Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen. His father had been a feudal laborer on church lands, and had so hated his work that one day he walked to the top of a hill and solemnly cursed God. At the age of twenty-one, his father was released from his vassalage, and moved to Copenhagen where he became rich as a wholesaler. He never was able to shake off the guilt he felt for cursing God, a guilt that was only compounded by the early deaths of five of his seven children and of his wife. This guilt gave him a somber disposition, which he passed onto Søren, along with a strict religious upbringing.

Kierkegaard spent a great deal of his youth as a man-about-town and a student, studying for a degree in theology. In 1840, he became engaged to a young woman named Regine Olsen. A year later, shortly before receiving his doctorate, he broke off the engagement quite suddenly. Though the reasons were not clear, even to himself (a great deal of his writing approaches the question of why he broke with Regine), it seems he felt his ethical obligation to her as a husband and as a good citizen could not be reconciled with his higher, literary and intellectual, obligations.

Soon after the break with Regine, Kierkegaard began writing pseudonymously at a prodigious rate. Fear and Trembling is one of his earlier works, published in 1843, on the same day as another of his books, Repetition. He became increasingly frustrated with the hypocrisy of the Danish church, and his feud with the clergy exploded into an open, and very cutting, exchange of pamphlets and editorials. Kierkegaard poured what was left of his considerable inheritance into funding the publication of pamphlets against the church. In 1855, he collapsed in the street, and died of a lung infection on November 11. Against his expressly stated will, the Danish church officiated at his funeral.

At the time of his death, Kierkegaard was almost universally disliked in Copenhagen, and his works were largely ignored. The first monograph about Kierkegaard was not published until 1877, and he had to wait until the 20th century to come into vogue. Nevertheless, through a complex chain of events, Kierkegaard's works came to be read with interest by leading philosophers outside of Denmark early in the 20th century. His fans came to include such notable figures as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kafka, and Barth. These thinkers often interpreted Kierkegaard as a precedent for their own ideas and therefore as an important step in the history of Western philosophy.

Kierkegaard has continued to exercise tremendous influence on a number of intellectual movements, particularly existentialism, which claims him as a forefather. It is ironic that, while Kierkegaard's ideas have influenced 20th-century theology, they have also been an important influence on existentialist philosophers like Sartre and Camus who do not believe in God, but who admire Kierkegaard's commitment to personal beliefs—while reject his commitment to religion.

Within the context of the history of philosophy, Kierkegaard has generally been understood as a radical critic of Hegel. In brief, Hegel argued that we can obtain knowledge about religious and ethical truth through careful analysis of the historical process that created our ideas about religion and ethics. Kierkegaard argues instead that knowledge about the external world is always uncertain by comparison with our internal intuitions about God and morality. He urges us to pursue a private faith in God.

Philosophical Background on Fear and Trembling

The philosophy of Kierkegaard's Denmark was overwhelmingly dominated by the thought of G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel is perhaps the most influential philosopher in Continental philosophy in the past two hundred years, and Fear and Trembling is written as a sustained response to his ideas. Hegel's philosophy was based on the dialectic, a process according to which two opposing concepts—a thesis and antithesis—could be resolved in a synthesis, which would then in turn become one half of a new thesis/antithesis pair. For instance, being might be a thesis set in opposition to the antithesis of nothingness, which is then resolved into the synthesis of becoming. Through the process of dialectic, philosophy is slowly but surely approaching the truth. This absolute, final truth is called the Absolute Mind, and Hegel constructed a logical system that could guide our inquiries toward this truth.

An important aspect of Hegel's system is his definition of the ethical as universal. The highest goal for the single individual, according to Hegel, is to lose oneself in the universal. That is, one must annul one's personal desires and ambitions and be motivated exclusively by the general interest of all. Becoming a part of the universal is the only way to gain the omniscient perspective of the Absolute Mind.

Hegel's system exercised a great deal of indirect influence on the development of both Communism and Nazism. It should come as no great surprise that a philosopher such as Kierkegaard, who so prized the individual, should be repelled by Hegel's communitarian ethic.