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27 March 2019

Kierkegaard’s ways to be human

Søren Kierkegaard believed “there is a freedom in letting go of familiar, worldly ways of measuring a human life”. But his rejection of convention came at a cost.

By Ray Monk

“Kierkegaard,” Wittgenstein once said to his friend Maurice Drury, “was by far the most profound thinker of the late century. Kierkegaard was a saint.” Another friend, Norman Malcolm, remembers that Wittgenstein spoke of Kierkegaard “with something of awe in his expression, as a ‘really religious’ man”.

In this interesting, if challenging, biography, Clare Carlisle, a reader in philosophy and theology at King’s College London, has sought to convey Kierkegaard’s profundity and depth, and to do justice to the picture of him as a “really religious” man. Kierkegaard, she writes in the preface, had a “remarkable ability to invoke the goodness, purity and peace for which he longed”, an ability that “was inseparable from the storms that raged and twisted in his soul”. Of course, Kierkegaard had the kind of “all too human thoughts and feelings” that every person has, but Carlisle has suppressed her “disapproving reactions” in favour of accepting Kierkegaard’s view that “there is a freedom to be found in letting go of familiar, worldly ways of measuring a human life”.

These judgements belong to what Kierkegaard calls “the ethical sphere”, which for most of us is the world. But, he believed, it is possible to occupy a different place, “a sphere of infinite depth, which he called ‘inwardness’, ‘the God-relationship’, ‘eternity’, ‘the religious sphere’, or simply ‘silence’”. Carlisle’s aim, in writing this “Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard”, is to show us how Kierkegaard’s work “opens up this sphere, right at the heart of life, and beckons the reader into it”.

It is an ambitious aim, and it is not surprising that she has not entirely achieved it. Indeed, I think it is possible that it is not achievable. A good biography can indeed convey the inner life of its subject, but not through inwardness. Our guide here should be Wittgenstein’s maxim: “An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria.” The materials available to the biographer are external records of what the subject did and said, but, skilfully used, these records can be shaped into a narrative in which the subject’s personality and inner life come alive.

A good biography of Kierkegaard – sympathetic to his thought but with no aspirations to be “Kierkegaardian” in Carlisle’s sense – was in fact published in 2016. Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen Backhouse is attractively written, accessible without being shallow and a perfect introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and work. Backhouse takes a largely conventional, chronological approach. By contrast, Carlisle’s book is structured in a way that takes a lot of getting used to. I had to read it twice before I could find my bearings. It is divided into three parts. Part One is set in May 1843, just after Kierkegaard’s 30th birthday, when, after a short visit to Berlin, he is returning to his home in Copenhagen. Part Two is set in 1848, its seven chapters taking place in successive months of that year, beginning with April, skipping May and June, and finishing in December. Interspersed with accounts of those months is a more or less chronological account of Kierkegaard’s life.

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Throughout the whole of Part Two, Carlisle uses the present tense and talks of “now” when describing events in 1848, and the past tense when she is describing events in earlier years. It is every bit as confusing as it sounds. Finally – much, I expect, to the relief of most of her readers – Carlisle closes the book in Part Three with a chronological account of the last six years of Kierkegaard’s life, ending in 1855, when he was 42.

The explanation for this strange and alienating structure lies in Carlisle’s intention to write a Kierkegaardian, “inward” biography, “following the blurry, fluid lines between Kierkegaard’s life and writing, and allowing philosophical and spiritual questions to animate the events, decisions and encounters that constitute the facts of a life”.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (readers of Carlisle’s book will eventually discover on page 65) was born in Copenhagen on 5 May 1813. He was the youngest of seven children born to Michael and Ane Kierkegaard. His father rose from humble beginnings to become a prosperous hosier. By the time Søren was born, Michael had taken early retirement and spent his time reading works of theology and philosophy and reflecting on what he had read. Though Kierkegaard never mentioned his mother (who was remembered by friends and family as a simple soul, exuding maternal benevolence), he spoke and wrote often about his father, whom he remembered as a stern and devout man who demanded “absolute obedience”.

Kierkegaard would later tell friends that there emanated from Michael an atmosphere of gloom and religious guilt, and in his journals he wrote of the “dread with which my father filled my soul”. Michael was convinced that he and his family were under a mysterious curse that would claim the lives of all seven of his children while he was still alive. And, in fact, only two of them – Søren and his brother Peter – survived him.

After attending the private “School of Civic Virtue”, where he was bullied by the other boys because of his eccentricities and unprepossessing appearance, Søren Kierkegaard became a student of theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1830. He was still a student when his mother died in 1834 and his father in 1838.

On the death of his father, he became a wealthy man and decided to use that wealth to fund a life dedicated to writing. His first major work, Either/Or was published in 1843, and in the years that followed, until his death in 1855, his output was prolific, often publishing two or even more books in a single year. It is a unique body of work that uses a rich variety of literary forms to put forward an unconventional view of religious faith as a matter of emotional and existential engagement, rather than doctrine and intellectual argument. He is regarded by many as the first existentialist thinker and had a large influence on almost all the leading figures of the existentialist movement of the 20th century.

In his lifetime, he was something of a celebrity in his Copenhagen, but little known outside Denmark. After his death, however, his books began to appear in German, English and many other languages, and his reputation grew. His works have been admired not only by philosophers and theologians but also by poets, novelists and artists.

Clare Carlisle has an especially deep admiration of him and has studied his work with an intensity that has rarely been matched. Her book, she writes, “takes its shape from the Kierkegaardian question about how to be a human being in the world”. It starts with his return to Copenhagen from Berlin in 1843, because it was during that journey, she invites us to suppose, that a “hopeful, and rather beautiful” answer to that question was forming in his mind – an answer that he would publish in Fear and Trembling later that year. The long, somewhat tortuous journey is rather beautifully evoked. First he goes by train from Berlin to Angermünde, a small town in Brandenburg. From there he gets a stagecoach to the Baltic port of Stralsund, and then finally a steamship to Copenhagen. One can easily imagine doing a lot of thinking on such a journey.

Carlisle’s analysis of Fear and Trembling contains the essence of her view of Kierkegaard’s life and work. It is fascinating, but, in my view, unsatisfying. The book centres on the story told in Genesis 22 in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his faith. Abraham agrees, and so, without telling either Isaac or his wife Sarah what he is up to, he takes Isaac to Mount Moriah, where the sacrifice is to take place. There, he binds Isaac’s hands and feet and raises his knife to kill him. Just then an angel appears and tells Abraham to kill a ram instead, so Isaac is saved and father and son return home.

Understandably, the story has troubled many generations of readers. What sort of God would issue such a command? And what sort of father would obey it? In the late 18th century, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant gave what I consider to be a perfectly sensible response to the story. He argued that Abraham should not have agreed to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Since the fact that it is wrong to kill Isaac should have been far clearer and more certain to him than that the command was issued by God, he should instead have concluded that he had been mistaken about the order’s provenance.

Kierkegaard agrees with Kant that the sacrificing of Isaac is morally wrong, but he draws from this the conclusion that what the story shows is that religious faith lies beyond, and therefore outside, ethics. As Carlisle puts it, “once God is absorbed into the ethical sphere he will become dispensable… reducing God to moral life makes human conventions, laws and judgements supreme”. Kierkegaard’s answer to the question of how to be a human being in the world rests on this view that religious faith cannot be contained in the ethical. He emphasises the importance of Abraham’s walk back home. The point is that, though Abraham is returning to the everyday world, he has had the experience of doing something that is, by the conventions of that world, abhorrent. Thus, “Abraham exemplifies a way of being human in the world that neither withdraws like a hermit or a monk, nor conforms to conventional bourgeois values.” In this way, he is the exemplar of “a faith that is lived in the world, yet defies worldly expectations”.

There is another important aspect to Kierkegaard’s reflections on the story of Abraham and Isaac. It concerns what Kierkegaard regarded as the defining event in his life: the break-up of his engagement in 1841. In 1837, when he was 24, Kierkegaard met a pretty 15-year-old girl called Regine Olsen. He fell in love with her and she with him, and in 1840 he proposed to her. He seems to have regretted this almost from the start, and a year later he told her that he had resolved to break off their engagement. She begged him to change his mind, which he did, only to change it back again in October 1841, when he finally withdrew his offer of marriage.

Her father told him that she was “in despair, utterly desperate”, while she, according to his account, “took out a small note on which there was something written by me which she used to carry in her breast; she took it out and quietly tore it into small pieces and said: ‘So after all, you have played a terrible game with me.’”

A week or so later, Kierkegaard made his first trip to Berlin, where he worked on Either/Or. This is a weird compendium of different texts, written by four fictitious authors, that includes letters, essays, a sermon, and, most notoriously, the “Seducer’s Diary”, that we are to imagine having been written, not by Kierkegaard, but by “Johannes”. In this diary, Johannes chronicles in great detail his pursuit of a young girl, whom he seduces and then abandons, remarking, “I am intoxicated with the thought that she is in my power.” According to Carlisle, Kierkegaard saw the book as part of “his attempt to feign callous indifference to Regine”.

Actually, Kierkegaard was not indifferent to her, he was madly, obsessively in love with her and remained so for the rest of his life. So why did he break off the engagement? The answer, Carlisle suggests, lies in Fear and Trembling, for the story of Kierkegaard’s engagement to Regine is in some respects analogous to the story of Abraham. Kierkegaard, Carlisle says, “feels he has sacrificed a life with Regine, and with it his own honour and his family’s good name, for the sake of something that is difficult to explain”.

If he had married Regine, he would have had to take up a conventional position as a husband and father and would have been expected to pursue a career. “His life would be understood – it would be measured and judged – according to a well-established way of being in the world.” In not marrying her, Kierkegaard opened up the possibility of living a different kind of life. As a single man, he could live off the money he had inherited from his wealthy father and become a writer. “He could stand conspicuously on the margins of society, set himself at odds with it, call its assumptions into question and allow his persistent sense of being an outsider to express itself.”

This in fact is just what he did. From the time that he broke off his engagement to the time of his death, Kierkegaard devoted himself to writing. His life was uneventful. He never married, and, apart from the occasional trip to Berlin, he never left Copenhagen. He wrote and he thought, and Regine was never very far from those thoughts.

Even though they never married, the lives of Kierkegaard and Regine were inextricably linked. Perhaps surprisingly, she maintained her affection for him and kept an avid interest in his career as a writer. In 1847, she married her old tutor, Johan Frederik Schlegel, and the marriage was happy and stable. One of the things they enjoyed doing together was reading Kierkegaard’s work to each other. Her husband died in 1896 and she in 1904. In her old age, she often spoke about her engagement to Kierkegaard and never expressed any bitterness.

However, I think many people, even if they do not disapprove of the way Kierkegaard behaved towards Regine, would resist the theological spin that he and Carlisle put on his decision to break off his engagement. It is a fault of this book that Carlisle seems unaware that the person she presents as providing deep solutions to the problems of life would just as naturally be viewed as insufferably self-absorbed, as obsessed with his own sufferings as he is indifferent to those of others. 

Ray Monk is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Southampton. His books include “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius” (Vintage)


Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard
Clare Carlisle
Allen Lane, 368pp, £25

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