Kierkegaard’s Rebellion

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.

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