Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen on May 15, 1813. His father was a wealthy merchant and strict Lutheran, whose gloomy, guilt-ridden piety and vivid imagination strongly influenced Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard studied theology and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, where he encountered Hegelian philosophy (see below) and reacted strongly against it. While at the university, he ceased to practice Lutheranism and for a time led an extravagant social life, becoming a familiar figure in the theatrical and café society of Copenhagen. After his father's death in 1838, however, he decided to resume his theological studies. In 1840 he became engaged to the 17-year-old Regine Olson, but almost immediately he began to suspect that marriage was incompatible with his own brooding, complicated nature and his growing sense of a philosophical vocation. He abruptly broke off the engagement in 1841, but the episode took on great significance for him, and he repeatedly alluded to it in his books. At the same time, he realized that he did not want to become a Lutheran pastor. An inheritance from his father allowed him to devote himself entirely to writing, and in the remaining 14 years of his life he produced more than 20 books.
Kierkegaard's work is deliberately unsystematic and consists of essays, aphorisms, parables, fictional letters and diaries, and other literary forms. Many of his works were originally published under pseudonyms. He applied the term existential to his philosophy because he regarded philosophy as the expression of an intensely examined individual life, not as the construction of a monolithic system in the manner of the 19th-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose work he attacked in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846; trans. 1941). Hegel claimed to have achieved a complete rational understanding of human life and history; Kierkegaard, on the other hand, stressed the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of the human situation. The fundamental problems of life, he contended, defy rational, objective explanation; the highest truth is subjective.
The Choice of Life
Kierkegaard maintained that systematic philosophy not only imposes a false perspective on human existence but that it also, by explaining life in terms of logical necessity, becomes a means of avoiding choice and responsibility. Individuals, he believed, create their own natures through their choices, which must be made in the absence of universal, objective standards. The validity of a choice can only be determined subjectively.
In his first major work, Either/Or (2 vol., 1843; trans. 1944), Kierkegaard described two spheres, or stages of existence, that the individual may choose: the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthetic way of life is a refined hedonism, consisting of a search for pleasure and a cultivation of mood. The aesthetic individual constantly seeks variety and novelty in an effort to stave off boredom but eventually must confront boredom and despair. The ethical way of life involves an intense, passionate commitment to duty, to unconditional social and religious obligations. In his later works, such as Stages on Life's Way (1845; trans. 1940), Kierkegaard discerned in this submission to duty a loss of individual responsibility, and he proposed a third stage, the religious, in which one submits to the will of God but in doing so finds authentic freedom. In Fear and Trembling (1846; trans. 1941) Kierkegaard focused on God's command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac (see Genesis 22: 1-19), an act that violates Abraham's ethical convictions. Abraham proves his faith by resolutely setting out to obey God's command, even though he cannot understand it. This "suspension of the ethical," as Kierkegaard called it, allows Abraham to achieve an authentic commitment to God. To avoid ultimate despair, the individual must make a similar "leap of faith" into a religious life, which is inherently paradoxical, mysterious, and full of risk. One is called to it by the feeling of dread (The Concept of Dread, 1844; trans. 1944), which is ultimately a fear of nothingness.
Toward the end of his life Kierkegaard was involved in bitter controversies, especially with the established Danish Lutheran church, which he regarded as worldly and corrupt. His later works, such as The Sickness Unto Death (1849; trans. 1941), reflect an increasingly somber view of Christianity, emphasizing suffering as the essence of authentic faith. He also intensified his attack on modern European society, which he denounced in The Present Age (1846; trans. 1940) for its lack of passion and for its quantitative values. The stress of his prolific writing and of the controversies in which he engaged gradually undermined his health; in October 1855 he fainted in the street, and he died in Copenhagen on November 11, 1855.
Kierkegaard's influence was at first confined to Scandinavia and to German-speaking Europe, where his work had a strong impact on Protestant theology and on such writers as the 20th-century Austrian novelist Franz Kafka. As existentialism emerged as a general European movement after World War I, Kierkegaard's work was widely translated, and he was recognized as one of the seminal figures of modern culture.