Faith & Thought

Søren Kierkegaard, the First Existentialist Philospher

About a month ago I had a strange experience in relation to one of the philosophy courses that I teach at St. John’s University. The students and I were about to begin studying the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). As I was looking through my notes I discovered 10 pages of notes about Kierkegaard that I had not looked at in years. These 10 pages were misplaced among other notes. 

Once I saw them I not only recognized them but knew exactly when I had taken them. They were taken in the summer of 1966 for a course on Kierkegaard which was being taught at Marquette University by Professor John Riedl. Rereading the notes I could hear Dr. Riedl speaking. 

When I was studying at Marquette, I frequently referred to John Riedl as the Babe Ruth of the philosophy department. I thought of him as the star of the department and one of the most scholarly men I have ever met. I wanted him to direct my doctoral thesis but we could not adjust our schedules so that we could work together. Still he helped me with wonderful advice as I began my research. 

Kierkegaard was the first existentialist. Some books cite Friedrich Nietzsche as the first existentialist (1844-1900), but Kierkegaard appeared on the scene a few years before the German philosopher. I am fairly certain that John Riedl was studying along with us and I recall marveling at how intelligent a reader he was. 

Whenever I tell people that I teach existentialist philosophy someone immediately asks: “Just what is existentialism?” My answer is that existentialism is the philosophy that emphasizes human freedom more than any other philosophy. I go on to explain that there are atheistic existentialists and there are theistic existentialists. 

The atheistic existentialists claim that we are creating ourselves by our free choices. Since there is no God, each of us is who we have chosen to be. The theistic existentialists think that we are co-creating ourselves along with God. All of us are the products of God’s choices and our choices. Nietzsche was an atheistic existentialist. Perhaps the most famous atheistic existentialist was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1981). Kierkegaard was a theistic existentialist. 

Born in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard claimed that there were three stages on life’s way or three spheres of existence. He called them the esthetic stage, the ethical stage, and the religious stage. Like many existentialists, Kierkegaard’s philosophy seems to have come from reflection on his own life. When Søren went to the University of Copenhagen, he majored in theology. 

He did this to please his father, Michael Kierkegaard. Søren was not interested in theology but rather in attending the theater and cafes. While at the university, Søren fell into a deep depression and seriously considered suicide. Michael helped Søren to overcome his depression and shortly after overcoming it, Søren had a profound conversion and now he was intensely interested in theology. After his conversion he referred to himself as one of the “twice-born.” I think he meant once born from his mother’s womb and once reborn in Christ. 

The esthetic stage involved complete commitment to sense pleasure — to the best literature, the best poetry, the best theater, but it did not include any idea of the transcendent. It was totally “this worldly.” The logical outcome of living in the esthetic stage was suicide because the individual was looking for fulfillment where it cannot be found. The best sense experience does not save us. 

The second stage was the ethical and it involved commitment to law and to rules. It promoted a sense of duty. Those on the ethical stage claimed that anything that was good on the ethical stage was present in a better way than on the esthetic stage. Better than the esthetic stage, the ethical stage also did not provide salvation. The third and most important stage was the religious stage. Kierkegaard gave the religious stage four characteristics: inward, subjective, leap, and absurd. I think these four characteristics should be part of any person’s commitment to Christ. I have been thinking of them in relation to the commitment that I and other Catholics are called to make at a Eucharistic celebration. 

In the religious stage everything is risked because of belief in Christ. Inward means depth. It touches the person profoundly. Subjective does not mean arbitrary. It means personal. The religious stage is deeply personal. The leap means that the person risks everything by a leap of faith. If Christ is not our Savior then the religious stage makes no sense at all. Absurd does not mean that the religious stage is meaningless but rather that there is so much meaning that even the person who is living on this stage cannot understand it fully. Profound mystery envelops every Eucharist. It involves a unique encounter with Christ that can shed light on every moment of our lives.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.