Søren Kierkegaard is a towering intellectual and cultural figure, not just in the history of Denmark but in the world writ large. Kierkegaard lived in the mid 19th century, but his influence is still felt in theology and philosophy today. Called the father of existentialism, Kierkegaard wrote extensively on the need to reinvent the Christianity of his time. A prolific writer, Kierkegaard also dabbled in subjects as diverse as literary criticism and psychology. Calm your angst; it’s time to take a leap and learn about this illustrious Dane.
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Either/Or was Kierkegaard’s first published work, “edited” by Victor Eremita, one of Kierkegaard’s many pseudonyms. The book is divided into two sections exploring two distinct approaches to life. The first section explores the aesthetic approach to life and is narrated by a character known only as “A.” “A” evaluates works of arts such as Don Giovanni and Faust, and his section of the work features a memorable piece known as “Diary of a Seducer.” The second part of Either/Or is narrated by “B,” also known as Judge Wilhelm. “B’s” segment contrasts the aesthetic approach to life with the ethical approach.
DIARY OF A SEDUCER “Diary of Seducer” is a section of “A’s” narrative in Either/Or. A reflective aesthete named Johannes narrates this section. Johannes describes his efforts to generate interesting experiences solely for the pleasure of thinking about them. Johannes convinces a girl named Cordelia to fall in love with him and then break off the planned marriage. Kierkegaard likely drew from his own relationship with a woman named Regine Olsen while writing “Diary of a Seducer.”
FEAR AND TREMBLING
Fear and Trembling uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to explore the concept of faith. According to the Abrahamic religions, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, because God had commanded it. Writing under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard describes Abraham as a knight of faith. The knight of faith is contrasted with the knight of infinite resignation. A knight of faith bases all his actions on an impervious and irrational belief in God. This irrational belief frees the knight from the despair of living in the present world. Kierkegaard also comments on extra-biblical works, including Iphigenia at Aulis and Agnes and the Merman. These references further differentiate the world of aesthetics from the ethical and religious world Kierkegaard wants us to inhabit.
THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH
Kierkegaard used a pseudonym for The Sickness Unto Death also, publishing it under the name Anti-Climacus. The Sickness Unto Death explores the concept of despair. Kierkegaard identifies three types of despair and argues that sin is the strongest form of despair. Although despair is a central component of existence, Kierkegaard suggests that one may counter it by acknowledging the Self’s dependence on God.
Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments are a series of essays. Broadly speaking, the Philosophical Fragments explore Kierkegaard’s method for finding truth through religion. These essays contain many of Kierkegaard’s most notable quotes, however, including: subjectivity is truth (and also “truth is subjectivity”). Kierkegaard closes the Philosophical Fragments with a “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” which pointedly critiques the deterministic philosophy of Hegel.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
● Watch this video for a brief run-down of Kierkegaard’s life and philosophy.
● Kierkegaard never married, but his one-time fiancée, Regine Olsen, loomed large over his work.
● Kierkegaard is frequently cited by many existentialists as a source of inspiration.
● The teleological suspension of the ethical doesn’t seem a rap-worthy subject, but it actually works better than you might think:
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