Soren Kierkegaard, Philosopher
11 November 1855
Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (the "o" is written with a slash "/" through it) is considered the father of the philosophical movement called existentialism.

In a Danish film, Ordet ("The Word", based on a play by Kaj Munk--see 5 January), one character appears to be insane. Someone asks his brother:

"Has he always been like this?"
"No, he became this way while at the University."
"A love affair?"
"No, reading the works of Soren Kierkegaard."

Whenever I have seen the film, this line elicited general laughter, since the audience was a student crowd, and most knew enough about Kierkegaard, if only by reputation, to get the point.

Often, the details of a philosopher's life are irrelevant to his philosophy. Who cares how many brothers and sisters Aristotle had? It does not affect his concept of Categories. With Kierkegaard, however, the life does matter to the student of the philosophy.

Kierkegaard's father, Michael Pederson Kierkegaard, was a farm laborer who led a desperately unhappy life of grinding poverty. One day (I gather while he was still in his teens), full of rage at his lot, and God's apparent indifference to it, he stood on a hilltop, shook his fists at the sky, and solemnly cursed God. Soon after, by a series of strokes of remarkable good fortune, he prospered, and ended a long life by dying a rich man. However, he carried a tremendous burden of guilt for his cursing, and his life was not happy, for his wife and five of his seven children died within a space of two years, and he felt that God was punishing him.

His youngest child, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, was born in Copenhagen in 1813. He went to the University to study theology, but later switched to philosophy. When he learned of his father's boyhood curse, he was shaken to the core. He became for a while a stranger to both God and his father, but later became reconciled to both. In 1840, being 27 years old, he was betrothed to Regine Olsen, ten years younger. He loved her, but he had come to believe that he was called to probe the dark, unhappy side of existence, and that he could not ask Regine to share this unhappiness with him, or make her understand what he was thinking and feeling, and that he ought to break off with her for her own good. She loved him, and was not willing to be dumped for her own good. He decided to behave so badly that when it became known that the betrothal was off, everyone would assume that she had broken off with him. He then ran off to Berlin for six months, to let the dust settle. (Mark Twain said: "Never tell a woman that you are unworthy of her. Let it come as a surprise.") The episode had a deep effect on him, and he comments on it in several of his books. For example, he compares his willingness to renounce his fiancee for the sake of his vocation to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. However, he expected that, even without ever seeing each other again, they would continue to have a "spiritual union," trusting that God would somehow make the impossible possible and bring them together eventually. Kierkegaard never married. Regine married Fritz Schlegel and accompanied him to the Danish West Indies when he was appointed governor thereof. Kierkegaard felt deeply betrayed by her action, and refers to it several times in his later books. He made her his sole heir.

Over the next few years, he wrote and published a series of books:

Either/or: a Fragment of Life (1843)
Fear and Trembling (1843)
Repetition (1843)
Philosophical Fragments (1844)
The Concept of Dread (1844)
Stages On Life's Way (1845)
Concluding Unscientific Postscript To the Philosophical
Fragments: a Mimic-pathetic-dialectic Composition, an Existential Contribution (1846)
Edifying Discourses in Divers Spirits (1847)
Works of Love (1847)
Christian Discourses (1848)
The Sickness Unto Death (1849)
Training in Christianity (1850)

He published most of his work under a variety of assumed names, so as to make the point that they were not a single consistent point of view. Often a later book would reply to arguments found in an earlier book.

Most philosophical writers before Kierkegaard, both Christian and otherwise, undertake to explain reality, to offer a view of it that makes sense. Consider, for example, Georg W F Hegel (1770-1831), whose views dominated philosophical study in Kierkegaard's day. He was considered by his admirers to have found the key to explaining, in principle, just about everything. His position was called Dialectical Idealism. "Dialectic" refers to the process of examining a idea (Thesis), working out its implications and consequences and applications, and thereby finding difficulties (Antithesis) that require the discarding of the original idea and the adoption of a modified form of it (Synthesis), a new idea. We then examine the new idea (Thesis), and repeat the process. The goal of the process is the final thesis, God, alias the Absolute. (Find a sleeping freshman who is taking a philosophy course, whisper "Hegel" in his ear, and he will murmur, "thesis, antithesis, synthesis.") German professors of religious history, influenced by Hegel, wrote papers on Judaism, Hellenism, and Christianity as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. They discussed the history of the early Church in terms of Peter (who wanted to preserve the simple teachings of the Jewish rabbi, Jesus), Paul (who wanted to abandon the Jewish aspects of the faith, abolish the requirement of circumcision, and turn the whole thing into a mystery religion like Mithraism), and Luke (who in the book of Acts undertook to portray Peter and Paul as allies rather than enemies). [Please note: their descriptions of the apostles, not mine.] Thesis, antithesis, synthesis! They wrote histories of the formation of the Hebrew Scriptures in terms of the J document, the E document, the combination of the two to form the Je document (synthesis), and so on. Their opponents accused them of manufacturing theories to fit Hegel's pattern, and then forcing the evidence to fit the theories. But to many scholars, it seemed that Hegel had made sense of everything. (Marx, in contrast with Hegel, called his philosophy dialectical materialism. He said that the fundamental fact of history was not the succession of ideas, but the succession of material and economic systems. Feudalism, working out its consequences, destroys itself and leads to capitalism. Capitalism, working out its consequences, destroys itself and leads to socialism. But these are not logical or conceptual consequences, but physical or material ones. Hence the term "dialectical materialism." But I digress.)

Kierkegaard was convinced that this whole approach is a mistake, that the world is a mysterious and often frightening place, and that explanations that try to make it less so are dishonest. Traditional philosophers (sometimes called "essentialists" to distinguish them from Kierkegaard and other "existentialists") are like a man sitting in an upper window overlooking the street and watching a parade go by, and undertaking to describe the parade, noting the various components of the parade and how they interact. But man is not really like a bystander watching a parade. He is like someone who, not by his own choice, is marching in the parade. And this is crucial to his experience of the parade. One cannot distinguish the observer from the observed, subject from object.

Kierkegaard also laid great emphasis on the notion that freedom means that man must choose arbitrarily, with no criteria to guide him. If he can give any reasons for his choice, then the choice is determined by the reasons and is not truly free. This notion of freedom he and many others find both convincing and terrifying.

The book by Kierkegaard most widely read in survey courses in philosophy is Fear and Trembling, which deals with Abraham's choice when God commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac. How could Abraham know that it was God and not Satan who was talking to him? Is not murder wrong? If we say that God makes the rules of morality, and so good Means whatever God happens to command, we then find that the statement "God is good" no longer means anything except, "God wants whatever God wants." Moreover, the view that God can and will simply redefine the standards of morality whenever it suits Him is incompatible with what we read four chapters earlier, where God speaks of judging the wicked city of Sodom, and Abraham says, "What if there are some good men in the city? Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? Far be that from you [alternate translation: Shame on you]! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25) And so Kierkegaard struggles with the meaning of Abraham's choice, and talks about something called "the teleological suspension of the ethical." And students remember the phrase, and parrot it back on the final exam.

A friend of mine who writes songs took a course in Philosophy of Religion, and during a lecture on Kierkegaard wrote the following, which I reproduce with his permission. He also wrote a catchy tune with guitar accompaniment, but I will not try to reproduce these. Make up your own.

Now children, since you've worked so hard
We'll spend a little time on Soren Kierkegaard

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

This fellow, Soren Kierkegaard,
Was a Dane that didn't want to think too hard.

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

Soren Kierkegaard refused to niggle
With Georg Wulfgang Friedrich Higgle.

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

Soren called for a radical schism
With dialectical idealism.

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

Now, God told Abraham his son to slay,
And if he'd done it, 'twould have been okay,

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

But, just as Abraham raised the knife,
God said, "Spare that young man's life!"

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

God said, "Abe, do you feel ill-used?"
And Abe said, "No, just a mite confused."

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

"But I'm Abraham, and you're God, you see,
So whatever you want's all right with me."

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

This God may seem a dictatorial cat,
But German Lutherans are all like that.

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

For man views God in his own image,
And Soren was deutsch from start to finnage.

(Soren, we'll spend a little time on you.)

That's the end of the theological session,
And the start of the Schleswig-Holstein question.

(Soren, we have spent a little time on you.)
In his later years, Kierkegaard became convinced that it was his mission to attack the complacency of the established church. The Lutheran Church of Denmark was the official Church of the country, recognized and subsidized by the government, but, still more to the point, it was accepted by polite society, and Kierkegaard saw this as dangerous. The Bishop of Copenhagen was a scholar of impressive achievements, respected both as a theologian and as a scientist. Kierkegaard describes him as follows (I quote approximately from memory):
It is Sunday morning, and the bishop is scheduled to preach at The cathedral. In his liturgical robes, he ascends the pulpit. His graying hair adds a touch of wisdom to his already striking and dignified appearance. The Royal Family is present, and several rows are filled by members of the Danish Academy of Science. Glancing over the rest of the congregation, one sees bankers, lawyers, judges, wealthy merchants. The bishop begins to speak. "Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my text this morning is taken from 1 Corinthians 1:28. Behold, God has chosen you for himself, you, the despised and rejected of the earth." And no one laughs.

He waged a campaign against what he saw as a complacent and compromising Church, spending both fortune and health recklessly, until after two years he collapsed in the street and was taken to a hospital where he died a month later, on 11 November 1855.

For a while, immediately after his death, he was largely forgotten, but then interest in his writings revived. They struck a chord in many readers, Christian and non-Christian alike. Thus, when a new edition of his works was issued after his death, one editor was a convinced Christian, and the other two were atheists. His work has deeply influenced not only professed Christian philosophers like Paul Tillich, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Barth, but also atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus, and Jews like Martin Buber.

I close with two extracts from his writings.

    Then Abraham lifted the boy up and walked with him, taking him
    by the hand, and his words were full of comfort and
    exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. Then he turned
    away from Isaac for a moment, and when Isaac saw his face a
    second time it was changed, his gaze was wild, his expression
    one of horror. He caught Isaac by the chest, threw him to the
    ground and said:  "Fool, do you believe that I am your loving
    father? I am an idolater. Do you believe that this is God's
    command? No, it is my own desire." Then Isaac cried out in his
    anguish: "God in heaven have mercy on me, God of Abraham have
    mercy on me; if I have no father on earth, then be Thou my
    father!" But below his breath Abraham said to himself: "Lord in
    heaven, I thank Thee; it is better that he should think me a
    monster than that he should lose faith in Thee."
When the child is to be weaned, the mother blackens her Breast, for it would be a shame for the breast to look pleasing when the child is not to have it. So the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother is the same, her look loving and tender as ever. Blessed is the one who needs no more terrible means to wean the child. (from Fear and Trembling)
There is so much said now about people being offended at Christianity because it is so dark and gloomy. But the real reason why man is offended at Christianity is that it would make of a man something so extraordinary that he is unable to get it into his head.
    Imagine the mightiest Emperor that ever lived; and imagine
    some poor peasant, who would think himself fortunate if he
    could but once catch a glimpse of the Emperor, and would tell
    his children and grandchildren of this as the most important
    event of his life.  Suppose that the Emperor were to send for
    this man, who had not supposed that the Emperor knew of his
    existence, and informed him that he wished to have him as a
    son-in-law. In all probability, the peasant, instead of being
    delighted, would be offended, since he would suppose that this
    could mean only that the Emperor wanted to make a fool of him!
    And now for Christianity! Christianity teaches that every
    man, say an ordinary man who would be quite proud of having
    once in his life talked with the King of Denmark, can talk with
    God any moment he wishes, and is sure to be heard by Him, that
    for this man's sake God came into the world to suffer and die.
    If anything would stun a man, surely it is this. Whoever has
    not the humble courage to believe it, must surely be offended
    by it. (abridged from SICKNESS UNTO DEATH)

PRAYER (traditional language):

Heavenly Father, whose beloved Son Jesus Christ felt sorrow and Dread in the Garden of Gethsemane: help us to remember that, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and desolation, thou art ever with us; that, encouraged by the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and others, we may believe where we have not seen, trust where we cannot test, and so come at last to the eternal joy which thou hast prepared for us, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

Heavenly Father, whose beloved Son Jesus Christ felt sorrow and Dread in the Garden of Gethsemane: help us to remember that, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and desolation, you are ever with us; that, encouraged by the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and others, we may believe where we have not seen, trust where we cannot test, and so come at last to the eternal joy which you have prepared for us, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.