Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 CE), who was posthumously crowned the first Existentialist philosopher by Sartre, was very pessimistic about the painful struggle of existence, like Schopenhauer. For later Existentialists, the individual must take responsibility for existence and choose how to give meaning to life and the world, whether this is sought individually or socially. As Kierkegaard wrote it, we are wonderfully and horribly free. Like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard saw Hegelian abstractions of reason as inauthentic, but it is the self with which one is left, not the will of the world.
Born in the Danish city of Copenhagen, Kierkegaard enjoyed walking through the city, greeting everyone he met as his fellow equal regardless of their station in life. Nietzsche, whose thinking has often been compared to that of Kierkegaard, preferred solitary hikes in the mountains. Kierkegaard was drilled by his father in lessons at a very young age such that he would be the top student in any class, but to avoid the young Kierkegaard from developing any selfish pride, his father demanded that he get the third best grades in the class, purposefully making mistakes to place himself between what would have been the third and fourth student if Kierkegaard had not held back. Kierkegaard was later a student of Hegel and Schelling, but he found both to be boring and unnecessarily abstract.
The name ‘Kierkegaard‘ means ‘churchyard’ in Danish, which also has the double meaning of graveyard. Though Kierkegaard was an emphatic Christian, he had a very unorthodox take on Christianity. Kierkegaard’s works are dominated by theological concerns, wondering on most pages about the individual’s relationship to God and to Jesus as Christ. However, it is the individual’s choice, in the face of nothing, neither Rationalist deduction nor Empiricist induction, that made commitment and truth meaningful. Kierkegaard wanted to have his tombstone, in the graveyard, read only, “The Individual”, though his relatives decided otherwise.
For Kierkegaard, the meaning of Christianity was not the achievement of objectivity, as it was for Descartes, Kant and Hegel, but the acceptance of subjectivity, of individually lacking the God’s eye view. Kierkegaard was brutally critical of the Danish Lutheran Church for presenting itself as the communal objective community, and argued that it is only as an individual, with no community to trust or follow, that one can be a genuine Christian. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard argued that Christianity began as a rebellion against the status quo, but became the entrenched regime. After healing a blind man, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, the political and religious establishment of his time, and said that because they think they see they are in fact blind. Nietzsche said that one should follow the example of Jesus, not the example of Paul, who unlike Jesus started a religion and insisted on dogmatic obedience.
There is much in the bible that Kierkegaard drew on to support the view that the individual, let alone the social community, never comprehends the objective view of God, such as the ending of the book of Job, in which Job accepts joyfully that he does not nor need not understand how or why suffering occurs, as well as the pronouncement in Isaiah that, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My ways are not your ways”. For Kierkegaard, as genuine human truth is subjectivity, not pretending to have achieved objectivity, it is only the individual who accepts total subjectivity who comes to realize the greater truth, not objective truth but subjective truth insofar as it is achievable by human individuals. For Kierkegaard, truth is not an object achieved, but a test withstood, not a hurdle overcome, but an experience endured.
Like Nietzsche and Heidegger, who Sartre also labeled forerunning Existentialists, Kierkegaard argued that no social system can authentically give the individual meaning and truth. Individuals must make choices, and if they choose to go along with the masses, they have sacrificed their own ability to give truth meaning. Kierkegaard wrote that he could have, like most scholars of his day, become a voice pronouncing the greatness and objectivity of his race, his country, his historical period, his fellow scholars, but rather than commit treason to truth he chose to become a spy, a solitary individual who chronicled the hypocrisy of all claims to objectivity.
Kierkegaard saw himself as a true follower of Socrates, who argued before the court which would condemn him to death that he knew that he did not know, which is why the Oracle at Delphi said that no man was wiser than he. Kierkegaard wrote his college thesis on Socrates, irony, and indirect communication, much as Kierkegaard indirectly communicated through his pseudonyms. Socrates himself never made great claims to truth, and would instead use analogy, myth, and paradox to show that human judgements and beliefs are problematic and contradictory even as they assert themselves with certainty, which Kierkegaard argued was also the method of Jesus. Kierkegaard wrote that Socrates “approached each man individually, deprived him of everything, and sent him away empty-handed”. Socrates showed others that they did not truly know what they believed themselves to know, and he was killed by the Athenian assembly just as Jesus was killed for questioning the Pharisees. Kierkegaard considered himself, like Socrates and Jesus, to be a master of irony.
Hegel, who believed that he had created the final system of philosophy, wrote that whoever would follow him and add to his work would merely gather up the “philosophical fragments” in a “concluding unscientific postscript”. In his most open attack on Hegel, Kierkegaard wrote two works, Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments in 1846, just as the protest movement that would lead to German pessimism was getting underway. Kierkegaard attacked Hegel’s system and determinism, arguing that the individual is free and only turns to order and authority out of fear of freedom and uncertainty. Neither Hegel’s philosophy nor the Danish Lutheran Church could possibly contain or pacify the radical freedom of subjectivity, which is equally wonderful and terrifying.
Recall that Kant and Hegel argued that reason is the free part of the mind with which we can speculate about what should happen, while the understanding is the part of the mind that operates by necessity to categorize what is the case. Hume also argued that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Kierkegaard, like Schopenhauer, argued that the openness of freedom and the terror of insecurity come not from abstractions of reason but from the depths of one’s being, from what one truly is beneath the faculties of understanding and reason. Like Hegel, Kierkegaard sought the concrete, but like Schopenhauer he rejected Hegel’s union of the concrete and abstract, arguing that abstraction stands in the way of the concrete.
To be an individual is to experience “a vertigo of possibilities”, the monstrosity of spontaneity. Sartre later wrote, inspired by Kierkegaard, that when we are high up on the edge of a cliff, the very place one would experience physical vertigo, we are not only afraid of falling but of the part of ourselves which wants to leap into the void and attempt to fly. Kierkegaard wrote, “We are condemned to be free”. It is our freedom, the experience of the infinite, which unites us most intimately with our world. Merleau-Ponty argued that our physical experience has no set boundaries. For Kierkegaard, existence is uncertainty, and this must be faced rather than avoided for the individual who realizes they are unsatisfied in a way that cannot be overcome through passing pleasures. Much as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre would later say, Kierkegaard argued that one can overcome the angst, the vertigo of possibilities, by making a leap of faith, by facing the horror of the void and choosing to believe in something and act with some purpose in spite of the fact that beliefs and purposes can never be fully justified. Only this is authentic individuality, haven chosen oneself, chosen what one is to be, with the full honest recognition of the freedom involved in the choice.
To end our examination of pessimism on a humorous note, recently someone created a Twitter account with tweets from a fictitious character named Kim Kierkegaardashian, a fake personality created by merging mournful existentialist insights with superficial consumerism. While this is a brilliant pairing of a depressed intellectual man and a chipper superficial woman, I in no way want to give the impression that I think that men are intellectual (or pessimistic, for that matter) compared to women, which would be quite inaccurate and sexist. Tune in to any episode of Jersey Shore to learn that superficial is an equal opportunity employer, or if you want to induce a state of pessimism in yourself. That said, you can make a game of these tweets. Try to figure out which part is Kierkegaard, and which part is Kardashian! (https://twitter.com/KimKierkegaard)
We have severed ourselves from the power that established us. We are our own masters. We are Glam Gods. Glam Gods! Exactly this is despair.
Transformed into a Tahitian princess by Bruce Weber! Made fantastic in this way, one fails to notice that in a deeper sense one lacks a self.
Awww Kanye won 3 Grammys!! That makes a total of 21!!! Sooo proud!! But it avails nothing, being only a higher and more glittering illusion.
How does the single individual reassure himself that he is legitimate? A little BiGGie in the morning gets the vibe going.
Red lips, side parts and stunning dresses! Your struggle to appear happy & confident betrays that your dark passions are achieving dominance
Go-karting with Kanye in $6000 shoes. When the strong food of actuality ceases to feed us, we turn to farce.
You can never go wrong with a white blouse. It says: My pain & my suffering are nameless; there is no one who understands me.
Marry and you will regret it. Do not marry and you will also regret it. Sex and The City kind of day.
I have only one confidant: the silence of the night. BFFs for life!!!
Can’t sleep. It’s almost 6am here in Paris. Been up for hours playing fruit ninja. Woe to the person who wants to be excused from suffering!
To win a crowd is no art; for that only untruth is needed, nonsense, & some knowledge of human passions. LIKE me on Facebook to learn more!
Every revelation you make is an illusion; so far, no one has succeeded in knowing you. Your white pumps literally go with any outfit.
Want a red carpet look for New Year’s? Clothe yourself in pain.