KSRK: The Existence Spheres … and Repentance

There are three existence-spheres: the aesthetic, the ethical, the religious. The metaphysical is abstraction, there is no man who exists metaphysically. The metaphysical, ontology, is but does not exist; for when it exists it is in the aesthetic, in the ethical, in the religious, and when it is it is the abstraction of or the prius for the aesthetic, the ethical, the religious. The ethical sphere is only a transitional sphere, and hence its highest expression is repentance as negative action. The aesthetic sphere is that of immediacy, the ethical is that of requirement (and this requirement is so infinite that the individual always goes bankrupt), the religious sphere is that of fulfilment, but note, not such a fulfilment as when one fills a cane or a bag with gold, for repentance has made infinite room, and hence the religious contradiction: at the same time to lie upon seventy thousand fathoms of water and yet be joyful.

Inasmuch as the ethical sphere is a transitional sphere (which however one does not pass through once for all), and as repentance is its highest expression, repentance is also the most dialectic thing. So no wonder one fears it, for give it a finger and it takes the whole hand. As Jehovah in the Old Testament visits iniquities of the fathers upon the children in subsequent generations, so does repentance go constantly further back surmising objects for its investigation. In repentance is the tug of this movement, and for that reason the movement is reversed. The tug signifies precisely that the difference between the aesthetic and the religious is that between the inward and the outward. This infinitely annihilating power of repentance one can best perceive in the fact that it is sympathetically dialectic. One seldom gives heed to this. I would not speak here of such pitiable instances as that of wanting to repent of a single act and then be a fine fellow again, or wanting to have done it and to have people believe one’s assertion to this effect, notwithstanding every such utterance is proof sufficient that the resolver, the assertor, the believer have no conception of what repentance means. But even more competent treatises on repentance overlook its dialectic side in the direction of sympathy. An example to illustrate this. A gambler is brought to a halt, repentance seizes him, he gives up all gambling; notwithstanding he was close to the abyss, repentance holds him back, it seems to succeed, and now while he is thus living in retirement, possibly saved, he sees one day that they have dragged up from the Seine a dead man, a gambler such as he had been, and this gambler had nevertheless, as he knew, striven against his vice, had fought a desperate fight to resist his inclination. But my gambler had loved this man, not because he too was a gambler, but because he was a better man. What then? There is no use in consulting romances and novels, but even a religious orator would perhaps break off my narrative a little earlier and let it end with my gambler going home shocked by the sight and thanking God for his own salvation. Halt! We should first have a little explanation, a judgment pronounce upon the other man. Every existence which is not devoid of thought is eo ipso engaged indirectly in passing judgment. If the other had been a hardened sinner, my man might well conclude that he did not want to be saved. But the other man was not that. Now my gambler is a man who has understood the old saying, de te narratur fabula [the tale is told of you], he is no modern fool who believes that everyone should court the objective and monstrous task of being able to patter something which applies to the whole human race, only not to himself. So then, what judgment shall he pronounce? For he cannot forbear to pass judgment, this de te is for him the most sacred law of existence because it is the covenant of humanity. If a religious orator, who to make up for the lack of ability to think is able at least to prate, were to be so deeply moved by human sympathy that he wished to help him with half-categories, my gambler is mature enough to see through the delusion–so has to pass judgment with the humble expression of the doctrine of predestination (for the proud expression has its place in the aesthetic with spurious religious gilding) if he has hope for his own salvation. He who has no sympathy but has hydrophobia finds it of course unreasonable to take another man’s fate so much to heart; but not to do so is unsympathetic, and it is guiltless only insofar as the reason for it is stupidity. Existence after all must have a law, the ethical world order is not a hurly-burly where one comes out well from the maddest enterprise, the other badly from the best. But now for the judgment. It is not meant here of course that he is censoriously inclined and feels compelled to condemn as a hen is to lay eggs. But he cannot himself be saved by an accident, that is mere thoughtlessness, and if he says of the other that he sank in spite of his good will, then he himself sinks; and if he says that the other did not want to be saved, then he shudders, because after all he saw the good in him, and because this would seem as though he mad himself out a better man.

S. Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, Lowrie translation, p. 430-2.

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