In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”
Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.
It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”
This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.
Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.
Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.
Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.
In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is well known for his contributions to philosophical and religious thought, and for the literary qualities of his work in these areas. He has not been so well known as a contributor to political thought, though there is now a growing amount of scholarly commentary in this area.
Generally his politics has been seen as directed by an extreme kind of conservative reaction against changes, and particularity movements of democratic and constitutional change in Denmark in his own time. The sense that he was conformable with the most absolute and conservative kind of monarchism possible has been accompanied by the sense that he was anti-political, that he just did not like politics, which connected with the supposed conservatism, because if there is no need for change in political structures, there is no need for political discussion and thought.
These positions might have some appeal to some libertarian-conservative fusionists, and do have some basis in some aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. However, his thought cannot be properly characterised overall in this way, which would connect Kierkegaard at a relatively popular level with the political thinking of J.R.R. Tolkein, or at the more historical scholarly level with Robert Filmer, the English ultra-monarchist criticised at length by John Locke, or the Savoyard (French-Italian) ultra-monarchist critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.
More justified connections can be made with David Hume, for example. Hume was cautious about both political change and claims that the authority of existing political institutions rests on either reverence for the past, or very deliberate conscious popular consent. Hume thought that though societies with political and legal institutions probably did originate with a contract of sorts between government and governed, such contracts cannot bind future generations, and the ‘contract’, or set of relations, between individuals and the state, are open to reform and renegotiation.
Kierkegaard’s comments on the politic currents of his time, suggest that he had a strong understanding both of the belief in the absolute authority of existing institutions, and of the wish to create a new absolute, in a spirit of revolution. His own view is that negotiation and renewal are desirable, and are certainly inevitable, which he saw as the need to revise historical contractual agreements.
Kierkegaard certainly did not wish for individuals to make politics the highest aspect of their lives, as this would detract from the individual relation with God, which was the central interest of this passionately religious man. However, that is not to say that Kierkegaard thought Christianity gives the answer to everything in worldly life, or that Kierkegaard had nothing else driving him. A passion for writing, which has a strong element of self-exploration even if though the medium of fiction and the pseudonyms, which are used in his books, or as fictional authors for many of his widely read books.
The writing and self-exploration converge, for Kierkegaard, in the understanding and communication of the deepest relation of the self with itself as necessarily a relation with God. The recognition of something more than momentary about the existence of the self, leads to a recognition of an absolute aspect of the self, and a struggle with any dissolution of the self into a series of moments. This was Kierkegaard’s way of exploring the value of the individual, and the word ‘individual’ is frequently and frequently orientates his writing. In this, he provided a great way of thinking about the value of the individual for any political thought concerned about the liberty of the individual, and why that should be at the centre of politics.
Kierkegaard saw in the more absolute kinds of political thought a desire for a version of God, and in doing so provided the basis for distinguishing between a politics that recognises limits to what it hopes for from the state and collective action, and a politics that tries to impose itself on society by turning the state into a substitute for God.
Kierkegaard was very critical of the state church, even though his brother had made a career in it, and suggest that dependent on the state weakened religion, as other forms of dependence create other forms of weakness. He did not argue for a pure nightwatchman state, or individualist-anarchism, but he did argue for caution about how much the state does, and for taking individual responsibility for assisting those who have met with misfortune.
In his emphasis on the individual in his understanding of Christianity, Kierkegaard also understood that Christianity places an enormous burden on the individual compared with earlier forms of thinking, in which the individual is primarily thought of as part of a family or state. Kierkegaard was particularly concerned with the ancient Greek and Roman city states in this context, including the literature they produced. He placed value on his own small city of Copenhagen for preserving some of the value of ancient city-state, where the individual can draw strength from connection with others in a very concrete community, without wanting to see the individual subsumed into any kind of communal or collective identity.
For Kierkegaard, the more worldly part of our lives rests on more than living under a state defined by law or a society defined by universal rights, necessary though these are. We need engagement with our social world, including its political debates. Though Kierkegaard was a great loner in some respects, he did walk regularly though crowded parts of the city, live near the centre, accept that he would be recognised, contributed to magazines, and existed as a public figure, which was sometimes uncomfortable for him, but was never a role he excluded. He was attacked as an eccentric in the press and condemned as a diabolical figure by some of the church establishment, but like his hero Socrates reacted with humour, intelligence and the assumption that the independent, even self-contained, individual deals with difficult public controversies. In his ways of bringing together an antique commitment to public life and a more modern sense of strong individuality, Kierkegaard made a remarkable contribution to themes which preoccupied the major classical liberal thinkers, like David, Hume, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and many others.
It is not possible to recommend specific political theory texts by Kierkegaard, and just about everything he wrote can be read with great reward in association with the issues discussed above. A good starting point for a focus on the more political Kierkegaard though is the literary reflections in Two Ages, followed up by the three masterpieces of 1843 that established his importance. The most immediately readable is Repetition. Fear and Trembling is also relatively short. Either/Or is long and complex, but very rewarding and can itself be followed up by reading its sequel Stages on Life’s Way.