Hamlet and the Trinitarian nature of man

The Baroque period stands at the transition point between the medieval and the modern, at the crest of the Renaissance and the cusp of the Scientific Revolution. In literature, the baroque stands at the nexus between the Spirit-driven storytelling of the Middle Ages and the Son-driven works of the modern era. As a result, baroque literature, and above all the works of Shakespeare, serves as an ample demonstration of the conjunction of the three drives into a cohesive whole. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in particular, presents an example of a perfectly proportioned dramatic work. In Hamlet, Shakespeare demonstrates the insufficiency of both the purely Father-driven as well as the merely Son-driven and, in the final act, brings the two together into a harmony through the working of the Spirit.

The first half of Hamlet presents a Father-driven narrative which harkens back to the literature of the ancient world. Here the prevailing principles are fate, justice, and the overbearingly paternal. It is the latter element, however, which is the most apparent throughout this section, and which gives birth to the other two. In the first act, three overbearing fathers are introduced: Claudius, Polonius, and the ghost of the father of the eponymous Hamlet. Each of them represents a distortion of the paternal, which distortions in turn inhibit the working of the Son and the Spirit.

Claudius is by far the most egregious and obvious example of this distorted paternal element. He has become the king of Denmark by murdering his own brother, Hamlet’s father, and usurping the throne by marrying Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. In this, he represents a son who has unrightfully taken the place of the father through his own will. This is further demonstrated by his relationship to Hamlet, who, given his relationship to the previous king, is himself the rightful king. Whereas Hamlet, as rightful king, has the priorities of a father, insofar as a king is a father to his people, over Claudius, Claudius exercises a domineering and demeaning paternalism over Hamlet. Indeed, the first time in the play that Claudius addresses Hamlet he addresses him as “my son” (act one, scene two, line 64). Hamlet’s response – “a little more than kin, and less than kind” (line 65) – is more apt than Hamlet is able to realize at that point. Hamlet’s meaning, within the context of the knowledge hitherto available to him, is to condemn the marriage of Claudius to Gertrude, which he sees as having occurred too soon after the death of his father; his words, however, represent a correct evaluation of the yet to be revealed nature of their relationship. Claudius is indeed “a little more than,” or closer than he rightfully should be, in his kinship to Hamlet, which relationship is “less than,” or of an unnatural and disordered, “kind.” Hamlet is rightfully the king who exercises the parental privileges therein entailed over Claudius, yet Claudius, through his murder and usurpation, has placed himself over Hamlet. The father and the son are displaced and the spirit unable to act as the seal and stability of the relationship. In this, the case of Claudius appears more than either Polonius or Hamlet’s father to be a distortion of the paternal element of fate. He has, through his own will, usurped Hamlet’s inheritance and ordains for Hamlet a fate contrary to that fate allotted to Hamlet by nature.

In the following scene (scene 3), Polonius makes his first appearance as a distorted father of another type. While Polonius, unlike Claudius, is without a doubt the rightful father of Laertes and Ophelia, he exercises his paternal privileges in a manner which is to the detriment of both in the hopes of using them to advance his own interests in the service of the king. In a particularly pointed comment in scene two, act two, Hamlet refers to Polonius as a new Jephthah, recalling the biblical figure of the Book of Judges who, in Judges 11 sacrificed his own daughter in order to fulfill a vow he had made to God to sacrifice the first thing upon which he laid eyes when he returned home after battle. The ensuing dialogue (lines 403-413) provides a great deal of insight into Polonius’s personality, and his distortion of the paternal:

Hamlet: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

Polonius: What a treasure had he, my lord?

Hamlet: Why

“One fair daughter, and no more,

The which he loved passing well.”

Polonius: Still on my daughter.

Hamlet: Am I not i’th’ right, old Jephthah?

Polonius: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

Hamlet: Nay, that follows not.

Hamlet sees that Polonius has used his daughter, Ophelia, and the mutual love between she and Hamlet to increase his own stature in the view of the king. In calling Polonius by the name of Jephthah, Hamlet reveals Polonius’s perverse willingness to, in a sense, sacrifice his own daughter to advance his political ambitions. Polonius interprets the reference in the manner most favorable to himself, stating that, just as did Jephthah, he does “have a daughter” whom he “love[s] passing well.” Hamlet, however, ensures Polonius faces the full and intended meaning of the reference: it “follows not” that because Polonius, like Jephthah, had a daughter, Polonius also loves her as did Jephthah. Rather, Polonius’s willingness to sacrifice his daughter is indicative of Polonius’s love for himself first and foremost. Polonius, then, is of the three distortions of fatherhood presented in sequence in the first act, the most representative of a failing in the paternal element of headship. He has distorted the leadership of a father from a self-sacrificing care to a self-serving tyranny.

While Polonius proves incorrect on nearly every accusation and prediction he makes, there is one statement made by him in act one, scene three, which is premonitory in spite of the falsehood of its context. In the course of convincing Ophelia that Hamlet’s love for her is merely passing and lustful rather than an authentic and enduring love, which is itself incorrect, Polonius correctly tells her that “his will is not his own. / For he himself is subject to his birth” (lines 17-18).

The true nature of Hamlet’s subjection to his birth is revealed in act one, scene five, the climax of the first act. The ghost of Hamlet’s father visits to inform Hamlet of his murder at the hands of Claudius, his own brother who had usurped the throne, and to spur him on to vengeance. His father’s ghost informs Hamlet that he is “bound” (line 7) by his relationship to his “dear father” (line 24) to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (line 26). In this scene, there is a confluence of all three elements of the Father-driven; fate, justice, and imperiousness are brought together in this third and culminating example of the distorted paternal. Each of these, however, is itself distorted as well. It is not without irony, for example, that Hamlet’s father, in the course of ordering his son to avenge his murder, admits that he himself is suffering in Purgatory for “the foul crimes done in my days of nature” (line 13), among which crimes were also murder (act one, scene one, line 90) and the usurpation of the rule of the lands formerly in the possession of the murdered (lines 92-93). The call for vengeance by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, then, is not an authentic call for justice and the restoration of proper order, but is rather the product of spite and bitterness in the face of a personal affront. Hamlet’s father, then, although he convenes all three elements of the paternal into himself more than either Claudius and Polonius, represents most of all a distortion in the element of justice.

Ultimately, the distorted fatherhoods of Claudius, Polonius, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father are the source of the conflict at the heart of Hamlet. Hamlet is obligated to avenge his father’s murder yet the object of his vengeance, Claudius, has become the king, “the Dane” (act one, scene one, line 17 and act one, scene two, line 44). As such, he is a representative of the nation itself. To kill him, then, is an attack not only upon his person but upon all of Denmark. Indeed, even when Hamlet does, in the final scene (act five, scene two), finally expose the crime of Claudius and take vengeance upon him for his father’s murder, the immediate reaction of all of those assembled is to cry “Treason! Treason!” (line 325). The bulk of the play documents Hamlet’s attempts to resolve the tension of conflicting filial obligations which must be rendered to his unworthy fathers.

Hamlet feels constrained by his dilemma and is unable to act. He refers to Denmark, and even the whole world (line 245), as a “prison” to which people are thrown “at the hands of Fortune” (act two, scene two, lines 241-242). The next time Hamlet enters the stage after being told by his father’s ghost that his murder must be avenged, Hamlet is in fact wandering about the castle, Elsinore, reading a book (act two, scene two, line 168). Hamlet is, however, soon able to formulate a plan by which he hopes to discover whether Claudius is without a doubt the murderer. Hamlet commissions a group of actors to perform a play which features a crime similar to that committed by Claudius. He hopes that, being so publicly confronted with his crime, Claudius will in some way reveal his guilt. Such a confession on Claudius’s part, whatever its nature, will free Hamlet, so he believes, of his obligations to Claudius and allow him to finally extract the vengeance his father’s ghost desires. Hamlet is, however, more taken in by the actors than even he is able to fully realize.

It is at this point, beginning in act two, scene two, and culminating in act three, scene three, that the play shifts from being Father-driven to being Son-driven. Rather than promptly fulfilling his fate and carrying out the act of vengeance on behalf of his father, Hamlet instead takes control. As Hamlet samples the talents of the actors, the dramatic piece he chooses is indicative of the transition being made in the play. It is a selection from the Aeneid, a powerfully Father-driven work, the piece which the actor presents concluding with a condemnation of fate (act two, scene two, lines 493-497):

Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods

In general synod take away her power!

Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,

And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven

As low as to the fiends!

With this condemnation of fate, there is a decisive break with the Father-driven, which culminates in the peculiar actions of both Claudius and Hamlet in act three, scene three.

Claudius has been presented with his sin by the play put on by Hamlet and Hamlet has been provided the proof he desired by Claudius’s reaction to the play. After the ensuing tumult, Claudius finds himself alone and begins to lament his murder of his brother: “Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven. / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder.” (lines  36-38). In recognizing his crime, Claudius begins the process of repentance and has the opportunity to begin to undo the damage he has caused and thereby set things into proper order. He finds himself unable to proceed, however, declaring (lines 40-43, 51-56):

My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,

And like a man to double business bound

I stand in pause where I shall first begin,

And both neglect. …

My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?

That cannot be, since I am still possessed

Of those effects for which I did the murder:

My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

Claudius finds himself at the center of a conflict between the elements of Father and Son. He feels compelled to restore order, yet desires to retain the possessions he had acquired as a result of his sin.

In the same scene, Hamlet also finds himself in the midst of such a conflict. While Claudius is kneeling in his vacillating prayer, Hamlet quietly enters behind him and sees his opportunity to finally kill Claudius and avenge his father (lines 73-75):

Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so ‘a goes to heaven,

And so am I revenged.

Like Claudius, however, Hamlet hesitates. He believes that if he were to kill Claudius now, while he is praying, Claudius’s soul will go straight to Heaven. For Hamlet, though, this is not enough. He does not desire mere justice, but to send the soul of Claudius to Hell. He decides, therefore, to wait until such a time that he might find Claudius (lines 89-92)

when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed,

At game, a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’it –

Both Hamlet and Claudius have moved away from the Father-driven. Both refuse to fulfill their fates and obligations and turn instead to their own will, to the Son-driven. Claudius avoids submission to the Fatherhood of God, and the restoration of justice and order which this would inevitably bring. Hamlet, for his part, goes beyond the command of his father and insists on much more than justice. It is at this point, with the resolution of the coterminous indecision of Hamlet and Claudius, caught up between the Father and the Son but without the guidance and activity of the Spirit, that Hamlet the play turns in a decidedly Son-driven direction.

The most central feature of this Son-driven section of Hamlet, which lasts until the final scene, is the feigned madness of Hamlet, which began in act two, scene two, and its contrast with the authentic madness of Ophelia. Hamlet’s pretension to madness is a mimicry of the power of the Spirit. Through his own will, he attempts to drive the course of events toward the resolution he desires. The result is further disorder. Almost immediately after deciding not yet to kill Claudius, Hamlet murders Polonius (act three, scene four), an act which drives Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius and the woman whom Hamlet loves, to insanity, an insanity which eventually results in her suicide (act four, scene seven). Laertes, the son of Polonius, is, in turn, driven to his own sort of madness in his raving desire to slay Hamlet in revenge for the death of his father. In his rage, Laertes puts into words the Son-driven impetus behind the entire section: “My will, not all the world’s” (act four, scene five).

Even while feigning his madness and leaving a profusion of disorder in his wake, Hamlet also moves through this section to awareness of his inability to restore order by his own will; he realizes, in other words, the insufficiency of the Son-driven. The event which is the paramount impetus toward this realization is his observation of a gravedigger digging a grave.

As the gravedigger digs, he throws several skulls out of his way. Hamlet’s initial reaction is one of righteous indignation at the apparent sacrilege (lines 75-80):

That skull had a tongue in it and could sin once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if ‘twere Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not?

This indignation, however, soon transforms itself into a realization of the mortality of man and the resultant insufficiency of the human will to restore order with its own power. As he watches the gravedigger toss another skull, Hamlet wonders (lines 98-103):

Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?

The realization finally breaks through fully when Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, on the ground. Picking up the skull, Hamlet reminisces on his experiences with Yorick and asks the skull, “where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not on now, to mock your own grinning?” (lines 188-191). Each man will someday die, Hamlet realizes, and be subject to the will of another. Even those who in life held great power and whose will was effective will not be able to defend themselves against wrongs, much less put right the many and various disorders and wrongs of the world more generally. The will, the Son, is insufficient when separated from the guidance of the Father and the activity of the Spirit.

Hamlet is finally pushed decidedly away from the Son-driven when he discovers the funeral of Ophelia in progress. Shocked at least into action by the sight and spurred onto understanding, Hamlet’s earlier statement (act four, scene two), made during his period of feigned madness that “the body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing –” here comes to full fruition. Hamlet realizes that he is himself the king; as he enters the area where the funeral rites are being performed he announces himself as “Hamlet the Dane” (act five, scene one, line 258), as the living embodiment of the state in a particular person, a position only the king can claim. He has become, in a sense, the father, thereby reconciling the Father and the Son.

The three references to Hercules, the prototypical Son-driven character, over the course of Hamlet are particularly illustrative of the realization and transition which Hamlet is here undergoing. The first, in act one, scene two, is an uncharacteristically self-aware statement by Hamlet in the course of voicing a complaint against Claudius to Horatio. “My father’s brother,” he says, “but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (lines 152-153). Hamlet’s confession of his unlikeness to Hercules is revelatory of the events which will ensue later in the play. While Hamlet is, like Hercules, the son of a king, he lacks the will and the power of Hercules and is unable to accomplish his task through his own strength. The second reference to Hercules comes in act two, scene two, in which Rosencrantz refers to the ability of actors to “carry … away,” meaning win, “Hercules and his load too” (lines 360-362), a fact proven only slightly later in the ability of an actor to cause Hamlet to “[turn] his color and [have] tears in his eyes” (lines 519-520), which moment inspires Hamlet’s plan to put on a play for Claudius about his crime and thereby expose him. In spite of his earlier admission that he is no Hercules, Hamlet has decided to become Hercules, taking on the task and seeking to conquer it by his own will. The final reference to Hercules, however, comes at the end of act five, scene one, and the final transition from the Son-driven section of Hamlet to the Spirit-driven final scene in which the Spirit accomplishes a reconciliation of the Fatherly and Sonly elements. It is here, after reconciling the Fatherly and Sonly elements within himself, that Hamlet proclaims “let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day” (lines 294-295). Hamlet’s reconciliation of Father and Son is the moment of anagnorisis, his realization of his self and his predicament, which finally allows the effective action of the Spirit.

It is this effective action which is the subject of act five, scene two, the final scene of the play. In a fast-moving succession of events, justice and mercy, Father and Son, are reconciled. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is killed by drinking from a cup of poison intended for Hamlet (line 313), receiving her justice for her betrayal of her former husband in her incestuous relationship with his brother in a marriage only two months after the death of her former husband. Immediately, Hamlet forces Claudius also to drink from the cup, finally exacting the revenge he had so long hesitated to administer (line 329). Hamlet and Laertes then die from wounds inflicted by each upon the other with a sword dipped in poison. Before their respective deaths, however, the two “exchange forgiveness” with each other (line 331), thereby allowing not only justice to have its way but mercy as well. Finally, Hamlet dies of his wound, having brought his will into line with fate, mercy with justice, and the Father with the Son, resulting in his actions, the effective working of the Spirit. As Hamlet himself says in the same scene shortly before his fencing match against Laertes (217-222):

We defy augury. There is special providence in the final of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

Through letting it be, the Trinitarian elements of man are able to find their confluence in Hamlet.

The final reconciliation and confluence of the three follows after the death of Hamlet. Upon Hamlet’s death, Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince of Denmark enters to find the bodies of Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet strewn about following the action of the scene. Upon the discovery of what had occurred, Fortinbras completes the work of the Spirit, restoring justice in revenge for his father, whom Hamlet’s father had murdered, by taking over the rule of Denmark (390-392), allowing the working of mercy in ordering that Hamlet be honored as a deceased Danish king (lines 397-405), and compelling Horatio to tell the story of Hamlet (388-389).

In all of this, Hamlet presents a remarkable contrast with both Father-driven ancient literature and Son-driven modern literature, where both might suitably end, each for its own reason, immediately following the death of Hamlet, rather than allowing the introduction of Fortinbras to set things right altogether. The Aeneid, for example, presents a powerful contrast as a representative of Father-driven literature; Aeneas, the hero driven by his fate, slays his enemy, Turnus, in rage (Book 12, lines 950-953):

Incensed, he thrust the sword through Turnus’ chest.

His enemy’s body soon grew cold and helpless,

While the indignant soul flew down to Hades.

And there the Aeneid ends, perhaps with the restoration of justice, as Aeneas’s murder of Turnus was in revenge for Turnus’s murder of Pallas, but certainly without mercy and without reconciliation, without Son and Spirit. The Old Man and the Sea presents a counterpoint in Son-driven literature. Rather than the accurate account of Horatio, a living witness, before an eager audience, the story of the old man, Santiago, and his epic struggle at sea with a large marlin remains untold. Instead, a group of tourists spot the half-eaten marlin on the beach and misidentify it as a shark, learning nothing further of the fish or the old man who struggled to bring it ashore. The Old Man and the Sea ends where it remained throughout: in the Son and without Father, as there is no vindication for Santiago, and without Spirit, as there is no memory of him, no one to tell the story of his heroics.

What Shakespeare has accomplished in Hamlet is a perfect harmony of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as these three manifest themselves in man and his literary productions. He has demonstrated the need to bring them into harmony within oneself, most of all in the character of Hamlet, as well as exhibiting the harmony of the three in a work of literature.

Freedom of the will

For the Christian, the issue of the freedom of the human will presents a dilemma. If free will is affirmed, the risk is run of denying the sovereignty of God. There is some justice in the assertion of John Calvin, a theologian for whom the sovereignty of God was a central concern, that those who believe in the freedom and effectiveness of the human will can affirm not a true omnipotence for God but rather a “vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence.” On the other hand, however, an assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God to the exclusion of free will, such as the assertion Calvin himself made, plunges the Christian into the world of fatalism, whose guiding credo Machiavelli accurately described as the belief “that it is not necessary to labor much in affairs, but to let chance govern them.” This fatalistic perspectives also casts doubt upon the justice of God’s judgments; if, as, for example, Augustine avers, there is no activity in the world no matter how seemingly insignificant “outside of the laws of His providence,” that is, whose ultimate source of volition is the will of God, eternal rewards for virtue and punishments for vice are of questionable purpose and dubious equity. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, however, Dante offers a solution to the dilemma through the words of Marco, one of the penitent souls in Purgatory.

There, Dante inquires of Marco concerning the source of the evils in the world, “so that I may see it and show it to men, for one places it in the heavens and another here below.” Marcos begins his response to Dante with “a deep sigh” at the question, exclaiming “brother, the world is blind, and truly you come from it!” He explains his annoyance, saying, “You who are living refer every cause upwards to the heavens alone, as if they of necessity moved all things with them.” For Marco, the question itself is demonstrative of a desire to renounce responsibility by positing inevitability.

Marco then goes on to describe the problem with this belief. If “free will” were “destroyed in you,” he says, “there would be no justice in happiness for good or grief for evil.” Without human free will, the entire moral structure of the universe and the cosmic system of reward, punishment, and repentance through which Dante was making his way and in which Marco was currently suffering for the sake of future reward would disintegrate. If the structure of the cosmos is to be sensible and just, human beings must be free moral agents. It must be, then, says Marco, that “if the present world goes astray, in you is the cause.”

Marco’s emphatic declarations concerning human free will, however, do not, for him, undermine the sovereignty of God. On the contrary, human freedom is a credit to the sovereignty of God rather than a debit from it. “You lie subject, in your freedom,” Marco says, “to a greater power and to a better nature, and that creates the mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge.” It is, then, a testimony to the power of God that he created man in a manner that allows him to surpass the dictates of fate derived from the stars.

While Marco admits “the heavens initiate your movements,” that is, that there are impulses which arise in man naturally and over whose arising man does not possess control, he says that “a light is given you to know good and evil,” meaning that man has the ability to choose to follow these impulses or, instead, to resist them. Man, then, is uniquely endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil, a freedom which, far from denying the sovereignty of God, rather derives from and testifies to it. Indeed, the power of freedom with which man is endowed is so great that if “free will … endure fatigue in its first battles with the heavens, afterwards, if it is well nurtured, it conquers completely.”

In this short explanation of man’s freedom in the face of fate, Dante, through Marco, has adequately reconciled fate and free will while avoiding the respective pitfalls opened up by too great an emphasis on either. He has, on the one hand, affirmed the freedom of the human will, a necessary component of any worldview with a sense of cosmic justice, of which Christianity is undoubtedly the preeminent example. Simultaneously, he has also affirmed the existence of powerful forces external to man which draw him toward a foreordained destiny, while not allowing that these forces cancel out the free choices of persons. Perhaps most importantly, Dante has reconciled human freedom to the sovereignty of God in describing free will as an essential component of the will and activity of God rather than an external component somehow foreign to or incompatible with God’s omnipotence.

Fate and freedom

The tension between fate and freedom is a tension that runs throughout the history of man’s thought on history. It is, no doubt, a tension that arises from the direct experience of man in the world. When considering his past, he is tempted to see himself as having been inexorably drawn toward his present situation. The choices and circumstances of his life have led him, inevitably it seems, to the point at which he currently stands. When he looks forward to his future, however, he feels as if the choices he makes are made freely and are the decisive factors that will lead him to where he will be. When faced with a fork in the road, a person will typically feel as if the direction he embarks is one that he chooses for himself. The tension between fate and free will is particularly evident and acute in the study of history.

The earliest works of history and literature evince a precarious indecisiveness in their treatment of fate and freedom. Homer’s Iliad, for example, opens with an invocation to “sing, o goddess, the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, which hurled many mighty souls to Hades.” Shortly after, however, Homer attributes the events he records to “the will of Zeus.” There is a contrast here, within the first few lines of one of the earliest great works of historical literature, between the effectiveness of the decisions and actions of Achilles and the fate decreed by the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. It is a tension that Homer does little to resolve throughout the Iliad. While the gods incite and direct the Trojan war, in this revealing to us the otherwise hidden hand of fate, Homer takes great pains to list the names of each of the “mighty souls” who fought, implying a significance to their choices and actions as particular persons.

Later historians in the Greco-Roman tradition do little to resolve this tension first seen in Homer’s works. While adopting an approach to history that usually concentrates upon the decisions of great men, their personalities and their activities, Greek and Roman historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Plutarch, as well as later poets like Virgil, simultaneously give credit to fate as the determinative factor in the lives of persons, nations, and civilizations. Plutarch, for instance, demonstrates his belief in the significance of great men in the shaping of the Roman past in his approach to history through biography. Plutarch begins his Life of Alexander with a plain statement of his purposes; there, he conveys his desire to examine the influence of a person’s virtues and vices upon his life. In his Life of Romulus, however, Plutarch appeals to fortune as the primary determinative factor in the rise of the Roman Empire, asking his reader to “consider that the Roman power would hardly have reached so high a pitch without a divinely ordered origin.”

The Christian historians of the Middle Ages and later approach history with quite different conceptions of human significance and the nature of fate than their pagan precursors; the tension between fate and free will, however, is not entirely resolved by these authors. Augustine, for example, in his attempts to formulate a Christian understanding of history in his City of God, argues vociferously against any role for the celestial bodies in determining human events. He does not, however, take issue with the idea of fate, but, rather, with the terminology in that the notion attributes the flow of history to the impersonal forces of fortune rather than to the guidance of a personal God. “In a word,” he says, “human kingdoms are established by divine providence. And if anyone attributes their existence to fate, because he calls the will or the power of God itself by the name of fate, let him keep his opinion, but correct his language.” Augustine goes on only shortly after this, however, to ask, “What judgment … is left to God concerning the deeds of men … when to these deeds a celestial necessity is attributed?” There seems good reason to wonder similarly, however, about the justice of God’s judgment when the deeds of men are attributed to a divine necessity which is merely fortune under another name.

In the modern historians, the deterministic force of history is once again depersonalized and at last de-divinized. Rather than positing a metaphysical fortune as in the ancient pagan authors or the providence of a personal God as in the medieval Christians, the modern authors instead espouse a theory of history determined by purely material factors. Karl Marx is perhaps the ultimate example of this modern belief in the supreme power of impersonal material forces in his belief that all societies are governed by “natural laws of … movement.” For Marx, economic forces are the determinant, indeed the only truly effective, forces in history. While later modern thinkers have occasionally replaced the economic with the geographic, the technological, or the genetic, the attribution of preeminence in the movement of history to material factors remains the predominant mode of thought to the present day.

A survey of the history of historical thought reveals a dichotomy in emphasis upon and attribution to the forces of fate and human will in shaping the history of mankind, a dichotomy that often exists, and creates a tension within the thought of, a single author. While the trajectory of historical thinking has been toward a minimization of the role of the choices and actions of particular persons in the unfolding of history, there remains the problem most succinctly stated by John Lukacs: “no free will, no history — no history in our sense of history.” Hence, while Homer and Plutarch attributed the great events they recorded to the decrees of fortune, they also found it necessary to provide extensive lists of great men and their great deeds. While Augustine attributes the upbuilding of great kingdoms to the providence of God, fate by any other name, he also defends at length the particularity of persons and the possibility of choice in vice and virtue. And Marx, most ironically, decreed the supreme decisiveness of the material and impersonal, yet himself became one of the greatest forces in the shaping of twentieth century history.

Slave Morality and Master Morality

Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that morality and ethical values in general are of the utmost importance for the way people live. Ultimately, one’s morality determines the ends that one seeks to achieve and the means by which one goes about achieving them. Nietzsche took a historical, or “genealogical,” approach to philosophy in which he sought to find the origins of various ideas in order to determine their truth and worth. In his examination of the genealogy of morality, he discovered the origins of contemporary values in a revolt of the weak against the strong. This led him to contrast what he labeled as “master morality” with the “slave morality” which he believed opposed to it.

Nietzsche believed that, earlier in human history, a more natural form of morality had been predominant. He labeled this moral system “master morality,” or “aristocratic morality” (West, 2010, p. 149). This morality had been practiced among the strong, a minority which consisted of those who dominated the weak majority. It included “values such as courage, generosity and magnanimity or greatness of spirit” that “reflect[ed] … strength and vitality” (ibid.). These values, according to Nietzsche, were practiced among the strong and the noble. In demonstration of his position, he drew upon the examples of the heroes of the ancient Greeks as found in Homer’s works and elsewhere. Among them, the strong held a mutual respect for each other and practiced these virtues in their interactions but held a contempt and disdain for the weak.
The weak, according to Nietzsche, had a morality of their own. This “slave morality” saw things as “good and evil” rather than “good and bad” as the master morality posited (ibid.). Whereas master morality was based on a mutual reciprocation among the equally strong, slave morality sought to force all, including the strong, to become equal. The slaves, unable to create their own values due to their weakness, made morality a matter of force rather than freedom, as among the masters, who could create their own values in their strength. In addition, the content of slave morality was such as was of benefit to the weak, including values like “pity, humility, and self-sacrifice” (ibid.). As such, Nietzsche saw slave morality as intrinsically tied to weakness and degeneration as well as inherently selfish on the part of the weak, a symptom of their lowness. Nietzsche saw the rise of slave morality as linked historically to the personages of Socrates and especially Christ. As a result of Christianity, according to Nietzsche, slave morality had become the prevailing moral worldview of Europeans.
Nietzsche did not confine his criticisms of slave morality and its origins to an argument against Christianity. Perhaps his greatest target in these criticisms were those inheritors of the Enlightenment who attempted to maintain Christian values without Christian theology. For Nietzsche, however, “when one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (Nietzsche, 1990, p. 80). Nietzsche followed logic and his genealogical method through to where it led him. As a result, he found that it was absurd to attempt to maintain a set of values while ridding oneself of the philosophical or religious foundations of those values. On the contrary, if “God is dead,” as Nietzsche famously said, all of the values based upon his existence and nature as understood by Christians must also be done away with. The atheists and other non-believers who continued to practice and propound Christian values were, then, just as guilty of continuing slave morality as were Christians.
According to Nietzsche, this slavery morality, forcing servile “virtues” born of the selfishness and jealousy of the low-minded, impeded the greatness of people. Those who were natural aristocrats, the strong and noble, were restrained in their powers by slave morality. As a result, they were unable to practice the master morality that their dignity and strength demanded. Nietzsche saw most of the Western philosophical tradition subsequent to Socrates and especially Christianity as the primary culprits in the propagation of slave morality. Because of this, he saw Christianity and Socratic philosophy as impediments to the human spirit and all of those who continued to espouse those values as impeding the same. Nietzsche saw the greatness of humanity as being prevented by a set of values he saw as beneath human dignity.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1990). The twilight of the idols and the Anti-Christ: or how to philosophize with a hammer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Religion in Kierkegaard

The one word which seems to recur most frequently when the topic of Søren Kierkegaard’s views on religion are discussed is “passion,” along, of course, with its cogates. In Antony Aumann’s paper “Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy,” for instance, he characterizes Kierkegaard’s view of Christianity as “a passionate and unconditional commitment to following Christ” (2009, p. 233). Similarly, Paul Tillich, in his History of Christian Thought, says of Kierkegaard’s understanding of religion that religion is that “which produces infinite passion” (1968, p. 466). For Kierkegaard, religion is, as is demonstrated by this frequent focus on passion by those who describe it, an intense and intensely personal thing and far more an activity, or a “doing,” than an idea, or a “believing.”

 In understanding what all of this means to Kierkegaard, perhaps the first notion that must be gotten rid of is the idea of religion as a set of ideas to which one assents. Aumann states plainly that “Kierkegaard rejects the idea that faith involves simply assenting to certain propositions” (2009, p. 233). It is the common conception that a religion, especially a dogmatic, creedal religion like Christianity, is a set of doctrines and practices and that one is an adherent of that religion if one gives mental assent to those doctrines and engages in those practices. Kierkegaard, however, rejects this understanding of religion altogether. To merely “believe” in the sense of simply agreeing, but not actually feeling the truth of, those doctrines is not enough. Nor is it enough even to engage in the religious practices of a given religious community as David West points, saying that Kierkegaard noted “the emptiness of merely external observances within the established church” (2010, p. 142). Real religion, according to Kierkegaard, must be an overwhelming and overwhelmingly inward experience. To merely “go through the motions” and not to engage passionately is insufficient to true religion.

True religion, according to Kierkegaard, is “an inward renewal, a return to the original purity and ferocity of Christianity” (West, 2010, p. 142). This concept of an “inward renewal” means that it must be something that is deeply and passionately felt, not just thought, nodded in assent to, or even understood. In fact, one need not even have a great understanding of the historical circumstances of Christ or the intricacies of Christian thought and theology to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word. Rather, what is required is an existential commitment to living out the commands of Christ.

The paradox in Kierkegaard’s thought on this matter is that one must simultaneously acknowledge that one will never be able to actually live out those commandments fully. To live the Christian life in this passionate and complete kind of way is, in fact, impossible. It is, however, one’s unwavering dedication to doing so that is important. In short, one must make the Christian way of life into one’s own way of life, one’s ultimate and driving goal being the complete attainment to it.

In addition, for Kierkegaard, this overarching commitment must not be contingent on reason. Kierkegaard rebelled, in addition, against those who attempted to find a solid foundation for evidence in favor of the Christian faith in the historical record surrounding the gospels as well. In fact, as reasonable notions, including all of the philosophical proofs, theological arguments, and historical evidences, are insufficient guides in making a decision for or against religion, reason not only should not but cannot be the cause of one’s commitment. On the contrary, one must make a “leap of faith” in his commitment to follow out the way of Christianity.

In making this leap of faith, one must in a sense “jump” beyond reason and any attempt at objectivity to a purely subjective, personal dedication. This jump is the only way to overcome the estrangement inherent in the human condition, or what Kierkegaard referred to as the “sickness unto death” (Tillich, 1968, p. 463). This “sickness unto death,” according to Kierkegaard, is a state that all men hold in common. It is the state of feeling and even really being guilty but, possibly, possessing no knowledge of what it is one is guilty of. Ultimately, says Kierkegaard, it is the inherent knowledge, even if somewhat vague and incomprehensible, that one is separated from God. The only way to overcome this separation is through the existential commitment everyone is called to in Christianity, and the only way to make this commitment is via a leap of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard’s view of religion as a passionate experience was seen by him as a way of overcoming both the insufficiency of evidence for religion and the estrangement that he saw as the only alternative to a life of faith. His views led him to reject both intellectual assent to a set of doctrines and the outward rituals of a religious community as insufficient to true religion. True religion, for Kierkegaard, is a personal and passionate commitment to and a constant engagement in obediently following out the commands of Christ, even when these commands seem impossible to fulfill. It is only in this way, according to Kierkegaard, that religion becomes meaningful.

Aumann, A. (2009). Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy. Continental Philosophy Review, 42, 221–248. doi:10.1007/s11007-009-9104-2

West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.