Soren Kierkegaard was an extremely prolific 19th century Christian philosopher and writer with scores of publications to his name. His thinking was intensely and passionately focused on deeply existential themes and he is generally considered to be the father of existentialism. In fact, much of Kierkegaard’s thought, although stripped of its religious dimension, finds its way into the writings of Sartre and Heidegger, the two philosophers who stand at the heart of existentialism.
Kierkegaard published many of his works under pseudonyms. The reason for this was that it allowed him to dissociate himself from the views of the authors in the readers’ minds. This allowed Kierkegaard to appeal to a wider audience. One example of this is the pseudonymous, and unnamed, author of the first half of Either/Or, who represents the archetypal aesthete, only concerned with the immediate and the sensual. Kierkegaard’s aim in all of his works was to bring his readers to an understanding and appreciation of the religious sphere of existence, which for him meant Christianity, but he recognised that the method needed to accomplish this would vary depending on the audience. Having pseudonymous authors write in his stead allowed him to spread his influence further afield than if he had merely written as a ‘preachy’ Christian.
Note: The following outline is centred on only three of Kierkegaard’s books (the only ones I have currently read); Either/Or, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death and as such is not intended to be an exhaustive account of his thought, more a work in progress...
Either/Or = E/O
Fear and Trembling = FT
The Sickness unto Death = SuD
Three Spheres of Existence
Kierkegaard emphasised three spheres one could live one’s life within; the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthetic is concerned with the immediate, worldly pleasure, the beautiful and the sensual. This is the lowest of the three. The ethical is concerned with good and evil and the universal. The religious deals with faith and represents the highest ideal of humanity.
The Aesthetic and The Ethical
E/O gives a thorough accounting of these two spheres but what is interesting about them is that Vilhelm (the ethicist) argues that the ethical doesn’t replace the aesthetic, rather, it encompasses it in a higher unity, completing it.
It is worth taking a little more time to explore the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical as it is expounded in E/O. Many people think that the either/or choice Kierkegaard is proffering here is a choice between either the ethical or the aesthetic. This is not true. The absolute either/or choice is the one where one chooses to live one’s life either in the category of the ethical (which means subject to good and evil) or outside that category. It is this decision, prior to any relative choice between aesthetics or ethics, that is the fundamental ethical choice. In this way, if one chooses oneself ethically, in an absolute sense, then when one subsequently chooses an aesthetic or an ethical life-view, this relative choice already lies within the ethical purview and is therefore of a completely different nature than if the absolute either/or choice had not been made.
The aesthetic is defined as living in such a way that “[a person] is immediately what [he or she] is”. It is a shallow and worldly outlook on life that revels in shallow and worldly pleasures, characterised by the immediate (which doesn’t mean in an instant, but that meaning and relevance only arise in the present). For the aesthete, there is no time but the present. In contrast to this, the ethical is defined as living in such a way that “[one] becomes what [one] becomes”. In the aesthetic one comes to be something, for sure, but one comes to be that something immediately. In the ethical, one comes to be what one is through the absolute choice mentioned above which prefigures all subsequent choices and bestows on them an absolute, eternal quality (a quality of ‘becoming’).
Another key difference between the aesthetic and the ethical is that the latter is the universal while the former is the concrete. The aesthetic deals with particular things, this person, this painting, etc., and looks no further. The ethical, however, deals with abstract concepts, good, evil, humanity, etc.
The goal for the ethical individual is to lift herself up and make herself the universal, to live in the rarefied realm of universal concepts. But this can only be realised by her expressing her (particular, concrete) life in the universal; not by getting rid of it altogether, but by permeating it with the universal. This is one way the ethical ‘extends’ the aesthetic rather than abolishing it and can be demonstrated in marriage. The ethical tells us we should marry (the universal concept) but it has nothing to say about whom we should marry (the concrete particular). The former requires ethical understanding while the latter requires a familiarity with the aesthetic characteristics of the individuals.
In this realm, faith is the key expression and is embodied in the “knight of faith” of FT. In this work, Kierkegaard describes faith as a “movement” which an individual makes (the second of two) that allows her to find joy and carries her beyond her absolute relation with the universal (ethical) and into an absolute relation with God.
Faith is the second movement. The first is infinite resignation (FT), which gets a fuller treatment under the name of despair in SuD. I will look at despair later. For now, we might just note that despair is an existential malady that almost everyone is afflicted with and, more importantly for Kierkegaard, is a necessary precursor for faith.
So, I am in despair for one of (ostensibly) any number of reasons. The common denominator is that something has gone wrong, an “imbalance”, that has no solution. This is where faith comes in. Faith describes the situation in which one believes in the impossible solution on the strength of the absurd.
So, there are a couple of things to dissect there. First, faith for Kierkegaard is definitely not some idle speculation or casual belief held against evidence to the contrary. It is a serious, deeply personal undertaking in which one affirms one’s relation with God. The second thing there is the absurd. The absurd does not mean the improbable or unexpected. It is a spiritual term which gets its mileage from paradox. The individual who has faith believes that his or her despair can and will be resolved even though that resolution is, humanly speaking, literally impossible. She believes it even though it is absurd.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy can, in general, be described as a rallying against the philosophy of Hegel. Hegel’s so-called “System” de-emphasises the individual in favour of the universal. He saw everything in terms of a ‘big picture’ in which individual human beings virtually disappear. Human intellect is reason and reason is universal. Particular minds are therefore simply aspects of a universal Mind. Freedom for the individual then involved becoming aware of the rational and universal nature of one’s mind.
Kierkegaard acknowledges Hegel’s system in his ethical realm, but even there we saw how the ethical (universal) alone, being abstract, was empty and needed concrete individuals in order to express itself. With the religious, he goes a step further saying that in faith one stands before God as an individual and this is a movement that one must make alone. This is what makes the ‘leap’ to this realm of existence terrifying, something one must undertake with ‘fear and trembling’. Note that Kierkegaard is not saying we must traverse this path alone because it builds character or is good for us. Rather, there is no other way to have faith. Faith is precisely an individual’s relation to God, predicated on the strength of the absurd and, by definition, the absurd can only have meaning for the individual. It cannot be explained, it cannot be taught, it can only be lived.
Kierkegaard gives a quite detailed account of the self in the opening chapter of SuD. The self (also called ‘spirit’), he holds to be a “relation which relates to itself”. It is important to note at the outset that the self is not the actual relation, but the relation’s relating to itself. This might seem like metaphysical, ethereal mumbo-jumbo to any materialist reading this, and it struck me that way at first too, but if you think about it, what kind of definition do you expect for a non-physical ‘thing’ like the self?
So what is it a relation between? Kierkegaard mentions three dialectical aspects that make up the self; the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal, and freedom and necessity. He goes on to use soul and body as the dialectical poles between which the relation of the self is formed, so perhaps we should think of the infinite, eternal and freedom coming together under ‘soul’ while the finite, temporal and necessity make up ‘body’.
So, the spirit is the relation between soul and body (under three aspects) relating to itself. This means that the self is not a static, fixed thing, a noun, so to speak. It appears to be more like a process, or a verb, and that is, in fact, how Kierkegaard later describes it, as a becoming. Again, suspicious language for someone with a scientific outlook, but once more, what kind of language would you prefer to use to describe something like the self? There is a sense here that the self is unable to stop moving and in that movement it is precisely relating… to itself.
But Kierkegaard doesn’t stop there. The self is not self-creating. Something, outside itself, has established it. Each self stands in direct relation to that something, which turns out to be God. This gives the final definition of the self as that relation which “in relating to itself… is grounded transparently in the power that established it.”
Despair, despite what the despairer may think, is always concerned with the self, specifically in that it wants to get rid of the self.
There are a couple of ways to think about despair. The first is as an imbalance in that relation which relates to itself (self/spirit). This imbalance can manifest in a number of different ways related to those three aspects of the self we looked at above; a preponderance of infinitude over finitude, for example, in which one loses one’s grounding and gets swept away in the fantastic, or when necessity prevails over possibility and one becomes a fatalist or determinist.
The other way, which Kierkegaard (or at least Anti-Climacus) prefers to look at despair, is through consciousness. One can be unconscious or conscious of one’s despair. In the former, the individual has absolutely no conception of himself as spirit and lives a life confined to the categories of mere sensation. The latter can be further divided into two sub-categories; in despair not wanting to be oneself and wanting in despair to be oneself.
In despair not wanting to be oneself is typically externally driven, such as when something bad happens or something good doesn’t happen but it can also be inwardly driven through a realisation of the self’s weaknesses, for example. Either way, no matter what it appears to be caused by, Kierkegaard says the despair is really dissatisfaction with the self and a corresponding desire to get rid of the self that it is. For example, you may be in despair because you wanted to marry a particular person but he or she married someone else, instead. You think your despair is over that worldly fact, but actually, since despair is always over the self, you despair because the self you are is not the self you wish it was; in other words, you want to get rid of your self.
The other category of despair; wanting to be oneself, paradoxically sounds like a good thing. The problem is not that one wants to be oneself (that is a good thing), the problem is wanting in despair to be oneself. So it’s more to do with how one wants to be oneself that determines whether this is a good or bad thing. What makes this despair is that the self wants to be itself as an abstract possibility and is therefore lacks any relation to the power which established it; i.e. God. It wants to be its own creator, rejecting the limits, necessities, aptitudes, predispositions, etc. inherent in any concrete set of circumstances. This second category of despair is always reducible to the first and so despair is ultimately always a wanting to get rid of the self one is.
There is one more point to make regarding despair. Although it is pure misery for the despairer, despair is positive in the sense that one must go through it in order to get to faith. Kierkegaard even says that the capacity to despair is what separates us from the lower animals. It may seem overly negative to suppose that one must despair before having faith but the reason for this is that despair throws us before something we are powerless to change, that is even impossible to change, and we saw that this circumstance opens the door to faith by allowing the individual to have faith on the strength of the absurd. Without the impossibility revealed in despair, there cannot be any absurd and if there’s no absurd, there is no need for faith.
Sin is despair with one difference; it is despair before God. This means that sin must be conscious despair. There can be no sin if one does not know that one is despairing before God. The result of this is that genuine sin is extremely rare in the world. Obviously atheists can’t sin since they don’t believe in God but since most people, even Christians, are ignorant of the fact that they are in despair in the first place, they aren’t consciously in despair and so can’t be in conscious despair before God, ergo, they cannot sin.
Kierkegaard has another curious point to make here; most of us are living our lives in a continuous state of sin. Most people think they sin only when they actually commit a sin. The rest of the time they imagine that they are perhaps in a neutral state regarding sin. This is not true for Kierkegaard. Our lives are a continuous whole, not a blank slate punctuated by sinful or faithful acts. Few of us realise this though because few of us live conscious lives. Rather, we are fully conscious of ourselves as spirit only at rare moments.
Our lives are in a continuous state of sin because every moment a sin is not repented that state of sin increases. Simply being in a state of sin is worse than committing a new sin. We must remember that individual sins don’t put one in a state of sin; being in despair before God is already to be in a state of sin. Individual sins simply keep the momentum going in that direction.
What is the opposite of sin? Virtue? Kierkegaard disagrees. This is a pagan conception that is ignorant of the true nature of sin and therefore fails to compare itself to anything more than a human standard. When sin is properly understood, it becomes clear that its opposite is actually faith. This is one of the central understandings that Christianity is built upon.
Reaction to his Contemporaries
As was already noted, Kierkegaard was writing very much in opposition to Hegelian philosophy, which had shunted the individual to the side and couldn’t see anything more than universal, abstract absolute. Kierkegaard saw all of philosophy in this light (at that time Hegel pretty much was philosophy) and so he set himself up as being directly against “speculative thought” (philosophy) but we shouldn’t be misled by this. He was as much a philosopher as Hegel; he just had different opinions.
Kierkegaard’s relation to the State Church and contemporary Christianity was almost the same as his relation to philosophy but instead of setting himself up against ‘Christianity’, he saw himself as representing true Christianity and referred to the ‘fake’ or distorted Christianity he opposed as “Christendom”. One central complaint Kierkegaard makes is that many of the original teachings of Christianity have been watered down or distorted in order to make them more palatable in an age where hard spiritual truths have become unfashionable. Imagine what he would think today where many ‘Christians’ ‘believe’ in Christianity but if you press them on the Garden of Eden, the virgin birth, Christ as God-man or even the existence of God at all, you often get half-hearted equivocations, with some even arguing that we have to believe in Christianity just so we have a grounding for our morality. Welcome to the era of instrumental Christianity. Kierkegaard would have a fit.