Kierkegaard on the Difference Between the Simple-Minded Man and the Simple-Minded Wise Man

Kierkegaard writes:

Christianity is the very opposite of speculation … it is the miraculous, the absurd, calling on the individual to exist in it and not waste time on speculatively understanding it. If there is to be speculation under this presupposition, its task will sooner be that of grasping ever more profoundly the impossibility of understanding Christianity speculatively, something described above as the task for the simple-minded wise man.

(2009-05-28). Kierkegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (pp. 317-318). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

What does this mean?   What is the difference between the simple-minded person and the simple-minded wise person?  Why is it important to grasp the impossibility ever more profoundly?   If it’s impossible it’s impossible — what good is it to grasp it ever more profoundly?  What would that even mean?

Imagine that Ambrose has hurt Bernard — betrayed him, actually — and the once close and loving friendship between Ambrose and Bernard has been ruptured.  Ambrose asks Bernard to forgive him.

If Bernard is a simple-minded man and has love in his heart he will say “I forgive you, Ambrose!”  And that’s good.

If Bernard is a sophisticated thinker, but not simple-minded, he will ask for arguments that Ambrose will never hurt him again.  There are no such arguments, because who can know that a person will never hurt him again?   So the miraculous, absurd possibility that calls upon Bernard to love his friend again will be unheard.  Bernard will avoid the chance of ever getting his friend back if he wastes his time looking for proofs that he will never be hurt again.

The simple-minded wise Bernard will understand that there can be no proof that he will not be hurt again and forgive Ambrose anyway.  He will open himself up to pain recognizing that it is real pain, and thereby heed the call to the miraculous rebirth of their friendship.

Why does Bernard the simple-minded wise man need to grasp the impossibility of proof more and more profoundly?  Presumably because the more they talk the more Bernard will be tempted to think “I get this forgiving so well I’m really an expert at it.  I understand why Ambrose deserves to be forgiven.  I already can feel the old trustworthy Ambrose is back again.”  And all these things Bernard is tempted to think, all these stories he tells himself, are wrong.  If Bernard forgives Ambrose he can still be hurt again, but if he allows the miracle to call on him and opens his heart, he can forgive him even though that is the case.

It’s tempting to Bernard to think that he is a master of forgiveness, to imagine that he has cracked the forgiveness code.  To realize that he is not — that there is no code to crack–  and to keep realizing it but to forgive anyway  — that is the task of the simple-minded wise man.


6 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on the Difference Between the Simple-Minded Man and the Simple-Minded Wise Man

    • YES! For Kierkegaard “Christianity” which he also calls ‘paradoxical religiousness”, “Religiousness B” and the “Religion of Hidden Inwardness” is about making an infinite commitment to the finite. You do not have to believe in Jesus.

  1. For exactly the reason you cited — uncertainty about the future — I’m not sure that a sophisticated Bernard would ask for arguments. He would understand that Ambrose probably will hurt him again, no matter how sincere his repentance in the moment.

    If we choose to love at all, we make ourselves vulnerable to those we love, just as they make themselves vulnerable to us. We know that we will almost certainly suffer and inflict hurt. The only question is: Is our love worth the pain? I think that any love worthy of the name, is.

    The secret of life is that there is no secret. We do not live our lives by analyzing them, but by living them. Analysis sometimes helps or entertains — certainly, entertainment is the point of most philosophy — but it’s no substitute for living.

    Ah … that reminds me of something Prof. Blanshard said once. Commenting on Socrates’s view that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” he replied that “the un-lived life is not worth examining.”

  2. The parable is wonderful. I do wonder, though, to what extent any parabolic translation of a faith-relationship with the Infinite into a trust-dynamic with a finite human neighbor can work for Kierkegaard. It brings Soren into a more Jewish way of thinking. I mean the word “emunah,” which is typically egregiously translated as “faith,” is much closer to “trust.” And indeed the trust-issues that humans have with God are much closer to the Ambrose-Bernard dynamics in the parable.

    The difference between Religiousnesses A and B corresponds to the difference between the Knight of Infinite Resignation and the Knight of Faith, Agamemnon and Abraham (“Fear and Trembling”.) The latter makes the move of faith (“infinite commitment to the finite”) only after have exhausted the possibilities of rational thought. So the move may not be so much irrational in a Tertullian sense as it is “supra-rational.” Almost a Negative Theology. To be sure, it’s messier than this. But I’m just wondering if the fear of being betrayed by the Infinite, as it were, is a concern for Kierkegaard.

    In any event, I think this attempt to think through the problem in terms of trust is definitely more fruitful. In Hebrew, “emunah” is etymologically cognate with “emet,” much as in English, “trust” is cognate with “truth.”

    • Thanks for your comment! I’m glad this interests you. For Kierkegaard the difference between Religiousness A and Religiousness B exactly has to do with how to bring the infinite and the finite into the right relationship. The person in Religiousness A — the Knight of Resignation — has a direct relationship with the infinite that makes any particular finite commitment meaningless. He “expects Victory but not victories” in Kierkegaard’s phrase. The Knight of Faith — or the person whose sphere of existence is Religiousness B — encounters the infinite by making an infinite commitment to something finite that exists in time. The more the knight of faith realizes that what he is committed to is vulnerable, temporal, and uncertain the more he commits to it.

      • Yes! You hit the nail on the head, Eric! The sad (or funny, if you’re Kafka) thing about Kierkegaard is that he was not able to follow through with this “move of finitude” even as he saw it rather clearly. It’s sad/funny because he makes it out to be far more difficult than it is. He’s right that the move is more tremendous and extraordinary, yes; but he fails to see that the tremendousness is something be taken care of by the Tremendum Himself. I am quite convinced that the whole problem can be boiled down to his puerile (and I daresay, rather unmanly) attitude to Regina Olsen. I vaguely recall a note from his diaries that runs something like: “The real problem with me: I don’t have a body.” His auto-diagnosis is always impeccable, and exquisite in style and profundity. But the prognosis–oy! (Keep the reflections comin’. I enjoy them a lot.)

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