Kierkegaard would come to be considered the grandfather of the philosophical school of thought known as Existentialism. Though he lived a short life, he was a prolific producer and he continues to influence contemporary philosophy, literature, and theology. Existentialism remains one of the most well known branches of philosophy, at least in the sense that people have heard the term and attempt to use it in conversation more than other major philosophical brands. Existentialism became a force in continental thought after the second world war, with the field being consolidated by Jean Paul Sartre, who consolidated Kierkegaard’s thought in the phrase “existence precedes essence.”
“What we will be has not yet been made known.” (1 John 3:2) Kierkegaard’s central concern was that of purpose. With the presence of death assailing his family, and with his fear of dying without having made proper contributions to the world, Kierkegaard urgently assembled his work, all dealing with the question, “How do we know what our purpose is?” The answer to the question, “What is our purpose?” for Kierkegaard, is that we have no purpose, no essence. Prior to the existentialist movement in the world of philosophy, most thinkers held that humans had an essence which preceded their existence. There was something you were made to do. Your purpose was ready for you at the time of your birth, and it was your job to discern and live into that purpose. In this way of thinking, the way to live a good and full life was to adhere to your essence. Kierkegaard looked at the world around him and saw no purpose in what had been built. He was disgusted by the 19th century European bourgeoisie, the established church, and the sense of certainty that was seeming to compel those in his context to follow the path of least resistance in their lives.
When I was very young and in the cave of Trophonius (an idiom for being afraid) I forgot to laugh. Then, when I got older, when I opened my eyes and saw the real world, I began to laugh and I haven’t stopped since. I saw that the meaning of life was to get a livelihood, that the goal of life was to be a High Court judge, that the bright joy of love was to marry a well-off girl, that the blessing of friendship was to help each other out of a financial tight spot, that wisdom was what the majority said it was, that passion was to give a speech, that courage was to risk being fined ten [dollars], 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.
To Kierkegaard, for one to live the life that was expected of them and hope to find meaning in any of it was absolutely absurd. None of these aspirations could grant you meaning, purpose, or fulfillment, at least not on their own. A person’s true purpose could not be found in traditional pursuits because there was no purpose to be found at all. In the test of life, there were no right answers.
If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her,
you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself,
you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom. -Either/Or
Wherever Kierkegaard looked he saw a cacophony of incongruent assertions of certainty and impossible questions with no right answers. Still, decisions have to be made. There is no way to understand all the variables in our complex world, nor to foresee the ramifications of our decisions in full. Inevitably, for Kierkegaard, one must choose. Kierkegaard suggests that most people choose not to choose at all. They follow the crowd, the orders of their government, the teachings of their church, the expectations of their parents- anything to avoid their “angst.”
Kierkegaard defines angst as “unfocused fear.¨ It is the state of anxiety that comes with realizing how much control you have over your own destiny though the decisions you make. As the great 20th Century philosopher Sarah Connor once said, there is “no fate but what we make.” When we are faced with the freedom to create our own future, to choose our fate, most of us are petrified by our anxiety. “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy.” This dizziness of freedom keeps most people from taking their future into their own hands, an act, for Kierkegaard, which is tantamount to philosophical suicide.