Around 1840, Niels Christian Kierkegaard began a sketch of his second cousin Søren. The face remains, like the portrait itself, unfinished. Though the sitter was already twenty-seven you would swear he was still an adolescent. The gaze is intense, the eyes innocent and preternaturally large. You can just glimpse the light sideburns he grew to cover his cheeks after the fashions of mid-nineteenth-century masculinity. But the mouth, held firm in conviction, betrays him: the lips are too delicate, sensuous, petulant. A year later he would cancel his engagement to Regine Olsen to begin a life of celibacy that would also mark the start of his philosophical career: “My engagement to her and the breaking of it,” he wrote, “is really my relationship to God.”
Kierkegaard is widely considered the most important religious thinker of the modern age. This is because he dramatized with special intensity the conflict between religion and secular reason, between private faith and the public world, and he went so far as to entertain the thought that a genuine reconciliation between them is impossible. Society, for Kierkegaard, is a place of leveling conventions, and the ethical principles that bind us together ignore the genuine self. It is faith alone, uncontaminated by public understanding, that distinguishes the authentic individual, and faith is something wholly interior, a leap into paradox.
At their limit such arguments suggest religious absolutism; they extol the believer even if his belief runs against all accepted codes of humanity. In reading Kierkegaard’s works one begins to fear that the individual whom he celebrated as “the knight of faith” too closely resembles that figure upon whom we have heaped so many of the anxieties of our own time: the religious fanatic.
But Kierkegaard’s thinking is more subtle than this. A lover of irony, he signed many of his works with pseudonyms: Vigilius Haufniensis (“Watchman of Copenhagen”), Johannes de Silentio, Anti-Climacus, and, perhaps best of all, Hilarius Bookbinder. Everyone in Copenhagen knew that Søren was the author of his works, but this did not deter him from giving his pseudonymous personae a further twist of the pen, at times adding to the title page of a book the scholarly note that it had been “edited by Søren Kierkegaard.”
But at other times he was deadly serious, a moralizing Lutheran who excoriated the high officials of the Danish reformed church and held forth obsessively on themes of faith, sin, and anxiety. Among his most famous works are bitter satires and invectives against bourgeois conformity that are interlaced with the same veins of explosive resentment that Dostoevsky would mine in his Notes from Underground (which was published less than a decade after Kierkegaard’s death in 1855).
No single line of inheritance connects Kierkegaard to our present day. One tradition bridges an unlikely divide, linking the pious Kierkegaard to the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. In the 1920s and 1930s philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre began to pluck from Kierkegaard’s writings the central themes of existential philosophy. Though they did not share his theism, they borrowed his image of the human being as incorrigibly mortal, condemned to a worldly existence bereft of all rational certainties. The French philosopher Jean Wahl assigned Kierkegaard a principal part in his Petite Histoire de l’existentialisme (1947): “The word ‘existence’ in the philosophical sense that it is used today,” Wahl declared, was originally “discovered by Kierkegaard.”
In histories of philosophy it is still commonplace to name Kierkegaard the founder of existentialism. But another legacy connects him to the rebellious movement known as “crisis theology,” associated chiefly with Karl Barth, the Swiss Reformed pastor whose Epistle to the Romans transformed the landscape of twentieth-century religious thought. It is not hard to see why Barth found instruction in Kierkegaard, whose writings meditate to an obsessive degree on the absolute chasm between God and humanity. For Kierkegaard, as for Barth, God remains “wholly other” and cannot be pressed into service for mundane causes.
But Kierkegaard was an unbending conservative, and the political consequences of his religious absolutism remain uncertain. His hatred of the mob, for instance, fosters a healthy skepticism toward political conformity but also a disabling contempt for the public good. A rather different line of influence connects him to illiberal critics of modern democracy such as Carl Schmitt, the Nazi legal theorist who cited the Dane as an authority when he claimed that the ultimate problems in politics require radical decision, not reasonable deliberation. The world of Kierkegaard scholarship is thick with complaints that he has been misunderstood and that he was in fact neither an arch-conservative nor an “irrationalist” (a standard charge). But the truth is that his influence spans ideologies of all kinds, and his legacy is contested only because its meanings overflow all boundaries of doctrine and argument.
The bicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth in 1813 has brought him surging back into view, with the publication of Joakim Garff’s monumental biography (first in Danish, 2000; English translation, 2005) and the no less lengthy Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard, along with a second work in Danish by Garff, Regines gåde: Historien om Kierkegaards forlovede og Schlegels hustru (Regine’s Mystery: The Story of Kierkegaard’s Fiancée and Schlegel’s Wife), also published in 2013.
Nor can we neglect Walter Lowrie’s A Short Life of Kierkegaard (reprinted by Princeton University Press for the bicentennial). First issued in 1938, the Lowrie biography still deserves to be read in its unabridged form, not least for its author’s unembarrassed prose. Lowrie, an Episcopalian clergyman schooled at Princeton Theological Seminary, was clearly besotted with Kierkegaard, whom he affectionately calls “S.K.,” a nickname scholars still use today. In his introduction Lowrie confesses: “S.K….spoke of a time when ‘my lover’ will come—and the reader will easily discern that this book was written by a lover.”
Daphne Hampson, the author of Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, is not a lover of Kierkegaard’s ideas. But perhaps for that reason she serves as a more trustworthy guide. A professor emerita at the University of St. Andrews and associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford, she holds two doctorates, in history from Oxford and in theology from Harvard, where, in her mid-twenties, she first encountered Kierkegaard in an independent study with the professor of divinity Richard Reinhold Niebuhr (nephew of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr). Though Hampson has spent much of her life with S.K. as an imagined companion, her book is less a work of appreciation than an exercise in stock-taking. Its structure is straightforward: each chapter addresses one of Kierkegaard’s major works, offering a careful reconstruction of a single one before turning to criticism.
The shift can be jarring. Hampson is a dutiful expositor and her summaries can be a bit dry when she keeps her opinions in check. But once she has departed from the task of exposition her critical voice is thoughtful and unconstrained by orthodoxy. Surely the explanation for this is, in part, the fact that Hampson does not share Kierkegaard’s beliefs. Although she favors some kind of “spirituality,” she rejects traditional monotheism, especially its patriarchal themes, and she considers the notion of a God who resides “outside” the world the remnant of a defunct metaphysics. In the preface, after she has listed her debts to teachers and colleagues she permits herself the unusual gesture of thanking S.K. himself:
My life would have been subtly different had I not encountered Kierkegaard. He has been a source of delight and edification with his insights and perspicacity. I am moved by his love of God, his sensitivity to others, and his sparkling wit.
But, she adds, Kierkegaard has also helped her to grasp “with greater clarity why I should not wish to be Christian.”
Hampson, like many lay scholars who read Kierkegaard, wishes to clarify with as much sympathy as possible what he meant to say. But on issues vital to his faith she clearly dissents, and she is willing to entertain the sorts of thoughts that Kierkgaard himself would have found intolerable.
Kierkegaard’s own devotion to his faith was unqualified. Although he was born into financial comfort, his father had arrived as a nearly destitute youth in the Danish metropolis of Copenhagen, and he brought with him a lingering nostalgia for the Moravian pietism that flourished in the Jutland countryside. Søren himself was schooled in the evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, but he was racked by doubt about whether its respectable teachings were genuinely Christian. During Denmark’s so-called Golden Age (the era that spans the first half of the nineteenth century from the nation’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars to the democratic revolutions of 1848), the country remained culturally divided between its enduring agricultural traditions and the relatively small but powerful aristocracy that clustered in the capital. Popular taste hugged the shores of convention, and the tales of Hans Christian Andersen typified the nation’s longing for rural virtues.
The prestige of the official church was personified by Jakob Peter Mynster, a prominent theologian who by 1834 had secured the lofty title of Bishop of Zealand and Primus. As a boy Kierkegaard was devoted to Mynster—in fact it was Mynster who performed his confirmation—but his father also brought him on occasion to gatherings of the Moravian Brethren. This deep split in Kierkegaard’s character is still visible in the 1840 portrait sketched by his cousin: the ardent defender of Christian simplicity can be found in the eyes of the young man who is, in all outward respects, a sophisticated son of the Copenhagen bourgeoisie.
That same year, at age twenty-seven, Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen. Garff informs us in his biography that Kierkegaard already realized the next day that he had made a mistake. But it took him until the following summer to annul the engagement, and when he returned his ring he gave the false excuse that he was just a young cad who needed a “lusty young girl” for excitement. He told himself that this was “a necessary cruelty” since it guaranteed that Regine would not continue to hope for a liaison with him, though it also meant that Kierkegaard himself would spend nights alone in tears. Regine went on to marry Johan Frederik Schlegel, a high official of the Danish West Indies; in 1860 she returned to Copenhagen where she helped to curate the legacy of her former fiancé, who had left her his entire inheritance.
One is tempted to read this sad tale of eros interrupted as a foreshadowing of Kierkegaard’s mature philosophy. Its plot—in which he betrayed bourgeois convention to achieve pious solitude—would resound in nearly all of his later works, though its echoes are loudest in Either/Or, a meditation on the conflict between romance and ethics, which he wrote at a feverish pace during a long winter in Berlin after the break with Regine. He also spent the time in Berlin attending lectures by Friedrich Schelling, one of the luminaries alongside Hegel in German Idealism (he considered the lectures a waste of time). He returned to Copenhagen with his manuscript complete, and its publication in the spring of 1843 scandalized Danish society and established his reputation, despite the fact that it appeared under a pseudonymous editor named “Victor Eremita” (Victorious Hermit).
Hampson does not devote a chapter to the book, which is a pity. The Marxist theoretician Georg Lukács suggested that Kierkegaard’s entire philosophy could be found in his separation from Regine. Either/Or is in fact a meditation on the conflict between two modes of existence, the hedonistic or aesthetic (as described in the “Diary of a Seducer”) and the ethical (in which one awakens to remorse and “holiness”). To the individual who must choose either one life or the other, Kierkegaard says, reason offers no guidance. But at the book’s conclusion we learn that neither path is right, for in prayer alone we find truth: “We gladly confess that in relation to [God] we are always in the wrong.”
In the same year Kierkegaard also published what surely remains his most famous work, Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric. It is here, hiding behind the pseudonym of “Johannes de Silentio,” that S.K. insists on the stark opposition between public obligation and private faith. The book offers a meditation on the “Akedah,” the biblical episode in which Abraham appears ready to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac in obedience to God’s command and is only prevented from doing so by divine intervention. If this book arouses controversy today it is partly because its author does not flinch from considering the most extreme implications of the biblical tale.
Kierkegaard grants that any reasonable person who wishes to follow social norms must condemn Abraham as a would-be murderer. But we are asked to consider the alternative possibility, that Abraham’s obedience signifies the genuine “paradox” of individual faith without which religion is impossible. From the observer’s point of view this faith must appear preposterous, and we are right to conclude that Abraham’s love of God is “incommensurable with the whole of actuality.”
But for Kierkegaard this is precisely the point: faith entails a paradox by which the individual cannot make himself understood and yet “the particular is higher than the universal.” Abraham embraces the impossible proposition that through sacrifice he will receive his son alive: “Only he who draws the knife gets [back] Isaac,” Kierkegaard wrote. It is commitment, heroic yet absurd, that distinguishes Abraham as a “knight of faith.”
In the nearly endless commentaries on the Akedah some have argued that God never meant for Abraham to go through with the sacrifice. The medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides was especially troubled by the proposal that God “tested” Abraham since this implied that God did not know the outcome of the test—a violation of the principle of divine foreknowledge. For Christians the unrealized sacrifice of Isaac has an important part in Old Testament prophecy since it was thought to prefigure the actual sacrifice of Jesus Christ. For Muslims Abraham’s faith is praiseworthy but they hasten to explain that it was not Isaac who was readied for sacrifice but Ishmael, ancestor to all who worship Allah.
Modern readings of the episode are no less varied. Many have followed Kierkegaard in praising Abraham’s devotion, though few have matched him in analytical intensity. But Hampson is troubled (and rightly so, I think) by a religious disposition that violates our common understandings of humanity. Appealing to feminist criticism, she sees in the God of Kierkegaard a distinctly patriarchal ideal of stern (even violent) authority.
The charge is familiar but it reflects our own cultural preconceptions of male and female conduct. Indeed, the notion that God has gender at all involves an unwarranted lapse into anthropomorphism. The abstract deity of the Protestant West is customarily called “God the Father,” but as a matter of philosophical principle it makes no more sense to imagine God as a conventional man (the strong, silent type) than it does to picture God with the attributes we conventionally assign to women.
More worrisome, in my view, is not Kierkegaard’s lapse into anthropomorphism but rather the opposite: his readiness to amplify the doctrine of Protestant abstraction to a limit where the divine exceeds all understanding. Kierkegaard’s God lies at such a great remove from everyday categories as to contravene our most fundamental and enduring norms of morality. When a parent believes he hears voices that command him to take a knife to his own child our proper response should be not praise for his piety but horror at his self-evident lunacy. Kierkegaard is of course aware that this is our customary belief. But he sees in Abraham’s conduct a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” which is to say, he entertains the thought that religion imposes a higher purpose on us than what ethical reasoning demands.
Here, as Hampson reminds us, Kierkegaard belongs to the tradition called “divine command theory.” God does not command an action because it is good; rather, an action is good only because God commands it. One can admire Kierkegaard for the candor with which he pursues this principle to its perverse conclusion. But it smacks of authoritarianism. If a parent hears such an obscene command we should extol him not if he falls in line but only if he disobeys. Resistance to barbarism, even when it is commanded by the highest of all authorities, is the true mark of the blessed.
There is a painting called The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio that hangs in the Uffizi, about which the philosopher J.M. Bernstein has recently written a telling commentary.* The look in Isaac’s eyes as Abraham holds the knife to his throat bespeaks not just terror but protest. Though he wishes to be an obliging son, he cannot assent to what his father is determined to do. His resistance is visceral, the cry of a human animal whose desire to live calls into question any ennobling ideas of divine obligation. For Bernstein, the painting is an allegory for the birth of secular consciousness: it expresses a dawning awareness that if faith demands barbarism, then it is faith that must yield. But Kierkegaard’s argument runs in precisely the other direction: when faith and humanity conflict, faith supervenes. He is most blessed who persists in his piety even if he has made himself utterly unintelligible to those around him.
Such arguments run through many of Kierkegaard’s most celebrated works, which ruminate on the chasm between God and humanity, between the individual and the collective. It is not surprising that Kierkegaard therefore despised Hegel, because it is Hegel most of all who developed the idea that individual consciousness cannot exist in the way Kierkegaard supposed. During Kierkegaard’s lifetime Hegel’s philosophy had gained prestige in Denmark thanks to the promotional efforts of Hans Lassen Martensen, the court preacher who succeeded Mynster as bishop upon the latter’s death in 1854, and who Kierkegaard saw as the embodiment of everything that was rotten in Denmark. In 1846, he published his most sustained assault on Hegel in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, a title that, like many others, was deeply ironic, since in this case the “postscript” was a great deal longer than the “fragments” (literally, “crumbs”) that Kierkegaard had published before.
Kierkegaard’s antipathies toward Hegel are due chiefly to the German philosopher’s confidence in reason as the medium of universal reconciliation. Both philosophers recognized that modern life was increasingly beset with tensions—between individual and community, freedom and necessity, science and faith. But where Kierkegaard saw contradiction, Hegel saw the possibility for rational development. Reason, he argued, is a kind of agency, or “Spirit” (Geist) that strives to manifest itself in the world.
The trial of self-realization has a dialectical pattern: reason overcomes its own imperfection, much as a student must confront occasional difficulties in learning but eventually through her struggles gains in both maturity and insight. Politically, the dialectic meant the emergence of constitutional government and the perfection of a society in which no individual remains unfree. A fully modern society for Hegel was therefore a fully rational one, and—this is the crucial point—rationality was therefore a quality shared in common by all individuals. In a rational world the individual would no longer feel any contradiction between subjective interest and the public good. The Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard calls this theme “the sociality of reason.”
In the early nineteenth century many students of theology looked to Hegel as a guide for understanding the social and historical character of religion. Among them were radicals such as David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, who concluded that religion was a human creation and lacked metaphysical reality. The Hegelian critique of religion dissolved into anthropology: the modern celebration of human qualities.
But some students of the dialectic felt differently. Without contesting its metaphysical truth, they felt the Christian religion should transform both self and society, binding the pious individual to public reason for the betterment of modern civilization. It was this project that Martensen found appealing, and Kierkegaard deplored. To “go beyond” the Christian faith, Kierkegaard feared, would not enhance its reality; it would only sacrifice its inner truth for the sake of outer decorum. Christianity’s truth would vanish into mere Christendom. As Hampson explains, “Hegelian religion à la Martensen [was] only too at home in the world.”
In his own system Hegel consigned the desire to remain “outside” of society to a lower stage in the dialectic that he called “the unhappy consciousness.” For Kierkegaard, however, the sociality of reason is a kind of totalitarianism; it will not tolerate any kind of difference within its domain. (The charge that reason itself is therefore “intolerant” inspired an unlikely revival of interest in Kierkegaard among poststructuralists such as Jacques Derrida, who often understate the ease with which Kierkegaard contests reason’s authority only to submit to an authority that is far more absolute.)
Still, one can appreciate why readers across the ages would find his criticism sympathetic. His protest against the worldly power of the Danish evangelical church ranks him in a long line of reformers spanning the millennia from Luther back to Jesus Christ (the thorns in the side of priestly authority) and Hebrew prophets such as Amos and Isaiah. Nor are the comparisons confined to religion. Kierkegaard often writes of Socrates as an ironist and gadfly who isolated himself “above every relationship.”
A complicating factor is that Kierkegaard was hardly a critic of authority. With the coming of revolution in 1848 the feudal system in Denmark was destroyed and in its stead the national liberals laid the foundation for a constitutional order that would outlast any of the other midcentury revolutions across Western Europe. The franchise was not universal and the monarchy was not wholly abolished; but for the first time most laborers could vote. Kierkegaard, however, considered the revolution a “catastrophe.” What he loathed most of all was the fact that the Danish church was ready to reconcile itself to the new situation. It had (in Hampson’s phrase) “baptized the world,” leaving all essentially unchanged. The dissoluteness of brothels remained the same, Kierkegaard wrote, only “they have become ‘Christian’ brothels.”
Hampson explores such criticism without undue censure. At stake, she writes, was a basic question regarding the place of religion in modern society:
Should there be a broad state church, a spiritual home for the Danish people, which could provide a focus for the nation in times of crisis or rejoicing, able also to offer guidance and comfort to individuals whether or not they normally attended Christian services, a place where they might negotiate life’s transitions. Or by contrast should there be…a “confessing church,” standing for defined and stringent Christian beliefs, based on a certain reading of the New Testament, its members apparently ready…for “martyrdom”?
The question is still with us today, and not only for Christianity but for all faiths that confront a choice between solitude and society, individual purity and the comforts of belonging. But there is a deep irony in Kierkegaard’s rebellion. Although he imagined himself a critic of modern convention, his individualist bid to wrest himself free of social constraint was a highly modern ideal. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has explained, in the secular age even those who cleave to a conventional faith conceive of their religion as one option among many: it is something an individual must will to have and no longer something one is merely given as an artifact of collective history. The age of religious reform was but one stage in the historical process that Taylor calls the “disembedding” of the self from shared traditions of meaning.
Ironically, the desire to stand as an authentic individual beyond all such traditions is the greatest conceit of the bourgeois era and Kierkegaard was in this respect far more conformist than he cared to admit. And yet none of us wishes wholly to surrender this desire for authenticity since it is also the very sign of possibility itself, the hope that life might be otherwise than it is. To abandon this hope is to give up on possibility altogether. Against all the forces that counsel resignation Kierkegaard remains not just the knight of faith but something more: the eternal child.
J.M. Bernstein, “Forgetting Isaac: Faith and the Philosophical Impossibility of a Postsecular Society,” in Habermas and Religion, edited by Craig Calhoun, Eduardo Mendierta, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (Polity, 2013), pp. 154–178. ↩