Søren Kierkegaard

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Once you label me you negate me.
Oh, can I really believe the poet's tales ... that all love like all knowledge is remembrance, that love too has its prophecies in the individual...

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 - 11 November 1855) Danish philosopher and theologian, considered to be a founder of existentialist thought.

See also:

Fear and Trembling
Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
The Sickness Unto Death


  • I must find a truth that is true for me.
    • Variant translation: The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.
    • Letter to Peter Wilhelm Lund (1835-08-31)
  • Irony limits, finitizes, and circumscribes and thereby yields truth, actuality, content; it disciplines and punishes and thereby yields balance and consistency.
    • On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (1841)
  • One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?
It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand...
  • Anxiety is neither a category of necessity nor a category of freedom; it is entangled freedom, where freedom is not free in itself but entangled, not by necessity, but in itself.
  • Every human being is tried this way in the active service of expectancy. Now comes the fulfillment and relieves him, but soon he is again placed on reconnaissance for expectancy; then he is again relieved, but as long as there is any future for him, he has not yet finished his service. And while human life goes on this way in very diverse expectancy, expecting very different things according to different times and occasions and in different frames of mind, all life is again one nightwatch of expectancy.
    • Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses: "Patience in Expectancy" (1844)
The more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic...
  • The more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic. It is only by the deepest suffering that one acquires true authority in the use of the comic, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature.
    • Stages on Life's Way (1845) Variant translation: The more one suffers, the more, I believe, one has a sense of the comic. It is only by the deepest suffering that one acquires the authority in the art of the comic.
  • It doesn't occur to me at this moment to say more; another time, perhaps tomorrow, I may have more to say, but "always the same thing and about the same," for only gypsies, robber gangs and swindlers follow the adage that where a person has once been he is never to go again.
    • Stages on Life's Way (1845)
  • Above all do not forget your duty to love yourself.
    • Letter to Hans Peter, Kierkegaard's cousin (1848)
To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and the way he understands it.
  • To be a teacher does not mean simply to affirm that such a thing is so, or to deliver a lecture, etc. No, to be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and the way he understands it.
    • The Point of View for My Work as an Author (1848)
  • Seek first God's Kingdom, that is, become like the lilies and the birds, become perfectly silent — then shall the rest be added unto you.
    • The Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air (1849)
    • Alluding to words spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount
  • But precisely this is the misfortune, and has been the misfortune, in Christendom that Christ is neither the one nor the other — neither the one he was when living on earth, nor he who will return in glory, but rather one about whom we have learned to know something in an inadmissible way from history — that he was somebody or other of great account. In an inadmissible and unlawful way we have learned to know him; whereas to believe in him is the only permissible mode of approach
    • Preparation for a Christian Life
  • The task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.
    • Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers Vol. 1 A-E (1967), edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, p. 303
  • What our age needs is an honest earnestness which affectionately preserves the tasks, which does not alarm people into wanting to rush pellmell into the highest but keeps the tasks young and beautiful and lovely to look at and beckoning to all and yet for all that difficult and inspiring to the noble, for the noble nature is inspired only by what is difficult. My listener, how did I dare to be so impolite as to doubt that I shall succeed in inspiring you — for I have the difficulties all ready.
    • Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers Vol. 1 A-E (1967), edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, p. 303

The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard

Translations used include those from: A Selection from the Journals of Kierkegaard (1938) by Alexander Dru, and Søren Kierkegaard : Papers and Journals (1996) by Alastair Hannay
  • I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth's orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself.
    • March 1836
  • God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners.
  • Oh, can I really believe the poet's tales, that when one first sees the object of one's love, one imagines one has seen her long ago, that all love like all knowledge is remembrance, that love too has its prophecies in the individual. ... it seems to me that I should have to possess the beauty of all girls in order to draw out a beauty equal to yours; that I should have to circumnavigate the world in order to find the place I lack and which the deepest mystery of my whole being points towards, and at the next moment you are so near to me, filling my spirit so powerfully that I am transfigured for myself, and feel that it's good to be here.
  • It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.
    • 1841
  • To stand on one leg and prove God's existence is a very different thing from going on one's knees and thanking Him.
    • 1841
  • Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
    • 1843
  • If I were to imagine a girl deeply in love and some man who wanted to use all his reasoning powers and knowledge to ridicule her passion, well, there's surely no question of the enamoured girl having to choose between keeping her wealth and being ridiculed. No, but if some extremely cool and calculating man calmly told the young girl, "I will explain to you what love is," and the girl admitted that everything he told her was quite correct, I wonder if she wouldn't choose his miserable common sense rather than her wealth?
    • 1846
  • Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic — if it is pulled out I shall die.
    • 1847
  • What the age needs is not a genius — it has had geniuses enough, but a martyr, who in order to teach men to obey would himself be obedient unto death. What the age needs is awakening. And therefore someday, not only my writings but my whole life, all the intriguing mystery of the machine will be studied and studied. I never forget how God helps me and it is therefore my last wish that everything may be to his honour.
  • It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are. Human understanding has vulgarly occupied itself with nothing but understanding, but if it would only take the trouble to understand itself at the same time it would simply have to posit the paradox.
    • 1847
  • The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.
    • 1848
  • Job endured everything — until his friends came to comfort him, then he grew impatient.
    • 1849
  • The truth is always in the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because as a rule the minority is made up of those who actually have an opinion, while the strength of the majority is illusory, formed of that crowd which has no opinion — and which therefore the next moment (when it becomes clear that the minority is the stronger) adopts the latter's opinion, which now is in the majority, i. e. becomes rubbish by having the whole retinue and numerousness on its side, while the truth is again in a new minority.
    • 1850
  • The truth is a trap: you can not get it without it getting you; you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you.
    • 1854

Works of Love (1847)

Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses [Kjerlighedens Gjerninger. Nogle christelige Overveielser i Talers Form] (1847)
  • Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?
  • The intoxication of self-feeling is the most intense, and the height of this intoxication is most admired. Love and friendship are the very height of self-feeling, the I intoxicated in the other-I. The more securely the two I's come together to become one I, the more this united I selfishly cuts itself off from all others.
  • Spiritual love, on the other hand, takes away from myself all natural determinants and all self-love. Therefore love for my neighbor cannot make me one with the neighbor in a united self. Love to one's neighbor is love between two individual beings, each eternally qualified as spirit.
  • Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term.
  • When it is the duty to love the men we see, then one must first and foremost give up all fanciful and extravagant ideas about a dream world where the object of love is to be sought and found; that is, one must become sober, win actuality and truth by finding and continuing in the world of actuality as the task assigned to one.
  • It is human self-renunciation when a man denies himself and the world opens up to him. But it is Christian self-renunciation when a denies himself and, because the world precisely for this shuts itself up to him, he must as one thrust out by the world seek God's confidence. The double-danger lies precisely in meeting opposition there where he had expected to find support, and he has to turn about twice; whereas the merely human self-resignation turns once.
  • Only one deception is possible in the infinite sense, self-deception.
  • When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love.
If it were love’s merit to love the extraordinary, then God would be — if I dare say so — perplexed, for to Him the extraordinary does not exist at all.
  • Is it an excellence in your love that it can love only the extraordinary, the rare? If it were love’s merit to love the extraordinary, then God would be — if I dare say so — perplexed, for to Him the extraordinary does not exist at all. The merit of being able to love only the extraordinary is therefore more like an accusation, not against the extraordinary nor against love, but against the love which can love only the extraordinary. Perfection in the object is not perfection in the love. Erotic love is determined by the object; friendship is determined by the object; only love of one’s neighbor is determined by love. Therefore genuine love is recognizable by this, that its object is without any of the more definite qualifications of difference, which means that this love is recognizable only by love.

The Sickness unto Death (1849)

As translated by Alastair Hannay (1989), Penguin Classics ISBN 0-14-044533-1

Part One: The Sickness unto Death is Despair

  • Someone in despair despairs over something. So, for a moment, it seems, but only for a moment. That same instant the true despair shows itself, or despair in its true guise. In despairing over something he was really despairing over himself, and he wants now to be rid of himself. (p. 49)
  • A person in despair wants despairingly to be himself. But surely if he wants despairingly to be himself, he cannot want to be rid of himself. Yes, or so it seems. But closer observation reveals the contradiction to be still the same. The self which, in his despair, he wants to be is a self he is not (indeed, to want to be the self he truly is, is the very opposite of despair). (p. 50)
  • When whatever causes person to despair occurs, it is immediately evident that he has been in despair his whole life. (p. 54)
  • He who says without pretence that he despairs is, after all, a little nearer, a dialectical step nearer being cured than all those who are not regarded and who do not regard themselves as being in despair. (p. 56)
  • What feelings, understanding and will a person has depends in the last resort upon what imagination he has — how he represents himself to himself, that is, upon imagination. (pp. 60 - 61)
  • The world has generally no understanding of what is truly horrifying. The despair that not only does not cause any inconvenience in life, but makes life convenient and comfortable, is naturally enough in no way regarded as despair. That this is the worldly view is evident, among all things, from nearly all the proverbs, which are nothing but rules of prudence. (p. 64)
  • If I have ventured wrongly, very well, life then helps me with its penalty. But if I haven't ventured at all, who helps me then? (pp. 64 - 65)
  • What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world. (p. 65)
  • What characterizes despair is just this — that it is ignorant of being despair. (p. 75)
  • What afflicts the adult is not to much the illusion of hope as, no doubt among other things, the grotesque illusion of looking down from some supposedly higher vantage-point, free from illusion, upon the illusions of the young. (p. 89)
  • In spiritual terms the human being does not arrive over the years and as a matter of course at anything. No idea could be more directly opposed to spirit. (p. 90)
  • Purely philosophically it could be a subtle question whether it is possible both to be in despair and to be quite clear what one despairs of. (p. 92)
  • The initial expression of defiance is precisely despair over one's weakness. (p. 97)
  • Far from the self succeeding increasingly in being itself, it becomes increasingly obvious that it is a hypothetical self. (p. 100)

Part Two: Despair Is Sin

  • This fact, that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue, has been overlooked. The latter is partly a pagan view, which is content with a merely human standard, and which for that very reason does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith. (pp. 114 - 115)
  • How extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of humanity it betrays, how it connives if only unconsciously with offence by making Christianity out to be some miserable object that in the end must be rescued by a defence. It is therefore certain and true that the person who first thought of defending Christianity is de facto a Judas No. 2; he too betrays with a kiss, except his treason is that of stupidity. To defend something is always to discredit it. (p. 119)
  • If sin is ignorance, then sin does not really exist, for sin is precisely consciousness; if sin is ignorance of what is right, and one then does what is wrong because one does not know what is right, then no sin has occurred. (p. 121)
  • What a dangerous objection it would be against Christianity, therefore, if paganism had a definition of sin which Christianity had to acknowledge was correct. (p. 122)
  • People think the world needs a republic, and they think it needs a new social order, and a new religion, but it never occurs to anyone that what the world really needs, confused as it is by much learning, is a new Socrates. (p. 124)
  • No human being is able to say, of his own and by himself, what sin is, for sin is the very thing he is in. All his talk about sin is at bottom a glossing over sin, an excuse, a sinful extenuation. (p. 127)
  • If the whole of Christianity hangs on this, on its having to be believed, not comprehended, on its either having to be believed or one's having to be offended by it, is it then so commendable to want to comprehend? (p. 131)
  • Sin is in itself separation from the good, but despair over sin is separation a second time. (p. 142)
  • The dread of sin can sometimes in effect drive a person into sin through dread. (p. 145)
  • Sin, however common to all, does not gather men together into a common concept, into an association or partnership (no more than out in the graveyard the multitude of the dead form a society), but splits people up into individuals and fastens hold of every individual as a sinner. (p. 153)
  • Out of love, God becomes man. He says: "See, here is what it is to be a human being." (p. 161)


  • Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.
    • Variant: Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.
  • Man is not conscious of guilt because he sins, but sins because he is conscious of guilt.
  • Once you label me you negate me.
  • Responsibility is the choice of freedom and there is no contraception.
  • The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly one you can never have.
    • Variant: The most painful state of being is remembering the future, especially one which you know will never come.
  • Then comes affliction to awaken the dreamer.
  • Trouble is the common denominator of living. It is the great equalizer.
  • Was it not your bliss that you could never love as much as you have been loved?


  • Leap of faith.
    • This phrase is thought by many to have been coined by Kierkegaard, but analysis of his works in Danish indicate that he does not use a phrase which would translate into English as "leap of faith" anywhere in his writings, but there are instances where he writes of a "leap" in a context where the concept denoted by the term could easily be construed:
And how does God's existence emerge from the proof? Does it follow straightway, without any breach of continuity? Or do we have an analogy to the behavior of the little Cartesian dolls? As soon as I let go of the doll it stands on its head. As soon as I let it go, I must therefore let it go. So also with the proof. As long as I keep my hold on the proof, i.e., continue to demonstrate, the existence does not come out, if for no other reason that that I am engaged in proving it; but when I let the proof go, the existence is there. But this act of letting go is surely also something; it is indeed a contribution of mine. Must not this also be taken into account, this little moment, brief as it may be, it need not be long, for it is a leap.
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science will explain.
What if, rather than speaking or dreaming of an absolute beginning, we speak of a leap?

Quotations about Kierkegaard

  • As a thorough Christian — or, as he would have put it, infinitely interested in becoming one — Søren Kierkegaard addressed himself neither to Jews nor to Judaism. But they have overheard him. In part because they could not help it... Jews are well advised to be on the alert for what they can learn not only about him but about themselves also.
    • Rabbi Milton Steinberg, "Kierkegaard and Judaism" in The Menorah Journal 37:2 (1949)

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