Kierkegaard at 200

Upon the great philosopher’s 200th birthday, Julian Baggini has a very good synopsis of Kierkegaard, a philosopher whose work I think was way ahead of its time.

Kierkegaard got to the root of the existentialist dilemma arguably before anyone else. His diagnosis of the human condition was spot-on. An 1835 journal entry of his anticipates quite strikingly the work of people like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the New Mysterians:

What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and of being able, if required, to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system … what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion?

Kierkegaard’s prognosis, that man needs a ‘leap of faith’ towards Christ, is, despite being an ironic attack on organized Christianity (what he called ‘Christendom’), a submission that many of us today would likely reject. However, the more generalized form of this conclusion of his — that man needs the irrational — is quite profound.

Baggini summarizes Kierkegaard’s view aptly:

Human beings are caught, he said, between two modes or ‘spheres’ of existence. The ‘aesthetic’ is the world of immediacy, of here and now. The ‘ethical’ is the transcendent, eternal world. We can’t live in both, but neither fulfils all our needs since ‘the self is composed of infinitude and finitude’, a perhaps hyperbolic way of saying that we exist across time, in the past and future, but we are also inescapably trapped in the present moment.

The limitations of the ‘ethical’ are perhaps most obvious to the modern mind. The life of eternity is just an illusion, for we are all-too mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. To believe we belong there is to live in denial of our animality. So the world has increasingly embraced the ‘aesthetic’. But this fails to satisfy us, too. If the moment is all we have, then all we can do is pursue pleasurable moments, ones that dissolve as swiftly as they appear, leaving us always running on empty, grasping at fleeting experiences that pass. The materialistic world offers innumerable opportunities for instant gratification without enduring satisfaction and so life becomes a series of diversions. No wonder there is still so much vague spiritual yearning in the West: people long for the ethical but cannot see beyond the aesthetic.

In evocative aphorisms, Kierkegaard captured this sense of being lost, whichever world we choose: ‘Infinitude’s despair is to lack finitude, finitude’s despair is to lack infinitude.’ Kierkegaard thus defined what I take to be the central puzzle of human existence: how to live in such a way that does justice both to our aesthetic and our ethical natures.

Many years ago, when I was in Copenhagen (and before the age of, and cell phones with internet access & GPS), I tried to find Kierkegaard’s grave in the large, overgrown Assistens Cemetery, but couldn’t.

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