessary to clothe himself in, how the entire age must have been. But it is certain and acknowledged by all, that each one who in truth wills the Good, is not in the world in order to conjure up an appearance of the Good, thus winning approval in the eyes of the world and becoming a man who is beloved by all. He has not the task of changing the Good into a thing of the moment, into something that shall be voted upon in a noisy gathering, or something that swiftly gains some disciples who also will the Good up to a certain degree. No, he has always the task, not by word, nor by intention, but by the sincere inner concentration of his own life -- the task of making it most obvious of all that his surroundings have been set in opposition to him, not in order that he shall judge in terms of words, but in order that his life may unconditionally serve the Good in action. The task is his own obligation in the service of the Good. Judging is not his real function, not his act, but is an accompaniment whereby the surrounding world relates itself to him. Judging is not his activity, because to will the Good in truth is his activity. Yet his suffering is an act of judging, because the surrounding world becomes manifest by the manner in which it lets him suffer; and at the same time by these sufferings he is helped to test himself as to whether it actually is the Good that he wills or whether he himself is caught up in a deception.

Above all, the one, who in truth wills the Good must not be "busy." In quiet patience he must leave it to the Good itself, what reward he shall have, and what he shall accomplish. He dare not allow himself a single word of compromise, not a glance. He dare not ask the slightest relief from the world. He has only to give himself up to the Good and to that thing and to that person that might possibly be helped by him. He is no judge. On the contrary, he is just the opposite, he is the one who is judged. He effects a judgment only in the sense that the surrounding world becomes manifest by how it judges him.

But in this way does he accomplish nothing at all, since he is weighed down with menís opposition, and then gets the worst of the battle? Now in this life indeed no, and in eternity, never. In this life indeed no, for the one who sincerely trusts in God is enthusiastic. He is not like a candle-stub, whose tiny flame goes out before a wind. No, he is like a great fire; a storm cannot quench it! And the flame in his fire is like that one in Greece: water cannot put it out! And even if finally the world does make him suffer, on that account neither the Good nor he has lost -- for to be too far up in the world is most often, as in the ordeal that is called "trial by water," a sign of guilt. To be sure, since the world puts more store by the fashionable than by the truly Good, just on that account in the reckoning of the moment, he will accomplish far less by not giving in, not bargaining, not even making himself comfortable and powerful, by not willing to have profit for himself. But the remembering, the remembering! Let us indeed never forget the remembering, although a person might certainly believe that he would at least be able to forget. And shall not memory be able to remind him of that time when he sneaked away by underhanded means, in order to avoid a decision; of that time when he gave the matter another turn, in order to please men; of that time that he deserted his post, in order to let the storm pass over; of that time he knuckled under, in order to secure an easing off of his painful position; of that time he sought refuge and association with others -- perhaps, as it is called, in order to work all the more effectively for the Goodís victory, that is, in order to make his own position a little less difficult than as though at the midnight hour, somewhat terror-stricken, one stood all alone "with heavily loaded weapons at his dangerous post."( Compare Rosenkranz, Erinnerungen an Karl Daub, p. 24: "So as on sentry duty, at night on a lonely post, perhaps before a powder magazine a man has thoughts that under any other circumstances would be quite impossible." Kierkegaard refers to this same passage again in Fear and Trembling, Collected Works, Vol. III, p. 100.)

Nay, what he accomplishes, and what he does not accomplish, in the sense of the moment, that is not his concern. He always accomplishes this -- that he becomes the friend and lover of memory. He accomplishes this whether he is remembered in the world or not. For this worldís memory is like the moment: a series of moments. Eternityís memory, that he is certain of. When he leaves this world, he leaves nothing behind him, he takes all with him, he loses nothing, he gains all -- for "God is all to him."

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