Danish Philosopher and Theologianby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This quote from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard shows how different he was from other philosophers. For more than 2,000 years philosophers had insisted the primary purpose of philosophy was to establish reliable truth. Kierkegaard disagreed. He firmly believed the job of philosophy was not to tell people what they could know. Rather, the purpose of philosophy was to tell people what they should do. What good is philosophy if it does not permanently change the lives of individuals? This view of philosophy set Kierkegaard apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to make a lasting impact on philosophy, theology, and the world.
Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 5, 1813. Born with a curvature of the spine, he was quite sickly as a child and remained frail his entire life. He had an aversion to sunlight, and many portraits of him as an adult portray him carrying an umbrella. As a child, Kierkegaard was given the playful nickname “Fork” because he once threatened his dinner. Most of the time, however, the Kierkegaard house was extremely strict. Kierkegaard’s father was a devout Christian. However, his Christian beliefs were dark and grim, stressing sin, punishment, and suffering. These beliefs made him very stern and melancholy, and he made a great impression on young Soren.
Kierkegaard first studied history and Latin at the School of Civic Virtue. In 1830 he went on to Copenhagen University, where he studied theology. However, while he was there he became more interested in philosophy and literature. At this point in his life, Kierkegaard was going through intense spiritual and emotional struggles. A naturally serious individual, he was not cut out for the partying, pleasure-obsessed lifestyle he soon found himself living. In "Introducing Kierkegaard", Dave Robinson writes that “[Kierkegaard] sank into a deep, almost suicidal despair at his lack of direction, and felt completely remote from the lives of his friends, who all found him wonderfully witty, if rather aloof.” This depression was even more intensified after Kierkegaard broke off his engagement with the beautiful Regine Olsen in 1841. Kierkegaard loved Regine deeply, but after he became engaged to her he believed he had made a terrible mistake. In his journals he wrote, “Inwardly I saw that I had made a terrible mistake. I should have to initiate her into things most terrible, my relationship with Father, his melancholy, the eternal darkness which broods in my innermost part, my excursions into lust and debauchery. The voice of Judgment said, ‘Give her up.’”
One would think that Kierkegaard’s life struggles would have gotten in the way of his philosophy. Rather, his struggles simply added to the depth and intensity of his writings. He was a philosopher, psychologist, poet, theologian, and a novelist. Consequently, Kierkegaard wrote an ample amount; and his philosophy is complex and cannot be summed up into one clear thesis with a complete argument to back it up. However, he did have many developed ideas that influenced philosophy and theology. One of Kierkegaard’s most influential ideas was the idea of the ‘Leap of Faith.’ The Leap of Faith was his belief of how individuals are to believe in God. Faith is not a decision based on rational evidence. No evidence could be enough to build the total commitment required of a relationship with God. Instead, through faith one makes the decision anyway. Kierkegaard thought that doubt was also an essential part of belief. If one has faith, they will naturally doubt their beliefs about God. As Kierkegaard wrote, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” In "Training in Christianity", Kierkegaard expounded on his thoughts about what it means to be a true Christian. He believed that people can either make Christ their entire existence or not be Christians at all. To Kierkegaard, there was no middle way. Kierkegaard’s Christianity was the same as his father’s: filled with guilt, suffering, and anxiety. Kierkegaard is known as the father of existentialism (loosely defined, the philosophy of the individual). He placed much emphasis on how individuals are to relate to God and the world. Kierkegaard also challenged conventional ideas on truth. He believed that if truth had to be true for everyone it would be nothing more than a general opinion. He pointed out that some emotional truths are subjective. If a man loves his pet dog, he should not expect anyone else to share that truth. However, Kierkegaard reasoned, that does not mean it is not true for him.
Kierkegaard’s writings came to be very influential in philosophy and theology. Existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger and Jaspers drew extensively from Kierkegaard’s writings, but his ideas also influenced countless other philosophers who came after him. As Kierkegaard grew older, he spent more and more time writing in seclusion. By the age of 35 he looked and acted like an old man. On October 2, 1855 Kierkegaard collapsed in the street. Both of his legs were paralyzed. He died on November 11 at the age of 42. Although he lived most of his life in misery and darkness, Kierkegaard’s life represents the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ; for He alone is the source of abundant joy, abiding peace, and true wisdom.
Kemerling, Garth. "Kierkegaard." Philosophy Pages. http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/kier.htm (accessed May 20, 2009).
Kierkegaard, Soren. Training in Christianity.
Robinson, Dave. Introducing Kierkegaard. Thriplow, Cambridge, UK: Totem Books, 2007.