An Animated, Monty Python-Style Introduction to the Søren Kierkegaard, the First Existentialist

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

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

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

Get to Know Socrates, Camus, Kierkegaard & Oth­er Great Philoso­phers with the BBC’s Intel­li­gent Radio Show, In Our Time

Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Who Wrote at Stand­ing Desks? Kierkegaard, Dick­ens and Ernest Hem­ing­way Too

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.

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