I can sum up why I like Kierkegaard in three words: “fear and trembling.”
Each year I revisit a thinker from the past who has influenced me, and Kierkegaard was my guy for 2010. I chose him because I remembered the beautiful, riveting contortions of his thought when I first read him as a college boy, the wild rushes of passion that flowed through even his most obdurate writing, as if his words twisted from the very torques of his soul.
I also chose Kierkegaard because he demands so much of us. He’s a religious thinker, but he wants nothing to do with good Christians—at least in the conventional definition of a good Christian—but only those who live by the dare of their own truth. We all must be challenged.
Hence “fear and trembling.” The words define the gravity, the urgency, and the passion that Kierkegaard brought to his thought. Life isn’t meant to be a restful affair. Anything but. We’re torn apart as a condition of our being, and we reckon with the nature of that congenital fissure in each of our actions and decisions, at least if we’re truly conscious of who we are.
Although Kierkegaard’s “fear and trembling” is the basis of his exploration of faith, I read him as much as artist as philosopher or theologian; he’s fundamentally defining a lonely and terrifying spiritual pursuit, the truth that if recognized, one must stridently and recklessly observe. In redefining what it meant to be a Christian, he redefined the sense of an individual’s place in the world.
“One is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly,” Kierkegaard wrote.
The words “outrageous folly” are spoken with reverence. His respect for folly, for a life that provokes, flies in the face of reason, is one that he reveres because at the heart of his thought, even though he’s questing to articulate his faith, he’s drawn equally to the kind of folly that makes us most human. The risk we take to feel the truth. Kierkegaard’s risk was religion, or rather, how a person lives inwardly—a bravery greater than such external risks as climbing mountains or going to war.
That inward risk, whether religious or not, is one that we all must reckon with. Interestingly enough, I find that many of his quotes speak directly to our human condition now, even though he died in 1855 at the age of 42:
“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”
“My principal thought was that in our age, because of the great increase of knowledge, we had forgotten what it means to exist, and what inwardness signifies.”
Again, can anyone say that our inwardness isn’t in jeopardy these days when so many of us live online in constant outwardness? Information has flooded our sense of self.
Kierkegaard is continually at war for the sake of the personal vs. the impersonal, so it’s easy to apply his thoughts to our contemporary war for self vs. media, advertising, science, etc. He naturally fought against Hegel’s conception of individuality as an illusion, the self moving in tandem with historical movements of thought and principles, determined by evolving group trends and conceptions. To Kierkegaard, the individual was diminished in such a scheme, a mere representative of the groupthink of his or her times.
Although a lot of contemporary scientific and psychological studies continue to show how much our peers influence if not determine us (overweight people tend to live near overweight people, smokers tend to be friends with smokers), Kierkegaard’s emphasis on subjectivity offers a salvation if one is brave enough to step away from the group.
“No man, none, dares say I,” Kierkegaard wrote. He compares people to ventriloquist’s dummies who say the phrases that others have put in their mouths—including Christian principles. Life for most bears no mark of a decision—it’s lived without passion or risk.
Above all he’s against those who live by default (e.g., if you’re born a Christian, you are a Christian). Christianity for him is an active commitment that requires ongoing probing and self-scrutiny. So Kierkegaard asks how we’ve decided our commitments. They should all require fear and trembling, of course—an individual passionate commitment that might even invite punishment, ostracism.
With Kierkegaard’s notion of subjectivity and its urgent focus on the decision modern day existentialism was born. To say “I” with such a taunt and dare invites a determination of ethics, yet we can never be certain that we’ve chosen “the right values.” Anguish and dread are conditions of our existence—but they can be exciting conditions, right?
This is when Kierkegaard yanks the comfort out of faith. Faith resists elucidation. It’s a matter of passion, after all, not words or dictums or adhering to the behavioral expectations of others. Outrageous folly. Vertiginous thought. Faith requires an act that defies the rational, a sort of absurdity. The suspension of the ethical for religious reasons. A life of inwardness—not as contemplation or reflection, but as a commitment to one’s resolutions, no matter the punishments they entail from others.
Take Abraham, whose story of faith required distress. Abraham is required by God to sacrifice his only son, an act without possibility of justification, one that would be ethically condemned by all in his community no matter if he told others that God required it.
So Abraham raises the knife to kill, his passion for God trumping rationality. With our contemporary wariness of religious nuts, we might put Abraham in a similar zany category, but think of his act in a different way for just a moment. Perhaps Kierkegaard is saying that we must sometimes honor the irrational aspects of ourselves in the face of our rational secular selves that are so dedicated to the kind of ethical view that goes unquestioned.
Kierkegaard valued Jesus for his indirect communication. Everything Jesus said was meant to be unbalancing. The listener is forced to confront the paradox rather than simply acknowledge an easy truth (for example, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”) Kierkegaard’s love of Christianity—hence life—is because of its essential paradox, its resistance to reason. No one gets passionate about 2 + 2 = 4. Religion has to be about passion. So religion (hence life) can’t be about common sense.
Abraham’s dilemma forces such unbalancing. Christianity is not something to be followed. It calls one with severity. His act means that we must trust our belief, our leap of faith as we define it, even if it means a transgression of common ethics.
Again, this brings up Kierkegaard’s essential disdain for the safe decision. Where there is objective certainty, there is safety, the lack of venture, and where there is nothing ventured, there can be no faith.
Sometimes I think of Kierkegaard as one of the only pure Christians. If only because his faith was his art. It was a terrifying affair.
Oddly enough, Kierkegaard displayed a certain discomfort with his own identity—or an acknowledgement of its multiple identities—because he wrote almost all of his works with pseudonyms, and humorous ones at that: “Johannes de silentio,” Johannes Climacus,” and “Nicolaus Notabene.” He makes himself into a fiction and watched the thoughts.
To further the irony, Kierkegaard’s name means cemetery—a joke of sorts, yet representative of the gravity of his thought. He wanted “The Individual” to be inscribed on his tombstone. I wonder if in the end he valued being an individual in disdain of God, despite his wrenching decisions of faith.
His assertion of individuality certainly led other philosophers to do so. In fact, we have Kierkegaard to thank for this interesting quality of disdain that is somehow necessary to be so true to oneself. How can we be ourselves without holding the expectations of others in a certain disdain?
For more existentialist writings, see my pensees on Camus and his embrace of contradiction in the act of falling.