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Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard
  • philosopher and theologian
  • father of modern existentialism
  • author of over 35 books
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855), the Danish philosopher and theologian, is often regarded as the father of modern existentialism. His major works include Either/Or, Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling, Practices in Christianity, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, and Works of Love. The following biographical sketch is adapted from Charles E. Moore’s introduction to Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard.  Read Full Biography

Søren Kierkegaard has been accused of being one of the most frustrating authors to read. He has also been praised as one of the most rewarding. Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard’s most devoted biographer, writes: “Kierkegaard exacts of his reader a very great effort. He declines to make things easy for him by presenting a conclusion, and he obliges him, therefore, to approach the goal by the same difficult path he himself has trod.”

Kierkegaard wrote industriously and rapidly, and under a variety of pen-names, presenting various esthetic, ethical, and religious viewpoints on life. Despite this, Kierkegaard was single-mindedly driven. He writes in his journal: “The category for my undertaking is: to make people aware of what is essentially Christian.” Two things are noteworthy. First, Kierkegaard aims to make us aware. “I have worked for a restlessness oriented toward inward deepening.” Kierkegaard was fundamentally existential: “to keep people awake, in order that religion may not again become an indolent habit…” The last thing Kierke­gaard wanted to do was to leave his reader the same – intellectually enlightened yet inwardly unchanged. His strategy was to help readers take a decisive stand: “I wish to make people aware so that they do not squander and dissipate their lives.”

Secondly, Kierkegaard is concerned with what is essentially Christian: “Through my writings I hope to achieve the following: to leave behind me so accurate a characterization of Christianity and its relationships in the world that an enthusiastic, noble-minded young person will be able to find in it a map of relationships as accurate as any topographical map from the most famous institutes.&rdquo

In reading Kierkegaard it would be a mistake to ignore the inner anguish of his own personal life. The currents of his thought spring forth from within, as much as they do from his broader cultural setting. Although a complete biography of Kierkegaard is beyond the scope of this introduction, it is important to understand four significant crisis relationships in his life. These relationships constitute Kierkegaard the man, and grasping them is paramount in understanding him as a writer.

The Earthquake

Kierkegaard’s father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was 57, his mother, Ane Sørensdatter Kierkegaard, 45, when he was born in 1813. Because he was his father’s youngest child and his favorite, the intimacy between them was great. But Kierkegaard describes his father was a pietistic, gloomy spirit, an old man whose melancholy sat like a weight on his children. Kierkegaard’s family was plagued by both physical and psychological instability. Only two of the children lived past age thirty-four. Three of his sisters, then two of his brothers, then his mother, had died in rapid succession. Kierkegaard’s father was convinced that he would outlive all of his children, a conviction his son apparently shared. Kierkegaard’s brother Peter was forced to resign his position as bishop because of emotional difficulties. Inwardly, Kierkegaard felt a gnawing sense of “silent despair.” From childhood on he always felt under the power of “a monstrously brooding temperament.”

Eventually, a break occurred between Kierkegaard and his father (1835). It was no doubt related to his father’s confession of his childhood cursing of God and of his sexual impropriety. (Kierkegaard’s mother, his father’s second wife, had been one of the family’s maids. Kierkegaard’s father had seduced her, discovered she was pregnant, and felt compelled to marry her.) On discovering the reality of his father’s weaknesses – Kierkegaard had always admired his strict piety – he was shattered. As he described it later, the revelation was “a great earthquake, a terrible upheaval that suddenly forced on me a new and infallible interpretation of all phenomena.” At first, the discovery disturbed Kierkegaard’s entire moral outlook, throwing him into a period of dissipation and despair during which he completely neglected his theological studies at the university. Eventually, however, Kierkegaard began to suspect that his life was to be spent for some extraordinary purpose.

Prior to the death of Kierkegaard’s father (1838), the two managed to reconcile. Kierkegaard realized that his father had left an indelible mark on his life. His call to a life of religious service, his intellectual gifts, his sense of absolute obedience, and even his melancholy were all part of an inheritance for which he came to be grateful. He saw that he had been mistaken concerning his family’s curse and now felt under obligation to redeem his promise to his father and complete his university studies, which he did over the next two years.

Broken Engagement

At this time Kierkegaard became engaged to sixteen-year-old Regine Olsen, whom he had felt attracted to for little over a year. Next to his father, no aspect of Kierkegaard’s life is as important as was his relationship to Regine. The day after his engagement, however, Kierkegaard felt he had made a mistake: He saw that he could never conquer his melancholy and felt unable to confide in Regine as to the causes of it. “I would have to keep too much from her, base the whole marriage on a lie.”

To break off an engagement was in those days a serious matter, and socially speaking, placed the woman in an unfavorable light. To save Regine, therefore, Kierkegaard resolved to take all the blame on himself for the broken engagement. This he did in the most bizarre manner: for the next several months he posed as an irresponsible philanderer, noisily showing off in public and striving to turn appearances against himself by every means in his power. Not surprisingly, he quickly aroused the indignation of public opinion and the disapproval of friends.

Everyone was fooled, except Regine. When the break finally came in 1841, he wrote: “When the bond broke, my feeling was this: either to plunge into wild dissipation, or into absolute religiousness – though of a different kind from that of the parson’s.”

Kierkegaard chose the latter. But he also chose something else: the writer’s life. “From that moment, I dedicated my life with every ounce of my poor ability to the service of an idea.” Less than a month after breaking off his engagement Kierke­gaard sailed for Berlin, where he began to write. It came over him like a torrent, driving him incessantly on during the next ten years – a period in which he produced thirty-five books and twenty volumes of journals (In 1843 he published no fewer than six books, the first being his biggest, Either/Or).

The “Corsair” Affair

Kierkegaard’s authorship proceeded along two lines, the aesthetic and the religious. The purpose of the first was “to represent the various life-views on existence.” Using pen-names and an “indirect method,” Kierkegaard sought to beguile his reader into the truth. His strategy was one of “entrapment” – to surround the reader with the alternatives before him, put them in contradiction to each other, and then help him see the many false ultimates by which people live their lives.

As for the second, Kierkegaard authored a string of discourses and works intended to enlighten readers by making them directly aware of what the Christian ideal really was. As far as Kierke­­g­aard’s writing went, he was able to realize this goal; as for his reception as a thinker with something serious to say, things took an unexpected twist: The Corsair, a gossipy tabloid weekly, reviewed Either/Or in such a way that Kierkegaard felt he had been made a laughingstock.

In actual fact, Goldschmidt, the publisher of Corsair, admired Kierkegaard’s intellectual and writing gifts; after the publication of Either/Or he even hosted a banquet in Kierkegaard’s honor. Yet Kierkegaard, offended by all the attention, tried to distance himself from the “scandalous” paper and did not attend. On top of that, he sought to retaliate by publishing a caustic pseudonymous article, which let loose a firestorm of fury that lasted well over a year. Week after week Kierkegaard was ridiculed, caricatured, parodied. His long nose, thin legs and the uneven length of his trousers became a standing joke. His wealth and his alms-giving, his drives and his walks were all over-exaggerated and discussed in detail.

Kierkegaard was deeply hurt. Publicly, he displayed indifference, but his journals refer to the incident for the next three years and show a deep hurt. He became an object of ridicule, with a nickname: “Either-or”. Secretly, he complained that his little article created “more of a sensation…than all my writing put together.” “I am positive that my whole life will never be as important as my trousers.”

The Corsair affair embittered Kierkegaard and drove him once and for all to pen and paper. There could be no thought of retiring to a peaceful parsonage in the country. That would be fleeing from persecution. In fact, Kierkegaard felt that the event was providential, insofar as it clarified and affirmed his assertion that Christianity and “the public” are opposite terms. He now saw that God had entrusted him with a specific mission: to speak directly to his contemporaries about the colossal deception of Christendom. In the end, the incident only “put new strength into my instrument, forced me to publish even more.”

Attack upon Christendom

The event that brought Kierkegaard’s attack upon Christendom to a head-on collision was the death of Bishop Mynster. Mynster, the Primate of the Danish Church, had been a family friend and pastor for many years, and Kierkegaard revered him highly. But after Kierkegaard published Practice in Christianity, which attacks clerical Christianity, Mynster was incensed, and the two became irreparably estranged.

In January, 1854, Mynster died. Martensen, Mynster’s successor, declared Mynster to be “one of the holy chain of witnesses for the truth which extends through the centuries down from the time of the Apostles.” The claim pushed Kierkegaard over the edge. It seemed like blasphemy, a corruption of all Christian values, to speak of Mynster in such a way. “Bishop Mynster a witness for the truth!” he exploded. “You who read this, you know well what in a Christian sense is a witness for the truth… It is absolutely essential to suffer for the teaching of Christianity. The truth is that Mynster was worldly-wise – weak, pleasure-seeking, and was great only as a declaimer.”

In a series of pamphlets entitled The Instant, Kierkegaard now turned agitator and addressed himself directly to the people. Little by little, Christianity had been weakened by removing all the difficulties of faith. “In the splendid palace chapel a stately court preacher, the cultivated public’s elite, advances before an elite circle of fashionable and cultivated people and preaches emotionally on the text of the Apostle, ‘God chose the lowly and despised’ – and nobody laughs!” “This is the falsification of which official Christianity is guilty: it does not make known the Christian requirement – perhaps because it is afraid people would shudder to see at what a distance from it we are living.” Here Kierkegaard broke with all that had gone before; he was now engaged “not in communication, but assault.” “Strictly speaking, it is not I who am ringing the alarm bell; I am starting the fire in order to smoke out illusions and knavish tricks; it is a police raid, and a Christian police raid, for, according to the New Testament, Christianity is incendiarism.”

The swiftness and mercilessness of his attack seem to have left his contemporaries without a defense. But the immense exertions of the last months shattered him too. His strength, as well as his money, was gone. After fainting in the streets of Copenhagen on October 2, 1855, he was hospitalized. Kierkegaard died on November 11, 1855. To the end, Kierke­gaard would not retract a word he wrote and refused communion from a priest. He was at peace, he said, and felt his life’s calling had been fulfilled.

The story of Kierkegaard’s life is actually the inward drama of a deeply religious thinker. His relationships with his father, Regine, Goldschmidt, and Mynster were such that they turned his inner anguish into a kind of redemptive suffering on behalf of his contemporaries. In the crucible of his melancholy and in the chamber of his own relationship with God, there emerged a vision of faith and earnestness that influenced some of the greatest thinkers in the twentieth century.


Read another perspective on Kierkegaard’s life, by British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.

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