Søren Kierkegaard felt like he was doomed to be misconstrued. “People understand me so little that they do not even understand when I complain of being misunderstood,” he famously wrote in his Journals. He was a Christian loved by atheists, a trapped man loved by existentialists, a critic of Luther equally despised and loved by Catholics, and a conservative loved by revolutionaries.
There are those who would eagerly think of Kierkegaard as a revolutionary of his time, after all, isn’t he the father of existentialism, and weren’t most existentialists die-hard communists? But he who believes that Kierkegaard fits nicely both in the atheistic existentialist tradition and within its politics is quite wrong.
There is also the mistaken idea that due to Kierkegaard’s return to the self and its innermost secrets, to that place only visible to oneself and God, he was uninterested in politics. But Kierkegaard was not a political activist nor a hermit. To be sure, politics was never the prime philosophical or intellectual interest of the Dane, but he was a keen observer of his age’s activists—the liberal and socialist revolutionaires. And he was no friend of them.
I am hardly the first one to notice Kierkegaard’s conservative instincts, of course. Kierkegaard had a significant impact in Schmitt’s Weimar years and was also held in high regard by Eric Voegelin for his attempt to restore the faith and tradition from the disruption of the Enlightenment and the liberal revolutions.
Politics, however, was not an isolated affair for Kierkegaard. He was deeply attentive to the political developments across Europe in his time. Moreover, he drew his analysis of the condition of his age precisely from the heart of his philosophy: the drama of the individual.
The single individual
Above all, the single individual is an existential task. It is not a metaphysical conclusion nor can it be equated with human nature as is. It cannot be understood as an übermensch, but it is something every human being should strive to become. And what is that we seek to become? Ourselves, obvious as it may seem. This may reek of postmodernity, but in Kierkegaard’s case, there is nothing further from the truth. In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, through the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard says that when we think of existence, we cancel it. Existence cannot be abstracted: we only know what existence is by existing.
There’s a certain ludic element in Kierkegaard’s notion of existence: We can only define the game of baseball correctly only inasmuch as we’ve tried to hit a curveball and struck out miserably. We can only define existence by existing. And since existence is infinitely concrete, it is also infinitely singular. Therefore, one must not confuse thought and existence. Where Descartes says I think, therefore I am, Kierkegaard says Nay, I am, therefore I think. Reality precedes thought. Our relationship with existence is immediate. Only by existing, we can think.
Thus, if the individual is defined first by existence, it cannot be defined abstractly as one might offer a mathematical formula. For Kierkegaard, we become individuals when we seek to understand and accept our subjectivity, and thereby wholly become human beings, as he says in the Postscript. And that wholeness of existence and individuality is not anarchic or relativistic, as it might be in an atheist existentialist. As Kierkegaard says through another of his pseudonyms, Anti-Climacus, the task of the self is to “rest transparently in the power that established it”—namely God.
Kierkegaard observes that our existence is suspended between two realms. We are not beasts nor angels, but he also denies we are a combination of matter and form, as Aristotle and Aquinas later would claim. The individual is trapped in time but facing Eternity, making him a synthesis, an uneasy tension. In our relationship with both time and Eternity, wherein we find God, lies the task of man and his becoming a self, a single individual.
Thus, the ‘authenticity of the self’ does not lie solely in its will but in the appropriate relationship to the power that established it and the rules established over it, namely, the moral law. Of course, Kierkegaard has his own kerfuffle with our relationship to the moral law, but not because he thinks we’re beyond it, but because he thinks God cannot be reduced to it. In the end, the authentic self is found only in freely submitting to God, not in the never-ending search for the self.
In turn, the single individual, the self, among other names Kierkegaard calls it, is the antonym of the mass. It is man assuming his individuality, his existential calling.
The political self
Of course, if the self is a task, it has a certain elitist element ascribed to it. Not every human being becomes a self. In fact, most of them don’t, in Kierkegaard’s analysis. And this is where Kierkegaard’s concept of the single individual turns political.
Kierkegaard clearly saw that he was born at the beginning of a period of crisis, with unexpected political and historical dimensions. He saw modern times as the death of the single individual. In 1838, in his first book From the Papers of One Still Living, he criticized the societal problems arising from what he called a levelling of values. This leveling, he judged, meant that men would find support in assemblies and the public as they lost faith in the realization of the individual.
“Aren’t things bad enough as they are?” Kierkegaard would ask along with Lord Salisbury.
Kierkegaard’s journal entries reveal that he was profoundly interested—and concerned—with the developments of the politics of his age, both in Denmark and throughout Europe. He extensively comments on the rising of the socialists of his time, expressing fear that they will exploit the masses, and that this would eventually lead to bigger revolutions—not being satisfied with mere political reforms because it holds, in itself, a totalizing worldview that seeks to encompass religious and metaphysical problems. The means to this end for the revolutionaries of his time, Kierkegaard believed, was the public, a concept Kierkegaard despises. He says the following in The Two Ages, his most political work:
The public is a concept that simply could not have appeared in antiquity, because the people were obliged to come forward en masse in corpore [as a whole] in the situation of action, were obliged to bear the responsibility for what was done by individuals in their midst, while in turn the individual was obliged to be present in person as the one specifically involved and had to submit to the summary court for approval or disapproval. Only when there is no strong communal life to give substance to the concretion will the press create this abstraction “the public,” made up of unsubstantial individuals who are never united or never can be united in the simultaneity of any situation or organization and yet are claimed to be a whole.
Kierkegaard, the Libertarian?
The public, according to the Dane, is an abstract mass that does not represent anything real. Thus, one might argue that Kierkegaard is more of a libertarian than a conservative, rebelling as he does against collectivism and enshrining the single individual. Nonetheless, Kierkegaard’s rebellion against the notion of the public is more Burkean than Randian, if the anachronism may be forgiven. He is not criticizing communal bonds per se, but simply stating that the public is the pound-shop version of the community. In fact, he clearly states in the quote above that the public is a consequence of the lack of strong communal life.
Scruton says, in The Meaning of Conservatism, that conservatives prioritize the ‘we’ over the ‘I’,” but that the ‘we’ that conservatives defend “is not that of the modern bureaucratic state, still less that of the revolutionary guardians who speak on behalf of the people while never consulting them. It is the ‘we’ of a traditional community”—a view with which Kierkegaard would wholly agree.
In fact, Kierkegaard resembles Burke in calling the public an abstraction. Whereas Burke opposes what he calls geometrical politics—that is, top-down, deductive impositions that do not arise spontaneously within a body politic—to the organic settled community, Kierkegaard criticizes the abstraction of the ‘public’ that obliterates the concrete and, ultimately, the single individual, who arises from true community but never from the public. “The public is everything and nothing, the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant: one can speak to a whole nation in the name of the public and still the public will be less than one single actual human being, however unimportant,” he says.
The public lacks the spontaneous emergence of a polity formed by communal bonds. Thus, Kierkegaard says in the Two Ages, “A generation, a nation, a general assembly, a community, a man, still have a responsibility to be something, can know shame for fickleness and disloyalty, but a public remains the public.”
So far, however, we have only highlighted a conservative instinct in Kierkegaard, but no positive attempt to construct a conservative political worldview. That was, of course, never his interest. Still, it is hardly coincidental that he wrote the Works of Love precisely amid food shortages and riots throughout Europe.
Modern bourgeois life seeks to make everything safe and easy, with peace of mind being the ultimate goal, but Kierkegaard says in his journals that “the task must be made difficult for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.” Works of Love is mostly about the single individual’s relationship with God and the neighbor. And in this work, Kierkegaard includes subtle but tenacious political commentary against the absolute egalitarianism of communism and the lukewarmness of the bourgeois class. Herein, Kierkegaard highlights the essentially anti-modern quality of Christian love, for the mere reason that it includes a counter-intuitive element to it. Man is naturally inclined both toward sociality and toward egoism—he relates to others but also pursues his self-interest.
In the Works of Love, Kierkegaard overcomes this dichotomy with the you shall of the Commandments. God does not ask us to love but commands us to do so. In turn, God is commanding us to act against our self-interest to look to the good of our neighbor. (One might argue that avoiding eternal damnation is in our self-interest, though).
And when defining the neighbor, Kierkegaard amusingly follows Socrates on beauty:
at times [Socrates] also conducted another kind of discourse, when he spoke about loving the ugly. He did not deny that to love is to love the beautiful, but he still spoke also about—indeed it was a kind of jest—loving the ugly. What then is meant by the beautiful? The beautiful is the immediate, and direct object of immediate love, the choice of inclination and of passion … and what is the ugly? It is the neighbor, whom one shall love. One shall love him … The neighbor is the unlovable object, is not anything to offer to inclination and passion, which turn away from him and say, “Is that anything to love!”
Therefore, in a way, loving one’s neighbor forces one out of oneself. This might seem extraordinary, but it is in fact what holds society together: the mutual solidarity towards neighbor for the sake of our common ground and common history, despite the more than likely mutual annoyance that arises from having to be together. As Chesterton said, “the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
In the face of the forced egalitarianism and atomization of modern ideologies, Kierkegaard proposes to come out of oneself and to strengthen deep communal bonds. This self-transformation requires a level of personal effort alien to moderns: “If your ultimate and highest goal is to have life made easy and sociable, then never become involved with Christianity, shun it, because it wants the very opposite; it wants to make your life difficult.”