The biographies of many philosophers rarely merit so much as a mention when explaining their work. This is usually as much due to their tediousness as their irrelevance. With Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), his biography is both significant and interesting.
Casting a long, dark shadow over his whole life was the presence of his father. This is a man who, as Kierkegaard recalls in his journal, “as a small boy tending sheep on the Jutland Heath, suffering many ills, famished and exhausted, stood up on a hill and cursed God! And that man was never able to forget it, not even at the age of 82.” Nor was Kierkegaard Jr able to forget it, as he inherited the religious fervour and guilt of his father. Before he was twenty-one, no fewer than four of his siblings and his mother had died, convincing Soren that God’s retributive curse had fallen on the whole family.
As a young man, Kierkegaard tried to throw oft this melancholy and he did indeed become known as quite a bon viveur in Copenhagen society. However, his journal revealed a darker, suicidal side: “I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; witty banter flowed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me – but I came away, indeed that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit wanting to shoot myself.”
Perhaps the most important event in his life was his broken engagement to Regine Olsen. This decision caused a great deal of anguish within him, and flimsily revealed references to this event can be found in many of his works, notably Either/or and Repetition. His explanation of the annulment was that married life was incompatible with his dedication to his vocation as a writer. As if to prove the point, over the ten years from 1843, Kierkegaard produced such a volume of work that one can hardly imagine how he had time to eat, let alone fulfil his conjugal duties.
It doesn’t require an analyst to see the connection between Kierkegaard’s life history and the production of books with titles like Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. But, thankfully, as well as being a depressive, Kierkegaard was also a thinker worthy of the accolade “genius”. Although his works are not presented systematically and analytically, no-one can deny that they contain a wealth of razor sharp intellectual insights.
At the core of his work is the rejection of systematised, logical thought as a definitive guide to life and meaning. His chief target here was Hegel, whose philosophical system was seen by many in the mid-nineteenth century as able to explain virtually everything. Hegel thought that wherever there appeared to be a contradiction, a thesis and antithesis, it would be possible to reach rational harmony by means of a synthesis between the two. What is irrational in the original two positions is thus eliminated and what is rational is preserved. But Kierkegaard argued that the “movement’ in the synthesis is not explained. If the synthesis is fully contained in the thesis and antithesis, then the synthesis is no real progression at all. If, on the other hand, there is something novel in the synthesis, then the movement is not strictly rational, as something new must have been introduced that was not contained in the original pairing.
Kierkegaard’s point is that no matter how rigorous your logical system, there will always be gaps. As these gaps are logical gaps, it is futile to try and bridge them. Instead, they can only be breached by a leap of faith. What characterises a leap of faith is the absolute uncertainty that underlies it. Faith is by definition that which cannot be proven or disproved. That is why a leap of faith is undertaken in ‘fear and trembling”.
In moral terms, that meant, for Kierkegaard at least, embracing the religious life. This was Kierkegaard’s third sphere of existence. The first was what he called the aesthetic, which was a life dedicated to the instant, perhaps best summed up in the phrase carpe diem – ‘seize the day’. The second was the ethical, where one tries to live in accordance with eternal values. For Kierkegaard, both are incomplete, in terms of rationality and of satisfying human needs. But, as we have seen, these gaps cannot be closed through a rational synthesis. Only Christianity, which paradoxically combined the temporal and the infinite in the God-man Jesus Christ, bridges this gap. But embracing Christianity requires leaving rationality behind and taking a bold leap of faith.
The existentialist movement of the early twentieth century was the natural heir to Kierkegaard’s thought. Philosophers like Sartre and Nietzsche also emphasised the limits of logic and personal choice. But as critics have complained, once this stance is taken, anything is justifiable. What seems to matter is not what you choose, but that you choose it freely.
Kierkegaard’s complex, poetic work, rewards careful reading. But perhaps at its core, the moral of Kierkegaard’s philosophy can be summed up in the single sentence of Kierkegaard scholar Michael Collins: “Human existence requires real ‘passion’ as well as thought.”