It is uphill that we are struggling

Gilleleje, 1 August, 1835:

But when I try now to come to an understanding with myself about my life, things look different. Just as a child takes time to learn to distinguish itself from objects and for quite a while so little distinguishes itself from its surroundings that, keeping the stress on the passive side, it says things like, ‘me hit the horse’, so too the same phenomenon repeats itself in a higher spiritual sphere. Therefore I thought that I might gain more peace of mind by taking up a new line of study, directing my energies towards some other goal. I might even have managed for a while in that way to banish a certain restlessness, though no doubt it would have returned with greater effect like a fever after the relief of a cool drink. What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know, except in the way knowledge must precede all action. It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what the Deity really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use here would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? And what use here would it be to be able to work out a theory of the state, and put all the pieces from so many places in one whole; construct a world which, again, I did not inhabit but merely held up for others to see? What use would it be to propound the meaning of Christianity, to explain the many separate facts, if it had no deeper meaning for myself and my life? And the better I became at it and the more I saw others appropriate the creatures of my mind, the more distressing my situation would become, rather like that of parents who in their poverty have to send their children out into the world and turn them over to the care of others.

What use would it be if the truth were to stand there before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, and inducing an anxious shudder rather than trusting devotion? Certainly I won’t deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge, and that one can also be influenced by it, but then it must be taken up alive in me, and this is what I now see as the main point. It is this my soul thirsts for as the African desert thirsts for water. That is what I lack, and this is why I am like a man who has collected furniture and rented rooms but still hasn’t found the beloved with whom to share life’s ups and downs. But to find that idea, or more properly to find myself, it is no use my plunging still further into the world. And that is exactly what I did before, which is why I thought it would be a good idea to throw myself into jurisprudence, to be able to sharpen my mind on life’s many complications. Here a whole mass of details offered itself for me to lose myself in; from the given facts I could perhaps fashion a totality, an organism of criminal life, pursue it in all its darker sides (here, too, a certain community spirit is much in evidence). That’s also what made me want to become an attorney, so that by taking on another’s role I could acquire a sort of surrogate for my own life and in this exchanging of externals find some sort of diversion.

That’s what I lacked for leading a completely human life and not just a life of knowledge, to avoid basing my mind’s development on – yes, on something that people call objective – something which at any rate isn’t my own, and base it instead on something which is bound up with the deepest roots of my existence, through which I am as it were grown into the divine and cling fast to it even though the whole world falls apart. This, you see, is what I need, and this is what I strive for. So it is with joy and inner invigoration that I contemplate the great men who have found that precious stone for which they sell everything, even their lives, whether I see them intervening forcefully in life, with firm step and following unwaveringly their chosen paths, or run into them off the beaten track, self-absorbed and working for their lofty goals. I even look with respect upon those false paths that also lie there so close by. It is this inward action of man, this God-side of man, that matters, not a mass of information. That will no doubt follow, but then not in the guise of an accidental accumulation or a succession of details side by side with any system, without a focal point upon which all radii converge.

This focal point is something I too have looked for. Vainly, I have sought an anchorage, not just in the depths of knowledge, but in the bottomless sea of pleasure. I have felt the well-nigh irresistible power with which one pleasure holds out its hand to another; I have felt that inauthentic kind of enthusiasm which it is capable of producing. I have also felt the tedium, the laceration, which ensues. I have tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge and have relished them time and again. But this joy was only in the moment of cognition and left no deeper mark upon me. It seems to me that I have not drunk from the cup of wisdom but have fallen into it. I have tried to find that principle for my life by resignation, by supposing that, since everything went according to inscrutable laws, it could not be otherwise, by blunting my ambition and the feelers of my vanity. Because I was unable to make everything suit my ability, I withdrew with a consciousness of my own competence, rather as a worn-out clergyman resigns with his pension.


Notwithstanding my still being very far from this inward self-understanding, I have tried with profound respect for its significance to fence my individuality about and have worshipped the unknown God. I have tried with an untimely anxiety to avoid coming into too close contact with those things whose attraction might exert too much power over me. I have tried to appropriate much from them, studied their individual characters and significance in human life, but at the same time I have taken care, like the gnat, not to come too close to the flame. In association with the ordinary run of men I have had but little to win or lose. In part, their whole activity – so-called practical life – has not interested me much; in part, I was alienated from them ever further by the coolness and indifference they showed towards the spiritual and deeper stirrings in man. 

My companions have, with few exceptions exerted no marked influence upon me. A life that has not arrived at an understanding with itself must necessarily present an uneven surface to the world; all they had to go on are single facts and their apparent disharmony, for they were not sufficiently interested in me to try to resolve this into a higher harmony or see the necessity of it at all. Their judgment upon me was therefore always one-sided, and I have vacillated between putting too much and too little weight on their pronouncements. Their influence and the potential deviations resulting from it in the compass of my life are also things I now shun. So I am standing once more at the point where I must begin in another way. I shall now try to look calmly at myself and begin to act inwardly, for only in this way will I be able, as the child in its first consciously undertaken act refers to itself as ‘I’, to call myself ‘I’ in a profounder sense.

But it calls for endurance, and one cannot harvest straightway what one has sown. I will bear in mind that philosopher’s method, of having his disciples keep silent for three years, then it should come. Just as one does not begin a feast with the rising of the sun but with its setting, so also in the spiritual world one must first work ahead for a time before the sun can really shine for us and rise in all of its glory. For although it is said that God lets his sun rise upon both the good and the evil, and lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust, that isn’t so in the spiritual world. So let the die be cast – I am crossing the Rubicon! This road no doubt leads me into battle, but I will not give up. I will not lament the past – why lament? I will work with vigour and not waste time on regrets like the man stuck in a bog who wanted first to calculate how far he had sunk without realizing that in the time spent on that he was sinking still deeper. I will hurry along the path I have found and shout to everyone I meet not to look back as Lot’s wife did but remember that it is uphill that we are struggling.

— Kierkegaard, age 22

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