5 Things I Learned About Kierkegaard’s Work from Stephen Backhouse
“Whatever your take on modern life, there are two things that can be said about [Søren] Kierkegaard: his influence on our various modes of thought is widespread, and the exact nature of that influence is difficult to articulate.” (12)
Part of the task in Stephen Backhouse’s new biography on this enigmatic figure, Kierkegaard: A Single Life, is to make sense of this influence. He accomplishes this magically through a nearly-one-hundred page overview of his works. He also does so by chronicling his work through vivid portraits of his major life moments.
Through prose so compelling it often reads like a novel, I learned five things about the style and substance of Kierkegaard’s work and influence.
1) His Work Marinated
A striking aspect of Kierkegaard’s work is that much of it sat marinating in the shadows within scores of journals before seeing the light of day. “Some entries are rough-and-ready fragments; others are carefully edited with the full realization that they would one day be read by others.” (72)
An important aspect of this style is his so-called “silent years” from September 10, 1851, until December 18, 1854. Backhouse notes that, although “Denmark’s most prodigious prose poet published nothing,” “Søren never actually stopped writing or talking.” (170) Instead, he was “biding his time and gathering his resources” (170), he was waiting and using his journals to “sharpen ideas and develop themes that had been long in gestation.” (171)
2) His Work Was Person-Driven
Important to Kierkegaard’s work were his many “people baths,” daily excursions in which “he became known for plunging into conversation with everyone and anyone, whatever their age and stage.” (108) Backhouse contends the city itself was crucial to Kierkegaard’s writing process:
Lengthy walks around Copenhagen were part of the authorial process, because it was on the city streets that Søren “put everything into its final form.” Søren “wrote” while walking. (108)
These walks and daily, purposeful interactions were meant to illuminate the human condition. Kierkegaard said, “I regard the whole city of Copenhagen as a great social function.” This rang true in his work, as it was drenched with the actualities of human existence—no doubt from his encounters on the street.
3) His Work Was Contextual
Like other thinkers, Kierkegaard was a man of his time who was “intent on speaking to ‘the present age’” (156)—which was influenced by two major historical movements.
- In 1848, nationalistic impulses were fomented by a German-Danish dispute over a region in southern Jutland, leading to war.
- Closely related was a development in the Lutheran Church: it was no longer to be known as the state church but the Danish People’s Church, a “more free-ranging and populist” church (156).
Kierkegaard regarded this bend toward “the People” as disastrous, insisting “the crowd, the mass, are evil.” Backhouse illumines how this context clarified his task: “to winkle single individuals out from their crowds so they could relate to each other and to God as persons and not as groups.” (157)
4) His Work Was Inward-Oriented
Given the above context, “any reform Søren wanted was inward, not external.” (166) For Kierkegaard, the establishment wasn’t going to be opposed “through yet another faceless movement or mob action.” (157) Instead, it would be through his favorite phrase, Armed Neutrality, “a military stance without partisan engagement” by which Kierkegaard presented the ideal of a Christian—especially in contrast to that of Christendom
Practice in Christianity was “the beginning of his overt published attack on Christendom.” (163) In it he offered “a clear presentation of the need for the Single Individual to come out of the crowd and stand before Jesus without recourse to hiding behind the distractions of so-called Christian civilization, either populist or cultured.” (163) Later works would extend and revise this antipathy for Christendom.
5) His Work Was A/Political
Though Kierkegaard did not overtly speak of Christianity as an alternative politic, his focus on the Single Individual’s reformation in Christ and relationship with others “suggests he would have appreciated this way of speaking about a movement that has massive implications for nationhood and neighborhood…” (210)
Kierkegaard offered harsh words for those obsessed with fixing spiritual problems through political solutions. And yet he also understood Christianity couldn’t be entirely apolitical:
The earliest Christians at least did not think their new citizenship, kingdom, or Lord was operating in an apolitical vacuum, and neither did Kierkegaard, who once wrote, ‘The religious is the transfigured rendition of what a politician, provided he actually loves being a human being and loves humankind, has thought in his most blissful moment.’ (210)
“The history of modern life and thought cannot be told without the name Kierkegaard…Kierkegaard’s thoughts need to be encountered, one by one, person by person, or they are not encountered at all.” (206, 207)
Let Backhouse guide your exploration of this singular life—not only to appreciate the man’s life, but to contemplate and appropriate the man’s work for our own present age.
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