In 1830, at his father’s urging, Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology. While there, he encountered the work of Hegel and reacted strongly against it. Kierkegaard objected to the implicit optimism and the “swallowing up” of contradictions in Hegel’s dialectic. But more important, Kierkegaard claimed that even though Hegel’s “System” was an impressive philosophical tour de force, it did not relate to the lived existence of the individual–it did not give any guidance as to what a person should do. A famous entry from Kierkegaard’s journal at this time is worth quoting at length:
Â Â Â What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and of being able, if required, to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system;–what good would it do me to be able to develop a theory of the state and combine all the details into a single whole, and so construct a world in which I did not live, but only held up to the view of others;–what good would it do me to be able to explain the meaning of Christianity if it had no deeper significance for me and for my life;–what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion? I certainly do not deny that I still recognise an imperative of understanding and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognise as the most important thing.
Kierkegaard did not find the answer for “what to do” in his studies in theology and soon began living what he would later call an “aesthetic” life as a rich merchant’s son. He spent large sums of money on food, drink, and clothing. He frequented parties and appeared to be having a great time. But hedonistic indulgence did not really give an answer for “what to do” either, and he plunged into despair. Another entry from his journals makes this clear:
Â Â Â I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and
Â Â Â I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me–but I went away–and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit—————————————————————————————————————- and wanted to shoot myself.
On his son’s twenty-fifth birthday, May 15, 1838, Michael revealed to SÃ¸ren his own sexual sins as well as his understanding of God’s condemnation of their family. Four days later, SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard underwent a religious conversion and was reconciled to his father, who died shortly afterward. Kierkegaard now had an answer for “what to do”–he would live as a penitent seeking to “become a Christian.” Kierkegaard finished his theological studies, prepared to become a Lutheran pastor, and became engaged to marry seventeen-year-old Regine Olsen.
But by 1841, Kierkegaard realized that he could never live the life of a Lutheran pastor and devoted husband. He came to believe that the Danish Lutheran church had made religion a matter of intellectual assent to certain objective truths and no longer deserved to be called “Christian.” For the rest of his life, Kierkegaard would be an opponent of institutional Christianity. The decision to break his engagement to Regine Olsen was a torturous one, but one he believed he had to make. He decided that a “divine veto” had been cast against this marriage, that his role as penitent was incompatible with that of husband.
Kierkegaard spent the rest of his short life as a writer, publishing a number of books including Either/Or (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Stages on Life’s Way (1845), Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), The Sickness unto Death (1849), Training in Christianity (1850), and The Attack upon “Christendom” (1854-1855). All but the last of these works were written under various pseudonyms, and virtually all of them included attacks on the prevailing Hegelian philosophy of his time. In 1855, while returning from the bank with the last of his considerable inheritance, Kierkegaard collapsed on the street and died soon thereafter.
Kierkegaard’s biography is reflected in his philosophical quest to establish what it means to be an individual. In such works as Either/Or, Stages on Life’s Way, and Fear and Trembling, he describes a process of self-actualization through three stages in life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. At the aesthetic stage, an individual’s life centers on either hedonistic pleasure or abstract philosophical speculation. The hedonist lives for the immediate pleasures of the moment without concern for the future. The abstract intellectual (Hegel being the prime example) lives in a theoretical world removed from concrete existence. The hedonist reduces existence to immediate pleasure whereas the abstract speculator reduces existence to thought; but in both cases the aesthete has avoided the either/or decisions of real life, and authentic selfhood has not been achieved. The result, says Kierkegaard, is a life of boredom–and the pointless pursuit of diversions to alleviate such boredom. This was the life Kierkegaard himself lived in his early years at the university.
Those who move beyond the aesthetic to the ethical level choose to accept moral standards and attempt to do their duty. By choosing decisively and accepting responsibility for that choice, an individual’s life becomes centralized and unified. For example, the seducing man operates on the aesthetic level where every woman he meets is merely a general source of momentary pleasure. He has no past, no future, only the present desire for fulfillment. He is not really a complete person because he is living life as a series of disconnected “nows.” On the other hand, the man who has chosen to fulfill the duties of a faithful husband operates on the ethical level. He has a memory of the past and a hope for the future based on his commitments, which give an integrated wholeness to his present.
But even though universal moral standards can become personal when chosen by an individual, the ethical stage is not sufficient to bring a person to complete self-actualization. The ethical stage leads to a point at which one realizes that one cannot entirely fulfill the moral law, that one is sinful in the presence of God. Only in the religious stage, where one “leaps” to passionate commitment to God, is one totally free from meaninglessness and dread. In the religious stage, a person must be willing to give up everything–even abstract ethical universals–to God. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard illustrates this movement from the ethical to the religious stage by contrasting the stories of Agamemnon and Abraham. Although both were called upon by a divinity to sacrifice a child, Agamemnon’s sacrifice would serve a higher ethical purpose whereas Abraham’s would not. In fact, Abraham was in the odd position of being tempted to do the ethical: to not murder/sacrifice Isaac. Yet Abraham had faith in God, rather than Agamemnon’s resignation to the gods, and continued to believe that God would return his son to him. Abraham performed a “teleological [i.e., considering the end or goal] suspension of the ethical,” giving up what was most dear to him, and by virtue of the absurd, God gave it all back. It is interesting to note that Kierkegaard wrote this work right after he had given up to God what was most dear to him: Regine Olsen. Apparently believing that God would give her back to him, Kierkegaard was shocked when she became engaged to another man.
In Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard argues that whereas a logical system is possible, an existential system is not. Hegel’s entire systematic enterprise is misguided because it assumes a finality that lived existence never has. When it comes to the important issues of life, such as knowledge of God, no system, no set of objective truths will give any real guidance. According to Kierkegaard, only subjective truth, “An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness,” can be the truth for an existing person. Whereas one can never have objective certainty that God exists, one can make it true in one’s own life by committing oneself completely and living as if it were true.
Written in Danish and presenting a pessimistic view of objective reason that was out of touch with the spirit of his time, it is not surprising that Kierkegaard’s works were ignored for decades. The horror of World War I, together with the work done by Martin Heidegger in philosophy and Karl Barth in theology, brought Kierkegaard’s pessimistic assessment of objectivism to prominence. Today Kierkegaard is acknowledged as the “father of existentialism” and is studied widely.