Charlie Brown: A Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith

It occurred to me, as I was reading the funnies in the paper today, that Charlie Brown is a knight of faith in the Kierkegaardian mode. The knight of faith has been on my mind ever since I re-read Fear and Trembling a couple of days ago. And today, it all clicked: intentionally or not, Charlie Brown can be seen as a knight of faith.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes two kinds of people: one is the knight of infinite resignation, and the other is the knight of faith. The knight of infinite resignation, according to Kierkegaard, is someone who has given up something incredibly important to him, say, a calling or a loved one, in the temporal world due to some circumstances. Such circumstances render it impossible for the person to have his object, whatever or whoever it may be. Thus, he has resigned himself to this fact, and lives with the pain of his loss until his death. However, he does not give up on the afterlife, on the hope that his life-defining commitment will be returned to him in the afterlife.

The knight of faith, on the other hand, makes a move that goes beyond infinite resignation. Like the knight of infinite resignation, the knight of faith must also give up something which defines his life, something so precious and so valuable to him that it gives his life meaning. However, having made the movement of infinite resignation, the knight of faith still believes, on the strength of the absurd, that he will receive this valuable thing back, and not in the afterlife, but in the finite world of temporality. The last part is the crucial point, because that is what distinguishes the knight of faith from the knight of infinite resignation.

Of course anyone can see that the knight of faith is a paradox, but that is precisely the point according to Kierkegaard: faith is a paradox that cannot be reconciled with logic. There is no logic that tells the knight of faith that he will receive his commitment back in the world of here and now, but he believes it nonetheless, on the strength of the absurd. It is important to note the role of the absurd in Kierkegaard’s account of faith: the knight of faith is only possible because of the absurd.

Now, how does this all of this relate to Charlie Brown? To me, Charlie Brown is the quintessential knight of faith, because time after time, he believes that something good will happen to him, no matter how many times something bad has happened to him. Take, for example, Charlie Brown’s belief that he will get candy instead of rocks when he goes trick-or-treating every Halloween. Now, on every previous occasion, he has received rocks instead of candy, but yet with each Halloween, he still believes that he will get candy this time.

Another example would be Charlie Brown’s willingness to kick the ball held by Lucy, even though it is clear to everyone else that, at the last possible moment, Lucy will pull the ball away, and Charlie Brown would land on his ass. But no matter how many times this has happened, Charlie Brown still believes that he will kick the ball.

How do these two examples show that Charlie Brown is a knight of faith? First, they entail Charlie Brown’s refusal to resign himself, to give up. Unlike the knight of infinite resignation, the knight of faith does not give up on the belief that he will get what he values in the world of here and now. Charlie Brown does not believe that some kind of justice will be rendered in the future, but rather, he believes that he will get what he wants now. Second, these examples show that Charlie Brown believes on the strength of the absurd, absurd because logically speaking, he should have figured out by now that he will always get rocks instead of candy, and Lucy will always pull the ball from underneath him.

But he believes nonetheless, and in this belief he is a Kierkegaardian knight of faith.

Yet one issue remains unresolved. In Kierkegaard’s account, faith is only possible through God, because faith expresses an individual’s absolute relationship to God, unmediated by the ethical or the logical. However, it is unclear whether Charlie Brown believes in God. The comic itself certainly is religious, in the sense that it is concerned with religion, as seen by Linus, who acts as the strip’s theologian. But then again, even Linus presents a problematic case about the existence of God, as every year he eagerly awaits the arrival of the Great Pumpkin, but every year the Great Pumpkin fails to show up. It is kind of like Waiting for Godot for kids.

Apparently, I am not alone in thinking this. A quick Google search turned up this article in Philosophy Now by Nathan Radke, titled, “Sartre & Peanuts,” which essentially argues that the Peanuts exudes an existentialist philosophy. One passage in the article is particular salient to this post:

“Why does Charlie Brown continue to go out to the pitcher’s mound, despite his 50 year losing streak? Why try to kick the football, when Lucy has always pulled it away at the last second? Because there is an infinite gap between the past and the present. Regardless of what has come before, there is always the possibility of change. Monstrous freedom is a double edged sword. We exist, and are responsible. This is both liberating and terrifying.”

Radke frames the issue as one of freedom and choice, whereas I see it as more about faith and the absurd. I think either interpretation is plausible, which just goes to show that the Peanuts is one of the more philosophically interesting pop-culture products out there, very much like the other philosophically interesting comic strip — Calvin and Hobbes.

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