The Divided Mind. Part Three: The Unhappy Consciousness (1)

‘For in those deyes his Deyus shall ask of Allprohome and call to himm: Allprohome! And he make answer: Add some. Nor wink nor wunk. Animadiabolum, mene credidisti mortuum? Silence was in thy faustive halls, O Truiga, when thy greenwoods went dry but there will be sounds of manymirth on the night’s ear ringing when our pantriarch of Comestowntonobble gets the pullover on his boots’.

- James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’, 1939.

Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker has sinned as have we all and the sin has driven him out of the Garden of Eden; Phoenix Park, Dublin, that is; where his alleged offence was committed and this passage is from a chapter wherein it is being investigated; an exercise in futility for none of the individuals involved nor the facts surrounding the case can clearly be determined as visibility is obscured in a freakfog, communication uncertain and so too the precise facts, but scandals still abound regarding Earwicker’s crime. Hoping that television will kill telephony for eyes demand their turn Earwicker presents his televised version of the encounter in the park, which commences a review of the episode; and Finn, he shall wake from his sleep in the earth, in the valley of briars of Greenman’s Rise, and the Wolf Overlord’s mighty horn shall roll as did Roland’s or Orlando’s. For in those days, his God shall ask of the pro-home-rule Earwicker, calling to him: ‘Earwicker!’ And he shall answer: ‘Soul to the devil, did ye think me dead?’ Silence was in thy festive halls, when your green woods dried in drought, but there will be sounds of mirth when the patriarch of Dublin pulls on his boots. Liver poorly? Not a bit of it. His brains are cool porridge, his pelt wet, his heart’s droning, his bloodstream’s crawling, his breath puffing, and his extremities extremely so; he’s alive in all the areas of Dublin. Words weigh upon him no more than raindrops. Which we are like, when we sleep, drops. But wait until our sleeping brains stop sleeping.

Rene Magritte, ‘Harry Torczyner’ (‘Justice has been done’), 1958

Add some or adsum, here I am, this is what Abraham said to God: ‘And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am’. (Genesis 22:1). Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, (1813–1855), cites the Abraham story, whereby Abraham is commanded by God to kill his son Isaac, in the course of delivering his theory of the teleological suspension of the ethical, the suspension of the moral law for the sake of a higher law. God must be obeyed, and yet murder is immoral; the ethical is thereby to be suspended for the sake of a higher purpose. How are we to interpret this? Kierkegaard presents us with a quote from Johann Georg Hamann, (1730–1788), German Lutheran philosopher:

‘What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not’.

The son of Tarquinius Superbus had stealthily taken Gabii, an ancient city of Latium, Italy, into his power, and had sent a messenger to his father asking what he should do with the city. Tarquinius, not trusting the messenger, gave no reply but took him into the garden, where with his cane he cut off the flowers of the tallest poppies; and from this the son understood that he was to eliminate the leading men of the city. The unmistakeable content of the act of cutting poppies for the son was the felling of one’s enemies; the point being that an act can have an entirely different meaning for someone who is privy to special knowledge, and the son understood because of his special relationship to his father. Similarly, the man or woman of faith will see the same data that a man or woman lacking in faith will see, but he or she will see something else there, because of his or her faith. To those without faith, Abraham is attempting murder. To those with faith, Abraham is obeying God.

‘Spring Explosive’, 1965, Salvador Dali

Kierkegaard, under the guise of Johannes de Silentio, in ‘Fear and Trembling’, makes the claim that in no way is he a philosopher, he has not comprehended the system, if system there be, complete or incomplete; his weak head has enough to do pondering upon what a prodigious head all must possess in this current time when all possess such a prodigious idea; but were one capable of transposing the whole content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one has thereby comprehended faith, comprehended how one entered into it or how it entered into one. Oh no, this present author (are we to assume this is Socratic irony?) is by no means a philosopher; rather, he is poetice et eleganter, poetically and with discrimination, a supplementary clerk who neither writes the system nor makes any promises concerning the system, who neither exhausts himself on the system, nor shackles himself to the system; he writes because to him it is a gratification all the more pleasing and manifest the fewer are there who purchase and peruse whatever he may write. The clear target in his sights here is most assuredly the system of philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), a system that searched for an explanation for all phenomena and for all of philosophy, including the religious, a task that for Kierkegaard was absurd in addition to being logically impossible, given that of necessity the philosopher abides within the system with which he or she is seemingly evaluating from without.

Kierkegaard presents us with four different and fanciful versions of the story of Abraham’s ascent to the mount in order to sacrifice his son; each one placing the stress upon an alternative viewpoint that supposedly illuminates the text. In the first version of the Genesis account, Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac; and speaks thus: ‘Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think it is God’s command, no it is my desire’. And yet Abraham mutters quietly to himself, ‘Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me to be a monster than that he should lose faith in you’. When the child is to be weaned, the mother blackens her breast, in order for the breast no longer to look inviting to the child that is to be deprived of it, and so the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother remains the same with her tender loving gaze; how fortunate the one who did not need more dreadful means to wean the child; and the child (by which I think Kierkegaard implicates us, the readers) needs to grow into the religious mindset that is capable of understanding the Genesis account.

William Blake, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, 1799/80

In the second version of the Genesis account, Abraham sacrifices the ram, and thereby preserves Isaac, and from that day henceforth Abraham was old and he could not forget that God had ordered him to do this. Isaac flourished as before, but Abraham’s eyes were darkened, and he saw joy no more. In the third version, Abraham goes alone, and throws himself upon the ground, begging God to forgive him for having contemplated sacrificing Isaac, and for forgetting his ethical duty. In the fourth version, Abraham cannot bring himself to slay Isaac, and they walk home together and as a consequence of this Isaac loses faith.

Johannes declares: ‘No one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him?’ Faith as the spontaneous inclination of the heart is a paradox of existence; it is no act of resignation for that is an act of one’s own volition, whereas: ‘By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac’. Whereas resignation as the voluntary act of courageous resolution provided the impetus behind Isaac’s sacrifice, the act of faith itself was Abraham’s complete expectation that God would return Isaac to him unscathed. A murder through the paradox of faith becomes a holy act with which God is well pleased and Isaac is delivered back unto Abraham again, ‘which no thought can grasp, because faith begins precisely where thought stops’. Kierkegaard however, or Johannes, claims that he himself is incapable of making the movement of faith: ‘I cannot shut my eyes and plunge confidently into the absurd…. Be it a duty or whatever, I cannot make the final movement, the paradoxical movement of faith, although there is nothing I wish more’.

Domenicho, ‘Abraham leading Isaac to sacrifice’, 1602

For Kierkegaard the single individual is higher than the universal, which is the ethical, and is related directly to the absolute, for the ethical is applicable to humanity as a whole; it is universal, but humanity is related to the absolute (God) as a single individual and is answerable to the absolute (God). Just as the absolute is above the universal, which is to say, the ethical, so is the individual in relation to the absolute above the universal, and faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, the individual is justified prior to the universal, it is not inferior to the universal, the individual is superior to the universal, and yet in such a manner whereby the single individual consequent upon being subordinate as the single individual to the universal now by virtue of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior and the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. And such a position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought, and yet faith is this very paradox.

‘Good Faith’, 1965, Rene Magritte

The individual is related to the absolute whereas the impersonal ethical is inferior to the individual; in addition the ethical is related to the future in that it must be adhered to continually and forever; and so as far as the ethical is concerned, parental love for instance, this is a universal but the individual is higher than it; and so far as the religious is concerned, humanity is related to the absolute, which is to say, to God, who posited the ethical as universal. And so it is that when God commanded Abraham to slay his son the ethical became a temptation for him and he could have yielded to it without engaging his thought, will or his heart, and yet humanity cannot obey the universal in an attitude of servility when the absolute contravenes it; for it is the ethical (universal) versus the absolute (God), who is the one who gives the ethical; every duty is essentially duty to God, but I also have no duty to God given that the duty becomes duty by being traced back to God but in the duty itself I do not enter into relation to God, for it is a duty to love my neighbour, a duty in virtue of the fact that it is traceable back to God, but in adhering to the duty I do not enter into relation to God but to the neighbour that I love, whereby it being my duty to love God is rendered tautologous, for God in a totally abstract sense is here understood as the divine, which is to say, the universal, which is to say further, is duty, and ‘God becomes an impotent thought’.

Humanity requires the ethical, but requires more the relation to God who imparted the ethical code; the ethical is given to humanity as a whole and all must obey; and yet that which is sublime and is perfect, which is to say, the holiness of God, that cannot be precisely and flawlessly translated into a fixed code in any human language, and so the ethical code is applicable to us all for it is universal but the giver of the code, the absolute, the possessor of the Law, holy and bereft of sin, relates itself to the individual providing that he or she has faith, and so it is that the paradox of faith may be summarised thus: that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual determines his or her relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his or her relation to the absolute by his or her relation to the universal. Or to put it another way: the duty to God is absolute for in this relationship of duty the individual relates himself or herself as the single individual absolutely to the absolute; and in virtue of this connection a duty to love God means something else from the above for if such duty is absolute the ethical is thereby reduced to the relative, which does not imply an invalidation of the ethical for the ethical receives a completely different and paradoxical expression, for were it not so then faith would have no place in existence, and faith as a spiritual trial is relinquished.

‘Christ in Silence’, Odilon Redon, 1897

And then add to the mix the silent and the hidden; the ethical as such is the universal and as the universal it is in turn the disclosed, whereas the single individual, with the qualifications of immediacy, sensibility, and psychicality, is the hidden, and his or her ethical task is to work himself or herself out of his or her hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal, for every time he or she desires to remain in the hidden, he or she transgresses and is immersed in spiritual trial from which he or she can emerge only by disclosing himself or herself; similarly, the temptation to sin is in accord with inclination, and the temptation of spiritual trial is contrary to inclination, and so a reverse tactic is instigated whereby the person tempted by inclination to sin does well to shun the danger, but in relation to spiritual trial this is the very danger; such a trial being again entrammeled by the bondage of sin whereby the punishment for sin is the new sin. Abraham’s hiddenness relates equally to the absolute as to the attempt to sacrifice Isaac; self-revelation and hiddenness lie behind Kierkegaard’s own pseudonymity, a hiddenness he relates Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ wherein it is explained that recognition requires a prior hiddenness, for such hiddenness ‘is the tension-creating factor’ and ethics require disclosure just like aesthetics ‘but ethics has no coincidence and no old servant at its disposal’, (as in Greek drama, ‘Oedipus Rex’, for instance. See my articles ‘Probable Impossibilities and Improbable Possibilities’, parts one to five).

Aesthetics demands disclosure but assists itself with a coincidence; ethics demands disclosure and discovers its fulfilment in the tragic hero; and with Abraham we are confronted with a paradox; either the single individual can stand in an absolute relation to the absolute, and consequently the ethical is not the highest, or Abraham is lost: he is neither a tragic hero nor an aesthetic hero: ‘Abraham remains silent — but he cannot speak. Therein lies the distress and anxiety’. Wherefore the silence? The silence is necessary for a description of the act is not to be comprehended, and Kierkegaard himself asserts that he does not understand Abraham: ‘I can only admire him’. Abraham cannot speak, for he says that which would explain everything, which is to say, so it is understandable, and that it is an ordeal such that the ethical is the temptation.

‘Riddle’, Salome MC ‘Excerpts from Unhappy Consciousness’, 2017

Now here is a most extraordinary thing. Kierkegaard, thoroughly versed in Hegel, scathing of the latter’s system, indeed one of Hegel’s best known and acerbic of critics, and yet he exemplifies well nigh everything that Hegel had to say about the Unhappy Consciousness, this latter being merely one of the various shapes of mind or spirit each considered as stations on the way through which spirit becomes pure or absolute knowledge; a shape within which Kierkegaard chose to get stuck. It puts me in mind, if I may be topical for a moment, of Ricky Gervais, (1961 — ), and his opening monologue at the Golden Globes 2020: ‘If you win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech’, he advised the annoyingly preachy and insufferably moralizing Hollywood actors, ‘you’re in no position to lecture the public about anything, you know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg’. And yet the Hollywood actors proceeded regardless in being annoyingly preachy and insufferably moralizing, seemingly oblivious to the extent to which it all fell flat having had the rug well and truly pulled from beneath their feet right from the beginning.

The section on the Unhappy Consciousness in the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ is rich in profound insight; I shall need more than just this one article to give a sense of how precisely Hegel pulls the rug from under Kierkegaard’s feet, his anticipation of Kierkegaard’s conceptions of the absolute, the universal, the particular, and of the account he gives of their sublation or overcoming. How many articles it will take I know not but I at least make a start here. Having demonstrated, which I covered in the previous part of this series, how the ancient sceptic comes to feel that thought is both all-powerful and powerless, Hegel argues that ‘in Scepticism, consciousness truly experiences itself as internally contradictory’, and it is this duality that comes to be realized in what Hegel calls the Unhappy Consciousness: ‘This new form is, therefore, one which knows that it is the dual consciousness of itself, as self-liberating, unchangeable, and self-identical, and as self-bewildering and self-perverting, and it is the awareness of this self-contradictory nature of itself . . . The Unhappy Consciousness is the consciousness of self as a dual-natured, merely contradictory being’. That is to say, on the one hand, the Unhappy Consciousness believes that it is unable to transcend the world of changeable appearances, and yet on the other hand maintains that it can only attain satisfaction by so doing; rather than hoping to achieve some measure of tranquillity or unperturbedness, ataraxia, by living with appearances as the Sceptic chose to do, the Unhappy Consciousness is therefore painfully aware of the gap that exists between itself as a contingent, finite individual, and a realm of eternal and universal reason, since the Stoic logos has now become an unknowable beyond. And therefore, whereas the Stoic maintained that the capacity for rational contemplation belonged to humanity, it is now seen as a capacity that belongs to ‘an alien Being’, to a higher form of consciousness which the Unhappy Consciousness now sets above itself.

Nonetheless, the Unhappy Consciousness may well have projected this capacity for rational reflection onto another being that has the kind of eternal and unchangeable nature it lacks, but Hegel interprets Christianity in a clear allusion to the Holy Trinity as an endeavour to retain something of the Stoic picture of humanity’s rational soul as a fragment of the divine logos, while making the Sceptic’s apparently unattainable and unchangeable truth something that could relate to the human. Therefore, although ‘the first Unchangeable (i.e. God) it knows only as the alien Being who passes judgement on the particular individual’, in the Son it still sees that ‘the Unchangeable is a form of individuality like itself’, where ‘the reconciliation of its individuality with the universal’ is symbolized by the Holy Spirit’. Nonetheless though traditional medieval Christianity retains something of the earlier rationalistic framework, it emphasises the fragility of the link between God and humanity, and hence the uncertainty of any such reconciliation coming about.

This fragility is symbolized in the apparent contingency of Christ’s birth, on which the hope of reconciliation is founded: ‘The hope of becoming one with it (the Unchangeable) must remain a hope, i.e. without fulfilment and present fruition, for between the hope and the fulfilment there stands precisely the absolute contingency or inflexible indifference which lies in the very assumption of definite form, which was the ground of hope’. Therefore, while Christianity in this form is in some respects an advance upon Stoicism and Scepticism, in that it has recognized that it is not possible for thought to simply turn its back on individuality by abstracting from the contingency, finitude, and suffering of actual existence into a realm of abstract thought, it still ‘has not yet risen to that thinking where consciousness as a particular individuality is reconciled with pure thought itself’; and the subject therefore feels that qua individual subject, he is cut off from the rational ground of existence, as pure thought, so while at the beginning of the section concerning desire consciousness wanted to impose its individuality upon the world, it has here come around to the opposite and equally one-sided perspective whereby it now sees its individuality as getting in the way of its endeavours to achieve harmony with the Unchangeable, and consequently the Christian consciousness may well in some respects have a conception of this reconciliation it has a distorted picture of how such reconciliation might occur, in its three ideals of the Christian life, as prayer, as work, as penitence. Hegel will criticizes each of these in turn, and he is of course critical of prayer as placing too much emphasis upon feeling at the expense of thought and rational reflection:

‘It is only a movement towards thinking, and so is devotion. Its thinking as such is no more than the chaotic jingling of bells, or a mist of warm incense, a musical thinking that does not get as far as the Notion, which would be the sole, immanent objective mode of thought’. The devotee seeks to find communion with God by virtue of being a pure heart; but the devotee seeks to demonstrate his or her purity by declaring that he or she has not yet found God but is nonetheless still devoted to the search. Devotion is thereby ‘the struggle of an enterprise doomed to failure’.

‘The Illustrious Forger of Dreams’, Max Ernst, 1959

‘Holy Sonnet Iv: Oh My Black Soul!’

by John Donne (1572–1631)

Oh my black soul! now art thou summoned

By sickness, death’s herald, and champion;

Thou art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done

Treason, and durst not turn to whence he is fled;

Or like a thief, which till death’s doom be read,

Wisheth himself delivered from prison,

But damned and haled to execution,

Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.

Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;

But who shall give thee that grace to begin?

Oh make thy self with holy mourning black,

And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;

Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might

That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

Albrecht Durer, ‘Praying Hands’, c. 1508

To be continued …

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ Quotation:

1. deye = dairymaid (a women employed in dairy or dairy farm); and days.

2. Deus (Latin) = God.

3. pro (Latin), for; and Genesis 22:1: ‘And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am’.

4. Adsum (Latin) = I am here, here I am (in classic-centered schools (e.g. Clongowes Wood) schoolboy’s response at rollcall ‘Present!’).

5. Anima ad diabolum mene credidisti mortuum? (Latin) — Soul to the devil did you believe me dead? (Finnegan’s Wake 5: ‘Thanam o’n dhoul, do you think I’m dead’).

6. festive = joyous, merry; and Faust or Faustus, 16th-century magician who sold his soul to the devil, subject of works by Marlowe and Goethe; and Thomas Moore, song: ‘Silence Is in Our Festal Halls’ [air: The Green Woods of Truigha].

7. Troja (Latin) = Troy; and truig (truig) (Gaelic), occasion, fact; cause, cause of death.

8. patriarch = the father and ruler of a family or tribe; a venerable old man; in the Orthodox Eastern Church, The title of the bishops of the four patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem; and Thomas Moore, song: ‘There Are Sounds of Mirth’: ‘There are sounds of mirth in the night-air ringing’(air: The Priest in His Boots).

9. Constantinople.

10. pullover = used attrib. or absol. to designate articles of clothing that are put on by drawing them over the head; spec. (chiefly in absol. use) a knitted or woven garment for the upper part of the body; a jumper or jersey.

Salvador Dali, ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice’, 1967




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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