May 5th, 2013
The New York Times
Perhaps the most central theme in Soren Kierkegaard’s religious thought is the doctrine of original sin: the idea that we share in some essential human guilt simply by being born. But guilt is an important concept also in Kierkegaard’s secular writings. He thought that the modern era was defined by its concept of guilt. Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday gives us an occasion to assess the modern relevance of his legacy and the viability of his own view of modernity.
Kierkegaard thought of Socrates as the person who first discovered human autonomy — the fact that we are free to determine our own actions and therefore responsible for those actions. This insight undermined the ancient worldview, which found its perfect representation in tragic drama, where characters bring about their own ruin because they are fated to do so. In his 1843 essay “Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern,” Kierkegaard grappled with this question partly through an analysis of the work of Sophocles. In the play “Oedipus the King,” the gods have cursed the tragic hero with a fate to commit two terrible crimes.
The curse is visited upon his children, too, including his daughter who in the follow-up play “Antigone” commits a crime of her own. Sophocles thus invites us to think of this curse as something like a hereditary disease, passed on from parents to children. In Antigone’s crime and punishment we see the reverberation of her father’s misfortune, and if original sin is sometimes called “hereditary sin,” Antigone’s is a “hereditary guilt.” Such a concept is nonsensical to the Socratic mindset. We are responsible only for what we do—not for what happens to us, or for the actions of others.
Oedipus’s crimes are to kill his father and marry his mother; Antigone’s is to defy the state. She is sentenced to live burial for burying her brother, a traitor, against a state prohibition. But in the midst of this horrible destiny is a relief. Sophocles allows both the fictional character Antigone and the spectators to take comfort in the fact that her transgression against the state is done out of obedience to a divine mandate to honor one’s family and, moreover, that her own terrible fate is ultimately the work of the gods. She is then only partly responsible for the deed and for bringing the subsequent punishment upon herself. Fate and divine mandate are the heroine’s ruination, but they also absolve her of guilt and, by precluding any real choice, redeem her from anxiety and regret.
Socrates, ever defiant of authority, would have found no such excuses for Antigone. Whether or not she was right to bury her brother, she was personally responsible for doing so. She should bear her punishment stoically, as Socrates bore his. When modernity severs the individual from his ties to kin, state, tradition and divine authority, “it must turn the individual over to himself,” Kierkegaard writes, so that, in effect, he “becomes his own creator.”
But our faith in freedom is excessive. It would be naive to think that happiness requires nothing more than the freedom to choose. Modernity cannot evade tragedy and in fact Kierkegaard proceeds to outline a modern version of Sophocles’ play — a post-Socratic “Antigone.” The Danish term he uses for hereditary guilt literally means “inheritance-guilt,” which unlike the English term calls to mind the wealth and property left to children upon their parents’ death. The term is especially appropriate for his modern Antigone, who considers the curse on her father not so much a disease as a birthright. In Kierkegaard’s modern play, the drama does not revolve around her brother’s treason, death and burial but concerns Antigone’s relation to her father and his crimes.
Whereas the kinship between the ancient Antigone and Oedipus is an objective relation, so that his curse is passed down to her through blood and name, their kinship in the modern version is ultimately a subjective one. The modern Antigone is not fated to share her father’s curse, not obliged to share his guilt. But she is compelled to share his grief out of compassion, and so strong is this compassion that she wants to share also his guilt—wants to make of herself, retroactively, an accomplice to his crimes. She loves her father with all her soul, Kierkegaard writes, and it is this love that “pulls her away from herself, into her father’s guilt.”
But love is not merely a feeling that overcomes her—it is a feeling she happily affirms, actively reinforces. Oedipus gives Antigone’s life a center of gravity, something that binds her freedom. She welcomes the suffering that manifests her love of her father and to a certain degree she inflicts it upon herself. Love is indeed ambiguous between passivity and activity, necessity and freedom. On the one hand, a lover regards the beloved as the cause of her love. Love appears to strike us from the outside and we cannot love at will. In this sense, loving is passive. Yet when I say that I speak “from the bottom of my heart” or that I do something “whole-heartedly,” I use a metaphor for love to express full and voluntary investment in what I say and do. In these idioms, love represents responsibility, activity.
Life is partly a task and partly a gift, Kierkegaard wrote. Unlike a curse, a right or a genetic disease, a gift cannot be bestowed upon a person against her will. She can choose to accept or decline it. A child does not choose her parents but is offered them as gifts upon her birth, and to love them and grieve with them is to appropriate them as her kin. Love is this project of accepting a gift, cultivating a heritage, assuming another’s fate as one’s own. If freedom is the ailment, it is willful surrender to her emotions and her ties to others that is the modern Antigone’s redemption.
Søren Kierkegaard [Wikipedia]
Antigone [Sophocles] [Wikipedia]