III. The Problem of Sociality

Nobody wants to be this strenuous thing:
an individual; it demands an effort.
But everywhere services are readily offered through
the phony substitute: a few! Let us get together
and be a gathering, then we can probably manage.
Therein lies mankind's deepest demoralization.

Spiritual superiority only sees the individual.
But, alas, ordinarily we human beings
are sensual and, therefore,
as soon as it is a gathering, the impression changes--
we see something abstract, the crowd,
and we become diflerent.

In giving to den Enkelte and its characteristics as dominant an emphasis as the foregoing chapters indicate he did, S.K. inevitably created a major problem, the problem of sociality. How is man to be understood and handled in his social relationships? If religion is essentially a matter of den Enkelte before God, at what point do "others" come into the picture? Can den Enkelte in any sense join with or be joined to them without jeopardizing his own status as den Enkelte?

Obviously, S.K. will give attention to one type of sociality that is inimical to den Enkelte, a sociality which acts precisely as an escape from or substitute for the strenuous thing of being den Enkelte. Such groupings S.K. named "the crowd"; and his polemic against the crowd and crowd mentality was loud, bitter, and abundant. In one respect he even made it his first task to attack the crowd, for only by dissolving it could he get to individuals with his concept of den Enkelte.3

Within S.K.'s frame of reference, "the crowd" was an absolutely negative concept; it is "the Evil," as he called it,4 the sworn enemy of den Enkelte. And the same negativity was attributed to the corollaries of "the crowd," which are:

  1. "the public";
  2. "the press," i.e. journalism, the instrument through which "the public" both expresses and creates itself;
  3. "the world," in its technical, New Testament sense; and
  4. "the Establishment," which, we shall see, is tantamount to "church" in that its established character is the hallmark of the churchly concept.

S.K. allowed no place at all for crowd sociality; and because of the emphatic and pervasive character of his invective, many students have read him as renouncing all sociality whatever. Martin Buber is the prime example of such an interpreter, and his stature as one of the ranking theologians who best understood S.K. makes his charge all the more serious. It behooves us to give the matter very careful consideration.

Buber opened his essay on S.K. with the following paragraph, which includes what we will contend is a gross misunderstanding:

Only by coming up against the category of the 'Single One' [den Enkelte], and by making it a concept of utmost clarity, did Søren Kierkegaard become the one who presented Christianity as a paradoxical problem for the single 'Christian.' He was able to do this owing to the radical nature of his solitariness. His 'Single One' cannot be understood without his solitariness, which differed in kind from the solitariness of one of the earlier Christian thinkers, such as Augustine or Pascal, whose name one would like to link with his. It is not irrelevant that beside Augustine stood a mother and beside Pascal a sister, who maintained the organic connexion with the world as only a woman as the envoy of elemental life can; whereas the central event of Kierkegaard's life and the core of the crystallization of his thought was the renunciation of Regina Olsen as representing woman and the world.5

And as he continued, Buber pressed this point to the extreme:

This relation [between den Enkelte and God] is an exclusive one, the exclusive one, and this means, according to Kierkegaard, that it is the excluding relation, excluding all others; more precisely, that it is the relation which in virtue of its unique, essential life expels all other relations into the realm of the unessential.6

Kierkegaard does not marry ... because he wants to lead the unbelieving man of his age, who is entangled in the crowd, to becoming single, to the solitary life of faith, to being alone before God.7

This is how Buber read S.K., and it is not extravagant to suggest that one of Buber's motives in writing I and Thou was to correct the solitariness of S.K.'s den Enkelte. Buber himself, in contrast to S.K., would incorporate sociality as an integral aspect of den Enkelte:

God wants us to come to him by means of the Reginas he has created and not by renunciation of them....8

The Single One corresponds to God when he in his human way embraces the bit of the world offered to him as God embraces his creation in his divine way. He realizes the irnage when, as much as he can in a personal way, he says Thou with his being to the beings living around him."9

And his summation reads:

'The Single One' is not the man who has to do with God essentially, and only unessentially with others, who is unconditionally concerned with God and conditionally with the body politic. The Single One is the man for whom the reality of relation with God as an exclusive relation includes and encompasses the possibility of relation with all otherness, and for whom the whole body politic, the reservoir of otherness, offers just enough otherness for him to pass his life with it.10

Quite clearly Buber has chosen the better part--if he has represented S.K.'s part fairly. We contend that he has not. We would not endeavor entirely to absolve S.K. of a certain deficiency of emphasis which at least makes possible the reading Buber gives him. However, we will maintain: first, that a positive doctrine of sociality is not lacking in S.K. Although perhaps insufficiently stressed, it is present as a real, integral, and even necessary part of his concept. Second, although not as well emphasized, the social aspect actually is better structured in S.K. than in Buber. Buber does little more than asseverate that all man-to-man relationships are encompassed in the man-to-God relationship. S.K. analyzed sociality in more detail and made it integral to his thought as one pole of a dialectic.

There is a further distinction in the ways that S.K. and Buber treat sociality; it is subtle and almost impossible to document, but it may be of profound significance nonetheless. Buber starts with man-to-man and man-to-nature relationships and builds them up toward the man-to-God relationship. The man-to-God relationship becomes the consummation and sum of human relationships. Of course, the sum is greater than the parts and ultimately is to be seen as the source of the parts; but basically it is through our experience with other thous that we come to know the Eternal Thou. "God wants us to come to him by means of the Regina: he has created...." And the book I and Thou is organized over precisely this pattern.

It will shortly become evident, however, that S.K.'s thought proceeded conversely. He began with the God relationship and derived all human relationships from it; it is only from God and with the help of God that one can discover his neighbor at all. And S.K.'s approach would seem the more accurate, at least for Christian thought. Actually, S.K. anticipated the possibility of criticism such as Buber's and tried to forestall it:

In spite of everything men ought to have learned about my maieutic carefulness, in addition to proceeding slowly and continually letting it seem as if I knew nothing more, not the next thing--now on the occasion of my new Edifying Discourse they will presumably bawl out that I do not know what comes next, that I know nothing about sociality. The fools! Yet on the other hand I owe it to myself to confess before God that in a certain sense there is some truth in it, only not as men understand it, namely that always when I have first presented one aspect sharply and clearly, then I affirm the validity of the other even more strongly. Now I have the theme of the next book. It will be called Works of Love."11

S.K.'s "confession before God" gets at both the truth and the falsehood of Buber's reading. Kierkegaard's life was not socially normal. As a genius in a provincial town he was bound to feel somewhat isolated; as a melancholy genius it was inevitable that he live as one apart. It is true that he never married, that he never (at least alter he broke with his father) had any truly intimate companions, that he never belonged to any group that afforded him first-hand experience of true Gemeinschaft. This personal deficiency undoubtedly is one reason why S.K. did not give more attention and emphasis to a doctrine of sociality, although an equally valid explanation could be that the need of his age was first for a concept of individuality before a social emphasis could be properly understood. Nevertheless, it is almost certainly this personal deficiency that S.K. meant as being confessed before God.

But even this deficiency ought not be exaggerated; there are some facts that stand on the other side. Particularly as a young man, S.K. was something of a social butterfly. He moved in the top circles of Copenhagen society; as a wit and bon vivant, his presence was valued on social occasions; he was a connoisseur of the theater, music hall, and dinner table. Throughout his life he maintained these connections to some extent and was an acquaintance of the leading social, civic, and religious figures of Denmark. Also, at least until the time that the Corsair incident drove people away from him, S.K. cultivated many speaking friendships with the common people on the street. He made it a point to converse with, counsel with, and offer help to servants, peasants, workingmen, people from any and all classes of society. And although S.K. was not a husband and father, he was an uncle par excellence; his nieces and nephews knew him as an especially loving and interesting friend of children. The people who actually rubbed shoulders with S.K. would be hard put to recognize Buber's stark description of one who had renounced all bonds with the world. It is true that none of these relationships were of the deepest, most intimate sort, yet it is grossly unfair to make S.K. out as simply and obviously a "solitary."

But such evidence quite aside, it is even more unwarranted to use S.K.'s personal life as the key for interpreting his thought, particularly when S.K. made it clear that he was well aware of his personal abnormalities and was striving continually to compensate for them. Above all, S.K.'s renunciation of Regina is in no sense to be understood as a symbol of what S.K. required of den Enkelte; whatever its meaning, that break was of purely personal significance, appertaining to Søren Kierkegaard and to Søren Kierkegaard alone. Certainly it was a renunciation of Søren Kierkegaard's marriage but not by that token a renunciation of marriage per se. Fear and Trembling was the book most directly molded by the Regina incident, in which S.K. meditated on his renunciation under the figure of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, but the sacrifice is there presented as the absolutely exceptional demand, in deliberate contradistinction to universal obligation. Kierkegaard did not break with Regina as a representation "in concrete biography of the renunciation of an essential relation to the world as that which hinders being alone before God," and most certainly he did not then "express it as an imperative: let everyone do so."12

Because it was Buber who initiated a contrast between S.K. and Augustine, perhaps we are justified in tracing the comparison more closely. The parallel is actually much nearer than Buber guessed and the conclusion quite different from that at which he arrived. The counterpart of Monica (Augustine's mother) is not Regina but S.K.'s father Michael. In both cases there was a deeply devout parent "praying" a prodigal son back to Christianity. In both cases there was a joyous reconciliation with God and with the parent in God-Augustine at the age of thirty-three years, S.K. twenty-five. In both cases the parent died but very shortly after the reconciliation took place. In both cases the sons entered their illustrious careers some three or four years after their "conversions" (Augustine did not have a mother standing beside him during his career as a Christian). In both cases the conversion was accompanied by the "renunciation" of women of intimate association. Before his conversion Augustine had sent away the mistress with whom he had lived for some years and by whom he had had a son--this in preparation for a respectable marriage. At the time of his Conversion Augustine sent away a second mistress--this in preparation for Christian celibacy. S.K. both made and broke his engagement to Regina within approximately a three year period following his conversion.

Both "renounced" women; the difference in the way they did this is instructive, although the instruction is not at all what Buber suggests. Augustine left his two mistresses in the interest of achieving his own sainthood, the first in order to become acceptable in the eyes of men, the second in the eyes of God. In his Confessions Augustine showed extreme concern over his own sinfulness and his desire for holiness, but he showed nothing of a comparable concern over his responsibility to these women with whom he had loved and lived, no particular concern over what happened to them, over what his renunciation did to them.

With S.K. the case was very different. Although it probably never will be made completely clear just why S.K. felt that it was God's will for him to break his engagement, there is no evidence that he understood it as a way of enhancing his own saintliness; it is clear that he was as much or more concerned for Regina as for himself, that the break was as much for her sake as for his own. Consequently S.K. was quite willing to play the role of devil rather than saint in order to ease her suffering; and one gets the feeling that he actually would have been willing to have been lost in order to ensure her salvation.

There were, of course, differences of circumstance, social mores, et al., between the action of Augustine and S.K., and we have no intention of running down Augustine. But completely contrary to Buber, if with either man the event was the crystallization of a sweeping and doctrinaire renunciation of "women and the world," patently it was more so with Augustine than with S.K.

However, the fundamental error of those who would interpret den Enkelte as being entirely solitary is the misimpression that S.K.'s fulminations against "the crowd" necessarily included all sociality. A more precise view of his terminology will enable us to correct this misunderstanding and will open to us new vistas of his thought.

The key--which is always the one to try with S.K.--is dialectic. And regarding this problem of sociality, we find precisely the same pattern as was described earlier in connection with "inwardness and obedience," "faith and works." In this instance the relationships are somewhat more complex, and a diagram may help clarify the discussion.

S.K.'s 'sociality' dialectic

The first pole of the dialectic is represented at the left. Den Enkelte, of course, is the positive, religious concept of individualism as affirmed and promoted by S.K. The negative perversion, the contradictory--which is to be utterly rejected--is autonomous, self-asserting "individualism" (which S.K. identified and rejected as being of the Aesthetic Stage). The other pole of the dialectic is represented at the right; it includes all sociality, any and all human associations for whatever purpose, constituted in whatever mode, on whatever principle. S.K. saw, however, that these can and should he divided into two distinct types. One social type is The World, using that term in the broadest possible sense to cover all associations except those of the church. The other social type is The Church, using that term also in the broadest possible sense to cover all associations of a religious nature. It would be wholly accurate to term these as Secular Sociality and Religious Sociality--except for the implication that therefore "secular" relationships lie outside the purview of religion. S.K. contended that one's life in the World must be lived before God just as certainly as his life in the Church; there is no distinction on this score. The distinction is, rather, that whereas the Church is constituted of man-to-man relationships for the sake of God, the World is constituted of man-to-man relationships for the sake of man; the primary orientation of the Church is vertical, that of the World, horizontal; a Christian's relationships of the World are derived from his prior relationship to God, whereas his relationships of the Church exist for the sake of his relationship to God.

Religious and secular sociality are different enough to call for individual treatment, and each forms its own distinct dialectic with den Enkelte. Under The World, the positive which S.K. affirmed consists of "The Simple Life," dealing with the world of nature and things, and "Neighbor Love," dealing with the human world of other persons. Opposed to this is the negative, the perversion, which is "Worldliness," or "Conformity to the World." The concept "crowd" includes the negative socialities of both the secular and the religious sphere; "crowd mentality" is what S.K. found to be the distinctive feature both of the World and the Establishment.

Admittedly, we have encountered terminological difficulty at this point. The word "world" properly can he used with three mutually exclusive meanings. In the diagram, "the world" is an inclusive, nonevaluational term, although it is common usage thus to divide all of life between the Church and the World. But in the positive and the negative items subsumed under this "world" are two more "worlds" which complicate the situation no end. Here is found the contradiction between "the world" (positive) which God so loved that he gave his only Son (John 3:16) and "the world" (negative) which for us to love is proof that the love of the Father is not in us (1 John 2:15). These two "worlds" lie in even closer proximity in the sectarian shibboleth derived from John 17:16 and 18, i.e. "in the world but not of the world." "In the world" cannot mean merely "physically extant"; that would be too obvious to be significant; a Christian is not called to live in the world in this sense--he cannot help himself. No, the world the Christian is to be "in" is the world of "other people." The apostle who in one chapter of his epistle exhorted Christians not to love the world exhorted them in the succeeding chapter to love everyone in the world (1 John 2-3). And to love this world of people--an obligation which S.K. took very seriously--is, of course, to be related to them, to be a part of it.

On the other hand, the world which the Christian is not to be "of" is the world of goals and values as determined by the secular society which is not oriented toward the will of God. In short, one can love, accept, and identify with those who make up society without loving, accepting, or identifying with the standards of that society. The Christian can reject the evaluation men put upon things, thus rejecting both "the things of this world" and the possibility of being "a man of the world," without rejecting either "the world of things" or "the world of men." The distinction is a rather easy one to understand--a very difficult one to live. But because human language is not precise, S.K. explicitly could renounce and denounce the world, Martin Buber could come along later and accuse S.K. of renouncing the world, and yet what Buber says can be a grave misunderstanding. We intend to show that S.K.'s strictures against "the world" are an instance of condemning only crowd sociality and thus by no means should be taken to imply solitariness and the rejection of all sociality.

Likewise, under the heading The Church, the positive is "the Gemeinde" and the rejected negative is "the Establishment." Also, as above, terminological confusion again shows itself. The "church" heading is a very broad and entirely neutral concept. The negative "church" is used in a "churchly" sense, as over against "sect." But in another sense, the positive Gemeinde is just as validly a church as any of the "churches" are.

The arrows on the chart illustrate the point that we have made earlier, that the dialectic relationship holds only between complementary positives; the intention is that the negatives be cancelled and obliterated.

There is a further observation regarding the dialectic pattern that holds equally true with our earlier examples as well as with this one. A real source of the power and efficacy of a dialectic lies in the fact that the positive of one pole stands precisely as the preventative or corrective of the negative of the opposite pole. Thus in the present instance a concept of den Enkelte is the cure for crowd mentality; and simple living, neighbor love, and Gemeinschaft are the cures for autonomous pretension. And thus in the earlier case obedience is the cure for either hiddenness or superficial emotionalism; and inwardness is the cure for works-righteousness.

Finally, the chart plots the sequence for this portion of our study. The present chapter has set the problem; Chapter VIII will treat the positions of S.K. and the Brethren regarding "world-negative"; Chapter IX, "world-positive"; Chapter X, "church-negative"; and Chapter XI, "church-positive. " Each chapter should be read in relation to the pattern as a whole.

Copyright (c) 1968