It’s a cold day in November, 1855. In a quiet churchyard in Copenhagen, a lanky, hunchbacked man is laid to rest. As the final shovelful of dirt hits the coffin lid, the clergy and respectable citizens of Denmark breath a sigh of relief. For the past two years, the intellectual in the casket had waged a one-man crusade against the very foundations of their society, attacking smugness and complacency with all the righteous fury of a fairytale knight.
The universe might’ve thought it was done with Soren Kierkegaard but Soren Kierkegaard was far from done with the universe, and he wasn’t about to let something as insignificant as being dead stop him from saving the world.
Who Thought It Up
Soren Aaybe Kierkegaard was born the seventh and final child to a prosperous Copenhagen family in 1813. In spite of his family’s wealth and standing, tragedy was to become a regular visitor at the Kierkegaard house. By the time Soren was twenty-five, death had claimed both of his parents and all but one of his siblings, and he himself was plagued by illness and frailty. For all his charm and brilliance, Kierkegaard couldn’t escape the haunting dread of his own mortality. He, like everyone who had ever been or ever would be, was going to die – so what was the point of it all?
Soren would come to spend the rest of his life trying to answer that question. While his journey would lead him to not only become the father of existentialism, but pioneer radical developments in theology, psychology, and even literature, it was in the simple Lutheran faith of his mother that he at last found the meaning he was looking for. What emerged from that was one of the most defiant and hopeful philosophies ever to be created – and one we need today more than ever.
What He’s Here To Tell Us
While most of his contemporaries explained their ideas through stuffy, philosophical texts, Kierkegaard opted to take an approach more in keeping with a Jedi master than an academic. Rather than spoon-feed us, Kierkegaard offers us riddles, parables, and even adopts sarcastic pseudonyms and personas to get his point across. We’re expected to “discover” Kierkegaard’s points through our own journey, and in doing so, understand them with more clarity and depth than any lecture or sermon could offer. And for Kierkegaard, this isn’t just a strategy for teaching us, it’s the very foundation of his philosophy – an idea he called:
“The crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea which I am willing to live and die.”
– Soren Kierkegaard, Journal Entry, August 1st, 1835
Kierkegaard was born in the final years of the Age of Enlightenment – an optimistic era which had seen rationalism and research usher in incredible advances in technology and a standard of living not even the kings of old could’ve dreamt of. All of life’s problems, it was thought, could at last be solved through the calm application of logic and science. The universe was a rational, orderly place after all. If we could study and understand it, then we could find our place in it, and if we could find our proper place, then there wasn’t any problem we wouldn’t be able to solve.
He understood, perhaps better than anyone else, the limitations of logic and reason. Not only is our very ability to be reasonable incredibly flawed (as It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia so hilariously demonstrates), but even the purest form of rationality can’t offer answers for the questions that most need them.
Whether we should take that dream job across the country or stay in our hometown with our friends is not a question with a logical solution. It’s an important question – perhaps one of the biggest decisions we’ll ever make – but it’s still not a rational one. “Objective truth” can tell us that it’s 2,790 miles between Los Angeles and New York. “Objective truth” can tell us how many days we’ll be on the road for. “Objective truth” can’t tell us if it’s a trip we should be making at all – that decision is going to come down to what’s more important to us, and what’s important to us can only be understand from personal experience or “subjective truth.”
Now that doesn’t mean that we should abandon logic and reason, only that we need to understand that they have their limits, and when we reach those limits, it’s going to fall to us to decide what to value. To borrow the words of the late, great Terry Pratchett – just because we can’t find “one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy” doesn’t mean that justice and mercy aren’t worth believing in.
Hang on to that point, because it’s going to be critical as we explore…
The Aesthetic, The Ethical, The Religious
“Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is paltry; for it lacks passion.”
– Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
As Kierkegaard saw it, the misery, worry, and boredom that we experience in modern life all have their roots in the same problem: a refusal to engage with the only certainty life can offer us – death. While on some level we’re all aware of our inevitable fate, just acknowledging it can be so difficult that most of us refuse to do it at all.
Denial, of course, doesn’t solve the problem of death. It makes the despair and angst (a term Kierkegaard coined) all that tougher to deal with. In spite of that discomfort, the first step to solving a problem is admitting we have one, and it’s only once we begin to contend with death seriously that we can finally begin to overcome it. That overcoming requires us to complete a three-stage journey, starting with what Kierkegaard called…
The reaction many of us will have to the prospect of our impending demise will be to distract ourselves. We can escape our condition (or at least, thinking about our condition) by jumping headlong into whatever escapist diversion we can find. Food, alcohol, television, drugs, video games, stamp collection, god-awful teen vampire novels – you name it. Anything and everything that will keep us from thinking about tomorrow.
Of course, the problem is that sooner or later we’re going to get bored, and all the Vicodin and designer jeans in the world won’t fill that void. Where do we go from there? According to Kierkegaard, the next stage is –
After self-indulgence fails to do the trick, we might try “growing up.” Settling down. Becoming an upstanding, taxpaying, law-abiding citizen. We might try to find peace through finding our place in the world – a kind of harmony that comes with having an ordained part to play in the universe, often as a parent or family man.
While there’s definitely a sense of serenity that can come from a role, rules, and routine, Kierkegaard believed that even these would fail us. At some point, our personal values – our “subjective truths” – are going to come into conflict with the expectations of the world, forcing us to either betray our beliefs or break from our roles. That could be a telemarketer told to shill a product he doesn’t believe in. It could be a woman trapped in a miserable, loveless marriage. That could be someone giving a polite, saccharine eulogy for a person they knew was a heartless bastard.
At some point, a crisis is going to make it painfully clear that the laws, traditions, and norms of the world are as made-up and arbitrary as anything else, forcing us to once again face an indifferent, meaningless universe. But it’s that deepest despair, Kierkegaard tells us, that can bring us to the highest pinnacle of hope in the third and final stage:
The only way for us to defy death and despair is to place our trust in something bigger than ourselves – some ideal so noble and right that it could transcend everything else. For Kierkegaard, it was his devout Christian faith. For someone else, it might be the conviction that truth and justice will ultimately prevail. For others it might be the belief that there’s some greater order at work, even if we can’t see it. It could be the idea of reincarnation, paradise, nirvana, becoming one with The Force, or even just the simple hope that somehow, someway all of this – life, the universe, everything – matters.
Is it just that easy? Of course not – but it’s not supposed to be.
That’s why it takes –
The Knight of Faith
“Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that which unites all human life is passion, and faith is a passion.”
– Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Kierkegaard believed that a person of true conviction and hope could become what he called “the knight of faith” – a person capable of standing by their beliefs even in the face of uncertainty. Believing that “good will beat evil” isn’t the same as knowing that good will beat evil. That might sound like a petty distinction, but for Kierkegaard it was critical. Faith, he tells us, isn’t the opposite of doubt, it’s the opposite of certainty. The point of this final stage isn’t to be free from doubt (we never will be), it’s to find something so noble that we can believe in it in spite of our doubts. Simply put, if believing was easy, it wouldn’t be belief. Despair is easy, dogmatism is easy, but hope? Hope is hard.
It’s also liberating.
While Kierkegaard’s call for a life of faith and doubt might call to mind images of monkish detachment and austere self-denial, it’s only when we reach this final stage that we can enjoy the Aesthetic and Ethical how they’re meant to be. In a paradox he calls “double movement,” Kierkegaard explains that by moving beyond the aesthetic and ethical parts of the world, we’re for the first time able to enjoy them the way they were meant to be enjoyed.
To take an example in the aesthetic stage: A nice brandy isn’t something we desperately chug to kill the anguish of existence, it’s a damn fine beverage to be enjoyed for its own sake. A pair of stylish boots isn’t something that defines our existence, it’s an example of beautiful craftsmanship – nothing more, nothing less.
The same applies to the ethical stage, giving new meaning to our choices and decisions. The laws and rules we once obeyed out of fear of punishment or a desire to meet society’s expectations we now choose to follow because we think they’re right. As for the norms we don’t agree with, well, we answer to higher principles, and it’s our duty to take a stand for what we believe in come hell or high water.
What It Means For Us
Much like Kierkegaard’s generation, we’re at a strange place in history. A new millennium that promised so much has delivered economic upheaval, wars and rumors of wars, and a sneaking suspicion (if the popularity of shows like True Detective, Rick and Morty, and BoJack Horseman is any indication) that the world is a chaotic place where nothing lasts and nothing matters. We have So much to do and so little time to do it, yet Kierkegaard offers us not only a way to live true to ourselves, but a chance to confront our own mortality with courage and defiance.
In our darkest days, Kierkegaard gently encourages us with the idea that life isn’t hard because we’re doing something wrong, but because we’re doing something right. That our anxiety, while painful, is evidence that we’re struggling to be true to ourselves. Rather than distract ourselves with every shiny new thing, surrender to societies’ standards, or cling desperately to some objective, “knowable” truth, Kierkegaard challenges us to remain open as we engage with the world, searching for that noble ideal we’d be willing to sacrifice everything for.
Yes, doubt never goes away.
But neither does hope.
The Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard – In perhaps his most famous work, Kierkegaard draws us into the biblical story of Abraham, in the split seconds before he sacrifices his own son. What follows is a brutal examination of dread and defiance, faith and fanaticism, and the transcendent power of hope. Regardless of where we stand on his work, The Sickness Unto Death has a challenge to offer all of us.
Parables Of Kierkegaard edited by Thomas C. Oden – Compiled from across his astonishingly wide body of work, we’re invited to consider Kierkegaard’s greatest puzzles, paradoxes, and problems – not so we can find the right answers, but so that we might ask the right questions.
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor – for all the men and women influenced by Kierkegaard’s thoughts, few have ever been able to capture the essence or style of his work better than legendary American writer Flannery O’Connor. Her masterful Southern Gothic tale paints a dark and tortured portrait of a young man torn between doubt and conviction. A perfect companion piece to Kierkegaard’s fables.