Kierkegaard: A Parable of a King and a Maiden

Posted: February 10, 2009 by limabean03 in Christian Theology, Christianity
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Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot's Peasant Woman

Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot's Peasant Woman

Below is an excerpt from Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments. It is a famous section with a well known parable. I have placed an enormous amount of text on this post. Simply click through to read it all. It reaches an emotional crescendo in the final few paragraphs and is quite moving. This is a stunning piece of philosophical devotion to the Lord Jesus.  This excerpt I think will be a joy to anyone who reads it.  Don’t worry if you get lost from time to time.  It’s worth pushing through to the finish.  The greatest Kierkegaard junkie to the guy who says “who’s Kierkegaard?” will reap great rewards for spending time in these few paragraphs.  Enjoy.

Suppose then a king who loved a humble maiden. The heart of the king was not polluted by the wisdom that is loudly enough proclaimed; he knew nothing of the difficulties that the understanding discovers in order to ensnare the heart, which keep the poets so busy, and make their magic formulas necessary. It was easy to realize his purpose. Every statesman feared his wrath and dared not breathe a word of displeasure; every foreign state trembled before his power, and dared not omit sending ambassadors with congratulations for the nuptials; no courtier groveling in the dust dared wound him, lest his own head be crushed. Then let the harp be tuned, let the songs of the poets begin to sound, and let all be festive while love celebrates its triumph. For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love. — Then there awoke in the heart of the king an anxious thought; who but a king who thinks kingly thoughts would have dreamed of it! He spoke to no one about his anxiety; for if he had, each courtier would doubtless have said: “Your majesty is about to confer a favor upon the maiden, for which she can never be sufficiently grateful her whole life long.” This speech would have moved the king to wrath, so that he would have commanded the execution of the courtier for high treason against the beloved, and thus he would in still another way have found his grief increased. So he wrestled with his troubled thoughts alone. Would she be happy in the life at his side? Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king wished only to forget, that he was king and she had been a humble maiden? For if this memory were to waken in her soul, and like a favored lover sometimes steal her thoughts away from the king, luring her reflections into the seclusion of a secret grief; or if this memory sometimes passed through her soul like the shadow of death over the grave: where would then be the glory of their love? Then she would have been happier had she remained in her obscurity, loved by an equal, content in her humble cottage; but confident in her love, and cheerful early and late. What a rich abundance of grief is here laid bare, like ripened grain bent under the weight of its fruitfulness, merely waiting the time of the harvest, when the thought of the king will thresh out all its seed of sorrow! For even if the maiden would be content to become as nothing, this could not satisfy the king, precisely because he loved her, and because it was harder for him to be her benefactor than to lose her. And suppose she could not even understand him? For while we are thus speaking foolishly of human relationships, we may suppose a difference of mind between them such as to render an understanding impossible. What a depth of grief slumbers not in this unhappy love, who dares to rouse it! However, no human being is destined to suffer such grief; him we may refer to Socrates, or to that which in a still more beautiful sense can make the unequal equal.

But if the Moment is to have decisive significance (and if not we return to Socrates even if we think to advance beyond him), the learner is in Error, and that by reason of his own guilt. And yet he is the object of the God’s love, and the God desires to teach him, and is concerned to bring him to equality with himself. If this equality cannot be established, the God’s love becomes unhappy and his teaching meaningless, since they cannot understand one another. Men sometimes think that this might be a matter of indifference to the God, since he does not stand in need of the learner. But in this we forget — or rather alas! we prove how far we are from understanding him; we forget that the God loves the learner. And just as that kingly grief of which we have spoken can be found only in a kingly soul, and is not even named in the language of the multitude of men, so the entire human language is so selfish that it refuses even to suspect the existence of such a grief. But for that reason the God has reserved it to himself, this unfathomable grief: to know that he may repel the learner, that he does not need him, that the learner has brought destruction upon himself by his own guilt, that he can leave the learner to his fate; to know also how well-nigh impossible it is to keep the learner’s courage and confidence alive, without which the purposed understanding and equality will fail, and the love become unhappy. The man who cannot feel at least some faint intimation of this grief is a paltry soul of base coinage, bearing neither the image of Caesar nor the image of God.

Our problem is now before us, and we invite the poet, unless he is already engaged elsewhere, or belongs to the number of those who must be driven out from the house of mourning, together with the flute-players and the other noise-makers, before gladness can enter in. The poet’s task will be to find a solution, some point of union, where love’s understanding may be realized in truth, the God’s anxiety be set at rest, his sorrow banished. For the divine love is that unfathomable love which cannot rest content with that which the beloved might in his folly prize as happiness.

The union might be brought about by an elevation of the learner. The God would then take him up unto himself, transfigure him, fill his cup with millennial joys (for a thousand years are as one day in his sight), and let the learner forget the misunderstanding in tumultuous joy. Alas, the learner might perhaps be greatly inclined to prize such happiness as this. How wonderful suddenly to find his fortune made, like the humble maiden, because the eye of the God happened to rest upon him! And how wonderful also to be his helper in taking all this in vain, deceived by his own heart! Even the noble king could perceive the difficulty of such a method, for he was not without insight into the human heart, and understood that the maiden was at bottom deceived; and no one is so terribly deceived as he who does not himself suspect it, but is as if enchanted by a change in the outward habiliments of his existence.

The union might be brought about by the God’s showing himself to the learner and receiving his worship, causing him to forget himself over the divine apparition. Thus the king might have shown himself to the humble maiden in all the pomp of his power, causing the sun of his presence to rise over her cottage, shedding a glory over the scene, and making her forget herself in worshipful admiration. Alas, and this might have satisfied the maiden, but it could not satisfy the king, who desired not his own glorification but hers. It was this that made his grief so hard to bear, his grief that she could not understand him; but it would have been still harder for him to deceive her. And merely to give his love for her an imperfect expression was in his eyes a deception, even though no one understood him and reproaches sought to mortify his soul.

Not in this manner then can their love be made happy, except perhaps in appearance, namely the learner’s and the maiden’s, but not the Teacher’s and the king’s, whom no delusion can satisfy. Thus the God takes pleasure in arraying the lily in a garb more glorious than that of Solomon; but if there could be any thought of an understanding here, would it not be a sorry delusion of the lily’s, if when it looked upon its fine raiment it thought that it was on account of the raiment that the God loved it? Instead of standing dauntless in the field, sporting with the wind, carefree as the gust that blows, would it not under the influence of such a thought languish and droop, not daring to lift up its head? It was the God’s solicitude to prevent this, for the lily’s shoot is tender and easily broken.

But if the Moment is to have decisive significance, how unspeakable will be the God’s anxiety! There once lived a people who had a profound understanding of the divine; this people thought that no man could see the God and live. — Who grasps this contradiction of sorrow: not to reveal oneself is the death of love, to reveal oneself is the death of the beloved! The minds of men so often yearn for might and power, and their thoughts are constantly being drawn to such things, as if by their attainment all mysteries would be resolved. Hence they do not even dream that there is sorrow in heaven as well as joy, the deep grief of having to deny the learner what he yearns for with all his heart, of having to deny him precisely because he is the beloved.

The union must therefore be brought about in some other way. Let us here again recall Socrates, for what was the Socratic ignorance if not an expression for his love of the learner, and for his sense of equality with him? But this equality was also the truth, as we have already seen. But if the Moment is to have decisive significance (–), this is not the truth, for the learner will owe everything to the Teacher. In the Socratic conception the teacher’s love would be merely that of a deceiver if he permitted the disciple to rest in the belief that he really owed him anything, instead of fulfilling the function of the teacher to help the learner become sufficient to himself. But when the God becomes a Teacher, his love cannot be merely seconding and assisting, but is creative, giving a new being to the learner, or as we have called him, the man born anew; by which designation we signify the transition from non-being to being. The truth then is that the learner owes the Teacher everything. But this is what makes it so difficult to effect an understanding: that the learner becomes as nothing and yet is not destroyed; that he comes to owe everything to the Teacher and yet retains his confidence; that he understands the Truth and yet that the Truth makes him free; that he apprehends the guilt of his Error and yet that his confidence rises victorious in the Truth. Between man and man the Socratic midwifery is the highest relation, and begetting is reserved for the God, whose love is creative, but not merely in the sense which Socrates so beautifully expounds on a certain festal occasion. This latter kind of begetting does not signify the relation between a teacher and his disciple, but that between an autodidact and the beautiful. In turning away from the scattered beauties of particular things to contemplate beauty in and for itself, the autodidact begets many beautiful and glorious discourses and thoughts, (Symposium, 210 D). In so doing he begets and brings forth that which he has long borne within him in the seed (209 E). He has the requisite condition in himself, and the bringing forth or birth is merely a manifestation of what was already present; whence here again, in this begetting, the moment vanishes instantly in the eternal consciousness of Recollection. And he who is begotten by a progressive dying away from self, of him it becomes increasingly clear that he can less and less be said to be begotten, since he only becomes more and more clearly reminded of his existence. And when in turn he begets expressions of the beautiful, he does not so much beget them, as he allows the beautiful within him to beget these expressions from itself.

Since we found that the union could not be brought about by an elevation it must be attempted by a descent. Let the learner be x. In this x we must include the lowliest; for if even Socrates refused to establish a false fellowship with the clever, how can we suppose that the God would make a distinction! In order that the union may be brought about, the God must therefore become the equal of such a one, and so he will appear in the likeness of the humblest. But the humblest is one who must serve others, and the God will therefore appear in the form of a servant. But this servant-form is no mere outer garment, like the king’s beggar-cloak, which therefore flutters loosely about him and betrays the king; it is not like the filmy summer-cloak of Socrates, which though woven of nothing yet both conceals and reveals. It is his true form and figure. For this is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth. And it is the omnipotence of the love which is so resolved that it is able to accomplish its purpose, which neither Socrates nor the king could do, whence their assumed figures constituted after all a kind of deceit.

Behold where he stands — the God! Where? There; do you not see him? He is the God; and yet he has not a resting-place for his head, and he dares not lean on any man lest he cause him to be offended. He is the God; and yet he picks his steps more carefully than if angels guided them, not to prevent his foot from stumbling against a stone, but lest he trample human beings in the dust, in that they are offended in him. He is the God; and yet his eye rests upon mankind with deep concern, for the tender shoots of an individual life may be crushed as easily as a blade of grass. How wonderful a life, all sorrow and all love: to yearn to express the equality of love, and yet to be misunderstood; to apprehend the danger that all men may be destroyed, and yet only so to be able really to save a single soul; his own life filled with sorrow, while each 7 hour of the day is taken up with the troubles of the learner who confides in him! This is the God as he stands upon the earth, like unto the humblest by the power of his omnipotent love. He knows that the learner is in Error — what if he should misunderstand, and droop, and lose his confidence! To sustain the heavens and the earth by the fiat of his omnipotent word, so that if this word were withdrawn for the fraction of a second the universe would be plunged into chaos — how light a task compared with bearing the burden that mankind may take offense, when one has been constrained by love to become its saviour!

 But the servant-form is no mere outer garment, and therefore the God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest — behold the man His suffering is not that of his death, but this entire life is a story of suffering; and it is love that suffers, the love which gives all is itself in want. What wonderful self-denial! for though the learner be one of the lowliest, he nevertheless asks him anxiously: Do you now really love me? For he knows where the danger threatens, and yet he also knows that every easier way would involve a deception, even though the learner might not understand it.

Every other form of revelation would be a deception in the eyes of love; for either the learner would first have to be changed, and the fact concealed from him that this was necessary (but love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself); or there would be permitted to prevail a frivolous ignorance of the fact that the entire relationship was a delusion. (This was the error of paganism.) Every other form of revelation would be a deception from the standpoint of the divine love. And if my eyes were more filled with tears than those of a repentant woman, and if each tear were more precious than a pardoned woman’s many tears; if I could find a place more humble than the place at his feet, and if I could sit there more humbly than a woman whose heart’s sole choice was this one thing needful; if I loved him more sincerely than the most loyal of his servants, eager to shed the last drop of his life-blood in his service; if I had found greater favor in his eyes than the purest among women — nevertheless, if I asked him to alter his purpose, to reveal himself differently, to be more lenient with himself, he would doubtless look at me and say: Man, what have I to do with thee? Get thee hence, for thou art Satan, though thou knowest it not! Or if he once or twice stretched forth his hand in command, and it happened, and I then meant to understand him better or love him more, I would doubtless see him weep also over me, and hear him say: To think that you could prove so faithless, and so wound my love! Is it then only the omnipotent wonder-worker that you love, and not him who humbled himself to become your equal?

But the servant-form is no mere outer garment; hence he must yield his spirit in death and again leave the earth. And if my grief were deeper than the sorrow of a mother when her heart is pierced by the sword, and if my danger were more terrible than the danger of a believer when his faith fails him, and if my misery were more pitiful than his who crucifies his hope and has nothing left but the cross — nevertheless, if I begged him to save his life and stay upon the earth, it would only be to see him sorrowful unto death, and stricken with grief also for my sake, because this suffering was for my profit, and now I had added to his sorrow the burden that I could not understand him. O bitter cup! More bitter than wormwood is the bitterness of death for a mortal, how bitter then for an immortal! O bitter refreshment, more bitter than aloes, to be refreshed by the misunderstanding of the beloved! O solace in affliction to suffer as one who is guilty, what solace then to suffer as one who is innocent!

Such will be our poet’s picture. For how could it enter his mind that the God would reveal himself in this way in order to bring men to the most crucial and terrible decision; how could he find it in his heart to play frivolously with the God’s sorrow, falsely poetizing his love away to poetize his wrath in!

And now the learner, has he no lot or part in this story of suffering, even though his lot cannot be that of the Teacher? Aye, it cannot be otherwise. And the cause of all this suffering is love, precisely because the God is not jealous for himself, but desires in love to be the equal of the humblest. When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when the God implants himself in human weakness, unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature! But this becoming, what labors will attend the change, how convulsed with birth-pangs! And the understanding — how precarious, and how close each moment to misunderstanding, when the anguish of guilt seeks to disturb the peace of love! And how rapt in fear; for it is indeed less terrible to fall to the ground when the mountains tremble at the voice of the God, than to sit at table with him as an equal; and yet it is the God’s concern precisely to have it so.

Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments ch. 2

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  1. liturgical says:

    Oddly enough, just yesterday I pulled out “Parables of Kierkegaard” and re-read Thomas C. Oden’s introduction.
    The partisan in me wants to make a point, not necessarily aimed at you, but aimed at many others who have mistaken Kierkegaard in the past, including some who have meant a lot to me, especially Francis Schaeffer: the above parable is a shining example of Kierkegaard’s orthodoxy, as well as his parabolic mode of indirect communication.
    And as Oden notes, parables get past our rationalistic filters, and as we hear them or read them, we start to think we are interpreting them, only to find they are interpreting us.

  2. smilingldsgirl says:

    Many criticize Kierkegaard as being anti-God, anti-religious. Such people must have not studied this parable. I find it the most striking description of God’s love in all of literature.

  3. [...] Kierkegaard: A parable of a king and a maiden a heart wrenchingly beautiful parable on the nature of God becoming man [...]

  4. […] Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments ch. 2. A more extensive quote is available at A Glorious Revolution. […]

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