1843 A SK’s ideas

cropped-sk-callous41.jpgSoren Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, said he was perhaps close to becoming a Christian but he had questions in his 1846 book Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Kierkegaard, himself, said he is a Christian in his 1848 book Point of View. He grappled with how to strive to become a Christian and  remain one and tried to make the Christian possibility real for himself. His opposite pseudonym, Anti-Climacus, said he was presenting Christianity in its ideality in his 1850 book Practice in Christianity.

Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard wanted both his sons to become preachers and teachers but Soren wasn’t in favor of his idea and wanted to make his own choice. He didn’t graduate from the University of Copenhagen until after his father passed away in 1838. Later, in his discourses, he continually wrote that he was not a teacher and was not a preacher. He realized that he didn’t have a calling in those areas. He had a calling to write, which he loved to do.

Kierkegaard was baptized into the State Lutheran Church of Denmark and his brother, Peter Christian Kierkegaard, was ordained and became a bishop. His father was a woolen merchant who started out as a bond servant on the Jutland Heath.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard wrote a good number of books during his short life-time.  He was born May 5, 1813 and died November 11, 1855. He was one of seven children and lived in Copenhagen, Denmark most of his life. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America count him a saint and remember him on the day of his death. The Episcopalians celebrate him on the 8th of September. Philosophers make fun of him and theologians rarely discuss him.


There was a great quarrel between the ancients and moderns during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Why should we study the ancients classics? Friedrich Schleiermacher published Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato in 8 volumes. He says Plato “demands from the art of speaking, that it enumerate all the different kinds of speeches, and fix every one and each to correspond to all the different kinds of minds, in order thus to define how every speech, under given circumstances, can and must be fashioned according to the rules of art.” (53) Plato says philosophy is the highest and the foundation for everything “estimable and beautiful” and this should be “universally recognized”. (58) He’s talking about the creation of systems and rules for thought as well as for action, adopting, as Schleiermacher says, ” the great triumph of the Sophists, of defending opposite propositions one after the other” after preparing the way through the dialogues which “annihilates” each in turn. (62)

“very man’s own feeling will tell him that the manner in which Plato introduces the speech of Lysias could only have had its proper effect while this publication was fresh in the memory of the readers of the Phaedrus” (65)

Schleiermacher was the university preacher and professor at the University of Halle in Germany from 1804-1807. He was translated into English early in the nineteenth century and lived from 1768-1834.

Thinkers wanted to take a leap backward to Plato and Aristotle and use “dialogue” or dialectics and poetry as a method of escape from the unending real battles over ideas that had been taking place since the rise of the modern world.


Theology and philosophy produced tons of papers filled with words about religion and psychology, each opposed to the other in true Platonic method, but Kierkegaard didn’t like that method and proposed a different method. Silence. He made his point very subtly in 1844.

“When the Eleatic School denied the possibility of motion, Diogenes, as everybody knows, stepped forth as an opponent. He stepped forth literally, for he said not a word, but merely walked several times back and forth, thinking that thereby he had sufficiently refuted those philosophers.”

Repetition 1844 p. 33 Soren Kierkegaard, Lowrie 1941


Kierkegaard took up ancient and modern tragedy in his 1843 book Either/Or. Dialogue is based on reason and Plato used it to teach his students. Here A speaks and then B and they continue to the end of the dialogue. In Kierkegaard’s The Ancient Motif as Reflected in the Modern (p. 137-162 vol. 1 Swenson translation 1971) he looks at poetry instead of philosophy. He says “aestheticians still constantly turn back to established Aristotelian determinations and requirements in connection with the tragical and however much the world has changed, the conception of the tragic is still essentially unchanged.” (137) But has the tragic hero changed over time or not? Kierkegaard thinks the “ancient world did not have subjectivity fully conscious and self-reflective” but in modern times “the tragic hero, conscious of himself as a subject, is fully reflective. The hero stands and falls entirely on his own acts.” (41)  “The more the hero is left to himself the more guilt the hero has.”


The idea of guilt became interesting for Kierkegaard so he decided to publish a book about guilt and heroism and love in Fear and Trembling (1843). God told Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah.  He compares Abraham in Genesis 11 to  Agamemnon in Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides (405 BC). Is Abraham following the ethical life while engaged with God in the sacrificing of Isaac? What about Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia? Could either of them explain themselves to either Isaac or Iphigenia? Kierkegaard says, “if Agamemnon were to say to her, “Although the god demands you as a sacrifice, it is still possible that he would not demand it, that is, by virtue of the absurd”-then he would instantly be incomprehensible to Iphigenia. (p. 115 Hong translation) He makes the same point about Abraham. The difference between the two is that Abraham “lifted the knife” to make the sacrifice himself whereas Agamemnon has Calchas draw the knife to sacrifice Iphigenia. Kierkegaard says the personal act of Abraham far exceeds the second hand, once removed, act of Agamemnon. What about them as esthetic and ethical characters?

… consider Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides. Agamemnon is about to sacrifice Iphigenia. Esthetics demands silence of Agamemnon, inasmuch as it would be unworthy of the hero to seek comfort from another person, just as out of solicitude for the women he ought to hide from them as long as possible. On the other hand, in order to be a hero, the hero also has to be tried in the dreadful spiritual trial that the tears of Clytemnestra and Iphigenia will cause. What does esthetics do? It has a way out; it has the old servant in readiness to disclose everything to Clytemnestra. Now everything is in order. But ethics has no coincidence and no old servant at its disposal. The esthetic idea contradicts itself as soon as it is to be implemented in actuality. For this reason ethics demands disclosure. The tragic hero demonstrates his ethical courage in that he himself, not prey to any esthetic illusion, announces Iphigenia’s fate to her. If he does that, then the tragic hero is ethics’ beloved son in whom it is well pleased. (87)

If the task had been different, if the Lord had commanded Abraham to bring Isaac up to Mount Moriah so that he could have his lightning strike Isaac and take him as a sacrifice in that way, then Abraham plainly would have been justified in speaking an enigmatically as he did, for then he himself could not have known what was going to happen. But given the task as assigned to Abraham, he himself has to act; consequently, he has to know in the crucial moment what he himself will do, and consequently, he has to know that Isaac is going to be sacrificed.” (119)

Kierkegaard says many people understand Abraham and then go on to understand something else. He can understand Abraham but he’s unable to “make the movement of faith” as Abraham had. He thinks people should rethink that old story. He always stressed action as something higher than thinking or even sitting at your desk and writing. Araham was all alone with God when he made his decision. Agamemnon was surrounded by all of Mycenae. No one could understand Abraham’s pain because he couldn’t tell it to anyone. Kierkegaard explained this in relation to Philoctetes in Either/Or.


iph and abr

In Greek tragedy a transition is found from sorrow to pain, and as an example of this I might mention Philoctetes. This, in the stricter sense, is a tragedy of suffering. But, too, a high degree of objectivity obtains here. The Greek hero rests in his fate, it is unchangeable, there is nothing farther to be said about it This element furnishes the precise moment of sorrow in the pain. The first doubt with which pain really begins is this: why has this befallen me, why can it not be otherwise?

There is, indeed, in Philoctetes a high degree of reflection, which has always seemed remarkable to me, and which essentially separates him from that immortal trilogy: there is the masterly depicting of the self-contradiction in his pain, which contains so deep a human truth, but there is still an objectivity which sustains the whole. Philoctetes’ reflection is not absorbed in itself, and it is genuinely Greek when he complains that no one knows about his pain.

There is an extraordinary truth in this, and there also appears here the precise difference between his pain and the precise reflective pain which always wants to be alone with its pain, which seeks a new pain in this solitude of pain.( Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or part 1 Swenson 1945 p. 122-123)

 

 

 

 

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