Kierkegaard: “The [one] who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.”
Down through the history of philosophy in the West, metaphysical realists have believed in “the Good,” in a deep foundation or high ideal on which all our values are oriented. The great Plato even made it the sun-center of his thought system, explaining our appreciation of goodness in the realm of time as the intuition of an eternal or timeless Form reflected to varying degrees in the world around us. Later on, the Church father Augustine interpreted this and other forms of perfection as archetypes in the mind of God, the essential patterns on which Creation was originally fashioned and from which it eventually fell, under the spell of sin.
In the high Middle Ages, philosophers began to challenge this idea of transcendental Forms (archetypes, models, divine ideas) having a separate existence in a realm apart from their incarnations in time. Nominalism insisted that these so-called Forms are only categories in our minds, names we use to organize and make sense of reality – whatever that is. This was the bridge in Western philosophy that gave support to even more radical views later on, in the set of assumptions called postmodernism: (1) all we have is perspective, (2) meaning is constructed, and (3) there are no absolutes.
Kierkegaard was in this new current of thought, so why does he still refer to “the Good” as if it is something out there that we might desire, whether for the sake of a reward or not? Does the Good exist in some other realm, apart from this web of relativity we call our world? If there were no human beings, would there still be the Good? A little farther into the nineteenth century Nietzsche would insist on our evolutionary need to go “beyond good and evil” – beyond tribal morality, the dis/obedient ego, and the mythological god who holds it all in place – for the sake of a higher humanity (his Ubermensch or higher self). Is Kierkegaard trying to prevent what Nietzsche later celebrated?
It may sound as if he is saying, “Okay, we’re making it all up – except this one thing, the Good.” Like the vestige of the mythological god who still lurks behind the screen for many post-theists today, perhaps the Good is Kierkegaard’s attempt to fix in place just one thing that can serve as the immovable center of this (only) apparent chaos. At least there’s this, we can say. This is absolute and for certain, whatever else may be called into doubt.
But what if “the Good” is more internal than external, more about the intention in what we do than something we look for and find out there in the world? What if it’s about focus, passion and devotion – what you regard in all seriousness as the “one thing” that matters most. This is what Tillich means by “ultimate concern.” Its separate existence, either outside you in the world or in a metaphysical realm apart from this one, is merely secondary. Maybe “the Good” is not what we will but the way we will, a quality of intention rather than a quantifiable something out there.
Human beings make meaning, we don’t find it – unless we come across what someone else has created already. Once upon a time we composed a myth that conceived of existence itself as the creation of a god who made everything before we got here. So we’re coming across what someone else has created already, all the time, and its meaning is inherent because god put it there. But once we realize that the mythological god is a literary and psychological device in our own effort at meaning-making, a new kind of responsibility befalls us.
In the film City Slickers, the character Mitch is a man who has reached the point at midlife where meaning and purpose have drained from his world. In the spirit of adventure – and as a kind of desperate measure to get out of his boring life routine – he and his friends sign up for a cattle-drive across the western United States. In a critical scene Mitch is sitting with an old cowhand named Curly, whose way in the world is tough and crass, and he asks him the question that’s been burning in his soul: “What’s the meaning of life?” Curly pauses, looks deep in his eyes and says to Mitch, “One thing.”
For a while thereafter, Mitch is perplexed over what that “one thing” might be. Is it a woman? A successful career? Religion? When Norman, a calf that Mitch delivers under Curly’s supervision, is in danger of drowning in a fast-moving stream, Mitch jumps in at the risk of his own life and saves the animal. In that moment he discovers the “one thing” as the object of his unconditional love and personal sacrifice. After the adventure he goes back to his life with renewed intention, embracing in gratitude and devotion what had earlier felt only heavy and pointless.
This is what I think Kierkegaard means by “the Good.” It’s not out there for us to find. Instead it’s the degree of focus, passion and investment with which we live our lives. Living “on purpose” means that we are living awake, that we are not simply reacting to our upbringing or circumstances but rather intentionally creating the lives we really want.
There is a caveat. Our lives will be truly meaning-full when we live not for the sake of gaining a reward (something afterwards or on the side) but for the fulfillment that is intrinsic to the act of creation itself. As creators of value, human beings find their deepest spiritual satisfaction in translating the present mystery of reality into worlds of significance, purpose, beauty and love. Not for what we get out of it, but for the exhilaration and authentic life we experience as we get deeper into it.
It’s not about me, and it’s not about you. But it can’t happen without us, so let’s step into it with both eyes open.