Søren Kierkegaard

views updated

Søren Kierkegaard


Existentialist theologian


Family Background. The youngest of seven children, Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 5 May 1813. Already fifty-seven years old at the time of Søren’s birth, his father was a pious, well-educated, prosperous Danish tradesman who had risen from poor, farming origins. Despite his success, he suffered from bouts of depression and was fearful that God would punish him for his youthful sins by taking all of his children before they reached maturity. Of Søren’s six siblings, all but one died young. From his father, Søren inherited several important features: the wealth that would enable him to devote his life to writing, the genetic disposition toward mental illness that brought him both suffering and insight, and a strict religious faith that stressed the seriousness of sin and guilt and the importance of individual accountability.

Early Life. Kierkegaard was a gifted man with a sharp mind and a twisted body, for which he was ridiculed throughout his life. At age seventeen he was drafted into the Royal Guard but then dismissed as unfit for military service. He enrolled at the University of Copenhagen, where he excelled in the study of ancient languages, philosophy, and theology and earned a master’s degree in 1840. In the same year he became engaged to Regine Olsen, a young woman from an upper-class Copenhagen family. After experiencing another of his recurring bouts of melancholy, however, Kierkegaard decided that it would be selfish to marry. In 1841 he broke off the engagement and left Copenhagen for Berlin. Five months later he returned to Copenhagen and began a prolific writing career, eventually producing works of philosophy, religion and theology, psychology, literary criticism, and fiction.

Major Literary Works. A somber, unorthodox, and brilliant writer, Kierkegaard often used humor, satire, and parody to provoke. In 1843 alone, he published six books, including his first major work, Enten-Eller (Either/Or), in which he asserted that everyone must make a critical decision about how to live. All humans, he wrote, begin life as aesthetes, that is, as egotists who seek immediate sensory gratification. The decision to remain an aesthete, Kierkegaard insisted, would ultimately lead to despair because within the human spirit there is a sense of the eternal that cannot be satisfied by sensory experience alone. The despair that results from the inner conflict between what is temporal and what is infinite, however, is good, because this dread can motivate the aesthete to become ethical. To Kierkegaard, the ethical individual is the one who moves beyond despair and who chooses to enter the ethical plane, thereby finding meaning and fulfillment in fighting for a universal cause that one knows is good. Several months after publishing Either/Or, Kierkegaard produced Frygt og baeven (Fear and Trembling), in which he analyzed his guilt over having violated social norms by ending his engagement. The chief protagonist of this book is the patriarch Abraham. In the biblical story God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but after Abraham demonstrated his willingness to kill his son on the altar, God gave him a ram to sacrifice instead and returned Isaac to Abraham. According to Kierkegaard, the person of faith is like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his most prized possession, trusting in the absurd proposition that God is able to do the impossible. Thus, the wise are those who learn to renounce the things of this world and, through the absurdity of faith, trust God to restore their relationship with the world.

Contribution and Legacy. In his 1843 publications, thirty-year-old Kierkegaard presented themes that he developed during the remaining twelve years of his short life. A central motif in much of Kierkegaard’s thought is the paradox that involves knowing the difference between being a Christian and living within Christendom. Disputing the teachings of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who asserted that anyone with rational faculties could come to understand the mind of God, Kierkegaard insisted that God could not be known through reason but rather only through a faith that comes in the scriptures and in Jesus Christ. To Kierkegaard, one must either choose or reject the claims of Christianity, and this decision must be made on faith, because there is no historical evidence that leads one directly to believe in the God-man Jesus.For Kierkegaard faith is not reasonable; neither does it lead to a tranquil life. Instead, true faith embraces what the natural mind considers to be offensive and absurd. To have faith, Christians must suspend reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. Moreover, faith comes at a great personal cost, for it demands a life of self-denial. Forms of Christianity that do not demand sacrifice are not Christian, Kierkegaard asserted; they are merely forms of paganism. Thus, he denounced those who emphasize the light, joyous, communal aspects of Christianity and advocated a radical form of Christianity that stands opposed to the world, time, and reason while forever stressing the seriousness of sin and the responsibility of the individual to secure redemption through faith in the absurd. Because of his emphasis on the need to make a decision and commit oneself totally to it, Kierkegaard is remembered as the spiritual father of European existentialism.


Steven M. Emmanuel, Kierkegaard and the Concept of Revelation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).

David Jay Gouwens, Kierkegaard as Religious Thinker (New York: Cam-bridge University Press,1996).

Bruce H.Kirmmse, Kierkegaard in Golden-Age Denmark (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).