Kierkegaard in his essay, The Care of Lowliness juxtaposed the bird with the Christian and with the pagan in their respective cares. When Nietzsche ‘killed’ the concept of god he upset this juxtaposition. By this act he demoted the Christian and elevated the bird. In doing so Nietzsche redefined the nature of being.
The Care of Lowliness
There are three actors (or actresses as the book’s subtitle would suggest) in the essay The Care of Lowliness in Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Discourses. These are the bird, the Christian and the pagan. The bird is the teacher for Kierkegaard. It is the bird as teacher that will guide this exploration of the care of lowliness. The bird is and has no conception of being other than it is. The bird has no conception of lowly or eminent. It sings for itself and not for others. The bird is free to do its will as it is and is what it is but it has within itself a joy of being.
The Christian is aware of lowly and eminent but unlike the bird, the Christian knows that the advantages of earthly existence are denied him. It is the paradox of coming into existence that is the conundrum that Kierkegaard poses as the differentiation between the Christian and the pagan. The human is confronted with the dilemma of coming into existence but becoming first in the image of other humans – to become himself in the image of others. The more the individual becomes like the others – the less like himself he will become. Kierkegaard reasoned that the Christian is not confronted with this dilemma because the Christian is before god, “…he is at the beginning, is himself before God, is contented with being himself. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness)” The Christian is himself before God and only before God. The pagan has no such satisfaction of becoming before God as himself and because he has no God as the prototypical being before himself, “His care is: being nothing—indeed not being at all. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 318, The Care of Lowliness)“
The Christian is lowly to himself in the same way he is lowly to others. There is no distinction in this lowliness because the Christian wants only to be himself before God. Yet the Christian is care – “On existing only for the others, on not knowing anything but the relation to the others. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness)”
On the other hand this person (the Christian) who is lowly and before God himself is a human being. “Inasmuch as he is a human being, he is in a certain sense like the bird, which is what it is. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness)” Kierkegaard does not explain this similarity. However it is this unanswered similarity between the bird as teacher and the Christian as being himself before God that produces a dilemma.
The dilemma is not the pagan’s who is himself only by being before others. This is well explained and Kierkegaard makes the reader feel the pain of the pagan in never becoming himself and never quite human as a result. The dilemma is the bird who could have no notion of God that bruises the logic of the diaphony between the Christian and the pagan. This excluded middle poses the question of whether there is care in any case should we not be aware of whether the actors in a caring relationship are or are not Christian. This excluded middle also asks what is the relationship of the bird to the Christian in the scheme of heaven.
The pagan is generally not thought of as an atheist – someone who has renounced the idea of a higher deity completely. The pagan is uninformed, perhaps ignorant, or has not been exposed to the ideas of an organized belief system other than one that is pre-Christian (Dictionary). As a savage, the pagan is not far removed from the bird as being one with nature but one without a believing relationship with Christianity. Yet unlike the bird that is what it is; the pagan is dissatisfied with what he is and has this care of lowliness. The Christian does not have this care of lowliness because he is before God as prototype which he can ceaselessly emulate to become more and more like the prototype.
Nietzsche Removes God
This dilemma the later Nietzsche explored when he removed God from the equation and tried desperately to provide such an opportunity for care in a world where existence was guaranteed only during one’s lifetime. That it was the life lived now that could be judged as such as if it were to occur again and again. This singular life would be considered by one and all as being a life well lived (or not) – not judged as such by an omniscient other but by self and other in a relationship of care. After Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Heidegger too found difficulty with the life lived in imitation of others but embraced the idea that care is fundamental to the existence of humans for other humans and for the world of human existence (Heidegger, 1962). Heidegger struggled with life, not the life lived before God, but the life that was authentic to one’s self.
So the question from this dilemma is whether there can be care for others and equally so for self that is not expressed in a triangular relationship with an omniscient one – more particularly a Christian God as expressed through the existence and teaching of Jesus Christ. Can the bird instruct? Is the joy of being for the bird enough?
For the bird to be instructive, we must first with Nietzsche dethrone man from the center of the world. While the bird cannot distinguish lowliness from eminence or much else besides, it is what it is in the moment that it is. Is it any less of a being in the eyes of God? Kierkegaard equivocates at the moment the revelation of bird and human being as being what they are. He then restates the problem. The Christian is not born, ‘…if one is a Christian, one must have become that. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 316, The Care of Lowliness)” To complicate this even further he must deprecate the pagan by making him more and more not human (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 318, The Care of Lowliness). Thus the bird and Christian become what they are – the bird by its existence; but the Christian by becoming the eponymous believer. The bird does not have this capacity to become Christian but loses not its ability to be a creature of God because of its handicap. Since there have been only two thousand years of Christianity there must be something that humanity can offer in kind that is not connected to its God and heritage or else the lot of our ancestors is condemned to that of the pagan.
When Nietzsche ‘killed’ the concept of God in The Gay Science not only did he leave the shadow of the dead God on the wall for generations to come, he also left a void (Nietzsche, 1974, pp. 167, Aphorism 108). The void of God’s demise was eternity that is central to the Christian belief. The lowly Christian does not care about his lowliness because he has the prospect of eternity and heaven (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 319, The Care of Lowliness). Without eternity the prospect for existence in life would become Kierkegaard’s lowliness of existence – the pagan – “His care is: being nothing—indeed not being at all. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 318, The Care of Lowliness)“ At the same time he ‘killed’ the concept of God Nietzsche needed to ‘naturalize humanity’ (Nietzsche, 1974, pp. 169, Aphorism 109) and that meant to put humanity once again in the realm of the bird.
The bird like the Christian does not have the care of lowliness because it does not understand lowly or eminent – it simply is. But that simply was not enough for the Christian had been someone who enjoyed special status simply because, “He sees with the eyes of faith; with the speed of faith that seeks God, he is at the beginning, is himself before God, is contented with being himself. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 314, The Care of Lowliness)” Replacing God with something that humanity could believe in and not be condemned to the pagan’s care of lowliness became Nietzsche’s greatest weight. To resolve this dilemma, Nietzsche did not take humanity out of its naturalized state. He left humanity in the realm of the bird. Nor did Nietzsche specifically address the bird in its state of nature. It is as if he agreed with Kierkegaard that the bird is what it is and does everything it does simply because it exists naturally as a bird without any care of lowliness. But this was not the case for humanity because what had been given in the form of eternity through Christianity (and other religions) had been erased by Nietzsche.
Nietzsche could not see the Christian heaven or its eternity as something that could be possible. In subtracting from eternity its moral code of good and evil – the mathematics of heaven – he had eliminated the basis for much of morality that came with eternal judgment. This became the crux of Nietzsche’s dilemma for it was not his mission to return humanity to a Hobbesian state of nature. Instead of abandoning eternity, he returned it to the equation but only in a sense that it became an analogy for the life lived to the fullest. Eternity became an idea again, not a place – an idea that even if you had become the lowliness of care as Kierkegaard’s pagan had become, there is the notion that like the bird you could just be…be to face this lowliness of care as the Christian had done not with the prototype of God but in the prototype of life, your life, as if you could see yourself living the same life again and again (Nietzsche, 1974, pp. 273, Aphorism 340) and that the life lived as such now lived would be eternally the same if eternity was possible. In effect Nietzsche replaced ‘because eternity’ with ‘as if eternity’.
For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the issue of being was important. Kierkegaard separated being into the bird, Christian and pagan. The bird has no notion of eternity and from The Care of Lowliness from Kierkegaard it is not clear whether the ignorant bird is accorded the benefits of heaven. Yet when Kierkegaard said, “Inasmuch as he is a human being, he in a certain sense, is like the bird, which is what it is. But we shall not dwell further on this here. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness)” Kierkegaard opened the possibilities for but does not commit to the bird attaining heaven along with the Christian. If he can make this connection then he as with Nietzsche has made the connection of the Christian (not the pagan) to the bird.
What Nietzsche does is replace the prototype (God) that the Christian emulates with life itself and the will to live in a way that one would live this live the same way over and over again without any difference. For Nietzsche, all of nature and humanity have become one in being. Kierkegaard’s sufferer of the care of lowliness, or the pagan, has been replaced by Nietzsche by the person who would not accept the will to live as if it were a life that would return. The Christian for Nietzsche has become the human who would accept the eternal return of the same and live life accordingly.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both approached life and living with an eye towards its perfection. Kierkegaard placed the prototype of god before a Christian to emulate and approach by word and deed. Nietzsche placed humanity before the prototype of the bird as nature to emulate, to be what it is and to exist in the fullest measure possible. In either case – the prototype of God or the prototype of existence-in-full are what keeps the care of lowliness in abeyance.
Dictionary, O. E. “pagan, n. and adj.”: Oxford University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (J. MacQuarrie, & Edward Robinson, Trans.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Kierkegaard, S. (1997). The Essential Kierkegaard (H. V. E. M. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Random House.