Kierkegaards’ works are interesting to read, they have a freshness and intensity that separates them from other philosophical writings. It is easy to get lost in his aphorisms – but what are the main features of his thought? Here is a summary:

Becoming a Christian

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was, in many ways, the first existentialist. He was also a devout Christian. He rejected career and marriage to pursue a religious mission. He also rejected much of what his compatriots considered “being a Christian.” Accordingly, he questioned the role of reason and suffering in life and advocated individual choice and passion both in religion and in life more generally.

Kierkegaard did not have a very happy or fulfilling life. He was crippled in his emotional development, and burdened by a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy. His father had been oppressive and guilt-ridden. After the father’s first wife had died, he had married his maid, who gave birth to seven children, and Søren was the youngest. Kierkegaard spent virtually his entire life in Copenhagen. His father was wealthy; nevertheless, Søren despised bourgeois complacency and the mannerisms of “the present age.” As a young man, he spent a year in Berlin with his friend Hans Christian  Andersen, for whom it was easier to enjoy life. Søren rejected hedonism; he experienced it as self-defeating, shameful, and humiliating. Søren had a difficult personality, and it was not easy for him to maintain friendships or a love relationship. He denied himself aesthetic indulgences and devoted his life to the pursuit of a lonely and controversial philosophical and religious mission.

The place of reason and the role of suffering and passion in life became Kierkegaard’s primary concern, in particular with regard to religion and religious belief. He wanted to redefine what it means to be (or become) a Christian. He rejected the idea that simply being born a Christian is sufficient to be one. He also rejected the idea that simply growing up with certain beliefs was sufficient to turn someone into a Christian. He insisted, much to the dismay of many of his Christian compatriots, that it is easier to become a Christian if one is not already born one. Christianity is a commitment, not something to which one passively adheres. Most so-called Christians, Kierkegaard says {the “mob” of what he disdainfully calls “Christendom”) are not that at all. He accuses most Christians of blatant hypocrisy, empty belief conjoined with social membership. Most Christians display no passion for their faith at all. Christianity is by and large a “herd” phenomenon. It is not to be understood in terms of doctrines, rituals. or social belonging. Belief in doctrines is a part of Christianity, but not the essential part. Rituals are at most a minimal aspect of Christianity. Kierkegaard was Lutheran, which is a stark and sincere form of Christianity that rejects the colorful and cultural aspects of Catholicism.

From Kierkegaards point of view, the existence of other Christians is somewhat irrelevant for the individual relationship with God. One is, ultimately, a Christian all by oneself. Christianity is a paradox, but this paradox demands passionate faith. The paradox is one of belief, but its proper response is passion. One of the reigning paradoxes In Kierkegaard’ s days was the idea that God could be both eternal and temporally present as a man. Today, a more pressing paradox for most Christians would be the so·called “problem of evil,” the idea that an all-powerful, all-knowing, good and kind God  would allow so much suffering in the world. For Kierkegaard, a leap of faith is necessary for a passionate religious belief.

Kierkegaard considered G. W. F. Hegel as his philosophical opponent. As a student, Kierkegaard studied with Friedrich Schelling in Berlin. Schelling denounced Hegel’s philosophy as “negative.” Schelling and Hegel had been college roommates and  competitors. Hegel, who, along with Kant, dominated philosophical  thought in Denmark, defended the idea of a supra-historical collective world-spirit, or “Geist.” This leaves little room for the individual, because ultimately history moves by its own logic. Hegel ‘s Geist was, according to the popular interpretation, identical with human consciousness and the historical world-process. Hegel thus denied the nature of God as entirely separate from his creation and  from human beings. Hegel also defended the idea that Geist is rationality, and that it could be comprehended by human beings.

Kierkegaard, by contrast, offers the fear and trembling of a personal confrontation with God. He rejected both the collectivity of Geist and the idea that God could be rationally understood.

Hegel’s relationship with Schelling was complicated. Schelling became famous very early, while Hegel was still struggling to find his way in philosophy. Later, Hegel became even more famous, Schelling’s star faded, and Schelling was jealous and wounded. Kierkegaard did not understand this, but Schelling’s negative opinions fit in perfectly with his own anti-Hegelian predispositions. While Kierkegaard was studying in Berlin, two of his other classmates were the Marx collaborator Friedrich Engels and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Kierkegaard found in Hegel’s work the paradigm of collective, rationalist thinking that he wanted to attack, so Kierkegaard became the champion of “the individual.”

Subjective Truth

Kierkegaard took “subjective truth” to be the central element in a meaningful life. There are only subjective answers to the question “How should I live?” Subjectivity is “inwardness and passion.” It is personal choice, “taking hold” of one’s life by committing oneself passionately to what one chooses. It is your “subjective truth” that makes you commit, and risk the leap of faith.  Kierkegaard has no issue with objectivity in science, but in the existential dimension, truth functions differently.

Questions concerning God and religion are not objective questions. Science attempts to undermine the miracle by making it plausible  or reduce it somehow to a natural event, for instance when Moses crosses the Red Sea, but his persecutors  drown. Kierkegaard argues that objectivity should not be allowed to invade the existential realm, the realm of personal meaning and significance. This is also the realm of religion. It is the realm of ethics as well, which Kierkegaard identifies with the philosophy of Kant. Kierkegaard emphasizes “the ethically existing individual,” the focus of his existentialism. To believe with Hegel that the world is ultimately rational does not give an answer to the question “How should I live?”

“Subjectivity is, first of all, inwardness and passion.” It is a commitment, not a mere discovery or “correctness.” Subjectivity is the realm where we find that very special sense of existence from which “existentialism’” will eventually get its name. It is living fully, which may not be outwardly evident. It is living inwardly, in the depth and richness of one’s feelings. Passions, for Kierkegaard, are not mere feelings (sensations) but profound insights into the beings we really are. To say that a passion is subjective is to say that it can be known and appreciated only “from the inside,” by the person whose passion it is.

Personal choice is the key to subjectivity, “taking hold”of one’s life. One does this by committing oneself passionately to what one chooses. Kierkegaard’s own choice, which he advocates throughout his twenty volumes of writing, is Christianity, redefined in his own passionate way. Christianity requires faith, which is not rational, but involves passion and commitment. The paradoxes of Christianity do not make faith less plausible, they are required to provoke the passions that faith requires.

Christianity – and existence more generally – involves “inwardness.” Not only may it not be discernible ”from the outside,” but it may appear to be meaningless to anyone else. You can love someone with all your heart without it being evident to anyone else.

Kierkegaard gives the example of two people making love, a performance that is strange to anyone other than the couple. Observers cannot understand what is happening, because only the actors create and understand the event from within the relationship. Religious passion cannot, therefore, be collectivized into an organized religion. Collectivism  is the very opposite of what a religious community might be (for example. a monastery where each individual keeps  his faith  to himself).  Kierkegaard  says he wants to break back into the monastery.

Most of what Kierkegaard says about faith can be translated to virtually any other religion. Because there is no “correct” form of subjectivity. the author has to seduce his readers, not convince them rationally. Kierkegaard’s books are an elaborate seduction, an invitation to risk the leap of faith for yourself. You cannot argue or convince someone to enter the authentic existence of faith, it remains a personal act.

Existential Dialectic

In contradiction to Hegel’s philosophy, Kierkegaard develops an existential  dialectic. Hegel developed a grand historical “dialectic,” proving that history and humanity have an ultimate purpose, a pervasive rationality that drives history forward. Kierkegaard develops his “existential dialectic,” a personal dialectic with no ultimate purpose, no rational direction. In Hegel, history develops through conflict, an idea later echoed in Marx. Kierkegaard subverts this approach by creating a dialectic that makes everything more difficult. He rejects the idea that scientific knowledge is a means for human redemption, and instead, he regards it as the greatest obstacle to redemption. He fights against the tendency to make God and Christian faith intelligible; instead he emphasizes the absolute transcendence of God in relation to human categories.

Kierkegaard’s dialectic is solely about the individual. We are faced with various choices, various ”modes of existence” or “lifestyles.” Although each mode of existence might dictate its own priorities or rationality, there is no reason or rational standard for choosing one rather than another. Kierkegaard distinguishes three such modes: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.

The aesthetic mode of existence is the life of pleasure, of desire and satisfaction. Unlike many philosophers, Kierkegaard saw this mode – or its refusal – as a choice. The aesthetic mode might be exemplified in the life of Don Juan, the Spanish libertine. (Kierkegaard’s  favorite opera was Mozart’s Don Giovanni.) Don Juan pursued his own pleasures, without consideration for others. He lived a life devoted to personal satisfaction. But the aesthetic life need not be so vulgar. Mozart himself could also be seen as living a life devoted to aesthetics. He lives in pursuit of the ideal satisfaction of beauty, to be found or expressed in a perfect piece of music.

The problem with the aesthetic life is its tendency to boredom. One becomes jaded with the very pleasures one pursues. Thus, one becomes insatiable and the aesthetic life becomes self­-defeating (Kierkegaard’s own youthful experience). As in Sisyphus, the repetition is numbing. Goethe writes in Faust: “from desire I rush to satisfaction; from satisfaction I leap to desire.” Thus, there is no ultimate aesthetic satisfaction.

The ethical mode of existence is a life of duty. The choice of being ethical is for Kierkegaard not itself a rational choice. He follows the moraI philosophy of Kant by insisting on the centrality of duty and moral principle. He also believes, like Kant, in the universality of reason, but with a limitation: Reason is universal in the realm of ethics, but not outside it. The ethical mode is defined by universal moral principles and consideration for the well-being of others. It is altruistic in the sense that it is focused on the well-being of others rather than concerned with one’s own satisfaction. The exemplar is Socrates, who died rather than compromise his virtue. To choose the ethical life is to choose to live rationally. but one does not rationally choose the ethical life.

The ethical life has frustrations as well, given the deep injustice in this world. The urge to do good can also be self-defeating,  when the people who act ethically realize that futility of their principles.

One enters the religious mode of existence when one decides to belief in God. Kierkegaard does not think much about religions other than Christianity. And Christianity for him is a somewhat constrained and fundamentalist version of Lutheranism. The religious life also includes aspects of the ethical life. (Judeo­-Christian morality), but conflicts exist between the ethical and the religious. This is exemplified in the story of Abraham, which presents an intolerable dilemma to someone who both believes that God’s word  is ultimate and wants to obey the moral rules as well. One of the most obvious moral rules, against killing your own children,  is called  into question by God’s command. Kierkegaard describes the religious requirement on faith in such a dilemma as a “teleological suspension of the ethical.”