SørenKierkegaard (1813–1855) was the father of existentialism, a philosophy thatfocuses primarily on the individual and rejects pure abstract thought in favorof subjective thought and subjective truth. Six themes characterize existentialism.EM1 First is anti-essentialism, whichemphasizes the individual in the act of existing over against the detachedreflection upon ideal forms or essences of things found in Plato and Hegel.Second, an emphasis is placed on theindividual instead of the crowd, as each individual thing has meaningindependently of anything else. Third, existenceis viewed as becoming. Existence is therefore dynamic, not static.Fourth, freedom is the basis for humanbecoming. A good part of what it means to be human is to be free.
Radical freedom to become whatever is possible within the range of humanity isa great value, but it also includes risk. Still, it is better to choose thannot choose, for at least one then exists. Fifth, estrangement, anguish, and death constitute the stimuli for becoming.
By estrangement Kierkegaard meant that each person is thrown into the world bybeing born and is involuntarily estranged from the world. We are estranged fromthe natural order (as no harmony exists in this order) and from other humanbeings (as we do not naturally form relationships). Thus we must courageouslyuse freedom to overcome estrangement. For Kierkegaard, anguish is theirrational and unexplainable feeling caused when the human being confrontsnothingness, coming face to face with finitude, death, and potentially ceasingto exist. While anguish is very stressful, it has creative significance. Deathis the final step into potential nothingness, and each person must consider theway they live in terms of their upcoming death. One must take death seriouslyto be an authentic human being.
Sixth, truthis relational rather than cognitive or pure, e.g., rational, scientific, or mathematical thought, as purethinking tells an individual nothing about their individual existence andprovides no personal relationship with the facts known. Major Events in Kierkegaard’s Life Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813in Copenhagen. From 1830 to 1834, Kierkegaard’s mother, brother, and two of hissisters died, thus provoking a pessimism and melancholy with which he wouldapproach life. 1835 saw the occurrence of an event Kierkegaard described in hisjournal as the Great Earthquake.
This earthquake comprised Kierkegaard’s breachwith his father when he learned of his father’s deep, dark secrets down thepath to perdition. Despite that Kierkegaard’s father raised him with a strictmoral upbringing and the harshest requirements of Christianity, his father wasprone to sensuality, as his mother was already pregnant at the time of theirmarriage. Moreover, early in life his father cursed God for letting him sufferas a shepherd and thus may have committed the unforgivable sin against the HolySpirit. Kierkegaard feared that God had cursed his family for the acts of hisfather, which would explain the deaths of his family members and his sustainedmelancholy. But in 1838, Kierkegaard experienced what he dubbed theIndescribable Joy, a profound conversion experience to personally become adisciple of Christ. From 1840 to 1841, Kierkegaard experienced a tempestuousrelationship with Regina Olsen which strongly colored his theology. Kierkegaardwas deeply in love with and became engaged to Regina, but afterwards broke theengagement so that he would not burden her with his melancholy or cause her tobe cursed with the sins of his family. Displaying deep introspection,Kierkegaard viewed his separation from Regina as renouncing marriage in termsof the greater good.
In 1846 Kierkegaard was lampoonedfor his appearance, voice, and habits in TheCorsair, a weekly satirical paper that ridiculed people of repute and wastherefore read surreptitiously by many. The so-called Corsair Affair beganafter P. L. Møller published a careless yet opportunistic critique ofKierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way onDecember 22, 1845. Møller’sopportunism was a double-sided coin.
He was seeking a chair at the Universityof Copenhagen even while secretly editing TheCorsair. In response to Møller, Kierkegaard wrote two small pieces, The Activity of a Traveling Estheticianand Dialectical Result of a LiteraryPolice Action. Theformer insulted Møller’s integrity and publicly outed him as the editorof The Corsair, while the lattercriticized the journalistic quality and reputation of The Corsair.TM2 Not surprisingly, The Corsair retaliated with illustratedcartoons caricaturing Kierkegaard, causing this very public individual to becomea laughing stock among his countrymen. But in the 1848 “Metamorphosis” entry ofhis journal, Kierkegaard declared that he had found peace with himself andcould therefore do exactly what God wanted.
But what did God want fromKierkegaard? Kierkegaard believed that God wanted him to attack the statechurch of Denmark because biblical Christianity no longer existed in thechurch. For people believed that they were Christians merely because they hadbeen baptized as infants and raised in a nominally Christian nation. From 1849to 1855, Kierkegaard launched his literary attack on the Danish establishedchurch in an attempt to restore biblical Christianity and salvation to Denmark.Amidst this controversy with the established church, Kierkegaard died on November11, 1855.
Key Ideas in Kierkegaard’s Major Works Kierkegaard’s firstmajor work was Either/Or (1843), arepudiation of the Hegelian dialectical method and a presentation of the threestages of human lifestyle. Kierkegaard’s basic complaint against Hegelianphilosophy was that this allegedly all-comprehensive system left out the twomost important ingredients of metaphysics, namely, human existence andauthentic humanness. These ingredients never received consideration becauseeach emerged only from an “either/or” choice between one of two contradictorynotions. Such a choice was ruled out by Hegel’s “both/and” synthesis of twocontradictory notions into a higher sphere of reality which preserves theirfull contradictoriness.
The three stages of lifestyleenumerated by Kierkegaard are the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.The aesthetic stage is thelevel of pleasure and perdition, where one merely feels rather than decides.The individual lives based on their instincts for new and pleasurable sensationsbut makes only insignificant choices. Kierkegaard poignantly disclosed thefutility of living at the aesthetic level through his so-called rotationmethod, which shows how get the most out of the aesthetic life while minimizingboredom. As the name suggests, if a person slightly rotates what they do, eat,listen to, and so forth each day, then the possibilities are almost limitless.For example, a person could eat pepperoni pizza one night, pepperoni and hampizza the next night, pepperoni and sausage pizza the next night, and so forth,just as a farmer rotates crops from one field to another.
The rotation methodavoids hope and cultivates a proper type of remembering and forgetting, the keyto which is having many experiences rather than intense experiences. Bydemonstrating that living at the aesthetic level is ultimately bankrupt andmeaningless, Kierkegaard hoped to cause the reader to jump to the ethicallevel, where they can make significant choices and thus exist. Theethical stage is the level ofdeciding, where one is controlled by rules and universal norms.
One creates anauthentic self by confronting and making significant decisions in matters ofgood and evil. But mere rules cannot empower a person to do the right thing.Therefore, the only way to act out one’s choices and so possess a personalidentity is by making a paradoxical leapof faith to the religious level. While repentance of sin does not save,it brings a person to the end of their rope so that the will make the leap offaith which saves. Displaying anti-Hegelianism, Kierkegaard refused to viewfaith as a facet in our system of thought to be negated and transcended, butrather as the highest good which could never be transcended. Thereligious stage is the level ofmost authentic existence, where one is living for God rather than deciding forhim. This stage is God-centered, not rule-centered, and if the universal normcommands one thing and God says another, one must follow God.
However, if Godtells one to follow the rule, one does it for the sake of obeying God ratherthan simply out of ethical obligation. Kierkegaard asserted that the way tolive most authentically is to choose the Judeo-Christian God. Kierkegaard further distinguishedbetween life lived at the ethical stage and life lived at the religious stagein his next major work, Fear andTrembling (1843). Here Kierkegaard told the surface story of Abraham andIsaac at Mount Moriah, where Abraham’s experience is paradigmatic of life atthe religious stage and of conflict between the ethical and religious stages.Sometimes the moral law will contradict the moral Lawgiver, God, which is partof what it means to live at the religious level instead of just the ethicallevel. Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, while themoral law commanded him not to murder his own son. Because Abraham lived at thereligious level, he chose to obey God by sacrificing Isaac, even though itviolated the very law God gave to humanity.
Kierkegaard explained that livingby faith is the highest life one could possibly obtain, while most people nevercome to real Christian faith. Thus, he compared the knight of resignation, i.e.
,the moral or tragic hero, with the knightof faith, who attaches directly to God. Kierkegaard related thenarrative of Abraham and Isaac to his experience with Regina, for in order toserve the higher principle, he had to give up Regina just as Abraham had togive up Isaac. Ironically, Kierkegaard depicted himself as only the knight ofresignation and not the knight of faith, because he did not hold his wish fastafter giving it up like Abraham did. According to Kierkegaard, the knight of resignation is a person who seeshis duty, is resigned to it, and gives up what he has to give up, never expectingit back. However, the knight of faith sees his duty, is resigned to it, givesup what he has to give up, and trusts that God will give him back what he hasresigned not to have. Such trust, Kierkegaard observed, is totally irrational,but the knight of faith trusts God anyway, as Kierkegaard defined the movementfrom resignation to faith as believing in the absurd. Kierkegaard explored the aboveissues in further detail in the section entitled “Panegyric on Abraham.
” ForKierkegaard, Abraham was such a great man because he both gave up his wish tohave Isaac alive and held fast his wish after giving it up. Kierkegaard claimedthat it is great to give up one’s wish, but greater to hold it fast aftergiving it up; likewise, it is great to hold fast the eternal, but greater tohold fast to the temporal after giving it up. Hence, Abraham was great inproportion to his expectation, for he expected the impossible (i.e., Isaac alive after he wassacrificed) which is greater than all, rather than the possible which is greator the eternal which is greater. Abraham never abandoned his wish; if he had,he would have saved many, but since he did not, he became the father of faith,which would have otherwise been impossible.
Followingthe “Panegyric on Abraham,” Kierkegaard raised three “Problemata” raised by theaccount of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. First, Kierkegaard asked if thereis such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical. In other words,can the universal ethical norm be suspended for God’s purposes? Kierkegaard’sanswer is yes, since a suspension of the ethical rule is allowable for a personto exercise faith. This yields the paradox that the particular is higher thanthe universal, by which Kierkegaard can assert that the person in relationshipto God is higher than the universal rule. Second, Kierkegaard queried if thereis such a thing as an absolute duty toward God.
His answer is yes, for thisabsolute duty is the religious duty, not the ethical which can be suspended andis not absolute. The absolute duty is relationship to God and always obeyingwhat God says. For example, one who lives at the religious level follows therule “You shall not murder” because God tells him to obey it, while one wholives at the ethical level obeys this rule since the rule itself imposes forceon the person’s consciousness. Third, Kierkegaard inquired whether Abraham wasethically defensible in keeping silent about his purpose to sacrifice Isaacbefore Sarah, Eleazar, and Isaac. He answered that from an ethical standpoint,Abraham was indefensible. But if Abraham had told Sarah, Eleazar, and Isaacthat God had commanded him to slay Isaac, the commandment would no longer havebeen particular, but a universal rule to obey God against the moral law. From areligious standpoint, not only was Abraham justified in keeping silent, but hehad to keep silent for the commandment to be a test of personal faith which wasnot turned into a universal rule. Strongly influenced by thedissolution of his engagement to Regina Olsen, Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way (1845) employs histhree stages of lifestyle to evaluate love and marriage.
In part one, “TheBanquet, Aesthetic Perspectives on Love,” five different fictional charactersat a banquet make speeches giving their aesthetic opinions on love, from ahigher to a lower level. First, a young man expresses his indecision concerning womanhood. Second,Constantine gives an experience-hardened understanding of womanhood. Third,Victor claims that love is an ironic experience.
Fourth, Taylor evinces ademonic despair toward love. Fifth, Johannes the Seducer shows a cold-bloodedand evil approach to love. By their obsession with meaningless relations withwomen, all five men avoid living at the ethical level. The basic pointof this parody of Plato’s Symposiumis that aesthetic perspectives on love all avoid ethical choices by wrongfullyfocusing on relations with women.
In part two, “The Judge Williams Part,”Kierkegaard discussed ethical reflections on marriage through the character ofa judge seated with his wife at breakfast. Strongly protesting against thebanquet speeches, Judge Williams proffers a positive view of marriage, exaltingit as a vehicle for bringing the infinite into the temporal since the bride andgroom pledge themselves to one another for infinity. Judge Williams concludesthat marriage should be the rule or norm for most people, except for those wholive fully at the religious level for God. They should not marry but stillrespect marriage as an institution. Part three, “Quidam’s Diary,” is achronicle of Kierkegaard’s personal struggle, which asks if a melancholy personshould marry and thus inflict melancholy on their spouse.
Kierkegaard comparedthis quandary to a soldier who marries but dies in war. Kierkegaard explainedhis own thinking as to why he did not marry Regina by presenting threealternatives to the quandary: the melancholy person should tell his fiancéeabout his melancholy; the melancholy person should marry his fiancée anywaywith the hope of absolving the melancholy; or the melancholy person should sohumiliate himself that his fiancée would reject him. Kierkegaard posited thatthe third alternative is the correct one. In1846 Kierkegaard published his PhilosophicalFragments and its sequel ConcludingUnscientific Postscript. Here Kierkegaard asserted that any genuineChristian must become a contemporaneous disciple of Christ. This meant gainingspiritual contemporaneity, not historical contemporaneity, with Christ. Itoccurs in the instant of personal encounter, when Christ discloses himself andthe individual responds to Christ by making a subjective leap of faith. ForKierkegaard, there are no secondhand disciples.
The only advantages possessedby Jesus’ first-century disciples were historical in nature: the ability toknow more facts about Jesus, the opportunity to obtain better Socraticself-knowledge, and the direct transmission of information with little chancefor the message to be distorted. But they possessed no spiritual advantage overtoday’s disciples, for discipleship is based solely on a relationship with Godthrough Christ received in personal encounter and not on historical facts.Kierkegaard asserted that knowledge of historical truths about Christ, even ifone had been an eyewitness, would not make one a disciple, and even thatlearning all of Christ’s doctrine would not make one a disciple. Historicityonly gives temporal significance, not eternal consequence.
The Bible onlyprovides an occasion for one to encounter God and to respond to God through thefaith that he gives. Accordingto Kierkegaard, the Scriptures are historical documents which contain thehistorical record of what Christ said and did, and provide only anapproximation of these facts. Thus, they can never be the basis for eternalhappiness, and neither defending nor attacking the accuracy of the Bible hasany bearing on eternal happiness, for inerrancy is unimportant. He maintainedthat no one has ever acquired faith by having the Bible defended, and that noone with faith will ever be bothered by an errant Bible, since genuine faithdoes not rest on historicity anyway. Christianity is inward and subjective,while Scripture is external and objective and hence gives no basis for faith.
Even more radical wasKierkegaard’s position on faith and reason. Kierkegaard alleged that the roleof reason in coming to genuine faith is to show a person that reason cannot getthem to God. Reason shows a person just how irrational the leap of faith isthat they must make in order to encounter God. Kierkegaard defined faith as”the objective uncertainty due to the repulsion of the absurd held fast by thepassion of inwardness, which in this instance is intensified to the utmostdegree.”1 However, Christianity is neither logically inconsistentnor according to reason nor against reason.
But it is above and beyond reason,for the point where reason can go no further is where Christian truth resides.Thus, reason distinguishes between nonsense and paradox, as Christianity is notnonsense but paradoxical, and it prepares one for the point where God breaksthrough. Kierkegaard identified Jesus as the ultimate paradox, as both God andman, the revealer and hider of God at the same time. Since Christ’s humanitywas real, it is paradoxical to think of Christ as the God-man. On Kierkegaard’sreckoning, faith in God cannot be rationally or empirically grounded, as God bynature is trans-empirical. Moreover, the evidence at best shows Jesus to be avirtuous and honorable man, but not a God-man.
Reason comprehends that thisparadox cannot be comprehended. At this point, there are three ways that one’sintellect can respond to Christianity: by being offended; by not being offendedat all, in which case there is no chance of becoming a Christian; and byknowing the possibility of offense but not being offended, in which case onebecomes a Christian. Not surprisingly,Kierkegaard stipulated that “truth is subjectivity,”2 by which hemeant that subjectivity is a condition for religious truth and that objectivetruth cannot make one a Christian. Christian truth is not in the mind butappropriated by the will, for “truth as subjectivity” is the truth that comesthrough committing one’s will rather than logical contemplation. Alltheological truth is subjective, but there is objective truth in otherdisciplines like the natural and physical sciences (e.g., mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics) and the socialsciences (e.g.
, history, political science, and sociology). Hencegenuine disciples have no objective grounds for believing what they do. It isindeed absurd to be a Christian—there is no evidence to support it and evidencemay very well refute it. Faith therefore demands a leap that is based not onanything objective but on the passion of inwardness that God gives to a person.For Kierkegaard, there are four steps in gaining subjective truth. First, onemust reject an outward, objective orientation to things and therefore movebeyond the aesthetic level. Second, one must develop a responsible inwardnessof duty and so embrace the ethical level.
Third, one must cultivate apassionate concern for eternal blessedness which surpasses anything else inlife, thus approaching the religious level. Fourth, one must receive theparadoxical revelation of God in Christ, which is disturbingly subjective, andconsequently live at the religious level. At the height of hisattack on the Danish established church, Kierkegaard wrote Training in Christianity (1850).
Kierkegaard protested bitterlyagainst basing one’s faith on “theupshot,”3 by which he meant the tangible results of Jesus’earthly life throughout 1800 years of church history. Kierkegaard’s complaintis that one who tries to become a Christian due to the upshot is basing theirbelief on evidence, which is only approximate to the truth and can never bringeternal happiness. Thus one cannot even become a Christian through rationality,while the genuine Christian becomes spiritually contemporaneous with Christ bygrasping faith beyond reason and experiencing the divine encounter.
Kierkegaardasserted that we can know nothing about Christ from history, which is extremelyradical since he did not make the distinction between the Jesus of history andthe Christ of faith. Displaying amazing historical skepticism, Kierkegaardliterally taught that history tells us nothing about either Christ as a man orChrist as God. Because the life of Christ is more important than the historicalresults of his life, any purported historical evidence is meaningless, for onemust become a contemporary of Christ spiritually to find salvation. Kierkegaardillustrated his point with the illustration of six first-century figures—a wiseand prudent man, a clergyman, a philosopher, a statesman, a solid citizen, anda mocker—who all became offended at Christ. Accordingly, historicalcontemporaneity with Jesus does nothing to make someone his disciple. Conclusion We conclude by reflecting on Kierkegaard’s theological program in itshistorical context.
Kierkegaard was horrified at what he considered an uttersubversion of biblical Christianity to cultural Christendom in his nativeDenmark. Kierkegaard blamed this predicament on Hegel’s enormously influentialphilosophy, which he regarded as a counterfeit of true Christianity thatthreatened to destroy it. For Kierkegaard, Christianity is not aphilosophy—much less an objective and speculative one like Hegel’s—andexistence is not amenable to total rational comprehension.
Truth, especiallyabout God and the divine-human relationship, is not objective correspondencebetween thought and reality. Due to the “infinite qualitative difference”4between the infinite God and finite, fallen humans, truth itself must beembraced in passionate inwardness through decision, a leap of faith that cannotbe reduced to logical contemplation. In short, knowing God entails faith, andfaith entails risk. Apart from that risk, an individual can have an ethicalreligion but not biblical Christianity. EM1Dothe following points correspond to existentialism in general or just toKierkegaard’s originating version? TM2Thiswording closely mimics part of the Wikipedia entry on Kierkegaard; consider changingit to something more different.