Kierkegaard on Ethical Multitasking

Studies show that the practice of “multitasking” is not only overrated but may actually be bad for us. It makes sense, then, that if it’s harmful in our practical pursuits, there are similar pitfalls in the moral life.

Kierkegaard’s famed work, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, is a series of penitential sermons and is thus very different in tone and style from his philosophical writings. The author’s theme is inspired by a passage from the Epistle of James: “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, which is moved and carried about by the wind…. A double minded man is inconstant in all his ways” (I.6,8). As Kierkegaard puts it

In truth to will one thing, then, can only mean to will the Good, because every other object is not a unity; and the will that wills that object, therefore, must become double-minded.

The Danish thinker is stating a psychological fact. Centuries earlier the stoic Seneca said, “It is a mark of a good way of life that, among other things, it satisfies and abides; bad behavior, constantly changing, not for the better, simply into different forms, has none of this stability.” Evil is always divided against itself.

There are many facets to this meditation, and Kierkegaard works them out with insight, sympathy and nuance. We are warned not only not against pride, sensuality and inconstancy but also things like servile fear and superstition. Just to take one concept, the timelessness of “the Good,” he says

Only the Eternal is always appropriate and always present, is always true. Only the Eternal applies to each human being, whatever his age may be.

No one can say that there is a season suited for moral frivolity and another for reflection. “The Eternal will not have its time, but will fashion time to its own desire.” The Good is always present to our conscience and often we perceive the truth in an instant. That said, Kierkegaard realizes we live in time and thus our spiritual growth must be undertaken patiently and not precipitately. One of the most important themes of Purity of Heart is the understanding that the sense of guilt is a salutary punishment for transgressions. It is God’s “helping hand.” Even when we acknowledge our sins we often do so not so much out of genuine sorrow but because of embarrassment and a desire to quickly put our mistakes behind us rather than learn from them.

I imagine that anyone who has dabbled in Kierkegaard will find this work very different.  There is no intention to be intellectually precocious or ironic. The writing is clear and eloquent.

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