Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2023, from

1. Life

Kierkegaard was the youngest son of a prosperous and largely self-made Danish businessman. The father was a deeply religious but exacting and guilt-ridden individual who communicated his feelings of melancholy and anxiety to other members of his family; they certainly left a lasting impression on Kierkegaard’s own character and development, causing him later to describe his upbringing as having been ‘insane’. It was perhaps largely from a desire to please his father, towards whom he tended to exhibit an ambivalent mixture of love and fear, that at the age of seventeen he enrolled at the University of Copenhagen with the object of taking a degree in theology. Nevertheless, after passing his preliminary examinations he found himself increasingly attracted to other spheres of intellectual interest, particularly those involving developments in contemporary philosophy and literature; at the same time he cultivated a fashionably sophisticated lifestyle, following pursuits sharply at variance with the austere precepts that had been inculcated upon him at home. But in his journals, which he began during his protracted period as a student and continued to keep for the rest of his life, he is already to be found recording a growing dissatisfaction with the wayward mode of existence he had adopted, and the death of his father in 1838 appears finally to have prompted him to return to his academic studies with a view to settling down to a professional career. Thus by July 1840 he had been awarded his degree, and two months later he announced his engagement to marry Regine Olsen, the daughter of a highly placed civil servant. This, however, was not to be.

The story of Kierkegaard’s abortive engagement is familiar from his journals, where he provided a detailed account of how he eventually broke off the relationship after an uneasy year during which he harboured regrets about his proposal. While his actual motives for making the final breach are left somewhat obscure, there can be no doubt as to its significance for his later thought and writings, allusions to it – often only lightly disguised – occurring in a variety of his works. In any case it certainly constituted a turning point. Henceforward he withdrew into a bachelor existence; moreover, although by now firmly committed to Christianity, he effectively abandoned any further thought of a clerical career and devoted himself instead to living as a writer on the very comfortable income he had inherited from his father’s estate. The initial period of his authorship was in fact remarkably productive. He took less than a year over his master’s dissertation Om Begrebet Ironi (The Concept of Irony), successfully submitting it to the university faculty in 1841, and he followed it with a series of books, all issued under pseudonyms, which were largely concerned with philosophical or psychological aspects of ethical and religious belief. The first, entitled Enten-Eller (Either/Or), came out in two substantial volumes in 1843 and was succeeded later in the same year by Frygt og Baeven (Fear and Trembling) and Gjentagelsen (Repetition); in 1844 Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments) and Begrebet Angest (The Concept of Anxiety) appeared, and these in turn were followed by Stadier paa Livets Vej (Stages on Life’s Way) in 1845 and by Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (Concluding Unscientific Postscript) in 1846. Two further pseudonymous works on connected themes, Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness unto Death) and Indøvelse i Christendom (Training in Christianity), were published in 1849 and 1850 respectively.

Although it is the writings listed above that have chiefly attracted the attention of subsequent philosophers and commentators, they by no means exhaust the total of Kierkegaard’s literary output during the 1840s. Apart from some critical pieces, he also produced – this time under his own name – a number of directly religious discourses in which he aimed to present the essentials of Christian teaching; thus such works as his Opbyggelige Taler i forskjellig Aand (Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits) of 1847 were expressly designed to communicate and illustrate the true nature of the Christian message and the demands it imposed upon the individual. In their uncompromising emphasis on the severity of these requirements, and in their manner of stigmatizing the complacency and ‘double-mindedness’ imputable to contemporary representatives of the faith they professed to serve, the latter books can be said to foreshadow the standpoint from which, in the culminating phase of his career, he launched a violent assault upon the established Church of Denmark. The occasion for this was the death of the Danish primate, Bishop Mynster, in 1854. Kierkegaard had increasingly come to regard Mynster as exemplifying in his own person many of the shortcomings of the church as a whole, and he was therefore incensed by hearing the dead prelate pronounced instead to have been a ‘witness to the truth’. As a result he set out in the following months to denounce the covert worldliness and hypocrisy that permeated the clerical establishment, first through articles in the public press and subsequently in a broadsheet printed at his own expense. The ferocity of his attacks, appearing after a spell when he had published relatively little, caused surprise and some consternation. The controversy they stirred up was, however, abruptly interrupted by Kierkegaard’s sudden collapse in October 1855 and his death a few weeks later.

Citing this article:
Gardiner, Patrick. Life. Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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