Kierkegaard was born into an age of significant industrial and political change. During his lifetime, Denmark took its first steps toward industrialization and democratization. In 1819 Denmark's first steamship went into service, and in 1841 the government financed the construction of Denmark's first railway between Altona and Kiel. In 1849 the transition was made from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy under Frederick VII (1848-1863). Kierkegaard's age was the "Golden Age" of Danish culture (c. 1800-1870). Nineteenth-century Denmark was graced by such figures as the scientist Hans Christian 0rsted (1771-1851), the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), the poet Adam Oehlenschlager (1779-1850), the churchman and hymn writer Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), the novelist Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), and of course Kierkegaard himself. It was into this age of cultural ferment and political and economic transition that Kierkegaard was born in 1813, the seventh and last child of Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) and Ane Sorendatter Lund (1768-1834).
Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard exerted a profound influence on his son's religious, intellectual, and psychological development. Having imbibed the Moravian sense of sin, emphasis on personal conversion, and understanding of Christ as the man of sorrows, he gave his children a strict religious upbringing. Michael Pedersen was also responsible for introducing his son to theological and philosophical thinking, and to the rigors of intellectual debate.7 After retiring from his clothing business at the age of forty, he had devoted himself to theology and philosophy. He took pleasure in engaging visitors to his home in theological and philosophical debate, his skill at which seems to have made a considerable impression on the young Kierkegaard. Among these visitors was J. P. Mynster (1775-1854), later Bishop of Zealand, who would play a significant role in the last phase of Kierkegaard's authorship.
Perhaps the most significant influence Michael Pedersen exerted on his son, however, was with regard to the development of Kierkegaard's personality.
Michael Pedersen seems to have been tortured by guilt due possibly to his having cursed God as a young shepherd boy on the Jutland heath and to a sexual indiscretion with his maid, whom he subsequently married. He seems to have seen his good fortune in being taken in as an apprentice in his uncle's clothing firm in Copenhagen and his subsequent success and wealth not as a blessing but as a divine curse. When his family was struck by a series of tragedies between 1832 and 1834, leaving him widowed and with Kierkegaard and his elder brother Peter Christian Kierkegaard (1805-1888) as his only surviving children, Michael Pedersen seems to have believed that the divine curse he had so long expected was at last being visited upon him. None of his deceased children had lived beyond the age of thirty-three, the age at which Jesus had died, and he came to believe that he was condemned to outlive all his children, including Soren and Peter Christian.8 This guilt-ridden man seems to have instilled a melancholy disposition, a sense of guilt, and an aversion to sexuality in the young Kierkegaard. There are hints that Kierkegaard discovered his father's sexual indiscretion,9 which may be the reason why he temporarily broke with his father.
In 1830 Kierkegaard went up to Copenhagen University to study theology, which at that time was still under the influence of eighteenth-century rationalism, the foremost Danish exponent of which was H. N. Clausen (1793-1872). Change was in the air, however. German Romanticism was becoming increasingly influential, and through J. L. Heiberg (1791-1860) and H. L. Martensen (1808-1884), Hegelianism was beginning to make significant inroads into Danish intellectual life. Although Kierkegaard himself initially fell under the spell of Hegelianism, which supplied him with many of the impulses and concepts for the development of his thought, he also came under the influence of the philosopher F. C. Sibbern (1785-1872) and above all the poet Poul Moller (1794-1838), both of whom emphasized that life cannot be reduced to philosophical categories and yet who stressed that philosophy should be concerned to address life issues. It was Kierkegaard's growing conviction that Hegel's speculative philosophy failed to take human existence seriously that lay behind his later critique of Hegelianism, a critique which has led him to be seen, with Feuerbach and Marx, as one of the most significant critics of Hegel.
After his break with his father, Kierkegaard neglected his studies and began to lead a "hedonistic" life, innocuous by today's standards but sufficient to cause his father concern that his son was on the road to perdition. A reconciliation came about in the spring of 1838, and it was probably then that Michael Pedersen confided his terrible secret to his son: that he had cursed God and stood under divine condemnation, and that it was his fate to outlive his children. No sooner had Kierkegaard discovered the key to the interpretation of his existence, however, when it was shattered by the death of his father (1838), an event which prompted Kierkegaard to abandon his hedonistic lifestyle and to apply himself in earnest to his studies. He graduated in theology in 1840.
A few months after his graduation, Kierkegaard got engaged to Regine Olsen, an event which was to have profound consequences for his development as a writer. He seems to have had doubts about the wisdom of his marrying almost immediately after proposing.10 His vita ante acta, by which he probably meant his melancholy, the family guilt, and possibly his own sexual inhibitions, placed an insurmountable barrier preventing him from "realizing the universal" in the institution of marriage.11 In 1841, just over a year after proposing to Regine, he broke off the engagement and set sail for Berlin to escape the scandal he had caused.
While in Berlin, Kierkegaard attended the lectures of the aged Schelling. After an initial burst of enthusiasm at Schelling's emphasis on the importance of relating philosophy to reality,12 Kierkegaard quickly became disillusioned, commenting in a letter to his brother that Schelling's "whole doctrine of potencies betrays the highest degree of impotence."13 Disappointed, Kierkegaard returned to Copenhagen. It was during this period between the dissolution of his engagement and the publication of Concluding Unscientific Postscript in 1846 that Kierkegaard wrote the works that would establish his reputation.
With the publication of Postscript, Kierkegaard intended to bring his literary production to a close and to seek ordination. Events transpired, however, which led him to abandon this plan and continue writing. In 1840 a satirical journal, The Corsair, had been founded by Meir Aaron Goldschmidt (1819-1887). Political satire was new in Denmark, and The Corsair was regarded by many as scandalous and offensive. Goldschmidt's admiration for Kierkegaard had resulted in the latter initially being spared the attentions of the journal. P. L. Moller (1814-1865), however, one of The Corsair's regular contributors, published a critique of Stages on Life's Way in which he accused Kierkegaard of exploiting his unhappy relationship with Regine for literary purposes. Outraged, Kierkegaard responded by publishing an article in the newspaper The Fatherland, in which he linked Moller with The Corsair, thereby destroying Moller's hopes of being appointed to the Chair of Aesthetics at Copenhagen University. Kierkegaard also unwisely complained that he had thus far been spared the attentions of The Corsair. This was soon remedied by the journal's publication of a series of caricatures poking fun at Kierkegaard's physical appearance, mode of dress, and relationship to Regine, the result of which was that Kierkegaard could not leave home without being ridiculed.
Kierkegaard initially seems to have comforted himself with the thought of becoming a country parson. His increasing disquiet at the worldliness of the Danish clergy, however, made him hesitant to take this step. Indeed, he became increasingly conscious of the difference between the clergy, whom he held to be interested primarily in securing a good living, and the apostles, who were prepared to suffer and even to die for their faith. What the age needed was a martyr, a "witness to the truth" who would attest to the true nature of the Gospel, even to the point of suffering death for it. He consequently abandoned his plans to seek ordination and embarked upon a new phase of literary productivity aimed at confronting his contemporaries with "true" Christianity.
Kierkegaard's disgust with the church gradually came to focus on J. P. Mynster, since 1834 Bishop of Zealand and Primate of the Church of
Denmark. For Kierkegaard, Mynster embodied all that was wrong with contemporary Danish Christianity. He held his fire, however, first, out of respect and filial affection; and, second, because he seems to have hoped that Mynster would make a public confession "that what he has represented actually was not Christianity, but an appeasement."14
On January 30, 1854, Mynster died. Martensen's praise of Mynster in his funeral oration as a "witness to the truth" outraged Kierkegaard, for far from suffering for the Gospel Mynster had watered down Christianity's demands and had gained considerable worldly advantage from it. But still he held his fire, possibly because he did not wish to influence the choice of Mynster's successor or to hinder the public campaign to erect a monument in Mynster's memory.
Finally, in December 1854, Kierkegaard published an open attack on Mynster in The Fatherland. The public was shocked at this insult to the memory of a highly esteemed and popular bishop, and numerous indignant protests appeared in the press. In the course of this controversy, Kierkegaard but widened his attack to include the whole church, first in a series of articles in The Fatherland and then, from May 1855, in his own journal, The Moment.
At the end of September 1855 Kierkegaard collapsed in the street, and on October 2 he was taken to Frederik's Hospital, his inheritance exhausted by the tenth and final edition of The Moment. He died on November 11, 1855.
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