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Søren Kierkegaard: Learning the Ultimate

Biographies conventionally kick off with the subject’s family background or their birth and move onwards in chronological fashion.


Sean Sheehan


Clare Carlisle’s biography of Kierkegaard experiments with tradition and does something new – as befits the kind of philosopher she is writing about.

The book opens with Kierkegaard speeding home at 40mph on a train to Copenhagen from Berlin. The year is 1843 and the 30-year-old has just published “Either/Or”, an eccentric work of philosophy. He has with him the unfinished “Fear and trembling”, about the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22).

His life crisis – the sudden breaking-off of his engagement to Regina Olsen – is also unfinished for he knows he is likely to see her again in Copenhagen.

The book’s second part moves on five years to 1848 but quickly goes back to Kierkegaard’s childhood and younger years. Readers are at risk of losing their chronological bearings at times but for someone who said life “can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” perhaps this playing around with time is appropriate.

The book’s third part, “Life lived forwards”, also begins in 1848 but this time the story moves steadily forward  and covers the remaining seven years of the philosopher’s life.

It is pleasing to think that Kierkegaard would have approved a disruptive structure for his biography.

He liked to subvert narrative norms with polyonymy within his texts – using different names for the same person – and used pseudonyms for his own authorship.

Life, he reasoned, is not lived as a linear affair and using fixed names creates a false sense of one-dimensional identities.

Kierkegaard’s unorthodox sense of the religious can earn respect from atheists for his insistence that being a Christian is not a matter of doctrine and Church.

What matters to him is an unceasing interrogation of your life in a quest for a certitude that always lies beyond the horizon.

A litmus test for an intellectual biography like “Philosopher of the heart” is to ask whether it will motivate readers who are not familiar with Kierkegaard   and his philosophy to read his work.

The answer is a resounding yes. The biographer provides lucid summaries of his main works and conveys the relevance of his thought for modern audiences.

When we become conscious of our freedom, says Kierkegaard, anxiety follows in its wake. The future becomes an abyss that we are terrified of falling into. We will grasp at something to hold on to. It is tempting to succumb to religion or money or self-deception.

“This is an adventure”, he says, “that every human being goes through – to learn to be anxious so that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety, or by succumbing in anxiety. For whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate”.

“Philosopher of the heart: The restless life of Søren Kierkegaard” by Clare Carlisle is published by Allen Lane

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