Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

by Søren Kierkegaard

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is not a piece of fiction, so we cannot speak about literary characters in this work in the strictest sense of this word. It is rather a devotional treatise aimed at exhorting a follower of the Christian religion to embrace his calling in its fullness. Kierkegaard’s approach is more philosophical than dogmatic. Such notions as the Eternal, the One, and the Individual feature prominently in the work as the author focuses on man in relation to various factors of his spiritual and practical life. It is from this perspective that we can talk about “characters” in the Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. Rather than being separate personages, they are more like various facets, or aspects of one man.

First, Kierkegaard speaks about the empirical human before the face of the Eternal. This person is nominally Christian, but it is assumed that they are not fully aware of their status, calling, or duties in their finite existence in the temporal world. Kierkegaard places this empirical person in a situation where they need to recognize their finitude as they face the Eternal. As they do, they are assisted by the Providence that lead them to remorse, repentance, and confession. The attitude which a person assumes once they are moved to these spiritual actions is the only proper one that they can show towards the Eternal. Such a person becomes at one with themselves. And in the grand act of repentance, the Eternal and the temporal converge:

From the point of view of the Eternal, repentance must come instantaneously, indeed there is not even time to utter the words. But man is in the temporal dimension and moves along in time. Thus the Eternal and the temporal seek to make themselves intelligible to each other . . . (chapter 2)

Second, Kierkegaard talks about a repentant person asan active suffererfor the sake of the Eternal. But prior to that, he proves that the Eternal, the One, and the Good are essentially the same reality, and that a person needs to seek this One and Good with all their heart and mind. However, as a person does this, they face various obstacles, such as seeking the Good out of fear of punishment or a lack of commitment, to name just a few. In order to will the Good in truth, they must be willing to suffer all for the sake of the Good. Kierkegaard comments,

A man may have suffered throughout his whole life without it ever, in any true sense, being able to be said of him that he has been willing to suffer all for the Good… When the sufferer, on the other hand, willingly takes up his appointed sufferings, he is willing to suffer all for the Good, that is, in order that the Good may be victorious in him. (chapter 10)

The active sufferer promotes the victory of the Eternal in the realm of the temporal. Paradoxically, suffering can and needs to be, according to Kierkegaard, active and healthy. Such a sufferer is far from being a mere object of pity or sympathy. Moreover, their pain is going to be healed:

The sufferer must therefore be willing to suffer all. This means equally to be willing to do all: to bring it to a commitment, to be and to remain loyal to the Good in the commitment. While it is true that the pain of the wish is the sign that the suffering in a way continues; yet the healing also continues,...

(This entire section contains 890 words.)

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as long as the sufferer remains firm in the commitment. (chapter 10)

Third, Kierkegaard talks about a person as anindividual pursuing his vocation. The empirical human who has encountered the Eternal, repented, committed himself to pursuing the Good with unwavering reserve (even to the point of suffering), and practiced their earthly vocation responsibly is truly an individual:

But in eternity each shall render account as an individual. That is, eternity will demand of him that he shall have lived as an individual. Eternity will draw out before his consciousness, all that he has done as an individual, he who had forgotten himself in noisy self-conceit. In eternity, he shall be brought to account strictly as an individual, he who intended to be in the crowd where there should be no such strict reckoning . . . (chapter 13)

There is no need to seek greater dignity than the one that has already been given to humans—that is, the dignity of being an individual. The main thing is a person’s individual responsibility before the Eternal, a true commitment of their heart, their willingness to suffer all for the Eternal, and their positive, faithful attitude to their occupation in this world, no matter how exalted or low it may be in the eyes of the crowd. Addressing such a person, Kierkegaard concludes with these personal, inspiring, and at the same time probing words:

In your occupation, what is your attitude of mind? And how do you carry out your occupation? . . . By God’s help and by your own faithfulness something good will come from the unpromising beginning. For there are beginnings everywhere, and there are good beginnings, where you begin with God; and no day is the wrong one to begin upon—not even an unpromising one, if you begin with God. (chapter 14)