Category Archives: Kierkegaard

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

Two kingdoms

If I imagined two kingdoms adjoining one another, with one of which I was fairly well acquainted, and altogether unfamiliar with the other, and I was not allowed to enter the unknown realm, however much I desired to do so, I should still be able to form some conception of its nature. I could go to the limits of the kingdom with which I was acquainted and follow its boundaries, and as I did so, I should in this way describe the boundaries of this unknown country, and thus without ever having set foot in it, obtain a general conception of it. And if this was a task that engrossed my energies, and if I was indefatigable in my desire to be accurate, it would doubtless sometimes happen, that as I stood sadly at my country’s boundary and looked longingly into the unknown country, which was so near me and yet so far away, that some little revelation might be vouchsafed to me.

— Kierkegaard, Either/Or (tr. Hong)

Keeping a wound open can also be very beneficial: a healthy and open wound; sometimes it is worst when it skins over.


If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.


The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.



It would be futile if I were to try to tell how I have perceived God’s assistance in this. For example, it has been inexplicable to me (what has so often happened to me) that when I did something and could not possibly say why or it did not occur to me to ask why, when I as a very specific person followed the prompting of my natural impulses, that this, which for me had a purely personal meaning bordering on the accidental, that this then turned out to have a totally different, a purely ideal meaning when seen later within my work as an author; that much of what I had done purely personally was strangely enough precisely what I should do qua author. It has been inexplicable to me how very often seemingly quite accidental little circumstances in my life, which then in turn admittedly became something very considerable through my imagination, brought me into a specific state, and I did not understand myself, became depressed – and see – then out of this developed a mood, the very mood I should use in the work with which I was engaged at the time, and at just the right place. There has not been the slightest delay in the writing; what was to be used has always been at hand the very moment it was to be used.

– Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author (tr. Hong & Hong)

The castle opens

As soon as a person appears who has something primitive about
him, so that he does not say ‘One must accept the world as it is’ [. . .]
but says ‘However the world is, I shall retain an originality which
I do not mean to alter in accordance with the world’s wishes’:
at the moment these words are heard, the whole of existence is
transformed. As in the fairy-tale, when the word is spoken, the castle
opens after being enchanted for a hundred years, and everything
comes to life: so existence turns into sheer attention.

– Kierkegaard, The Book of the Judge (quoted by Kafka in a letter to Brod)

Hubert Dreyfus interview

Gnashing, sneering, praising

I was twenty-four, and the religious revival within myself was at its height. Earlier that summer, I had discovered Kierkegaard, and each week I brought back to the apartment one more of the Princeton University Press’s elegant and expensive editions of his works. They were beautiful books, sometimes very thick, sometimes very thin, always typographically exhilarating, with their welter of title pages, subheads, epigraphs, emphatic italics, italicized catchwords taken from German philosophy and too subtle for translation, translator’s prefaces and footnotes, and Kierkegaard’s own endless footnotes, blanketing pages at a time as, crippled, agonized by distinctions, he scribbled on and on, heaping irony on irony, curse on curse, gnashing, sneering, praising Jehovah in the privacy of his empty home in Copenhagen. The demons with which he wrestled—Hegel and his avatars—were unknown to me, so Kierkegaard at his desk seemed to me to be writhing in the clutches of phantoms, slapping at silent mosquitoes, twisting furiously to confront presences that were not there.

— John Updike, ‘The Astronomer’


Besides my large circle of friends I have another intimate confidant: my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, he waves to me, calls me aside, although physically I stay in place. My melancholy is the most loyal mistress I’ve known; what wonder, then, that I love her back.


I feel like a chess piece must feel when the opponent says of it: ‘That piece is untouchable’.


I have, I think, the courage to doubt everything; I have, I think, the courage to fight everything; but I do not have the courage to know anything, to possess, to own anything. Most people complain that the world is trivial, that life isn’t like a romantic novel, full of favourable opportunities; I complain that life isn’t like a novel in which there are hardhearted fathers and goblins and trolls to battle and spellbound princesses to free. What are all such enemies combined compared to the pale, bloodless, dogged nocturnal forms with which I fight and to which I myself give life and being.


How barren are my soul and thoughts, and yet how perpetually tormented by vacuous and voluptuous birth pangs! Will my spirit forever be tongue-tied, must I always babble? What I need is a voice as piercing as the glance of Lynceus, as frightening as the groan of the giants, as persistent as a sound made by nature, as mocking as a gust of icy wind, as cruel as Echo’s taunting, ranging from the deepest bass to the most melting high notes, modulated from a solemn whisper to the energy of rage. That’s what I need to be able to breathe, to express what’s on my mind, to shake the depths of my anger and my sympathy. – But my voice is as hoarse as the cry of a gull, or dies away like a blessing on the lips of a mute.


What is to come? What will the future bring? I don’t know, I have no idea. When a spider plunges down from a fixed point, as is its nature, it always sees before it an empty space in which it cannot find a foothold however much it twitches. That is how it is with me: always an empty space before me, what drives me on is a result that lies behind me. This life is back-to-front and horrible, unendurable.


Time passes, they say, life is a stream, etc. I can’t feel it, time stands still and I with it. All the plans I form fly straight back at me, when I want to spit, I spit in my own face.


My soul is so heavy that no thought can sustain it any longer, no wingbeat lift it up into the aether. If it moves, it only sweeps along the ground like the low flight of birds when a thunderstorm approaches. Over my inner being broods an unease, an anxiety that senses an earthquake.


A fire once broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded; he repeated his warning; they cheered even more. This is how I imagine the world will end: to general applause by clever people who think it’s a joke.


What philosophers say about reality is often as disappointing as when you see a sign in a second-hand shop that reads Pressing Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed, you’d be fooled: it’s the sign that’s for sale.


I have only one friend, Echo. And why is Echo my friend? Because I love my sorrow, and Echo doesn’t take it away from me. I have only one confidant, the silence of the night. And why is it my confidant? Because it is silent.


What is it that binds me? Of what was the fetter that bound the Fenris wolf made? It was made from the noise a cat’s paws make when it walks, women’s beards, the roots of mountains, the sinews of bears, the breath of fishes and the spittle of birds. So too am I bound by a chain formed of dark delusions, of disturbing dreams, of restless thoughts, of forebodings and inexplicable anxieties. This chain is ‘very supple, soft as silk, resilient even to the strongest strain, and cannot be torn in two’.


How horrible boredom is – how horribly boring. I know no stronger expression, none truer, for only like knows like. If only there were a higher expression, a stronger one, then at least there would still be another movement. I lie stretched out, inert; all I see is emptiness, all I live on is emptiness, all I move in is emptiness. I don’t even suffer pain. At least the vulture kept pecking at Prometheus’s liver; at least the poison kept dropping on Loki; there were interruptions, however monotonous. Even pain has lost its power to refresh me. If I were offered all the world’s glories or all its torments, I’d be equally indifferent, I wouldn’t turn over either to reach for them or escape from them. I die death itself. What could possibly divert me? If I saw a loyalty that outlasted every trial, an enthusiasm that bore everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I sensed a thought that bound together the finite and the infinite. But my soul’s poisonous doubt consumes everything. My soul is like the Dead Sea, over which no bird can fly: when it gets halfway, it drops down, spent, to its death.


My sorrow is my castle, which lies like an eagle’s nest high up on the mountain peaks among the clouds; no one can storm it. From it I fly down into reality and seize my prey; but I don’t remain there, I bring my prey home, and this prey is a picture I weave into the tapestries in my castle. Then I live as a dead man. In a baptism of forgetfulness I plunge all experiences into the eternity of remembrance. All that’s finite and random is forgotten, wiped out. Then I sit like a hoary, thoughtful old man, and explain the pictures in a soft voice, almost a whisper, and by my side sits a child and listens, although he remembers everything before I tell it.

— Kierkegaard, ‘Diapsalmata’, Either/Or (my tr.)