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April 27, 2013


Sheridan Hough

On May 5th, 2013, the Danish existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard celebrates 200 years of notoriety, outrage, piety and profundity. Kierkegaard’s rich and dense corpus continues to dazzle and confound his readers; in honor of his life and life’s work, here are ten curiosities you should know about the Magister:

10. His last name actually means ‘graveyard’; if you wish to visit his mortal remains, you must go to the Assistens Kirkegård in Copenhagen.

9. Kierkegaard wrestled with the Lutheran Church for most of his short life (42 years). As he was dying, he directed his friends to prevent him from being given the Eucharist or indeed any observance by Lutheran clergy. When his brother Peter Christian, a pastor (and later a Lutheran bishop), performed a graveside homily, he was angrily denounced by a protest speech from Kierkegaard’s nephew. (A number of Copenhageners have written about this ‘scandalous event,’ including Hans Christian Andersen.)

8. The youngest of seven siblings, Kierkegaard became convinced that he would die before the age of 25, as several of his brothers and sisters had. His first work, noting surprise at his survival, is called From the Papers of One Still Living. The book is a scathing critique of a novel by Hans Christian Andersen, Only a Fiddler. (Andersen took his revenge 23 years later by writing the fairy tale “The Snail and the Rosebush,” with the Andersen-rosebush blooming to the world out of sheer happiness, and the Kierkgaardian-snail grumbling that “I am retreating into myself, and there I will remain.”) One of Kierkegaard’s brothers, Niels, traveled to America to make his fortune. Legend has it that he was a canny gambler who used the moniker ‘Mr. Graveyard’ at the gaming table. Niels died in Paterson, New Jersey at the age of 24, the first to be buried in that just-consecrated cemetery.

7. Kierkegaard only claimed some of his written work as his own. Many of his books were written by other authors—pseudonyms—of which he professed to have no knowledge other than he would as any other reader. Depending on how you count them (and this gets controversial), there are about 19 pseudonymous authors and speaking characters, including Victor Eremita, Judge William, Anti-Climacus, Vigilius Haufniensus, Johannes the Seducer, Frater Taciturnus, Johannes Climacus, and—yes! the Fashion Designer. Each of these voices is defending a way of life: a life of self-indulgent pleasure seeking, or one devoted to ethical judgment, or a life of religious surrender.

6. Kierkegaard dedicated his entire authorship to ‘that single individual’: that means you.

5. An ‘individual’ is made, not given: Kierkegaard argues that a human being is torn between her finite circumstances and her ability to make an infinite, passionate commitment to a vocation. Once that commitment is made, a human being acquires purpose and significance and thus becomes a self.

4. When he was twenty-four, Kierkegaard became engaged to the seventeen-year-old Regine Olsen. He immediately began having doubts about whether or not he could actually be married, and after a year he broke off the engagement. Kierkegaard nonetheless considered her to be his wife, and left his estate, and his author’s rights, to her in his will. Regine is a constant presence in Kierkegaard’s meditations on the nature of love, marriage, and faith.

3. In the last year of his life, Kierkegaard published a pamphlet called The Moment, shrilly denouncing the Lutheran Church on the grounds of hypocrisy: he wrote that the Church is a ‘criminal case’ that cheats people out of “the highest in life—the coming into existence of self-concern within them.” Kierkegaard likened the pastoral ministry to perjury, counterfeiting, fraud, murder and cannibalism, and remarked that “there is something dubious about men in women’s apparel.”

2. Kierkegaard never used the phrase ‘leap of faith.’ Instead, his notion of a ‘leap’ to a new way of life underscores the absolute difference between thinking about how best to live and actually doing it.

1. In his masterwork Fear and Trembling, the pseudonymous author Johannes de silentio remarks, “Temporality, finitude is what it is all about.” In Kierkegaard’s honor, please consider—right now—how you are living your brief, wonderful existence.


Did you send this to me by mistake, Sheridan? It's all very nice, but at most only obliquely related to the topic. I doubt anyway that you composed it especially for this occasion.

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