What Did They Ask Kierkegaard?

Published Apr 28, 2010
What Did They Ask Kierkegaard?

Søren Kierkegaard was examined for his theological degree on this day July 3, 1840 at the University of Copenhagen. His thesis was titled "On the Concept of Irony with Constant Reference to Socrates." How did he feel as he went into the exams? An early writing, The Fork, gives a clue: "...it also seems to me that to be known by God in time makes life so strenuous. Wherever he is, there every half hour is of tremendous importance. But to live in that manner is not endurable for sixty years; it is scarcely possible to endure even for three years the severe study required for the professional examinations which is however not nearly so strenuous as such a half hour."

The following year Kierkegaard broke an engagement with his fiancée Regine Olsen. In the wake of this he wrote the first of his major works, Either/Or, a philosophical love letter to Regina. She married someone else. Embittered, he became an eccentric who walked the streets of his city, latching onto people for conversation. At night he wrote, turning out philosophical/Christian books, some published under his own name but others under pseudonyms. At times these books were profoundly prophetic as when he predicted the brainwashing effect of television long before TV was invented and saw the dark outlines of twentieth century totalitarianism.

In later life he turned against the lukewarm church of Denmark. Salvation must be personal. "... The abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveler makes it possible for everyone individually to leap over the blade--and behold it is God who waits. Leap, then, into the arms of God... they must make the leap themselves, for God's love is not a secondhand gift."

Kierkegaard declares, "... For the terrible language of the Law is so terrifying because it seems as if it were left to man to hold fast to Christ by his own power, whereas in the language of love it is Christ who holds him fast." Elsewhere he shows that salvation must come by suffering not by power. "... To become a Christian is the greatest human suffering. Christ being an absolute explodes all the relativity whereby we humans live."

Although he intended his work for the general public, his writings do not have the illustration and simplicity which make words accessible to the masses. Yet he forced us to consider what it really means to be human within time. We do not know what the examiners asked of this man who became the most distinctive thinker of the 19th century and father of existentialism. Did his answers reveal his coming originality? Possibly not. But he passed his orals.


  1. Hamilton, Kenneth. The Promise of Kierkegaard. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1969.
  2. Hoffding, Harald. Soren Kierkegaard als philosoph. Stuttgard: Frommans Verlag, 1902. Source of the portrait.
  3. "Kierkegaard, Soren." Grolier's Encyclopedia. Danbury, Connecticutt: Grolier Corp., 1991.
  4. "Kierkegaard, Soren Aabye." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  5. Muggeridge, Malcolm. The Third Testament. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.
  6. Poole, Roger and Henrik Stangerup, editors. The Laughter Is on My Side. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  7. Runes, Dagobert D. A Treasury of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945.
  8. Russell, Bertrand. Wisdom of the West. New York: Fawcett, 1964; especially pp. 330 - 334; 395; 397.
  9. Wintle, Justin. Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, 1800-1914. London ; Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

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