The adjective or adverb “upbuilding” I found via Tubbs (2005, chapter 8) and a translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s Opbyggelige taler.
Footnote 1 Something is opbyggelig or “upbuilding” when it builds up our “house”, i.e. our life (Wivestad 2011, p. 616). The upbuilding discourses have been assessed as “the keystone” of Kierkegaard’s authorship (Perkins 2003, p. 2), but it seems that they are not well known by philosophers. Perhaps some have thought them relevant only for people who understand themselves as Christians? Kierkegaard displays “a kind of writing that repeatedly attempts to turn readers back to themselves and to their individual situation vis-à-vis God” (Pattison 2002, p. 88). He seems thus to actualise the Socratic “know yourself” in relation to “the eternal”, and he searches for a kind of truth that is “concerned” (Kierkegaard 1990, p. 233)—somewhat like the Nicomachean ethics, where the intention is to disclose truth that can help us “become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit to us” (Aristotle 1985, 1103b29 and 1140b5). What can build up my life? Can we who are temporal beings understand ourselves and live in truth if we do not wonder how the temporal is related to what is not temporal? In Being and time Heidegger has remarked: “there is more to be learned philosophically from his [Kierkegaard’s] ‘edifying’ writings, than from his theoretical ones—with the exception of his treatise on the concept of anxiety” (Heidegger, quoted in Pattison 2002, p. 1). The concept ‘upbuilding’ in these writings comes from Christian traditions. It is seldom used in today’s dominating post-Christian culture, and if it is used, it is sometimes used ironically. By choosing upbuilding as a leading concept I express Kierkegaard’s and my own connection to Christian traditions. This may prompt the question: Can upbuilding be relevant to agnostics and atheists? In his introduction to a selection of Kierkegaard’s Spiritual writings, George Pattison contends that Kierkegaard’s interpretations of the Bible “restates Christian teaching in a way that can speak to those of all faiths and none” (Kierkegaard 2010, p. xxvii). Kierkegaard assumed only that his readers were “concerned about the meaning of their life in the world”, and that they were “ready to take seriously the possibility of religion” (p. xv). Following this line of thought, I will search for upbuilding examples not only in Christian traditions. To clarify what I mean by an “upbuilding example”, I will start with an example from an artist who explicitly wants to give “a global idea-image of the human” (Vasarely 1982, p. 9).Footnote 2
Before reading on, please study the picture below. What do you see in this picture?
To me, the picture of Vasarely, Catch from 1945, represents two flat human figures, one black and one white; or is it rather two sides of the same person? The figures complement each other. Perhaps they confront each other as well? The hands are in focus. How do they “catch”? Do the hands embrace or push? What are the differences between the legs of the two figures? How do the figures move? The composition can give associations to a kind of dynamic balance, in the same way as Yin and Yang. Different interpretations of Catch might be possible. Perhaps the work represents human life as a life of inevitable contradictions and tensions, a life that challenges us to self-reflection? Perhaps it tells about a life where we have to struggle with identity and integrity problems? Perhaps it challenges us to embrace ourselves as split in two, and if so, to understand what characterizes the difference between our two parts? An exploration of this picture could be a starting point for a dialogue about different possible basic realities of human life. Facing the realities of our life I see as a necessary starting point for upbuilding, and therefore I understand this picture as an upbuilding example.
However, why talk about “upbuilding”? Could not this exploration and dialogue be understood in more traditional ways, for instance as a process of Hegelian Bildung, where one tries to “seek one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it” (Gadamer 1979, p. 15), or as an “educative experience”, where we in the continuum with our previous experiences form an attitude of “desire to go on learning” (Dewey 1988, p. 29)? Both these traditions attend to important points that could build up both the person and the fellowship. The human consciousness cannot have or undergo new experiences unless it is turned around—away from the illusions (Plato 2000, 7.515c–d)—unless it “recognizes itself in what is alien and different” (Gadamer 1979, p. 318). Is Bildung and education sufficient? “Bildung, as being raised to the universal” (p. 13) or to Deweyan endless growth, might miss out what both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard see as the highest, i.e. the love of the neighbour. Kierkegaard’s Danish contemporaries talked about Dannelse (a word that can be translated with formation and Bildung and liberal education) as a cry for “the highest”, and there seems to be a similar cry today. Kierkegaard argues why it is not enough to be dannet or “cultured”:
Are you, my listener, perhaps what is called a cultured person? Well, I, too, am cultured. But if you think you will come closer to this highest with the help of “culture” [“Dannelse”], you make a great mistake. … has anyone’s zeal for becoming cultured [vinde Dannelse] taught him to love the neighbor? Alas, have not this culture [Dannelsen] and the zeal with which it is coveted rather developed a new kind of distinction, the distinction between the cultured and the uncultured? … Of course, a certain social courtesy, a politeness toward all people, a friendly condescension toward inferiors, a boldly confident attitude before the mighty, a beautifully controlled freedom of spirit, yes, this is culture—do you believe that it is also loving the neighbor? The neighbor is the one who is equal. The neighbor is neither the beloved, for whom you have passion’s preference, nor your friend, for whom you have passion’s preference. Nor is your neighbor, if you are a cultured person, the cultured individual with whom you have a similarity of culture—since with your neighbor you have the equality of a human being before God. (Kierkegaard 1995, pp. 59–60).
The Bildung that persons may win (vinde) in the competition on the school arena, and the profit that nations may win on the global arena, may create rigid positions of inferiority and superiority, especially if one believes that the positions are deserved. Callous and rigid attitudes hamper the continuity of experience. Such attitudes will be “mis-educative” (Dewey 1988, p. 17) because they hinder the possibility of further growth. Kierkegaard does also differentiate between Dannelse and Misdannelse, but his focus is the avoidance of hatred, strife and revenge between human beings, who, in his perspective, in reality are equal, in spite of all outward distinctions. Therefore he maintains that upbuilding—as a work of love—is a necessary condition for education: “education without the upbuilding is, eternally understood, miseducation. … But like love, upbuilding, if possible, will unite those, who are most different from each other, in the essential truth” (Kierkegaard Papirer 1918, VIII 2 B, lines 11–12 and 16–17, translated in Søltoft 2000, p. 22).
What is an “upbuilding example”? Kierkegaard has presented several good examples in his Eighteen upbuilding discourses (1990). These beautiful texts may help the reader in an indirect way to see what builds us up as human beings. A summary of them may be misleading. Form and content is intertwined in Kierkegaard’s writings: “it is precisely the stylistics of the upbuilding discourses that will provide some of the most important clues to their philosophical significance” (Pattison 2002, p. 7). It is the encounter between possibilities in the texts and the reader’s own life experiences that can make them important. However, because I want to select other works of art that have an upbuilding potential, I need some short direct guidelines, even if they only convey “shadow pictures” of the educational possibilities in the discourses. I derive these guidelines from Nigel Tubbs’s interpretation of Kierkegaard (Tubbs 2005, chapter 8) and my reply to him (Wivestad 2011), especially the outline of how Kierkegaard’s thinking can be educationally relevant (pp. 614–615), and the interpretation of stages in upbuilding (pp. 617–619). These may be compared with Pattison’s (2002, pp. 37–38) description of the stages. Three summary points might give some understanding of upbuilding.
Something is upbuilding if
it helps us to a realistic understanding of our own limitations, helps us to acknowledge that we, in our striving to possess the world and become masters, will also be possessed by the world and thereby lose ourselves,
it helps us to see that our life as a whole is a good gift that we have been given,
it helps us to view others without hatred, envy and egoistic calculation, helps us to share with others the good gifts that we have been given.
I will give some comments to and concretizations of these three points.
This follows the insight that Socrates derives from the saying at Delphi, that no one is wiser than Socrates: “the god is really wise …’Human wisdom is of little or no value’” (Plato 1966, 21a and 23a–b). It is dangerous if hubris leads us to forget our finitude and imperfection. We and those close to us may suffer if our own knowledge and wisdom becomes our god, something that we trust absolutely. A classical play that reminds us of this, is Sophocles’ Antigone (Wivestad 2008, p. 311). In the film Casino royale (Campbell 2006), which is based on the first Ian Fleming novel about James Bond, the hero is vulnerable. He is nearly tortured to death, and he enters a real love relationship which makes him ready to leave his “business” as agent 007. He loses his love, however, and perhaps therefore also his vulnerability. A series of other Bond films follows a pattern, which ends with outward success—in business as well as in bed. Books and films with protagonists who are always successful can move us away from a true understanding of ourselves, but could perhaps have upbuilding potential if read or seen in a critical way.
This challenges the centre of a common modern understanding of human beings: We do not want to accept our life just as it is given to us and try to be autonomous architects of our life. We ourselves want to mend the split that we feel between how we are and how we ought to be, and we want to do it “on our own terms” (Kierkegaard 2010, p. xxi). Works of art like Munch’s (1893) painting The scream, Pink Floyd’s (1979/1994) concept album The wall and Kieslowski’s (1988) film series Dekalog may help us to reflect realistically on our possibilities here. Films and games like Star Wars could be used for reflection, but can function as noise, a way to escape from encounters with our uncertainty, anxiety and doubt. If Kierkegaard is right, our best abilities and efforts are always imperfect, and the only possible foundation for upbuilding would be the love that has been given unconditionally to all.
In Works of love (1995, pp. 212–219) Kierkegaard describes the foundation of upbuilding as unconditional love, a love that can bind people together in spite of the differences between them. This gives an important demarcation. All kinds of communication, formation and education that separate people from each other and lead to haughtiness and envy, are not building us up. Knowledge may be important, and the love that builds up is not without knowledge, but knowledge without love only “puffs up” (Kierkegaard 1995, p. 215). Love builds up and it builds up love: “Love is the ground, love is the building, love builds up” (p. 216). The foundation is given. “Love builds up by presupposing that love is present in the ground; therefore love also builds up where, in the human sense, love seems to be lacking” (p. 219). For Kierkegaard the foundation is a love that “has been present in every human being ever since creation”; and everyone has got this foundation, because we are created by God, who is love (Søltoft 2000, p. 25). A successful teacher points to the success of her student; politicians point to their country’s success on PISA rankings and are proud of what has been built up. This is not the way love builds up. “A person can be tempted to be a builder, a teacher, a disciplinarian because this seems to be ruling over others; but to build up the way love does cannot tempt, because this means to be the one who serves … love that builds up has nothing to point to, since its work consists only of presupposing” (Kierkegaard 1995, p. 217). Nobody is tempted to become a servant. Serving the other in love means that we forget ourselves. Presupposing a foundation of love in the other, means that the building process goes on beyond our knowledge and control.
One of Kierkegaard’s discourses that could be read individually and discussed in a group of adults, has the title Love will hide a multitude of sins (Kierkegaard 1990, pp. 55–68; 2010, chapter 11). When we focus on sin, sin is “fruitful”. One sin gives birth to many more and becomes a “multitude of sins”. But when we presuppose love in the other, we can ignore (hide) the bad sides of the other. This has obvious consequences for how we look at the other, how we listen to the other and how we include the other in our fellowship and care. As a positive example Kierkegaard refers to the parable of the father who waits for his youngest son to return (Luke 15:11–32). Similar works of art can have upbuilding possibilities: the Largo movement from Bach’s (1731) Concerto for 2 violins in d-minor, where the two main voices “wait” for each other and “embrace” each other, Rembrandt’s (1668) painting The return of the prodigal son, Kieslowski’s (1993) film Blue, and the animation film Tokyo godfathers (Kon 2003). The latter example presupposes love in a rebellious teenager, an alcoholic and a drag queen.
Some examples unite many in a celebration of self-love that can lead away from fellowship. I can’t get no satisfaction (Jagger and Richards 1965) has a self-centered text connected to a repeated riff that moves around itself. The song expresses a feeling of alienation towards the dominant culture, but bows to the consumption of pleasures: easy information, special cigarettes (hash?), and girls who easily can be “made”. The restless consumer and capitalist, who never gets satisfaction, seems to adore an unholy trinity of consumption as Life-giver, competition as Saviour and culture industry as Comforter. Films, books and games in the Walt Disney franchised series Pirates of the Caribbean move their characters and participants to egoistic calculation. The principle is expressed in this pregnant mantra: “Take what you can, give nothing back!”
In the Norwegian short novel A happy boy, Eyvind has his mother and his schoolmaster as good models. “Eyvind grew and became an active boy: at school he was amongst the first, and he was capable at his work at home. That was because at home he was fond of his mother and at school he was fond of his master” (Bjørnson 1860/1896, ch. 3, p. 20). Before Baard became a schoolmaster, he made some fatal mistakes, and he had experienced great sorrows. But he was met with love and wanted to “pay it forward” to the school children. What influenced Eyvind most during his school years was the life story of his schoolmaster, which “his mother told him one evening as they sat by the fire. It ran through all his books, underlay every word the schoolmaster said; he felt it in the air of the schoolroom when all was quiet. It filled him with obedience and respect, and gave him a quicker apprehension, as it were, of all that was taught him” (p. 20). The situation changed when Eyvind approached the time of confirmation and the passage to adult status. Then he isolated himself and studied for his own prestige and power. It increased his knowledge, but decreased his love and joy. In the light of Vasarely’s Catch and Kierkegaard (1990, pp. 314–319), Eyvind’s situation can be described as a struggle between the first self and the deeper self. The first self wants to eat the fruits of knowledge, possess the world and become master; while the deeper self shows him that this world is dubious, inconstant and deceitful. This creates conflict, and the result may be that the first self “kills” the deeper self by drowning it in oblivion or noise. The schoolmaster had to take a risk when he stopped Eyvind on his lonely way to “success”, appealing to Eyvind’s deeper self. And Eyvind let himself be stopped; he acknowledged his greed for power and his lack of gratitude towards his parents, his teacher and his God. So in the end Eyvind stood for confirmation as number one—without vanity.
Some examples remind us of the vulnerability of the children and how that challenges our life style. In the film L’Enfant, directed by the brothers Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne (2005), we observe how Sonia, a girl in her late teens with a newborn baby in her arms, crosses streets with dangerous motor traffic. Sonia has a flat, but her boyfriend Bruno has let it out for some days to another couple while she was in the hospital. She searches for Bruno, and gets the help of a boy who lets her sit on the backseat of his moped with the baby in her arms. When she finds Bruno, he is more interested in his own petty criminal activities than in the baby. The film does not let us know anything of what has happened before and during Sonia’s pregnancy, but it is quite obvious that Bruno is not prepared to be a father. Though he shows “cleverness”—an ability to attain his goals (Aristotle 1985, 1144a25 Irwin), this force is even more alarming, because he is at the same time immature—choosing sometimes to act justly (in his dealings with some schoolboys who steal for him) and choosing sometimes to lie. He seems to be “guided in his life and in each of his pursuits by his feelings” (1095a7). We do not get insight into his upbringing, but he is not welcomed in his mother’s house, when he wants his mother to give him a false alibi. However, Sonia loves Bruno. She is childlike in a positive way—lively, playful and humorous, and is at the same time caring and responsible, both in her relation with the child and with Bruno. She leads Bruno to be registered as the child’s father and proposes that he should apply for a job. She asks Bruno to walk the child, Jimmy, with the pram. During the walk he gets an idea: The person who receives his stolen goods had mentioned to him the possibility of adoption for money. He follows this impulse, and like in a documentary, we witness how an illegal adoption may be brought about. In his first direct contact with the child, however, we notice Bruno’s care when he puts the child down, and sense that he perhaps has mixed feelings. But he does not stop the process. They need the money, and to him it seems easy to “produce” a new baby. When Sonia is confronted with the facts, she faints and has to be brought to hospital. When she wakes up, she tells the truth. The police investigate the case, but Bruno lies as usual in problematic situations, even accusing Sonia for telling lies about him. Bruno realizes that he has done wrong. He manages to get the child back again from the criminals, but Sonia will not talk with him, and throws him out of the flat. The film ends, however, with a positive possibility. When one of the young boys who steal for him is caught by the police, Bruno admits responsibility and guilt. In the last scene Sonia visits him in prison. The end gives hope: His feeling of shame and Sonia’s love can perhaps move him to turn around from his previous lifestyle. L’Enfant is an engaging and beautifully filmed story about the risks that a newborn child (and older children as well) may be exposed to by an immature adult. It also shows a possible way out of this. Children are dependent on adults who love them, adults who give without conditions, who see the real needs of each unique child there and then, and who make wise long-term decisions on behalf of the child.
What do I mean by an “upbuilding example”? Three points are important: First, an upbuilding example is concrete and perceptible and emotionally engaging—it may be a person, a picture, a story, a text, a song, a film—it is an artistically crafted work that is easy to remember, easy to learn by heart. Second, an upbuilding example may help us to see truths about ourselves and our world—often very unpleasant truths.Footnote 3 Third, an upbuilding example may contribute to our upbuilding in love. The foundation for this upbuilding is a gift of love to all people, whether they see it as God’s gift or not. It is a gift which is given without conditions and which we ought to share with each other without conditions.