Reasons Why I Love Kierkegaard – Part One

My first ever introduction to philosophy was reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder when I was twelve. I was quickly hooked, and devoured as many philosophy books I could throughout my teenage years. I’d still say, though, that my first true introduction to philosophy was through Kierkegaard.

I’m not sure quite how to define the difference. I’d loved chewing over the big philosophical questions for years; I read Plato on the train, imagining myself at the Academy, taking part in the conversations. But Kierkegaard was how philosophy became personal to me.

I was seventeen years old and trying to decide what to do with my life. A lecturer at one of the universities I’d applied to sent me some quotes from The Sickness Unto Death, which he thought would be helpful. They were.

I went to my local library and asked if they had The Sickness Unto Death. I wanted to read the whole thing. They didn’t, but they did have a copy of Fear and Trembling. I checked it out, took it home and read it. And philosophy became real to me. All of a sudden I understood how I could create my own philosophical arguments; how I could look around at the world and think more deeply about it, without having to lean on texts that had already been written. It also helped me to make my decision about what to do with my life. It is a very special book to me. And I’ve had the same experience ever since: whenever I pick up a book by Kierkegaard, it seems to have entered my life at precisely the right time.

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around London when I found myself in a bookshop. You know how it goes. Suddenly you have eighty-three books and no money. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I did find a biography of Kierkegaard for £7. It had to be mine.

Usually, I read obscenely quickly, but this is one of those books which I enjoy so much that I’m savouring it – reading slowly, reading other things in between – because I never want it to end. One of my favourite extracts so far:

“When I look upon the many and varied examples of the Christian life, it seems to me that instead of strength, Christianity… has deprived such people of their manhood, and that in comparison to the pagans they are like a gelding compared to a stallion.”

This amused me. In context, it also spoke of a similar phenomenon to one which we have studied as part of the Pilgrimage Project: that Pagan rituals are often less structured and ‘freer’ than Christian ones. By this I don’t mean that they’re superior. There’s a lot to be said for ritual that includes a level of gravity. The Catholic rituals we encountered on the Pilgrimage Project were often serious, perhaps even sombre: each part of the ritual including a sort of solemnity that underlined just how sacred the Catholics’ god is to them.


The Pagan rituals, by contrast, often felt like more joyful affairs. Perhaps to some this might seem inappropriate for a religious or spiritual setting, but it is representative of Pagan spirituality in general, or at least the parts of it I’ve studied. The goddesses, gods and spirits of the Pagans are more earthy, more real. They don’t bring to mind a faraway, unreachable being who may or may not be listening to entreaties from its followers, so much as a cacophony of voices who are accessible and somehow quite human – or perhaps not human, so much as ‘having personhood’.

A Pagan Beltane ritual
A Pagan Beltane ritual

Well, there you go. I have a few other quotes in my notebook and I was going to write about all of them, but this has taken up more words than I’d thought it would, so I shall leave it there for now and continue my raving about Kierkegaard in some future posts.

photo credit: Beltane 33 via photopin (license)

photo credit: White Wafer, Body of Christ, Film ‘Angels and Demons’, “Cardinal Strauss”, fictional depiction of the Catholic faith via photopin (license)

Fear & Trembling

Fear & Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard is one of my favourite books of all time. I first read it when I was seventeen, trying to decide what to do with my life, and have re-read it repeatedly over the years.

I read it again last week. As always, it was excellent. As always, I took a notebook with me and wrote down the bits that I thought were particularly interesting.

The book focuses on the Biblical story of Abraham journeying to Mount Moriah at God’s instruction to sacrifice his son Isaac: the son God gave him in order for the continuation of his line to be ensured. Kierkegaard (originally writing under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio) presents a treatment of this story, looking at the meaning of faith as implied by Abraham. He hones in on the idea of faith being separate from ethics, this latter being by definition “universal”, and faith being an action or belief that requires a movement beyond the universal, into the absolute.

I didn’t explain that well. Kierkegaard does it better. Anyway, the passages I found interesting this time round:

Certainly [Abraham] was surprised by the outcome, but by means of a double movement he had come back to his original position and therefore received Isaac more joyfully than the first time.

We see the notion of circularity pop up time and again in religion and in day to day life. Folk tales of yesteryear consistently bring up the idea of death and rebirth, usually moving with the seasons: autumn “killing off” the life that has been thriving throughout summer, the cold dead period of winter, and the joy of spring when new life is reborn. Countless religious rituals and social stories highlight the importance of this circularity.

The Abraham story is similar in many respects, taking the idea of a death and rebirth without Isaac actually being killed. Abraham’s faith that God would somehow resolve the situation did not stop him from feeling anguish that Isaac had to be sacrificed. And when his son was symbolically brought back to life by means of the replacement ram God provided so that the sacrifice was no longer needed, Abraham’s joy equalled that of the day when his son was first born.

The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which can be put from another point of view by saying that it applies at every moment.

I found this interesting. It’s on my list of things to think about further: can the ethical apply at every moment? I always seem to be the person who finds the exception to the rule in most situations (often I am the exception to the rule), and am intrigued at the thought of something that is universally applicable in the literal sense. Is that even possible, I wonder? Food for thought.

Faith… is this paradox, that interiority is higher than exteriority, or to recall again an expression we used above, that the odd number is higher than the even.

I’ll be honest: I mainly liked this because I have a slightly strange obsession with odd numbers. Kierkegaard harks back to Pythagoras’ belief that odd numbers are more ‘perfect’ than even ones. This makes me happy. Go figure.

Then faith’s paradox is this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual… determines his relation to the universal through his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute through his relation to the universal.

Faith is this paradox, and the single individual is quite unable to make himself intelligible to anyone.

The ethical is as such the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed.


Repentance is the highest ethical expression but for that very reason the most profound ethical self-contradiction.