Today, Sunday 5 May 2013, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Søren Kierkegaard, a great thinker and writer with whom everyone should be a little bit familiar.
Kierkegaard is popularly considered “the father of existentialism,” and though the term was unknown to him, I think it’s a fitting epitaph. Mind you, what that actually means is — like all things philosophical — complex and controversial.
Kierkegaard wrote a lot about “authenticity,” and was perhaps the first writer to suggest that a person can become estranged from himself. A person can lead an inauthentic life, trying to be what he is not. This sort of thinking, which comes very naturally to us moderns, is totally foreign to the Aristotles and Augustines and Thomases of classical thought.
To my mind, Søren Kierkegaard is a great philosopher not only because he was hugely influential, but also because he is actually worth listening to. Kierkegaard might be considered the greatest “anti-Catholic” philosopher. I don’t mean that Kierkegaard is sectarian and bigoted against Catholicism. I mean that his existential personalism is perhaps the most coherent view of Christian anthropology and ethics outside the Catholic tradition. Consider this tribute (of sorts) from Peter Kreeft:
The only person who almost kept me Protestant was Kierkegaard. Not Calvin or Luther. Their denial of free will made human choice a sham game of predestined dice. Kierkegaard offered a brilliant, consistent alternative to Catholicism, but such a quirkily individualistic one, such a pessimistic and antirational one, that he was incompletely human. He could hold a candle to Augustine and Aquinas, I thought – the only Protestant thinker I ever found who could – but he was only the rebel in the ark, while they were the family, Noah’s sons.
I don’t know. Maybe “incompletely human” is a little unfair. Then again, perhaps Kierkegaard would agree with Kreeft, or at least be sympathetic with his view. He famously lamented, “People understand me so little that they do not even understand when I complain of being misunderstood.”
Maybe that’s why I like Kierkegaard. He was humble, and he had a sense of humour. (But I am repeating myself.)