The Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5th, 1813 in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father was a wealthy wool merchant and his mother was an unlearned maid. Kierkegaard, however, was well-educated, attending a prestigious boys school before matriculating at the University of Copenhagen to study philosophy and theology.
Kierkegaard’s life was for the most part an unremarkable one. In his 42 years, he left Copenhagen only five times, preferring to remain at home and write — a privilege afforded to him by his large family inheritance.
In his off time, Kierkegaard engaged in only modest hobbies: he attended productions put on by his local theatre, chatted with townspeople during his walks through the city, and occasionally carriaged into the countryside.
One of Kierkegaard’s few sources of excitement in life was his brief engagement to Regine Olsen. The two met in the spring of 1837 and quickly developed feelings for each other, although these feelings remained hidden for three years. In the fall of 1840, Kierkegaard confessed his love to Regine, and, with her father’s blessing, the two planned to marry.
But while Kierkegaard genuinely loved Regine, he ultimately chose his literary and religious callings over their relationship and broke off the engagement a year later to their mutual heartache. While the two kept in intermittent contact, they never rekindled their romance. On November 11th, 1855, Kierkegaard died, likely from tuberculosis. The last time they saw each other was six years prior, in 1849.
The dullness of Kierkegaard’s life — save for his relationship with Regine and a spat with a satirical magazine, known as “The Corsair Affair” — belies the richness of his thought. His chief interest was religion, and specifically how to be a Christian independent of the false and misleading institutions of the Church.
Kierkegaard’s perspective on Christianity is informed by his upbringing. He was raised in a strict sect of Lutheranism known as Pietism, which emphasizes the inherent sinfulness of humanity, individual responsibility, and the importance of fostering a personal relationship with God.
These principles informed Kierkegaard’s own views on how to live life. In his first major work, Either/Or, Kierkegaard contrasts two modes of existence: the aesthetic life and the ethical life. The aesthete is engrossed in sensation and possibility, seeking out whatever affords them momentary pleasure and entertainment. In contrast, the ethicist does what is morally right, regardless of the personal benefits.
The ethicist criticizes the aesthete for being self-serving and escapist and accuses them of living a life of fantasy instead of engaging with the real world. The aesthete is unreliable, flitting from one recreation to the next according to their fickle desires, whereas the ethicist commits to upholding social and religious values and practicing care for others even when doing so is difficult and unrewarding.
Kierkegaard believes that the ethical life is the superior stage of existence of the two — but it is not the highest. In a dialectical move, Kierkegaard synthesizes the thesis of aesthetic life and the antithesis of ethical life into a third stage: religious life. The religious life preserves the aesthete’s imagination but directs it toward God rather than self-indulgence. In a similar manner, it employs the ethicist’s sense of commitment, but directs it to divine law rather than human law.
The religious life is discussed in Kierkegaard’s second major work, Fear and Trembling. In it, Kierkegaard recalls the Biblical story of “The Binding” in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. Kierkegaard highlights Abraham’s response to this command, which is not to question God nor inform his family of what he must do; instead, he simply obeys. In doing so, Abraham flouts ethical convention, lying by omission and intending to commit murder for the sake of pleasing God. Of course, God ultimately allows Abraham to sacrifice a ram in place of Isaac, but the lesson remains. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham becomes “a martyr of faith,” “crucifying his understanding” to embrace a higher, individualized relationship with God.
Kierkegaard argues that Christianity cannot be proven by reason, as it is inherently paradoxical. Reason cannot reconcile how an infinite, eternal God is simultaneously a singular, mortal human being (i.e. Jesus). The true Christian is thus not a scholastic type who toils over logical proofs for God’s existence in a removed, intellectual way; rather, they are someone who cultivates a subjective passion for Christ by continually renewing their faith in His existence and goodness in the absence of evidence and in the face of doubt. Kierkegaard considers doubt a prerequisite to faith; without it, one’s belief is just a product of gullibility.
Abraham epitomizes the religious life by “taking a leap of faith” to carry out God’s will despite its apparent madness. Individuals like Abraham, who place complete trust in themselves and in God, earn the ability to think and act for themselves, independent of the misbegotten norms of society. Kierkegaard labels these individuals “knights of faith” and regards them as the true freedom holders. He also views them as the true practitioners of love, being able to concretely and sincerely care for a single person rather than abstractly and insincerely care for people as a whole. As Kierkegaard says, “Never have I read in the Holy Scriptures this command: You shall love the crowd.”
Kierkegaard’s prioritizing of individual experience over the standards of the crowd is one reason for his reputation as the father of existentialism. Another is his investigation of emotions such as anxiety, which he describes as “the dizziness of freedom.” To Kierkegaard, anxiety is being overwhelmed at the possibility of choice — essentially, trying to decide what to do given that we can do anything. Yet Kierkegaard holds that while anxiety is unsettling, it is also instructive. By realizing that we have the power to act as we choose, we become self-reflective and embrace personal responsibility, placing ourselves on the path to the religious life and moving ourselves closer to the disposition of the knight of faith. With these ideas, Kierkegaard bravely calls into question the dogma of the outer world and directs our attention to the inner life. In doing so, he sets the scene for the even more radically existentialist thinkers to follow.