Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) was a 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian. Although relatively isolated during his life, he became extremely influential once his works were translated into German after his death.
Sometimes dubbed “the father of Existentialism”, his works represent a reaction against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the day (and against the state church in Denmark), and set the stage for modern Existentialism. Early Existentialist thinkers like Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) and Martin Heidegger and, later, Jean-Paul Sartre, drew extensively on Kierkegaard’s analysis of despair and freedom.
However, a wide range of other philosophers, from Karl Marx to Theodor Adorno(1903 – 1969) to Ludwig Wittgenstein, also expressed great respect for the Danish master’s thought.
He was a lifelong committed Lutheran and a prominent supporter of the doctrine of Fideism, the view that religious belief depends on faith or revelation, rather than reason, intellect or natural theology.
Søren Kierkegaard (pronounced KEER-ka-gard in its Anglicized pronunciation) was born into an affluent family on 5 May 1813 in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.
His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a wealthy hosier and self-made man, fiercely intelligent but melancholic, anxious and deeply pious, convinced that he had earned God’s wrath through the personal sins of his youth; his mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund, had served as a maid in the household before marrying Michael on the death of his first wife, and she was a quiet, plain and unassuming figure, with little formal education.
Søren was the seventh and last child: five of the seven children died young (which their father saw as just punishment for his sins), although Søren and his elder brother, Peter Christian Kierkegaard (who was to become an influential Lutheran bishop), disproved their father’s gloomy predictions. Despite his father’s occasional religious melancholy and the heavy burden of guilt which he imposed on his children, Kierkegaard shared a close bond with his father, whose brooding presence can be discerned throughout his works.
Kierkegaard was brought up rather stringently, despite the family’s wealth, in a strict Lutheran household. He received a classical education at the well-regarded School of Civic Virtue in Copenhagen, where he excelled in Latin and history, before going on to study theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1830. At university, however, he was drawn more towards philosophy and literature, and his philosophical writings were always rather self-consciously literary and wordy. After a relatively dissolute time in his early years at university, up until his father’s death in 1838, he graduated in 1841 with the equivalent of a Ph.D, funding his education, his subsequent living, and the publication of his early works through his father’s inheritance.
In 1837, Kierkegaard met and fell violently in love with Regine Olsen, the daughter of a member of the Danish parliament. He proposed to her in 1940, but mysteriously broke off the engagement less than a year later during a period of melancholy and depression. Regine later married and left Denmark, but she remained Kierkegaard’s muse and the love of his life.
Arguably his greatest work, “Either/Or”, was written in 1842 during one of Kierkegaard’s brief stays in Berlin, (his only trips abroad apart from a brief trip to Sweden), and published in 1843. It was immediately understood to be a major literary event, although it also had its critics. “Fear and Trembling” was published in late 1843, followed by a series of papers critiquing the popular philosophy of Georg Hegel. His rather intemperate reaction to some poor reviews in the Danish satirical paper “The Corsair” led to verbal assaults, social exclusion and even to ridicule on the street of Copenhagen.
From 1846 onwards, Kierkegaard’s focus moved from criticism of Hegel to criticism of the hypocrisy of Christendom (by which he meant the institution of the church and the applied religion of his society, rather than Christianity itself) and of modernity and its shallow and passionless view of the world in general. In Kierkegaard’s final years, from 1848, he began a sustained literary attack on the Danish State Church through scholarly works, newspaper articles and a series of self-published pamphlets.
Kierkegaard died on 11 November 1855 in Frederik’s Hospital, Copenhagen, possibly from complications from a fall from a tree when he was a boy.
Kierkegaard’s peculiar authorship and literary style employed irony, satire, parody, humour, polemic and a dialectical method of “indirect communication” in order to deepen the reader’s passionate subjective engagement with ultimate existential issues. He elaborated on a host of philosophical, psychological, literary and theological categories (including anxiety, despair, melancholy, repetition, inwardness, irony, existential stages, inherited sin, teleological suspension of the ethical, Christian paradox, the absurd, reduplication, universal/exception, sacrifice, love as a duty, seduction, the demonic and indirect communication). Throughout his work, he took Socrates and Jesus Christ as his role models, and saw how one lives one’s life as the prime criterion of being in the truth.
Kierkegaard’s early works, his university thesis “On the Concept of Irony” of 1841 and “Either/Or” of 1843, both critiqued major figures in Western philosophic thought (Socrates in the former, and Georg Hegel in the latter), and showcased Kierkegaard’s unique style of writing.
In “Either/Or”, he wrote that there were two ways of life, the “aesthetic” (based on temporal, sensory pleasures, whether intellectual or physical) and the “ethical”(based on moral codes and the infinite or the eternal). He provided an extended contrast between the aesthetic and ethical ways of life, concluding that the radical human freedom of the aesthetic inevitably leads to “angst” (dread), the call of the infinite, and eventually to despair. Once this is realized, the individual may enterthe ethical sphere.
Later in 1843, he published “Fear and Trembling”, which, together with “Either/Or”, is perhaps his best known book. Focusing on the Biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this work (as well as “Repetition” of the same year), moves beyond the aesthetic and the ethical, and introduces a higher stage on the dialectical ladder, the religious. It describes a third way of life, the possibility of living by faith in the modern world, emphasizing the importance of the individual and developing a conception of subjective truth. These works discuss fundamental issues in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion, such as the nature of God and faith, faith’s relationship with Ethics and morality, and the difficulty of being authentically religious.
His works from 1844 to 1846 (written using a pseudonym), including “Philosophical Fragments” (1844), “The Concept of Dread” (1844), “Stages on Life’s Way” (1845) and, especially, the massive “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments” (1846), focus even more on the perceived shortcomings of the philosophy of Hegel and form the basis for existential psychology.
His second period of authorship, including works such as “Two Ages: A Literary Review” (1846), “The Book on Adler” (published posthumously in 1872), “Christian Discourses” (1848), “Works of Love” (1847), “Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits” (1847) and “The Sickness Unto Death” (1849), is focused more on the perceived hypocrisy and shallowness of Christendom and modern society in general. He attempted to present Christianity as he thought it should be, and encouraged embracing Christ as the absolute paradox.
From around 1848 until his death, Kierkegaard carried on a sustained literary attack on the Danish State Church, with books such as “Practice in Christianity”(1850, which he himself considered his most important book), “For Self-Examination” (1851) and “Judge for Yourselves!” (published posthumously in 1876) and a series of self-published pamphlets called “The Moment”, which attempted to expound the true nature of Christianity, with Jesus as its role model, and to re-introduce Christianity into Christendom.