D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

The Single Individual

  • "The Single Individual": Two "Notes" Concerning My Work As An Author
  • "Den Enkelte"; Tvende "Noter" betræffende min Forfatter-Virksomhed
  • 1846-47, with postscripts 1849, 1855, published posthumously (1859)
  • KW22, SKS13, SV13

This work, like many of Kierkegaard's, was not published during his lifetime, but appeared posthumously thanks to his brother Peter. This work is short, and divided into two parts, and in time became a supplement to The Point Of View For My Work As An Author though it was begun earlier. Part One addresses the category of 'that solitary individual' and Part Two addresses its application in his corpus. This work is one of three Kierkegaard wrote on his authorship. The Point of View was also published posthumously, along with this work. On My Work As an Author was, however, published in Kierkegaard's lifetime, brief though the work was. As a footnote indicates (p. 109), The Single Individual work was meant to accompany the dedication to 'that individual' which is found in Upbuilding Discourses In Various Spirits. Begun in 1846, it was heavily revised in 1847. A very brief postscript was added in 1849 with footnotes to the text. A second postscript was added in 1855, Kierkegaard's final year.

1: Concerning the Dedication to 'The Single Individual'

The theme of the solitary individual was dealt with at length in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Briefly, in relation to "the numeric masses", the individual person is of infinite importance. God deals with, saves and judges individuals. The masses have no real essence. In The Single Individual he repeatedly asserts that the "crowd is untruth". He begins with the subject of politics. This is especially significant because politics emphasizes the whole, while Christianity, as proffered by Kierkegaard, emphasizes the individual before God. The Single Individual begins thusly.

In these times politics is everything. Between this and the religious view the difference is heaven-wide (toto caelo), as also the point of departure and the ultimate aim differ from it toto caelo, since politics begins on earth and remains on earth, whereas religion, deriving its beginning from above, seeks to explain and transfigure and thereby exalt the earthly to heaven (p. 107).

In ways, Kierkegaard thought that his view was prophetical because of the sufferings that would come soon on the political scene. The effects of the French Revolution would be realized in 1848, when domestic and foreign upheavals led to an armed conflict with Germany, in which the latter annexed some of Denmark. Kierkegaard felt that only the power of the masses could have propelled the country into such a calamity. As we noted above, Kierkegaard revised this work in 1849 and inserted notes that underscored his viewpoint in light of recent events. It is perhaps no accident that Karl Mark would proffer his political theories at this time—in fact, though they did not meet, they each attended Schelling's Berlin Lectures in 1841.

Perhaps there is no other work where Kierkegaard so clearly and emphatically spells out the value of the individual versus the masses.

There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there is also the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd—a crowd to which any decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd—untruth would at once be in evidence (p. 110).

Lest he be misunderstood, Kierkegaard appends two footnotes to this passage, which we quote in part.

[1.] [I concede] that in relation to all temporal, earthly, worldly matters the crowd may have competency, and even decisive competency as a court of last resort.... I am speaking about the ethical, about the ethical-religious, about 'the truth', and I am affirming the untruth of the crowd, ethical-religiously regarded, when it is treated as a criterion for what 'truth' is. [2.] ...if there were an assemblage even of only ten—and if they should put the truth to the ballot, that is to say, if the assemblage should be regarded as the authority, if it is the crowd which turns the scale—then there is untruth.

This is to say that not only does a thing not become true simply because many or all hold it to be true—which should be obvious to any person even a little inclined to a scientific bent—but as soon as any idea, even a true one, is asserted by a crowd, it becomes untruth, because the truth cannot be expressed thereby. The God-relationship is worked out in the inner man. Kierkegaard has often been criticized for being anti-clerical and anti-ecclesiastical. But in fact, he was only against clerics who falsified the truth of the Gospel, and he was against the chatter of the mindless congregation. To find an example of a more sympathetic view toward ecclesiastical gatherings, see Two Ages. There he says,

When individuals (each one individually) are essentially and passionately related to an idea and together are essentially related to the same idea, the relation is optimal and normative (p. 62).

When the truth is found to reside in the crowd, the individual becomes a 'specimen'.

In a worldly and temporal sense, it will be said by the man of bustle, sociability, and amicableness, "how unreasonable that only one attains the goal; for it is far more likely that many, by the strength of united effort, should attain the goal and when we are many success is more certain and it is easier for each man severally." True enough, it is far more likely; and it is true also with respect to all earthly and material goods. If it is allowed to have its way, this becomes the only true point of view, for it does away with God and eternity and with man's kinship with deity. It does away with it or transforms it into a fable, and puts in its place the modern (or, we might rather say, the old pagan) notion that to be a man is to belong to a race endowed with reason, to belong to it as a specimen, so that the race or species is higher than the individual, which is to say that there are no more individuals but only specimens. But eternity...and God in heaven...knows each solitary individual by name—He, the great Examiner, says that only one attains the goal. That means, everyone can and every one should be this one—but only one attains the goal (p. 111f.).

The idea of the individual being above the race was first posited in Kierkegaard's Concept of Anxiety. There, he deliberates on the Christian dogma of hereditary sin, that is called into play whenever a man freely sins. If a man were to inherit sinfulness prior to committing an actual sin, he would be less than the race. Here, Kierkegaard continues a thought that is diametrically opposed to communism as we now know it. The state, the throng of men, the entire world combined, is less important than the solitary individual. In a footnote to the quote above, Kierkegaard is careful to say that when he says that the 'crowd is untruth', he does not only mean the ugly and angered throng, or the unlearned rabble. He means any group, any number of people, who as a group lay claim to truth. Truth is true only when posited by individuals.

The falsehood first of all is the notion that the crowd does what in fact only the individual in the crowd does, though it be every individual. For 'crowd' is an abstraction and has no hands. ...the falsehood is that the crowd had the 'courage' [to do something], for no one of the individuals was ever so cowardly as the crowd always is. For every individual who flees for refuge into the crowd, and so flees in cowardice from being an individual..., such a man contributes his own share of cowardliness to the cowardliness which we know as the 'crowd'.—Take the highest example, think of Christ—and the whole human race, all the men that ever were born or are to be born. But let the situation be one that challenges the individual, requiring each one for himself to be alone with Him in a solitary place and as an individual to step up to Him and spit upon Him—the man never was born and never will be born with courage or insolence enough to do such a thing. This is untruth (p. 113).

Kierkegaard wishes his reader to know that he is talking of eternal truth—not mathematical or anecdotal truth—which "becomes untruth when it is transferred to the intellectual, the spiritual, the religious fields" (p. 115). This crowd, however, does not only consist of the 'numeric masses'. It is epitomized and exacerbated by the press. In this case Kierkegaard was speaking from painful experience from his affair with The Corsair (see The Activity of a Traveling Esthetician). Kierkegaard always detested the press, though he did publish articles himself.

...the daily press with its anonymity makes the situation madder still with the help of the public, this abstraction which claims to be the judge in matters of 'truth'.... The fact that an anonymous author by the help of the press can day by day find occasion to say (even about intellectual, moral, and religious matters) whatever he pleases to say, and what perhaps he would be very far from having the courage to say as an individual; that every time he opens his mouth (or shall we say his abysmal gullet?) he at once is addressing thousands of thousands; that he can get ten thousand times ten thousand to repeat after him what he has said—and with all this nobody has any responsibility, so that it is not as in ancient times the relatively unrepentant crowd which possesses omnipotence, but the absolutely unrepentant thing, a nobody, an anonymity, who is the producer (auctor), and another anonymity, the public, sometimes even anonymous subscribers, and with all this, nobody, nobody!... Nay, truth—which abhors also this untruth of aspiring after broad dissemination as the one aim—is not nimble on its feet. In the first place it cannot work by means of the fantastical means of the press, which is the untruth; the communicator of the truth can only be a solitary individual. And again the communication of it can only be addressed to the individual... (p. 116f.).

In politics equality is achieved by sameness and bland agreement. In Christianity equality is expressed by equally loving the neighbor as the self.

But never have I read in Holy Scripture the commandment, Thou shalt love the crowd—and still less, Thou shalt recognize, ethical-religiously, in the crowd the supreme authority in matters of 'truth' (p. 118).

2: A Word About the Relation of My Literary Activity to 'The Single Individual'

Kierkegaard now addresses how the concept of the individual was represented in his works, and how it was a guiding principal.

In everyone of the pseudonymous works this theme of 'the individual' comes to evidence in one way or another; but there the individuality is predominantly the pre-eminent individual in the esthetic sense, the distinguished person, etc. In everyone of my upbuilding works the theme of 'the individual' comes to evidence, and as officially as possible; but there the individual is what every man is or can be (p. 124).

As might be expected of a plan guided by a "godly deception", there were many who misunderstood him.

But I believe that people have for the most part paid attention only to 'the individual' of the pseudonyms and have confounded me as a matter of course with the pseudonyms—and hence all this talk of my pride and arrogance, a condemnation of me which really amounts only to self-denunciation.

This phrase, 'that individual', has by this time been accentuated almost to the point of becoming a proverb—and I—poor me!—have had to put up with the laughter (p. 124f.).

That most people resort to the court of the 'numeric masses' is, says Kierkegaard, a sort of pantheism.

But the category of 'the individual' is and remains the fixed point which is able to resist the pantheistic confusion, it is and remains the weight which turns the scale.... All doubt (which, be it observed parenthetically, is just simply disobedience to God—when it is ethically considered and not made a fuss about with an air of scientific superiority)—all doubt has ultimately its stronghold in the illusion of temporal existence that we are a lot of us, pretty much the whole of humanity, which in the end can jolly well overawe God and be itself the Christ. And pantheism is an acoustic illusion which confounds vox populi with vox dei, an optical illusion, a cloud-picture formed out of the mists of temporal existence, a mirage formed by reflection from temporal existence and regarded as the eternal (p. 135).

Kierkegaard always maintained that he was 'without authority' and that he was no reformer, at least not a reformer using political means. He also compared himself to a spy or secret agent. At the close of this work he mentions missionaries who preach the gospel to pagans, who preach, in other words, from the outside. But there is a missionary who preaches from within, preaching to those who allege that they are Christians. Though he does not actually say that he is such a missionary, he does assume that role in the coming years.

In a short postscript dating from 1849 he still stands by the contents of the work. In a longer postscript from March 1855, written a few months before his death, and while he was in the heat of his assault on the Church, he addresses a possible misgiving. In performing his 'task' of emphasizing the individual versus the masses, he does not wish to include true disciples in the latter group.

It is perfectly true that Jesus had disciples, and (to take a human instance) that Socrates also had disciples; but not in any sense that would make my thesis false did either Christ or Socrates have disciples—ethically and ethically-religiously the crowd is untruth, the untruth of wishing to work by means of the crowd, the numerical, of wishing to make the numerical the criterion which decides what truth is (p. 138).