Monday, October 4, 2010

Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard was a devout Christian and a deeply religious writer. His works explore some of the key aspects of Christianity, and he deeply explores some of the key stories at the heart of the Bible such as Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Isaac. Through his works, the reader is allowed an insight into Kierkegaard’s own personal Christianity, and an insight into what he feels is required to be a Christian.
            Kierkegaard’s Christianity is centered around faith. According to Kierkegaard, the Bible is filled with paradoxes. Fear and Trembling examines the story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice that was supposed to happen. This is perhaps his best example of faith presented by Kierkegaard. Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son Isaac only because of his faith in God. God commands Abraham to do so, and he has blind faith in God and his commands. By his faith, Abraham is rewarded and gets to keep his son. This is one of the central ideas behind Kierkegaard’s Christianity: blind faith. Kierkegaard does not believe that the existence of God can be explained by reason or by science. Only by having blind faith in the existence of God is it possible for one to truly believe.
            Further, this faith actually causes us to abandon reason. Kierkegaard instead believes that we must believe by virtue of the absurd. Only by the absurd does Abraham get to keep his son Isaac. Kierkegaard believes by the same token that we must believe in the absurd in order to believe in God and to truly hold the Christian faith. Only by this faith does one truly have the opportunity to become a “true self,” and this true self is “the life-work for which God judges eternity.”[1] This faith must also be constantly renewed by affirmations of faith. It does not suffice for one merely to make on showing of faith to God. On the contrary on must repeatedly demonstrate their faith to God in order to prove that it is true.
            The last part about Kierkegaard’s faith that needs to be assessed comes at the end of his life. If a reader were to search for Kierkegaard on such sites as Wikipedia, or the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy, one may assume that he was an atheist or agnostic due to the fact that both sites have a section entitled “The Attack on the Church” (or something close to that effect). At the end of his life, Kierkegaard did not turn away from God or abandon his faith. However, he did start an attack upon the Danish Christian Church for its teachings and governance. The attack took place following the death of the Bishop Primate of the Danish People’s Church, J.P. Mynster, passed away. Kierkegaard believed that Mynster had begun to steer the church away from actual Christianity and towards “Christendom,” a more cultural phenomenon that was more aligned with the state than it was with actual Christianity. Kierkegaard published his criticism in pamphlets called “The Instant.” However, before he could publish the final works he collapsed on the street and the subsequently died in the Frederiksberg Hospital in Copenhagen on November 11th.
            Kierkegaard didn’t espouse any particular argument for the existence of God. Like Kant, Kierkegaard thought God’s existence could not be proven by reason.  Reason, according to him, has no place in faith. God, he thought, is beyond our reasoning. This is why faith often believes in the absurd.
Kierkegaard did find human meaning and fulfillment in life by our ethical and religious commitments.  Achieving meaning in life, he said, is not something simply given to us, but it is accomplished through our decisions.  Kierkegaard thought we are, at the end of the day, on our own in making the best possible decisions for our lives.  However, he argued the best decision we could make for our lives is to rely on God.
            Human existence is in continuous conflict between two facets of reality—the infinite and the finite—according to Kierkegaard.  The finite, he suggests, is composed of the temporal events and particular moments in our lives that we use to exploit our sensations and satisfy our desires.  But life is more than just these temporary, finite enjoyments of life and, according to him, we must govern ourselves beyond our passions and aesthetic pleasures. Adhering to the aesthetic option will render our lives meaningless. 
            Again, adhering ethical and religious modes of life will allow us to reach the eternal, meaningful life.  These ethical and religious choices we make must be decisive and continuously renewed in order to bring our lives unity.  This must be done through our free will alone and we must live in accord with our ethical duty.  The best solution to fulfillment is found in the religious life because we do not have to be dependent on ourselves, and instead, we rely on God who is perfectly good.
            For Kierkegaard, one’s attitude in a relationship toward something or someone is very important for life’s meaning.  The nature of our relationship is what is most important for meaning and fulfillment.  If we try to relate ourselves to God then the proper type of relationship is one of infinite intensity since he is an infinite being.
Søren Kierkegaard first and foremost believed that God was necessary for the Good Life, but how we utilize this faith in accord with a system of both practical-normative-and meta ethics is complicated.
            As discussed in Kierkegaard raised the notion of the "teleological suspension of the ethical."  This has many implications.  Societal norms, he believed, should be recognized and understood.  These are our normative ethics and how we ought to act and we come to know these through experience and the exploration of the self as this is how we judge men both as heroes-for this he references Agamemnon-and the evil doers.  In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard shows how there must be something higher than these social norms through the example of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son because God commanded the act.  This is brought about the Kierkegaardian notion of the "teleological suspension of the ethical."
            Outwardly, Abraham is going against what we know to be right.  But his belief in God has led him to do what he feels is metaethical.  We cannot experience or know metaethics in the way we know the normative.  For this, Kierkegaard believes we must accept the absurd above reason.  Reason, he argues, cannot lead us to the ethical in any faith-based capacity, we must accept it through absurdity.
            This does not mean we should abandon reason.  We must have reason to a point, but to accept God and suspend our ethical ideas in order to serve what is higher than reason, we must converge at the absurd which is, most importantly, the willingness to accept the actions of a man like Abraham as religiously noble-as oppossed to insane-based purely on faith.
            Kierkegaard believed that, for the Good Life, we must become who we are-a concept that, quite simply, means we must not be the product of, or manipulation, society, rather we should allow ourselves to be what we are-that we must accept and understand societal norms(normative ethics), and that we must suspend this system of ethics, which follows reason, to follow a higher and absurd metaethical system which is faith-based.
For Kierkegaard, finding the good life is a process which occurs in stages. The first stage is the aesthetic stage; the stage in which the individual only cares about personal pleasure. This pleasure could include anything from the love of learning, sex, drugs, food, or anything else that involves sensual pleasure. The person’s life is consumed with obtaining these goods and has no higher moral power. This person’s life is also consumed with fighting boredom. In The Seducer’s Diary, Johannes the seducer, who in Kierkegaard’s mind is a “reflective aesthete” (Stanford), states that his real goal is, “the manipulation of people and situations in ways which generate interesting reflections in his [my] own voyeuristic mind” (Stanford). He likes seducing people not merely for the pleasure of sex, but because he finds people’s reactions fascinating and it alleviates his boredom. This egoism is characteristic of the aesthetic stage. Eventually though, the person realizes she cannot live the life the way she is, thus leading to despair. This despair either leads to finding a new goal or rising above the aesthetic stage and entering the ethical stage.
The ethical stage is the stage in which the person begins to follow moral rules. These rules could be set by society or could be some philosophical source such as Kant’s categorical imperative or the utilitarian method set up by John Stuart Mills. Unfortunately, the person eventually realizes that she can never live up to all these rules. She will always fall short of never speeding which the law forbids, never lying as Kant’s perfect duties demand, or performing the mathematical formulas for happiness in every situation which is needed to be a good utilitarian. This, again, leads to despair. As a response to this despair, the person either tries to become more ethical by being better at her moral system or desires to go to a higher stage, thus entering the religious stage.
The religious stage is the combination of the aesthetic and the ethical stage, but has its own unique features as well. According to the Stanford Philosophical Dictionary, “what is preserved in the higher religious stage is the sense of infinite possibility made available through the imagination” (Stanford). Part of the initial appeal of the aesthetic stage is creative ways of getting what one wants, such as how to seduce women better. This same imagination is now used not for self-centered means but to imagine a world beyond this one. Our minds are no longer being used to seek knowledge about the world or how to obtain sensual goods, but are being used to contemplate God and deepening our faith with Him. The ethical stage also remains. The laws in this stage though are given by God though, not society or some philosophical principal. Anything God says though can override any moral principle, a common theme in Fear and Trembling. The religious stage fuses the aesthetic and ethical together, but surpasses both of them. Kierkegaard believes that this is the stage of life that man should strive for.
The human is in a complete state of sin, according to Kierkegaard. He believes that the human is sinful, and God is completely good and all-knowing. Thus, a key to understanding God and faith is to understand that in conflicts between a human or a group of humans, and God, God is always in the right and the human(s) is always in the wrong. This allows the suspension of the ethical in cases such as the one Kierkegaard discusses in Fear and Trembling, in which he analyzes the story of Abraham and Isaac. God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham obeys. Kierkegaard believes that God was right to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, in spite of the ethical violation that human sacrifice would entail. Abraham, recognizing that he is a sinner and that God is all powerful and all knowing, complies.  Just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac though, God stops him saying that he now knows that Abraham is a faithful servant.
In response to Abraham’s actions, Kierkegaard calls him a “Knight of Faith.” He describes the Knight of Faith as some one who, “resigned everything infinitely and the grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd” (Søren Kierkegaard 34). This means that while Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, he believed that God would somehow give him back, whether through a bodily resurrection or having him stop mid-action as God did. Still, this concept that God was in the right and that Abraham was in the wrong permeates Abraham’s thought process, at least according to Kierkegaard. Abraham believed that God was in the right, thus anything He said transcended the ethical.
Kierkegaard believes that while we should seek God, our sinfulness sometimes prevents us from doing so. Christianity, he claims, is too much for some people because they are unable to overcome their own sinfulness. In The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard discusses these people. He states that, “it is too high for him, because his mind cannot grasp it, because he cannot obtain the bold confidence in the face of it and must get rid of it, pass it off as a bagatelle, nonsense and folly, for it seems that it would choke him” (Søren Kierkegaard 85-86). This means that the enormity of God sacrificing His own son to have a relationship with us is unfathomable to many, to which Kierkegaard would argue that this is where a leap of faith must occur. Still, these people are blinded by their sin and are too afraid to make this leap and accept God’s love. This leads to another component of human nature: free will. Throughout Kierkegaard’s philosophy, free will is present. One can accept or reject God, just as one can make a leap of faith and go to a higher level, or choose to drown in his sinfulness and remain at the level he is. Regardless, this freedom, combined with our sinfulness, defines us and our relationship to God and others.
            Kierkegaard does believe that there is a God. Because his father was so burdened his entire life by the thought that God would take his children before they reached the age of Christ at his death, he imposed many religious obligations upon his children along with his Christian faith. Søren must have believed there is a God because of his pursuit of theological knowledge his entire life. It is also known that he broke off his engagement with one whom he loved dearly so that it wouldn't interfere with his relationship with God.
            Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born on May 5th 1813 in Copenhagen. He was child number seven of seven born to Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard and Ane Sørensdatter Lund. Michael was a very melancholic man who was very religious and full of guilt. This guilt was thought to have been imposed by the fact that Ane was conceived out of wedlock. Michael imposed this guilt upon his children whom he believed would all pass away before the age of 33; the age of Christ at his death. Since his childhood, Michael had cursed God. His surname is derived from the fact that his family was indentured to the parish priest, who provided a piece of the church (Kirke) farm (Gaard) for the family's use. Michael inherited his uncles fortune and augmented it by various investments. He gave to his only surviving sons, Peter and Søren, his material wealth and his sharp intellect and guilt.
            Søren was a melancholy child. He learned to avoid teasing by having a canny appreciation of other people's psychological weaknesses. He distinguished himself at school by excelling in Latin and history. Surprisingly, he struggled in Danish which was his mother tongue. He eventually became a master of Danish and was one of the two great stylists of it in his time; the other being Hans Christian Andersen. Although Søren's mother is never mentioned in his writings, her tongue is omnipresent. Because Søren has said in one of his works “… an omnipresent person should be recognizable precisely by being invisible," we can speculate that she is even more present in his works than his father.
            It seemed he was destined for a life as a pastor in the Danish People’s Church. In 1840, just before he enrolled at the Pastoral Seminary, he became engaged to Regina Olsen. He broke the engagement not long after because he thought it would distract him from his supernatural calling. The breaking of the engagement allowed Kierkegaard to devote himself monastically to his religious purpose, as well as to establish his outsider status (outside the norm of married bourgeois life). It also freed him from close personal entanglements with women, thereby leading him to objectify them as ideal creatures, and to reproduce the patriarchal values of his church and father. In 1848 Kierkegaard had a spiritual crisis. His works after this point began to bluntly attack the church and Christendom's complacency. He hoped to anger his contemporary Christians enough to inspire in them a stronger relationship to their faith. In 1850 he published Indøvelse In Christendom (Practice in Christianity), under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus.


"Søren Kierkegaard." Stanford Philosophical Encyclopedia. 2009. Web. <>.
Kierkegaard, Søren . Fear and Trembling. 1st. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. 1st. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. 1st. New York: Penguin Press, 1992. Print.

[1] McDonald, Williams, “Soren Kierkegaard” accessed 4/26/10