Human concerns – Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

See on this site – Danish philosopher and defender of religious faith. Kierkegaard deeply affected theologians and Existential philosophy, which became a fashion among intellectuals in the second quarter of the 20th century. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Kierkegaard was an unhappy, neurotic, and terribly suffering man. He opposed all strict philosophical constructions, and hid his thoughts behind a number of pseudonyms, which sometimes ironically commented each other’s opinions. During his career Kierkegaard published some 30 books.

“Like that other celebrated Dane, Prince Hamlet, he was wracked with doubt and with anguish, a world of Latin origin which he endowed with a new shiver of fear. He was less a philosopher than a theologian, and less a theologian than a eloquent and sensitive man. A Lutheran evangelist, he denied the arguments that prove the existence of God and the incarnation of Jesus, considering them absurd from a rational point of view, and he proposed an act of individual faith for every believer… Religion was the strongest of his passions.” (Jorge Luis Borgess in Total Library, 1999)
Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, where he also spent all his days. Kierkegarrd’s surname derived from the name of a farmstead, where his ancestors once lived – a farm (gaard) located near the village church (kirke/kierke).

Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838), his father, was a wool merchant, whose melancholy, pietistic faith, and thoughts of sin, suffering, and grace infected the young Søren’s the world view. In his poverty-stricken youth, Michael Pedersen had cursed God. Later he constantly thought the sufferings of Christ. Michael’s first wife had died childless after two years marriage; he then married his housekeeper Ane, who was already pregnant. Michael had become so successful in the wool trade and with a fortunate investment that he had been able to retire at age forty – he was fifty-six at Søren’s birth.

In 1830 Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen, where he studied theology, philosophy, and literature. After the death of his mother in 1834, Kierkegaard made his first note into his famous Journal – the last is dated on September 25, 1855. By 1835 Kierkegaard had decided, that first of all he must know himself, before he could know what to do with his life. In 1837 he met Regine Olsen, a teenager, and moved away from home, working as a teacher of Latin at Borgerdydskolen. His father died in 1838 and on the same year Kierkegaard published AF EN ENDNU LEVENDER PAPIRER, a critic on H.C. Andersen’s novel Kun en Spillemand.

In 1840 Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen, but broke the relationship next year, devoting himself entirely to writing. Regine Olsen married later the literature historian Friedrich Schlegel.

Kierkegaard considered that marriage and domestic responsibility were incompatible with the philosophical task to which he was called. When the famous Swedish writer and early feminist Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865) wanted to meet him and send him in 1849 an invitation to discuss “metamorphoses of life”, Kierkegaard refused. “Let no one invite me, for I do not dance,” was his famous reaction. However, most probably these were the words he later wished he had used, but his real reply was someting else. Bremer was offended and humiliated, and took her revenge by mocking him in her book Lif i Norden.

Kierkegaard’s first significant book was his M.A. dissertation OM BEGREBET IRONI (1841), which criticized prevailing Hegelian assumptions. In AFSLUTTENDE UVIDENSKABELIG EFTERSKRIFT (1846, Concluding Unscientific Postscript) he attacked all philosophical system building, and formulated the thesis that subjectivity is truth. “All essential knowledge relates to existence, or only such knowledge as has an essential relationship to existence is essential knowledge.” Individual has the freedom to choose his own truth on the subjective basis of faith. The Concept of Dread (1884) presents man’s confrontation with “the nothingness of possibility” and his anxiety in face of the openess and uncertainty of the future. “It was dread which drove me to excess,” Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal in May 1843. Dread explains the need to return to the innocence that (according to him) each man loses essentially the same way as Adam lost his.

In his conflict with Hegel, whose writings dominated the German philosophical discussion, Kierkegaard’s main point was the belief in personal immortality. Hegel had in effect denied the personality of God and created instead the “Absolute Spirit”. He saw that the true individuality of human being is to be found in the in submission to the evolution of the state. “The history of the world is the judgment of the world,” Hegel said. Kierkegaard doubted Hegel’s abstractions. He argued that life cannot be bureaucratically rationalized in Hegel’s way, and belief in God is not the solution to a theoretical problem but a free act of faith. When the Hegelians tried to depersonalize philosophy, Kierkegaard saw that philosophy is born from the strivings of individual philosophers. Thus his use of a number of pseudonyms, none of whom “agreed” with one another.

Kierkegaard’s personality became in 1846 a target for the satirical magazine Corsaren. It published a series of caricatures and writings about the philosopher, who first in his desperation played with the idea of giving up his career. On the street young rascal mocked him. “Wherever there is a crowd there is untruth,” he once said. In his diary the philosopher described himself as the “martyr of laugh”.

Kierkegaard attacked on the state church in 1854, after the new bishop was appointed: he had in vain expected a recognition as a religious thinker. For his disappointment, also the new bishop avoided to renew the church. He saw that the so-called people’s church established in Denmark was “catastrophically usurping the true role of religion.” Kierkegaard, himself ordained a minister, never took a position as pastor.

In 1848 Kierkegaard experienced a spiritual crisis. He started to ponder of death and held a sermon at the cathedral. In the 1850s Kierkegaard published INDØVELSE IN CHRISTENDOM (1850) under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, and HVAD CHRISTUS DØMMER OM OFFICIEL CHRISTENDOM (1855) and GUDS FORANDERLIGHET (1855) under his own name. When writing series of articles, compiled as Attack Upon “Christendom” (1854-1855), Kierkegaard was suddenly stricken with a spinal disease. He died within a month on November 11, 1855.

Kierkegaard was a very prolific writer. At his creative peak he published 12 books in one and a half year (1843-44), using many pseudonyms, sometimes even satirizing his own books under a different name. PHILOSOPHISKE SMULER (1844, Philosophical Fragments), written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, was produced in three months. The book sold poorly, 204 copies in three years. Kierkegaard’s pseudonym referred to a monk, who lived in the 7th century and wrote about Christian virtues. In 1837 Kierkegaard had called Hegel ‘Johannes Climacus’ alias ‘De omnibus dubitantum est’. At the end of Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard revealed the author of his pseudonymous works.

Kierkegaard believed that the truth could be best revealed through dramatic confrontation of opposing habits of life – for example in the guise of a magistrate or a seducer as in ENTEN – ELLER: ET LIVS-FRAGMENT (1843, Either/Or), which he published under the name of Victor Eremita. The portrayal of the aesthetic way of life was partly based on his relationship with Regine Olsen. The first volume was devoted to the hedonistic or, as Kierkegaard calls it, the “aesthetic”, life. In contains the famous “seducer’s diary,” and many other essays. The second volume, by a married “Judge William,” presents an alternative: the reflective life. Kierkegaard’s behavior toward Regine increased his feeling of guilt, which he studied in Concept of Dread (1844). There he introduced to the world the idea of what, after the Second World War and with the advent of the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, became popular as angst. Sartre was a student of Hegel, Marx, Husserl, and Heidegger, but the Spanish thinker, novelist, and poet Miguel Unamuno undertook the study of Danish in order to read Kirkegaard.

Neither Nietzsche nor Kierkegaard were systematic philosophers – they opposed such tendencies. Although Kierkegaard admitted that abstract, impersonal thinking has a certain value, life was not him mere logic. “Wisdom is passionless,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in Culture and Value (1979). “But faith by contrast in what Kierkegaard calls a passion.” ‘Truth’ is ’subjective’ in the way it is bound with existence. Only that is ‘true’, which we have grasped by out own efforts, through commitment and making it part of our own nature. It was not enough to be a Christian, the unreflective church-goer must become a Christian. Some philosophers have considered Kierkegaard’s contribution to philosophy questionable, because of his reluctance to maintain any stance. Kierkegaard himself has argued that in his oeuvre he has concentrated on the question of how to become a Christian. “If, after the Final Judgment, there remains only one sinner in Hell and I happen to be that sinner, I will celebrate from the abyss the Justice of God.” (Read more here).

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