Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) is without a doubt the greatest Danish philosopher. The father of existentialism. In a very simple way, he lived his philosophy. After all, to exist means not only to be alive and breathing but also to “stand out.”
I always visualized existentialism as a vibe board, where a particular life stands out in an ocean of other lives. The image is romantic but it fits with Kierkegaard. He stood out.
To the world he is known for setting the tone for such themes as fear, guilt, and anxiety, but also for choosing the choice, freedom, and love. In Denmark, his name is spoken with a certain amount of reverence because it can be difficult not to be seduced by his vision of life and poetic style, but also because he was radical. For example, Kierkegaard was openly critical of democracy when he elevated the individual above the crowd. In fact, he would not see imprisonment in isolation as one of the worst forms of punishment, because the truth emerges, undisturbed, between the individual and God.
For Kierkegaard, I suggest, it all comes down to four important concepts: the self, truth, freedom, and one’s relationship to God.
The Self Is a Relating Relation
In The Sickness Unto Death (1849), Kierkegaard describes the human being as a spirit. He writes, “But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.”
A human being is the relation that relates itself to itself. It is a relationship full of questions. For example, why do some people do things that they feel, think, or perceive to be wrong? Being unfaithful to their partner, taking an extra slice of cake, speeding on the highway, gossiping; or compromise their own honest wishes because their boss is telling them to do so?
Kierkegaard is rather modern when he reduces the distance between body and soul, or between body and mind. They are brought together; they become one. However, he also operates with another relation, in that one’s self always stands in relation to something else, something that is not me. With Kierkegaard, the self must relate to the power that created it: God.
The self is a relation that relates to itself on three planes: body, mind, and God. Undeniably, such three relations provide room for disproportion. This is a love triangle—what the French call a ménage à trois—in which doubt and uncertainty easily flourish.
In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes doubt as a fatal illness that also encompasses happiness. It is when the self relates to what makes it doubt—either as a kind of self-doubt or doubt towards the society we live in—that it might strengthen its true faith that eventually leads to a happier life. The idea is that the human being is already divine by virtue of having been created by God. God is often referred to as infinite love. Kierkegaard aims at something similar suggesting that in true love, doubt is absent.
Thus, the crucial step towards less doubt, according to Kierkegaard, is to accept that each of us must become ourselves—meaning the self we have already been created to be. Do I live up to my creator’s model? Do I stand out as I should? In a more Christian vocabulary, there is an equals sign between doubt and guilt. The individual feels guilty because he or she sins, in that the person in question has not yet become what he or she is. For Kierkegaard—and this is what makes him radical (or problematic)—having religious faith means not doubting whether your faith is questionable. Doubt belongs to the unfaithful.
Kierkegaard’s ambition is for the self to become itself—even if such a mode of existence will question the moral norms and values of society. I concur with this idea. I find it healthy to question our moral baselines in order to improve them. (It goes without saying that this does not mean that theft, violence, exploitation, abuse, or murder are sanctioned.) Yet, I disagree when Kierkegaard appears to approve of the way God orders Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a way of testing his faith. It is the resignation that I found problematic.
Still, putting aside the extremity of Kierkegaard, what he aims at is not the external and how it might affect us. According to the Danish existentialist, the lowest form of doubt results from a misunderstanding regarding external loss. Examples could be that your career has failed, your wife has left you, or that your mother or father walked out on you when you were a child. The external is nothing more than a diversion from given oneself up to God. It is this radicalism that is the basis for all philosophical development, according to the Danish philosopher.
The external is rife with the need for status, social identity, and prestige—things Kierkegaard reviles. The external can readily be an excuse, which the individual tries to use to defend him or herself with references to his or her childhood, or lock himself into certain suffering identities. Today, it appears as the political sphere is filled with groups who all find it attractive to depict themselves as victims regardless of race, gender, social class or sexuality. What is missing, suggests Kierkegaard, is an uncompromising faith; or, I may add, a proper understanding of other forms of life and how we all are related. Instead, we often cling on to self-victimizing identities.
Kierkegaard is not part of today’s management by Kleenex-culture. For that I like him. He knows that love is more than a feeling; it’s a capacity to be taught. And lived.
A Subversive Relationship to God
Thus, in the world of Kierkegaard there is no room for a sweetheart, a career, and God. Only God. Now, I have personally not taken a vow of chastity or anything like it. I even find his idea that faith must be completely irresponsible regarding other people’s concern, scary to put it mildly. Still, I am also inspired by Kierkegaard and see his spirituality as a philosophy of life that continuously questions the extent to which we live by what we believe in.
Do we know what is important?
To read Kierkegaard in a non-religious way, it might help to relate him to what philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychotherapist Félix Guattari write in their book What is Philosophy? (1991). Here they claim that it is not truth that motivates philosophy, but rather categories such as the interesting, the remarkable, or the important. Seen in that light, it is not particularly interesting that Kierkegaard refers to a god; rather, it’s how much radical change such a belief created in his life. His belief or faith shows how much he cared.
Kierkegaard—at least, in my reading—was rarely moralizing from a higher idealistic position; instead, he presented an ethical alternative to how one might live their life. And by doing so, he often ridiculed others (e.g. priest and businessmen, as if there were no difference) as a way of overcoming authority without claiming to be one. He did so, not by telling them how they should live, only by illustrating how pathetic their current life was. He mastered indirect communication beautifully.
I find this approach liberating. Thus, when I propose reading Kierkegaard ethically, as a thinker presenting me with an alternative way of living my life, then—may he forgive me—I also believe that his faith or philosophy should be questioned.
When I distinguish ethics from morality, it is to emphasize that ethics is a way of living, a lifestyle that can be existentially conducive to the individual. It is important to remain critical even when a thinker promises salvation, but not less open as such. As Nietzsche has pointed out, all constructive criticism is welcome, because it can help promote new insights. The guiding question in ethics is: “What am I also capable of being?” In ethics, the thoughts and feelings that affect us are tied to our way of living. If your thoughts are sad, perhaps it is because you are living a sad life. The investigation itself takes place within and with life. In contrast, morality refers to a system, preferably a transcendental system, which tells us what we should, ought, or must do. Despite being religious, Kierkegaard never claimed to have exclusive access to God; rather, he emphasized that his relationship with God was personal—that is, private. Similar to a Kafka novel, Kierkegaard leads his reader up to the gate where they may also encounter God; or, as in my experience, realize that the door opens to where I already am. Contrary to Kierkegaard, I believe that my life and the lives of the people I love, end; actually it is because love is finite that compassion and doubt are so important for cultivating respectful relations.
And yet I return to Kierkegaard’s spirituality. I do so because he is both humble and humorous, and therefore, not even close to today’s preachy gurus or missionaries—whether they are preaching a certain religious lifestyle, or are trying to optimize people’s souls for neoliberalism through personal development and coaching. He merely encourages us to be worthy of the life given to us by God—or, as I propose, at least given to us by our parents and all the people before us.
For Kierkegaard, Subjectivity Is Truth
Kierkegaard’s ethical approach to life is related to his idea that “subjectivity is truth.” Whether or not something is true depends on the conviction of your passion. It is not about knowing some kind of objective truth—like the fact that the sun rises in the east—but about knowing yourself. It is easier to learn to add and subtract, or win in Trivial Pursuit than to achieve the genuine insight that can provide peace and meaning in your life. Philosophy is not a linear progression, as some incorrectly believe. The truth to which Kierkegaard refers is based on our basic faith or convictions. We must find something we are willing to live and die for. Of course, we can and will try to qualify and test this belief. For instance, Abraham confirmed his faith by demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac, for other people—myself included— this test itself would be an example of how such faith would be lost.
The phrase “subjectivity is truth” is not the same as truth being subjective, as Kierkegaard writes in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846). Truth can be as subjectively strong as the ice on a frozen lake. Can I live and skate on the ice without its cracking so that I fall through and drown? Can I stand out or will I fall? It is in this spirit that subjectivity is truth, something I can certainly live with regardless of whether it is actually true in a scientific or objective sense (and, of course, without causing other people deliberate harm). It is exactly for this reason that no one should preach his or her truths to other people. No one can take responsibility for another person’s life. All we can do is inspire and exemplify alternatives.
Instead of seeing the truth as something changeless and universal, it can be beneficial to supplement it with the concepts of intensity and movement. What are certain experiences able to open me up to? How intense are they? Do they move me? Why do they move me? Am I easily seduced or is this worth exploring further?
These questions form an ongoing scrutinization of getting to know yourself better. Be sure that you’re not just deceiving yourself but taking care of yourself instead of attending to some career objective that will leave you drowning like Narcissus.
The point is to transgress your ego. As in mathematics you always need three points to know where you are, so do you in life in order to properly care for yourself. It’s easy to deceive yourself without a project far more important than the self. Kierkegaard would be a healthy cure against today’s social sickness of narcissism, where we only seem capable of overcoming our stressing egoism by creating a delusional self-image. Kierkegaard would laugh at today’s obsession with getting followers and likes by promoting our own moral goodness. He’d abhor the virtue-signaling.
Philosophical maturity in the Kierkegaardian spirit is an ongoing experiment about and with life, always in relationship to something greater than oneself. Instead of Kierkegaard’s unquestionable God or idea of salvation, I propose the sustainability of the ecosystem, or fighting for gender and racial equality—two projects that make sense for me. Reading him activates how I am relating not only to myself, but also to my relating myself to myself.
For Kierkegaard, it was crucial that we become responsible for who we are becoming. In other words, how we relate to what happens. Excuses are for the ignorant. Kierkegaard was many things but ignorant was not one of them.
(Image source: “Abraham and Isaac” by William Blake, 1800)
Finn is a writer and philosopher, holding a Ph.D. in practical philosophy. His most recent publication is the book, A Philosophy of Mindfulness: A Journey with Deleuze (2017). He lives in Barcelona, Spain.