Soren Kierkegaard and the Human Person
Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813 in Copenhagen. He was the youngest child of seven, born to parents of Jutlandish descent. He sometimes called himself a child of old age because his mother was 45 and his father 56 when he was born. Kierkegaard was influenced early in life by the devoutly religious teachings of his father which concentrated on Christ's suffering. In 1830 Kierkegaard went to study theology, philosophy and literature at the University of Copenhagen. In 1834 his mother died, and he began the famous journal that he would keep for 20 years. He had decided that he must know himself before he could know what he would do with his life. In 1837 he moved away from home to work teaching Latin at Borgerdydskolen. In 1838 his father died. In the same year, Kierkegaard published a critique of H.C. Andersen's novel Kun en Spillemand entitled Af en Endnu Levender Papierer. In 1840 he became engaged to Regine Olsen, a woman he had known since he had first moved away from home. He broke the engagement soon thereafter, however, believing that domestic responsibility would hinder him in his philosophical calling. He entered into a life of seclusion, writing and publishing constantly for the next ten years.
Kierkegaard lived in a world where the Individual was isolated from his immediate reality. Metaphysics was dominating the European world and the western intellect was trying to constantly reinterpret the philosophy of the late German Philosopher Hegel. Metaphysics in western philosophy posits a center (Plato’s world of forms, Descartes notion of the cogito etc) and grounds all of reality based on that center. Hegelian metaphysics dealt with the concept of the Idea and how it has evolved historically. Since Kierkegaard’s concern was Christianity or to narrow it down Lutheranism the emphasis should be laid on the Hegelian notion of the evolution of religious consciousness. Hegel believed that religion has evolved from animism to Christianity and that Christianity was the pinnacle of religious human consciousness. There were two schools of thought that emerged from that proposition. The left wing Hegelians believed that Christianity has attained its pinnacle in Human civilization and must give way to science and the right wing Hegelians believed that the pinnacle of Human glory was already achieved in Christianity. Denmark during the time of Kierkegaard was dominated by right wing Hegelians. Thus religion (Lutheranism) for an average Dane was a “given” and they “strengthened” their faith by participating in an intellectual discourse on how Christianity was the ultimate goal of Human endeavor.
This notion was very disturbing for Kierkegaard because he believed that Christianity was not “logical” but contained a series of paradoxes and that cannot be understood but what a man needs is “A leap of Faith”. Faith according to Kierkegaard was an inward passionate commitment in the person of Jesus Christ. Kierkegaard believed that the Lutheran notion of the “death of God” cannot be understood by human logic. Thus the Christian Truth is beyond reason and it takes passionate commitment to be a Christian. It does not take much faith to believe in a Mathematical or a scientific truth but it takes much faith to believe in the Christian truth because it is neither mathematical nor scientific.
Kierkegaard’s Subjective truth in relation to the Human self
Kierkegaard does not believe that the Christian truth is subjective and not universal rather he believes that the objective truth of Christianity must be understood subjectively. The relation ship between the subject and the object is not entirely objective but has a great element of subjectivity. Thus every Christian must understand the Christian truth subjectively.
Classical philosophy and metaphysics alienated man from his reality by underplaying the role of passion. Passion in Classical philosophy was considered a hindrance to the truth. In western Philosophy passion was considered as the enemy of truth and knowledge. Metaphysics on the other hand discredits human suffering and human life only to favor essences that are beyond immediate human scope.
Christianity posits a different commitment because it talks of a God who is transcendent and yet is directly involved in history in the incarnation. Thus the Christian faith is not metaphysical but is concerned with immediate human problems. Metaphysics only alienates a Human Being from true Christianity and thus Kierkegaard is concerned with the immediate problems that a Human Being in any given context faces- The sickness that causes death and the even more immediate problem of anxiety. Kierkegaard makes a psychological enquiry into the problem of anxiety and attempts to give a Christian interpretation to that problem.
Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self. Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self. In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul. If on the contrary the relation relates itself to its own self, the relation is then the positive third term, and this is the self. Such a relation which relates itself to its own self (that is to say, a self) must either have constituted itself or have been constituted by another. --Kierkegaard
Thus for Kierkegaard subjective truth arises from the knowledge of the self. If the self is complete with it relates to “the other” then no problem arises, no visible problem is seen even if the self is fully contended in relating to itself but the more the self relates to itself the greater the despair of the self. Thus the self needs to relate to the third entity that gives life and substance to the self and this third entity according to Kierkegaard is God. The self overcomes the problem of despair when it relates to the reality of the eternal God.
Anxiety is another problem that is visible in a Human Being. Kierkegaard analyzes the problem of anxiety and traces it to the first sin of Adam. The uniqueness in Kierkegaard is that he believes that the problem of anxiety was visible in man after the fall and the fall was from a state of ignorance to the present state. He builds a strong connection between innocence and ignorance. Thus the fall did not transfer the human person from the outside history to mortality rather it transferred him from the state of innocence to a state of anxiety and despair.
For a human person to regain that state of innocence he must immerse himself in the person of Jesus Christ but totally and passionately committing himself to his cross (In Luther’s terms because he was one of Kierkegaard’s major influence).
I look upon the crucified one to save me from myself – Soren Kierkegaard
The Individual and the Whole
Existentialism as a movement is criticized for being centered on a single individual and Kierkegaard is often criticized for that but he does not promote radical individuality rather he merely lays emphasis on the role of an individual in a society that alienates man from himself. In his writing in hereditary sin he says that the fall is not a one time event but every sin that is performed by every individual causes the whole race to fall again. Thus Adam is not to be blamed for sin rather every individual is responsible for the sin of the whole world.
Man is an individual and as such simultaneously himself and the whole race, and in such a way that the whole race participates in the individual and the individual in the whole race.
To conclude Kierkegaard’s contribution in understanding the human self paved way for may different movements in western Anthropology. Other existentialists like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Jean Paul Satre acknowledge Kierkegaard as their influence and his genius had a role in Heidegger’s “Being and time” and Satre’s “Being and Nothingness” thus laying the foundation for a new understanding of a human being. Thus he is also a major influence on post-modern thought.