Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

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Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.

The Curse?

Ane Sørensdatter Lund
Ane Sørensdatter Lund

Peter Tudvad’s new book The Curse (Politiken, 2013) is a “masterpiece,” according to the reviews in the Danish papers. The Curse is partly fact and partly fiction, but Bo Bjørnvig writes in Weekendavisen that Tudvad, being “the meticulous scholar” he is, sticks as closely to the facts as possible until the very end of the book (Weekendavisen, 19 April 2013).

With the exception of the end, that is, The end is where the fictional elements come in. But why introduce fictional elements? Why not just keep the book a straightforward biography? Tudvad’s answer, according to Karen Syberg’s review in Information, is that “being the ‘archive rat’ that he is, [Tudvad] discovered over time where the sources were silent and hence conceived a desire to transcend the limitations of traditional biographical scholarship by making them speak” (Information, 18 April 2013).

Though the reviewers are unqualified in their praise of the first part of the book, not all are equally happy with the fictional denouement (several were even unprofessional enough to reveal its details in their reviews).

I’m not going to spoil the surprise for those of you whose command of Danish is sufficient to allow you to delve into what by all reports is a book well worth the effort it takes to read. I would like, however, to suggest a direction for future speculations concerning the unrecoverable bits of the Kierkegaard family saga. I always found the details of Kierkegaard’s father’s two marriages mysterious. Michael Kierkegaard married the sister of his business partner of many years, Mads Røyen, when he was 38 and she was 37. Michael Kierkegaard must have known Kirstine Nielsdatter for some time before their betrothal. Yet despite the fact that he had been in a position to marry in the sense that he was a successful businessman of a reasonable age for years, he had not proposed to her.

We know nothing of Michael and Kirstine’s feelings for each other. No love letters, if there were any, survive and neither do any accounts of what their daily life together was like. We know only that the first Mrs. Kierkegaard died of pneumonia after less than two years of marriage. We do know something, however, about the nature of Michael Kierkegaard’s second marriage to Søren Kierkegaard’s mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund. Their union was to all accounts a happy one. The first Kierkegaard union was childless, but the second produced a brood of seven children over which Ane presided with what acquaintances described as pronounced maternal solicitude.

The second Kierkegaard marriage had a somewhat scandalous beginning, not simply because Ane was pregnant at the time of the wedding, and not even because that pregnancy was clearly the result of a liaison that had taken place within an unacceptably short time after the demise of the first Mrs. Kierkegaard, but also because Michael Kierkegaard had drafted a prenuptial agreement that was so unfair to his future second wife that his lawyer refused to sign it.

The precipitous second marriage of the elder Kierkegaard has traditionally been interpreted as a product of the patriarch’s lechery. There is little evidence of this purported lechery, however, apart from the fact of Ane’s pregnancy. That is, there’s no evidence that Michael Kierkegaard had any extramarital liaisons either before, during, or after either of his two marriages. No claimants to the Kierkegaard fortune were produced by women of apparently easy virtue. That is, the elder Kierkegaard does not appear to have been a man of unbridled lusts.

Ane Sørensdatter Lund was from central Jutland, just as was Michael Kierkegaard and both were from similar rural backgrounds. Hence they had something in common that Michael Kierkegaard did not have with his first wife. Perhaps the Kierkegaard family “curse” played itself out in Michael Kierkegaard’s actually falling in love with a woman who would have been considered an unsuitable mate. Ane was to all accounts no great beauty, but the surviving portrait of her depicts a woman with a vivacious expression and a keen, penetrating gaze. It’s not hard to imagine that Michael could have found her attractive, as indeed, history confirms that he did. And if she wasn’t a great beauty, it’s well known that true love often has little to do with prevailing standards of physical attractiveness.

Perhaps Michael Kierkegaard actually married his first wife partly for her generous dowry, but also in order to be closer to Ane. Ane had been in the employ of Mads Røyen until the elder Kierkegaard’s marriage to Kirstine, at which point she went to work for the new couple. By the time of his marriage, Michael Kierkegaard’s social position had risen to the point that marriage to a servant would have been considered inappropriate. And for the wealthy Kierkegaard to pass over the sister of his business partner in favor of one of the latter’s household servants would likely have been considered a positive affront to the Røyen clan. Michael Kierkegaard, whose business acumen is well documented, would certainly have wanted to avoid flouting social convention in a way that might have had negative financial repercussions. How much easier it would have been to consolidate a business alliance through marriage to Kirstine while at the same time arranging that the real object of his affections would become part of his new household.

Scholars have apparently been put off the scent of such speculations by the horrific prenuptial agreement. Why would the elder Kierkegaard have drawn up such an offensive document? He cannot have been unaware of how it would be received. He cannot have been unaware that to offer such terms to the woman one was about to marry would have been considered completely socially unacceptable. Why would the ordinarily shrewd man have done such a thing? It seems more a theatrical gesture than a serious attempt to craft a legally binding document.

My guess, and I offer this in all seriousness, is that it was done deliberately to conceal the true nature of the coming alliance. The whole thing is too reminiscent of the protestations of young boys that they “hate” the little girls upon whom they secretly harbor crushes. Was Michael Kierkegaard trying to convince himself that he’d been seduced by the to all accounts hitherto innocent Ane? That seems not only singularly unchivalrous, but also at odds with his penchant for psychological self flagellation.

What seems more probable is that he hoped the wording of the notorious document would get out, as indeed it did, and that it would lend support to the view that the elder Kierkegaard had not  married Ane out of love, but had been dragged kicking and screaming to the altar. Again, this is a singularly unchivalrous impression to try to create, but one that is explicable if the point was to conceal a genuine affection that would have had far more negative repercussions if anyone actually suspected it. One sexual indiscretion, after all, would be infinitely more forgivable than marrying a woman one didn’t love because of financial expediency, while at the same time scheming to be with the woman one really did love. And if the former died a short time after the marriage, suspicion would inevitably surface that one may, in fact, have been responsible for the first wife’s precipitous end.

If these speculations are correct, Michael Kierkegaard wouldn’t have had to murder his first wife in order to have been racked with guilt over the circumstances of his marriages and for the stain of that guilt to have spread itself over the otherwise happy Kierkegaard household, as indeed the stain of some sort of guilt clearly did.

Did Kirstine Nielsdatter die of a broken heart after learning of her husband’s affection for another woman (and one of lowly station to boot)? Or did she just die, as people were more wont to do then than now? Who knows. Still, the details of Michael Kierkegaard’s two marriages are strange and the speculations presented above make sense of them in a way that is not too fantastical and that hence does not overstrain credulity. In fact, these speculations seem to me to make more sense of those details than does their face value. It’s surprising, in fact, this face value has been so uncritically accepted by scholars.