The Temptation of Monasticism Is To Betray ‘The Ethical’

1,

“The rigorous [monastic] ascent to God toward impassibility has been replaced by the very passionate and personal approach to truth whereby the person of faith, by virtue of the absurd, finds himself before Christ.”

Thus does Kierkegaard sum up the way of passion that is necessary for witnessing to Christ with one’s heart in this ‘vale of tears’..

In his first book, ‘Either/Or’, Kierkegaard has two characters debating three ways of life, the Aesthetic, [or First Love], the Ethical, and the Religious.

[1] “He who chooses himself ethically has himself as his task” [p 262].

[2] “The ethical always consists in the consciousness of wanting to do the good” [p 269].

No law can command us to love. Love cannot be compelled in any manner. It is free. But this means that ‘doing the good’ comes from, is motivated by, is driven and inspired from, love.

Thus the Ethical means assuming responsibility for the world and all things, beings, persons, who sail in its frail ship over stormy seas. This is not love as strong liking, or potent attraction, to something that benefits, or enhances, the person, as in the yearning of Eros.. It is more ‘sober’ and adult, like a heavy load you shoulder and thus a challenge you work through. In the Ethical, we ‘face up’ to the existential situation in which love must operate, and commit to its journey and fight through time to change the world. There is a generous and brave ‘stand’ taken in the Ethical, out of love for the world, to use love to do good despite the pervasiveness of evil, to do good despite severe existential difficulty.

In just this way, Kierkegaard portrays Marriage as more Daemonically wounded and hence more passionate than First Love. “Love is devotion, but devotion is only possible when I go out of myself” [p 111]. This is the real ex-stasis of passion, a self-transcending action, not the bliss of Eros, a self-transcending feeling.

Kierkegaard’s ‘Ethical’ resembles ancient Jewish Righteousness. A Righteous man, or woman, cannot just obey the Mosaic Law. Such a person is called to love this fraught world, this passing life, this imperiled existence, so much that they want to do good for it, want to resist the evil that wills its destruction, and thus, Righteousness is not about ‘righting wrong’ but tends toward wanting ‘tikkun olam’= repair of the world. This is the [often misunderstood] ultimate spiritual impetus behind the Ethical. It is serious minded. It is earnest in heart. ‘It aint easy.’ It is very hard — but assuming this hardship willingly — and using both passion and will to carry the task through to the end, not bailing out prematurely when things get too rough and too complicated — is ennobling.

Though persons of the Aesthetic — especially once it is in decline — delight to see themselves as special, and extraordinary — because the Eternal Moment that infuses them is so different to the ‘normal’ and the ‘humdrum’ — Kierkegaard says it is only those carrying the burden of the Ethical who are really extraordinary. Much of the time the Ethical can seem humdrum — but the person is different because of the weight they carry, and in dramatic times, they show their strength born of love for the world.

For, in wanting to do good, and resist evil, so as to add their substance to the repair of the world, the Ethical person is really acting as God’s agent, their deed makes them God’s co-worker=

[3] “The enviable thing in human life is that one can come to the aid of the Deity, can understand him…” [p 255]. Abraham Heschel would say what we can come to understand is God’s dispositions toward the world, God’s heart for existence.

Hence the human love which takes a mature responsibility for what happens in the world, and what happens to the world, for where the world is going and how it turns out, is not an optional ‘extra’ added on to loving God. The love of God that refuses responsibility for the destiny of the world betrays the Ethical.

2,

Kierkegaard finds much to extol in the monks and their mysticism, yet he also finds a central flaw — that in too many, they choose to love God and escape, reject, ethically abandon, the world. Kierkegaard says — this love for God that is at the same time a refusal to love the world is “forbidden by God.” It is the very paradigm of ‘forbidden love.’ Only a monasticism that is Ethical in the full sense is saved from radical error; the ascetic disciplines for subduing the delusive thoughts and unruly impulses that ‘disturb’ a person’s climbing of the ladder of ascent to the divine are by no means Ethical. They make us benign toward people in a manner not truly involved with them, neither wronging them nor really loving them. Only passion binds our fate to their fate, for better or worse..

“In the Middle Ages, ..one abruptly broke off life’s regular development and went into a monastery. The faultiness of this step did not, of course, consist in the fact of entering the monastery but in the erroneous conceptions associated with it. ..In the Middle Ages they thought that in choosing the cloister a man chose the extraordinary and himself became an extraordinary man; from the elevation of the monastery one looked down proudly, almost compassionately, upon the ordinary men. So it was no wonder that people entered the monasteries in droves when at so cheap a price one could become an extraordinary man! But the gods do not sell the extraordinary at a bargain price. If the men who retreated from active life had been honest and sincere with themselves and with others, above all if they had loved the thing of being a man, if they had felt with enthusiasm all the beauty implied in this, if their heart had not been unacquainted with a genuine and profound feeling for humanity, they too would perhaps have retired to the solitude of the cloister, but they would not have prided themselves ..upon being extraordinary men, except in the sense that they were less perfect than others; they would not have looked down condescendingly upon the ordinary men but would have contemplated them sympathetically, feeling a [sad] joy in the fact that these men had succeeded in performing the beautiful and the great things of which they were not capable” [pp 332–333].

Kierkegaard is saying it is not the monastery per se, but the falsely superior spiritual status it claims in the esteem of ordinary people, that is the problem.

The Ethical is therefore greater than the Mystical, and subjects it to a pulverizing test. The Mystic has Ethical ‘duty’ toward the world; and if he evades fulfilling it, he is as much a destroyer of the world as any criminal. The duty of the Mystic cannot be jettisoned in the [false] name of ‘loving God’ whilst not loving the world.

Ethically, we show our love for God in our love for the world. Yet, conversely, the relative validity of Mysticism is that it discloses the reality that there is a God to love, and this God loves us. This God is accessible to experience. Such mystical encounter is part of the [manifold] Gift of Eros.

Still, danger lurks!

Eros, in its linking of nous and soul, light and life, should not instigate ‘the flight of the alone to the Alone’; rather, Eros is the Grace of communion that overflows from the above to the below, and spreads outward through all persons, creatures, things. Love opens our eyes to the energies and qualities of divinity at work in cosmos, nature, history, city. The distortion of Mysticism is that it becomes a false transcendence, a seeking of the higher that jettisons all concern for the lower.

Some Mystics — and a few monks in the monasteries — are Ethical in the Jewish sense, yet far too many are not. This is why there is a parallel between the Aesthetic people who linger too long in its ‘diminishing returns’ and Mystics — neither want to take an Ethical responsibility for the world, for this existence in and of the world, in its historical journey and battle toward some End we intuit but only dimly see= Repair of the World.

The Aesthete wants to enjoy life, and the Mystic wants to enjoy God. This is why Romantics, Beats, Hippies, Bohemians of every ilk, so often end up as Mystics. The inevitable wreck of Romanticism turns the disillusioned toward Mysticism.

As the soul sinks into an ever more twisted sadness, Mysticism seems the only way out. But Mysticism is no true cure for the sorrow that haunts the Aesthetic life, due to its flimsiness in this world.

[4] “…duty is not an imposition but something which is incumbent” [p 259].

The Calling to the Ethical man, or woman, is to journey and fight, struggle, to plant Eternity in time. He/she goes through time — ‘patiently’ — to redeem time. By contrast, both the Romantic and the Mystic are ‘timeless.’ The timelessness of First Love renders it hard for this miraculous grace to enter time. The Mystic’s timelessness is regarded by him/her as superior to time, because it belongs to ‘God alone.’

The foolish monk shut in the monastery is alone [‘mono’= alone] because he/she hopes to be alone with God.

God will not play ball with that forbidden love..

The key revelation of the Ethical is that if you “love God with all your heart” [Deuteronomy; quoted by Yeshua], so you then will ‘want’ to ‘love the world with all your heart.’

The first informs and dynamizes the second, but the second fulfils and en-acts the first. Without the second, the first is distorted.

If you cannot love the world, even to the point of self-sacrifice for its sake, then you do not really love God — the real God; but you love a ‘god’ who did not create the world, give good to it, and out of love for it, redeem it. You love a ‘false god’ who eschews the world as you do, and somehow promises to take you to a ‘better place.’

“Stick with me kid, and I’ll take you out of this bad place to the place of your dreams.” The siren song of the Devil.

There is something of great value and beauty in First Love, and the Mystic/Monastic Path, but there is also a horrendous danger.

The danger= to abandon the world.

The danger= to flee from the Ethical.

–When you willingly embrace the Ethical, you want to do good, and resist evil, for the sake of redeeming the world. This is ‘free love.’

–When you run away from the Ethical, you are forced to do what you should want to do, but cannot yet choose freely. This is Duty felt as Law, as Compulsion. For the Jews, even if you do it grudgingly, that is still valid. It still gets done. The key here is the ‘action.’ This is not blindly compliant ‘behaviour.’ It is a deed hard won against one’s own resistance. The greater heart overcomes the lesser heart in a moment of temptation when the latter seems potent and the former seems vulnerable..

The Ethical man, or woman, “chooses himself/herself in this world”, and instead of seeking Eternity ‘instead of time’, seeks to incarnate Eternity in time by the way they stand in, and stand through, time.

Thus Kierkegaard adds=

[5] “…the ethical individual.. is like quiet waters which run deep, whereas he who lives aesthetically is only superficially moved” [p 261].

In the Ethical modality we are ‘moved by the world’ — and thus our life in the world becomes a movement that is constituted of loving the world more than our own freedom, more than our own perfecting and talents, more than our life..

[6] “So personality has not the ethical outside it but in it, and out of the depth it breaks forth” [p 261].

It is inside us, in our depth of heart. This is why it is not really imposed from without, but arises from within as a ‘compunction of heart.’ The profound heart stabs the shallow heart, reminding us what the heart was really created for= to contest the world for love.

For Kierkegaard, “know thyself” [Socrates] is transmuted into “choose yourself”, because the truest core of the person is the heart, will, and passion, summoned to take on the Calling, the Vocation, the Burden, the Cost, of the Ethical Task of taking responsibility for the future of the world, and thus loving the world.

We are not ‘here’ to follow some rules that, if kept to, will admit us to somewhere else at the end of our short span of time.

We are here to redeem the time– all of time, by the stand, effort, struggle, we take in time for Eternity= by this do we plant, cultivate, and harvest Eternity in time. This is the Biblical ‘fruit’ God wants from us.

William Blake= “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

This is where passion really enters. There is no Ethical without passion, energy, intensity, Kierkegaard insists.
So=

[7] “Give a man energy, passion, and with that he is everything” [p 272].

And=

[8] “…the matter of ethics is not a question of the multifariousness of duty but of its intensity. When with all his energy a person has felt the intensity of duty he is then ethically mature, and in him duty will emerge of itself” [p 270].

Thus=

[9] “…[when] a man has.. felt the intensity of duty, [then] the consciousness of it is for him the assurance of the eternal validity of his being” [p 271].

Really= the eternal validity of what he is doing with his life in this world.

Kierkegaard has the older character, a judge, say that the Mystic offends the father and husband in him. The Mystic offends the king, warrior, prophet, sacred clown, holy fool, broken bum, in all of us who ‘have a heart.’

For= “The ethical always consists in the consciousness of wanting to do the good” [p 269].

This consciousness cannot come from the Mind. Nor from the Soul. It comes from the heart, and its mysterious and powerful depths.

St Macarios of Egypt= “The human heart is an unfathomable abyss.”

But consciousness of the Ethical has to be affirmed by choosing it in Action — or it fades away.

[10] This is why Kierkegaard insists it needs intensity, passion, energy, to take hold of the Ethical. He respects a passionate child who wants to learn, by saying this child “takes hold of a thing so passionately” that Kierkegaard wishes “at every time of my life I may take hold of my work with the same energy” [p 272]. This is “ethical earnestness” [ibid].

In effect, I cannot become ethically conscious without energy — the energy of passion needed to Act on the Ethical.

[11] Kierkegaard concludes that “the man before whom duty — obligation, calling, task — has never revealed itself in its whole significance is.. poor” [p 271].

Kierkegaard is well aware of how the Romantics mock the Ethical as a killjoy=

“Life loses its beauty, [it is said], so soon as the ethical prevails. Instead of the happiness, beauty, and freedom from care which life has when we regard it aesthetically, we get [the dullness of] conscientious activity, praiseworthy industry, indefatigable and unremitting zeal” [p 277].

The Judo that upends this attack is to admit it is true of false morality, but false to true morality. Though there are stiff necked, self-righteous, proudly judgmental, or simply conventional and respectable, types of pseudo ethics, the real Ethical has its own pathos, beauty, mystery — because it comes from so much depth in the heart, and risks so much depth in the world.

This is why God ‘requires the heart.’ We give it to God in giving it to the world.

Hence=

[12] For the ethical person, “his talent is precisely his calling” [p 302]. In Plains Indian terms, you only get the help of your spirit animal to perform your calling.

Kierkegaard quotes an old Danish poem=

“Instead of childhood’s golden promise,
He makes a living scant but honest.”

Kierkegaard has an interesting interpretation of the myth of Adam and Eve, and hints at a different contribution to the Ethical made by man and by woman. He indignantly refutes the 19th Century cliché that men are strong and women are weak. Women are equally strong as men, perhaps stronger.. He thinks generally men are too proud, and women too humble. A man needs ‘humbling down’ in his inherent pride, a woman needs ‘prouding up’ in her inherent humility. Another story for another day..

A penultimate, and decisive point, about the Ethical is the claim that it rests in friendship. Justice — and all else established only by the Ethical — is rooted in the spiritual potentiality for all humans to become friends.

We are here to help and be helped. We help and are helped in a hard existence common to us all. Only in this way can we redeem it. If we live selfishly, “every man for himself”, or according to what an American I once met on a narrow walk-way said, “have a nice day, get out of my way”, then existence cannot be redeemed. In that eventuality, existence goes down the plug hole, and everyone goes down with it. There is no heaven into which to escape the wreck of existence.

–All the Romantics find there is no ‘earthly paradise’ to escape into as existence fails.

–All the Mystics find there is no ‘other world’ to go to, or find that God will not ‘gather them to his bosom’, as existence goes to hell.

If, in the end, existence becomes hell, then all ‘in’ existence, past and future, end in hell.

This is the knife edge on which the Ethical battles. It is like what Lorca says about Flamenco. You must ascend and battle ‘on the rim of the well’, to rouse the spirit of Duende. And Duende does not come “unless death is a real possibility.”

The Ethical is for love of “the life of [human beings] in this word” [p 334].

Kierkegaard’s final thrust is to say that the struggle inherent to the Ethical is a process of ‘revealing’ everything.

[13] “Ethics says that it is the significance of life and of reality that every [human being] become revealed” [p 327].

The Romantic wants to, and does remain, concealed, because he does not give himself up, totally, to the world. The same applies to the Mystic. Neither Aesthetic nor Transcendentalist is willing to “recognize the claim of reality upon every [person] that [they] become revealed..” [pp 327-328]. If we resist the struggle to love the world that reveals who and what we ‘really’ are, then “one becomes an enigma to oneself” [p 327]. We struggle with murky threats and remain a ghost unknown to all, and even to ourself. “He who will not contend with realities gets phantoms to fight with” [p 328].

Moreover, it is when we repudiate the hard truth that every human being is revealed by the way in which they face up to and stand in, and act toward, existence, that “the revelation will appear as a punishment” [p 327]. The Last Judgement is not a punishment. It is final clarification of who and what we became, by virtue of our deeds for or against, or in indifference to or flight from, the existence that ‘called us out.’ We will exult in whatever Action the heart could give; we will weep, and wail, for all the Action the heart did not give, but funked..

As Kierkegaard puts it, the real choice forced upon us by existing in this world is not ‘either’ this ‘or’ that. It is not picking one thing and casting off another thing. It is much more basic.

The choice is whether we accept there is an Either/Or hitting the heart square on, or deny it.

Yahweh says to us=

I put before you, Life and the Deadening, choose!

I put before you Truth and the Lie, choose!

I put before you Love, and the Callous Heart, the Indifferent Heart, choose!

I put before you Water and Fire, you can have whichever you want.

Even if you prefer Eros, there is the Illusory Counterfeit versus the Reality.

If the Daemonic chooses you, and you assent, then you face the severest choice.

The Sword of Truth will become the Cross of Truth’s Suffering and Reversal For Love.

The ultimate Either/Or= what will you lose for love?