“Faith therefore is not an aesthetic emotion but something far higher, precisely because it has resignation as its presupposition; it is not an immediate instinct of the heart, but is the paradox of life and existence.”—Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Walter Lowrie (1843)
Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was born on this date two centuries ago in Copenhagen, Denmark. He did not live the happiest of lives. You wouldn’t, either, if your father, as a feudal laborer on church lands, cursed God in his youth, could never shake his subsequent guilt, and transmitted that depression like a virus to the family; if, for reasons unknown to others and even perhaps to yourself, you broke off an engagement to a vibrant young woman; if you became a laughingstock on the streets of your city for your physical oddities; and if you rebelled against the Danish church of your time.
It took the 20th century, with all its terrors and shocks to the human psyche, to rediscover the prolific works he produced in only about a dozen years of feverish activity. Kierkegaard is now regarded as the forefather of existentialism. “Kierkegaard’s great contribution to Western philosophy was to assert, or to reassert with Romantic urgency, that, subjectively speaking, each existence is the center of the universe,” wrote John Updike in a New Yorker article eight years ago.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard reinterprets the story of Abraham and Isaac for a rational modern age, introducing the notion of a “knight of faith” who can make a “leap of faith.” With his influence on the likes of Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Barth and countless other theologians, philosophers, and even novelists such as Updike, his thinking, born of torment, has been vindicated by posterity.