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How Kierkegaard transformed the Pursuit of
S O U R C E : T H E P H IL O S O P H E R S ' M A I L
The search for happiness is no new thing. Two and a half thousand years ago, Aristotle already asserted that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. But even if the search for happiness is old, it seems like the search has intensified and become slightly confused in modern times.
The search for happiness is no new thing. Two and a half thousand years ago, Aristotle already asserted that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. But even if the search for happiness is old, it seems like the search has intensified and become slightly confused in modern times. When traditional cultural and ethical frameworks break down, when existential liberty increases, and when the supply of happiness-promising religions, therapies, or sciences are amplified on a global market, the search proliferates.
It’s not news to most of us when I say that a continuous development is taking place in our world. The “good old world” has long been de-stabilised. We know that when most of us now live in big cities, change jobs, families, and often countries, multiple times during a lifetime—then our search for happiness naturally becomes a little more fragmented, if not confused.
But what is less clear is how our search for happiness has not only become more fragmented, but also more isolated and individualistic. Not only in the sense that we to some extent are left on our own in the search, but in the sense that we can only understand happiness as something for ME, or something that I benefit from. The search for happiness has become stuck in a subtle form of egotism.
Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, theologian, and father of modern day existentialism, can help show how this subtle egotism acts, and within which parameters—and maybe even how to free oneself from its unhappy consequences.
Being a scholar of Kierkegaard, I have devoted large portions of my life to studying his works and even based my epistolary novel Don’t Despair on his teachings. The insight he has given me has allowed me to pick up on how society has interpreted (and misinterpreted) his ideology. I have encountered various attempts at “using” or making something practical out of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. Kierkegaard writes about faith, about freedom and anxiety, about passion, joy, humour, and irony – basic human phenomena. Modern readers of Kierkegaard will often find an existential wake-up call in Kierkegaard’s texts, which is only good and natural. But I have frequently encountered attempts at using Kierkegaard’s insights and description of human life in various modern day forms of therapy.
Such attempts will undoubtedly miss the point. They will misunderstand Kierkegaard, which in itself is of course unimportant, but they will also miss an opportunity to actually learn something about happiness from him. The truth is, Kierkegaard does not care about YOU being happy. He really doesn’t care in the slightest. This might not sound promising to someone who would like to be happy, but it’s this notion that is the key to why reading Kierkegaard might in fact teach you something about happiness.
The modern person starts with questioning his or her own well-being. Kierkegaard starts with questioning how the person is living up to the standards of being a human being. Here lies the quintessential difference. It’s something that is extremely hard to truly understand for the modern person—the person who has always been taught to ask himself: “How do I feel?”, “Am I happy?”, “Would I like my life to change?”. The irony is that by asking these exact kinds of questions, the modern person might make him or herself unhappy.
When they always start with ME, the modern person runs the risk of never really leaving ME. Instead they constantly circle in and around themselves. The circling, the never-ending questions, the half-heartedness of not really wanting to live this life, and instead being stuck in endless intellectual chains of questions, is what Kierkegaard writes and revolts against. The self-absorption of the never-ending questions is a capital sin in Kierkegaard’s universe.
Kierkegaard is a Christian thinker, but he is also an existentialist thinker, and his texts can be read to benefit both the religious and the non-religious reader. However, the very different starting-point of asking not about YOUR happiness, but about how you live up to human standards, has religious roots. Whether we are believers or not, we can learn from paying attention to the messages stemming from these roots.
Kierkegaard explicitly shows these roots when he quotes the Sermon on the Mount in one of his famous non-pseudonymous texts The Lily of the Field, The Bird of the Air. His text explains how we can learn joy from the lily and the bird as they are in no opposition to being who they are. They are not haunted by the endless intellectual questions of human life – nor the worry about the day of tomorrow. That, argues Kierkegaard, is joy. It is the precise living picture of joy because the question about self is not present for them.
By reading the works of Kierkegaard the reader will become familiar with this – to the modern reader – opposite approach to the question about joy and happiness. This might, in fact, lead you to a new and unexpected joy in life.
I describe the Kierkegaardian notion of joy and happiness further in my recently published book Don’t Despair – Letters to a Modern Man. If you are interested in reading further, I would recommend you to read the book.
Matias Dalsgaard is author of Don't Despair (Pine Tribe, 2014)
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