2 11 2009

In the contemporary world (USA version) I wonder if the name

Søren Kierkegaard

is known by anyone any more, except by a few philosophy professors. And from what I hear of the state of American higher education these days, I think that even those professors may no longer be allowed to teach Kierkegaard’s work to anyone but philosophy graduate students.

But college was different 40 years ago, and difficult old philosophers were thought then to be worth undergraduates’ time, so I walked into the third meeting of my Existentialism class in the early spring of 1968 absolutely ignorant of philosophy and ripe to be snared by the mere first paragraph by Mr. K’s great book The Sickness Unto Death.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a philosopher with a twist–a pioneering analyst of despair whose description of the many varieties of that state later became, I believe, the source of one of the most familiar truisms of our present place and time:

Be yourself!


High self esteem is good for you.

We didn’t know about “self-esteem” back in 1968. And if I had ever made enough progress in the first reading assignment for that class in  to discover the original progenitor of that self esteem concept lurking in The Sickness Unto Death I wouldn’t have understood it anyway. Mr. K’s description of the various kinds of sorrow that can come to one who does not accept himself* would have fallen on deaf ears for me then for one very simple reason—I couldn’t stand myself.

I had no self-esteem at all. In its place I had grandiosity. After a lifetime of abuse of various sorts, I saw myself as simply a kind of unwanted and inchoate mess….

…”but that’s OK”, I always thought back then, when I was forced to take notice of what an unsavory creature I seemed to be, “because I’m going TO DO GREAT THINGS SOMEDAY…”

…”because I’m SO SMART!”

Could there be any kind of person in the world better prepared to be stopped dead by the following gaudily incomprehensible  introductory sentence of The Sickness Unto Death?

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

Nope. Someone with vast intellectual pretensions constructed on a foundation of nothing, like I was then, was maybe never going to get past that sentence.

And I never did. I was the guy, after all, who was so smart that I could understand anything if I only put my mind to it! I exhausted myself pondering the meaning of K’s impenetrable introductory sentence and a few very abstract pages following it, and never read further into the book to discover the much more accessible, and very insightful, dissection of spiritual despair in all its varieties that was to be found there.

Too bad! Because it was information that I could have used, and at that time in fact desperately needed. I might even say that if I had absorbed what Kierkegaard had to say and realized how much it applied to me then, the experience might have changed the rest of  my life for the better.

So don’t  you be the same as I was! And don’t be the opposite kind of person, who yells “BORING!” and runs away in panic when confronted with anything “hard”, either!  Instead, take a look at this brief appreciation of Søren Kierkegaard:

As for me, 25 years after that first abortive encounter I got out my old copy of The Sickness Unto Death and skipped the hard first part and read the perfectly accessible remainder.  The experience was instrumental in making me what I am now — very odd, and OK with that.

The desire to be some other self than one’s own sweet, inescapable one-and-only self wears many disguises, and Mr. K. describes them all. Some of them you wouldn’t guess in a million years.

Who knows? You might be wearing one of  those right now. Buy the book and see.


*Kierkegaard wasn’t writing a self-help book. He was proselytizing. His purpose was to show that a human self, being partially a spiritual being, had to be “grounded” in God to avoid falling into despair. Without that connection, the self would be unstable, and would be forever pursuing things to complete it that could not complete it. Anyone who watches the antics of the powerful people of the earth for a while, as they display this “seeking” behavior in various forms on a huge scale, would have to agree. See, most recently, American investment bankers.