The Pursuit of Kierkegaardian Virtue

Thomas J. Millay on Sylvia Walsh

Sylvia Walsh. Kierkegaard and Religion: Personality, Character, and Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. 245. $28.99.

In November of 2013, Sylvia Walsh delivered a lecture on Kierkegaard and virtue at Baylor University that frustrated many in the audience. The essential contention of the lecture was that Kierkegaard was not—emphatically not—a virtue ethicist. Members of the audience, including Mark Tietjen, had authored whole books arguing otherwise.

The grumbles of the audience were palpable and to a large extent justified. Walsh seemed to be arguing that Kierkegaard did not often use the word “virtue” and was therefore not a virtue ethicist. Such purely linguistic arguments are tenuous at best: just because Kierkegaard does not use the word “virtue” surely does not mean it is illegitimate to exercise some degree of interpretive creativity and claim him for this tradition. What is the point of refuting acts of creative appropriation, especially if they shed new light on their subject? In addition, Kierkegaard himself often talks about patience, courage, faith, hope, and love, and these are traditionally thought of as virtues (even if Kierkegaard does not often label them as such). Walsh’s linguistic argument is repeated in Kierkegaard and Religion: Personality, Character, and Virtue. The argument is unconvincing if it is considered in isolation, but Walsh couches it within a larger point that is worth making.

That larger point can be summarized as follows. The tradition of virtue ethics presumes that one can, at least to some extent, realize virtues in one’s earthly life. To speak of a traditional practice of courage is to believe that courage can actually be practiced by human beings. Virtue ethics thus presupposes that individuals and communities can be virtuous. It is precisely this presupposition with which Kierkegaard disagrees, according to Walsh—and she is certainly right about that.

The character of Christian life, according to Kierkegaard, does not have to do with an increasing realization of virtue. It is a mistake, in Kierkegaard’s mind, to identify Christian living with greater perfection in courage, apatheia, or magnanimity. Instead, Christian life is most fundamentally about pursuit of virtue, yet knowing one has failed.

The basic fact of our inevitable failure should cause Christians to reconsider the viability of virtue ethics. If an ethics of virtue necessarily presumes virtue can be realized, perhaps the whole premise of virtue ethics is flawed. Whether or not Kierkegaard uses the word “virtue” seems a matter of little interest. But if virtue ethics cannot abide placing failure at the center of the human self, it is absolutely correct to say that Kierkegaard is not a virtue ethicist and to claim that he calls such an approach to ethics into radical questioning. It turns out, therefore, that—despite the murmuring audience—Walsh was correct all along (if, that is, one is willing to grant her definition of virtue ethics).

This basic difference between progressive realization and utter failure goes some way toward explaining the different descriptions of human life as found in Kierkegaard and, say, Alastair MacIntyre. Rather than participating in a communal life that inculcates virtues progressively realized over time, the only way we can come to a greater realization of Christian life in Kierkegaard’s mind is by a surer realization of our own failures and basic incapacity. Virtues can play a role in the latter realization, but—as Kierkegaard scholar David Gouwens has brilliantly pointed out—only in a negative sense: virtues set benchmarks that a human self will always fail to meet. Perhaps Kierkegaard would like to be a virtue ethicist, but, things being as they are, he finds he cannot take such a position. Instead, he begins with failure.

This accent on failure leads to the distinctively Kierkegaardian account of the self, and there is no one better qualified to write on this subject than Sylvia Walsh. It is difficult to think of anyone who has greater command of Kierkegaard’s primary texts, especially those of Kierkegaard’s “second authorship” (everything written post-1846’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript). Accepting the premise that failure and incapacity are at the heart of the self, Walsh proceeds to show how Kierkegaard goes beyond this purely negative point to develop a profound and complex account of how human character is formed. Indeed, Walsh is comfortable calling Kierkegaard a “character ethicist,” if not a virtue ethicist.

Character encompasses a fluid yet coherent set of dynamics in Kierkegaard’s corpus. Themes of individuality, inwardness, passion, earnestness, obedience, unity, and faith appear repeatedly throughout Kierkegaard’s writings and Walsh’s text. Yet these should not be seen as elements of a successful or flourishing self. Instead, they are the constituents of the individual’s relation to God, which is as a whole characterized by an increasing consciousness of failure consistently met by a superabundant grace. Each thematic element of the self as listed above plays its own role in constituting this relation of failure and grace.

Take faith, for example. In faith, the self takes on form and shape as it learns to trust in the eternal, accepting all temporal events as good and perfect gifts given to build up the individual in her God-relation. Yet this progress in becoming a self is matched, each step of the way, by a greater realization of just how paltry one’s faith is and how little one trusts God. In addition, any progress that can be recognized by the self is quickly transformed into a jest. How so? Well, any actual progress in faith that we do make is not in actuality our own, but is God acting in us. It is only God’s tolerant beneficence that allows us to think we are doing good. We are like the child who thinks she is pushing the stroller, when really it is her mother who is doing all the work, allowing the child to hold onto her pleasing illusion, since it works to build up her confidence. Ultimately, the destiny of the true Christian is to realize, in responsible maturity,  her utter dependence. All along, whenever any genuine good has occurred, that good has been of God, not of her own making. The life of the responsible Christian thus culminates, logically enough, in the altar: a space wherein faith is identical to gratitude. Walsh evokes this sacramental dynamic with passages of surprising lyrical beauty. Since they occur near the end of Kierkegaard and Religion, these rhetorical flourishes give one the feeling that everything has been leading up to this—a feeling which is fitting, considering Kierkegaard himself wrote that his authorship came to its final rest at the foot of the altar.

The conjunction of responsibility and dependence, as evidenced above all in the penitent at the altar, brings us to the hallmark of all Walsh’s writing on Kierkegaard: namely, her emphasis on “inverse dialectic” as the key to Kierkegaard’s writings. Inverse dialectic can be understood as follows. Because eternity is the opposite of temporality, things as they actually are appearing inversely in this life. Temporal suffering is a sign of eternal blessedness, abasement is a sign of exaltation, and consciousness of guilt is a sign of grace. In the same way, when it comes to the self and its formation, failure is success. Any time the self fails to constitute its own self on its own terms, there is more room for God’s perfect gifts of faith, hope, and love. Thus, in the inverse dialectic of this life, dependence is responsibility. Furthermore, Kierkegaard’s inverse dialectic is not only qualitative; it is quantitative as well. The more suffering, the more blessedness; the more abasement, the more exaltation; the more guilt, the more grace; the more failure, the more success. If Kierkegaard is a character ethicist, he is a peculiar one at that. The human self develops character only in this inverse way, where our moments of complete incapacity and utter depredation are, simultaneously, our greatest triumph. To be a human being is to be a glorious failure.

Perhaps all Walsh is doing is concurring with fellow-scholar Merold Westphal, who once said that, in many respects, Kierkegaard was simply a good Lutheran. Given Luther and Kierkegaard’s shared accent on the inevitable failure of our striving and the good news of grace, there is no doubt some truth to such a claim. But there is also something else going on in Walsh’s book. I believe Walsh is saying, as she has now said many times over (we have perhaps not heard the message): let Kierkegaard be Kierkegaard. There is no need to fit him into any paradigm other than his own. In Kierkegaard and Religion as well as in her other works, Walsh bids us to allow Kierkegaard to stand solitary, to speak to us through his own concepts and words. If we transform Kierkegaard into a virtue ethicist, we run the risk of losing his distinctive voice. Let Kierkegaard be Kierkegaard, then. And Walsh, more than anyone, has shown us exactly who that is.

Thomas J. Millay graduated from Baylor University’s Ph.D. Program in Religion with a degree in Theological Studies.Dr. Millay serves as a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, where he reviews a wide variety of contemporary fiction, from John Banville to Louise Erdrich. His first book, You Must Change Your Life: Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Reading, is forthcoming from Cascade Press.