“What those ancient Greeks (who also had some understanding of philosophy) regarded as a task for a whole lifetime, seeing that dexterity in doubting is not acquired in a few days or weeks, what the veteran combatant attained when he had preserved the equilibrium of doubt through all the pitfalls he encountered, who intrepidly denied the certainty of sense-perception and the certainty of the processes of thought, incorrigibly defied the apprehensions of self-love and the insinuations of sympathy–that is where everybody begins in our time.
In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be. . .going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days of weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . .except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.
The present writer is nothing of a philosopher, he has not understood the System, does not know whether it actually exists, whether it is completed; already he has enough for his weak head in the thought of what a prodigious head everybody in our day must have, since everybody has such a prodigious thought. Even though one were capable of converting the whole content of faith into the form of a concept, it does not follow that one has adequately conceived faith and understands how one got into it, or how it got into one.”
– Soren Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio), excerpt from the Preface of Fear And Trembling.
This sarcastic little preface starts one of the key works of existentialism, a book that champions faith. It turns out that Kierkegaard is, contrary to his claims, capable of presenting very dense philosophical concepts. His goal in this preface seems to be to validate self-doubt in a culture of self-presumption and faith in a culture that assumes it can discover all that there is to know. Doubt and faith exist as check and balance that should last a lifetime, keeping us honest about the nature of the things we believe and helping us to more deeply trust what we have recognized as reliable truth.
The interesting point here is that “our day” for Kierkegaard was the early 1840’s. It is sometimes hard to remember that the troubled ideas of a modern age brimming with scientific discovery are not new. Just because we are only recently making rampant “discoveries for discovery’s sake” does not mean we are the first or second or fifth generation to assume we can get somewhere based on discoveries alone. Humanity has eternally presumed and desired a mysterious completion of (or in) discovery rather than faith in anything. But isn’t that a form of faith in scientific discovery?
Kierkegaard is humble enough to assume that he will never be able to Systematize existence. Just as he calls our implicit faith in sensory-perception and process-of-thought into question, he questions whether faith itself, even if we claim to understand what it entails, can be pulled out and set aside from ration.
When I read this piece I immediately think about how ready we are to hurl a slew of random statistics and scientific studies at problematic points to prove our emotionally-based opinions. There are studies and statistics available to validate nearly every opposing viewpoint available to choose from today; so much so that, though we haven’t created self-presumption and human omnipotence, our generation has nearly perfected the use of them.
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