A Biography of Kierkegaard
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen on May 5, 1813. Both of his parents were of Jutlandish descent. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was raised a shepherd boy. He experienced what is now considered to have been an event seminal for both father and son, considering the influence of the former on the latter. Michael experienced great suffering and loneliness while alone on the heath. One day, while still a child, he cursed God for his hardships. Notwithstanding this, his situation much improved when he turned twelve years of age, at which time he was sent to live with his uncle in Copenhagen. Michael succeeded as a businessman, a hosier. He did so well that he was able to retire when he was only forty years old. He lived quite comfortably until the age of eighty-two, and died in 1838.
Kierkegaard's mother, Anne, was Michael Kierkegaard's second wife and gave birth to all of his seven children. Her entrance into the household had been as a servant girl. While Kierkegaard wrote much in his journals about his father, he rarely wrote of his mother. She died in 1834 when Kierkegaard was twenty-one.
The Great Earthquake
An important fragment that Kierkegaard wrote when he was twenty-five is on the so-called "Great Earthquake", when he came to an understanding about his father and the entire family. His father had cursed God due to his hardship and poverty as a shepherd child. Even though shortly later he was rescued from this life and became very prosperous, he felt that the blessings upon his family were an irony, and in fact God's revenge. This despair was inherited by his children, five of whom died prematurely, including his wife. Significantly, this entry is preceded by a quote from King Lear, Act 5 Scene 3.
It was then the great earthquake occurred, the terrible upheaval which suddenly pressed on me a new infallible law for the interpretation of all phenomena. It was then I suspected my father's great age was not a divine blessing but rather a curse; that our family's excellent mental abilities existed only for tearing us apart from one another; I felt the stillness of death spreading over me when I saw in my father an unhappy person who would survive us all, a monumental cross on the grave of all his expectations. A guilt must weigh on the entire family, God's punishment must be upon it; it was meant to disappear, expunged by God's mighty hand, deleted like an unsuccessful attempt, and I only occasionally found some little solace in the thought that upon my father had fallen the heavy duty of reassuring us with the consolation of religion, administering the last sacrament, so that a better world might still stand open for us even if we lost everything in this one, even if that punishment the Jews always called down upon their foes were to fall on us; that all memory of us would be wiped out and no trace found (II A 805).
William McDonald comments on the effects of Kierkegaard's parents on his later thought.
The influence of Kierkegaard's father on his work has been frequently noted. Not only did Kierkegaard inherit his father's melancholy, his sense of guilt and anxiety, and his pietistic emphasis on the dour aspects of Christian faith, but he also inherited his talents for philosophical argument and creative imagination. In addition Kierkegaard inherited enough of his father's wealth to allow him to pursue his life as a freelance writer. The themes of sacrificial father/son relationships, of inherited sin, of the burden of history, and of the centrality of the "individual, human existence relationship, the old text, well known, handed down from the fathers" (Postscript) are repeated many times in Kierkegaard's oeuvre. The father's sense of guilt was so great (for having cursed God? for having impregnated Kierkegaard's mother out of wedlock?) that he thought God would punish him by taking the lives of all seven of his children before they reached the age of 34 (the age of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion). This was born out for all but two of the children, Søren and his older brother Peter, both of whom were astonished to survive beyond that age. This may explain the sense of urgency that drove Kierkegaard to write so prolifically in the years leading up to his 34th birthday (see The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Frithiof Brandt also comments on the influence of the father on the son.
Søren Kierkegaard was the youngest of the family of seven. When he was born his father was 56 and his mother 45, and he often called himself a child of old age. The patriarchal, self-willed father dominated the home. He was a highly gifted man, self-taught, but well-read, and much occupied with spiritual matters. His religious denomination was the pietistic Herrnhuter 'fraternity'. He had a sombre view of life and brought up his children to a strict form of Christianity, which particularly emphasized the sufferings of Christ. He suffered from periodic attacks of depression, awareness of sin and scrupulosity. He especially doubted the salvation of his soul. There is no doubt that it was from his father that Søren Kierkegaard inherited the deepest layers of his personality, the periodic depressions that weighed him down, as well as the outstanding powers of thought, both the penetrating dialectic intelligence and the passionate imagination.... It was particularly the suffering Christ that the father presented to the child. His son says that from boyhood upwards he was brought up to the view that the truth must suffer and be derided and scorned. He mentions as well the indignation he had felt from childhood because, long before he had experienced it himself, he had learned that the world was ruled by lies, meanness and injustice. "Even as a small child I was told, as solemnly as possible: that everyone spat at Christ (who, indeed, was the truth), that the multitude (those who passed by) spat at him and said: 'Shame on you.' I have kept this deep in my heart. This thought is my life" (Søren Kierkegaard, p. 7f.).
The strain of melancholia over the belief that the family was cursed, and the pietistic influence on his life was in part responsible from the break in the relationship between father and son. The two, however, came to joyful a reconciliation shortly before the father's death in 1838.
In 1840 Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen (1822-1904), who was then eighteen years old. He had met her years earlier, but she was too young to pursue. She was from a well-to-do family in Copenhagen. It did not take long, however, for him to feel that he had made a grave error. He broke off the engagement the following year after returning her engagement ring. There were at least two reasons for this break. First, he felt that he was unsuitable for Regine due to his severe bouts with melancholia—and he was probably right. Secondly, he believed that he would not live much longer, since his health had always been poor—he had been rejected by the military as unfit—and he felt that a curse lay on his family due to his father having cursed God. This was reinforced by the deaths of his mother and siblings (except for his eldest brother) in rapid succession. Since a broken engagement might tarnish the reputation of a young woman, Kierkegaard tried to make Regine believe that he was a scoundrel, so that all blame would rest upon him alone. This plan failed due to her ability to see through his charade.
After the dissolution of their relationship, Kierkegaard began his writing career. Moreover, late in that year he traveled to Berlin for the first of four trips. These journeys, and a pilgrimage made to his father's birthplace, were his sole venturings outside of his beloved Copenhagen. On April 16, 1843, when Kierkegaard was leaving Vor Frue Church, he saw Regine, who was also leaving. She nodded to him. This was a momentous event for Kierkegaard. He understood this to mean that she had forgiven him, and perhaps had understood why he had left her. Kierkegaard made a journal entry of this event.
At Vespers on Easter Sunday in Frue Kirke (during Mynster's sermon), she nodded to me. I do not know if it was pleadingly or forgivingly, but in any case very affectionately. I had sat down in a place apart, but she discovered it. Would to God that she had not done so. Now a year and a half of suffering and all the enormous pains I took are wasted; she does not believe that I was a deceiver, she has faith in me. What ordeals now lie ahead of her. The next will be that I am a hypocrite. The higher we go, the more dreadful it is. That a man of my inwardness, of my religiousness, could act in such a way. And yet I can no longer live solely for her, cannot expose myself to the contempt of men in order to lose my honor—that I have done. Shall I in sheer madness go ahead and become a villain just to get her to believe it—ah, what help is that. She will still believe that I was not that before (Journals, IV A 97).
But not long after, Kierkegaard learned that she had become engaged to Johan Frederik Schlegel (1817-1896), who had been her instructor. In 1854, a year before Kierkegaard died, they moved to the Danish West Indies where Schlegel became governor.
Kierkegaard considered his authorship to have begun in 1843, though he had already published several articles and his dissertation. From 1843 through 1846 he published works under pseudonyms. These works were grounded in a philosophical schema that formed a unity, even though they were diverse in nature. Even while Kierkegaard published these works, he published overtly religious works under his own name. The two strains of publications formed a well-conceived whole. For information on the individual works of Kierkegaard, see the Commentary. For more on his writing see Kierkegaard's Authorial Method, containing a longer essay comparing his writing method to that of Plato.
The Corsair Affair
On December 22, 1845 P. L. Møller published a harsh critique of Stages On Life's Way. Kierkegaard retaliated by publishing an article in The Fatherland which mentioned that Møller secretly published in The Corsair. This was a weekly satirical paper, which lampooned people of repute, and was itself considered disreputable, though it was read surreptitiously by many. Its editor was Meïr Aaron Goldschmidt (1819-1887), who was Kierkegaard's junior by several years and an admirer of his keen dialectical wit. Kierkegaard attempted to discredit Møller and to distance Goldschmidt from The Corsair, because he felt that Goldschmidt was capable of greater things. Kierkegaard's foray into lively critique launched a sally of abuse against him, with The Corsair lampooning his appearance and voice. This became perhaps the greatest literary debacle in nineteenth-century Denmark. For more on this see "The Activity of a Traveling Esthetician".
The Attack Upon Christendom
The church in Denmark was (and is) Lutheran. It was a State Church in which all Danes were born Lutheran and thus de facto "Christians". Citizenship and enrollment in the Church were the same thing. Kierkegaard alleged that this reduced to nothing radical conversion to Christ. The Church sought to transform the sacred economy of God into a profane state religion. Kierkegaard felt that "Official Christianity", or Christendom, had departed so far from the Christianity of the New Testament, that it needed to be torn down and rebuilt—not reformed. Kierkegaard did not, however, attack the Christianity of the New Testament, but "Official Christianity" or "Christendom". The attack consisted of a series of articles published during the final year of his life. His attack was unusual, since he attacked the Church from within, as a believer. He died in the midst of this heated battle. For more on the origin of this controversy, as well as samples of Kierkegaard's broadsides, see Articles from the Fatherland.
Death and Burial
On October 2, 1855 Kierkegaard fell unconscious in the street, suffering paralysis of the legs. He was taken to Frederick's Hospital. It is not entirely clear what illness he had, but it may have been some ailment of the spine. During the forty days that he lingered in the hospital room, he had banned his brother Peter from entering. His friend Pastor Boesen visited him daily. Boesen tried to offer Holy Communion to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard refused it. When asked if he wanted it, he said, "Yes, but not from a parson". He was willing to die without Communion rather than contradict himself, for he had said that the Lutheran Church had to be abandoned as long as God was being mocked in the churches. "The parsons are royal functionaries, and royal functionaries are not related to Christianity". This information comes from Pastor Boesen's own notes which he kept of Kierkegaard's final days (see W. Lowrie's A Short Life of Kierkegaard, p. 253ff.).
For the description of Kierkegaard's funeral, I resort to Lowrie again.
The question of his burial was a ticklish one, and it was very ineptly resolved by the decision to hold the funeral service in the Frue Kirke, the most important church in Copenhagen...and on November 18, which was a Sunday, when the greatest crowd would be free to come. Peter was to preach the sermon. The church was crowded long before the hour, and a multitude of shabby-looking people had pressed forward near the coffin. There were no priests in the church except Peter Kierkegaard and Dean Tryde, who was to conduct the service at the grave. It looked as though there might be a popular protest against the high-handed way in which the Established Church had taken possession of the body of the man who had so publicly defied it. But at the last moment a large body of students resolutely forced their way to the front and stood guard around the coffin. Peter's sermon was very tactfully calculated to allay the animosity of the crowd, and all went quietly.
At the cemetery things did not go so smoothly. Henrik Lund claimed the right to speak, not merely as a nephew, but as one who was closely related to the deceased by sympathy with his thought. He hotly contested the right of the church to appropriate his uncle.... The Dean reminded him that the law allowed only ordained ministers to speak at a funeral. Whereupon Professor Rasmus Nielsen, who had intended to speak, shrugged his shoulders and went away. It was cold and the crowd gradually dispersed.
S. K. was buried in the family lot, but nobody knows precisely where. Peter did nothing to mark the spot... (p. 255f.).
- May 5: Birth in Copenhagen at Nytorv 2, son of Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard and Anne Sørensdatter Lund Kierkegaard
- June 3: Baptized in Helliggeist Church in Copenhagen
- Enrolled in Borgerdydskolen in Copenhagen (School of Civic Virtue)
- January 23: Regine Olsen Born
- April 20: Confirmed in Vor Frue Kirke by Pastor J. P. Mynster
- October 30: Entered the University of Copenhagen as a theology student
- November 1: Drafted into Royal Guard, Company 7
- November 4: Discharged as unfit for service
- April 25: Finishes first part of second examination (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and history, magna cum laude; mathematics, summa cum laude)
- October 27: Completes second part of second examination (philosophy, physics, and mathematics, summa cum laude)
- April 15: First entry into journals (entry I A 1)
- July 31: Death of Kierkegaard's mother Anne Sørensdatter Lund
- The so-called "Great Earthquake". Kierkegaard believes that a curse lay over the family when he discovers that his father had cursed God as a young man.
- May 8 to May 12: On a visit to the Rørdams in Frederiksberg he meets Regine Olsen for the first time
- May 19: Kierkegaard records that he has experienced "an indescribable joy" (see the Journals, II A 228).
- August 9: Death of Kierkegaard's father Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard
- August 14: Father buried in family plot in Assistens Cemetery
- September 7: From the Papers of One Still Living
- June 2: Presents his request for examination to theological faculty
- July 3: Completes examination for degree (magna cum laude)
- July 19 to August 6: Journey to ancestral home in Jutland
- September 8: Proposes to Regine Olsen
- September 10: Engagement to Regine Olsen
- October 18: First number of The Corsair published by M. A. Goldschmidt
- November 17: Enters the Pastoral Seminary
- January 12: Preaches sermon in Holmens Kirke
- July 16: Thesis: The Concept of Irony
- August 11: Returns Regine Olsen's engagement ring
- September 16: Dissertation printed
- September 29: Defends his dissertation
- October 11: Engagement with Regine Olsen broken
- October 25: Kierkegaard leaves to study in Berlin
- March 6: Returns to Copenhagen
- November 11: S. K.'s brother Peter Christian Kierkegaard ordained
- February 20: Either/Or
- A Second Trip to Berlin, returns in end of June
- May 16: Two Upbuilding Discourses
- July: Learns of Regine's engagement to Fritz Schlegel
- October 16: Fear and Trembling, Repetition and Three Upbuilding Discourses
- December 6: Four Upbuilding Discourses
- Feb. 24: Preaches sermon in Trinitatis Church.
- March 5: Two Upbuilding Discourses
- June 8: Three Upbuilding Discourses
- June 13: Philosophical Fragments
- June 17: The Concept of Anxiety and Prefaces
- August 31: Four Upbuilding Discourses
- October 16: Moves from Nørregade 230 (now 38) to house at Nytorv 2, Copenhagen
- April 29: Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions
- April 30: Stages on Life's Way
- May 13 to 24: Third trip to Berlin
- May 29: Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses
- December 27: Beginning of The Corsair Affair (through the summer of the following year). Kierkegaard publishes an article in The Corsair entitled "The Activity of a Traveling Esthetician and How He Still Happened to Pay for the Dinner"
- January 2: First attack on S. K. in The Corsair
- January 10: S. K.'s reply by Frater Taciturnus in The Fatherland
- February 7: Considers qualifying himself for ordination
- February 27: Concluding Unscientific Postscript
- March 30: Two Ages
- May 2 to 16: Fourth trip to Berlin
- June 12: Acquires Adler's books, Studier og Exempler, Forsøg til en kort systematisk Fremstilling af Christendommen i dens Logik, and Theologiske Studier.
- October 2: Goldschmidt resigns as editor of The Corsair
- October 7: Goldschmidt travels to Germany and Italy.
- January 24: The Book On Adler, left unfinished
- March 13: Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits
- September 29: Works of Love
- November 9: Regine Olsen marries Fritz Schlegel
- December 29: Kierkegaard sells house on Nytorv
- Phister as Captain Scipio
- Apr. 19: Kierkegaard writes in his Journals, "My whole nature is changed. My concealment and reserve are broken—I am free to speak" (VIII A 640).
- April 26: Christian Discourses
- July 24 to 27: The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress
- September 1: Preaches in Vor Frue Church
- November 1: The Point of View for my Work as an Author, left unpublished
- Late in year: Armed Neutrality
- May 14: Second edition of Either/Or, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air
- May 19: Two Minor Ethical-Religious Essays
- June 25 or 26: Regine Olsen's father dies.
- July 30: The Sickness Unto Death
- November 19: Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays
- April 18: Kierkegaard moves to Nørregade 43, Copenhagen
- September 25: Practice in Christianity
- December 12: An Upbuilding Discourse
- January 31: An Open Letter to Dr. Rudelbach
- August 7: On My Work as an Author, Two Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (both written in 1849)
- September 10: For Self-Examination
- Judge For Yourself!
- The so-called "Gathering Storm": Kierkegaard published nothing until December of 1854, when he began the attack on Official Christianity
- January 30: Death of Bishop Mynster
- April 15: Appointment of Martensen to Bishopric
- December 18: S. K. begins polemic against Bishop Martensen in The Fatherland with an article entitled "Was Bishop Mynster a 'Witness to the Truth'.."..
- December 30: An article in The Fatherland # 2: "There the matter rests!"
- January 12: An article in The Fatherland # 3: "A challenge to me by Pastor Paludan-Müller"
- January 29: An article in The Fatherland # 4: "The point at issue with Bishop Martensen..". and # 5: "Two new witnesses to the truth"
- March 20: An article in The Fatherland # 6: "With regard to Bishop Mynster's death"
- March 21: An article in The Fatherland # 7: "Is this Christian worship, or is it treating God as a fool?"
- March 22: An article in The Fatherland # 8: "What must be done—whether by me or another"
- March 26: An article in The Fatherland # 9: "The religious situation"
- March 28: An article in The Fatherland # 10: "A Thesis—only a single one"
- March 30: An article in The Fatherland # 11: "Salt; for Christendom is...the betrayal of Christianity; "a Christian World" is...apostasy from Christianity"
- March 31: An article in The Fatherland # 12: "What do I want?"
- April 7: An article in The Fatherland # 13: "With reference to an anonymous proposal made to me in No. 47 of this newspaper"
- April 11: An article in The Fatherland # 14: "Would it be best now to 'stop ringing the fire alarm'" and # 15: "Christianity with a government commission or Christianity without a government commission"
- April 27: An article in The Fatherland # 16: "What a cruel punishment!"
- May 10: An article in The Fatherland # 17: "A Result" and # 18: "A Monologue"
- May 15: An article in The Fatherland # 19: "About a silly assumption of importance over against me and the view of Christianity I stand for"
- May 16: An article in The Fatherland # 20: "With regard to the new edition of Practice in Christianity" and This Must Be Said; So Let It Now Be Said, published separately
- May 26: The final article in The Fatherland # 21: "That Bishop Martensen's silence is, Christianly, (1) unjustifiable, (2) comical, (3) dumb-clever, (4) in more than one respect contemptible" and the first installment of The Moment (dated May 24, but held until the article in The Fatherland was published)
- June 4: The Moment # 2
- June 16: What Christ Judges of Official Christianity
- June 27: The Moment # 3
- July 7: The Moment # 4
- July 27: The Moment # 5
- August 23: The Moment # 6
- August 30: The Moment # 7
- August ?: The Changelessness of God
- September 11 The Moment # 8
- September 24: Ninth and last number of The Moment published; number 10 was ready on October 2, but published posthumously. Kierkegaard writes his last entry
- October 2: Enters Frederiks Hospital
- November 11: Death in Copenhagen
- November 18: Funeral at The Church of Our Lady. Burial at Assistens Cemetery