Søren Kierkegaard: Confronting “the Possibility of Freedom”
The starving, young boy, Michael Kierkegaard, was watching over sheep in the bitter cold. He must have resented his lot in life, and in a defiant act “stood on a hilltop and cursed God” (Carlisle). However, he would regret this act and come to believe that in response to his impiousness, God had cursed him and would take “the lives of all seven of his children before they reached the age of 34 (the age of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion)” (McDonald). All but two of his children (Peter and Søren) indeed died before the age of 34. Being fully aware of this perceived curse, Søren Kierkegaard’s own anxiety would strike him like a whip and drive him, from a young age, to find his purpose in life and become accomplished, before the age of 34 (McDonald). While many people may not be anxiously pursued by a perceived god-curse, they still suffer a similar angst in endeavoring to understand their place in life. Thankfully because of Søren Kierkegaard’s suffering and his quest to be the Christian Socrates, those who read his works may find answers in their pursuit to grow through anxiety and onward to the “possibility of freedom” (Kierkegaard 196).
Born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard’s unease grew strong as a young boy. He “looked up at his stern father with fear and trembling,” and one time he observed “the anxiety with which my father filled my soul, his own frightful melancholy, the many things in this connection that I cannot even write down” (Carlisle). By the age of 17, he entered the university at Copenhagen, and for the next eleven years would laboriously study, anxiously seek his meaning in life, waffle back and forth with marriage and then finally defend his dissertation in 1841 (McDonald). It was during these years his anxiety deepened, especially regarding his securing his true aim in life. He wrote,
What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die” (Carlisle).
In the final year of university, he proposed to Regine Olsen, and she consented. However, in his search to find his purpose in life, he came to realize that he could not marry Regine. While there appears to be no explicit reason for backing out of the proposal, there does seem to be some indication that the calling of becoming “the Socrates of Christendom” had a stronger sway on him, and in that role, he could “not subject Regine” to the life of his “philosophical task” (Carlisle).
For the next fourteen years until his death on November 11, 1855, Kierkegaard would write profusely and leverage various writing methods such as pseudonyms, “irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques” in order to awaken Christians out of their intellectual ruts and routines (McDonald). Like an unremitting horsefly, Kierkegaard “constantly [irritated] his contemporaries with discomforting thoughts” to force them “to take individual responsibility for knowing who they are and for knowing where they stand on the existential, ethical and religious issues” (McDonald). This discomfort was the initial stage of prodding his readers and fellow-Christians into a state of anxiety.
Anxiety is the soil for growth and possibility. “Kierkegaard sees man as the creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, who conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and by creative activity carries it into actuality” (May 39). In this mindset of possibility, man experiences more anxiety. But in order to achieve freedom, the individual must “confront that anxiety and move ahead despite it” (41). Yet in that moment of intending to “move ahead,” the individual “at the same time wishes not” to move ahead (42). The choice to press on is the hallmark of a healthy individual, while the unhealthy person remains “shut-in” (42). Another obstacle for a person to overcome is the “belief in fate” (44).
Regarding fate, Kierkegaard wrote that it “is the unity of necessity and the accidental” (Kierkegaard 96). Consequently, when one accepts the belief of fate, “the full meaning of anxiety and guilt are not felt” (May 44). And because of the lack of anxiety, “fate sets limits on creativity” and for the “creative genius” to attain success, he must move “through anxiety and guilt” (44). Indeed, one must embrace the anxiety one feels and treat it like a painful prescription from a doctor.
By having an open mind and welcoming possibilities, one must view anxiety as medical treatment that is painful. To achieve what one imagines, one must pay the price to be healed. This dreadful remedy reveals to him his existence, and his “human situation … [and] the fact of death” (46). However, one must not shirk the procedure. Kierkegaard reminds us to be like Socrates, who, when faced with the hemlock did so “as a patient [who] says to the surgeon when a painful operation is about to begin, ‘Now I am ready.’ Then anxiety enters his soul and searches it thoroughly, constraining out of him all the finite and petty, and leading him hence whither he would go” (46).
In conclusion, Kierkegaard’s life, from his childhood to his lived experience, to his voluminous writings, was a life of educational angst. While his father and his momentary fiancé provided him much consternation, he nonetheless confronted these and all his anxieties – including searching and securing his true aim in life: becoming the Christian Socrates. Once secure in his unique objective in life, he leveraged many techniques to induce discomfort and anxiety in his readers. And if his readers embrace this anxiety, as did Kierkegaard, then their obstacle becomes the path toward the possibility of freedom and meaning. In sum, anxiety is “an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious so that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety, or by succumbing in anxiety” (Kierkegaard 155).
Carlisle, Clare. Philosopher of the Heart. E-book ed., Penguin UK, 2019.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety : A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Translated by Reidar Thomte and Albert Anderson, Princeton University Press, 1980.
May, Ph.D., Rollo. The Meaning Of Anxiety, Hauraki Publishing, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=4808629.
McDonald, William. “Søren Kierkegaard (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford.edu, 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/.