Depending on who you ask, the present age seems to be one in which we’re either struggling up a mountain toward utopia or running off a cliff. Many of those who hold the latter view feel they have little control over the state of things, despite their best efforts to steer hearts and minds toward green pastures.
A parable by the Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard encapsulates this struggle:
“It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning. They shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits who believe that it is a joke.”
Kierkegaard dedicated his life to warning his age of its failings and pointing toward a way out. But, as prophets seldom profit from their efforts, he was largely unsuccessful. The present era, which finds itself mired in even deeper problems than that one, is only just beginning to appreciate his lessons.
The Philosophical Life
Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813. As a young man, he broke off an engagement to a beautiful woman because he felt marital duties were incompatible with his life’s purpose: to be a great philosopher. After his father died, he received an inheritance that gave him the financial freedom to pursue this ambition.
He’s unusual among philosophers for his engaging writing style. After a long section of analysis, Kierkegaard will tell a story that captures its main point. These memorable parables, with their condensed plots, limited characterization, and unexpected conclusions, don’t merely explain his ideas but direct the way to moral or spiritual illumination. One can only understand something by living it, Kierkegaard thought. In this way, he’s comparable with another great parable-teller in history—Jesus.
While his philosophical texts themselves are read mostly in universities, a popular oral tradition has arisen surrounding his parables. This is especially the case in Denmark, where he’s recognized as the greatest thinker that nation has ever produced. According to Thomas C. Oden, editor of the “Parables of Kierkegaard” (Princeton University Press, 1978), “The mind of Kierkegaard has been kept alive in the common memory more by his parables than any other part of his authorship.”
Kierkegaard carved out his intellectual position by attacking the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel—a major influence on Karl Marx—who thought that all of history was moving toward a perfect endpoint in the modern Prussian state. Hegel’s writing style was difficult and reflected his own abstract, logical method. While Hegel wrote of the influence of dictators such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon, whom he referred to as “world-historical individuals,” he contended that average people had no control over events. The most they could do was come to understand the objective truth about where society was inevitably leading them. Hegel, like Marx, was a historical determinist.
Kierkegaard objected: What sane person could ever believe in such a thing? The scientific outlook that was rising to dominance in his lifetime favored pure objectivity. But did such an ideal mean anything from an individual perspective? Was it a desirable goal or even possible? In “Philosophical Fragments,” he wrote, “The objective truth as such, is by no means adequate to determine that whoever utters it is sane; on the contrary, it may even betray the fact that he is mad, although what he says may be entirely true.”
This idea is best illustrated through a wonderful parable. Kierkegaard describes a patient who escapes from an insane asylum and, to avoid being recognized, resolves to say only what’s objectively true. Walking along, he picks up a ball and puts it into his pocket. The ball reminds him of the earth. With every step he takes, the ball strikes him and he says, “Bang, the earth is round.” Arriving in town, he wants to convince a friend that he’s not crazy, so he repeats this phrase. But by the very way he keeps repeating the fact, he’s identified as the escaped madman. Moreover, curing him wouldn’t involve convincing him that the earth is flat.
Kierkegaard’s point here isn’t that there is no objective truth—a common notion today—but that objective facts are related through personal experience. Enforcing objectivity on others in the name of history or science is a bit like shackling sane people in an asylum run by a madman.
Kierkegaard is a classic example of a writer who sacrifices everything for his art. In a little more than a decade, he threw all his energy into writing dozens of books and essays. Then in 1855, after having taken out the last of his inheritance from his father from the bank, he collapsed in the street. Wasting away in a hospital, he expressed regret that he hadn’t married and had a family. He was 42 when he died.
His writings became famous in the 20th century. Some philosophers, seeing him as a precursor, assimilated him into the “existential” school of thought. The term was itself coined by Kierkegaard to refer to the importance of “the ethically existing subject.” For Kierkegaard, however, the religious life represented the highest stage of human existence. Almost everything he wrote is directed toward that end. French atheists such as Jean-Paul Sartre isolated some of his concepts while ignoring others.
To boil down Sartre’s basic idea to a cliché, people lead authentic lives when they exercise the freedom to choose. The particular choices they make aren’t something Sartre stops to moralize about. For Kierkegaard, however, certain choices lead in the right direction, while others lead to despair and confusion. Authentic living ultimately involves leaving reason behind and making a “leap of faith.” Sartre’s brand of secular existentialism is—like so many modern ideas—a neutered version of an older, more profound theory.
Sartre’s admiration of freedom without limits had nihilistic implications that, in jettisoning Kierkegaard’s spirituality, jettisoned ethics as well. Licensing all behavior represents the flip side of historical determinism. And since a moral void brings in its train alternative ideologies seeking to fill it, it’s no surprise that Sartre himself converted to Marxism a decade after publishing “Being and Nothingness.” Although these two paradigms are polar opposites, they result in similarly evil consequences and share the same ring of false piety.
Readers who go to Kierkegaard himself and skip the layers of interpretation will find no shortage of wisdom for our times. He had much to say about bad faith, which is best conveyed in a parable about a renowned wise man who sails on a ship with a wicked one:
“When the ship was in distress the wicked man lifted up his voice in prayer, but the wise man said to him: ‘Keep quiet, my friend; if heaven discovers that you are on board, the ship will go under.’”