I recently discovered a handwritten note in a box of college notebooks. It was addressed “To Cordelia” and contained a Greek love poem and a phone number.
The note transported me back 20 years to Bowdoin College and a fraternity party I had attended with a boyfriend. The way I remember it, that young man left my side to get me a Moxie, only to return to find me talking earnestly to another young man about Kierkegaard’s “Diary of a Seducer,” the story of a man’s relationship with a young woman, Cordelia.
Later that night as my boyfriend walked me home, he broke off our relationship because he thought I was in love with someone else. I told him he was being ridiculous, said goodnight, and went to my room to read Kierkegaard.
The note appeared in my mailbox the next day, signed by the other fellow at the party.
One might say that only in college do relationships begin and end with conversations about Danish philosophers, but I think that Kierkegaard’s appeal is broader than that. I teach his work to my introductory level philosophy students — their response is often that they are leaving their lovers because Kierkegaard has taught them what love can really be.
Lest one think this is a gendered experience, my husband first dated me only after I began to recount to him a paper I was writing on Kierkegaard’s philosophy of love.
Of course, Kierkegaard is not simply an aesthete. He leads the reader to consider the limits of pleasure and the necessity for order, ethics, and objective truths. His detailed analysis of the joys of marriage and the importance of community were meant, at least in part, to chastise Christians who were ignoring good works in their lives of faith.
But Kierkegaard is not an ethicist. There is a reason why he is rarely included in ethics textbooks. Kierkegaard believed his most important work was to be religious.
Neither a Rationalist nor a Romantic, Kierkegaard wrote of faith in a way that continues to allure and baffle. He speaks of the irrationality of love, not just between humans, but between Creator and creature. Kierkegaard insists that God’s love (like Don Juan’s) is not logical or earned by good behavior.
Our response to God’s love is just as difficult to understand. Abraham, for example, is willing to sacrifice his child. The objective standards of ethical justice must judge such response as wrong, but somehow Abraham emerges as a hero of faith.
In the end, the thoughtful reader is left seduced by a philosopher who gives her no answers and no path, who seems to advocate the unthinkable. The reader of Kierkegaard is left bewildered with nowhere to turn.
Kierkegaard seems to hope that the reader will rush into the arms of God. As such, Kierkegaard calls himself the best of the Lutheran philosophers. Yet, his anxiety permeates every book as he wonders if he has no faith at all, but only a poetic sensibility.
This month marks Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday. Next weekend (May 24-26), St. Ansgar Lutheran Church and our extended community will celebrate the life and writings of Soren Kierkegaard.
As part of the celebration, I will be discussing what Kierkegaard can teach us about our own hearts, relationships, ethics and faith. I welcome you to join us.
Dr. Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth is professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, as well as a guest preacher at St. Ansgar Lutheran Church in Portland. You can contact her at: