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Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle

Roger Caldwell judges the soul-bruised life of Søren Kierkegaard.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) famously declared that while we can only understand life backwards, we can only live it forwards. If so, it is impossible to understand one’s own life, since there is never a point of rest: we are always being hurled into the future until we reach the point of death, by which time it is too late.

What, though, of understanding someone else’s life? Most biographers work from a position of objectivity, adopting the viewpoint of someone from the outside looking in and seeing a life as a rounded whole. In her biography of Kierkegaard, Clare Carlisle adopts instead the subjective approach, asking, in effect, what was it like to be Søren Kierkegaard? This is an attempt to be on the inside looking out. We are taken through the principal events of Kierkegaard’s life, as much as possible through his own eyes, though not in strictly chronological order. This can be confusing for those who don’t already have some knowledge of Kierkegaard – for whom a more straightforward biography, such as Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard (2016), might be an easier introduction. But Carlisle’s method brings with it the advantage of a sense of a life as lived – of vividness and immediacy. Once Kierkegaard was seen as a solitary figure, somehow apart from his time, only properly appreciated long after his death. Here we see him in the Copenhagen of his day, in a context of railways, stocks and shares, the Tivoli Gardens, and in a Danish intellectual milieu where the philosophy of Hegel was all the rage (when in his writings Kierkegaard speaks of ‘the system’ it is always Hegel’s to which he is referring). And in fact, Kierkegaard found enthusiastic readers in his own time – if not always of the works by which we now know him best. Many of these readers, Carlisle tells us, were women, who found that Kierkegaard uniquely addressed them both to the heart and from the heart. Carlisle herself dedicates this book to her mentor, George Pattison, who has done much to put Kierkegaard back into his historical and specifically Danish context, and to remind us that, for all his existentialist credentials, he is essentially a Christian thinker.

Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard c.1840 by his father, Niels Christian Kierkegaard

Looking Back on a Life

Carlisle presents Kierkegaard at three significant moments of his life. We begin in 1843, when he has just entered his thirtieth year, looking out of his train window on the way back to Copenhagen from his second visit to Berlin, pondering (as he was to do for the rest of his short life) the significance of his having broken off his engagement to his beloved Regine Olsen.

The next section begins five years later, with the now accomplished author standing at a window of the old family house, which has just been sold, looking down on the square below, remembering his late father, and his own childhood and youth spent in that house.

In the third section we are a year later, in 1849, with Kierkegaard pondering again the purpose of his authorship. Ahead of him are the years of his ‘martyrdom’ when he’s satirized by scurrilous Copenhagen journal The Corsair, and of his attack on contemporary Christianity. By the time of his death in 1855, he had become the scourge of the established Danish church.

Kierkegaard’s relatively brief life is marked more by amplitude of thought than variety of incident. His father, a successful businessman, was of peasant stock. When tending sheep in Jutland as a boy, he once cursed God – a memory that never left him. In his last years he was a great reader of theology, and an eager disputant, both with his pastor and with his highly intelligent sons, another of whom became a bishop. Søren himself enrolled as a theology student at the University of Copenhagen, but took a leisurely ten years to complete his degree.

The young Søren Kierkegaard was an aesthete. Carlisle shows him in the unfamiliar guise of a romantic enthusiast for nature, visiting the countryside of northern Zealand, perceiving its lonely forests and lakes in the spirit of contemporary Danish Romantic pantheist poetry. This phase didn’t last. When his father died he inherited a considerable fortune, became a sort of man about town, and got engaged to the beguiling Regine. This engagement he abruptly broke off. His life thereafter was one of thinking and writing.

Kierkegaard inhabited a succession of apartments in Copenhagen – luxurious at first; then, as his money began to run out, less grand. When he died in 1855, all his money gone, his home was little more than a student flat. His views of Copenhagen itself are subject to much variation. At one time it is “my beloved capital city and place of residence”; at others it is “a little cooped-up place, the homeland of nonsense” and he himself an insufficiently-recognized “genius in a market-town”.

Romantically, Kierkegaard was a cold fish. There were no women in his life other than Regine. But his relationship with her, variously interpreted and endlessly cogitated, forms the subject of much of his writings, directly or indirectly. He feels the need to justify himself: “I broke the engagement for her sake” he writes. Elsewhere he declares that, had he the faith, he would have married her; but had he done so, “I would never have become myself” – his authorship would not have happened. At the time of the break-up he tells himself that “I feel more strongly than ever that I need my freedom” – a common enough anxiety, perhaps; but for Kierkegaard the freedom needed involved having a relationship with God. As he sees it, in Christian love proper, there are always three parties, the middle person being God. In Works of Love (1847), he tells us that the love of a young girl can be a hindrance to relationship with God. More generally, friendship and erotic love are “only augmented and refined self-love”. Yet he goes on to admit that “erotic love is undeniably life’s most happy fortune and friendship the greatest temporal good.”

A friend of Kierkegaard’s, comforting Regine after the end of the engagement, observed to her that Kierkegaard’s spirit was one “continually preoccupied with itself.” It is hard to demur. His voluminous diaries attest to his self-obsession, and sometimes to a colossal self-conceit. In his published works he practises what he calls ‘indirect communication’, meaning that he speaks through a variety of pseudonymic personas who do not necessarily represent his own views. Carlisle notes perceptively that his use of pseudonyms failed even in his own time to conceal his identity, but did help to mask his desire for recognition.

There is certainly something of the actor in him, even something of the drama queen. When satirized in the pages of The Corsair – its cartoons mockingly depict him as having one trouser-leg longer than the other – he thought of it in terms of martyrdom. “Such tortures as mine” he declares in his diary, “that I should be selected to be a sacrifice.” A diary is a private record, of course, but his are written with an eye to posterity, and can be tantalizingly inexplicit. For example, he refers several times to a ‘thorn in the flesh’ that prevents him from having normal relationships, but never specifies what it is. If readers don’t find him a likeable man, there is no doubt that he has made himself an interesting one.

The Scourge of the Church

Kierkegaard’s influence has been considerable. Although others before him, such as Blaise Pascal, had seen that the lives of most people was ‘one of inconstancy, boredom, and anxiety’, no one else had put the individual to the fore in the same way, or asked with such intensity and persistence the question of how to live as a human being in the world. In Kierkegaard’s case this was with the purpose not of making life easier, but rather (as he says) of making it more difficult.

Kierkegaard’s existentialist followers, such as Heidegger and Sartre, stressed that confronting and making choices was necessary if we’re to live authentic lives; but for them authenticity had become a relationship with oneself – God had fallen out of the picture. Kierkegaard saw himself as a Christian thinker, his task being that of reintroducing Christianity to a Christendom that had watered it down into a matter of lip-service and social conformity. The Danish State Church he saw as merely playing at Christianity “in the same sense as a child plays at being a soldier” – that is, by removing the danger.

Previous philosophers had ‘rationalized’ religion. Locke had presented a Christianity stripped-down to a minimum of required beliefs; Kant reduced it to what he saw as its essence in morality; Hegel saw religious ideas as merely stages towards a truth to be completed by philosophy. For Kierkegaard, however, the Christian religion was itself the truth – but one that needs to be appropriated by the individual in his ‘inwardness’. This is the substance of his formula that ‘truth is subjectivity’. Religion is not merely to be believed, but lived – and lived with passion. Faith is seen as a matter of ‘taking risks’ – and the more risks one takes, for Kierkegaard, the greater is the faith. However, against attempts to make Christianity plausible he makes it less so by stressing the paradoxical nature of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

In an age of the religious suicide bomber, some of Kierkegaard’s formulations can appear questionable. Carlisle herself says that he can be ‘dangerous as an exemplar’. In one of his most famous works, Fear and Trembling (1843), he discusses at length the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. To some, God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac was not simply a test of Abraham’s obedience (the command was rescinded at the last moment) but a command to commit murder – a clear breach of human morality. But if it is possible for divine commands to take precedence over human ethics, then faith is higher than morality. In which case Abraham, in being prepared to sacrifice Isaac – the person he loves most in all the world – is what Kierkegaard calls ‘a knight of faith’, even though in secular terms he should be condemned as a would-be murderer.

Was Kierkegaard what we would now call an extremist? In his last writings attacking Christendom, Kierkegaard describes a society that is corrupt and decadent and in opposition to the laws of God, rather as the present-day Islamist sees all Western and most nominally Muslim states. Of course Kierkegaard was writing in a very different context than ours; but there is something chilling in his advocacy of loving God “in hatred of man, in hatred of oneself … in the most agonizing isolation.” There is also a sense of his taking things to extremes when he recommends us not to have children – not to produce ‘more lost souls’ – since in his opinion there are enough of them already.

It is not difficult to find passages in his writings that make one suspect he is somewhat unbalanced. That it is so easy to do so must make him an untrustworthy guide to life. It is only fair to say that he has quieter moments, when he is no longer a fireman ringing a bell, as he describes himself; where he gives voice to counterthoughts. In a late text, For Self-Examination (1851), he is prepared to admit that not all hard ways lead to heaven, and that martyrdom can also be a matter of idolatry and self-delusion.

© Roger Caldwell 2020

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His latest collection of poetry, Smoking Opium in Moscow is published by Shoestring Press.

Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, by Clare Carlisle, Allen Lane, 2019, 339 pages, £25 hb, ISBN: 780241283585

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