The following article is one that I contributed to the Biographical Dictionary of Literary Influences: The Nineteenth Century, 1800-1914. edited by John Powell (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001).
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KIERKEGAARD, SOREN AABYE (1813-1855). Soren Kierkegaard, Danish writer, was born in Copenhagen in 1813 and educated at the University of Copenhagen (1830-1840) and at Berlin (1841-1842).
Kierkegaard has been subject to much psychological speculation–and rightfully so since so much of his work is autobiographical in content. Kierkegaard wrote that the chief influence upon him was his “strict Christian upbringing” (Journals, 299). His father, who thought he had been cursed by God, passed his own melancholy on to his son. Kierkegaard later had a broken relationship with Regine Olson which exacerbated his feelings of loneliness. He wrote, “It is essentially owing to her, to my melancholy and to my money that I became an author” (Journals, 748, 235).
Kierkegaard’s most notable biographer, Walter Lowrie, writes that Johann Georg Hamann was “the only author by whom S.K. was profoundly influenced” (Lowrie, 164). While a student, Kierkegaard had been exposed to the writings of Hamann. Hamann’s attacks upon rationalism were foundational to the polemic later employed by Kierkegaard against the Church of Denmark. While it is perhaps true that Hamann is the person who most influenced Kierkegaard’s work, the latter’s own testimony, remembrances of family and friends, and the tracings of his commentators point to a number of others who exerted significant literary influence upon him.
It was Hamann who sparked Kierkegaard’s interest in Socrates. Kierkegaard admired Socrates for his commitment to the methodology of indirect communication. This led to Kierkegaard’s master’s thesis On the Concept of Irony with Particular Reference to Socrates. His admiration for Socratic epistemology may be what induced Kierkegaard’s friend, Hans Brochner, to claim that Plato was Kierkegaard’s model, that “he shaped his art after him” (Brochner, 36). However, Kierkegaard differed greatly from Plato in that Plato believed that the purpose of indirect communication was to recollect the truth already within the individual, whereas Kierkegaard viewed truth as so completely apart from man that only God could bring it to him. Kierkegaard’s use of maieutic methodology was instead a way to free individuals from the cultural hegemony of formal Lutheranism and to restore individual existential virtue.
Kierkegaard believed that the infusion of Hegelian thought into Christianity had so corrupted the Church that it could no longer be called Christianity. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had sought an objective and scientific metaphysics that Kierkegaard believed to be incompatible with biblical faith. thus, it is not surprising that much of Kierkegaard’s writing is given to polemic against the system of Hegel. Hegel was the philosopher whom Kierkegaard loved to hate. Kierkegaard seems to have been influenced almost as much by those with competing ideas as by those with whom he allied himself–and Hegel was no exception to this phenomenon.
Kierkegaard’s attempt to restore the Church to New Testament purity was not only anti-Hegelian but opposed to all forms of rationalistic theology. His rejection of rationalism and his emphasis upon faith and subjective apprehension explains his attention to the work of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Kierkegaard indicates that Lessing was important in the preparation of his own Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He had become aware of Lessing’s essay On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power while reading David Friedrich Strauss’s The Christian Faith. In addressing the dilemma of Lessing’s ditch, Kierkegaard notes that since Christian dogma cannot be validated through historical considerations, a “leap” of faith is necessary. Kierkegaard claimed that the sum of his entire corpus had this single theme: faith.
Consistent with his commitment to a biblical faith is Kierkegaard’s extensive use of biblical texts throughout his work. In Repetition, his pseudonym Constantine Constantius claims great love for the book of Job, and in Stages On Life’s Way, Quidam writes, “The Bible is always on my table and is the book I read most.” This is most certainly true of Kierkegaard as well as his pseudonyms.
In addition to Hamann, Socrates, Hegel, Lessing, and the authors of the Bible, we can add a plethora of other writers to whom some level of tacit influence could be attributed. In a letter to C.K.F. Molbech, Hans Brochner notes the influence of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Friedrich von Schlegel, Immanuel Kant, and the Greeks. At another time he recollects that in their conversations Kierkegaard often spoke of Ludwig Feuerbach. Kierkegaard derived his use of pseudonyms from the method of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and his exploration of multivocalization was inspired by the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Additionally, within his books and journals, he quotes and interacts with such authors as Johann Arndt, Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fenelon, Franz von Baader, Karl Rosenkranz, Karl Daub, Adolph Trendelenburg, Baruch Spinoza, Martin Luther, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Pierre Bayle, Plotinus, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, J. H. Fichte, Ludwig Tieck, E.T.A. Hoffman, Philipp Marheineke, and many others.
At the time of his death, Kierkegaard’s library contained 2,748 volumes. His niece Henrietta Lund writes that his reading habits were “desultory” (Lund, 59). This is consistent with what we know from other sources. When he applied for admission tot he university, his teacher’s recommendation indicated that he had broad interests and that he tended to become involved in too many areas to develop expertise in any. Kierkegaard writes that it took him 10 years to gain his degree due to his preference for an indefinite course of study. No doubt, it was his diverse interests and “desultory” reading habits that resulted in his ability to produces a literary corpus of such enduring value. His philosophical sophistication was enabled through his vast reading in philosophy and theology, and his literary artistry was enhanced through his broad reading of the Romantics.
Contributed by Kevin Stilley
- Kierkegaard Papers, Kierkegaard Library of St. Olaf College. Northfield, Minnesota.
- Kierkegaard Papers, Kierkegaard-Malantschuk Library Collection of Mcgill University. Montreal, Canada.
- Kierkegaard Papers, Royal Library of Copenhagen.
- Brochner, Hans. “Recollections.” In T. H. Croxoll (trans.). Glimpses and Impressions of Kierkegaard (Digswell Place: James Nisbet and Co. Ltd., 1959).
- Dru, Alexander (ed. and trans.). The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard (London: Oxford University Press, 1951).
- Kierkegaard, Soren. Johannes Climacus or De omnibus Dubitandum Est, and A Sermon, T.H. Croxall (trans.) (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958). Also an assessment by Croxall. A volume of the Library of Modern Religious Thought, Henry Chadwick, general editor.
- Lapointe, Francois H. (comp.). Soren Kierkegaard and His Critics; An International Bibliography of Criticism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).
- Lowrie, Walter. Kierkegaard (London: Oxford University Press, 1938).
- Lund, Henrietta. “Recollections from Home.” In T. H. Croxall (trans.), Glimpses and Impressions of Kierkegaard (Digswell Place: James Nisbet and Co. Ltd., 1959).
- Malantschuk, Gregor. Kierkegaard’s Thought, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (eds. and trans.) (Prineton, J.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971).
- Minear, Paul S., and Paul S. Morimoto (eds.). Kierkegaard and the Bible: An Index (Princeton, NJ: Book Agency Theological Seminar, 1953).
- Stucki, Pierre-Andre. Le Christianisme et l’Histoire D’Apres Kierkegaard (Basel: Verlag fur Recht und Gesellschaft, 1963).
Other Biographical Articles Published by Kevin Stilley