Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Intoxicated by delight

I do not mean to denigrate Soren Kierkegaard. The sheer volume of his writing is a worthy epitaph, and the fierce purity of his ethics is reason enough for Christians and non-Christians to attend to what he has to say. But that stern, complex man has never been my cup of tea. Early on I was drawn more firmly to Kierkegaard's almost exact contemporary, another solitary philosopher with a fierce moral sensitivity, Henry David Thoreau. There are many similarities between these two journal-keeping bachelors who died young, but differences are sharp and fundamental. Listen to Kierkegaard on immortality, from his journal for 1839:
The principal problem with respect to the question of the immortality of the soul will probably center more upon the nature of immortality than upon immortality itself, specifically, whether at death the soul may be considered as tightly embracing the contents of its action or as dissolved in the divine all. This is so remote from signifying that the soul thereby is surrendered that within ourselves we can perceive analogies to this, in which the purely subjective consciousness walks in the shadow ahead of a far more objective consciousness and in which existence gains a transparency, and the question is still whether or not these moments are not of a higher kind than the moments of action.
What that means, I have no idea. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says "faith begins where thinking leaves off," and it seems to me in the passage above thinking has a loose grip on reality.

At the same age, Thoreau would write in his journal:
I have just heard the flicker among the oaks on the hillside ushering in a new dynasty. It is the age and youth of time. Why did Nature set this lure for sickly mortals? Eternity could not begin with more security and momentousness than the spring. The summer's eternity is reestablished by this note. All sights and sounds are seen and heard both in time and eternity. And when the eternity of any sight or sound strikes the eye or ear, they are intoxicated with delight.
It is a matter of taste, I suppose. Some will live their lives with their attention fixed on the hereafter. Others listen for the flicker's note in the distant oaks.