Søren Kierkegaard –‘The Father of Existentialism’

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard)

I have recently had the opportunity to spend three days away from home with a small group of people discussing the life and work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855). Before going, I didn’t have much interest in Kierkegaard. I just hoped for a few days respite, in a beautiful location, where my meals would be provided, and the conversation would be stimulating.  The topic could have been anything, but at the time when I could go away without causing too much disruption at home, the course happened to be on Kierkegaard.

This is where I stayed (Higham Hall in the Lake District in Cumbria UK):

And this is an image of the course description and our wonderfully tolerant tutor, Darren Harper

There were only seven of us on the course, six women and one man (two, if you include Darren too, so eight of us in total in the group), but goodness what a diverse group. Most importantly there was only one person who professed to have ‘faith’ in God. There was a Quaker who said she did not believe in God (a Nontheist Quaker), one strong atheist and a couple of others who appeared to be atheists, one agnostic and two undeclared. This information about the group turned out to be important in relation to discussion about Kierkegaard.

The reason I have started this post with a bit of background information is that, for me, one of the things that seemed to be a stumbling block for some in being openly receptive to Kierkegaard’s work, was an understanding that he was a man of his time, i.e., the context in which he lived and worked was necessarily influential, just as the context in we were meeting as a group and the make-up of that group were influential in how discussion proceeded and the success of the course.

In preparation for this course, we were asked to read Clare Carlisle’s biography – ‘Philosopher of the Heart. The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard’. I still haven’t read the whole book. I managed to get about halfway through before the course started and looked at some secondary sources, for example this short School of Life video (6.46 mins)

Somewhere in her writing Clare Carlisle says that she both ‘loves’ Kierkegaard but also finds him irritating, or words to this effect. I can’t find the exact quote now, but I know what she means. Had I met Kierkegaard in person, I think I would have found him irritating in the sense that he was intensely self-absorbed, but also, I found myself warming to him as I found out more about him, and I admire his courage. He was a lone voice in his time.

At that time Denmark was in a period of change. This was the Romantic era, following the Enlightenment, a time when the Lutheran Church in Denmark distrusted philosophy and was dominant, and when Hegel’s philosophy was all the rage. But Kierkegaard thought Hegel’s work too theoretical. Kierkegaard’s main questions were around what it means to be human in the world. In this sense he was the ‘father of existentialism’ although Kierkegaard himself wouldn’t have known the word ‘existentialism’ or where his ideas might lead, or that he would be a recognised and respected philosopher in the 20th and 21st centuries. He was not a popular figure in his time.

Kierkegaard observed society in Copenhagen and in his travels to Berlin and posited that many people lived the ‘aesthetic life’. For him this meant a pleasure-seeking life ruled by passion, not necessarily a bad life, but simply not enough. An alternative was to live an ‘ethical life’, which meant serving the community and following society’s and the Lutheran Church’s rules and conventions. For Kierkegaard, neither of these were enough. For him, Christianity requires more than living the good life, or following the Church’s conventions. It requires an authentic relationship with God, which can only be achieved through a leap of faith.  This means living a life of uncertainty because God is beyond logic, proof, and reason. Faith and the religious life cannot be taught, explained, or required, but are reached individually through life experience and self-exploration.

I am aware that what I have written is a massive over-simplification of Kierkegaard’s ideas, but it was this idea of a leap of faith, advocated by Kierkegaard, which seemed to annoy and get under the skin of some members of the group on my course. This and the fact that Kierkegaard uses the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac to exemplify this leap of faith, which was regarded by one member of the group as an abhorrent story, and which has for years, in her view, terrified young children. This led to a fascinating discussion on the benefits or otherwise of religious education in schools.

In fact, the whole course was full of fascinating discussion and highly stimulating. What I really appreciated about it was that although there was a programme for the course – on Day 1, to be introduced to Kierkegaard’s book ‘Fear and Trembling’, on Day 2 to be introduced to his book ‘Either/Or’, and on Day 3 to discuss his legacy – the tutor only loosely stuck to this programme and allowed discussion to roam. Other fascinating discussions were about the place of love in marriage (Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to Regine Olsen because he felt that marriage would become boring after the first flush of romantic love and sexual desire and prevent him from engaging in his main passion, writing); about decision making, about boredom, about belief and doubt, music and language – and more.

So having gone on the course with little more than the desire to have a bit of a rest, I came away with a much greater appreciation of the contribution that Kierkegaard has made to the history of philosophy and existentialism. I know I have not said much about this in this post, but the School of Life video gives a good overview and I have included a few references below.

References

Carlisle, C. (2019) Philosopher of the Heart. The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard. Penguin.

Wikipedia has entries on both of Kierkegaard’s books, Fear and Trembling and Either/Or

Fear and Trembling Spark Notes Study Guide

Either/Or Spark Notes Study Guide

Ethics Explainer: Existentialism