I began reading Søren Kierkegaard around 1990. I was part of the online community called GEnie back then, GE’s answer to Compuserve. We had a good group of thinkers there and we discussed philosophy and religion constantly. I had just recovered from two very painful back surgeries; I was on disability at the time, so I had plenty of time to read and write online. This is really where I fell in love with philosophy, and ultimately where I discovered Jungian psychology. This was before the Internet as we know it. Everything was command-line and text. It was primal and very, very fun. Anyway, back to Kierkegaard. I saw in him someone whom I could identify with, at least to some extent. He was a very introverted person who had suffered health problems, and who was very religious. I was too, at the time, and had suffered greatly with two ruptured disks. My neurosurgeon had recommended disability. I was thirty years old. It was quite depressing. So, Kierkegaard became my friend. I was not unlucky in love, however, as he chose to be. Nevertheless, I shared his frustration with life, as is the opinion of any Outsider.
Chapter seven in Colin Wilson’s Religion and the Rebel is like a homecoming for me. I haven’t read Kierkegaard in years, but I have fond memories of what he meant to me in those days. This chapter is another very short one, similar to the one on Swedenborg.
As Wilson says, Kierkegaard was a very frustrated man. He never married. He was once engaged to Regine Olsen, and came very close to marrying her, but called it off because he believed he should devote himself to a sort of monastic lifestyle in order to better serve God.
Now, let’s find out why Wilson thinks Kierkegaard is a good example of an Outsider. After he breaks the engagement with Regine, Kierkegaard ends up writing three books that more or less deal with her: Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition. Just before publishing Repetition, he has convinced himself that he could marry her after all, but just then he receives word that she had become engaged to another man. As a result, he changes the ending, making the “hero announce his delight that all this trivial human problem had finally been solved, and he could devote all his time and energy to being a poet, a creator.”1. Wilson thinks that Kierkegaard makes too much of a fuss about Regine, when he brought it all on himself due to his emotional immaturity. I would have to agree at this point in my life. I once thought of him as a tragic figure, but he did, indeed, bring all of it on himself with his “schoolboy emotionalism.”2 Wilson believes the incident helped Kierkegaard to gain maturity. He remarks that the books Kierkegaard wrote after the first three are much more important to existentialism “than the Regina books.”3.
Kierkegaard died at age forty two. He was thirty when he discovered Regine was marrying someone else. During the next twelve years, he would author “such a prodigious volume of work that one would guess that he had little else to do but write.” 4 The first, Philosophical Fragments, is one of the classics of existentialist literature. He writes of how Socrates defended the proposition that all men, in their depths, are gods. He references Plato’s Meno, where Socrates
…makes a slave solve a geometrical problem, and thus showed that the slave contained the power to solve it within himself, but was too lazy to develop it without Socrates’ prompting. Socrates’ inference is that all men would have the power to become gods, if only they had the strength of Will to mine it out of themselves. In other words, if man is in original sin (as the Outsider tends to believe) his power of redemption lies within himself.5
At this point, we are back at the question of St. Paul’s version of Christianity, the doctrine of redemption. “Kierkegaard states, quite correctly, that to accept Christianity (by which he means St. Paul’s version) involves rejecting this view.”6 Kierkegaard attempts to justify Pauline Christianity by creating a parable about a king (God) who falls in love with an humble maiden (presumably us). The king lowers himself to the level of the maiden in order to become a humble husband, I presume. This is why Jesus was crucified, apparently. However, “Kierkegaard does not finally accept this view himself in Philosophical Fragments; he presents it as an enviable state of belief that he has not been able to achieve.”7
Kierkegaard next published The Sickness Unto Death. In it, “the word ‘despair’ is almost synonymous with ‘angst’: ‘Anguish is the possibility of freedom; only this anguish is. . .absolutely educative in that it consumes everything finite.’ It is the ‘anguish’ which Nietzsche understood so well: ‘…I doubt whether such pain “improves” us, but I know it deepens us.'”8
In 1846, Kierkegaard published his most important work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. It’s a hard nut to crack: over five hundred pages of very thick philosophical writing. Nevertheless, Wilson says, the book contains “some extremely important ideas.”9 Kierkegaard investigates the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” He rails against Hegel in the Postscript because he perceived that Hegel’s great philosophical System allowed only a tiny place for religion, whereas Kierkegaard believed religion should be at the center of a man’s life. He states that “truth is not a formula or a system. Truth is spiritual intensity of the man who apprehends it.” In other words, “Truth is subjectivity.”10 According to Kierkegaard, Hegel did not possess passion, i.e. “religious passion: the Outsider’s craving for a sense of purpose.”11 It was in the Postscript that Kierkegaard would be the first to use the word, “existential,” in “modern times” when contrasting “the logical approach with the existential approach.”12
Wilson says The Sickness Unto Death “formulates one idea which lies at the bottom of the whole Outsider problem.” It is just this: “Every human existence that does not know itself as spirit is in despair. And what is even more important, a man who is in despair need not know that he is in despair. He may think himself perfectly happy.”13 The notion that “a man’s despair may be unknown to him…is of inestimable importance in the study of the Outsider.” The Outsider lives with the consciousness of a sense of chaos and despair.
The sense of chaos, despair lies in the Insider too, but he is not conscious of it. he prefers to live in the comfortable daylight, pretending that the whole universe is as neatly ordered as his own little corner of it. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard comes to the conclusion that I restated in the first chapter of The Outsider: The Outsider is the man who has faced chaos. The Insider is the man who blinds himself to it.14
Of course, Kierkegaard was not thinking of things in these terms, Outsider and Insider. His concern was what it takes to be a true Christian, which is to face the chaos in oneself and possess the faith to overcome it.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.
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