Søren Kierkegaard

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(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Kierkegaard’s challenge to neat systems of philosophical thought, such as that propounded by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, has highlighted his philosophical influence. His predominant assumption, that existence is too multiform to be systematized, created the fabric around which existentialism, and indeed much of Continental philosophy, have been woven.

Early Life

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was the last of seven children born to Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard and his second wife, Ane Sørensdatter (Lund); she had been the maid of Michael’s first wife, who died childless after two years of marriage. The elder Kierkegaard, an affluent businessman, had himself been born in poverty and virtual servitude, rising by dint of hard work and good fortune to the comfortable status the family enjoyed at Søren’s birth.

Despite such prosperity, the Kierkegaard household was haunted by early death. Two of Søren’s siblings died before he was nine; his mother and three more siblings died in a span of less than three years before his twenty-first birthday. Michael was never able to overcome the belief that these deaths were punishment for the unpardonable sin he committed when, as a boy of eleven, tending sheep and bitter at his lot, he cursed God.

The influence of the somber elder Kierkegaard upon his gifted son is certain, but the extent to which it permeated Kierkegaard’s character and influenced his writings throughout his life is difficult to estimate. A key passage from Kierkegaard’s journals suggests that his father’s inadvertent revelation of some past misdeeds permanently altered their relationship:

An affair between the father and son where the son finds everything out, and yet dare not admit it to himself. The father is a respectable man, God-fearing and strict; only once, when he is tipsy, he lets fall some words which arouse the most dreadful suspicions. Otherwise the son is never told of it and never dares to ask his father or anybody else.

Regarding this incident, Frederick Sontag says that it thrust Kierkegaard into a “period of dissipation and despair,” causing him for a time to neglect completely his theological studies at the university.

In addition to his father’s influence, Kierkegaard was indelibly marked by his engagement to Regina Olsen. He met her for the first time at a party, when she was fourteen. She was captivated by his intellectual sagacity; he later admitted that that had been his design. They both endured a difficult period of waiting until she was nearly eighteen before they became engaged. Yet, having endured such a lengthy period of waiting, within days after the engagement had been effected Kierkegaard was convinced that it was a mistake. Some years after he had broken the engagement, he wrote in his journal:

I said to her that in every generation there were certain individuals who were destined to be sacrificed for the others. She hardly understood what I was talking about. . . . But just this...

(The entire section is 1,869 words.)