Søren Kierkegaard was a profound and prolific 19th century writer and philosopher in the Danish Golden Age of intellectual and artistic activity. Although he would argue that he wasn’t a philosopher since all he did was write about life, how we choose to live and what it means to be alive, centred in the individual or “existing being”. He is regarded as the father of Existentialism.
Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasises the existence of the individual and subjectivity. The core philosophy is the problem of existence. What is existence? Kierkegaard insisted that every individual should not only ask this question but should make his very life his own subjective answer to it. This stress on subjectivity is one of Kierkegaard’s main contributions.
The idea of the subjective experience, the one thing we all probably have in common, has long been ignored by philosophers, it was left for simpletons. For almost two millennia, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle reigned supreme. Kierkegaard helped build the foundations of Existentialist thought.
However, it wasn’t until a century after Kierkegaard’s death that Existentialism gained rapid popularity, with the emergence of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, examining the problems of existence, angst, and the absurd.
In the realm of science, we’ve come a long way, a great progress has been undergone. However, in the individual realm, no progress has been or can be made. We all suffer and enjoy the same condition, the human condition, and have done so since time immemorial.
The individual sees the world he wills to see, and this depends upon the values he lives by, the ones that make him what he is. Kierkegaard argues that the values that make the individual what he is, also makes the world what it is.
Søren was the youngest of seven children, however, they all soon died, and he was left with his only sibling, Peter, who became a bishop. Søren had a slight physical handicap, often sickly and frail, yet highly gifted and his father’s favourite. It was his father’s second marriage, to a housemaid, that gave birth to Kierkegaard, when his father was 57 years old. It came within a year to his first wife’s death.
As a child, Søren was a strange kid among his peers. It is thought that he developed his sharp wit and quick thinking as a result of this, as well as with the guidance of his father. He could explore within himself many different forms of consciousness and ways of life, as he said:
“I go fishing for a thousand monsters in the depths of my own self.”
Kierkegaard’s father was a firmly religious and deeply melancholic man. When he was 11 years old, looking after sheep, numb with cold, hungry, and alone – he stood on a hillock and cursed God. He wasn’t able to forget this 71 years later. Kierkegaard’s father went on to become one of the richest merchants in Copenhagen and died at 82 years old, leaving a large sum of money to his son.
After the death of his father, Kierkegaard underwent a transformation of faith in the profoundest sense, to love god, which he considered to be the resolution of the fundamental misfortune of his being and the purpose of his existence.
As a student in Copenhagen, he fell in love with Regine Olsen. However, at the age of 27, he still had no career. He contemplated two options: to marry Regine or to become a pastor, as his father had desired.
His hatred of the established church didn’t help him with becoming a pastor. Alternatively, he could develop the other side of himself, his strange personality, and special gifts, in which case he should remain an outsider and become a writer.
The meaning of Kierkegaard’s whole life hung under a decision and he now saw that choice is everything. He said:
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
He ended up breaking off his engagement to Regine Olsen, causing much pain and scandal. As a result, he had been ostracised by society. Kierkegaard had made up his mind to become a freelance writer living of money left him by his father. His starting point for his writing was inevitably himself, he had to understand and explain his own strange personality.
The public mockery and caricatures by the satirical magazine Corsair forced Kierkegaard into deeper isolation. But this only increased his determination to counterattack. To the public, his writings, with his huge cast of characters, seemed like a kind of theatre, just as the church seems to be concerned with Christianity.
The difference between the theatre and the church is essentially that the theatre honestly acknowledges itself to be what it is, while the church is a theatre which dishonestly tries in every way to hide what it is.
“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; they applauded even more. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to the general applause of wits who believe it’s a joke.”
Kierkegaard wrote furiously all day and sometimes through the night as well. In 1843, he published nine books, containing the most detailed analysis of the possibilities of human existence yet done by anyone, using many pseudonyms, tricks, and other stratagems to deceive the reader into the truth. The purpose of all this was to make the reader come up with his own conclusion.
He explores different possibilities of human life, with the object of sharing that Christianity is the spiritual discipline that leads us to true selfhood, that tunes our individuality to the highest pitch. He’s interested in nothing but what he calls inwardness or subjectivity. Or as he says: “with the how, rather than with the what.”
Karl Marx, a contemporary of Kierkegaard’s, saw us cooperating with historical forces. The historical process itself becomes the sole redeemer and what the individual does is no longer important, it is all merely objective, rejecting life that starts from the individual person.
Kierkegaard took the extreme opposite point of view. The leading edge of reality is nothing but our own personal decisions, the choices we make settle what we become, and what kind of world we’re going to find ourselves in. It is a philosophy action and will. Life’s chief task is to become an individual. And you can only become an individual by action and decision.
The divergence between Kierkegaard and Marx in the 1840s remains fundamental to us to this day.
He feared that in modern consumer society the individual was becoming absorbed into the crowd, a mere member of a herd. The spiritual life of the individual was being stifled by communal, political, and religious illusions. He says: “Any reformation which is not aware that fundamentally every single individual needs to be reformed is an illusion.”
All extraordinary men who had previously lived, had aimed at spreading Christianity, his task was to put a halt to a lying diffusion of Christianity. For him, Christianity which wants every man to be an individual has been transformed by human clumsiness into precisely the opposite.
He famously wrote in his diary: “My task is so new that in the 1800 years of Christianity there is literally no one from whom I can learn how to go about it.”
He hated the crowd and the social scene. When religion is integrated into society, the social scene becomes the religious scene.
Kierkegaard wanted to be an individual, but he couldn’t be an individual without being part of society. We define our meaning in life trying to come up with rational decisions, despite living in an irrational world.
Kierkegaard assigned the authorship of his books to invented authors, and he even made up the editors and compilers. So, you might have a book by Kierkegaard that begins “this was found at the bottom of a lake, by an editor who put it together”, and so on and so forth.
Kierkegaard’s hero was Socrates, who is understood through Plato since we don’t have any of his writings. For Kierkegaard, Socrates is an ironist, one who uses double meaning. He famously said: “I know that I know nothing”. He didn’t have any philosophical system, his whole life was a personal preoccupation with himself, he just asked questions, which led to his death sentence, and he ended up killing himself.
Kierkegaard some himself that way. The one thing Kierkegaard does not want to do, is to allow you to systematise him, systematising thought kills life. He saw that with Hegel, whom he wasn’t particularly fond of. Philosophy, for Kierkegaard, is not about understanding concepts, but rather about the human experience.
He uses pseudonyms as masks for personalities, his most famous being Johannes Climacus. They could be positions that he holds in some way, but his main point is to occupy all positions philosophically.
He would sometimes publish different books in a single day, and these books would comment on each other from completely contrasting perspectives. Thus, it becomes too difficult to ascertain which propositions Kierkegaard himself upholds.
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His concept of anxiety or angst is one of the most profound pre-Freudian works of psychology. His most popular work includes the leap of faith, the concept of angst, the three stages on life (aesthetic, ethical, religious) and the absurd, among others.