Søren Kierkegaard: Biography of the Father of Existentialism

March 9, 2019
Søren Kierkegaard's work is based on two basic dimensions that defined the essence of his life: love and faith.

They say that Søren Kierkegaard loved Regina Olsen until his last day. However, his life purpose was to dedicate his whole body and soul to the study of philosophy and Christian faith. This Danish theologist and philosopher had to live with the pain of not being able to be with his love. But thanks to that, he was able to build his remarkable legacy.

Kierkegaard’s work is mainly based on faith. According to him, it’s only possible to reach salvation and balance in times of despair through faith. This perspective was a reaction to Hegel’s idealism. In fact, what defined this renowned Danish philosopher was his criticism of the religious institutions that, according to him, were hypocritical.

The dualism that shaped his whole life is quite evident in his books Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Diary of a Seducer. Love, suffering, and impossible passion, against the need of devoting himself to theology, characterized the harsh journey of one of the most relevant and interesting figures of philosophy.

While the Danish church suggested there was a rational God who rewarded good actions, Kierkegaard’s God didn’t care about devotion, but fear instead. His philosophy settled the foundation of 20th century’s existentialism. He defined human subjectivity and also inspired other big thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus.

“It’s better to get lost in the passion than to lose the passion.”

-Søren Kierkegaard-

Soren Kierkegaard.

Biography of Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813 to a wealthy family. His father was Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, a very religious wool merchant with a conservative sense of existence. His mother was Anne Sorensdatter Lund Kierkegaard, a young servant his father impregnated. This fact made him feel like he was the product of a sinful act.

Young Søren went to the School of Civic Virtue and then studied theology at the University of Copenhagen. However, it’s worth noting that he was mainly interested in philosophy and literature.

A very significant moment of his youth was when he met 15-year-old Regine Olsen, who he got engaged to after finishing his studies. But his father, right before passing away in 1838, made Søren promise that he would become a pastor and that he’d devote his life to God and to studying. The weight of that promise became the anchor that inevitably disrupted his love life. He broke off his engagement with Regine and then moved to Berlin.

The next ten years were the most productive years of his life.

Love, guilt, and suffering

In 1843, he published six of his works. One of them was Fear and Trembling, where he describes in detail a topic that he would continue to talk about in his other works: his love for Regine. In this particular piece, he explores his guilt, pain, and the devotion to his religion. That same year, he returned to Copenhagen and found out that Regine had just married Frederik SchlegelOlsen’s marriage destroyed any possibility of a second chance.

Caspar Friedrich painting.

Some of his most remarkable books are Philosophical Fragments, The Concept of Anxiety, and Stages on Life’s Way, which talk about the thoughts and realities a person experiences when they face adversity.

Søren Kierkegaard and his brother Peter slowly became the only survivors of a family riddled with tragedy. Their father always reminded them that they were cursed, that the shadow of sin was always over them, and that they’d die young. Ironically, that ‘prophecy’ came true: Kierkegaard died at the age of 42.

The cause of his death was never clear. He suffered from a type of disability and from a lot of other health issues. But that didn’t keep him from leaving us his exceptional literary and philosophical legacy. And another interesting detail about his last days shows us the deep love he felt for Regine, since he included her in his will.

Søren Kierkegaard’s legacy

William James often liked to quote Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He was the Danish philosopher and theologist of subjectivity.

He taught the world that living means knowing how to make the right choices. With each decision we make, we shape our existence to define who we are and what we leave behind. Kierkegaard also worked hard to make people understand the sense of angst and suffering. All this is part of life, and the only way to relieve the pain, according to Kierkegaard, is through faith.

Sentences written with stylographic pen.

Pseudonyms and existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard carried out most of his work under different pseudonyms such as Victor Eremita, Johannes de Silentio, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, or Vigilius Haufniensis. He used these pseudonyms with a very concrete goal: to represent different forms of thinking.

This strategy defined what he called “indirect communication”. By using pseudonyms, he was able to explore other points of view. At the same time, one of Kierkegaard’s purposes was to teach a way to live life, so he established the three spheres of existence:

  • First, there’s the aesthetic sphere, a way of living life based on pleasure, hedonism, or nihilism.
  • The ethical sphere is when the individual is capable of being responsible for themselves. In this sphere, one should be able to tell good from evil and act accordingly.
  • The religious sphere was the highest in Kierkegaard’s hierarchy. In it, human beings form a personal relationship with God through which they can reach the noblest of goals.

The philosopher of anxiety, the philosopher of irony

Figures such as Albert Camus defined Søren Kierkegaard as the philosopher of irony. Kierkegaard defended faith above all things, but he always criticized the Danish church. Although he rejected the love of his life, he never stopped loving her and she was the muse for most of his work.

Similarly, he always emphasized the need to cultivate a religious spirit, but he himself was trapped in an aesthetic-ethical sphere.

Another aspect that defined his thoughts was the concept that would later inspire the work of other great writers such as Kafka, Unamuno, or philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. We’re talking about anxiety, the feeling that never disappears. This is because it also helps us become aware that there are more options in life, that we’re free to jump into the void or take a step back and seek other solutions. There’s always an alternative to suffering, but suffering itself helps us grow.

    • Garff, Joakim (2007) Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography.  Princeton University Press