When first I visited Copenhagen, I went over, as many tourists do, to the Assistens Cemetery to find the grave of Søren Kierkegaard. But for all of us who know the name of that 19th-century Danish philosopher, how many can claim even an acquaintance with the ideas that made his into a near-household name? The introductory video from Alain de Botton’s School of Life just above gets us started on forming that acquaintance with this “brilliant, gloomy, anxiety-ridden, often hilarious” thinker in a manner relevant to the problems of modern life, highlighting three of Kierkegaard’s best-known works: 1843’s Either/Or and Fear and Trembling and 1849’s The Sickness Unto Death.
In the first two, says de Botton in the role of the narrator, “what Kierkegaard wants us to do, above all, is wake up, and give up our cozy, sentimental illusions. He systematically attacks the pillars of modern life: our faith in family, our trust in work, our attachment to love, and our general sense that life has purpose and meaning.” He quotes the philosopher himself and his realization that “the meaning of life was to get a livelihood. That the goal of life was to be a high-court judge. That the brightest joy of love was to marry a well-off girl. That wisdom was what the majority said it was. That passion was to give a speech. That courage was to risk being fined $10. That cordiality was to say ‘You’re welcome’ after a meal, and that the fear of God was to go to Communion once a year. That’s what I saw, and I laughed.”
The direction in which this realization took Kierkegaard’s thought produced a body of work considered a precedent of the Existentialism explored in the 20th century by the likes of Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. “Marry, and you will regret it,” Kierkegaard wrote in Either/Or. “Don’t marry, you will also regret it. Marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it. Weep over it, you’ll regret that, too. Hang yourself, you’ll regret it. Don’t hang yourself, and you’ll regret that, too. Whether you hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”
Kierkegaard stressed the then-new idea of angst, “a condition where we understand how many choices we face, and how little understanding we can ever have, of how to exercise these choices wisely.” Some might turn to religion for the solution, and so, in a way, did Kierkegaard, who “adored the simple truths of the Gospels” but “loathed the Christianity of the established Danish Church.” What an irony that his family name means “churchyard” in Danish, let alone that he should be buried in such a famous one himself. (Kierkegaard’s nephew protested the burial, which resulted in a fine for disrupting a funeral.) But to the extent that the philosopher’s presence there causes its pilgrims both casual and devoted to reflect seriously on the irresolvable contradictions still at the core of our lives, his mission (in de Botton’s words) “to save himself and, he thought, humanity,” continues.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.