The Father of Existentialism
By Gabriel Blanchard
Kierkegaard is one of the hardest figures on our Author Bank—and yet widely beloved.
Here we have, to put it mildly, an enigmatic figure. Writing under well over a dozen pseudonyms to advance views that contradicted each other dramatically, most of them difficult to understand, he has nevertheless become one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era—and, more surprisingly when compared with philosophers like Hegel or Kant, one of the most popular, read and enjoyed not only by academics but by laymen. The reason for both his popularity and his paradoxes probably lies in the question that he is, in most of his works, giving such a variety of answers to: what does it mean to be human?
This question is not new, and wasn’t in Kierkegaard’s day either. There is no reason to think it was a new question when Aristotle proposed the answer that “man is a rational animal,” i.e. that reason is the peculiar quality of humanity, in contrast to irrational animals. However, the context of the question had changed since Aristotle’s day. When Kierkegaard began to write in the early nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had been going for well over fifty years, and two of the issues it raised were becomingly increasingly urgent. One of those issues had to do with the machines themselves, and has become clearer still in the technological age: when machines can operate logically and produce what were once the works of men’s hands, what is it that separates humanity from the machine?
The other, quite different, issue was that of alienation. Vast increases in productivity with little-changed ownership meant a huge accumulation of wealth at the top of the social pyramid, stratifying an already stiff class system in most of Europe. Moreover, the new expectations on workers—going from a typical agrarian schedule of five or six hours of work at the seasonal peak, with all Sundays and months’ worth of saints’ days off, to seven-days-a-week shifts usually lasting a minimum of twelve hours—were the kind to pull any society apart at the seams, if only from mental and physical exhaustion making personal connections hard or impossible to maintain. What, in that context, does it mean to be human?
Kierkegaard was a theologian, so we might expect him to give a straightforward theological reply to this. But he was not content with the trite character such replies usually display. As Charles Williams put it in The Descent of the Dove, “Most Christian answers to agnosticism seem not to begin to understand the agnosticism; they seem to invoke the compassion of God. In Kierkegaard one feels that God does not understand that kind of compassion.”
Much of Kierkegaard’s work has to do with certain experiences: what we would today call “emotions” and our Medieval ancestors would probably classify as “the passions.” The philosophical school of existentialism, though much populated by atheists like Sartre and Heidegger, follows his lead here; they articulate what it means to be human in terms of the actual experience of despair, or dread, or what have you (giving rise to the unkind, but not entirely false, statement that it is “less a philosophical system than a bad mood”). It also follows his lead on the overriding importance of personal authenticity, which means not simply “not telling lies” but being thoroughly faithful to your understanding of yourself as an individual. Both, arguably, spring from a determination to treat the human person with a deep philosophical seriousness, as a worthy subject of our time and attention not merely as instantiations of the idea “mankind,” but as individual beings.
This may be an outgrowth of his theological and philosophic interests. Although he respected Hegel, Kierkegaard considered the widespread and rapid adoption of Hegelian philosophy by the universities of his day pernicious; its state-centered, ambiguously pantheistic outlook, to him, excluded the individual. But concern for the individual was one of the defining qualities of Christianity: the very assertion that Jesus was and is the universal Messiah has been called “the scandal of particularity.” And unlike some later existentialists, Kierkegaard was specially and consistently concerned with the confrontation between the finite man and the infinite, uncontrollable Deity as an inevitable aspect of the authentic human experience he was so interested in.
Because of his aforementioned variety, it is next to impossible to discuss just a few of his prominent works in an essay of this length and not feel that one has thus done a disservice to the rest of his work—but we shall have to be content with that, and mention just three. Either/Or is generally regarded as his magnum opus, and presents a semi-dialogue between an intelligent hedonist who believes that life should be lived according to æsthetic principles, and a strict moralist who believes it should be lived according to the law; strikingly, it concludes without a definite resolution, only a hint at a higher set of values than either of its protagonists have set forth. The Sickness Unto Death discusses the Christian doctrine of sin and despair (and is a particularly subtle and difficult book, even for Kierkegaard), defining humanity as “the tension between the finite and the infinite,” perhaps a deliberate echo of the Lutheran slogan about the Eucharist that finitum capax infiniti, “the finite is capable of the infinite.” Last, and possibly best-known, there is Fear and Trembling, an analysis of what faith means in light of the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham is idly praised for his faith, but that faith consisted in a willingness to murder his son: if that genuinely is praiseworthy, why? what is faith in this context and why is it desirable? As the author himself put it in the book’s “Preamble from the Heart,” “Let us either forget all about Abraham or learn how to be horrified at the monstrous paradox which is the significance of his life, so that we can understand that our time like any other can be glad if it has faith.”
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this author profile, take a look at some of our others here at the Journal, like this one of Desiderius Erasmus or this one of Michel de Montaigne. Or check out the essays contributed by our top-performing students, such as these ones on historical ideals of womanhood, the nature of friendship, and fate versus choice in Wuthering Heights.
Page image of The Raising of Lazarus by Il Guercino, ca. 1619; the title of The Sickness Unto Death is derived from the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John, and some editions of the book, notably the Penguin Classic, use this painting as cover art.