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Kierkegaard and Christendom
By John W. Elrod
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1981 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Modernization of Denmark
Søren Kierkegaard could hardly have lived through a more significant and dramatic period in Danish history. His lifetime, 1813-1855, measures a period of great upheaval and change in practically every dimension of Danish life. These internal transitions followed Denmark's loss of prestige in Europe as a result of its loss of Norway in 1814 and of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in 1864. Both events were occasioned by humiliating military defeats, by the British in 1813 and by Prussia in 1864. This period saw the final transformation of Denmark from a medium-sized European power into a small, weak, and poverty-stricken nation, one so small and helpless that it was almost absorbed into the German Confederation. Added to the military humiliation of 1813 was economic collapse caused by the rampant inflation that accompanied the Napoleonic wars. Despite efforts to stem inflation by increasing taxes and printing more money, the currency had dropped to one-fourteenth of its face value by 1812. On 5 January 1813 King Frederik VI proclaimed the state bankrupt. The nation's bank, the Kurantbank, closed, and money was revalued at about one-tenth of its face value.
Kierkegaard was born into a nation racked by severe economic and foreign-policy crises, which themselves marked the beginning of internal reform and change on a scale so all-encompassing that we may speak of this period as marking the birth of modern Denmark. Indeed, Kierkegaard lived through the transition of Denmark from a state operating according to feudalistic principles in agriculture and industry and presided over by an absolute monarch to a state exceeded only by England in its commitment to the principles of democratic and economic liberalism. Accompanying these radical and swift political and economic changes were the advent of experimental science, the flowering of Denmark's golden age of literature (1802-1830), the emergence of a strong spirit of nationalism, and the beginning of ecclesiastical reform.
Economic and Political Change
Prince Christian Frederik, later Christian VIII of Denmark, observed in 1814 that through commercial trade the lower classes "lose their simplicity and their plainness of thought; they talk politics; in short, they are no longer peasants." His observation was well-founded, for since the middle of the eighteenth century, efforts had been made to replace centuries-old feudalistic agricultural policies. Under the leadership of village patriarchs, agricultural policies were established and heavy fines and penalties levied against individuals who refused to cooperate. This agricultural policy was aimed not at production of surpluses for purposes of trade but at production of only those supplies necessary to sustain the village.
This collectivist policy lasted through the eighteenth century, though it began to come under reevaluation and criticism in the last half of that century. Most criticism and agitation for reform came from professors of economics at the University of Copenhagen, who emphasized the importance of private property, profit and investment of profit, and use of technology in order to increase yields and profits. The Danmarks og Norges Oeconomiske Magazin offered a medal in 1760 for the best answer to the question: "What are the most considerable obstacles to the abolition of common holdings in land, and by what means can they most easily and certainly be overcome, without prejudice to those concerned?" Only one economist in all of Denmark favored retention of the old communal system. There was practically unanimous agreement among the academics, the king, and large landowners that agriculture would be enormously stimulated by placing it on a profit basis. Common lands were consolidated and divided; large estates, once the owners saw the profit to be made from rising land values, were voluntarily divided into small farms and rented or sold to farmers who were freed to operate them independently. The most important objective in the government's program was to stimulate peasant ownership or hereditary tenure. To this end, the king made low-interest loans available for the purchase of small farms; where outright ownership was not possible, farmers were encouraged to rent and lease land. In addition, peasants were granted freedom from compulsory labor and freedom to move throughout the country. All the government legislation necessary for this transformation of farm policy had been approved by the king by the turn of the century, and by 1865 the communalistic structure of agriculture had been completely replaced by a capitalistic one.
It is no wonder that in 1814 Prince Christian Frederik could observe that increased political activity accompanied the demise of the peasantry and communal and estate farming. The establishment of individual ownership of farms and of individual enterprise as the cornerstones of nineteenth-century agriculture resulted inevitably in democratic political activity in rural districts. Small landowners slowly established themselves as a political force with which the king and later the democratically elected parliament had to contend. They worked for equalization of the burdens of taxation and military conscription, which previously was confined to the peasant class. Aggressive and enterprising members of the class discovered the possibility of upward mobility by means of economic success in farming, business, or industry.
The placing of agriculture on a capitalistic base was accompanied by an equally radical transformation of the urban economy. By 1814 the principles of laissez-faire economics had been accepted by economists in Denmark. In any case, change in the direction of capitalism was already under way by the time the thought of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo reached Denmark. Agricultural reform, population increase, and industrialization, which created new trades and products not covered by the guilds, were all influential in the breakdown of the old feudalistic guild system by the turn of the century. The ideas of the liberal economists merely fueled the drive toward its complete dismantling.
Proponents of the guild system fought its demise in the Danish courts through the 1840s and 1850s but without ultimate success. The courts were simply unwilling to stifle the emergence of individual freedom in the arena of employment. New jobs made available by industry, merchandizing, and agriculture outmaneuvered the guilds; the freedom of occupation bill passed by the Rigsdag in 1857 did little more than confirm an already existing economic reality.
This capitalistic turn in the domestic economy as well as in Denmark's trade policies so greatly nourished the bankrupt economy that by 1840 individuals who had accumulated capital through savings were investing it in corporate enterprises. Under the leadership of Copenhagen's Industrial Society, established businesses adopted the corporate form of organization in order to expand their capital bases. New corporations were formed to undertake the construction of a national railway system, the establishment of a brewing industry, and the planning of amusement gardens. All this corporate activity in turn opened up new jobs and provided a healthy market for speculation. Because Denmark's economy continued to be heavily based in agriculture through the middle of the nineteenth century, the creation of an industrialized and corporate economy in the cities was not so rapid and dominant as to create the kinds of social and economic problems it generated in England. Only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century did the social and economic problems of industrialization appear; even then they were of an extent that could be successfully managed by government and business.
The triumph of capitalism over the guild system in 1857 represented as radical a reform in the urban economy as did the dissolution of communal agriculture in the countryside. As in the rural areas, the individual, at least in principle, was freed to pursue his own private economic interests. Individual initiative and enterprise replaced the communal and collectivist orientation of a guild-dominated labor market, and in both the city and the country the profit motive emerged as the prime incentive for labor.
The ultimate triumph of liberalism in Denmark occurred in 1848-1849 with the final ratification of the constitution by King Frederik VII. His two predecessors in the nineteenth century, Frederik VI (1808-1839) and Christian VIII (1839-1849), were both strong advocates of absolute monarchy. During their reigns, the monarchy continued to enjoy the support of Danish citizens; even the loss of Norway in 1814 and the economic collapse of the country in 1813 stirred no new political consciousness and provoked no call for a change in the character of government. As B. J. Hovde succinctly states, "between 1815 and 1830 one might almost say that there were no politics in Denmark." And Hans Christian Andersen wrote in The Fairy Tale of My Life that "politics played no part at all in Denmark, the theatre was the 'public interest,' the most important theme of conversation for the day and the evening...." This political passivism in the first third of the nineteenth century was largely the result of the enlightened nature of the monarchy. Frederik and Christian were not despotic in character, possessed a warm affection for their subjects, and were reasonably responsive to the agricultural and economic reforms pressed during their reigns. Thus, while rapid and far-reaching changes were occurring during the first third of the nineteenth century in economic and agricultural life and in Danish foreign relations, all internal voices for political change were effectively silenced by common consent.
The second third of the nineteenth century, however, witnessed the decline of the nobility and the clergy, the two classes that had been the king's closest advisers. As the activities of banking, industry, agriculture, and commerce passed into the arena of private initiative, the nobility experienced an inexorable decline in power and influence. The nobility and the clergy were then replaced by the peasants and the bourgeoisie, and these two groups began to agitate for and ultimately brought about political reform. We have seen how agricultural reform plunged the peasants into political activity. Their politics were narrowly based on the pursuit of class interests; thus their initial goals were related almost exclusively to agricultural reform — land reform, private ownership of property, freedom of occupation, and educational reform directed primarily toward instruction in farming methods. Not until the late 1840s, when Christian VIII denied them the right of assembly and refused their request for universal conscription, did the peasants align themselves politically with the bourgeoisie and come to support the latter in its demand for a constitutional form of government.
The transition to a constitutional form of government did not come about as the result of internal political pressure placed upon the king by the bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The bourgeoisie — composed of academics, the literati, and the business community — had for a decade been quietly pressing the king for a change in government. Frederik had been unresponsive, though he accidentally provided the opening needed by political liberals when in 1831 he decreed the creation of four consultative assemblies in response to pressure from Schleswig and Holstein for freedom from the Danish crown. These assemblies were created for the purpose of advising the king on how best to govern Schleswig, Holstein, Jutland, and the Danish islands. Members of each assembly were to be elected by popular vote in each province, and their role in national politics was to be purely advisory.
The intellectuals used these assemblies as their political base for articulating the principles of democratic liberalism. They stood for freedom of the individual, equality of opportunity, and political democracy, and they believed that a society based on such principles would regulate itself by the principle of intelligent self-interest. The state was to be but a policeman, making certain that no individual or group of individuals infringed upon the rights of other individuals or groups. The leadership of this movement was assumed by a small group of men: the economist Christian Georg Nathan David; the theologian Henrik Nicolai Clausen, whom Hal Koch describes as "perhaps the most popular of university professors, an intrepid advocate of freedom in science and in the church, as well as in civic life"; the botanist Joachim Frederik Schouw; and the jurist Peter Georg Bang. Orla Lehmann represented the students, Johan Christian Drewsen the industrialists, and Anton Frederik Tscherning the military; ironically, Tscherning was the most radical of all. With the establishment of the assemblies, the bourgeois liberals immediately began to press their demands for the "abolition of gild [sic] monopolies; free trade; improvement of the means of communication; the recognition, not of aristocratic privilege, but of 'ability' and cultural achievement ... and finally, constitutionally established democracy."
Freedom of the press became the first concrete issue behind which the liberals united in political action. In the first assembly elections in 1834, C.G.N. David's journal, Faedrelandet (The Fatherland), became so aggressive in its support of certain candidates and opposition to others that the king threatened to curb its role in the campaigns. This threat was strongly opposed by the liberals, and Professors Clausen and Schouw carried a petition to the king bearing 572 signatures warning him against any such repressive act. The signers of this petition also formed the Society for the Proper Use of the Freedom of the Press, which attracted thousands of members throughout Denmark and served as a mechanism for the education of the public in democratic liberalism. A compromise on this issue between the king and the liberals was reached, but it was clear that constitutional government was on the way.
Christian VIII, in an open letter dated 8 July 1846, declared himself in favor of a constitutional monarchy. He appointed Bang, a moderate, to draft a constitution, which Bang prepared to send to the king late in that year. But Christian died before he could sign a constitutional government into law. His successor, Frederik VII, called a constitutional convention into session. This convention drafted a new constitution, which Frederik signed on 5 June 1849. The constitution provided for two chambers of the Rigsdag: the Landsting, to be elected indirectly; and the Folketing, to be elected directly. Male householders thirty years of age were eligible to vote. The constitution guaranteed freedom of assembly, speech, and press; it also required court reform, including trial by jury. In addition, freedom of occupation, universal military service, and local self-government were placed on the agenda for future consideration by the Rigsdag. Finally, all hereditary privileges were abolished.
The tenuous alliance maintained between the peasants and the bourgeoisie during the struggle for constitutional democracy and the 1848 war with Schleswig and Holstein, from which Denmark emerged victorious, disintegrated once Frederik signed the new government into law. With these domestic and foreign matters settled, the bourgeoisie's fear of peasant leadership of the nation through their dominance of the Rigsdag resurfaced. The politics of the last third of the century centered on this struggle of the peasants for political dominance of the nation. What is important for us to notice here is that by 1850 the political consciousness of the Danish people had been thoroughly reshaped by agricultural reform, laissez-faire economics, and democratic liberalism. These broad movements had introduced changes of a quantitative nature into Danish life; more fundamentally, they brought a qualitative transformation of a people's understanding and perception of themselves. This emergence of a new self-understanding on the part of an entire people was reflected in and nurtured by Danish literature, religion, and science.
Excerpted from Kierkegaard and Christendom by John W. Elrod. Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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