Alexander Vinet and Soren Kierkegaard

The following is an excerpt from Hans Martensen’s 1870 English edition of Christian Ethics, Socialism and Individualism

Individualism may, like socialism, appear in different circles of life, and we may thus speak of a political, an ecclesiastical, and a religious individualism. This religious individualism has in our century unquestionably found its most important and its noblest expression in Alexander Vinet. In opposition to the social Pantheism which would annul everything individual and concrete, would dethrone personality and make the universal one and all, he with great eloquence exalts the individual as the actually existing, sets this forth as the object of the work of creation. Individuality is the stamp which God has impressed on every human being, his own possession entrusted to him by his Maker, and which he should maintain and protect against the dangers which threaten him on the side of society. For though society (la societe) in one respect is the condition for the development of the individual, and no one can escape from society, yet society has a natural tendency to efface and obliterate individuality.

We are all originals at birth; for in every individual that comes into the world, even in the least gifted and most insignificant, we can perceive an intention of Providence to form a being which is different from all others, and which thus has never existed before. But although we are all born originals, yet most of us die as imitations; for society (la societe) has a tendency to rub off peculiarities and produce similarity amongst individuals. The weaker members of the community are brought, by the force of example, by prejudice and convenience, by the entire legion of social influences, gradually to lose their individuality. They make themselves mere instruments for the whole, and offer, so to speak, their individuality as a contribution to the great general fund of society, where it disappears as in an abyss.

And yet the individual, as Vinet again and again urges, is higher than society, because it is destined to relation with God, to a living and direct union with God, to which society is not destined, as it is only indirectly related to God. It is the privilege of the individual, even the lowliest and most insignificant, to exist for God, to have the capacity of eternal happiness or eternal perdition. Not society, but the individual anticipates a future life, an immortality beyond the grave. And it is only the individual that believes, hopes, obeys, suffers, and loves. It is only the individual who in his conscience is bound and responsible, the individual that is the real object of God’s attention and of His judgment, the individual who ought to be presented, and is daily presented, before the judgment-seat of the Eternal. It is not to humanity in abstracto, not to society, but to the individual, that the gospel addresses itself with its requirements and its promises. It is to the individual that God says in His word, “Come now, and let us reason together “(Isa. 1. 13). Society (la societe) is not a being (un etre), but only an “arrangement” between personal beings.

Or, seen from another point of view, society is an ocean on which the individual soul is cast forth in a little bark to seek the way through the rough billows to the shores of a new world, where it may land. Both the ocean and the bark are worthy of admiration. The bark, which each one of us is called to steer, and in which we are to reach the land in yon new world, is our own individuality. Another, not myself, guides the waves, and appoints their way over the great abyss; but the bark is my own, and the ocean is on account of the bark, not the bark on account of the ocean. For the principal concern, purpose, object, is that the bark should land; that the human individual, which alone stands in immediate relation to God, and is the special object of the work of creation, should fulfill its destiny. All depends, therefore, on the right steering of the bark; for as the sea, the fluid element, which is less fluid than air and less solid than earth, has the twofold capacity to bear up the bark or to engulf it, so also with regard to the fluid social element on which individuality is launched. One may founder in the ocean of society as well as on that of the material world, and it would be of little avail to examine on which of the two oceans the most frequent shipwrecks occur.

This exaltation of individuality expresses certainly a sacred and precious truth, but not the whole truth. No one wall thus be able to deny the deep practical truth in the last figure employed, of the individual cast forth on the ocean in his little bark, which is to reach the shore at length. But if we are to speak in figures, we are acquainted with another emblem of the voyage of man’s life. We are reminded of the gospel picture of Christ with His disciples on the Lake of Gennesareth, where the Lord stilled the tempest and the boisterous waves, and guided the disciples unharmed to the shore. In this we have an emblem of the Church, as a ship which sails across the stormy sea of society. In this picture the voyage is made in company with others, who are all united under the same Master. And we are reminded that we, if we hope to land at last, must be in the right ship, and with the right companions, and have the Master on board.

This emblem is certainly not less just than the first, and expresses a side of the matter which in Vinet’s theory of individuality does not appear. Certainly it too may be taken in a one-sided manner. For if any one should suppose that, because he was outwardly within the vessel of the Church, because he outwardly belonged to the community of the true Church, that therefore he must infallibly land on the shores of bliss, he has fallen into dreadful error. And as a fitting corrective the first emblem may be employed, that each one must embark in the vessel of his own individuality, and pay good heed that he be not swamped by the waves, or, as S. Kierkegaard has expressed the idea, that every man must navigate the sea of this world in his own little kayak.

….

Without figure, with Vinet society does not receive justice; and for this very reason, neither does the individual attain its full measure of what is due to it. However strongly Vinet urges the claims to supremacy of individualism and of personality, still he lacks the idea of a kingdom of personality, the idea of a total organization of personalities. Society (Samfund) the ethical organism, is to him synonymous with the community (Selskabet). The French word la societe has this double meaning, so that it can be employed in either sense, whilst a closer consideration must discover here diversity of conceptions. The community (Selskabet) designates only the external, accidental unity of human individuals; society (Samfund), when it is contrasted with the community (Selskabet) the inner organic unity. In the community (Selskabet) individuals appear as independent, without at the same time being members of a greater moral whole; in society (Samfund) they are only independent in so far as they are at the same time organic members, The community (Selskabet) is a product of the individuals, to be moulded and brought forth by their mutual relation to each other; society (Samfund) is not merely the product, but the postulate of individuals.

212-213

The maxim which recurs again and again in Vinet, that the individual is higher than society, is misleading, if it is to be understood as unconditional. For from this it would follow that society is only to be the means for the individual. It is undeniable that the individual, considered in its eternal destination, does not cease or lose its character of individuality in any of the earthly forms of society; but that it does not cease in the forms of earthly society proceeds exactly from the fact that it is a member in a society of a higher order, that it is called to citizenship in a higher realm. It does not cease in the family, because it is appointed to be a member of the State. It does not cease in the State, because it is appointed to be a member of the kingdom of humanity, which shall be transformed into the kingdom of God. It does not cease in the visible Church, because it is destined for the society of the saints.

The truth is, that at every step of the development of the moral world, it is decreed that there shall be a relation of reciprocity between society and the individual, so that they both shall be means and end for one another. That the individual is higher than society, Vinet grounds on the assumption that only the individual, not society, is the ethical subject.

217-219

What has been here charged against Vinet is true in a greater degree in regard to S. Kierkegaard, who, with great talent and powerful one-sidedness, has been with us the advocate of individualism. As his support of individualism forms a remarkable episode in Danish literature, we shall dwell at somewhat greater length on the matter, although the principal consideration has been already discussed in reference to Vinet, so that what follows on it may be regarded as an episode in the present work. As with Vinet, the contrast between individualism and socialism also with Kierkegaard goes back to a higher, — namely, the contrast between individualism and universalism. It thus becomes necessary for the clearer under- standing of the point to return to the consideration of this last.

vinet, kierkegaard, and martensen

By universalism, then, we understand that tendency of mind which places the universal highest. As now the most universal of all things are pure ideas and categories, so philosophic idealism, as panlogism, must be the purest universalism. This theory found, as is notorious, its representation in our day in the philosophy of Hegel. For this philosophy, in which it is carried out in its purity, must change the whole of existence into an ideal realm, a world of ideas. Every form of reality, nature and history, is contemplated only as a form or phase of thought, and religion itself is only valid as a lower form of knowledge, a possession of the absolute in the form of representation, whilst philosophy had the truth in the form of conception.

Human personality, human individualities, were only temporary representatives of ideas, or mutes in the drama, which the ideal from eternity performs for itself. For history is in reality not the history of man, but the history of ideas. In combination with this philosophic element there prevailed at that time a poetic, artistic idealism, which, indifferent to the individual value or content of art, puts forward the universal, the beautiful form as the essential, and therefore dwells with equal interest on every work of art, collecting its material now from antiquity, now from modern times, from heaven or from earth, from the great or the small, if only the universal or form of beauty be present. The speculative and the esthetic were for this tendency of mind the highest. Where this is consistently carried out, — which, however, is not the case with Hegel himself, for in his idealistic representations there is to be found a not inconsiderable woof of reality, by which means an ambiguity appears, and after a time mystification is inevitable, —consistently carried out, I say, this must also become the highest aim for the individual in the repose of contemplation, to linger in the aerial hall of universalism, with its broad prospects, its logical columns and pillars, its aesthetic pictures from all times and all regions of the earth, — those pictures which, as the ideal transfiguration of reality, are far superior to the immediate reality itself.

In those days there was also much discussion about the logical, the speculative, and the aesthetic bath, which was sometimes represented as a water-bath in the Heraclitic streams of infinity, sometimes as an air-bath in the eternal and changeless ether of pure idea, just as it was also regarded as the true art of life through the finite to inhale the breath of infinity. In this speculative and aesthetic intoxication about ideas, it had only been forgotten that there was one idea, which had entirely disappeared, namely the religious-ethical idea, which does not rest satisfied with a mere ideal being, a being in thought, but demands existence.

Against this universalism must therefore come forth a reaction both from the side of philosophy and theology, a protest in the name of ethics and religion, of personality and individuality, the individual both in men and things; for even the mere knowledge of experience, especially the natural sciences, must make protest against a merely idealistic treatment. Both in the worlds of nature and of mind, the microscopic contemplation is now placed in contrast to the telescopic as applied to infinity, and the sense is developed for the small matters lying close to man, yet often not perceived by him. All depends, however, on the more intimate condition of this reaction, whether the child is to be cast out with the bath, whether universalism in every sense is to be rejected, or whether a higher union of universalism and individualism, of ideal and reality, is to be attempted. We find ourselves here again in the midst of the problem of the middle ages concerning realism and nominalism, but in modern form. The terms in use are certainly quite different; for what the middle ages called realism we call idealism, and what was then designated nominalism we style empiricism. But the matter itself is entirely the same, which may also be seen by the predicates which were employed in the middle ages with regard to the realists, who were called formalizantes metaphysicantes which answers exactly to the idealists of our day.

In the nominalistic reaction here referred to, proceeding from the essential interest, in so far as this moves in the spheres of ethics and religion, Kierkegaard takes up a peculiar position. He considers it as the misfortune of the age to know too much, and with all this knowledge to have forgotten what it is to exist, and the significance of the term subjectiveness; that in view of the aesthetic, the speculative, the history of the world, it has forgotten that the main point is to be an individual man; that the age, by becoming objective, has forgotten that it is the business of every human being to remain subjective. He has therefore made it the aim of his life to promote and carry through the category, “the individual”. Should he ask for an inscription on his grave, he desires no other than this; “The individual man.” If this category of S. Kierkegaard is not understood by the present generation, he is yet persuaded that it will be understood in time coming.

Hans Lassen Martensen, Christian Ethics, General Part, translated by C. Spence p. 206-208, 1870   Socialism and Individualism

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