Debunking the Kierkegaard Myths

kierkegaard2_360x450Kierkegaard kept voluminous journals. It’s reasonable to assume from that that his would be an easy biography to write. In fact, it is fairly easy to write a biography of Kierkegaard and quite a few have been written including David F. Swenson’s Something About Kierkegaard (Augsburg, 1941), Walter Lowrie’s A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1942), Johannes Hohlenberg’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Pantheon, 1954), Henning Fenger’s Kierkegaard, The Myths and their Origins (Yale, 1980), Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard: A Biography (Cambridge, 2001), Joakim Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005), Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan, 2016), and most recently, Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart (Allen Lane, 2019). What isn’t so easy is to write a biography that is genuinely revealing, that delves beneath the surface facts of Kierkegaard’s life and his own well-known observations on them to show something of the man behind the biographical myths.

All the existing biographies give essentially the same picture of Kierkegaard, a picture that has been cobbled together from Kierkegaard’s journals and accounts of some of his contemporaries. They present him as a somewhat reclusive, oddly attired, physically misshapen, passionately religious melancholic from a similarly passionately religious melancholic family. There is little question that the “passionately religious” qualification is correct. Kierkegaard came from a devoutly religious family whose spiritual roots were in the individualistic tradition of the Moravian Brethren, and they maintained their connection to this denomination even while enjoying membership in the official Danish Lutheran Church.

The picture of Kierkegaard as a melancholic loner who was the product of an unhappy childhood comes largely from his own observations about himself in his journals. Even Fenger and Garff, both of whom point out how careful Kierkegaard was at crafting the image of himself that he wanted to survive his death, give too much credence to what Kierkegaard writes about himself. Scattered among the many reminiscences of people who knew Kierkegaard are clues that suggest the narrator of the journals is unreliable.

Kierkegaard writes repeatedly that his childhood was unhappy. Observations of the Kierkegaard household, however, by visiting friends and acquaintances invariably describe it as warm and happy, presided over by loving parents who took conspicuous pride in their children’s abilities and accomplishments. See, for example, the reminiscences collected in the section entitled “Barndom og skoleår” (childhood and school years) in Erindringer om Søren Kierkegaard (memories of Søren Kierkegaard) (Reitzel, 1980).

Kierkegaard describes his father as profoundly melancholic. There is little evidence, however, to support that Michael Pedersen suffered from depression until very late in his life after his second wife, and the mother of his children, died and then his children began to die off, one by one, in early adulthood. Kierkegaard’s older brother, Peter Christian, gives a similar picture of the family, and it is well known that he struggled with depression himself. But again, there is little evidence that this was a serious problem until after he lost his mother and siblings to death and after he lost his first wife shortly after their marriage.

The death of a loved one naturally leads to depression and to lose one’s children is reportedly one of the worst kinds of losses. Peter Christian lived through the death of nearly all his siblings, as well as the death of his first wife, and added to the grief of those losses was the undoubtedly disturbing spectacle of his once strong father’s own struggles with grief. That both Kierkegaard’s father and his older brother suffered from depression later in their lives makes perfect sense. That in itself is not sufficient, however, to support that the family had any sort of congenital predisposition to depression, or that Kierkegaard’s childhood home had been characterized by it. My point is not to argue that the traditional picture of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood is necessarily wrong, but simply that there are reasons to doubt it.

Kierkegaard describes his father as authoritarian, yet it is well known, as a contemporary, Peter Munte Brun observes in Erindringer, that the elder Kierkegaard encouraged his children (his male children anyway) to debate with him on points of philosophy and theology. Michael Pedersen may well have been authoritarian in some respects, but most devoutly religious heads of households insist, if they are authoritarian, on conformity on intellectual matters and, in particular on points of theology. So if Michael Petersen was authoritarian, it was not in the traditional sense.

But if this negative view of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood home is inaccurate, why do we find it in Kierkegaard’s journals? There are two possible reasons. The first is that the Romantics tended, paradoxically, to have a positive view of melancholy—it was romantic. Kierkegaard was steeped in the Romantic worldview and appeared to enjoy thinking of himself as a romantic figure. Second, many of his accounts of his family and childhood that support this view were written after the family experienced the tragic losses referred to above, hence Kierkegaard’s later view of his family and this period of his life may well have been negatively affected by these losses in the same way that his brother’s likely was.

Part of The Corsair’s merciless caricaturing of Kierkegaard included depicting him as hunch-backed with trouser legs of two different lengths. Was Kierkegaard hunchbacked? Most accounts of contemporaries make no mention of this purported deformity and the medical records from Frederiks Hospital, where Kierkegaard breathed his last in 1855, include no reference to it. There are a few accounts of Kierkegaard from contemporaries that describe him as “slightly hunched” (Erindringer, 67-68), but that’s very different from saying he was hunch-backed. Strangely, even Fenger gives too much credence to the view that Kierkegaard was hunch-backed. There is actually no evidence, however, to suggest that Kierkegaard suffered from anything more than poor posture, or what is sometimes referred to as a “scholarly slouch.” Even that is largely conjecture given that the few references we have to this purported physical characteristic of Kierkegaard date from the period after he was portrayed this way in the caricatures published by The Corsair when people’s memories of Kierkegaard might well have been influenced by those caricatures.

Were Kierkegaard’s trouser legs of two different lengths? Anyone who knows anything about Kierkegaard and gives this idea a moment’s thought will realize that it’s extremely improbable Kierkegaard would ever have appeared in public in such poorly-tailored attire. Kierkegaard was a notorious flâneur whose excessive tailor bills were the bane of his father’s existence. This is likely the reason, in fact, that The Corsair chose to depict him as poorly attired. Nothing would have irked the vain Kierkegaard more than being presented as anything less than impeccably dressed.

I address the myth that Kierkegaard was reclusive in a publication that will appear shortly, so I won’t scoop myself by going into that issue here. Suffice it to say that it makes little sense to suppose that a well-known flâneur could also have been a recluse.

So there you have it. More support could be presented, of course, to challenge each of the prevailing myths about Kierkegaard that turn up in nearly every biography of him like so many bad pennies. Again, my point here is not to argue that there is no truth to these myths, but only to point out that there is reason to suppose that there is less truth than has traditionally been thought.

New Book on Kierkegaard and Judaism!


Some months ago I was contacted by a Swiss scholar, Joanna Nowotny, who wished to thank me for the work I do on this blog. She’d made extensive use of it, she explained, when doing the research for her book, »Kierkegaard ist ein Jude!« Jüdische Kierkegaard-Lektüren in Literatur und Philosophie (“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” readings of Kierkegaard in Jewish literature and philosophy) (Wallstein Verlag, 2018). At some point, when I have the time to construct a “Testimonials” page for this blog, I’ll post her lovely email to it. In the meantime, however, I procured a copy of the book and have begun reading it.

I was intrigued, of course, because most of the recent discussions of Kierkegaard and Judaism with which I am familiar have been connected with Peter Tudvad’s groundbreaking Stadier på antisemitismens vej, Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the way of anti-Semitism, Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010) which reveals that Kierkegaard had some truly reprehensible attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, particularly toward the end of his life. That doesn’t mean, however, that Kierkegaard has nothing positive to contribute to the Jewish intellectual tradition. George Connell argues, in fact, in his excellent Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Pluralism (Eerdmans, 2016) that “[i]ronically, in [Kierkegaard’s] final years, just when his rhetoric is most negative about Jews, just when he most offensively asserts the utter opposition of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of his thought represents a reaffirmation of Christianity’s fundamental and positive relation to Judaism” (p. 66).

I’ve only just started Nowotny’s book and I haven’t gotten very far yet, so I will hold off making any substantive comments on it until later, after I have finished it. In the meantime, I have taken the liberty of translating the copy from the back cover of the book. This will give you a little taste of what the book is about.

This large-scale study by Joanna Nowotny examines the traces left by Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking in the theoretical discourse and literary culture of Jewish Modernism.

“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” Gershom Scholem noted enthusiastically in his diary in 1915. “Nowhere” is the “core of Jewish sensibility [Weltgefühl] … so experientially formulated,” as in Kierkegaard, writes Max Brod a few years later in “Heidentum — Christentum — Judentum” (Paganism, Christianity, Judaism) (in Der Jude 1, 16-20). Such interpretations of the “Christian author” Kierkegaard are remarkable. They raise the question of how Kierkegaard’s œuvre, which was enormously popular in German-speaking Europe after 1900, offered possibilities for a Jewish interpretation and appropriation in particular. How is Kierkegaard’s thinking in this context made theologically, politically, and literarily fruitful, by poets and thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Franz Kafka? Which aspects of his work play a special role? What attitudes [Gestus] underlie the various Kierkegaard appropriations and which functions do they fulfill in the context of discourses on Jewish identity? Joanna Nowotny addresses these questions in her study and shows the traces Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking have left on authors such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Franz Werfel, and Franz Kafka.

Looks interesting, eh!

The Biblical Foundations of Kierkegaard’s Monarchism

There’s been much discussion recently of Kierkegaard’s political views. There was even a panel on this subject at the most recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The panel was organized to honor the work of the late Robert L. Perkins, a giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and an early proponent of the view that Kierkegaard’s thought has positive social implications. I was honored to be a part of this panel. My paper was entitled “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff.” The other participants were John Davenport, whose paper was entitled “The Crowd and Populism: Was Kierkegaard Correct that All Politics is Profane?,” C. Stephen Evans, whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” George Pattison, whose paper was entitled “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Lee Barrett, whose paper was entitled “Can Love Be Political?” There was also a respondent, Christopher Nelson, who did a wonderful job of bringing all the papers together in his response. The papers were excellent and the discussion afterward was enormously stimulating. It was one of the best sessions I have ever been a part of. You don’t have to take my word for that, though, Mercer University Press, for whom Bob Perkins worked for many years as the editor of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series is publishing a volume of the papers.

The occasion of this post is not simply to advertise that volume, but to develop one of the points I made in the paper that will appear there in more detail than I made in the paper itself. It is well known that Kierkegaard was a monarchist. “Government [by] royal power is representative,” he writes in a journal entry from 1847, “and to this extent Christian (monarchy)[.] The dialectic of monarchy is world-historically both well-established and unchanging.”

This is an odd assertion for a thinker who insists on a sharp distinction between what he calls “worldliness” and Christianity. It seems likely that it is an allusion to Romans 13:1-7 where Paul asserts that “[e]veryone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (New Living Translation). That is, Paul appears to be saying that a monarch represents God, however imperfectly, in his or her role of governing a people in that the authority a monarch has over his or her people is analogous to the authority God has over all people.

The qualification “however imperfectly” is important, however, because there is no reason to suppose that Paul thought all “governing authorities” were equally good. The meaning of Romans 13:1-7 is more likely, as David Papineau has argued, that any government is better than no government in that it is a force for order, order without which human flourishing is impossible.

“Even a bad state,” observes Papineau,

is much better than none at all. When the hated regimes of Eastern Europe and South Africa collapsed at the end of the last century, their populations had the good sense to carry on recognizing the existing police, courts, and other state institutions until new constitutional arrangements could be made. By contrast, the misguided disbanding of the defeated Iraqi army and police by the US authorities in 2003 created a vacuum for mob rule, and is viewed by many commentators as the main source of the subsequent chaos in the Middle East. (David Papineau, Knowing the Score [Basic Books, 2017] 58.)

Paul reputedly twice escaped imprisonment, torture, and possibly even death by asserting his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:35-40 and Acts 22:24-29). That is, it was the authority of Roman law that enabled him, in those instances, to escape incarceration and hence to continue his ministry. If these accounts are true, they explain, at least in part, why Paul would have had the view of temporal authority that he did and, I believe, by extension why Kierkegaard would have held a similar view.

The view that temporal authority has a divine source commits neither Paul nor Kierkegaard to the view that all temporal authorities are equally good. But the positive role that almost any authority has in establishing the order necessary for human flourishing makes the respect for authority that each of them had make at least a certain amount of sense.