SKC Workshop

J. Aaron Simmons

(Furman University, South Carolina, USA)

"The Virtues and Vices of the Singular Will: Revisiting Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart"

In a Kantian vein, but with an existential awareness lacking in much of deontological ethics, Kierkegaard famously recommends that we achieve “purity of heart” by “willing one thing.” The “one thing” is, for Kierkegaard, the Eternal. It is by willing the Eternal that we properly direct our temporal existence and avoid the temptations of the distracting “crowd.” In some ways, this recommendation seems extremely sensible and in line with C.S. Lewis’s claim that “all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.” Both Lewis and Kierkegaard appear to be channeling the passage in Matthew 6 that encourages us to “seek first the kingdom of God” so that our priorities are appropriately structured. This basic approach to the “singular will,” or perhaps better, “willing singularity,” is in many ways the hallmark of Kierkegaard’s account of “religious” existence as overcoming the despair that plagues both aesthetic denial and also ethical distortion. However, characteristic of much of Kierkegaard’s authorship, Purity of Heart lacks the specificity in which lived existence traffics. In other words, life is complicated and messy and despite the abstract virtue of a singular will, too focused of an existential intention can lead to vice emerging at the levels of self-love and neighbor-responsibility. Just as Hegel charged Kant with offering an “empty formalism,” in this essay I will also raise such a worry about Kierkegaard’s account of the singular will that fosters purity of heart. My claim is that although Kierkegaard is absolutely right to recommend a focus on the Eternal, he needs to do more to unpack what that looks like in the context of lived, embodied, and always social practice. By drawing on David Foster Wallace’s notion that “everybody worships,” I will argue that even if the singular will is virtuous at the level of abstract selfhood, it must be further nuanced in order to remain virtuous at the level of historical action.