A friend sent me the other day two articles on Soren Kierkegaard which reminded me of the bicentenary of the Danish philosopher’s birth. Philosophers, probably, belong to a species that’s becoming extinct. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile, if not necessary, to take a glance at some of the old philosophies.
Kierkegaard’s most famous phrase is “leap into faith.” The philosopher argued that there is a profound insecurity in human life. Life is one contingency after another. The only certainty is death. The other certainties or truths have to be created by each one of us as we move through life. What is required in the process is the willingness to risk a leap of faith.
Becoming human is a project, argued Kierkegaard. Our task is not so much to discover who we are but to create ourselves at every moment.
Kierkegaard identified 3 stages of life experience.
1. The aesthetic: This is the stage at which we search for fulfilment in activities such as romance, career building and pleasure-seeking. This is, however, not ultimately satisfying. It eventually leads to boredom.
2. The ethical: This is a remedy for the aesthetic despair. This is a commitment to some arbitrary absolute. For example, when Mahatma Gandhi committed himself to non-violence, he was choosing this remedy. Similarly Mother Teresa chose compassion.
3. The religious: Kierkegaard thought that man could find his final contentment only in God. Kierkegaard would have agreed with Augustine of Hippo that “our hearts are restless until they rest in (God).”
But Kierkegaard’s God would not have been a simplistic god provided by some organised religion. The philosopher was of the view that most worthwhile truths are subjective rather than objective. There are plenty of objective truths in the world like water boils at 100 degree Celsius under normal conditions, etc. In human life, however, subjective truths assume a greater significance. “Truth is subjectivity,” Kierkegaard dared to assert. “Unless one believes something subjectively and passionately he does not possess the truth,” Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg paraphrased Kierkegaard.
This subjective truth is found in the concrete, not in the abstract; in the existential, not in the rational. One places oneself in that truth, even as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa did, by a leap of faith. This truth is not arrived at logically but chosen by the individual’s will.
I think Kierkegaard’s philosophy deserves attention in a world where people are encouraged, if not forced, to be satisfied with superficial delights and contentment. People refuse to go beyond what Kierkegaard labelled the aesthetic stage. Our civilisation encourages us to stick like barnacles to the rock of superficiality. Kierkegaard invites us to leap out of that superficiality and commit ourselves to some higher, more profound truth.