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Mon Apr 17 07:38:54 MDT 2006
WSWS : Book Review
A closer look at Kierkegaard
By Tom Carter
17 April 2006
Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, by Joachim Garff, translated by Bruce H.
Kirmmse. 867 pages, Princeton University Press, $35
Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, published in 2000 in Danish and translated
into English this past year, is an important, historically rigorous,
thorough, but in some ways limited biography. The author does not fail to
provide a detailed exegesis of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaards
work in parallel with the narrative of his life, and he is also able to
create an especially grim and compelling portrait of life in Copenhagen and
Berlin during the first half of the nineteenth century. However, Garff does
not present Kierkegaards philosophical work in the broader context of the
crisis of bourgeois philosophy in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Politically, Kierkegaard, was an extraordinarily conservative defender of
the aristocracy. A close political ally and acquaintance of the king of
Denmark, Kierkegaard expressed a mixture of fear and disdain toward the
emerging socialist and democratic movements in Europe. His first published
essay was an attack on the womens suffrage movement.
When in 1848 thousands demonstrated in the streets of Copenhagen to demand
labor reforms, constitutional government and equal rights for women,
Kierkegaard assured his readers, Every movement and change that takes
place with the help of 100,000 or 10,000 or 1,000 noisy, grumbling,
rumbling, and yodeling people...is eo ipso untruth, a fake, a
retrogression. For God is present here only in a very confused fashion or
perhaps not at all, perhaps it is rather the Devil.... A mediocre ruler is
a much better constitution than this abstraction, 100,000 rumbling
nonhumans (p. 494).
By and large, Kierkegaard, a misogynist himself, regarded the masses, or
has he called them pejoratively, the multitude, as the inferior woman
in the struggle between the classes (p. 483). With equal measures of
arrogance and fearfulness, Kierkegaard regarded the broad majority of
ordinary people as the most dangerous of all powers and the most
insignificant (p. 488).
When, in Holstein, revolutionaries launched a rebellion, Kierkegaard
advised that the government needs a war in order to stay in power, it
needs all possible agitation of nationalistic sentiments (p. 494).
Kierkegaard argued that democracy, not monarchy, is the most tyrannical
form of government, and that of all forms of government, the government by
a single individual is best: Is it tyranny when one person wants to rule
leaving the rest of us others out? No, but it is tyranny when all want to
rule (p. 487).
A peoples government, wrote Kierkegaard, is the true image of Hell (p.
487). Kierkegaard was unabashedly an apologist and supporter of the
monarch, and when democratic revolution swept the country in 1849,
Kierkegaard hid in his apartment and hoped it would all blow over.
Kierkegaard absolutely hated the idea of workers thinking for themselves.
He once thanked a physician for restoring his carpenter to health: He is
once more what he has had the honor of being for twenty-five years, a
worker with life and spirit, a worker who, although he thinks while he is
doing his work, does not make the mistake of wanting to make thinking into
his work (p. 540).
However, Kierkegaard does offer a solution to the problem of levelinghis
pejorative term for democracyand that solution is religion. No age, he
wrote, can halt the skepticism of leveling, nor can the present age.... It
can only be halted if the individual, in the separateness of his
individuality, acquires the fearlessness of religion (p. 490). In the end,
he suggested, an apparently political movement [the democratic revolution
of 1849] is at root a repressed need for religion (p. 499).
Kierkegaard regarded the supreme monarch of Denmark, Christian VIII, as the
parent and moral superior of every Danish man, woman, and child, and as
such he regarded it as the kings moral duty to lead the country out of
crisis by moral example and teaching, even though he thought the masses
were largely unworthy of the effort. Upbringing, Kierkegaard wrote,
upbringing is what the world needs. This is what I have always spoken of.
This is what I said to Christian VIII. And this is what people regard as
the most superfluous of things (p. 495).
Kierkegaard even dedicated some time to attacking socialism, which had
gained significant popularity in Denmark during his lifetime. In his
attacks, he insisted that it was the right of any individual to abstain
from human society altogether, and that all forms of socialismincluding
Christian communalism or pietismforce uniformity upon people and
therefore restrict their freedom (p. 504).
The obvious irony is that Kierkegaard, who believed that he had nobly
chosen for religious reasons to abstain from human society, was afforded
that luxury of abstention by a small staff of cooks, maids, secretaries,
and carpenters who saw to his estate and ran his errands, which he paid for
out of his large inheritance.
If Kierkegaard had read even a few of the major works of socialism,
including The Communist Manifesto (which, according at least to Garff, he
did not), he might have recognized that he had merely accepted uncritically
the aristocratic straw man of communism. After all, how can the democratic
power of every person to influence all matters of public life, and the
emancipation of the toiling masses from exploitation and poverty, possibly
be construed as a restriction of personal freedom?
Whatever his intellectual posture as a defender of individual freedom,
Kierkegaard defended the censorship of the press when it was invoked
against his more liberal opponents (p. 62).
Kierkegaards political philosophy is pervaded by racism, misogyny and
elitism. When articles that were critical of his books were published in
the newspaper The Corsair, Kierkegaard wrote, The Corsair is, of course, a
Jewish rebellion against the Christians, which had a constituency only
among Jew businessmen, shop clerks, prostitutes, schoolboys, butcher boys,
et cetera (p. 408).
Various scholars and defenders of Kierkegaard over the years have attempted
to separate the vileness of his politics from the rest of his work. In the
final analysis, this simply cannot be done, for on what basis can one
reject elitism and chauvinism if one has dispensed with reason itself?
Without a rigorous, scientific understanding of the world situation, and of
the multitude of economic, political, and social processes involved,
humanity can make no progress towards social equality and democracy, and
there will be no end of chauvinism and backwardness.
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