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You Should Be Reading Kierkegaard

A lonely philosopher for socially distanced times

I’m not a pedant, but I find the recent conversation around “social distancing” kind of meaningless. In these times of sickness and death, we use “social distancing” to mean that we, as responsible members of society, will try to stay away from other people in order to prevent the spread of disease. Yes, most of us are probably at a very low risk of contracting COVID-19, but should we go outside to the park, take the bus or go to the supermarket, we may pass it on to someone else who may actually be at a relatively high risk. This physical isolation from the world has been called “social distancing”, even though what we actually mean is “physical distancing” – we aren’t trying to turn into hermits or recluses for the sake of posterity; we’re merely trying to stay away from vulnerable people we don’t really know or see.

But what physical distancing has done to us is clear: we have actually socially isolated ourselves. Doesn’t matter that we didn’t mean it that way or that it was done with the best intentions – we are no longer as social as we used to be. It may just be a phase, and humanity might just get back to its annual orgy in the desert, underfunded public transport and licking donuts willy-nilly.

But while we’re here, we’d be remiss to not take a minute and enjoy the view. And who better to guide us around social isolation than the man, the legendary philosopher, the lonely depresario of the mid-19th century – Soren Kierkegaard. Before I dive into why Kierkegaard is the patron saint of social distancing, let’s take a quick view of his life and times.

Much has been said about Kierkegaard and the school of philosophy he created (existentialism). But here’s what you need to know: he was one of two siblings (the others died before he reached adulthood), he was engaged and then wasn’t, forever regreted said breakup, worried about his place in the world and his relationship with Jesus (he despised Christianity for its many perversions of Jesus’ teachings, and the rampant decadence and corruption of the Church), cried about his strained personal relationships with everyone around him (strained mostly because of Kierkegaard himself), most likely was clinically depressed, most definitely was a keen observer of human nature and a very very very very prolific writer of extraordinary ability and insight.

When I get up in the morning, I go right back to bed again. I feel best in the evening the moment I put out the light and pull the feather-bed over my head. I sit up once more, look around the room with indescribable satisfaction, and then good night, down under the feather-bed.

Kierkegaard in Either/Or

He was basically Radiohead in the 1840s:

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired, unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us
I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises

Radiohead in No Surprises

What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.

Kierkegaard in Either/Or

How to read Kierkegaard

I’m a believer in the postmodern interpretation of the work as being separate from the author. Yes, the author is dead, but as Kierkegaard said,

The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.

Kierkegaard is a martyr, and his works cannot be appreciated without an understanding of the weird, twisted and self-inflicted social isolation that he lamented to his dying day. So, that’s the first step: find a biography.

I like to think of biographies as intimate introductions to the person being written about. Too many biographies are works of fluff and smoke that seem to be written for the author more than the subject. I don’t care what brand of toothpaste you use or the 17 habits that make you successful. I want to know what animates you, why you do things, what makes you who you are, not the mere chronology of events in your life. I think it’s essential while reading a biography to get introduced to the subject, shake his cold, (maybe dead) hands and look straight into their eyes and see what they see. The best book to do this, peek into Kierkegaard’s restless soul, is “Philosopher of the Heart” by Clare Carlisle. Carlisle’s beautiful prose is a perfect companion to Kierkegaard’s own. Kierkegaard’s life almost writes itself, and a lesser writer could easily have mangled its tragic complexity, but I found myself furiously highlighting practically every page of the book. Here’s a paragraph:

Stuck in this crowded stagecoach, Kierkegaard imagines himself towering above his peers – like Simeon Stylites, the fifth-century Syrian saint who lived on top of a pillar, conspicuously devoted to prayer, for more than three decades. People wondered whether he did it out of humility or pride: was he looking down on them from his superior height. Or had he raised himself up like Jesus on his cross, held aloft in all his fragility, willing to be mocked and scorned? Simeon Stylites, the celebrity recluse: the paradox is irresistible; perhaps this should be his next pseudonym?

Clare Carlisle, in “Philosopher of the Heart

So my suggestion to you is this: go get the book. Given everything that’s going on, you’re probably not doing much else anyway.

Why read Kierkegaard

Do you breathe every now and then? Do you have friends that don’t seem to stick around? Do you somehow find a way to ruin a perfect relationship? Do you hate being alone, but seem addicted to it somehow? Do you sometimes get sad for no real reason? Do you find yourself drifting into thoughts of despair, sadness and casual fantasies of suicide with no desire to actually act on it? Do you see no point in things people do? Do you think social niceties and “courtesies” are empty gestures designed to deceive and fool?

If you said “yes” to any of the above, you have reason to read philosophy. And even more reason to read Kierkegaard, for he understood a fundamental truth that many historians, philosophers and “intellectuals” fail to realize:

It is quite true what philosphy says, that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward.

Philosophy is meaningless if it doesn’t allow us to live better lives. Life is not a hedge maze with an eventual goal and a patterned, manicured path. It’s a jungle, and sometimes you need a seasoned companion to appreciate the sights and sounds. Kierkegaard is a great guide, especially when you have nobody else around you. He is the lonely person’s best friend, and his thoughts are most accessible in ‘Either/Or’ and ‘Fear and Trembling’, the first about choices in life and the next about Kierkegaard’s relationship with God, Jesus and himself. Together, these two books contain some of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever come across.

Fear Either/Or Trembling

But don’t take it from me, here’s a selection of my favourite quotes by Kierkegaard, in no particular order.

On grief:

My grief is my castle, which like an eagle’s nest is built high up on the mountain peaks among the clouds; nothing can storm it. From it I fly down into reality to seize my prey; but I do not remain down there, I bring it home with me, and this prey is a picture I weave into the tapestries of my palace. There I live as one dead. I immerse everything I have experienced in a baptism of forgetfulness unto an eternal remembrance. Everything finite and accidental is forgotten and erased. Then I sit like an old man, grey-haired and thoughtful, and explain the pictures in a voice as soft as a whisper; and at my side a child sits and listens, although he remembers everything before I tell it.

Either/Or

On happiness:

Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.

Either/Or

I have never been joyful, and yet it has always seemed as if joy were my constant companion, as if the buoyant jinn of joy danced around me, invisible to others but not to me, whose eyes shone with delight. Then when I walk past people, happy-go-lucky as a god, and they envy me because of my good fortune, I laugh, for I despise people, and I take my revenge. I have never wished to do anyone an injustice, but I have always made it appear as if anyone who came close to me would be wronged and injured. Then when I hear others praised for their faithfulness, their integrity, I laugh, for I despise people, and I take my revenge. My heart has never been hardened toward anyone, but I have always made it appear, especially when I was touched most deeply, as if my heart were closed and alien to every feeling. Then when I hear others lauded for their good hearts, see them loved for their deep, rich feelings, then I laugh, for I despise people and take my revenge. When I see myself cursed, abhorred, hated for my coldness and heartlessness, then I laugh, then my rage is satisfied. The point is that if the good people could make me be actually in the wrong, make me actually do an injustice-well, then I would have lost.

Either/Or

On life:

I stick my finger into existence and it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I?

Either/Or

What is existence for but to be laughed at if men in their twenties have already attained the utmost?

Either/Or

No one comes back from the dead, no one has entered the world without crying; no one is asked when he wishes to enter life, nor when he wishes to leave.

Either/Or

My life is absolutely meaningless. When I consider the different periods into which it falls, it seems like the word Schnur in the dictionary, which means in the first place a string, in the second, a daughter-in-law. The only thing lacking is that the word Schnur should mean in the third place a camel, in the fourth, a dust-brush.

Either/Or

On love:

You love the accidental. A smile from a pretty girl in an interesting situation, a stolen glance, that is what you are hunting for, that is a motif for your aimless fantasy. You who always pride yourself on being an observateur must, in return, put up with becoming an object of observation. Ah, you are a strange fellow, one moment a child, the next an old man; one moment you are thinking most earnestly about the most important scholarly problems, how you will devote your life to them, and the next you are a lovesick fool. 

Either/Or

On philosophers (honestly, it could be said of anything too theoretical or academic):

What philosophers say about actuality is often just as disappointing as it is when one reads on a sign in a second-hand shop: Pressing Done Here. If a person were to bring his clothes to be pressed, he would be duped, for the sign is merely for sale.

Either/Or

On God:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked hungrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches – how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!

Fear and Trembling

On Christianity:

The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism – no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet.

Fear and Trembling

The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

Fear and Trembling

On choices:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.

Either/Or

If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.

Fear and Trembling

On regret after making said choices:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both; Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it, weep over them, you will also regret that; laugh at the world’s follies or weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it, believe her not, you will also regret that; believe a woman or believe her not, you will regret both; whether you believe a woman or believe her not, you will regret both. Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will also regret that; hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum and substance of all philosophy.

Either/Or

On other stuff:

Numbers are the most dangerous of all illusions

Fear and Trembling

What is youth? A dream. What is love? The dream’s content.

Either/Or

My time I divide as follows: the one half I sleep; the other half I dream. I never dream when I sleep; that would be a shame, because to sleep is the height of genius.

Either/Or

Tell me that isn’t some of the most delightful reading you’ve ever done and I won’t believe you.

More than anything else, Kierkegaard reminds us: yes, we are physically distanced from everything else right now, but social distance is something else altogether:

My soul is like the dead sea, over which no bird can fly; when it gets halfway, it sinks down spent to its death and destruction.

Either/Or

You don’t want to be socially distanced.

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