The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, the First Existentialist Philosopher, Revisited in 1984 Documentary

Dan­ish philoso­pher Søren Kierkegaard—often con­sid­ered the first existentialist—was born 200 years ago this past Sun­day in Copen­hagen. Writ­ing under pseu­do­nyms like Johannes Cli­ma­cus and Johannes de Silen­tio, Kierkegaard attacked both the ide­al­ism of con­tem­po­rary philoso­phers Hegel and Schelling and the bour­geois com­pla­cen­cy of Euro­pean Chris­ten­dom. A high­ly skilled rhetori­cian, Kierkegaard pre­ferred the indi­rect approach, deploy­ing irony, ridicule, par­o­dy and satire in a para­dox­i­cal search for indi­vid­ual authen­tic­i­ty with­in a Euro­pean cul­ture he saw as beset by self-impor­tant puffery and unthink­ing mass move­ments.

While mil­lions of read­ers have embraced Kierkegaard’s prob­ing method, as many have also reject­ed his faith-based con­clu­sions. Nev­er­the­less, his strik­ing­ly eccen­tric skew­er­ing of the tepid­ly faith­ful and over­ly opti­mistic breathed light and heat into the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry debates among mod­ern Chris­tians as they con­front­ed the find­ings of sci­ence and the chal­lenges posed by world reli­gions and mate­ri­al­ist philoso­phers like Karl Marx.

Marx and Kierkegaard’s many con­trasts and con­tra­dic­tions are well rep­re­sent­ed in Episode 4 of the BBC doc­u­men­tary series Sea of Faith, “Prometheus Unbound” (part one at top, part two imme­di­ate­ly above). The 1984 six-part series—named in ref­er­ence to Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach” and host­ed by rad­i­cal the­olo­gian Don Cupitt—exam­ines the ways in which the Coper­ni­can and Dar­win­ian sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tions and the work of crit­ics of reli­gious doc­trine like Freud, Marx, Niet­zsche, Strauss, and Schweitzer shook the foun­da­tions of ortho­dox Chris­tian­i­ty. Here, Kierkegaard is played in reen­act­ments with appro­pri­ate inten­si­ty by British actor Col­in Jeav­ons.

You can learn more about the doc­u­men­tary series (and pur­chase DVDs) here. And for more on Kierkegaard, you would be well-served by lis­ten­ing to Wal­ter Kaufmann’s lec­ture above. For a lighter-heart­ed but still rig­or­ous take on the philoso­pher, be sure to catch the well-read, irrev­er­ent gents at the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast in a dis­cus­sion of Kierkegaard’s earnest and often dis­turb­ing defense of exis­ten­tial Chris­tian­i­ty, The Sick­ness Unto Death.

You can find more phi­los­o­phy doc­u­men­taries in our col­lec­tion, 285 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre & Mod­ern Thought (1960)

Exis­ten­tial­ism with Hubert Drey­fus: Four Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Friedrich Niet­zsche & Exis­ten­tial­ism Explained to Five-Year-Olds (in Com­i­cal Video by Red­dit)

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

135 Free Phi­los­o­phy eBooks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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