‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Thoughts on Atheism as 'the Freedom of Religion'

I'm going to have a go at reframing Kierkegaard’s famous statement, from Stages on Life’s Way (1845): ‘the more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic. It is only by the deepest suffering that one acquires true authority in the use of the comic, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature.’ So, let's shuffle this over from comedy to those equally Kierkegaardian questions of belief and faith. Let's say: The more of an atheist one is, the more, I believe, one is open to a sense for the divine. It is only by the deepest alienation from God that one acquires true authority in the uses of the faith, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature. Atheism is the freedom of faith; which is to say—it is faith viewed from the perspective of the most profound existential freedom. This brings it close to what Kierkegaard describes as ‘anxiety’:
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science will explain. [The Concept of Anxiety (1844)]
And there is anxiousness in atheism (how could there not be?) The paradox of anxious freedom has parellels with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith has to do precisely with the atheism of his faith; the faithlessness of his belief. That place where paradox shades over into mere nonsensical babble is, in a precise sense, Kierkegaard’s point.

Fear and Trembling is most famous as a meditation on the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Sylvia Walsh summarises the situation:
As Johannes sees it, faith is a lifelong task that is not achieved in a matter of days or weeks nor can it be comprehended by reflection ... For an exemplar of faith Johannes looks to Abraham, traditionally regarded as the father of faith because he did not doubt when tested by God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, who has been given to Abraham and his wife Sarah in their old age in order to fulfil the Lord’s promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation (cf Genesis 12:1; 22:1-19). Abraham believed by virtue of the absurd that God would fulfil his promise in spite of the divine command to sacrifice Isaac, either by rescinding the command or by providing a new Isaac if he were sacrificed, which Abraham was willing to do in obedience to God even though it stood in stark contradiction to his love for Isaac, and to the divine promise. To Johannes, therefore, the faith of Abraham is a paradox that goes against all human understanding and expectation, a paradox that can be entered into only with much anxiety, fear and trembling, and courage. [Sylvia Walsh, Kierkegaard: Thinking Christianity in an Existential Mode (Oxford University Press 2009), 147]
Since Walsh’s purpose in her study is that ‘Kierkegaard was first and foremost a Christian thinker’ (indeed, to develop the case that ‘not since Luther has there been a Protestant thinker who has so uncompromisingly sought to define and present Christianity in its utmost integrity ... in the interest of reintroducing authentic Christianity as an existential possibility for every individual in the modern age’ [vii]) it doesn’t surprise us that her reading of this famously difficult Kierkegaardian figure—the Knight of Faith—is as an icon of Christian faithfulness.

For Levinas, however, the leap of faith implicit in Fear and Trembling is a type of violence:
Kierkegaardian violence begins when existence is forced to abandon the ethical stage in order to embark on the religious stage, the domain of belief. But belief no longer sought external justification. Even internally, it combined communication and isolation, and hence violence and passion. That is the origin of the relegation of ethical phenomena to secondary status and the contempt of the ethical foundation of being which has led, through Nietzsche, to the amoralism of recent philosophies. [Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Ethics (1963)]
The end, in popular parlance, does not justify the means; indeed, in this Levinasian criticism the very isolation and elevation of ‘ends’ at all is a kind of ethical betrayal.

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