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The Mind of Kierkegaard
By James Collins
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Kierkegaard the Man
Far more has been established with certainty about the public life of Kierkegaard than about his intellectual development. For every well-charted step in his social relations, there are ten steps taken in his interior life which still remain obscure to us. His biography is, however, a dramatic one chiefly from the standpoint of the clash of spiritual values. We are fortunate in having at our disposal some excellent biographies and Kierkegaard's own revealing Journals. These sources tell us about the manner of man Kierkegaard was, and — inevitably, in the case of one who lived so intense an inner existence — they also reveal a good deal about his mind and its motor principles. Without some understanding of his life, not much sense can be made of the thoughts which stem so immediately from his personal situation.
The purpose of this introductory chapter is to sketch this personal history and furnish the background details about Kierkegaard's frame of mind, just before he began his literary activity. If this biographico-psychological approach were to be taken as a substitute for independent analysis of his works, it would defeat its own ends. There is a real danger today of deflecting interest and critical judgment from the general standpoint represented by this disquieting nineteenth-century Dane. Yet this is not a sufficient reason for neglecting to consider Kierkegaard the man, since such a study provides the most natural pathway to a grasp of his teachings. It is only necessary to respect his own request that his position be judged by its actual content, as well as by the personal cost at which it was acquired and maintained.
I. SKETCH OF HIS LIFE
Kierkegaard has aided his biographers not only by providing a rich deposit of details and reflections on his personal growth but also by indicating the cardinal events around which these materials can be arranged. His autobiographical essay — The Point of View for My Work as an Author (written in 1848, published posthumously) — calls attention to three central peaks in his life and prepares the way for the fourth and final crisis, which only ended with his death.1 His formation at the hands of his father, the unhappy love affair with Regine Olsen, his collision with the press and the mob, and his open struggle with the Established Church of Denmark — these are the major situations in which he was implicated and which conditioned his outlook. The four ages of his life were: son, lover, polemical author, witness to the truth. At each stage, a unique and indelible set of traits was stamped on his mind and communicated to the books in which that mind found its natural flowering.
Danish national pride and national frustration had equal shares in Kierkegaard's makeup. He never ceased to regret the fact of having been born in Copenhagen, the provincial capital of a country lying on the fringe of European civilization, Especially galling to him was the remoteness of his national tongue from the common stream of cultural communication, for he rightly surmised that this would hinder the spread of his views. The political and economic backwardness of Denmark, following on its ill-fated policy of armed neutrality during the Napoleonic era, did not help to arouse respect abroad for Danish achievements in the arts and sciences. At home, this weakness was reflected in an unhealthy concentration of talent, wealth and energy in Copenhagen, which nevertheless retained all the petty traits of a market town. The country's inferior status was only confirmed by the predominance of German literary and philosophical ideals. In the background lay a constant threat from Prussia, whose ambition was not confined to cultural infiltration but was ready to take the form of concrete military and territorial encroachment.
Probably in reaction to this state of affairs, Kierkegaard was always quick to pour scorn upon the German philosophical windbags, who concocted pompous theories with such ease, and upon the dupes among his own countrymen who were willing to swallow them. On the other hand, he had a keen appreciation of native Danish geniuses like Thorwaldsen, the sculptor, and Oehlenschlaeger, the poet, who were trying to create a modern national tradition. And amidst his complaints about his isolation from the rest of Europe, Kierkegaard was not blind to his own considerable contribution to his country's critical and literary heritage. The impulse which he gave to Danish literature bore immediate fruit in the writings of Brandes and Ibsen. It is difficult to calculate the full effect of his impact upon the religious life of Denmark and the rest of the Christian world. In the long-range view, his own corner of earth was as sound a springboard as could be found for his projects.
Naively but honestly enough, Kierkegaard was accustomed to boast of his descent from the purest strain of Danish blood. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was born in Jutland in 1756, moved across its bleak moors as a shepherd lad, and came to Copenhagen at the age of twelve. From an apprenticeship with his mother's brother, he rose rapidly in the hosier's business and soon became a leading wholesaler in wool and foodstuffs. His business success was proverbial in Copenhagen, being supplemented by shrewd investments in government securities. Rather dramatically, M. P. Kierkegaard retired in his early forties, in order to devote himself to meditation and the training of a large family. His first wife had died childless in 1796. The next year he was forced to marry his servant and distant relative, Anne Sørensdatter Lund, whom he had gotten with child. The last of the seven children of this marriage, Søren Aabye, was born on May 5, 1813.
In later years, Søren made little mention of his mother, but he never ceased to ponder on the character and mystery of his father. Physically, Søren was never very robust. This frail condition he attributed in part to his being the child of his parents' old age (the father and mother were respectively fifty-six and forty-five years old at his birth). In addition, he was born with a hunched back and uneven legs. This fact, together with his status as youngest child, gave him numerous privileges in the household and in his father's heart. His native wit and sharp tongue were encouraged, earning for him at home the sobriquet "the fork" and at school the respect, although not the affection, of his companions. In accord with his father's wish, Søren always kept well within the upper rank of his class. He compensated in learning and repartee for his physical weakness. A sense of intrinsic superiority developed quite soon, but his teachers were not sure whether he would ever devote his curiosity and undeniable originality to serious, constructive ends.
Beneath this surface brilliance of learning and liveliness, Søren's real education was going on at an unnoticed depth, with his father as tutor. Running throughout all his reminiscences of the boyhood years is an acknowledgment of three basic dispositions inherited from his father: imagination, dialectic and religious melancholy. The father deliberately cultivated these powers in his son. When inclement weather prevented them from taking their usual walk through the streets of Copenhagen, father and son would set out together on a spirited, imaginary excursion. Friends would be greeted, gossip exchanged, notice taken of passing traffic, obstacles avoided, and none of the small details left unobserved. Søren became accustomed to searching the faces of strangers and guessing at their hidden stories. These exercises, along with his wide literary readings, developed his psychological acumen and habit of visualizing all the possibilities of a situation. Imagination was disciplined, however, by an equally precocious development of intelligence along logical lines. M. P. Kierkegaard was well acquainted with the rationalist philosophy and theology popular during the latter part of the eighteenth century. This knowledge was not allowed to grow dim or remain merely a private treasure. He would summon his favorite divine, J. P. Mynster, and other worthies to discussion meetings at his home. There, a thorough airing would be given to the most subtle problems in Wolffian philosophy and Lutheran theology. Søren used to sit entranced, while his elders advanced their arguments, pro and con, in technical terms and with all the resources of logic. But the magic moment was always awaited, when his own father would dissolve the fine net of dialectic with a few rapier thrusts and thus assert the supremacy of his position.
The quality of his religious instruction led Søren, later on, to call his home training a crazy and cruel upbringing. His father visited upon him the full force of his own religious moods and troubles, without any regard for adapting his presentation to a child's sensibility. His religious belief had its doctrinal foundation in Lutheran Christianity, with its stress on the sinfulness and inborn depravity of man, his distance from God, and the unutterable mercy of Christ in taking our sins upon Himself. The Redemption of men by Christ crucified was regarded as the central religious doctrine, but it was not conveyed to Søren in a purely theoretical way. The elder Kierkegaard frequented the revival meetings of the Moravians, who centered upon the tears and sufferings of Christ, the wounds inflicted upon Him, and all the details of His crucifixion which would excite emotions of compassion and repentance. Not the infant Jesus but the man of sorrows was held up for worship. Withal, it was emphasized that God is all-powerful love and providence. But this belief did not seem to bring peace to the soul of the old man: he walked about with quiet despair as companion. A powerful melancholy gripped him during his religious meditations, although his son did not guess at a more personal reason for this depressing mood, until he had been at the university for a few years.
Søren matriculated at the University of Copenhagen in 1830, enrolling for the theological course out of deference to his father. Yet during most of his undergraduate years, his academic interests lay in the fields of literature and philosophy. He was an enthusiastic student of Plato, the Romantics, Shakespeare and the latest authorities in philosophy. For one semester, indeed, he did engage as private tutor the most brilliant of the rising young theologians, Hans Martensen. But the man who had sat under Hegel, welcomed Schleiermacher to the Danish shores and assured the world that he could go beyond his illustrious predecessors in reconciling theology with contemporary needs, was unable to impress his young student or lead him to undertake a serious study of theology. Kierkegaard's mode of living during the early 'thirties was not conducive to such interest. Apart from some student speeches in favor of the monarchy and women and against the liberal movement, he distinguished himself chiefly by his wit and his taste for fine food and drink. His favorite haunts were the cafe and the theater, which he visited in the company of a chosen circle of his student admirers. Not only the sowing of wild oats but also thoughts of suicide, disbelief and despair occupied him during this period.
There was more involved in this moral and intellectual breakdown than the conventionally wild ways of young manhood. About 1835, Søren experienced what he termed a great earthquake. It dawned upon him that his father's melancholy was due to some secret moral defection, and that therefore the blessings of fortune were only the ironical means employed by providence to manifest its displeasure with him. It seemed entirely likely that a divine curse had been laid upon the entire family and would bring them all to untimely destruction. This foreboding was apparently confirmed by a rapid succession of deaths in the family, leaving alive only the old man, Søren and his elder brother, Peter Christian. An "infallible law of interpretation" now suggested itself, in accordance with which the father was to survive his sons, who would not live beyond their thirty-fourth year. Although Søren's habits and opinions had alienated him from his father and led him to establish separate residence, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard made a supreme effort at restoring an understanding and, along with it, his son's moral health, which had been impaired by the terrible suspicion. He confessed to Søren that, as a boy in Jutland, he had raised his fist in blasphemy against God. Together with his sexual fall, this deed had weighed heavily upon his conscience throughout the latter half of his life. This sense of guilt had led to his melancholy, and now he unburdened its cause to his favorite son.
As a consequence of this heroic confession, prompted as it so evidently was by love and solicitude, Søren was reconciled with his father and led back to an effective belief in God's fatherly love. The most powerful religious experience of his lifetime — one in which a Pascahan sort of religious joy was the predominant note — occurred in May, 1838, a few months before his father's death. From this experience can be dated his own dedication to the problems of religious existence. Shortly after his father died (August, 1838), Kierkegaard issued his first book: From the Papers of One Still Living, the title of which indicated his surprise at surviving his father. This satirical analysis of Hans Christian Andersen and the esthetic view of life was his first attempt to settle accounts with the principles which had governed his own youth. And to the surprise of all his acquaintances, Kierkegaard now finished his theological course, crowning his studies with a master's thesis On the Concept of Irony with Particular Reference to Socrates (1841). Even in this outward way, he sought to pay his debt of piety to his father's memory.
Already in 1837, Kierkegaard had met Regine Olsen, at that time only fourteen years old. The sentiment he felt at once toward her apparently caught him off balance. The entries written in his Journals, just previous to his introduction to Regine, were filled with thoughts of his sins and need for repentance. Hence his spontaneous reaction to this meeting was an observation that he had been turned back again to the world; he prayed that God would help him in living and improving himself. His courtship was deliberate and steady, and he experienced a triumph in winning Regine from a previous suitor. The engagement did not take place for a full three years after their first meeting, but immediately afterwards Kierkegaard was convinced that he had done wrong and that the engagement could never lead to marriage. Numerous ways of avoiding the inevitable break ran through his head, including taking her as a concubine, tricking her into rejecting him, and marrying her without revealing "his secret." The idea of behaving so outrageously that Regine would voluntarily dismiss him, made the strongest appeal. But no matter how calloused his talk, he could not dislodge her deep trust in him. Finally, he had to take the responsibility upon himself. In October, 1841, having previously returned her engagement ring with a cold, involved note, Kierkegaard broke definitively with Regine. Not even her appeal to Christ and the memory of his father, was powerful enough to deter him from this last step.
Why his one earthly love affair went through this tragic, almost grotesque, course has been answered in diverse ways by Kierkegaard himself. The main points of his testimony hang together, even though they do not adequately explain or justify his actions. There can be no doubt that he loved Regine in some way, but the engagement specified this attachment in terms of married love and family responsibility. This cast a new light upon their relationship, enabling him to view his fiancée and especially himself in a more concrete way. Incompatibilities, which had previously appeared to be minor and corrigible, now became for him indexes of an unbridgeable chasm between them. Thus, her gaiety, frankness and spontaneity had seemed only temperamentally opposed to his own deepseated somberness, isolation and deliberation.
But the prospect of marriage led Kierkegaard to think that much more than temperamental differences were present. He interpreted her spontaneous behavior as the sign of a personality which is irremediably unreflective and unspiritual. He felt himself to be "an eternity too old" for her, since she could never accompany him along the ways of critical reflection and resolution. And now he realized that he had never been a youth, except at the distance of poetic fancy and deliberate wish.
Excerpted from The Mind of Kierkegaard by James Collins. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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