by Gordon Marino, New York Times, May 3, 2013
THE intellectual immortal Soren Kierkegaard turns 200 on Sunday. The lyrical Danish philosopher is widely regarded as the father of existentialism, a philosophical and literary movement that emphasizes the category of the individual and meditates on such gauzy questions as, Is there a meaning to life?
Not surprisingly, existentialism hit its zenith after humanity got a good look at itself in the mirror of the Holocaust, but then memories faded and economies boomed and existentialism began to seem a little overwrought.
Still, throughout the ups and downs of the scholarly market, the intellectual world has remained bullish on Kierkegaard, in part because the Dane, unlike other members of the Socrates guild, always addressed what human beings are really up against in themselves, namely, anxiety, depression, despair and the flow of time.
There are at least a dozen scholarly fests going on around the globe to celebrate Kierkegaard’s bicentennial, and here at the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College we are expecting over 100 international participants at our birthday bash.
In his youth, Kierkegaard earned the nickname “gaflen,” or “the fork,” for his ability to discern the weaknesses in other people and to stick it to them. All his writing life, Kierkegaard wielded his red-hot stylus to stick it to bourgeois Christendom. His life was a meditation on what it means to have faith.
Although Kierkegaard never used the exact phrase, “the leap of faith,” those words have become his shibboleth. A Lutheran raised in a pietistic environment, Kierkegaard insisted that there was no being born into the fold; no easy passage, no clattering up a series of syllogisms to faith. For Kierkegaard, faith involved a collision with the understanding and a radical choice, or to use the terms of his singular best seller, life and faith demands an “Either/Or.” Believe or don’t believe, but don’t imagine you can have it both ways. As the mostly empty pews attest, much of Europe has taken Kierkegaard up on his challenge.
But Kierkegaard was more than a Luther of his Lutheran tradition; his writings bristle with insights about culture and humanity that can be redeemed in the currency of secularism.
For instance, Kierkegaard flourished at the inception of mass media. Daily and weekly journals and newspapers were just beginning to circulate widely. As though he could feel Facebook and Twitter coming down the line, he anticipated a time when communication would become instantaneous, but no one would have anything to say; or again, a time when everyone was obsessed with finding their voice but without much substance or “inwardness” behind their eruptions and blogposts.
In one of his books Kierkegaard moans, “The present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: Nothing happens but still there is instant publicity.” In the end, Kierkegaard was concerned about the power of the press to foment and form public opinion and in the process relieve of us of the need to think matters through on our own.
Over a 17-year span, Kierkegaard published a score of books and compiled thousand of pages of journal entries. Like Nietzsche and other geniuses who were more than less immolated by the fiery force of their own ideas, Kierkegaard sacrificed his body to dance out the riches of his thoughts. Self-conscious of his own preternatural powers, he wrote, “Geniuses are like thunderstorms. They go against the wind, terrify people, cleanse the air.”
Of course, we have all known hours of inspiration, but to live with the Muse on one’s shoulders year after year is to be able to abide close to the borders of what must sometimes feel like madness. Not an easy task.
Just to pluck a couple of plums from the sprawling tree of Kierkegaard’s extraordinary oeuvre: He was not what we would term an ethicist. He did not devote his energies to trying to find a rational basis for ethics, nor was he occupied with teasing out moral puzzles. And yet, he has something very significant to say about ethics.
According to Kierkegaard, it is not more knowledge or skills of analysis that is required to lead dutiful lives. If knowledge were the issue, then ethics would be a kind of talent. Some people would be born moral geniuses and others moral dolts. And yet so far as he and Kant were concerned, when it comes to good and evil we are all on an equal footing.
Contrary to the ethics industry that is thrumming today, Kierkegaard believed that the prime task is to hold on to what we know, to refrain from pulling the wool over our own eyes because we aren’t keen on the sacrifices that doing the right thing is likely to require. As Kierkegaard put it, when we find ourselves in a moral pinch we don’t just take the easy way out. Instead, he writes, “Willing allows some time to elapse, an interim called: We shall look at it tomorrow.”
And by the day after tomorrow, we usually decide that the right way was, after all, the easy way. And so the gadfly of Copenhagen concludes, “And this is how perhaps the great majority of men live: They work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension, which would lead them out into decisions and conclusions that their lower nature does not much care for.”
There are epiphanies in every nook and cranny of Kierkegaard’s authorship, but paradoxically enough, from the beginning to the end, the man who seemed to know just about everything, was gently emphatic: “The majority of men … live and die under the impression that life is simply a matter of understanding more and more, and that if it were granted to them to live longer, that life would continue to be one long continuous growth in understanding. How many of them ever experience the maturity of discovering that there comes a critical moment where everything is reversed, after which the point becomes to understand more and more that there is something which cannot be understood.”
And what might it mean to understand that there is something of vital importance in life that cannot be understood? With the indirection of a Zen master, our Birthday Boy helps us unlock this and other koans that strike to the marrow of the question of what it means to be a human being.
Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His most recent book “The Quotable Kierkegaard” will be published in the fall.