Kierkegaard, religion, and existentialism.

Sunrise. A woman and a man awake. Their eyes crackle open to the outside world and freedom faces each with the day’s first challenge. Burning like the hot sun, this empty day stands before them and demands recognition, having returned once again with freedom’s unworn morning salutation, a vehement inquiry, “what now?”

To acknowledge one’s mortality is to bear the burden of assured finitude — an unknowable end, an unavoidable certainty, both of which habitually offer nothing but disquiet and enigma; but, to acknowledge one’s free nature is to confront an existence containing unfailing infinitude — the unavoidable certainty that unknowable ends await us, as we are compelled, simply by being, to decide each moment of our own fate. Bound by these facts, which incites the harsher terror: accountability for a repercussive future, which results from answering the day’s “what now”; or, the knowledge that every action, no matter its effort, cannot stave off our grandest threat? In questioning the purpose, then, of existence, some individuals may see the day’s warming sunrise and believe it need be nothing more than what it is, another moment enjoyed or ignored in another day — inherently meaningless. For others, the shelter of religion provides solace from the terror of their existential bind as it supplants divinity for uncertainty, moral doctrine for individual responsibility, and eternal salvation for encroaching annihilation. One individual who shied away from the simple mechanics of sunshine and instead found existential warmth underneath tenets of divinity was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

Through his writing, Kierkegaard identifies a real and common human phenomena, now routinely referred to as existential angst — a derivative of the original Danish title to his book on the topic, Begrebet Angest [1]. Unfortunately, though, his explanations for the condition read more as a psycho-religious analysis of himself than an altruistic philosophy on the existence of mankind. He insists on tying theistic nature to ontological theory, and this becomes problematic in the practical realization of his philosophy. This is particularly so with his propositions concerning freedom, which, though they attempt to elaborate man’s unique condition in a temporal existence, contradictorily enslave him to a divine, atemporal narrative. As a result of this reliance on religious doctrine, his resulting philosophy, while significantly valuable to the work of future philosophers and social scientists, depressingly reveals his inability to fully accept the implications of his ideas and consequently transcend the painful conditions he set out to explicate.

Pinked tchotchke, ink on chipboard. Chris Rusak 2016
Pinked tchotchke (for a friend)
Ink on chipboard, 2016.

Inasmuch as Kierkegaard used psychological suppositions to build an emotional-ontological philosophy, one can do the same to deconstruct those same arguments, particularly since he considers man’s existence to be essentially “a synthesis of psyche and body” [2]. By using a summary history coupled with admissions about motivation and intent — valuable psychological reference points — one can examine his propositions and pit a philosophy against its author. Knowing the temperature of his emotional spirit also helps in unravelling his convoluted ideas, as such an inquiring effort requires inference of his mental well-being, on which application of contemporary psychological theory will serve — as psychological supposition did for his writing — to enhance philosophical argument. So, in order to faithfully approach Kierkegaard’s philosophy, one must take a stroll around some of the moments of his life which undoubtedly sculpted his storied character.

Born in 1813, the Copenhagen native experiences the deaths of most of his immediate family by the time of his twenty-first birthday, a household, which at its height, contained nine members. This is quite ironic, as Kierkegaard scholar Alastair Hannay points out, since his last name was the Danish term commonly used to refer to a graveyard. As a result of his survivorship, he enjoys and later inherits much of the family’s wealth, which had been amassed through his father’s years of keen salesmanship, and he will live comfortably, perhaps too comfortably, without the typical constrains of employment and demands of self-sustenance. His father, an extremely pious man, maintained a life of devotion that put a strain on their relationship; however, he confides in Søren that, once, prior to his wealth and under duress of a life of “monotony, loneliness, and misery,” he cursed God for his situation, and gravely fears retributive “divine punishment” [3]. Nonetheless, inspired by his father, Kierkegaard becomes a student of theology and a staunch Christian, yet does express a “growing disenchantment with Christianity” around the time of his sixth family member’s death. After temporarily turning away from studies to become the “life and soul” of the Copenhagen social scene, he soldiers on, ever a man of faith, and eventually completes his theological degree and gives sermons in his adulthood. He flirts with romance and the possibility of taking a bride, one day proposing to a very young girl, whom he had initially met when she was only fourteen, ten years his junior. Kierkegaard soon cowers and ends the engagement, categorizing it as a distraction from the longstanding goals he was more interested in pursuing. This pushing away of people would soon become his norm. Near the time of their break-up he begins to write furiously, pseudonymously, publishing his breakthrough work Either/Or several months before his thirtieth birthday. Shortly after this creative milestone he turns a sharp pen towards various institutions and attempts to discredit them, only to provoke his own subsequent and widespread public ostracization. Depressed by the requital and feeling asphyxiated by its resonance, he retreats to an isolation which “persisted for the remainder of his life.” He continues to write in solitude, a self-condemned sentence that likely drove him mad, as he would throw parties, alone, for himself and mingle with his “imagined guests” [4]. Finally, shortly before his death, he pens a notorious, anti-Christian attack on the Danish State Church — an institution for which he originally trained in order to gain employ. Afterwards, it is clear, Kierkegaard has no chance of a revered place in Danish society; he is now a complete outcast. On his deathbed he calls his life a “great … and incomprehensible suffering” [5]. Author Hans Christian Andersen, writing thirteen days after his death, notes his accordingly scandalous funeral, where one of Kierkegaard’s nephews “denounced” the burial rites his uncle had been given [6].

In the middle of this soap opera, though, immediately before he becomes a prolific author, Kierkegaard finds himself at an important juncture. On that day, the Dane sits down at a street café and begins to posit the terrors of his own existence, particularly dying, uncelebrated, without having made a mark on history. He thinks he should do something with his “limited capacities” and make something of himself. This realization stems from a self-comparison to famed and notorious figures, noting their presence amongst “literature and in life,” as well as how their accomplishments indelibly affected others [7]. He identifies a comfortable, persistent indolence within himself as a natural stasis, one endemic to the human condition; yet, he quickly leaps into a state of inspiration by the sight of a freshly extinguished cigar and immediately commits to transforming his will and getting to work, this change of state triggered by the smoky, ashy, visual metaphor of death. On account of his deep humanitarian compassion, he says, he aims to disembarrass himself of his languor, and claims, remarkably, that his charge in life is now “to create great difficulties everywhere,” contra to what has been done before by those admired predecessors, and as the only logical, possible direction he could forthwith take.

Analyzing his life, one finds Kierkegaard states desires to affect others, to win the same notoriety accomplished by those he admires, and to make some sort of societal impression, all of these hopes dovetailing with an urge to disrupt the status quo; moreover, the ethos of his intentions are compounded by, as we know from his later years, a very difficult, if not pathological disposition. And an interpretation of his psychologically dense, existentially oriented text, The Concept of Anxiety, in which he attempts to explain his conception of existential angst as it affects man’s existence, relies on this awareness of his propensity.

Beginning the text with a refutation of philosophical ideas set forth by his predecessors, Kierkegaard sets off and quickly reveals how tightly dogma intertwines with his philosophy. He immediately juxtaposes the religious concept of sin with a psychological conception of anxiety — or more faithfully translated from the Danish as dread — and believes the former to be responsible for the perpetuity of the latter [8]. Sin, he reminds us, originated through one particular individual: Adam, in the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. But with this Kierkegaard commits his own philosophical transgression, as he proceeds with his pontifications by predicating an explication of the human condition (both that of an individual and in totality) on doctrine from his chosen faith, Christianity — this unironically placed in the genesis of his own creation [9].

Just as sin and transgression play a huge role in his thought, a sure bequest from those years in his pious father’s shadow, hereditary sin endows the development of his case for anxiety. Kierkegaard deconstructs the narrative of Genesis to reveal that had an omnipotent force admonished the first individual of its creation to avoid the knowledge of good and evil — God to Adam in Christian doctrine — such an admonishment would not be understood by the individual since he had previous experience of neither good nor evil with which to relate prior to acting; such knowledge could only be a posteriori. Adam, prior to the admonishment, was in a state of innocence by virtue of ignorance. God’s admonishment thus annihilates ignorance and instantaneously instills the knowledge of good and evil, without any action from Adam at all. But coupled with God’s warning was also a threat, that of the loss of eternal life for erring to comply with his wishes. This predicament, a mandate to decide one’s ultimate fate, was thrust upon man by his creator; the emotional reaction to this, Kierkegaard believes, is a devastating event [10]. An infinitude of possibility is “awakened by the prohibition,” and the ambiguity of possibility awakens anxiety. Therefore, the Creator’s most expansive gift was not creation itself, it was — alas! — the birth of anxiety, as proven through the formative narrative of Christian doctrine.

James Giles, in his essay “Kierkegaard’s Leap: Anxiety and Freedom,” asserts that pointing to the moment of anxiety is important because to do so also allows the author to explain how culpability for our actions leads to feelings of guilt. Man, having been issued the edict to choose, gains “access to the experience of freedom” [11]. This free choice leaves one with two possible results, in a similar vein to that of salvation or damnation: to do right (good), or to do wrong (evil). In cases where one’s decisions have led them down the path of evil, one may “attempt to disown them as free choices.” This, according to Giles’ interpretation of The Concept of Anxiety, helps erase our responsibility in the matter, “or [renounce] feelings of guilt about” having made a wrong decision. Paradoxically, what adds devastation to disownment, is that on some level, one truly desires the evil object of their decision, simply because it was their decision. This “desire for what one fears” is a sort of dialectic turn in anxiety, but a guilt- provoking moment nonetheless, as the ambiguity between fear and desire will lead to another provocation of guilt. Man now lives in fear whether he chooses or not, and — alas! — the birth of existential angst, an outwardly perverse side effect of God’s decree.

Now, considering Kierkegaard’s upbringing in a severely pious household, readers should not be surprised that he turns God’s constitutional benevolence inside-out. He pens The Concept of Anxiety just several years after his father’s death [12]. Though their once strained relationship improved in later years, after his father’s passing Kierkegaard expresses sorrow for the loss, anger over his decisions as a parent, and detachment from not only the patriarch, but religion, both of which he considered responsible for “depriving him of an ordinary childhood.” In the period after his father’s death, Kierkegaard’s emotional state is clearly agitated. If we suppose Kierkegaard mimics his father, cursing God for his loss and thereby assumes some of the guilt from his father’s own cursing episode, then since his existence predated that of Lucien Freud and modern psychotherapy, his emotional issues, indicated by his ornery temperament, were likely unresolved psychologically, certainly not with the help of professional or ministerial intervention as indicated by his isolation, and thus this guilt persisted during his time writing the book. To defend this assertion one need look no further than Kierkegaard’s own words; as he discusses Adam and hereditary sin, he acknowledges the psychological phenomenon of sympathetic familial guilt, as well as the inherent “persuasion of piety,” suggesting he was keenly aware of both his own emotional disposition, as well as Christianity’s effect on his nature. From here, applying theory from existential psychology — a discipline which credits Kierkegaard as a formative influence — one can illuminate his guilt-ridden psyche and reveal the subtext in his doctrinally-dependent philosophy [13].

Writing on the application of existential philosophy to psychotherapy in his seminal text Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin D. Yalom repeatedly refers to Kierkegaard in order to explicate the theories of his discipline. Discussing the connection between existential guilt and responsibility, Yalom distinguishes the former from its more traditionally accepted institutional definition as a neurotic feeling from “imagined transgression”, clarifying it instead as dysphoria from “actual transgression,” “accountability” . Worse, he points out, may be that once a self experiences such existential guilt, it correspondingly exposes itself to the magnitude of its responsibility within the world and, borrowing terminology from Martin Heidegger, incites a state of crisis-provoking “indebtedness” [14]. The potentiality of existence becomes paralyzingly heavy after realizing our role as sole shapers of its actuality.

Placing him on the therapist’s couch, so to speak, and examining him through the lens of his own philosophy, we observe Kierkegaard in mourning. He realizes he has inherited the sin of his father, a mortal who lived with the admonishments of a Christian God, yet cursed Him, just as he, too, had once turned away from the Creator, and does so now in grief. His father’s turning away begot the deaths of his children, a divine punishment; his turning away begot the death of his father. He feels responsible for his father’s death. He feels guilty. He realizes that his freedom in the matter enabled him to cause this. It was his turning away from God, his detachment from his father, that caused this. He seeks to renounce the responsibility for his actions, so he disowns freedom and its responsibility for the fates of himself and others, and sinks deeper into condemned isolation. He comes to realize, however, that he did desire to turn away from God, that he wanted to be unbound from indoctrination, that he sought distance from his father, and he now desires what he once feared. He retrieves his freedom, his intention to create great difficulties, and chooses to write a book. Isolated and bound with both sympathetic familial and inescapable existential guilt, he not only discovers solace in familiar religion, but also discovers solace in relinquishing causal responsibility to God. God killed his father as divine punishment for his turning away, for his wrong, evil decision. He returns to this fact through the archetype of Adam, first man, who — as he will soon come to write — “loses innocence essentially the same way” as every man does thereafter: through admonishment.

And what Kierkegaard now faces is a true existential conundrum. Either he accepts Christianity and its doctrine of hereditary sin and enjoys how its narrative serves not only to structure a philosophy on man’s condition, but also to soothe the psychological pain of his own lonely, ostracized condition and fears of the future ahead. Or he accepts the crucial implications he discovers in his philosophy — freedom and its infinite possibility, responsibility and its unsettling anxiety, an inevitable future and certain death — as endemic to the human condition and completely outside of a divine doctrine, at the risk of further alienation from what little consonance he has left in the world, left to face the nothingness of his revelations spiritually alone and wholly responsible for his self. If he accepts this, no longer could his condition be blamed on his protest of institutions, nor the imagined need for this condition be blamed on ascetic ideals; it would solely rely on his pure choice.

His miserable dilemma and his miserable existence can only pull heartstrings in empathetic individuals. One can accept his use of religious archetypes in crafting a psychical metaphysics, irrespective of whether the author forthrightly believes in Christian doctrine’s actuality or not, perhaps as his sole way of performing autodidactic talk therapy [15]. As one rereads The Concept of Anxiety with its author-restoring potential in mind, it is easy to surmise that the work is a therapeutic roman à clef: Adam as Søren Kierkegaard, and God, the father. Then, judging from a contemporary point of view, is it innovatively disruptive to write a philosophy that speaks of mankind’s de facto emotional struggles and transpose one’s select religious beliefs upon the condition in order to extrapolate the struggle’s origins? To the extent that one only uses those very same religious beliefs to begin to destroy the very institution whence they came from, yes, it is an innovatively sly way to disrupt a prevailing system of belief. All of these facts warrant an acknowledgment that he did achieve his stated goals of notoriety and making a mark on society, albeit cantankerously, through his creative and literary effort.

But it is also a fact that Kierkegaard relies on Christian doctrine until the text’s final thought, in which he claims his “deliberation ends, where it began,” a declaration of the forthcoming effort as a psychological examination of existential angst as germane to the “dogma of hereditary sin” [16]. Although one of his final living acts was a scathing diatribe against the church, and it stands to reason that — according to his own words, “in possibility all things are equally possible” — he considered, in addition to rejecting organized religion, the complete rejection and abandonment of faith itself, Kierkegaard, be that as it may, was unable to fully leave the canopy of God’s countenance [emphasis added]. Having faced the unsettling eternity of death too many times before in his childhood, he could not thoroughly describe that terror without the security of an alternate, philosophical “escape hatch” to quell his own anxiety [17]. To write a truly free, atheistic philosophy meant not only taking the risk of inciting his own existential anxiety, but also taking responsibility of inciting his readers’ fears, too. For this reason, it was a risk he had to forsake.

Alternatively, one could adduce, as the excuse for his chosen Christian motif and dense, tricky prose, his predilection for indirect communication, in which he sought to speak with a provisionality that allowed his readers to relate to and hierarchize ideas uninfluenced by any suggestion of his own desires [18]. Louis Mackey, writing in Points of View: Readings of Kierkegaard, however, ultimately disagrees with this absolution. He believes Kierkegaard ends his book by proposing salvation from anxiety through faith, and does so, as a result, of his continued insistence to conflate human freedom with a god’s absolute power. Writing in her book Dreadful Freedom, philosopher Marjorie Grene agrees by noting this as Kierkegaard’s existential blind spot, and she believes his philosophy is inextricably tethered to divinity, and as a result, forever and incontrovertibly theistic [19].

Grene elaborates her position, scathingly, by pointing out his tendency for convoluted disjunctions that ultimately discredit his arguments. For example, he conceives that subjectivity could “be truly subjective only in the confrontation of the individual with God,” a meeting which would varyingly yield either “pure and unmixed suffering,” or a state of joy, but fails to provide clear reasons why. Mackey also notes his disjunctive thoughts on subjectivity, summarizing his fault as a proposition that man was both existentially free and therefore atheistic, but plagued by this infinitude and therefore dependent on the “absolute objectivity of God” — an unresolvable paradox. Grene intimates that this weak confidence within his argumentation was a “despairing” agony itself and ultimately exposes his “philosophy of pain and paradox” as just a dialogue about himself. Yet Mackey drives the nail into Kierkegaard’s coffin as philosopher, asserting that, when all is said and done, he “destroys the very end his indirect rhetoric was intended to achieve,” and describes him as instead a “poet of inwardness.” As a result of entangling the origins of human condition in a fictive religious narrative and qualifying its relevance through circular disjunctions and indeterminacy, Kierkegaard blunted the potential psychical impact of his philosophy, his resulting duplicity creating a sense of doubtable mystery, much like the unknowable origins of God and the universe, on which he depended.

Although Kierkegaard readily admits attempting to live from a source of benevolence in order to mark the world indelibly with his seal, he ultimately concedes his efforts ended as a tragedy, an unfortunate repercussion from his decision to believe, until the very end, that he could somehow have accomplished his goals through a perverse and confusing, ascetic self-crucifixion. In the end he leaves his readers in a sad place, too. With the content of his philosophy depressingly heavy on their minds, he fails to propose to them alternative ways of coping with such existential revelations besides a metaphysical crapshoot of faith. Furthermore, he takes an emotionally challenging set of ideas and continually returns their result back to the pain Grene points out; can his ideas not mature to an optimistic acceptance of the future and an empowering edict to carpe diem, something successors like Yalom have faithfully accomplished? What Kierkegaard leaves us with is what his father left him, which was what his father found from God: a selfish admonishment — thou shalt not stare into the sun, into the sunshine of illuminating knowledge, for to do so will burn into your existence the power to annihilate not only my freedom to damn you as I see fit, but my responsibility for your joy, too. And fear, that fear, we truly know, is worth nothing.


[1] McCumber, John. Time and Philosophy. Acumen, 2011. pg. 79.
[2] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety. Princeton UP, 1980. pg 81.
[3] Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard: A Biography. Cambridge UP, 2001. pg 132.
[4] McCumber pg. 77.
[5] Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. Qtd. on pg. 8.
[6] Hannay, Biography. Qtd. on pg 420.
[7] Kierkegaard, Søren. “How Johannes Climacus Became an Author.” In Bretall, Robert. ed. A Kierkegaard Anthology. Princeton UP, 1973. pg. 194.
[8] McCumber pg. 79.
[9] Hannay, Alastair. “Kierkegaard’s single individual and the point of indirect communication.” In Crowell, Steven. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism. Cambridge UP, 2012. pg. 74.
[10] McCumber pg. 89.
[11] Giles, James. ed. Kierkegaard and Freedom. New York: Palgrave, 2000. pp. 69-141.
[12] Hannay, Biography pg 119.
[13] Yalom, Irvin D. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: BasicBooks, 1980. pp. 14-15.
[14] Qtd. in Yalom pg. 277.
[15] Hannay, Biography pp. 33-34.
[16] Kierkegaard, Concept. pp 14, 162.
[17] Yalom, pg. 277.
[18] Mackey, Louis. Points of View: Readings of Kierkegaard. Florida State UP, 1986. pp. 133-139.
[19] Grene, Marjorie. Dreadful Freedom. University of Chicago, 1948. pg. 16.

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