Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – Giants of Existentialism

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism. It is a philosophy that emphasises the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent determining their own development.

We all suffer and enjoy the same condition, the human condition, and have done so since time immemorial.

Kierkegaard is commonly regarded as the Father of Existentialism. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard had very strong religious upbringings and both of them studied theology and philosophy planning to work in the Church as a minister and a pastor, respectively, but ultimately changed their minds.

Nietzsche was convinced that people created God and not the other way around. At the age of 20, he wrote to his sister Elisabeth, who was deeply religious, a letter regarding his loss of faith.

“Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.”

Nietzsche, Letter to His Sister (1865)

Kierkegaard on the other hand, wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and become a pastor. However, his hatred of Christendom, which was represented by the Danish Established Church, didn’t help him with becoming one.

The meaning of Kierkegaard’s whole life hung under a decision and he now saw that choice is everything. He wrote in his journals:

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

They both ended up savagely criticising Christianity, recognising that God no longer exists in the minds of most people. God had died in the hands of men. Kierkegaard’s country and religion were morally bankrupt, the established church made individuals lazy in their religion and many of the citizens were officially “Christians” without having any idea of what it meant to be one.

In 1840, almost one hundred years before it became a historic fact, Kierkegaard had prophesised nothing less than the “total bankruptcy toward which the whole of Europe seems to be heading.”

He wrote:

“So little do people understand me that they will not even understand my complaint that they do not understand me.”

In contemporary western society people go about their daily lives disregarding an all-powerful God, yet surprisingly, they proclaim their devotion to God when questioned. 

In other words, people live falsely religious lives. He hated the crowd and the social scene. When religion is integrated into society, the social scene becomes the religious scene, and for that reason, religion had died.

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 bungling into precisely the opposite.

He wrote in his journals:

“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.”

Kierkegaard 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 writes, it is:

“too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.

The Sickness unto Death

Nietzsche also despised the herd mentality, he calls it a “slave morality”, which is at the very heart of Christianity. Thanks to the self-deception of the resentful man, weakness is turned into merit. He writes:

“I suffer: it must be somebody’s fault – so thinks every sick sheep. But his herdsman, the ascetic priest, says to him, “Quite so, my sheep, it must be the fault of someone; but thou thyself art that same one […]

Genealogy of Morals. Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §15

However, despite their hatred towards Christianity – they both showed appreciation for Jesus.

Nietzsche presents a Christ whose own inner life consisted of:

“wit, the blessedness of peace, of gentleness, the inability to be an enemy.”

The Antichrist §29

And he goes on further saying that:

“The very word “Christianity” is a misunderstanding—at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”

The Antichrist §39

Kierkegaard was a Christian, but a completely different one in his era. He wanted to become, as he put it: “a Christian in Christendom”. To live an authentically religious life while surrounded by people who are falsely religious

For Kierkegaard, the relationship with God is a personal matter, and he saw the established church as a distraction and interference from the personal relationship a true Christian must undertake.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both felt that life is irrational. They were problem thinkers who chose not to follow the systematic approach to philosophy as their predecessors did. In this regard, they stood on common ground.

Both of them decided that alternatively, they could develop the other side of themselves, in which case they should remain outsiders.

They wrote extensively but only sold a few copies of their books and were not much recognised during their short lives.

Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche, collapsed in the street and shortly died after, refusing to take the last sacraments at the hands of a “state official”; and asked only to be remembered to all the people whom he had loved but who had never been able to understand his sufferings. Nietzsche collapsed in the street after seeing a horse being flogged by its owner, throwing himself towards the animal and embracing it, although this is a famous event – there is little evidence of it ever occurring. The episode seems similar to a passage which occurs early on in Crime and Punishment, a book of one of Nietzsche’s most revered writers: Dostoevsky. All we know is that shortly after, he remained in a near catatonic state for the last 11 years of his life.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard never met and never could have met: Nietzsche was a boy eleven years old growing up in Germany when Kierkegaard died in his native Copenhagen. By the end of Nietzsche’s life, however, Kierkegaard was becoming known in Germany. In 1888, the year before the onslaught of Nietzsche’s madness, Danish intellectual Georg Brandes called the work of Kierkegaard to Nietzsche’s attention, he wrote the following letter:

“There is a Nordic writer, whose work would interest you, if it only was translated, Søren Kierkegaard; he lived from 1813-1855 and is, in my opinion, one of the most profound psychologists there is.”

Georg Brandes, Letter to Nietzsche – January 11th  1888.

Nietzsche wrote a letter back to him, stating:

“During my next journey to Germany I plan to study the psychological problem of Kierkegaard, also to renew my acquaintance with your earlier writings. This will be, in the best sense of the word, useful to me – and will serve to “bring home” to me the severity and arrogance of my own judgments. […]”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Letter to Georg Brandes – Nice, February 19, 1888.

Unfortunately, it was too late for Nietzsche as he fell into insanity soon after.

The Roots of Divergence

In much Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are alike, in the moral decline of society and the corruption of religion, in their existential orientation and in their psychological interests, however they were absolutely opposed on what it means to live a human life to the fullest.

This is largely precipitated by Nietzsche’s complete disillusionment with religion in contrast to Kierkegaard’s continued faith in the existence of God.

For Kierkegaard, Christ is the absurd paradox, that God became man. The notion of the Godman is both beautiful and haunting in Kierkegaard. It is too absurd to be defended with rational arguments, it is a matter of a leap of faith, and this is the highest form of human life, that frees us from despair.

For Nietzsche, the death of God is a historical event in response to the decline of Christianity with the Enlightenment bringing about scientific rationality. God, who played a central role in most people’s lives, has now become one of many facets of some people’s lives.

There are still believers and churches, but god no longer defines the role of our world, it is for this reason that god is dead.

This represents a crisis in the existing moral values opening the possibility for nihilism. Nietzsche’s ubermensch or overman is meant to be the solution to nihilism, one who puts faith in himself and creates his own meaning and value. Thus, man must become God.

“Man is something to be overcome. Man is a rope tied between the animal and the Overman – a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Kierkegaard tells us that man cannot in any way become God, and a central feature of despair is the inability of a person to manufacture his own identity, something essential is missing, something that would prevent you from simply demolishing the ideal and beginning all over again with a new ideal, such a person lacks something “eternally firm”.

To become truly oneself, an individual – man must stand before God transparently and in truth, with the only self that exists being God’s infinite self, the self that overwhelms our self.

“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing: every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.

The Sickness unto Death

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard saw the problem of religious downfall as an opportunity for renewal in Christian beliefs, a chance to embrace Christianity’s original teachings and return to a dynamic and living faith. In his critique of modern-day religious expansion, he claimed the very dominance of Christianity over his country showed that it is not the way of the few.

As a direct consequence of this widespread moral decline, Kierkegaard stressed the subjective truth over the objective truth. Subjectivity is one of his most recurrent themes.

Truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those facts. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity.

While he did believe in the objective truth of Christian theism, he emphasised its personal power to existentially transform the individual. This became the panacea for restoring human salvation through absolute faith in conviction. Kierkegaard called for a leap of faith: to strive for the attainment of a purely Christian life. 

Reason has no place in faith, as God is beyond reason. Kierkegaard rejected both the rationalist tradition and systematic philosophies because they used abstract concepts that had nothing to do with everyday existence. Devotion to a single external principle allows one’s self-identity to remain firm and unwavering in a fluid and unstable environment. Without this external pillar of strength Kierkegaard believed man would be trapped in a state of despair, with no firm basis for the construction of self-identity.

Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s solution was an antithesis to Kierkegaard’s faith. God is a concept of our own creation, we can no longer base our moral beliefs on the idea of a divine, omnipotent being.

Christianity had at its base a slave morality which resents the virtues of the powerful and promotes turning the other cheek.

Nietzsche was appalled by this, he calls for the master morality, which does not intend to oppress others, but rather create new values and ways of life.

While both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche discouraged adherence to the dominant ethos, Nietzsche demanded a renunciation of all established values. He called for a “Revaluation of All Values”.

A new paradigm of thought with human creativity and the creation of new values and meaning. He seeks to offer an alternative in the absence of a divine order so human beings might stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and begin to acknowledge and embrace the value of this world.

In order to avert the nihilism caused by the death of god, he proposes the highest life-affirming individual who loves life and embraces his fate – the ubermensch. A man whose values are independent from external values and affirms life without resentment. One who acknowledges and celebrates the Will to Power.

The Will to Power is the fundamental component of human identity and a psychological analysis of all human action.

It is a constant self-overcoming of an individual for his own sake with power and growth as the driving forces of an individual. Anything not in a state of growth reverts to a state of decay.

The ubermensch who celebrates the will to power is a self-possessed man who has no fear of other men, of himself, or of death and whose simple personality changes the lives of those who meet him and even imposes itself in their minds.

The emphasis on power and sheer force of will is a key factor in Nietzsche’s divergence from Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

Our Present Course

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – Caspar D. Friedrich

We face a crossroads at the dawn of the 21st century. The rapid advances and widespread successes of modern science force us to examine the same questions posed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. As the domain of science grows ever more rapidly in explaining the features and behaviours of the empirical world, there is no need for appeal to God or any other transcendental reality.

Is a return to a Christian worldview objectively possible? In the absence of a religious model to explain the universe, can those who do not possess such a faith in God construct their own moral standards, value and meaning to fill the nihilistic void? This issue is so vital, that it reaffirms the crucial importance of both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in modern-day society.


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Kierkegaard and Nietzsche | Giants of Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism. They can both be considered as the Giants of Existentialism.


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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

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