Kierkegaard regularly “moans about his fellow human beings being in a rush, as thought life were a matter of getting through a calculus course or something,” writes Gordon Marino in the introduction to his The Quotable Kierkegaard (xix). As Kierkegaard himself puts it, “Most people rush after pleasure so fast that they rush right past it” (48).

So what would Kierkegaard think of a collection of snippets from his writings? Marino thinks he would have no problem with it:

“After all, he write an entire book of nothing but prefaces. Kierkegaard well understood that like a Zen koan, the truth expressed in a line or three can glister as a legitimate object of reflection and appropriation . . . . There are many sentences from Kierkegaard that, even standing alone, both open a vista onto Kierkegaard’s mind and nurture the centrifugal thought he so artfully and passionately encouraged” (xix).

After an introduction and biographical sketch, Marino’s offers a collection that touches all of Kierkegaard’s obsessions, from anxiety and depression to time and eternity and existence and God and Christ and love. The book is, as Marino hoped, full of arresting one-liners: “What is anxiety? It is the next day” (67). “What is depression? It is hysteria of the spirit” (70).”What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips as so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music” (109).

Beyond the aphorisms are penetrating arguments wound tightly into brief paragraphs. “In every person,” Kierkegaard writes in Either/Or , “there is something that up to a point hinders him from becoming completely transparent to himself, and this can be the case to such a high degree . . . that he cannot open himself” (81). Or, “Just as metaphysics has replaced theology, so it will finally end with physics replacing moral reflection. The whole modern statistical way of thinking of morals contributes to that” (97-98). The insights are both political (“Human envy will finally come to abolish every essential distinction, replacing it with tyrannical arbitrariness,” 106) and psychological (“Envy is secret admiration. An admirer who feels that he cannot become happy by abandoning himself to it chooses to be envious of what which he admires,” 106).

As everyone knows, he is at his best when talking about the limits of philosophical systems: “It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward ” (129). Existence is “that child who is begotten by the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, and is therefore continually striving,” and for that reason a “system of existence” is impossible” (133). Existence is “an art” that cannot be comprehended by the “scientist-scholar” (134).

Kierkegaard’s idiosyncratic Christian faith is in evidence everywhere. “What is the absurd?” he asks, and answers, “incarnation”: “The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up, etc., has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being” (135). God is never an object for humans, but always subject; and that means, conversely, “when one denies God - then he does no injury to God but annihilates himself; when one mocks God - then he mocks himself” (169). In short, “God is not something external, as is a wife, whom I can ask whether she is now satisfied with me” (172).

There are histrionic, even adolescent, moments throughout the collection. Marino includes numerous passages from Kierkegaard’s journals that display his soul for all to see, but even in his published writings Kierkegaard often appears self-absorbed. The “I” is not a pose but of the essence of Kierkegaard’s philosophy; his walk wouldn’t match his talk if he did third-person. He denies that he intends “to acknowledge every uncircumcised immediacy, every unshaven passion” (184), but the immediacies and passions are at times in need of a trim - though perhaps uncircumcised immediacy was precisely what was needed to undermine Hegelian totalities.

More on: Philosophy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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