The Danish philosopher and religious thinker Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was the progenitor of 20th-century existential philosophy.
Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen on May 5, 1813. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a self-made man who had amassed a considerable fortune as a wool merchant. At the age of 40 he retired and devoted himself exclusively to the intellectual life. His house became a meeting place for university professors, prominent clergymen, and writers of the day. Søren, the youngest of seven children, had a slight physical handicap. He was sickly, and frail, yet highly gifted, and his father's favorite. He was brought up in a house where discussion and debate were as familiar as the furniture.
At the time of Søren's birth Michael Kierkegaard was 57, a highly respected and rather formidable patriarch who attempted to instill an austere and demanding Christianity into his children. The young Søren idolized his father, who in bad weather used to take him for imaginary walks up and down his study, discoursing all the while on make-believe sights. This no doubt helped develop the inexhaustible power of imagination which is a hallmark of Kierkegaard's writing. He agreed with his father's wish that he study theology and entered the University of Copenhagen in 1831.
On his twenty-second birthday Kierkegaard records in his Journals a shattering experience, "the great earthquake"—a sudden and terrifying disillusionment about his father. Kierkegaard had long wondered about the causes for the gloom and depression that always hovered around his father. He had thought it was bereavement, for the old man had lost his wife and five children within a few years. But his father told him that his gloom was actually guilt feelings about two grave misdeeds. As a young boy, he had cursed God for his ill fortune. Still worse, shortly after the death of his first wife in pregnancy, he had conceived a child by a female servant. Overwhelmed with guilt, he married the girl, and she became the mother of his seven children.
The highly sensitive and idealistic Søren was shaken. He stopped coming home for meals, neglected his studies, and finally left home altogether, determined to lead the life of an esthete, as a deliberate reproach to the stern training his father had given him. He began to live in high style, carousing and drinking, and even had, while drunk, an encounter with a prostitute—which built up in him a guilt equal to his father's. After 6 months of estrangement, he returned home in response to his father's agonized entreaties. They were reconciled, and a year later the father died. But Søren was haunted throughout his life by the idea of a curse on the family and by a profound inner melancholy.
At the age of 27 Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen, who was 10 years younger than he and the daughter of a prominent government official. A beautiful girl of modest intellectual gifts but endowed with a warm and open nature, she was dazzled by the sparkling conversation of her suitor, who usually managed to cover up his melancholy with wit and affability. Two days after his proposal had been accepted, he "saw that he had blundered." He could not ask her to take on his burden of guilt and melancholy. He began to look for some way out which would do the least damage to Olsen. He now deliberately played the aloof and cynical dandy in an effort to break her affection for him and so free her. But the bewildered girl only grew more fascinated. Partly suspecting what lay behind his reversal, she sought to heal him of his fear and scruples. But he was unable to accept this, and finally, after 13 months of pain and heartbreak, he forced her to break off the engagement.
Kierkegaard sailed for Berlin, still agonizing over his decision. Olsen, basically a healthy-minded and uncomplicated person, recovered quickly and within 2 years had accepted an earlier suitor and married. Characteristically, Kierkegaard was now furious at her "unfaithfulness." Yet even after her marriage, he still hoped for some form of relationship with her—a platonic friendship—so that he could publicly honor her with his books. What he had wanted all along was a muse, not a wife. Many of his writings, especially of the early period, contain quite open allusions and appeals to Olsen, justifications of his strange behavior, and pledges of his continuing faithfulness. Apparently she never acknowledged these strange appeals.
Kierkegaard had gone to Berlin to study philosophy and for a short while followed F. W. J. von Schelling's lectures with increasing disenchantment. But then he discovered his true vocation: to be a writer. The creative energy which had been building up in him throughout the long struggle with his father and Olsen now burst forth in a torrent of writings. The first of these, Either/Or (1843), confronts the reader with an existential choice between two incompatible attitudes toward life: the esthetic and the ethical. The book does not present arguments but rather character portraits, situations, vignettes—written with remarkable verve and psychological insight. The author does not judge between the attitudes. His point to the reader is: each one must choose for himself and no one will find a convincing proof for his choice.
Kierkegaard's own choice is made clear in the two following works, published in the same year. He rejects both alternatives in favor of a third. Fear and Trembling and Repetition, through the figure of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac, reflect on his own experiences with his father and Olsen while outlining a third fundamental attitude: the religious—an attitude of unconditional obedience to God. In the first of these books Kierkegaard describes what is entailed by faith: the acceptance of paradox, sacrifice, and suffering. In the second he discusses the psychology of the believer. Still in the same year he brought out three volumes of Edifying Discourses. In these he spoke in his own name directly to the reader. The other works were published under various pseudonyms. In all, he used 19 distinct pseudonyms in his work according to an elaborate private plan. This was not to hide his identity—everyone knew who the author was—but to indicate that these were possible lifestyles, not necessarily his own.
The following year brought another creative burst of six more works, of which the common theme is a resistance to certain features of G. W. F. Hegel's philosophy, in particular, to Hegel's tendency to mediate all oppositions and to hold out the prospect of complete understanding. Hence, Kierkegaard deliberately plays up the surd, suprarational character of Christianity and its demand for a radical choice (not a mediation) between good and evil. The two most important books of 1844 are the Philosophical Fragments, which shows that freedom is the necessary condition for Christianity and that freedom is the necessary condition for Christianity and that freedom cannot be understood or proved, and The Concept of Dread, which shows that it is in the experience of dread or anxiety that man apprehends his freedom to choose and hence his responsibility.
The year 1845 saw two more large-scale works: Stages on Life's Way, in which he once more went over the ground covered by Either/Or, this time making plain that religion forms a special sphere of existence; and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, a detailed attempt to show, against Hegel, that it is impossible to understand human existence intellectually. The truth about one's own life is not to be attained in conceptual thought; it is a truth that is chosen, and lived in fidelity to that choice. With this tremendous labor completed in less than 4 years, Kierkegaard believed he had finished his task. He was ready to put down his pen and now began to wonder if, as his father had wished, he should not accept ordination and a parsonage in the country.
All these works had been published at Kierkegaard's own expense, out of his inheritance. Apart from a brief flurry, mostly favorable, over Either/Or, there had been virtually no public response to his work. Now there appeared a generally favorable review but in a new journal, the Corsair, which, though eagerly read, was widely regarded as scurrilous and lacking in taste. Sharing this opinion, Kierkegaard wrote a sarcastic letter saying that in such a journal he would rather be abused than praised. The response of the editor was to launch a sustained and merciless series of cartoons depicting the writer. His hunchback and eccentric dress made him an easy mark for the cartoonist. For a whole year he was satirized and lampooned. He found strangers gaping and giggling at him wherever he went in Copenhagen, then still a small, enclosed town. Deeply hurt, he moved to counterattack. He began to write furious denunciations of the power of the press, of mindless public opinion, even of the concept of democracy. Some of these opinions he confided only to his Journals; others were published as The Present Age (1846). Ordination was now out of the question.
The Danish State Lutheran Church, in which Kierkegaard had thought of taking orders, was presided over by Bishop J. P. Mynster, an old friend of his father. As Kierkegaard's work became more and more critical of the notion of an established and comfortable Christianity, the bishop grew alarmed. Kierkegaard's Training in Christianity (1849) set very high standards for anyone claiming to be a Christian and was widely taken as a slap at the bishop. Many in and out of the clergy were incensed.
In early 1854 Mynster died, and Kierkegaard, who had been holding back certain charges out of personal respect for the man, now felt free to speak out. At his death Mynster had been called "a witness to the truth." This phrase, originally used of the Christian martyrs, was the last straw for Kierkegaard. He exploded with a frontal assault on the establishment. Using his erstwhile enemy, the press, Kierkegaard issued a series of broadsides, 21 in all, in which he condemned the compromises of the Church, the comfortable and worldly lives of the clergy, and the watered-down doctrine. The main burden of all these attacks was not that men failed to live up to the severe demands of Christianity—he admitted this was impossible—but rather the pretense of doing so. Hypocrisy was his target.
Exhausted by these labors and the overwork of a dozen years, Kierkegaard collapsed on the street with a paralyzing stroke. He lingered for a month, refusing to take communion unless from the hands of a layman, and died on Nov. 11, 1855. Nearly 70 years passed before his work began to be known outside Denmark, but he has become one of the strongest influences on 20th-century thought.
Kierkegaard reveals himself in nearly all his writings, but most directly in his Journals. An English selection of these numerous volumes was published in 1938; the first volume of a new, complete translation appeared in 1967. The secondary literature on Kierkegaard is voluminous. Peter Preisler Rohde, Søren Kierkegaard: An Introduction to His Life and Philosophy, translated by Alan Moray Williams (1963), is a good place for the student to begin. Another introduction to Kierkegaard, with an emphasis on his religious thought, is Hermann Diem, Kierkegaard: An Introduction, translated by D. Green (1966). George Bartholomow and George E. Arbaugh, Kierkegaard's Authorship: A Guide to the Writings of Kierkegaard (1968), is a very helpful guide to all of Kierkegaard's writings.
Lebowitz, Naomi, Kierkegaard, a life of allegory, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Encounters with Kierkegaard: a life as seen by his contemporaries, Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press, 1996.
Collins, James Daniel, The mind of Kierkegaard, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.