Born 5 May 1813, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was the seventh and youngest child of Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard. Søren's father, Michael, was retired at the time of his son's birth, having achieved a relatively comfortable position in his community. Michael had risen from serfdom to the new merchant class of Europe. As part of this new class, Michael wanted his sons to attend universities and prove even more successful.
Kierkegaard's mother was Michael's second wife, a former maid to the family. Michael dominated his wife, and his children, as if they existed to serve him. The elder Kierkegaard was a devout Lutheran who valued order and self-discipline above other values.
Michael Kierkegaard was not emotionally stable, however. Though Søren did not know why, his father was certain there was a curse upon the family. Michael's religious devotion increased with each year, as he tried to combat the curse with faith. Søren was certain the curse was a figment of his father's imagination; Kierkegaard even wrote of his father's "insanity" infecting the family. Michael's certainty of a curse was reinforced by the deaths of five of his seven children. No matter how odd his father's preoccupation with death and the family "curse," Søren both admired and feared his father.
...his feelings towards the man... were ambivalent: he was fascinated by his father's vivid if morbid imagination, appears to have been impressed by his intellect and powers of argument, and always remained bound to his memory by some profound emotional affinity that involved a strange mixture of love and fear.
- Kierkegaard, Gardiner, p. 3
While in school, Kierkegaard developed a spirited -- and sometimes vicious -- wit. His biting sarcasm and insults were in response to bullying by larger boys. Kierkegaard was often ill and not a physical match for the other children. However, his journals and the notes of others indicate his comments could bring a larger classmate to tears.
At the age of 17, in 1830, Kierkegaard enrolled in the University of Copenhagen, in line with his father's wishes. During his first year at the university, Kierkegaard excelled, much as his older brother Peter had done. In fact, Kierkegaard was a promising student during most of his early studies. Records indicate Søren was a student of "distinction" at the university.
In 1835, Søren he learned why his father was an unusually devout Christian. Many years ago his father had cursed the name of G-d, a sin Michael Kierkegaard thought condemned his family forever. Søren did not help his father's mental state by descending into a life of debauchery. Kierkegaard spent money without care on clothes, food, drinks, and a general pursuit of pleasure. As he ran up large debts, his father was forced to settle the bills. The young Kierkegaard's behavior isolated him from his father.
Kierkegaard's journals indicate he was not content with life, despite trying to purchase pleasure. Journal entries indicate Kierkegaard believed his life lacked any greater purpose. He envied "great men" who pursued interests with great success, while he lacked focus. Kierkegaard described himself as a spectator in life, someone learning about the views and theories of others while contributing nothing himself to the greater base of knowledge. Søren Kierkegaard's sense of inadequacy remained with him throughout his life. Interestingly, he wrote in his journals that his works would someday be important, yet that confidence did not improve his self-image.
Michael Kierkegaard died suddenly in 1838. The effect on his young son was extreme. Søren seemed to embrace his father's superstitious nature, believing his father died as some form of sacrifice for Søren's sins. During the next two years, the young Kierkegaard dedicated himself as never before to the completion of his theology degree. He returned to his former studious nature, receiving his degree in theology in July 1840.
In September of 1840, Kierkegaard announced his engagement to Regine Olsen, the daughter of a civil servant. Her family was well-placed, and Kierkegaard himself was also in the best of society, due in large part to his inheritance. As Kierkegaard entered a seminary in November, it appeared he was headed for a career within the church or at the universities. A proper marriage would cement his position within Danish society.
Assuming Kierkegaard's diaries and his confessions to friends are honest, the engagement to Regine was the most difficult year of his life. Kierkegaard seems to have been torn between the idea of marriage and his need for solitude.After a year, Kierkegaard broke the engagement. Regine attempted to appease Kierkegaard and win his heart, even after his unusual treatment of her, but he rebuffed her advances.
Kierkegaard claimed he wanted to force Regine away from him, so she would marry another man. It is possible he did not think himself worthy. It is also possible he did not want to deal with the emotions associated with romance. Regardless, he tried to be "indifferent" and drive Regine out of his life. In later years, Kierkegaard called his destruction of the relationship a "self-inflicted wound" that caused him a great deal of misery. If he cared for Regine, as many believe Kierkegaard did, his need to avoid a relationship is not easily understood by most people. Intellectually brilliant, yet emotionally unwilling to deal with ties to others, Kierkegaard wanted to be alone and isolated from much of society. Nothing would tie him to society more than marriage.
During his engagement to Regine Olsen, Kierkegaard was beginning to refine his writing style. While many individuals might have been distracted during the engagement and associated emotional strains, Kierkegaard buried himself in his words. In less than a year, Kierkegaard wrote On the Concept of Irony, his master's thesis. The writing style was like nothing the professors had read before; some were less than impressed while others were merely stunned. The writing was as complex and and convoluted as the author himself. While the university awarded the degree to Kierkegaard, records indicate it was not an easy decision for the professors accustomed to more traditional works.
Kierkegaard had spent the year pondering what career would best suit him, while honoring his family. His father had hoped he would work within the church, but Kierkegaard wanted to "produce" something of value. Kierkegaard, though committed to Christianity, did not believe the Lutheran Church was were he could be most productive and contribute to the collective knowledge. Recognizing the opportunity provided by his father's estate, Kierkegaard opted to write. He was free to do as he wanted -- and he wanted to think and write.
After determining his career would be that of a gentleman thinker, Kierkegaard determined he had to better understand the popular thinkers of his day. The center of philosophy during the nineteenth century was Germany; in 1841, Kierkegaard left Copenhagen for Berlin. Kierkegaard's quest was to attend a series of lectures by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775 - 1854), who was known for his opposition to the ideas of Georg Hegel. Schelling had been closely associated with Hegel; Kierkegaard was intrigued by Schelling's evolution as a thinker.
Schelling contended that Hegel has attempted to reduce the concrete to a never-ending series of concepts. As a result, Hegel had failed to distinguish between essence and existence. Listening to Schelling's lectures, Kierkegaard began to develop his own ideas, which would later contribute to existentialism. Unfortunately, as Schelling's lectures turned from a critique of Hegel to an exploration of Schelling's own ideas, Kierkegaard became exasperated. Kierkegaard decided to return to Copenhagen and record his own view of existence.
Kierkegaard's response to Hegel -- and Schelling -- was Either / Or. The work was a massive undertaking, covering philosophy, literature, and psychology. The work was published in two volumes at the beginning of 1843. Within months, Kierkegaard published Repetition and then Fear and Trembling. In June of 1844, Kierkegaard published Philosophical Fragments and The Concept of Anxiety. This period of productivity extended several years. In 1845, Stages on Life's Way was published. Concluding Unscientific Postscript was published in 1846. In addition to these works, Kierkegaard published eighteen Edifying Discourses, a set of religious writings. Most of Kierkegaard's works were published under pseudonyms, but the Discourses appeared under his own name.
December 1845 marked the beginning of a very difficult period in Kierkegaard's life. That month, a former acquaintance published an essay critical of Stages on Life's Way -- and Kierkegaard's personal life. The essay's author, P. L. Møller, revealed how Kierkegaard had treated Regine Olsen, claiming Kierkegaard was cruel at best. Kierkegaard was so angered by Møller's essay, he wrote a response, published in a local journal. In his response, Kierkegaard revealed Møller worked anonymously for a disreputable newspaper known as The Corsair. Kierkegaard also endeavored to reveal other character flaws of his critic.
Kierkegaard's essay ended with a challenge to The Corsair, a newspaper known for its attacks against Copenhagen's elite. The result was predictable: Kierkegaard became one of the newspaper's favorite targets for derision. Illustrations mocked Kierkegaard's appearance, while articles insulted his intellect. Among the general population, the newspaper has great influence -- much as do modern tabloids. Kierkegaard found himself publicly humiliated; he could go nowhere in Copenhagen without being insulted.
Even the butcher's boy almost thinks himself justified in being offensive to me at the behest of The Corsair.... The least thing I do, even if I simply pay a visit, is lyingly distorted and repeated everywhere; if The Corsair gets to know of it then it is printed and is read by the whole population.
- The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, Oxford University Press, p. 161
A demoralized Kierkegaard complained he should only associate with those he disliked, since he wanted no others to endure the agony he felt. Kierkegaard's desire for solitude was undoubtedly increased by this experience.
According to biographer Patrick Gardiner, Kierkegaard eventually regarded his confrontation with Møller as a moral victory of sorts.
Not only had he made a stand against the threat posed by a certain kind of prying journalism; he had been prepared to undergo the consequences of doing so in his own person. Furthermore, he had been made aware at first hand of the cowardice with which people were ready to submit to the majority opinion and the lack of respect for the integrity of the individual was the corollary of this.
- Kierkegaard, Gardiner, p. 11
Challenging a popular journal and public opinion, Kierkegaard had found how much power he derived from his self -- the "self" was superior to the group. In terms of "existentialism," this was possibly the most important event in the movement's history. As Nietzsche was only a year old in 1845, it is reasonable to state Kierkegaard was the first "existentialist" when he formalized the view free will was certain to cause anxiety, yet one must accept the consequences of this freedom. Kierkegaard's contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was approaching a very similar conclusion, causing many to consider Dostoevsky an existentialist. These men shared a sense of alienation from society; Kierkegaard through public opinion while Dostoevsky was literally imprisoned and exiled.
After The Corsair affair, Kierkegaard determined his role was that of religious educator for society at large. Kierkegaard decided he would use his skills as a writer to defend Christianity and Christian morality. So, while he had decided six years earlier to forego a formal role in the church, Kierkegaard settled upon defending its religion.
From 1846 to 1850, Kierkegaard published a series of works examining what it meant to be a Christian and follow the teachings of Jesus. These works compared what the New Testaments stated and how Christians actually lived. Kierkegaard believed the practices of the church and its members fell far short of "Christian" ideals. Training in Christianity, published in 1850, is a summation of Kierkegaard's interpretation of what it means to follow the teachings of the Bible; the book does not impress the clergy.
For several years after the publication of Training in Christianity, Kierkegaard did not publish many works. Many biographers and critics consider the period from 1850 through 1854 a "calm before the storm" in Kierkegaard's life. He spent these years relaxing, enjoying his inheritance. He would take rides in the country and have fine foods delivered to his apartment. It seemed he was content.
Apparently, Kierkegaard merely needed a catalyst to return him to writing. In 1854, Danish religious leader Bishop Mynster died. Mynster was succeeded by Hans Martensen, who assumed the role of the ranking religious leader in Copenhagen. Martensen had been a university tutor to Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard thought well of his mentor -- at least he did until Mynster's funeral service.
During the eulogy, Martensen referred to Mynster as "a witness to the Truth." Kierkegaard was stunned. Kierkegaard considered the deceased Bishop far from the ideal Christian. Despite the obvious irony of judging a dead man in the name of Christianity, Kierkegaard felt compelled to correct his former tutor publically. In December 1854, Kierkegaard published an article critical of Martensen for speaking highly of Mynster. The article was more than an attack upon Martensen -- Kierkegaard lashed out at the church and all its power.
Kierkegaard challenged the church with all his wit -- and his money. The writer established a journal, The Instant, which he used to criticize the church. Kierkegaard charged the church with becoming a secular institution, more interested in power and political intrigues than the teachings of Jesus. He used his periodical to wage a war of words against the church's apparent desire to collect material wealth and political influence. Kierkegaard would fight the church until his death. Throughout the debate, Kierkegaard did not wish to destroy the church or anyone's faith; Kierkegaard wanted the church to simplify an emulate the teachings and life of Jesus. According to Kierkegaard, it was odd priests would take vows of poverty yet live in the best buildings in town.
The war to reform the church was short and without victory. In early October 1855, Kierkegaard collapsed while taking a walk. He died a few weeks later, on 11 November 1855. Despite his criticisms of organized religion and the clergy, Søren's older brother, Peter, conducted a funeral ceremony at Copenhagen Cathedral. During the service, Peter dismissed his brother as "confused" during his final days. In fact, it is likely that Kierkegaard was more certain than ever of his meaning and his works.