There are few philosophers whose views are so poorly understood as Kierkegaard’s. That’s partly because he wrote in Danish, a language that few scholars outside Denmark ever master, and partly because he tended to write in an indirect style. Many of his philosophical views are actually presented in the form of novels and most of his writings were published under pseudonyms, with which he tried to disavow any relation.
But if his thought is still not well understood, this is even more true of his life. Unfortunately all the biographies of Kierkegaard in English, including Clare Carlisle’s recent Philosopher of the Heart (Allen Lane, 2019) do little more than recapitulate myths, several of which were decisively refuted back in 2004 in a groundbreaking work by the Danish scholar Peter Tudvad entitled Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen). Although this meticulously researched work is not strictly speaking a biography, it is unquestionably the single best secondary work on Kierkegaard’s life. It makes clear that much of the traditional picture we have got of Kierkegaard from earlier biographies is simply wrong. Unfortunately, it has yet to be translated into English.
Kierkegaard’s father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, had originally been poor and had actually begun life herding sheep on the Jutland heath. He eventually made his way to Copenhagen, however, where he opened a business trading first in socks and then later in a variety of goods. He was such a shrewd businessman that he quickly amassed a substantial fortune and was able to retire immediately after his marriage to his second wife and the mother of his children.
Born in 1813, when his father was fifty-six and his mother, Ane, forty-four, Kierkegaard was the indulged and pampered baby of the family, the last of seven children. Observations of the large Kierkegaard household, some of which have been collected in Erindringer om Søren Kierkegaard (memories of Søren Kierkegaard) (Reitzel, 1980), invariably describe it as warm and loving. Both of Kierkegaard’s parents appear to have paid a great deal of positive attention to their children, with the result that one of Kierkegaard’s teachers described him, according to Carlisle as “‘still open and unspoiled’ at seventeen”.
The Kierkegaard household was unusually religious. They attended weekly services of the Danish Lutheran Church, but also hosted meetings of the pietist Moravian Brethren in their home. The elder Kierkegaard enjoyed debating theological issues with his sons, particularly Søren and his older brother Peter Christian, and both boys elected to study theology at Copenhagen University where Søren matriculated in 1830.
Søren loved and admired his father, but perhaps because he was the youngest, he was particularly close to his mother. Although Ane Kierkegaard appears to have been illiterate, she was apparently quite intelligent. An acquaintance referred to both of Kierkegaard’s parents as “marvelously gifted” and Kierkegaard’s unquestionably intellectually gifted father found Ane such a suitable full-time companion that he retired immediately after they married, even though he was only forty-one at the time.
Kierkegaard was so devastated when his mother died in 1834 that an acquaintance he visited shortly afterwards reported that she had never seen anyone so depressed as Kierkegaard was by the loss of his mother and took this to indicate that he had a deeply sensitive nature. Kierkegaard first began to keep his famous journals only after his mother’s death. This suggests he may have shared many of his deepest thoughts with her and that after she was gone he was thus forced to find a “virtual” confidant.
Kierkegaard, like his parents, was clearly intellectually gifted, but he was also, at least at first, undisciplined, and his studies at the university dragged on interminably. He passed his exams, finally, in 1840 and began work on his dissertation, The Concept of Irony, which was published in 1841. During that period he also became engaged to the eighteen-year old Regina Olsen. He came to regret the engagement almost immediately, fearing that he was not cut out to be a husband and that he would not be able to make a young girl happy. He tried a variety of ways to convince Olsen of this and she finally returned his ring thirteen months later.
It was common knowledge in Copenhagen that Kierkegaard and not Olsen was behind the breakup. This caused something of a scandal, with the result that Kierkegaard felt forced to flee the city until the gossip died down. He decided to go to Berlin to attend lectures by the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. With this trip to Berlin his literary productivity began in earnest. He remained in the city for approximately five months and when he returned to Copenhagen in March 1842 it was with the manuscript of his first major success, Either-Or.
Kierkegaard’s father had not lived lavishly for someone of his wealth, but his son Søren did. Michael Pedersen had supplied his son with a very generous allowance while he was living and left him a small fortune upon his death in 1838. Kierkegaard spent enormous amounts of money not merely on books, but also, among other things, on clothes, meals in restaurants, theatre tickets, and drives in the country. Considering himself a religious author, he agonised a great deal over his opulent lifestyle. He extolled the asceticism of what he sometimes referred to as “original Christianity”, but he couldn’t bring himself to imitate Christ in this particular respect. Rather he justified his lifestyle on the grounds that luxury facilitated his literary productivity and this activity he viewed as his divine calling.
That Kierkegaard lived lavishly has often been taken as evidence that he was indifferent to, or even contemptuous of the plight of the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though he was a monarchist and was indeed contemptuous of what he sometimes referred to as “the mob,” he was a champion, perhaps because of his parents’ peasant backgrounds, of the common man and a generous benefactor of the poor. This is apparent both in his writings and in his life in terms of the attention he paid to people whom others of his social station would rarely acknowledge and in terms of the money he gave to the poor.
It was long thought that Kierkegaard gave relatively little in alms. Tudvad discovered, however, while researching Kierkegaards København, that he gave much more than had previously been appreciated. What had earlier been taken to be the whole extent of his contributions turned out to have been the contributions he allowed his servant, Anders Vestergaard, to make out of the household expenses budget. These contributions were independent of the many, far more generous, contributions he made himself. We know this both from his journals and from accounts by contemporaries who witnessed his charity. Official records from the first part of the nineteenth century can be difficult to locate, but Tudvad discovered a receipt for a contribution Kierkegaard made to the victims of a flood in Jutland, which at ten rigsdaler was twice that of the contributions made by several other residents of the building in which he lived at the time.
Kierkegaard was unusually generous toward the poor and needy (despite the fact that he realised early in his professional life that if he kept up his lavish lifestyle, he was likely to run out of money before he died). He even went so far as to share his living quarters for approximately four years with a destitute cabinetmaker, Frederik Christian Strube, and his family. Strube’s wife had been a servant in the elder Kierkegaard’s household and Kierkegaard clearly felt an obligation to help him after he fell on hard times as a result of what appears to have been some kind of mental illness. He took in the Strube family and occasionally paid Strube and his wife to do odd jobs for him. Only when the couple’s daughters became old enough for there to be malicious gossip about their living with the by then notorious author of “The Seducer’s Diary” did Kierkegaard decide the living arrangement was no longer appropriate.
Strube’s existence has long been known to scholars. It’s just that no one was quite sure what his role had been in the Kierkegaard household. Joakim Garff, the author of Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005) depicts Strube and his family as Kierkegaard’s servants. That Kierkegaard would have an entire family of servants fits with the picture of his general extravagance. It is clear, however, that the Strubes were not servants. Tudvad’s research revealed that Strube was still officially working as a cabinetmaker at the time he and his family lived with Kierkegaard. That Kierkegaard occasionally paid both Strube and his wife to do odd jobs for him demonstrates in itself that they were not servants: servants are not paid for odd jobs. To further discredit the servant theory is the fact that Kierkegaard offered to pay the Strube family’s rent on their new lodgings when he felt they could no longer stay with him and that he did not hire any replacements for them after they left.
Kierkegaard was extravagant: there is no question about that. What biographers have failed to appreciate, however, is that his extravagance was not directed solely at himself. He was extravagant also in his relations toward others. Where all the existing biographies of Kierkegaard, including Carlisle’s, go disastrously wrong, however, is in their depiction of his conflict with the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair) and the effect this had on him. Corsaren was started in 1840 by a young Danish intellectual named Meïr Aron Goldschmidt. It had no official political affiliation but lampooned nearly everyone who occupied a position of power or authority in Denmark and was even openly critical of the monarchy. The paper skirted the censorship laws and many considered it to be in such poor taste that Goldschmidt had to conceal his relationship with it behind a succession of titular editors.
No decent citizen of Copenhagen would openly admit to reading Corsaren, but many did. The paper’s circulation was twice that of the leading liberal newspaper. Among its attractions for readers were caricatures of the figures it lampooned. The occasionally cruel, bullying tone of some of the articles and caricatures caused alarm in certain circles. Many, including Kierkegaard, feared it was having a corrosive effect on public morality by its flouting of well-established standards of civility.
Something ought to be done about Corsaren, people said among themselves. But no one did anything. Kierkegaard finally took matters into his own hands by publishing what was effectively an attack on the paper in one of its rivals. The attack was precipitated by a critical review, by the young Danish intellectual PL Møller, in a literary journal of Kierkegaard’s recently published Stages on Life’s Way. Møller was one of the regular, anonymous contributors to Corsaren. Kierkegaard knew of Møller’s association with Corsaren and not only attacked the paper as contemptible in his response to Møller’s review, but also exposed Møller’s association with it.
Corsaren’s retaliation was swift and merciless. It immediately began publishing vicious attacks on Kierkegaard in the form of both articles and caricatures that criticised not only his literary works but also his person. In addition to being depicted as a hunchback with trouser legs of two different lengths, he was presented as self-centred, vain, privileged, generally unsympathetic and, in particular, unsympathetic to the plight of the poor.
It would appear that it is actually Corsaren that is responsible for much of the contemporary view of Kierkegaard rather than historical fact. He continues to be presented as having been physically misshapen, oddly attired and unsympathetic to the poor. We now know, however, that the latter is not the case. It has also long been known that Kierkegaard was something of a dandy who had his clothes expertly tailored: it makes no sense to suppose that he would be seen with trousers with legs of two different lengths.
Carlisle, like other biographers before her, assumes Kierkegaard had a “curved spine”. There is little evidence for this, however, apart from Corsaren’s caricatures. Most of Kierkegaard’s contemporaries make no mention of this purported deformity and the medical records from Frederiks Hospital, where Kierkegaard died in 1855, include no reference to it. A few contemporaries describe Kierkegaard as “slightly hunched”, but that’s very different from saying he had a curved spine. Indeed he may well have suffered from what is sometimes referred to as a “scholarly slouch” given how much time he spent bent over his writings. But even that is largely conjecture, since the few references we have to this purported physical characteristic date from the period after the caricatures had appeared in Corsaren; hence these “memories” of Kierkegaard might well have been influenced by those caricatures.
There is no question that Kierkegaard cared about his appearance. That he was vain and self-centred has been inferred, at least in part, however, from his continued preoccupation with Corsaren’s campaign against him even after that campaign had supposedly stopped. Until Tudvad published Kierkegaards Købehavn, scholars, including Kierkegaard’s many biographers, assumed that Corsaren’s attack had been restricted to 1846. Part of the reason for that is undoubtedly that Goldschmidt left Corsaren after 1846. Everyone appears to have assumed that the attack on Kierkegaard ended with Goldschmidt’s departure. Tudvad revealed, however, that while the campaign died down it did not stop. Attacking Kierkegaard had proved to be good for circulation, so the paper kept it up, intermittently, from 1846 right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855.
The attack changed Kierkegaard’s life forever. He had a regular habit of taking daily walks about the city. He was by nature a social and outgoing person, which is unsurprising given that he came from a large family. He was a favoirite uncle of his nieces and nephews and it is well-documented that he was liked by nearly everyone who knew him. His work was solitary, however, so his daily walks were the chief means by which he came into contact with others. He was often accompanied on these walks by friends or acquaintances and frequently stopped and engaged in conversation with persons of both high and low station.
“[F]or someone as self-conscious as Kierkegaard,” writes Carlisle, “walking through town is always a public performance”. But where it had earlier been an enjoyable performance, bringing him into much needed society with others, it became a painful one. Corsaren’s merciless pillorying meant that children now jeered at him and acquaintances with whom he had often earlier shared walks began to avoid him.
Carlisle observes that Kierkegaard was considered by many contemporaries to be “charming, funny, and compassionate”. Yet she also states that while working on her book and hence “living in uncomfortably close proximity to Kierkegaard”, she sometimes found herself “disliking him”. She disliked him, she explains, because while his religious discourses “describe exquisite ideals”, he often “rehearsed petty fixations” and “felt sorry for himself” in his journals.
But it can be argued that Kierkegaard’s “fixations” were not petty, and that in fact he had good reason to feel sorry for himself. His first published work appeared in 1838, but scholars generally date the beginning of his authorship to the publication of Either-Or in 1843. Either way, he was subjected to harassment and bullying by Corsaren for most of his professional life.
Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen when Kierkegaards København first appeared in 2004, described Tudvad’s discoveries concerning Corsaren’s campaign against Kierkegaard as “monumental”. He explained in an article in the Danish newspaper Information, that
one of the myths among Kierkegaard scholars is that Kierkegaard kept monotonously repeating the same criticism against Corsaren for its lampooning of him long after it had stopped. People had seen this as a sign of Kierkegaard’s hypersensitivity, as evidence that he was so sensitive that he simply couldn’t forget this brief attack. Now we have to rethink this conception of him.
Carlisle has clearly not rethought this conception of Kierkegaard, however, because she hasn’t adequately researched the details of his battle with Corsaren. Cappelørn explained the failure on the part of biographers to discover the extent of Corsaren’s campaign against Kierkegaard as an expression of a phenomenon “we are familiar with from other areas of scholarship. One reads the secondary literature and simply repeats what earlier scholars have said without going to the original sources.” Unfortunately, not only did Carlisle apparently restrict her research to secondary literature, she failed to consult what is unquestionably the most important secondary work.
Philosopher of the Heart, like so many earlier biographies of Kierkegaard, is marred by a number of weaknesses, including factual errors. Its most striking inaccuracy, however, is Carlisle’s claim that Kierkegaard had “a long-standing ambivalence” towards Christianity. She cites his frequent pejorative references to “Christendom” to support this view. Unfortunately, these references will not support such a view. “Christendom” is the English translation of Kierkegaard’s “Christenhed,” a term he coined to refer to putatively Christian cultures. That is, “Christendom” does not refer to Christianity. It refers to people who claim to be Christian but who, according to Kierkegaard, are not genuinely Christian. His pejorative references to “Christendom” stem from a deep, passionate, and most importantly, unwavering commitment to Christianity, not from any ambivalence about it. Kierkegaard may well have felt ambivalent about Christianity when he was younger. He had a profound religious experience in 1838, however, and there is no evidence that he had any ambivalence whatever after that.
Kierkegaard is considered by many to be the father of existentialism. That he would have been ambivalent about Christianity certainly fits with the traditional existentialist view of religious commitment as the expression of what is ultimately an arbitrary and criterionless choice. One cannot after all make something true simply by deciding to believe it is true. If decision in this sense provides the foundation of one’s religious commitment, then one is very probably going to be ambivalent about it. But that wasn’t Kierkegaard’s view of the nature of religious commitment. He famously said that what he needed was a truth that was true for him. He didn’t mean by that, however, that he thought he could make something true simply by passionate commitment to it. What he meant was that while the universe was full of truths, most of them seemed indifferent to his subjective existence as such and that what he needed was some truth that spoke to him as an individual. He found this truth, as is clear from both his published writings and his voluminous journals and papers, in Christianity. He found it relatively early in his life and he cleaved to it unwaveringly thereafter.
The picture Carlisle presents of Kierkegaard in Philosopher of the Heart is sadly not that of the man as he really was because she got some crucial facts of his life wrong. I said as much in a review in the TLS (see “Alone for dinner” October 4th, 2019). Carlisle responded to the review with a sharply worded letter to the editor in the next issue that avoided or mischaracterised all the substantive criticisms in the review. I replied with a letter in the following issue that I assumed would end the matter. Two more letters defending Carlisle appeared, however, in the next issue. Both were from UK theologians. The first was from George Pattison, to whom Carlisle dedicated her book, and who would thus naturally have felt a desire to defend it, and the second from Christopher Insole. Both letters, again, avoided or mischaracterised all substantive criticisms of the review.
The TLS declined to print the response I sent them to Pattison’s and Insole’s letters. Fortunately, for its readers, Insole’s defence unwittingly resolves the matter in that in an apparent attempt to defend Philosopher of the Heart, he compares it to a Beethoven symphony, from which, he asserts, it would be a mistake to expect to “learn” anything.
Indeed, readers won’t learn much from Carlisle’s book that they could not have learned from earlier biographies that are marred by the same factual errors. What Carlisle’s book presents is more myth than reality. The real Kierkegaard, unfortunately, remains something of a mystery.
MG Piety is Professor of Philosophy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010) and the translator of Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009).