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Creator / Søren Kierkegaard

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A sketch by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard

"Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that it must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more one concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward."
Søren Kierkegaard, Journals

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a Danish writer, philosopher, Lutheran theologian, and social critic. He is largely considered to be the first existentialist, years before the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, and has both religious and secular admirers. He wrote a multitude of works on the Christian religion, morality, psychology, and society using irony, metaphors, parables, and pseudonyms.

He was born in Copenhagen on 5 May 1813 to parents well into middle age; Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard was 57, and his mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund Kierkegaard, was 45. His family was plagued by instability, to the point of believing that his family was cursed. For example, only two of their seven children, Søren and his brother Peter, would live past age thirty-four. His father was very influential to him, and he inherited his Lutheran Pietism, his intellectual gifts, and even his melancholy. He then enrolled at the University of Copenhagen to study theology, philosophy, and literature.

In 1840, he was briefly engaged to Regine Olsen, a woman whom he was attracted to for a little over a year, but he broke off the engagement, partly because he thought being a husband would interfere with his vocation for being a writer and partly because he could not overcome his melancholy and felt unable to speak with Regine about its causes. He never fully recovered from this decision and remained smitten with her for the rest of his life.

Shortly after breaking off the engagement, he turned to writing, producing more than thirty works in twelve years. Kierkegaard's authorship came in two forms. In one form, he wrote using pseudonyms and indirect communication to explore viewpoints that are not his own, intending to help the reader see the false ultimates by which people live their lives. One of these pseudonymous works is Fear and Trembling, in which he, as Johannes de Silentio, comments on the story of Abraham and Isaac. His other form of authorship involves a series of discourses showing the reader the Christian ideal; Kierkegaard wrote these works under his own name.

His writing career took an unexpected twist when, in 1845, The Corsair, a satirical magazine, published a biting review of one of his works, Stages on Life's Way. The review turned Kierkegaard into a laughingstock, and he got into a nasty feud with the paper. At one point, he dared the paper to satirize him. The paper was more than happy to oblige.

His feud with The Corsair embittered Kierkegaard, but it affirmed his assertion that Christianity and "the crowd" are in conflict. This prompted him to write a series of polemics attacking "Christendom", his term for Christianity as a sociopolitical entity that made its adherents nominally Christian, but at the cost of knowing what it means to be a Christian; the Danish Church was his target.

His unrelenting assault on the Danish Church proved too taxing for his health and for his finances. He fainted in the streets of Copenhagen on 2 October 1855 and was subsequently hospitalized. He died on 11 November 1855 and was interred in the Assistens Kirkegård in the Nørrebro section of Copenhagen. At Kierkegaard's funeral, his nephew Henrik Lund rudely interrupted it by quoting Revelation 3:15-16.

Major Works:Kierkegaard was an incredibly prolific writer, writing several of his works using pseudonyms.

  • From the Papers of One Still Living (1838): One of his earliest writings. Here, he writes a scathing review of Hans Christian Andersen's novel Only a Fiddler.
  • The Concept of Irony (1841): Kierkegaard's doctoral thesis in which he examines irony, using Socrates as an example.
  • Either/Or (1843): Kierkegaard sees this work as the beginning of his authorship proper. He published this work under the pseudonymous editorship of Victor Eremita. In this work, he explores the "aesthetic life", which rests on the principle of pursuing physical and intellectual pleasures and minimizing pain; and the "ethical life", which rests on the principle of doing what is right for its own sake.
  • Fear and Trembling (1843): Perhaps Kierkegaard's most famous work. He wrote this work under the name Johannes de Silentio. He explores the nature of faith as exemplified by Abraham in the story of Abraham and Isaac.
  • Repetition (1843): Written under the repetitive pseudonym Constantin Constantius. It's a philosophical novel about Constantin and his patient, known only as the Young Man.
  • Philosophical Fragments (1844): Written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus. Here, Climacus contrasts the paradoxes of Christianity with Greek and modern philosophical thinking. He explores the implications of venturing beyond the Socratic understanding of truth acquired through recollection to the Christian experience of acquiring truth through grace.
  • The Concept of Anxiety (1844): Written under the pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis. Haufniensis explores the nature and forms of anxiety, through which the self becomes aware of its dialectical relation between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal.
  • Prefaces and Writing Sampler (1844): These two works serve as a satirical social commentary of 19th century Copenhagen. Prefaces was written under the name Nicolaus Notabene and consists of ironic prefaces without a book to follow them. Writing Sampler, which was written under the name A.B.C.D.E.F. Godthaab, emphasises the satire in Prefaces and was intended to be its sequel.
  • Stages On Life's Way (1845): Published under the name Hilarius Bookbinder and considered to be the sequel to Either/Or. Here, it explores the three stages of existence: the previously mentioned aesthetic and ethical stages and the "religious stage", governed by obedience to God.
  • Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846): The sequel to Philosophical Fragments and also written under the name Johannes Climacus. It is an attack on the philosophy of German Idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and explores subjectivity, truth, paradoxes, and how Christianity differs from the religious sphere. He saw this work as the end of his first authorship.
  • Two Ages (1846): A review of the novel Two Ages, which contrasts the mentality of the age of the French Revolution with that of the subsequent epoch of rationalism. Kierkegaard discusses herd mentality in the modern era. This work, he wrote under his own name.
  • Works of Love (1847): A work that examines different forms and sources of love, namely Christian love compared with erotic love and preferential love. This is another work he wrote under his own name.
  • The Book on Adler (1847): This is a work written around 1846-1847 and was posthumously published in 1872. It is partly about an Adolph Peter Adler, a Lutheran pastor who claimed to have received a revelation and was later dismissed from pastoral duties. However, it is primarily on authority and how it relates to Adler's situation.
  • The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress (1848): An essay he anonymously published on Danish actress Joanne Luise Heiberg. He wrote it to show that it is okay for a religious author to write on and appreciate the aesthetic from time to time.
  • The Point of View for My Work as an Author (1848): This work was written in 1848, published in part in 1851, and published in full posthumously in 1859. Kierkegaard gives an autobiographical account of his use of his many pseudonyms.
  • The Sickness Unto Death (1849): Published under the pseudonym Anti-Climacusnote . This work marks the beginning of his second authorship and serves as a companion piece to The Concept of Anxiety. This work focuses on despair, which is a deeper expression of anxiety, especially when relating the finite and the infinite.
  • Practice in Christianity (1850): Also published under the name Anti-Climacus. Kierkegaard considers this book to be "the most perfect and truest thing". In this work, he reflects on Christian ideality and the importance of imitating, not merely admiring, Christ. It could also be seen as the beginning of his attack on "Christendom". It is also the last work he published under a pseudonym.
  • For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself! (1851): Two of Kierkegaard's more accessible works, meant as a critique of the established order. He requested that these works be read aloud. Judge for Yourself! was published posthumously 1876.
  • The Moment, What Christ Judges of Official Christianity, and The Changelessness of God (1855): Pamphlets from a collection of writings better known as Attack Upon "Christendom". After a three-year silence, Kierkegaard wrote those pamphlets attacking the Danish Church, which he calls "Christendom", for making its members "officially" Christian without them knowing what it means to actually be Christian. He also wrote some articles in the newspaper Fædrelandet addressing this topic.

Kierkegaard also wrote a series of Christian discourses in between his philosophical works, published under his own name. In these discourses, he shows the reader what it means to be a Christian and expounds on its ideals.

Tropes relating to Kierkegaard's works:

  • Above Good and Evil: "Good and evil" in this case referring to "social morality" or mores. Fear and Trembling explores this with Johannes de Silentio's "teleological suspension of the ethical". Roughly speaking, it teaches that a person has an absolute duty to God and that obedience to Him is higher than obeying secular ideas of good and evil, or "social morality". Normally, there is usually overlap between social morality and obedience to God, but there are times when God's commands and social morality clash. If the person recognizes this conflict but, knowing he has an absolute duty to God, chooses to obey God's command anyway, then he suspends obedience to social morality, at least for this one instance, and thus "teleologically suspends the ethical". To apply this to Abraham and Isaac's story, Abraham knows that it is wrong to kill an innocent, let alone his beloved son. However, he also recognizes he has a higher duty to obey God's commands. As he could not give an intelligible ethical justification for the act in terms of social norms, Abraham simply chooses to obey God's command.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: He tends to fall victim to this even in his lifetime, as people would attribute a quote from a pseudonym to Kierkegaard himself. He wrote The Point of View for My Work as an Author in an attempt to defy this trope, and expresses it here in one of his journal entries.
    "The pseudonymous writers are poetized personalities, poetically maintained so that everything they say is in character with their poetized individualities; sometimes I have carefully explained in a signed preface my own interpretation of what the pseudonym said. Anyone with just a fragment of common sense will perceive that it would be ludicrously confusing to attribute to me everything the poetized personalities say."
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: At one point in his feud with The Corsair, Kierkegaard dared the editors to mock him. They were more than happy to oblige.
  • Be Yourself: One of the principal tenets of his philosophy.
  • Book Ends: Kierkegaard's career as an author began and ended on a polemical note. One of his earliest writings was a scathing review of Hans Christian Andersen's Only a Fiddler. His last writings were strident attacks on the Danish Church.
  • Crisis of Faith: Kierkegaard wrote in his journals that when his father was a young boy, he climbed the mountains and cursed God for letting him suffer. Soon after, he lived a life of fortune, but with this fortune came a tremendous burden of guilt for cursing God. He also wrote that the biggest danger in bringing up a child is not for the father or catechist to be an unorthodox Christian or even a hypocrite, but rather a genuine, pious Christian with profound anguish in his soul, for which not even his piety can gain peace. Should the child notice this, the child would go through this and be convinced that God is not infinite love after all.
    "What is most dangerous is not for the father or the person bringing up the child to be a freethinker or even for him to be a hypocrite. No, what is dangerous is for him to be a pious and God-fearing man, for the child to be deeply and profoundly certain of this and yet nonetheless to notice a profound disquiet concealed in his father’s soul, for which not even the fear of God and piety can gain peace. The danger lies precisely in the circumstance that in this situation the child is prompted to draw a conclusion concerning God, almost to the effect that God is not, indeed, the infinitely loving being."
  • Corrupt Church: Kierkegaard saw the Danish Church as a source of lukewarmness and mediocrity. His mission has always been to "introduce Christianity into Christendom", but he was more indirect in his writings early in his career. By 1855, Kierkegaard became completely transparent about his grievances with the Danish Church and attacked it directly.
  • Culturally Religious: Kierkegaard's biggest problem with "Christendom". That is, "Christendom" makes a culture with all the trappings of the Christian faith, but with little, if anything, that shows any genuine devotional spirit. He saw his entire literary career as a mission to "introduce Christianity into Christendom".
  • Decon-Recon Switch: One of Kierkegaard's motives for writing his works that are more critical of "Christendom", as he sought to "introduce Christianity into Christendom". He wanted to show that being a Christian is not merely a matter of getting church doctrine down, but rather an individual passion that should be renewed by repeated avowals of faith. He stated that the Christian should imitate Jesus, not merely admire Him.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Kierkegaard uses this as a framing device in Either/Or. There are actually two different layers to the framing device. An editor claims to have found works from two different authors that represent two different views on life, while one of the authors claims within their section to have found writings from another man (known as Johannes the Seducer). The author claims the Seducer's writings relate a true narrative about taking their shared viewpoint to the morally depraved Logical Extreme. It's a somewhat common interpretation that the writer and the Seducer are the same person.
  • Existentialism: Kierkegaard is considered the Ur-Example, as his writings explored themes often associated with existentialism, such as authenticity, freedom, responsibility, death, anxiety, despair, and herd mentality. However, he tended to see himself more as a Christian missionary in Christendom, and his writings just happened to explore the themes that would be associated with existentialism.
  • Intentional Heartbreaker: Kierkegaard has a character in Either/Or known as "Johannes the Seducer", a man who seduces a woman named Cordelia so he can encourage her to break the relationship. Notably, this is considered so morally bankrupt that two different pseudonyms, the book's "editor" and the section's writer (himself only loosely caring about morality), both take time to disavow the Seducer.
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: Fear and Trembling, in which he discusses Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac as an instance of a "teleological suspension of the ethical", popularly known as the "leap of faith", is perhaps one of Kierkegaard's most famous works. Kierkegaard himself thought that Practice in Christianity, a work that stressed the importance of imitating Christ and a work that is seen as the beginning of his criticisms of the Danish Church, was his greatest work.
  • Not So Above It All: Kierkegaard wrote The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress. He wanted to show it is okay for a religious author to have some fun from time to time. He writes in one of his journals:
    "The world is indeed so weak that, when it believes that a person who proclaims the religious is incapable of the aesthetic, it overlooks the religious."
  • Painting the Medium: This is generally the reason for Kierkegaard's use of pen names. The pseudonyms often express limited views, hinting that the audience needs to look beyond the writing itself to truly understand. This means that although Kierkegaard was a philosopher and an existentialist, his writings are much more literary than might be expected. For example, one popular interpretation of Either/Or is that the reader is not supposed to agree with either the aesthetic or the ethical viewpoint, but rather recognise that both are limited and begin to move towards a third sphere, the religious sphere.
  • Pen Name:
    • Kierkegaard wrote a number of works using multiple pseudonyms to explore different viewpoints. He had twenty-seven pseudonyms, of which he used nineteen. Some prominent examples include Johannes de Silentio (Fear and Trembling), Johannes Climacus (Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript), Constantin Constantius (Repetition), and Anti-Climacus (The Sickness Unto Death, Practice in Christianity). In addition to his pseudonymous works, he published a number of works under his own name, meaning that Kierkegaard is speaking as himself there. His Christian discourses, his pamphlets against Christendom, and Works of Love are some notable examples. Either/Or takes this trope up to eleven. There are five different pseudonyms: Victor Eremita, the editor; 'A', an aesthete and the author of the "Either" section; the Judge, a proponent of the ethical view and the author of the "Or" section; the Seducer/"Johannes the Seducer", an aesthete who seduces and then discards "young girls", sometimes interpreted as a pen name for 'A'; and the Priest, a Sixth Ranger whose sermon on religion is included in the Judge's letters.
    • People tend to quote his pseudonyms and misattribute their quotes to Kierkegaard himself, even in his lifetime. This frustrated him, so he wrote The Point of View for My Work as an Author to clarify this. He says in one of his journals:
      "It is easy to see that anyone wanting to have a literary lark merely needs to take some quotations higgedly-piggedly from "The Seducer," then from Johannes Climacus, then from me, etc., print them together as if they were all my words, show how they contradict each other, and create a very chaotic impression, as if the author were some kind of lunatic. Hurrah! That can be done. In my opinion anyone who exploits the poetic in me by quoting the writings in a confusing way is more or less either a charlatan or a literary toper."
  • Philosophical Parable: Kierkegaard used these extensively throughout his career as a writer.
  • Plato Is a Moron: Kierkegaard was a very staunch critic of a lot of ideas proposed by Hegel, and his thoughts on him can be summed up as follows:
    "If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought in which he had even begged the question in many places, then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic."
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Despite his grievances with the Church of Denmark, Kierkegaard was a devout Lutheran throughout his life. His faith is essential to understanding his writings, as his primary mission was to "introduce Christianity into Christendom".
  • Referenced by...: Hark! A Vagrant: In "A Book By its Gorey Cover, Pt 2" Kate Beaton has fun with Gorey's apparent complete unfamiliarity with Kierkegaard's work (she likes lampooning his covers because of the overdone illustrations, while his illustration for a compilation of Kierkegaard's work is just Kierke-Gaard in giant letters taking up the whole cover) by having Kierkegaard falling on the unsuspecting illustrator.
  • Repetitive Name: Constantin Constantius to mirror the theme of Repetition.
  • Short-Lived, Big Impact: Kierkegaard's life was relatively short, dying at the age of 42. He did, however, leave a huge corpus and became one of the leading figures of Existentialism.
  • True Art Is Angsty: Expressed in-universe in Either/Or by "A", an aesthete and the author of the "Either" section:
    "What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music. It is with him as with the poor wretches in Phalaris's bronze bull, who were slowly tortured over a slow fire; their screams could not reach the tyrant's ears to terrify him; to him they sounded like sweet music. And people crowd around the poet and say to him, 'Sing again soon'—in other words, may new sufferings torture your soul, and may your lips continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming. And the reviewers step up and say, 'That is right; so it must be according to the rules of esthetics.' Now of course a reviewer resembles a poet to a hair, except that he does not have the anguish in his heart, or the music on his lips. Therefore, I would rather be a swineherd out on Amager and be understood by swine than be a poet and be misunderstood by people."
  • Übermensch: Johannes de Silentio's knight of faith in Fear and Trembling serves as the Ur-Example, predating Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch by forty years. The knight of faith is a person who has complete faith in God and can act freely and independently from the world.
  • Ur-Example: Kierkegaard is considered to be this for existentialism.