In one of his Upbuilding Discourses called To Gain One’s Soul in Patience, Kierkegaard traces a core theological problem, which is: What does having a soul mean and how are souls ‘had’? A basic theological premise is of course, that everyone ‘has’ a soul by default. But the possession of a thing is always marked by signs, fulfilled functions, observations — you can test, if someone ‘has’ a heart by checking their blood flow, opening up their rib cage or by checking their pulse. But the soul is not a material thing, so how do we ‘check’ if we have one? If we lack such criteria, if the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ realms are simply indifferent to each other, so that the soul “just is,” then the soul will become merely an additional premise that essentially can be left out without any consequences (this argument has also been made against radical Cartesian dualism). This issue has its own theological history that probably became most apparent with Calvinism and Lutheranism that completely internalized faith, and thereby the soul. The Catholic Church, simply speaking, connected the ‘outer’ and the ‘inner’ realms quasi directly, the good deed reflecting the good soul just as much as happy providence. Here, we see another solution, namely postulating a mirrored relation, instead of an indifferent one. But this constellation faces the same issue as the former: If the external deeds fully explain the internal condition, why should we keep this additional premise? We might call this the road of Secular Humanism, keeping the good deed as the only thing that matters.
The problem therefore is the following: In their consequence, the radical differentiation and the radical correspondence of the inner and the outer realms both result in their collapse to a totalization of the outer world. Essentially, they both boil down to radical materialism, which merely ‘cuts away’ an unnecessary premise. We might be indifferent to this theological problem in our (seemingly) secular world — following the mantra “God is dead” — but the collapse of interiority is not as unproblematic as it seems. Strictly speaking, radical materialism cannot differentiate living beings from things and can therefore not differentiate normatively between ‘treating things like things’ and ‘treating humans like things’. This differentiation becomes one of appearance, or power, or maybe of comfort as in “I prefer being treated nicely” — but what if the other doesn’t care? It puts all trust in the binding might of power, of rationality, or of rational egoism. I have tried to develop this difficulty in relation to Adorno in another essay. The question of the difference between a human being and a thing amounts to the question of what it is that makes humans more than things, to which we might answer — personality, identity, self, or, theologically speaking — soul. In fact, the problem that I will work out in this Upbuilding Discourse is mirrored in Sickness unto Death; and while Kierkegaard uses “soul” in the former, he poses it as the problem of the “self” in the latter. The problem thus goes beyond mere theology.
In his Upbuilding Discourses, Kierkegaard mimics the orations of the pastor, which is why they could also be translated as Edifying or Elevating Orations, and, following this framework, he initiates each discourse with a quote from the Bible that he subsequently addresses and interprets. The quote from the discourse that I want to focus on is a short sentence from Luke 21:19: “In your patience you will gain your souls.” At first glance, the quote looks harmless — but wait: How can I gain my soul, wasn’t I born with it? And of course I know that patience is useful, but why is it important to “gain” one’s soul?
Kierkegaard begins with our common understanding of patience, where, for example, the wanderer knows that when he’s off to a long trip, he shouldn’t rush into it or he’ll be exhausted midway, just as the fisherman needs to be patient while sitting in his boat. For them both, patience is a tool that will help them attain a certain goal or a certain possession; understood that way, “patience is a soul-strength that everyone needs to attain what he desires in life” (160). But this is not the kind of patience that Luke 21:19 refers to.
First of all, the utility of the ‘normal’ kind of patience is relative: “perhaps at times impatience would be more profitable and would hasten the gain of what is coveted” (169). The patient fisherman will look foolish in his little boat in comparison to the huge nets of his pragmatic colleague who just bulldozes through the ocean. The wanderer’s or the fisherman’s patience, therefore, depends on external criteria and varies from situation to situation. For example, if the ocean is empty, not even the greatest nets will be of use.
If the Bible passage was referring to this kind of patience, then the possession of the soul would become a question of luck, or, even worse, of divine selection, which is not only an elitist conception, but that undermines the whole question of inwardness. If it completely relies on external criteria, the soul will become a mere thing among things. More importantly, though, it would presuppose that the soul is ‘out there’, possessed by someone else, so that we’d need to conquer it, meaning, that our soul is originally not ours, which undermines the whole conception of selfhood.
Yet, this ‘external’ understanding of patience as mental strength is not just based on a confusion of outwardness and inwardness, but is fundamentally an error that we perpetrate constantly, namely in our dominant desire for possession — be it in the form of power, material goods, knowledge, or fame. Kierkegaard summarizes this in the desire to possess the world. But this desire is a complete exteriorization of one’s self, which not only ends in failure, considering that the external is always more powerful than me (cf. 165), but also in my complete reification, as I become fully entangled by material relations, dependent on outward forces. Worldly ownership is essentially volatile, and we need to give up on it when we die. At the same time, the more we rely on it, the more we depend on it. And when do we depend most on it? Exactly, in birth.
“In the first moment, then, a person is in a position that people later crave as something glorious; he is lost in the life of the world; he possesses the world, that is, he is possessed by it. But in the same moment he is diﬀerent from the whole world, and he senses a resistance that does not flow the movements of the world’s life. If he now wants to gain the world, he must overcome this disquiet until once again, like the undulation of the waves, he vanishes in the life of the world — then he has won the world. However, if he wants to gain his soul, he must let this resistance become more and more pronounced and in so doing gain his soul, for his soul was this very diﬀerence: it was the infinity in the life of the world in its diﬀerence from itself” (165).
A human being is closest to being a material thing in the moment it is born — completely dependent on external forces. But right from the start, there is a core difference between a human being and the world that needs to be strengthened and that becomes weakened in the pursuit of possessing the world. The desire to become more powerful is an attempt to control the (physical, natural) forces of the world — but how can we do that, except by becoming such a force ourselves? By becoming more and more entangled in these external dynamics, the self reduces its difference to the world, and only completes its dependence. Therefore, to strengthen the difference between me and the world, which is the essential core of selfhood, I need to go the other way — I need to become weaker. But it’s not that renouncement of mysticism that tries to overcome that fundamental difference between man and world, but rather a quest for something that is not dependent on outward forces, some sort of self-sufficiency — in short, inwardness.
“Therefore, to gain his soul was a task that announced a struggle with the whole world, since it began with letting a person be at the goal of that earthly craving, possessing the whole world in order to give it away” (167).
Give it away, but what for? To Gain One’s Soul in Patience. So, let’s get back to the initial question.
Kierkegaard warns us that understanding the possession of a soul analogously to the possession of a thing will result in the collapse of the category of inwardness and in the ultimate indifference between self and world, between man and thing. But how is the soul possessed, then? It is possessed not as a thing, but as a task. Because you can never ‘have’ your soul the way you have a diploma, a medal, a certificate, the task is never done, patience can never be deposed the way the wanderer will depose his walking staff. Therefore, the possession of the soul is an ongoing process and it remains a fundamental demand, meaning, that normativity precedes facticity. More precisely: because the facticity of ‘soul-ownership’ is unattainable, what remains is only the normative — namely, the task of possessing a soul, the task of inwardness that therefore requires a perpetual effort. But how is it attained? In patience.
“If the person who gains himself will just be patient, he will surely grow in patience. In the one case, the word means that in which a person grows, as if one were to say he grows in favor, in wealth; in the other case, it means that whereby he grows, as if one were to say through sagacity, through the counsel and help of friends” (169).
Inward patience, as Kierkegaard differentiates it here from external patience, is not a tool, but a condition. When we use patience purely as a tool, when we are waiting for something, then the patience will last as long as the waiting. We’ll get to our limits, even if it takes longer than it should. But patience as a condition is not about expectation or the realization of a goal. It is a new way to deal with the world. As long as patience remains a mere tool for us, we spend our time with others and with our surrounding waiting and expecting something in return, and we are patient, if we think it will help us optimize the experience. What we are doing here, though, is not being patient, but limiting our impatience. But is there a way of dealing with the world neither in purely pragmatic terms, but also neither with the pure indifference of noli me tangere? There is a beautiful passage in Fear and Trembling, where Kierkegaard describes the religious man, his ideal:
“Toward evening, he goes home, and his gait is as steady as a postman’s. On the way, he thinks that his wife surely will have a special hot meal for him when he comes home — for example, roast lamb’s head with vegetables. If he meets a kindred soul, he would go on talking all the way to Østerport about this delicacy with a passion befitting a restaurant operator. It so happens that he does not have four shillings to his name, and yet he firmly believes that his wife has this delectable meal waiting for him. If she has, to see him eat would be the envy of the elite and an inspiration to the common man, for his appetite is keener than Esau’s. His wife does not have it — curiously enough, he is just the same” (39f.).
Once again we can see, that Kierkegaard is not interested in a stoic indifference, considering that his religious man sees the beauty of the world in its full intensity. What we have here is rather an idea of self-sufficiency that rests on a fundamental faith, a faith not in the world, which remains uncertain and unsteady forever, but in oneself, in the paradoxical possession of one’s own soul; and this trust is a never-ending source of joy. This fundamental task of becoming a self — which for Kierkegaard coincides with the true possession of a soul — cannot be a question of ability or of chance. Being a truly inward task, it cannot depend on external criteria. It is a fundamentally ‘democratic’ task and Kierkegaard emphasizes that in many occasions. We can see now, that becoming a self is an inherently productive process, as it is not a question of facticity, but of normativity. But to ask what the task exactly is, hoping for some self-help-book bullet point answers, is to fall back to impatience and the desire to possess a certain knowledge, as Kierkegaard warns in the end of this Discourse.
Kierkegaard, Søren: Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. Princeton University Press 1990 (trans. Howard/Edna Hong).
Kierkegaard, Søren: Fear and Trembling / Repetition. Princeton University Press 1983 (trans. Howard/Edna Hong).