That Single Individual

Like many young people struggling to find themselves in the modern world, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-55) at age 22 was uncertain about his purpose in life. Writing in a poetic, possibly quasi-autobiographical fashion for a projected novel while vacationing by the sea, he mused:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. Of what use would it be to me to discover a so-called objective truth, to work through the philosophical systems so that I could, if asked, make critical judgments about them, could point out the inconsistencies within each system; of what use would it be to me to be able to develop a theory of the state, combining the details from various sources into a whole and constructing a world I did not live in but merely held up for others to see; of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points—if it had no deeper meaning for me andfor my life?. . . I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it people can be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important thing. This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.

(Cf. JP v. 5100; SKP i, AA 12, translations modified)1

Kierkegaard found in Christianity the truth that would give meaning and purpose to his life and the idea for which he was willing to live and die. While contemplating the possible significance of his authorship years later, he wrote: 'If I were to request an inscription on my grave, I request none other than that single individual' (PV 118-19; cf. JP ii. 2004). The category of the single individual (den Enkelte) was the central category of Kierkegaard's life and thought, constituting for him 'the very principle of Christianity' and 'the one single idea' that essentially contains his whole thought (JP ii. 1997, 2033). As he understands it, to become the single individual is to become a whole and unified self before God, which is a possibility for every human

1 See Fenger (1980: 81-131), and KJN i. 301-5 for a critical assessment of his claim that this journal entry is fictional in character.

being and our common ethical-religious task in life.2 The category of the single individual is thus 'the category through which, in a religious sense, the age, history, the human race must go' (PV 118). 'The first condition of all religiousness', he claims, is to be an individual, for 'it is impossible to build up or to be built up en masse' (117). By the same token, 'only as an individual' can one most truly relate oneself to God (JP ii. 2009). Kierkegaard's own struggle to become 'that single individual' was a lifelong quest that was shaped not only by his writings, which in a very real sense constituted his own religious education and personal upbuilding, but also by the formative influences, intellectual cultivation, and significant events of his life.3

FORMATIVE INFLUENCES 'I Owe Everything to my Father'

Chief among the influences that figured importantly in shaping Kierkegaard's early life was his father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (17561838), a highly successful, self-made businessman who came from peasant stock in West Jutland.4 Shortly before his twelfth birthday Michael moved to Copenhagen to become a hosier or dry goods apprentice under a family relative and worked his way up to establish his own business by the age of 24. At age 38 he married Kirstine Nielsdatter Royen (1757-96), the sister of his business partner, but it was a short-lived and childless marriage, as she died from pneumonia within two years. Eleven months later Michael retired from business and shortly thereafter married a maidservant in his house, Ane Sorensdatter Lund (1768-1834), who bore their first child less than five months later.5 The shame of his premarital incontinence, a strong sense of guilt and deep remorse for having once cursed God for his hard lot as a poor shepherd boy, and the untimely deaths of five of the seven children Ane bore him, leaving only the youngest son Soren and the oldest son Peter Christian (1805-88) alive, imbued Michael Kierkegaard with a morbid melancholy that not only persisted throughout his own life but infected Soren and Peter as well (JP v. 5874; PV 79).

2 See further Eller (1968: 101-200).

3 For extensive biographies of Kierkegaard, see Garff(2005); Hannay (2001); Lowrie (1962).

4 Tudvad (2004: 16-17). Kierkegaard was also deeply attached to his mother, although he never wrote about her directly in his journals or works. Upon her death, which occurred when he was only 21 years old, he visited the mother of his tutor, Hans Lassen Martensen (1808-84), who reports in his autobiography that she had never seen 'a human being so deeply distressed as S. Kierkegaard was by the death of his mother'. See Kirmmse (1996: 196).

According to Kierkegaard's own retrospective accounts of his childhood, his father, who was already 56 years old when Soren was born on 5 May 1813, subjected him to a very strict Christian upbringing, towards which the boy was highly ambivalent (JP vi. 6243; PV 79-80; cf. CUP i. 589-602). In a particularly poignant passage from his journals Kierkegaard observes: 'Humanly speaking, I owe everything to my father. In every way he has made me as unhappy as possible, made my youth incomparable anguish, made me inwardly almost scandalized by Christianity' (JP vi. 6167). On the one hand, his father cultivated imagination and the art of dialectic in him— capacities that would later serve him well as a thinker and writer—and instilled in him a love and veneration of Christianity that he never gave up (JC 118-25; PV 79-80). On the other hand, even though his father was 'the most affectionate of fathers', Christianity was presented to him in such a way that at times it seemed to him to be 'the most inhuman cruelty' (JP vi. 6167; v. 6019; PV 79).

Soren felt that his father had robbed him of his childhood, of the immediacy that rightfully belongs to a child: 'His fault consisted not in a lack of love but in mistaking a child for an old man' (PV 80; cf. JP vi. 6379). Soren was deprived of the opportunity to be, even to dress, like other children, leading him to declare in one of his works: 'Christianity cannot be poured into a child, because it always holds true that every human being grasps only what he has use for, and the child has no decisive use for Christianity' (CUP i. 590).6 In other words, Christianity is a religion for adults, not children. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard believed that his rigorous Christian upbringing predisposed him to become a religious author and to be able to discern at an early age 'how seldom Christianity is presented in its true form' (PV 80). As 'fanatic' as his own Christian upbringing had been, he regarded it as far better than the 'gibberish' that often passes for Christian upbringing, and in one of his works he formulated a more adequate approach for introducing Christianity to a child (JP ii. 1215; PC 174-9).

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