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Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions

by søren kierkegaard 

princeton university press, 181 pages, $39 


Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits

by søren kierkegaard  

princeton university press, 442 pages, $45

Kierkegaard presented these two books of discourses to his fellow Danes in 1845 and 1847. In the English language, the discourses were made available some one hundred years later. Now we have them in a fresh translation, published as volumes X and XV of Kierkegaard’s Writings, a major project under the direction of Howard V. and Edna H. Hong of St. Olaf College and an International Advisory Board to bring out “a definitive, systematically translated, scholarly edition” of Søren Kierkegaard’s works. Each volume has an historical introduction and contains selections from Kierkegaard’s journals and papers bearing upon the themes—or being alternative formulations of the themes—in the published versions of S.K.’s works. 


These excerpts are most illuminating, but the reader sometimes feels that more detailed commentaries than the editors/translators provide in their short notes would be helpful. Even so, what is needed for a present-day reading of Kierkegaard is something more important than the crutches professors typically offer to the reader of the works of a genius: an historical introduction that would focus not so much on the circumstances of the inception, but rather on the conditions of the appropriation, of his works.

An historical introduction of this kind would have to ask first whether Kierkegaard is still relevant. If the answer is yes, the next step is to inquire whether the conditions for appropriation are given. To put it bluntly, the question is whether we, living in the final decade of the twentieth century, have the patience and the readiness to hear the nineteenth-century Dane out; and hear him out in the way he deemed crucial: to think along and make the content of what he has to say not only the content of our thought, but the content of our lives as well. 


Here I have to propound a paradox (in the ordinary sense of the word). The Kierkegaardian literature has both a striking pertinence and an air of unreality about it. One way to discern the actuality of Kierkegaard’s thought is to ponder the following: If the age of Kierkegaard was the age of individualism, is our own not the age of super-individualism? If the age of Kierkegaard was also the age of romanticism, is ours not the age of super-romanticism? And if in a deeper sense Kierkegaard’s age was neither that of individualism nor that of romanticism but rather in essence the age of the crowd, what is our own if not the age of the super-crowd? How fortunate for us, then, that this solitary Dane exercised his awesome analytical and rhetorical skills to tear down the veil of deception and uncover the essential folly of his time, and in so doing, bequeathed to us powerful critical tools. He has indeed left us a mirror; peering into it, we can see the folly of our time and glimpse the abyss we are in danger of falling into.

On the other hand, what lends an air of unreality to Kierkegaard’s works is that our problems are so much worse than those faced by him and his contemporaries. Kierkegaard lived in what he called “Christendom,” a world of superficial, second-hand religiosity, a kind of diluted piousness that in his judgment made a mockery of true Christianity. Kierkegaard’s criticism of his age culminated in the measure of the distance that yawned between this Christendom and Christianity. All of Kierkegaard’s critical efforts came together in one task: to compel his readers to see the truth, “to make people aware of the essentially Christian.”

This he meant to achieve in two phases. First, he would impel people to transcend the “esthetic,” the world of immediacy and finitude, to turn inward, and in their inwardness to come in touch with the infinite, the eternal, the true meaning of existence. Then would come the decisive move: to give inwardness the highest possible intensity, which was to bring people to face the Paradox and stake their lives on faith in the Paradox—that God appeared on earth in human form, that the eternal appeared in the temporal, that eternal happiness is based on an historical event. The Paradox is in Kierkegaard’s understanding the essentially Christian, and appropriating it as such is the highest degree of religious understanding and belief. 

These two stages of deepening inwardness Kierkegaard calls religiousness A and religiousness B, the religiousness of immanence and the religiousness of transcendence. Religiousness A can in principle be attained even in paganism, since human nature is its only necessary assumption. Nevertheless, to attain religiousness A within the boundaries of one’s existence, that is, to be inwardly defined by self-annihilation before God, is already enough of a task. How much more difficult it is, then, for an individual to attain religiousness B, that is, to become a true Christian! In Christianity, immanence recedes, nay, it is consumed, and the individual stands face to face with the Paradox, with the eternal truth that was revealed in time. The individual appropriates the truth by acting on it. This entails his coming into conflict with the world. Thus the corollary: the individual who lives in the truth that is revealed in Christianity must suffer.

When the reader is confronted with the passages that convey this message in Kierkegaard’s work, he is likely to think that the philosopher has gone too far. That was the reaction of the few readers S.K. had in his lifetime; a fortiori, are we not profoundly offended by and inclined to wag our heads at the philosopher who demands so much of us? Cynics might be inclined rather to laugh, but their laughter would be bitter. For our world is rapidly receding even from what Kierkegaard called Christendom and is sliding into the kind of paganism where even natural religion, religiousness A, may come to be out of reach. What can Kierkegaard tell us, Christians and non-Christians, other than that we have gone too far . . . back? 

It is a harsh judgment—we hope not too harsh. There are still individuals whom the clamor of the world, the powerful forces of the temporal, the external, and the immediate have not swayed completely, people who are still capable of that inwardness in which the religious and the true meaning of existence can be found. To these individuals, each being “that single individual,” Kierkegaard is accessible. To that individual Kierkegaard speaks. And he speaks nowhere more beautifully, more eloquently, and more persuasively than in his “upbuilding discourses.”

Kierkegaard had written and published eighteen of these discourses, in sets of two, three, and four (republished in one volume in 1844) before he wrote Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions and Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. These two later collections (of three discourses) each “accompanied” Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works. Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions was meant to be a companion volume to Stages on Life’s WayUpbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits shortly followed the publication of Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Kierkegaard’s purpose in these discourses was to make it clear that for him as a writer the religious did not follow the “esthetic” but was present from the very beginning, that he was a writer for whom in the very midst of his “esthetic productivity,” the religious was the telos of his work. All this was not meant, however, merely to clarify his development as a writer. As he tells us in his prefaces, the discourses were to serve as a medium by which the reader is to come to an understanding of his own life, to an understanding of whether or not he lives authentically.

To live authentically is to become a single individual. This category, for Kierkegaard, has little to do with the individualism of liberalism. His “single individual” is a religious category. It denotes the individual’s relating himself to himself—before God. It means taking responsibility for one’s self—before God. Through the upbuilding discourses, the individual is to test himself by thinking along with the author. The author of upbuilding discourses does not exhort, does not pass judgment. God alone can judge. What the author can do is prod the reader to address to himself the questions the discourses raise. In quiet meditation along with the author, the reader is to search his self; in stillness he is to offer himself for judgment to God.

Since the discourses have a special purpose, Kierkegaard asks the reader to disregard their external merits. As a needlewoman who has woven a beautiful cloth for sacred use, but who would be distressed if someone were to see her artistry instead of the meaning of the cloth, so the author of the upbuilding discourses would be offended if someone were to praise his eloquence or find fault with it. What matters is the will to listen and appropriate the meaning—which is in the beholder, in the reader’s understanding. To drive home this point—to make it clear that as an author he is just a “vanishing occasion”—Kierkegaard likens himself to a prompter in a theater. The prompter is the “insignificant one,” the one “who sits and whispers.” What he whispers is declaimed by the actor. On the actor everybody’s eyes are fixed; in his portraying a specific person the words whispered by the prompter acquire truth.

In the theater of life, the author of religious discourses is still a prompter, but the stage, the actors, and the audience change. The stage is eternity. The actors are the listeners, the audience of the secular arts. Each member of the audience is called upon to become an actor, an actor however who speaks not loudly, but “in silence speaks in himself, with himself, to himself.” Where everyone is an actor, there is no audience in the ordinary sense of the word. In the medium of a religious discourse, however, there is an audience—God. As S.K. puts it, “In the theater the performance is played before persons who are called spectators, but at the religious address God himself is present; in the most earnest sense he is checking on how it is being spoken.”

But if the author wishes to be a “vanishing occasion” and offers his discourses as an intermediary through which the reader comes to an understanding of himself before God, what role remains for the reviewer, an outsider par excellence? The reviewer who wants to remain faithful to Kierkegaard can do only this: humble himself and be satisfied with being an announcer. He can tell the future reader what to expect to find in the discourses, but the “finding” must be done by the reader.

The reviewer can tell the reader that in Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions he is to think along with the author about what it means to seek God, how the “resolution of duty” that ought to be present in marriage transforms romantic love into love that conquers everything, and how the awareness of one’s mortality, of the certainty of death, of “death’s decision” enhances earnestness in life. In Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, the reader is to reflect along with the author on what purity of heart is, how to acquire absolute confidence in Divine providence, and what it means to follow Christ. The reader must read slowly and must do a great deal of work himself. The reader who follows this advice, Kierkegaard says, will find and appropriate the meaning of the discourses “as if it had arisen in his own heart.”

Karl Dusza, a philosopher and sociologist, is a new contributor to First Things.

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