Today — May 5th; I’m posting this late — is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

images-1 In his wonderful and highly accessible survey of Existentialist thought, Irrational Man, William Barrett assesses the legacy of this Christian proto-Existentialist. Excerpt:

As the nineteenth century recedes, the foothills that close up had seemed to tower fall into proper perspective and the true heights rise more starkly. More and more, for us today, Kierkegaard begins to be visible above his century, a solitary peak but central to the whole chain. And this belated fame, in a century that has departed as far from him almost as it has from the Middle Ages, is a paradox, as was the man himself. Certain great German forerunners of Kierkegaard had also attempted a critique of the intelligence; and earlier opponents of rationalism, men like Hamann and the later Schelling, had spoken out forcefully for the instinctive, the intuitive, the mythical against a time that seemed no longer able even to understand such things. By comparison with the German Romanticists Kierkegaard traced a much narrower orbit in his writings; but the narrower the orbit, the closer we are to the center, hence the less energy lost on matters peripheral. Justice Holmes once remarked that the hallmark of genius, in a great lawyer or jurist, was his ability to cut through technicalities and go for the jugular. Kierkegaard’s one theme and his one passion was Christianity, but Christianity embraced neither speculatively nor romantically; his concern, rather, was with what it means concretely for the individual to be a Christian. The central fact for the nineteenth century, as Kierkegaard (and after him Nietzsche, from a diametrically opposite point of view) saw it, was that this civilization that had once been Christian was so no longer. It had been a civilization that revolved around the figure of Christ, and was now, in Nietzsche’s image, like a planet detaching itself from its sun; and of this the civilization was not yet aware. In contrast with this great historical datum, this fork in the road for the whole of mankind and not just for its savants, most of the questions debated by philosophers — the nature of sense-data, perception, judgment, canons of induction and deduction mand the rest — look like what they are, mandarin pastimes. The thinker whose thought is central, however, is always attuned to some urgent question of his time of which the time itself is not aware. In Holmes’s brutal and telling phrase, Kierkegaard (like Nietzsche after him) goes for the jugular. That is one explanation of his power over us today.

Kierkegaard believed that to be an authentic, whole person, one had to be a religious person. To be a dedicated individualist was self-deception; to be a “respectable” member of the crowd was also self-deception. Only the religious man could encompass both and rise above them. But what Kierkegaard meant by “religious” is not necessarily what you think. John Douglas Mullen explains what this means in his invaluable (but hard to find) introduction to the Dane’s thought, Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age. Excerpt:

The formula is: a religious person is one who has developed an absolute relationship to the absolute telos. The word telos means “goal,” “intended end.” Another expression for this is that the religious person has made his eternal blessedness the absolute telos of his life.

This demands some preliminary remarks. It assumes first that existence contains a gigantic chasm which cannot be “mediated”; that is, the chasm between the transcendent (infinite, eternal) and the secular (finite, temporal). Second, that this chasm is reflected also in the nature of the person, in you. Third, that human life is a battleground in which the person fights with himself concerning which of these he will try to make the absolute telos of his life. Fourth, that the attempt to make the relative teloi of the secular into an absolute telos of one’s life will end in failure (despair). Step number one, then, is to recognize all of this. Thus the religious person is the one who achieves “the simultaneous maintenance of an absolute relationship to the absolute Telos and a relative relationship to the relative ends.”

But what is this “eternal blessedness” which should become the absolute telos of one’s life? To try to picture it “in all the magic colors of the imagination” means that one is “a runaway poet, a deserter from the sphere of the aesthetic”. Eternal blessedness is not a good among others. To treat it as such is to indicate that it is not an absolute telos.

Kierkegaard, via Mullen, made me, a restless and searching undergraduate, understand that my attempts to make God one good among others were an evasion, and cowardice. Either God was my god, or I was my god. As Mullen puts it, characterizing Kierkegaard’s thought, “Any other life is self-deception.” There was no middle ground. I didn’t want to hear that, so I avoided facing it for years. But after Kierkegaard, I couldn’t un-know what I’d learned. More from Mullen:

By and large one religion is a good as an other; the point is to be as a religious person. Correct? “Liberal claptrap,” says Soren Kierkegaard. Such an opinion shows only that one is not related seriously, and therefore absolutely, to the absolute telos. One cannot take a position of ironic detachment concerning that to which one is related absolutely. To be a Jew is to reject with one’s life (not just one’s mind) the efficaciousness of the death of Jesus. To be a Christian is to affirm it with one’s life. You cannot then be a Christian, be absolutely related to Jesus as Lord, and still declare, “Of course, Judaism is equally valid.” A soldier will eagerly sacrifice his life for his country, but not if he believes that the enemy’s principles and viewpoints are “equally valid.” Once he believes that, his efforts will lack commitment to his country; his seriousness will be directed toward himself and his immediate comrades. If he can’t prefer his country to the enemy, at least he can prefer his friends and himself. Patriotism in this case is lost, although he may still fight bravely and well. The “ecumenical” attitude that “one religion’s as good as another” is very modern, very liberal, very tolerant, but also very wishy-washy and dishonest. One who affrirms it either is not absolutely committed to the absolute telos, or does not believe it, or both. To really mean it is to lack religious seriousness.

In fact this is the charge which Kierkegaard levels agains the religious existence described above. You may have recoiled from that description because of how seriously it demanded you take the religious. You wanted the religious to be part of your life and to give you rest. Keirkegaard demands that it be your life and promises nothing secular in return.

Either/or. There is no middle ground. True, Kierkegaard offers no formulas for what to choose, but he does give one the grounds for understanding one’s choice, and the spirit in which the choice must be made.