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 14: What Then Must I Do? Occupation and Vocation: Mean: and End
This was the principal question. For as only one thing is necessary, and as the theme of the talk is the willing of only one thing: hence the consciousness before God of one’s eternal responsibility to be an individual is that one thing necessary. The talk now asks further, "What is your occupation in life?" The talk does not ask inquisitively about whether it is great or mean, whether you are a king or only a laborer. It does not ask, after the fashion of business, whether you earn a great deal of money or are building up great prestige for yourself. The crowd inquires and talks of these things. But whether your occupation is great or mean, is it of such a kind that you dare think of it together with the responsibility of eternity? Is it of such a kind that you dare to acknowledge it at this moment or at any time? Suppose that something terrible happened; suppose that the city in which you live suddenly perished like those cities in the far south, and everything came to rest, each one standing in his once-chosen occupation. But suppose this happened without the excuse of "being in practical harmony with the commonly accepted customs of his age," the excuse pronounced by a later generation, in order to shield you from disgrace! Or what is still more serious, suppose one of the most eminent dead, one whose memory the masses keep green, as is their custom, by noisy festivities and by shouting; suppose such a one should come to you. Suppose he visited you and that you there before him, before his piercing gaze, dared continue in your present occupation! Are you not used to thoughts of this kind? It is in just such a way that the transfigured one might well wish to serve after death: by visiting the individual. For it must certainly fill them with disgust if, in their blessed dwelling place, they should become aware that a frivolous crowd treats the transfigured dead as only a living fool could wish to be treated: paying them honor by noisemaking and hand-clapping. Do not think, that the transfigured one has become an aristocrat. On the contrary, he has become even more humble, more humanly sympathetic with each man. Hence when, like a superior official, he travels on his visits to individuals, he will not reject the meanest occupation, if it is truly honorable. Oh, in eternity where he dwells, all trivial differences are forgotten. But the transfigured one, like eternity, does not desire the crowd. He desires the individual. On that account, if you should ever be almost ashamed of your mean occupation, because, among the world’s distinctions, it is so mean, the transfigured one’s visit to you as an individual will give you the courage of frankness. The transfigured one’s visit to you as an individual will give you that courage of frankness -- but what am I speaking of -- and if you actively consider the occasion of this talk, then you will stand as an individual before a still more exalted one who, none the less, thinks still more humanly -- about the meanness of the occupation, but also infinitely more purely about which occupation is truly honorable.
In your occupation, what is your attitude of mind? And how do you carry out your occupation? Have you made up your own mind that your occupation is your real calling so that you do not have to make explanation hinge on the result, maintaining that it was not your real calling if the results are not favorable, if your efforts do not succeed? Alas, such fickleness weakens a man immeasurably. Therefore persevere. By God’s help and by your own faithfulness something good will come from the unpromising beginning. For there are beginnings everywhere, and there are good beginnings, where you begin with God; and no day is the wrong one to begin upon -- not even an unpromising one, if you begin with God.
Or have you let yourself be deceived into regarding something as your calling because it turned out well, because it brought immediate success, perhaps even remarkable success? Alas, it is actually said in the world, often enough even by those who think they speak piously: "The proof that a man’s occupation is the right one is that he is able to practice it." As if, because a man could so harden his heart that he could placidly practice all manner of cruelty, then this was what he ought to do. As if, because this brazen one could find the most hideous atrocity in his heart, and was able to carry it out, then this was the thing he ought to do. No, an unfavorable result can no more disprove the faithful man’s conviction of what his calling should be, than a favorable result can of itself prove that he is in his proper calling.
Are you of one mind about the manner in which you will carry out your occupation, or is your mind continually divided because you wish to be in harmony with the crowd? Do you stand firmly behind your offer, not obstinately, not sullenly, but eternally concerned; do you continue unchanged to bid for the same thing and continue in your wish to buy the same thing even though the terms have been altered in a number of respects? Do you think that the Good is no different from gold, that it can be bought too dearly? Is there any profit you could not do without for the sake of the Good, any distinction you could not give up, any relation you could not renounce? Is there any stamp of approval from above that is any more important than this to you or perhaps some approbation from below? If you think that the Good must be bought at any price, then will you become envious when you see others buying for a lower price, that which you had to buy so dearly -- but which, and do not forget this, is worth any price? If your endeavor succeeds, are you then conscious that you are an unprofitable servant; so that the reward does not affect you, as though you became more useful because you got a reward; and adversity does not affect you, since it merely expresses, what you shamefacedly will admit -- that you have no right to claim anything? Hide nothing away suspiciously in your soul as though you still wished that it had happened differently, so that you might be able to pounce upon the reward as if it were prey, might be able to assume credit for it, might be able to point to it; as though you wished that adversity did not exist because it constrains the selfish thing in you that, even though repressed, foolishly makes you imagine that if you had luck with you, then you might do something for the Good, something that was worth talking about. Never forget that the devout wise man wishes no stroke of adversity to be taken away when it comes his way, because he cannot know whether or not it may be good for him. Never forget that the devout wise man wins his most beautiful of all victories, when the powerful one who had persecuted him wishes, so to speak, to release him, and the wise man replies: "I cannot unconditionally wish to be released, for I cannot know for certain that the persecution might not be good for me." Do you do good only out of fear of punishment, so that you scowl, even when you will the Good, so that in your dreams at night, you wish away the punishment and to that extent also the Good, and in your dreams by day imagine that one can with a slavish mind serve the Good? Oh, the Good is no difficult master, that wills one thing today, and another tomorrow. The Good always wishes one and the same thing. But it reckons with exactness and can be that which demands sincerity and can see whether it is present!
And now the means that you use. What means do you use in order to carry out your occupation? Are the means as important to you as the end, wholly as important? Otherwise it is impossible for you to will only one thing, for in that case the irresponsible, the frivolous, the self-seeking, and the heterogeneous means would flow in between in confusing and corrupting fashion. Eternally speaking, there is only one means and there is only one end: the means and the end are one and the same thing. There is only one end: the genuine Good; and only one means: this, to be willing only to use those means which genuinely are good -- but the genuine Good is precisely the end. In time and on earth one distinguishes between the two and considers that the end is more important than the means. One thinks that the end is the main thing and demands of one who is striving that he reach the end. He need not be so particular about the means. Yet this is not so, and to gain an end in this fashion is an unholy act of impatience. In the judgment of eternity the relation between the end and the means is rather the reverse of this.
If a man sets himself a goal for his endeavor here in this life, and he fails to reach it, then, in the judgment of eternity, it is quite possible that he may be blameless. Yes, he may even be worthy of praise. He might have been prevented by death, or by an adversity that is beyond his control: in which case he is entirely without blame. He might even have been prevented from reaching the goal just by being unwilling to use any other means than those which the judgment of eternity permits. In which case by his very renunciation of the impatience of passion and the inventions of cleverness, he is even worthy of praise. He is not, therefore, eternally responsible for whether he reaches his goal within this world of time. But without exception, he is eternally responsible for the kind of means he uses. And when he will only use or only uses those means which are genuinely good, then, in the judgment of eternity, he is at the goal. If reaching the goal should be the excuse and the defense for the use of illicit or questionable means -- alas, suppose he should die tomorrow. Then the clever one would be caught in his own folly. He had used illicit means, and he died before reaching the goal. For reaching the goal comes at the conclusion; but using the means comes at the beginning. Reaching the goal is like hitting the mark with his shot; but using the means is like taking aim. And certainly the aim is a more reliable indication of the marksman’s goal than the spot the shot strikes. For it is possible for a shot to hit the mark by accident. The marksman may also be blameless if the shell does not go off. But no irregularities of the aim are permissible. To the temporal and earthly passion the end is unconditionally more important than the means. On that very account, it is the passionate one’s torment, which if carried to its height must indeed make him sleepless and then insane, namely, that he has no control over time, and that he continually arrives too late, even if it was by merely half an hour. And what is still worse, since earthly passion is the rule, it can truthfully be said, that it is not wisdom which saves the worst ones from going insane, but indolence. On the other hand, the blessed comfort of the Eternal is like a refreshing sleep, is like "the cold of snow in the time of harvest" (Proverbs 25:13.) to the one who wills the Eternal. He whose means are invariably just as important as the end, never comes too late. Eternity is not curious and impatient as to what the outcome in this world of time will be. It is just because of this that the means are without exception as important as the end. To earthly and worldly passion, this observation must seem shocking and paralyzing. To it conscience must seem the most paralyzing thing of all. For conscience is indeed "a blushing innocent spirit that sets up a tumult in a man’s breast and fills him with difficulties" just because to conscience the means are without exception as important as the end.
Therefore, my listeners, in the carrying out of your occupation, which we have assumed to be something good and honorable, are the means without exception as important to you as the end? Or have your thoughts become giddy until the greatness of the goal made you look upon illicit means as of negligible importance? Alas, this state of giddiness is to be found least of all in eternity, for eternity is clear and transparent! Do you think that the greatness of an achievement makes it unnecessary for it to ask about a trivial wrong, that is, do you think that a wrong might exist which would be something of no significance, although as an obligation it is infinitely more important than the greatest achievement! Do you think that it is immaterial the way in which a masterpiece is produced? Well, perhaps that might hold for a masterpiece. But do you think that the master dares to be unconcerned about whether he piously consecrates his powers in holy service, or whether by despair in the midst of glittering sins he simply produces -- a masterpiece?
And if the thought does not make you giddy, if you are sober and alert, are you particular in every respect in your use of the means? If a youth (and he is also a blushing and innocent spirit) should turn to you, do you dare without exception to let him know all? In your whole conduct is there not something, yes, how shall I express it, I could describe it at length but I would rather put it briefly in this fashion: is there not something, of which you could be fairly certain that the older people and those of your own age would almost admire for its cleverness and ingenuity if you told them of it, but which, strangely enough, a youth would blush over (not over your being so clever, but over your not being big enough to despise acting so cleverly)? Perhaps it is by flattery that you had won over this person and that, by concealing something, won this or that advantage, by a little untruth made a glittering trade, by a false union promoted your cause. Perhaps you had won the victory by allying yourself with admiration based upon a misunderstanding, had won riches and power by clever scheming to enter into the smartest combination. In your whole conduct, open and secret, is there not something that you would not for any price consent to let a youth discover (and it is beautiful that you love the youth so much and wish to guard his purity!)? Is there not something -- against yourself -- that you can still be willing to admit yourself to be guilty of? Something that you would not for any price confide to a youth? Yet, as I have told you, if you actively consider the occasion of this talk, then you stand before a higher judge, who judges infinitely more purely than the purest innocence of youth; a judge, that you will not out of indulgence let into the secret of your guilt, for He already knows you.
And what is your attitude toward others? Are you at one with all -- by willing only one thing? Or do you contentiously belong to a party, or is your hand raised against every man and every man’s hand raised against you? Do you wish for all others what you wish for yourself, or do you desire the highest thing of all for you and yours, or do you desire that that which you and yours desire shall be the highest thing of all? Do you do unto others what you will that they should do unto you -- by willing only one thing? For this will is the eternal order that governs all things, that brings you into union with the dead, and with the men whom you never see, with foreign people whose language and customs you do not know, with all men upon the whole earth, who are related to each other by blood and eternally related to the Divine by eternity’s task of willing only one thing. Do you wish, that there should be another law for you and yours than for the others? Do you wish to find your consolation in something other than that in which each man without exception may and shall find consolation?
Suppose that sometime a king and a beggar and a man like yourself should come to you. In their presence would you dare frankly to confess that that which you desire in the world, in which you sought your consolation, certain that the king in his majesty would not despise you even though you were a man of inferior rank; certain that the beggar would not go away envious that he could not have the same consolation; certain that the man like yourself would be pleased by your frankness? Alas, there is something in the world called clannishness. It is a dangerous thing because all clannishness is divisive. It is divisive when clannishness shuts out the common citizen, and when it shuts out the nobleborn, and when it shuts out the civil servant. It is divisive when it shuts out the king, and when it shuts out the beggar, and when it shuts out the wise man, and when it shuts out the simple soul. For all clannishness is the enemy of universal humanity. But to will only one thing, genuinely to will the Good, as an individual, to will to hold fast to God, which things each person without exception is capable of doing, this is what unites. And if you sat in a lonely prison far from all men, or if you were placed out upon a desert island with only animals for company, if you genuinely will the Good, if you hold fast to God, then you are in unity with all men. And if the terrible thing happened (for religious edification should not, like a woman’s finery be intended for a splendid moment) that you were buried alive, if, as you awakened in the coffin you seized upon your accustomed consolation, then even in this lonely torment, you would be in unity with all men. Is this your present attitude? Have you no special privilege, no special talent, none of life’s special favors that, either separately or in company with some others, vanity has led you to take, so that you could console yourself by means of it, and that makes you dare not tell the uninitiated the source of your consolation? Thus you give alms to the poor man so that he can console himself, but treacherously you have a further consolation for yourself. To be sure, you give a consolation for poverty, but you console yourself by the fact that your wealth assures you against ever becoming poor. You help to set the simple ones right, but treacherously you have a further consolation for yourself; your talent is so outstanding, that it could never happen that when you awakened tomorrow you were the stupidest person in all the land. You wish to instruct the youth, but you do not have the heart to take him into your confidence, because you have a secret of your own, because you are a traitor who deceived youth as to what was the highest thing of all by your secret, and deceived yourself as to what was the highest thing of all -- by your secret!
And now a question concerning the sufferer. It is not a question of the state of his health. No, the talk is not sympathetic in this respect. Oh, but if you actively consider the occasion of this talk, then by being in the presence of God you would raise yourself above human sympathy. Then you would no longer pine wretchedly for sympathy. For although it happens all too seldom, if this could properly be proved to you, as you may well wish that it might, then with cheerful frankness you could give thanks for it. You would not give thanks bent over like a beggar -- God would prevent that. And if sympathy is denied you, if a man is afraid, and in a selfish and cowardly manner avoids, yes, almost loathes you because he does not dare to think of your suffering, then you should be able to do without sympathy. You should not feel bitter over this lack of sympathy -- God will take care of that. The talk asks you then, or you ask yourselves by means of the talk, whether you now live in such a way that you truthfully will only one thing. It is not the intention of the talk to presume to judge of this, far from it. The talk judges no one. Even the Holy Scriptures have an especially tender love for the unfortunate ones. Indeed it is particularly appropriate for a devotional meditation to concern itself principally with the sufferer, just as one in the world addresses the powerful man, the distinguished man. The talk does not ask inquisitively and busily about the name of your particular suffering, about how many years it has continued, about what the doctor or the pastor thinks, how much earthly hope they give you. Alas, out of vanity, sufferings, too, can in this fashion be taken as a mark of distinction that draws the attention of others to oneself.
So on that account, see that you question yourself by means of the talk. If the sufferer talks to himself in private, asks himself which kind of life he leads, whether he truthfully wills only one thing: then he is not tempted to relate in detail what he himself knows best of all, he is not tempted to compare. For all comparison injures. Yes, it is evil. Do you at present genuinely will only one thing? You know that if the only reason you will but one thing is that by this, and by this alone, you will be set free from suffering, then you do not genuinely will but one thing. But even if you could so dull yourself that the wish would die out, so that you could sever the wish’s painful tie with that happier sense of being a man, of loving to live, of loving to be a happy one, still you would fail to will only one thing. What at present is your condition in suffering? The doctor and the pastor ask about your health, but eternity makes you responsible for your condition. Is it so that it does not frivolously or superstitiously fluctuate in a fever of impatience? Is it so that it is not a dismally sluggish painlessness? Or is it so that you are willing to suffer all and let the Eternal comfort you? As time goes by, how does your condition change? Did you begin well perhaps but become more and more impatient? Or perhaps you were impatient at the beginning, but learned patience from what you suffered? Alas, perhaps year after year your suffering remained unchanged, and if it did change, then its description would be a matter for the doctor or the pastor. Alas, perhaps the unaltered monotony of the suffering seems to you like a creeping death. But while the doctor and the pastor and your friend know of no change to speak of, yet the talk asks you whether under the pressure of the unchanged monotony an infinite change is taking place. Not a change in the suffering (for even if it is changed, it can only be a finite change), but in you, an infinite change in you from good to better. If the talk were to characterize your altered condition through the years, would it dare use the words of the Apostle and say of your life of unaltered suffering: "Suffering taught him patience, patience taught him experience, experience taught him hope?"(Romans 5:3-4.) Would the talk dare say at your grave: "He won that hope that shall never be put to shame"? At your grave, instead of mumbling a prayer of thanks that the sufferer is dead as was described earlier, would the talk dare freely and wholeheartedly to say, as though at a hero’s grave, "The content of his life was suffering, yet his life has put many to shame"? For in eternity there will be as little asked about your suffering as about the king’s purple, precisely as little. In eternity you as an individual will only be asked about your faith and about your faithfulness. There will be absolutely no asking about whether you were entrusted with much or little, whether you were given many talents of silver to work with or whether you were given a hundred-pound weight to carry. But you will be asked only about your faith and about your faithfulness. In the world of time one asks in other terms. Here one inquires especially about how high a command a man has, and when it is a very high one, then one forgets in one’s worldly astonishment to ask after his faithfulness. But if it is very little, then one prefers to hear nothing at all about him, neither about his burden nor his faithfulness. Eternity asks solely about faithfulness, and with equal earnestness it asks this of the king and of the most wretched of all sufferers. It is no excuse to be entrusted with little, nor is it any answer to the question that asks exclusively about faithfulness, the question, which in the eternal mercy knows that sufferings can tempt a man, but knows, too, that they can be a guide. For "sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the countenance, the heart is made better" (Ecclesiastes 7:3). This is the change that eternity asks about, not about the unchangeableness of the suffering. This is what eternity asks; and if you yourself actively consider the occasion of this talk, then you will ask yourself about this matter. If the change has not taken place, then this question of whether it has truthfully been done will indeed be helpful to you in bringing about the change. For human sympathy, no matter how painstakingly it inquires about you, cannot by all its questioning alter the fixed character of the suffering. Eternity’s question, if you put it truthfully to yourself before God, contains the possibility of change. But I am talking almost as if I meant to edify you. Yet out of respect for you, the talk would be embarrassed to press this question upon you. You yourself know best of all, that if you put this question, then you must render an account of whether you are living in this way at present.