D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

Judge For Yourself!

  • Judge for Yourself! For Self-Examination, Recommended to the Present Age. Second Series
  • Dømmer selv! Til Selvprøvelse, Samtiden Anbefalet. Anden Række
  • 1851, published posthumously (1876)
  • KW21, SKS16, SV12

This work is very closely linked to For Self-Examination, and shares similar themes, but like several of Kierkegaard's compositions, remained unpublished in his lifetime. It was published in 1876 by Kierkegaard's brother Peter Christian. Like For Self-Examination this work is direct and accessible, and was intended to be published under his own name. One can see how Kierkegaard set aside the more erudite philosophical concerns and, with more singularity of intent, approached the religious. Again, he recommends that this work be read aloud.

The subtitle of this work, "For Self-Examination: Recommended to the Present Age", refers to Kierkegaard's view of his own time period contrasted with the previous (revolutionary) age (see Two Ages). In short, the present age is reflective, but lacks passion. By reflective, Kierkegaard did not primarily mean knowledgeable or wise, but self-referential, and hence inert. On the other hand, he could never resist a jibe against the Hegelian "System", and the negative side of reflection may refer to knowledge derived from that system.

In the preface Kierkegaard addresses this work to "the individual". "What does it mean to be and to will to be the single individual? It means to have and to will to have a conscience". The work is divided into two chapters, the first being "Becoming Sober". The text is from 1Peter 4.7. Kierkegaard begins by addressing the Pentecost scene. The Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, who are heard to speak in the languages of many men. Some of the onlookers scoff and say they are drunk. Kierkegaard uses this passage to call his reader not only to soberness, but to see the contrast between the world and the Spirit.

That is the way secularity and Christianity are related to each other. It was not only about the apostles, not only about them on Pentecost day that it was said: They are full of sweet wine—no, this was and is and remains the world's judgment of the essentially Christian. Christianity, however, is of the opinion that particularly the apostles, and especially on Pentecost Day, were in the highest sense sober, pure spirit. And Christianity is of the opinion that particularly the true Christian is sober, that on the contrary the less Christian anyone else is the more that person is in a state of intoxication (p. 97f.).

Kierkegaard's either/or message is that between being in Christ and not in Christ, between drunkenness and sobriety, between spirit and spiritlessness. There is no in-between state. The world has inverted the truth. Being caught up in the spirit is sobriety. Christ is usually held up a model of wisdom, sagacity and sobermindedness, yet he did not behave in a tame fashion.

From the Christian point of view, it would be high praise if there were a person of whom it could be said: He was the most sensible man of his day, the most sagacious man in the country; everyone knew that if one wished the most sagacious advice in a difficult and complex case it would not be futile to go to him; it would be futile only to go to someone else—but as for acting sagaciously himself, no, that he never did! With a purity like that of a virgin and a blushing modesty like that of an adolescent, he detested acting sagaciously. His life was on the other side of probability; there he lived, there he breathed, there he ventured, in reliance upon God—he, the most sensible of all! This is Christianity!... To become sober is: to come to oneself in self-knowledge and before God as nothing before him, yet infinitely, unconditionally engaged (p. 103f.).

In response to those who try to tame Christianity by making it a doctrine or teaching, Kierkegaard says,

It is explained that Christianity is a "doctrine", and then it is declared that "this doctrine has transformed the face of the world." O we fools, or we sly rascals! No, never has any doctrine—served by that which weighs it down and makes it finite, by status people and salaried officials—transformed the face of the world, which is just as impossible as getting a kite to ascend by means of what draws it down, the weight. Never has any doctrine, served in that way, ever been able to arouse a scrap of persecution—and this is certainly unavoidable if there is going to be any question of transforming the world—such people will certainly guard it and themselves against that. No, but Christianity—and this is the crucial point that makes this doctrine something other than a doctrine—was served by witnesses to the truth, who, instead of having profit and every profit from this doctrine, sacrificed and sacrificed everything for this doctrine, witnesses to the truth, who did not, and together with a family, live off the doctrine but lived and died for the doctrine. Because of that Christianity became power, power, became the power that was able to transform the world. It was served in that way for some three hundred years; in that way Christianity became the power in the world (p. 129).

The statement—"who, instead of having profit and every profit from this doctrine, sacrificed and sacrificed everything for this doctrine"—is a theme he would return to in his attack upon Christendom. Rather than sacrificing themselves, priests are concerned with their own livelihood (see Articles from the Fatherland).

Chapter two is entitled "Christ as the Prototype, or No Man Can Serve Two Masters". Kierkegaard uses Matthew 6.24ff. for his the text, as the title suggests. Kierkegaard repeats his theme unrelentingly that Christianity will tolerate no compromise, that the world has gone one way, and the Christian must go the other way. Moreover, official (or secularized) Christianity has forgotten this fact. Kierkegaard's thesis, as in For Self-Examination is the imitation of Christ.

Imitation, the imitation of Christ, is really the point from which the human race shrinks. The main difficulty lies here: here is where it is really decided whether or not one is willing to accept Christianity. If there is emphasis on this point, the stronger the emphasis the fewer the Christians. If there is a scaling down at this point (so that Christianity becomes, intellectually, a doctrine), more people enter into Christianity. If it is abolished completely (so that Christianity becomes, existentially, as easy as mythology and poetry and imitation an exaggeration, a ludicrous exaggeration), then Christianity spreads to such a degree that Christendom and the world are almost indistinguishable, or all become Christians; Christianity has completely conquered—that is, it is abolished (p. 188)!

Kierkegaard maintained that representatives of official Christianity have failed to adhere to the true faith because, in part, they do not imitate Christ. Here, he included the "professor" of Christianity.

To suffer for the doctrine, to will to suffer for it—not accidentally to happen to suffer for it—well, that kind of Christianity has become obsolete.... Through the conceiving of Christianity as doctrine, the situation in Christendom has become utter confusion, and the definition of what it is to be a Christian has become almost indistinguishable. Therefore Christ as the prototype must be advanced, but not in order to alarm—yet it is perhaps an altogether superfluous concern that anyone could be alarmed by Christianity nowadays—but in any case not in order to alarm; we ought to learn that from the experience of earlier times. No, the prototype must be advanced in order at least to procure some respect for Christianity, to make somewhat distinguishable what it means to be a Christian, to get Christianity moved out of the realm of scientific scholarship and doubt and nonsense (objective) and into the realm of the subjective, where it belongs just as surely as the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, did not bring any doctrine into the world and never delivered lectures, but as the prototype required imitation, yet by his reconciliation expels, if possible, all anxiety from a person's soul (p. 201, 209).

Judge For Yourself! concludes with "The Moral". First Kierkegaard says he will be an escort to any who wants to imitate Christ, that he will walk the path side by side with the follower of Christ. Then he concludes with a note on "reforming" the Church. Here are the closing words of the book.

And this I venture to say of myself: in this generation there is no one who strikes a more unerring blow than I, when it is my task or when someone fraudulently passes himself off as the extraordinary—this unerring blow that I learned through association with the ideals, in which one learns, deeply humbled, to hate oneself, but, because one nevertheless had the courage that dares to become involved with them, one receives as a gift of grace the power to strike the blow.

If, however, there is no one in this generation who ventures in character to undertake the task of "reformer," then—unless the established order, instead of making confession of the truth that Christianly it is only a toned-down approximation of Christianity, claims to be in the strict sense true Christianity according to the New Testament and thereby judges and destroys itself—then the established order should stand, be maintained.

...So let it be said as loudly as possible, and would that it might be heard, if possible, everywhere, and God grant that wherever it is heard it may be earnestly considered: The evil in our time is not the established order with its many faults. No, the evil in our time is precisely: this evil penchant for reforming, this flirting with wanting to reform, this sham of wanting to reform without being willing to suffer and to make sacrifices, this frivolous conceitedness of wanting to be able to reform without even having a conception, to say nothing of a lofty conception, of how uncommonly elevated is the idea of "to reform," this hypocrisy of avoiding the consciousness of one's own incompetence by being busy with the diversion of wanting to reform the Church, which our age is least of all competent to do. When the Church needed a reformation, no one reported for duty, there was no crowd to join up; all fled away. Only one solitary man, the reformer, was disciplined in all secrecy by fear and trembling and much spiritual trial for venturing the extraordinary in God's name. Now that all want to reform, there is an uproar as if it were in a public dance hall. This cannot be God's idea but is a foppish human device, which is why, instead of fear and trembling and much spiritual trial, there is: hurrah, bravo, applause, balloting, bumbling, hubbub, noise—and false alarm (p. 211ff.).

One can see that Kierkegaard's writing is not far from his openly polemic tracts that he will write from late 1854 through 1855 attacking official Christianity. He always said that he was "without authority" and indeed no reformer. He wished to finish this book on the note of reformation, knowing that he himself could not vaunt himself as a true reformer, but simply a solitary individual trying to imitate Christ. And in contrast to the "false alarm" of the final sentence, he would soon sound a "fire alarm" in one of his tracts.