Søren Kierkegaard’s Life (1813-1855)

What good would it do me if the truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognized her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion? Must not the truth be taken up into my life? That is what I now recognize as the most important thing.

Kierkegaard is a Danish philosopher who lived from May 5, 1813 to November 11, 1855. He is sometimes called the “father” of existentialism. He is also a forerunner of psychoanalysis, because his writings, which are focused on the individual subject, represent an intersection between psychology, philosophy, and religion. He analyses complex feelings like fear, and examines them in relation to existential and religious choices.  I am quoting his biography from the Stanford Encyclopedia, and further below you will find some quotes and recommended websites to his works. Kierkegaards’ life was short and not very eventful; he barely left Copenhagen, and only spend some time in Berlin to study with Schelling.

His Life

“Kierkegaard led a somewhat uneventful life. He rarely left his hometown of Copenhagen, and travelled abroad only five times—four times to Berlin and once to Sweden. His prime recreational activities were attending the theatre, walking the streets of Copenhagen to chat with ordinary people, and taking brief carriage jaunts into the surrounding countryside. He was educated at a prestigious boys’ school (Borgerdydskolen), then attended Copenhagen University where he studied philosophy and theology. His teachers at the university included F.C. Sibbern, Poul Martin Møller, and H.L. Martensen.

Sibbern and Møller were both philosophers who also wrote fiction. The latter in particular had a great influence on Kierkegaard’s philosophico-literary development. Martensen also had a profound effect on Kierkegaard, but largely in a negative manner. Martensen was a champion of Hegelianism, and when he became Bishop Primate of the Danish People’s Church, Kierkegaard published a vitriolic attack on Martensen’s theological views. Kierkegaard’s brother Peter, on the other hand, was an adherent of Martensen and himself became a bishop in the church. Kierkegaard regarded Martensen as one of his chief intellectual rivals. Martensen was only five years his senior, but was already lecturing at Copenhagen University when Kierkegaard was a student there. Martensen also anticipated Kierkegaard’s first major literary project, by publishing a book on Faust. Kierkegaard, who had been working up a project on the three great medieval figures of Don Juan, Faust and Ahasuerus (the wandering Jew), abandoned his own project when Martensen’s book appeared, although he later incorporated much of the work he had done into Either/Or.

Another very important figure in Kierkegaard’s life was J.L. Heiberg, the doyen of Copenhagen’s literati. Heiberg, more than any other person, was responsible for introducing Hegelianism into Denmark. Kierkegaard spent a good deal of energy trying to break into the Heiberg literary circle, but desisted once he had found his own voice in The Concept of Irony. Kierkegaard’s first major publication, From the Papers of One Still Living, is largely an attempt to articulate a Heibergian aesthetics—which is a modified version of Hegel’s aesthetics. In From the Papers of One Still Living, which is a critical review of Hans Christian Andersen’s novel Only A Fiddler, Kierkegaard attacks Andersen for lacking life-development (Livs-Udvikling) and a life-view (Livs-Anskuelse) both of which Kierkegaard deemed necessary for someone to be a genuine novelist (Romandigter).

Kierkegaard’s life is more relevant to his work than is the case for many writers. Much of the thrust of his critique of Hegelianism is that its system of thought is abstracted from the everyday lives of its proponents. This existential critique consists in demonstrating how the life and work of a philosopher contradict one another. Kierkegaard derived this form of critique from the Greek notion of judging philosophers by their lives rather than simply by their intellectual artefacts. The Christian ideal, according to Kierkegaard, is even more exacting since the totality of an individual’s existence is the artefact on the basis of which s/he is judged by God for h/er eternal validity. Of course a writer’s work is an important part of h/er existence, but for the purpose of judgement we should focus on the whole life not just on one part.

In a less abstract manner, an understanding of Kierkegaard’s biography is important for an understanding of his writing because his life was the source of many of the preoccupations and repetitions within his oeuvre. Because of his existentialist orientation, most of his interventions in contemporary theory do double duty as means of working through events from his own life. In particular Kierkegaard’s relations to his father and his fiancée Regine Olsen pervade his work. Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus says of Socrates that “his whole life was personal preoccupation with himself, and then Governance comes and adds world-historical significance to it.” Similarly, Kierkegaard saw himself as a “singular universal” whose personal preoccupation with himself was transfigured by divine Governance into universal significance.

Kierkegaard’s relation to his mother is the least frequently commented upon since it is invisible in his work. His mother does not rate a direct mention in his published works, or in his diaries—not even on the day she died. However, for a writer who places so much emphasis on indirect communication, and on the semiotics of invisibility, we should regard this absence as significant. Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript remarks, “… how deceptive then, that an omnipresent being should be recognisable precisely by being invisible.” Although Kierkegaard’s mother is absent, his mother-tongue (Modersmaal—etymologically derived from the words for “mother’s mark or sign”) is almost omnipresent. Kierkegaard was deeply enamoured of the Danish language and worked throughout his writings to assert the strengths of his mother-tongue over the invasive, imperialistic influences of Latin and German. With respect to the former, Kierkegaard had to petition the king to be allowed to write his philosophy dissertation On the Concept of Irony with constant reference to Socrates in Danish. Even though permission was granted he was still required to defend his dissertation publicly in Latin. Latin had been the pan-European language of science and scholarship. In Denmark, in Kierkegaard’s time, German language and culture were at least as dominant as Latin in the production of knowledge. In defiance of this, Kierkegaard revelled in his mother-tongue and created some of the most beautifully poetic prose in the Danish language—including a paean to his mother-tongue in Stages On Life’s Way. In Repetition Constantin Constantius congratulates the Danish language on providing the word for an important new philosophical concept, viz. Gjentagelse (repetition), to replace the foreign word “mediation”. In general, we might regard the Danish language as Kierkegaard’s umbilical attachment to the mother whereas Latin and German represent the law of the father, especially when employed in systematic scholarship (Videnskab).

The influence of Kierkegaard’s father on his work has been frequently noted. Not only did Kierkegaard inherit his father’s melancholy, his sense of guilt and anxiety, and his pietistic emphasis on the dour aspects of Christian faith, but he also inherited his talents for philosophical argument and creative imagination. In addition Kierkegaard inherited enough of his father’s wealth to allow him to pursue his life as a freelance writer. The themes of sacrificial father/son relationships, of inherited sin, of the burden of history, and of the centrality of the “individual, human existence relationship, the old text, well known, handed down from the fathers” (Postscript) are repeated many times in Kierkegaard’s oeuvre. The father’s sense of guilt was so great (for having cursed God? for having impregnated Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock?) that he thought God would punish him by taking the lives of all seven of his children before they reached the age of 34 (the age of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion). This was born out for all but two of the children, Søren and his older brother Peter. Søren was astonished that they both survived beyond that age. This may explain the sense of urgency that drove Kierkegaard to write so prolifically in the years leading up to his 34th birthday.

Kierkegaard’s (broken) engagement to Regine Olsen has also been the focus of much scholarly attention. The theme of a young woman being the occasion for a young man to become “poeticized” recurs in Kierkegaard’s writings, as does the theme of the sacrifice of worldly happiness for a higher (religious) purpose. Kierkegaard’s infatuation with Regine, and the sublimated libidinal energy it lent to his poetic production, were crucial for setting his life course. The breaking of the engagement allowed Kierkegaard to devote himself monastically to his religious purpose, as well as to establish his outsider status (outside the norm of married bourgeois life). It also freed him from close personal entanglements with women, thereby leading him to objectify them as ideal creatures, and to reproduce the patriarchal values of his church and father. The latter included viewing women in terms of their traditional social roles, particularly as mothers and wives, but also in their traditional spiritual roles as epitomes of devotion and self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, whatever one’s life circumstances, social roles and gender, Kierkegaard regarded everyone as equal before God under the aspect of eternity.” 1

Quotes

  • “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
  • “I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me. But I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself.”
  • “Never cease loving a person, and never give up hope for him, for even the prodigal son who had fallen most low, could still be saved; the bitterest enemy and also he who was your friend could again be your friend; love that has grown cold can kindle”
  •  “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
  • “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners.”
  •  “Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth — look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.”
  •  “My standpoint is armed neutrality.”
  •  “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
  •  “Without risk, faith is an impossibility.”
  •  “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
  •  “The truth is a trap: you cannot get it without it getting you; you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you.”
  •  “What the age needs is not a genius — it has had geniuses enough, but a martyr, who in order to teach men to obey would himself be obedient unto death. What the age needs is awakening. And therefore someday, not only my writings but my whole life, all the intriguing mystery of the machine will be studied and studied. I never forget how God helps me, and it is therefore my last wish that everything may be to his honor.”

Weblinks

Notes:

  1. McDonald, William, “Søren Kierkegaard”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/kierkegaard/>.

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