Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VIII

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 8 ‘Political Irony’. This is the most wide ranging chapter of the book, because I followed Kierkegaard’s own discussion of irony in antique and modern aspects in The Concept of Irony. That structure itself suggests a parallel with the distinction between ancient and modern understanding of liberty, which I think goes back to Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury during the 17th century, but was formulated explicitly by Benjamin Constant in the early 19th century. We could turn it into the difference between Greek and Roman liberty, and enter into many other complications. Partly because of those kinds of complications I have not said much about how Kierkegaard’s attitude to antique and modern aesthetics , religion, and politics relates to the political theory discussion of antique and modern liberties. I have just indicated the parallels. I am engaged in further work on this topic, particularly round Foucault and hope to look at at it further in relation to aesthetic and literary concepts  later, which will certainly include a return to Kierkegaard. For the purposes of this book, I wanted to focus on Kierkegaard and just indicate the various contexts for reading Kierkegaard in a political way. The extract below is from the end of section of the chapter on ‘Possibility and Actuality’.


Kierkegaard builds up his view of possibility and actuality, as aspects of the aesthetic and the ethical, but what Kierkegaard also suggests in Concluding Unscientific Postscript is the value of taking all possibilities seriously as real, that is concentrating on the Aristotelian move from possibility to reality, the movement of potentiality (Carlisle 2006).  The word in English used by Aristotle is kinesis, since Kierkegaard uses the Greek original κίνεσις pronounced similarly to the English word. Aristotle’s use of the term concentrates on a meaning of κίνεσις which is more physicalist than Kierkegaard’s own discussion of it as the movement from potentiality to actuality (1992a, 342/VII 296). The context in which Kierkegaard refers to κίνεσις is of the movement from ethical abstract to deed, and the criticism of ethical eudaemonism. It is the movement, or leap, from ethical abstraction to action which counts, not the abstract commitment to ethics. That movement is never at this moment, but has always happened or will happen. It evades our awareness of the present moment, so disrupting time and presumably for Kierkegaard directing us to eternity away from normal temporality. Abstraction is equated by Kierkegaard with a Parmenidian world of is without change, while the act, and the movement of κίνεσις towards it, requires time for the process of change. Κίνεσις does not happen in an instant, but as a process. The criticism of eudaemonism, which could extend to all antique ethics, is of the idea that the good is its own reward, which could be taken as inherent to the antique association of ethics with living well, flourishing of life, the good or happy life. Kierkegaard argues that eudaemonism is undermined by κίνεσις because doubts creep into the mind during the time it takes to get from thought to deed.

Time and κίνεσις undermine antique ethics because the possibility of reflection, which requires time, is the possibility of doubt about what should be done.  The existence of this kind of gap between human living and the act which conditions human living, undermines the idea that the rules of such acts spring emerges from living, in a largely pre-reflective way.  Antique ethics does of course allow for reflection, and its benefits, but sees them as expressions of our nature, and the flourishing of our natural being. If we consider this to be applicable to politics, and the ethics of Plato and Aristotle certainly does include politics, then we can draw the following conclusions. Firstly, political acts cannot be the pre-reflective outcome of the life of the community.  Secondly, the life of the community does not gives us political acts without deliberation and movement.  Thirdly, political acts are the result of time and deliberation.  Fourthly, politics cannot be said to an area in which we have reward in doing what is good in an immediate way.  Fifthly, political theory refers to a world of unchanging ‘is’, disrupted by the time and κίνεσις of concrete political acts.  We can see this as part of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, since Hegel thinks of the state as belonging to Sittlichkeit, or the customary life of the community, taken to be constituted by mores with ethical status.

Political theory does not guide political acts in any automatic and predictable way; politics does not rest on the immediate reward of doing good. These are claims which are directed against Aristotle as well as Hegel. Politics is not part of human nature or the highest good on Kierkegaard’s account of κίνεσις in ethics. One side of that is clearly a rejection of politics, but the other side is that it could be taken as just a rejection of the over idealisation of politics. Outside the highest ethical good, or immediate product of ethics, the framework of politics may be emancipated as a sphere of non-moralistic human practices characterised possibly by terms such as play, competition, contestation, struggle, competition, contingency and pragmatism. Going further than that, ethics itself is diminished by Kierkegaard as something non-ideal in relation to theory, so maybe ethics should be characterised in the same way as politics. Kierkegaard does not give ethics as abstract system a high status. The discussion of κίνεσις, of the interruptions between abstraction and action, taken with the other aspects of Concluding Unscientific Postscript is a call to appreciate the role of subjectivity in ethics. Kierkegaard builds on the German Idealist concern with human practice and consciousness, in looking for a more subjective theory of ethics than Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, and looks for a theory of subjectivity which does not collapse into pure relativity and contingency.


Ancient Rome Open City to Refugees: Antique Republics and Inclusive Citizenship

A story in the Britsh press about archaeological investigations in Rome that suggest the city is about 150 years oldler than its legendary foundation in 753 BCE reminds me of the apparent characteristic quality of early Rome, its openness to refugees, vagrants, and everyone in search of a new home.  At least this is the impression we get from Livy’s History of Romeand it makes sense given that Rome did keep getting bigger as as a city and greater in the reach of its power through alliances ansd aborption. We can also think of how the foundational mythology, we see in Virgil’sAeneid, represents Rome as the product of refugees from Troy.

Romans do not appear to have had the Greek tendency to only accept citizenship through inheritence, or the Carthaginian tendency for an ethnically distinct originally foreign elite to rule over a hetereogneous body of ordinary citizens from the region.  The story of Romulus and Remus itself suggests that Roman sovereignty originated with an elite that maybe came in part from outside, but soon became part of the whole population of the city.The openness of Rome appears to have been maintained through expansion in Italy, then imperial expansion across the Mediterranean world during the Punic Wars, and on throughout the Emperors. The second Rome, Constantinople, was filled with the marginals of the Empire willing to move to a new home and new oppotunities.

The open status of the city of Rome was a feature of the Imperial and early kingly, as well as Republican periods, but that it was a feature of  the Republican period, should cause us to challenge some assumptions about Republican political theory resting on ideas of  small self-contained city state unwelcoming to foreigners.

The Skinner-Pettit style of Neo-Roman liberty, or Roman republicanism, does not really capture this, as the orderly institutionalism of Pettit’s approach in particular, is far too ordered and rationalised to accommodate the tensions and strains that arose from the incorporation of new inhabitants into Rome. The failure of the Republic to resolve those tensions led to to its transformation into a politcal autocracy, in the period from Marius to Augustus, but we should not ignore its approximately five centuries of life, in a form of life much more disorderly and conflicted than the Cambridge School or Pettit suggest, at least in their more stereotypical moments.

Arendt’s ‘Athenian’ republicanism, which does refer to the most open of the Greek city states is more appropriate for understanding these features of Rome, regardless of her suspicions of the Roman understanding of politics at the theoretical level. It is Arendt who did more than any other political thinker of any time to make us think about refugees and stateless people, and how such situations are linked to the worst abuses of state power.Sadly Arendt’s concerns in this area are all too relevant at present, even in the most established democracies.

It follows then, or so I believe, that very classically grounded republican political thought is less in conflict with individualistic liberal, including libertarian, political thinking than is often presumed, particulary with regard to open borders.

Of course, we should avoid idolatory of Ancient Rome or Greece, to the excluson of other republics in the region. As suggested above, Carthage is a model worth considering, in part because it did allow for pluralism of some kind in the composition of the ciitzen body, if in a rather herarchical manner.

No doubt, the People and Senate of Rome were not always delighted by newcomers. Of course, many of those ‘welcomed’ to Rome were slaves. Even there, we can offer the qualification that slaves were often freed, becoming maybe notable philosophers (as with Epictetus) or the fathers of Emperors.

We might also draw out the thought here that Livy’s History of Rome is one of the most important of all books, with regard to political ideas and social philosophy, as well as history,  informing Machiavelli’s view of Rome in the most obvious way in Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Vico’s view of Rome and all antiquity in the New ScienceMontesquieu’s view in The Spirit of the Laws and Considerations on the  Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and  their Decline, and so on.

In short, the greatness of Rome drew on its openness to refugees and incomers across bordes. We sould understand the Roman Republic through the waves of newcomers and the creative tensions of life together.

Cross posted at the group blog NewAPPS

Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VII

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 7 ‘Tragic Community’. The extract below is from the last two paragraphs of the section on ‘Modern democracy’, which look at Kierkegaard’s account of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and the first two chapters of the concluding section ‘The return of antique tragedy’. The themes here the relation between Christian individuaity and democracy, antique city politics and fear of the individual who stones outside or in tension with the public sphere.  Kierkegaard’s writing on these themes is full of tension between admiration for ancient republican spirit and the apolitical foundation he finds in a Christian orientation towards the absolute within the individual and in God. Kierkegaard’s own writing style and focus on aesthetic references is a result of or reinforcement of those tensions.


Thinking about Kierkegaard’s political assumptions, the relation of the Don and his servant Leporello itself has elements of democracy challenging aristocracy. Kierkegaard puts this in the context of  the way that the Middle Ages places before its own consciousness an individual as representative of ‘the idea’ (a general idea, a general type), and then places another individual alongside him in relation to him. The relation is usually comical and is one in which one individual makes up for the other’s extreme qualities. These couples include: the king and the fool, Faust and Wagner, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Don Juan and Leporello. The story of Don Giovani comes from the Medieval Spanish story of Don Juan. The duality, particularly that between the Don and Loporello, is something that emerges in the Middle Ages, in Kierkegaard’s analysis, as the conflict between the flesh and the spirit within Christianity becomes a subject of reflection.  That is why Medieval culture created personified forms of both forces, according to Kierkegaard. In this duality, kingship and aristocracy are challenged by the people, by a representative of the democratic mass. Though the point of the dualities is partly to mock the less aristocratic one, the democratic voice gets its own heroism. The strongest example is the role of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote.

Kierkegaard’s implicit account of the transition between the aristocratic and the democratic, is one which prefers the democratic to the aristocratic , but also sees them as belonging with each other, as incomplete without the other. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for constitutional revolution in Kierkegaard, the democratic age has a structurally superior position, because that is the political equivalent to the spiritual meaning of Christianity.  The polis appears in Kierkegaard as appealing to the people as a whole in its foundation, and the universality of Christianity is emphasised  particularly with regard to love. The equalisation of humans as separate from God, spills over into political thought, even if Christianity has often been part of power, and even of the subordination of humans in unfree labour.  Christianity adds universality to the polis, but also at the same time weakens the passionate focus of the polis on itself. Once that focus is lost, democracy cannot be connected with the complete social, legal, cultural, institutional, and religious identity at its origin.  That loss is tied up with the advance of Christianity, and the suggestion that the individual person finds itself at a universal and abstract level. God replaces the polis.  Moments of repetition unify the individualism of Christian modernity with the intense republicanism of the polis..

There is an implicit reference to political repetition in Two Ages, and that is dependent on the loss of the Greek polis with with its sense of individual embedment in strong communities of family, state, and pagan religion. It is significant that in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard refers to the crime of lack of civic duty in Athens, using the Ancient Greek word, άπραγμοσύνε, which confirms that Kierkegaard regards Christianity as what belongs to a world, or shapes a world, in which the ancient sense of belonging to the political community has disappeared.

It is significant that in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard refers to the crime of lack of civic duty in Athens, using the Ancient Greek word, άπραγμοσύνε. To some degree, Kierkegaard suggests that Christianity belongs to a world, or shapes a world, in which the ancient sense of belonging to the political community has disappeared. The context in Philosophical Fragments is that Kierkegaard, using the pseudonym of Johannes Climacus writes a preface which suggests that the text is a very minor contribution to the discussions of the time.  Kierkegaard/Climacus compares himself with Diogenes (of Sinop presumably), according to a story in which while the citizens of Corinth prepare for an attack by Philip of Macedon, Diogenes moves the tub around, in which he lived so as to avoid being the only lazy person in the city. In this case Kierkegaard undermines the importance of what he writes by suggesting that it is just a gesture so that he can seem to participate in the great discussions on the time, while setting up a discussion about the limits of communication and understanding, with regard to the paradoxes which appear in fully developed philosophy, and which are necessary to Christianity, in Kierkegaard’s view. The irony is such that Kierkegaard is claiming that the text is superior to discussions of his time. So the crime of άπραγμοσύνε is committed more in a claim to superiority than in a withdrawal from the public duties of citizenship.  That suggests another way of understanding Kierkegaard’s attitude to the political part of ethics.




Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VI

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 6 ‘Ethics and Legal Community’.

After a regrettably long  break I’m back. A combination of travel in England, preparing a presentation on Nietzsche and virtue theory (a topic I’ve been interested in for some time, but I wanted to do some new work and thinking for the paper)  urgent work on preparing a co-edited book on Nietzsche and politics (more news when it is published later this year), working on proposals for new publication projects, and getting three courses started which are largely new in content (should feed into writing, including blogging, over time but start up demands on time and energy are considerable), knocked me out. I’m still busy enough, but I think I can get back to regular blogging now.  

Today’s extract focuses on William in Either/Or, also known as Judge or Assessor William. His letters in Either/Or I to an unidentified friend, who might be the author of Either/Or I, or The Diary of a Seducer, which concludes Either/Or I. All figures created by Kierkegaard within his philosophical fiction of course, all featuring within the pseudonyms and philosophical fictions he created over his career.  The total effect of which, at least to my way of thinking, is to create a body of work where all individual works are literary explorations of a fictional author, whether or not the works are ‘signed’ by Kierkegaard or a pseudonym, and in which we can never say for sure what is part of a fictional point of view and what is Kierkegaard’s own argument. Even the most ‘religious’ signed texts use rhetorical strategies and an implied authorial point of  view which is never absolutely the same as that of ‘Kierkegaard’. The issues raised in the extract below are round William’s attempts to integrated law, politics, friendship, and Christianity in harmony that is not possible for Kierkegaard, as we must accept the absoluteness of religion in relation to the others, as sovereign over  though without ever subsuming them into itself, without certainty ever emerging about what religions requires in other sprees except a willingness to see that they are relative in relation to God the Absolute. The extract is from the end of the section ‘The Judge and his Friend’.


William’s letters deal both with: friendship, the friendship for the man to whom the letters are addressed; and with love, the love between him and his wife. Both stand in contrast to Christian love, as explored by Kierkegaard in Works of Love [Kjerlighedens Gjerninger, 1847], which is love of the neighbour, that is love for all.  William’s understanding of marital love argues for its compatibility with romantic love, and that marital love over time is the only way that love can be properly understood as opposed to the romantic attitude of the Young Man. There is a political dimension in some of this, in that Nero (184-188/II 167-171) appears in the second letter, along with a mention of Caligula as an example of the individual who cannot deal with love, as a relation of equality, and has an aesthetic attitude. Nero is one of the more standard examples of tyranny from antiquity, and was the oppressor of the philosopher Seneca who was forced to commit suicide due to Nero’s paranoid anger. Seneca is only second to Socrates as the example of the philosopher martyred to political power. The Nero reference in Either/Or II connects back to a brief reference in Either/Or I  to Pelagianism (137/I 211) in the section on Scribe’s play The First Love. The point is that the aesthete is an autocrat in the same way that a Pelagian believes that the human individual can command grace. Pelagius was the antagonist of Augustine who argued that grace comes from individual human will, as well as the will of God. Kierkegaard develops the view that the tyrant is unable to understand grace from God, and therefore Christian love, because he is unable to accept anything above his own will. In this instance at least, Kierkegaard is implicitly a critic of absolute monarchy, as worse than the more republican understanding of the role of the state leader. This is the sense in which Plato and Seneca were republicans, and both influenced early modern republicanism, because they believed that the monarch must be restrained by law and morality above his will.

As we have seen, friendship is a part of antique republicanism, and of some republican influenced early modern thinking like that of Montaigne in relation to Etienne de la Boétie, the author of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude). Montaigne is monarchist on the more explicit level, but implicitly republican in his attitude to the defects of the French monarchy and its laws, and to the absolute requirements of friendship, even against the state (Fontana 2008). In Either/Or II, William’s attitude to friendship is remote from a political role, but is suggestive of a modern civil society where there are remnants of antique republican virtues.

William is educated and sincere, but he is not an imaginative or deep thinker, and there is a lot implied by his thoughts which his thoughts cannot incorporate. Friendship, martial love, modern civil society, and Christian love are not compatible to the degree that he assumes. He refers to the necessity of choice of the aut/aut (either/or), when addressing the young man, but he does not see all aspects of choice.  He tells the young man to choose the ethical over the aesthetic, in a way that assumes that Christianity will be adequately captured in the process. His understanding of depth of love over time, does not extend to repetition, that is the topic explored in Repetition [Gjentagelsen, 1843] and Concluding Unscientific Postscript [Afflutende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift, 1846] .  William thinks that the individual should accept universality, should find a station or duty, a very Fichtean view, and should accept the duty to marry. All of these conflict with Kierkegaard’s view of the relation between individual and social goals.  William criticises the mystic for separating himself from society, and while Kierkegaard was no mystic, the ways in which William criticises the mystic cannot be his own view, since it is clear that Kierkegaard thinks we should be ready to separate ourselves from social bonds and worldly concerns, and that a fully believing Christian is someone who at least makes some gesture in that direction. William criticises Aristotle for putting the state at the highest level, but his ‘letters‘ do accept the idea that the individual is defined by rules which ultimately refer to the state. Marriage, which William thinks is a universal duty, is defined by civil laws even where religious ceremonies are standard, and William himself is one of judges who interprets civil laws, that is those laws which originate in the state.
Civil law is an impersonal relation apparently distant from love. Kierkegaard demonstrates intriguing ambiguity about this though, when he has William act as the voice of law and of Christian ethics in Either/Or.  Kierkegaard leaves a lot to the reader to decide. There is no clear message from Kierkegaard about whether William is a adequate and apt defender of Christian love. We do not have the voice of his wife to explain how she experiences their marriage. The overall effect of the Judge’s letters is to suggest someone who understands Christianity in the abstract, but now how to make it alive, how to live it from moment to moment. He is certainly not concerned with challenging law, and the authority of the courts, from the point of view of love, and faith. It is true that Kierkegaard would also surely wish to recognise that law is part of the highest ends of the social individual and that views about law and laws, about how it can serve the highest ends, will lead to some encounter with the state and with politics, but as we have seen Kierkegaard finds conflict between these elements.

Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book V

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 4 ‘Kierkegaard and the Danish Political Community’. I’ve selected a passage from the end of the first section ‘Kierkegaard and the Danish Political Community’. These paragraphs join the historical political context in Denmark with an outline of republican and liberal views regarding political institutions, contract, evolution, and liberty. The suggestion is that Kierkegaard brings together a kind of skeptical conservatism towards change with the same attitude towards original contracts, combining some slightly utopian tendencies about the possibilities of politics with awareness of the constant need to adjust imperfect political institutions.  I haven’t included full bibliographical information on the texts mentioned, but it’s very easy to get that online from the information provided.


There were reformist and reactionary periods in the progress towards democracy, and its institutionalisation, in Kierkegaard’s lifetime and later. Frederik VI who started off as a reformer was later seen as a reactionary, his successor Christian VIII recognised the principle of constitutional monarchy, but procrastinated through the whole of his reign in the application of that principle. Nevertheless, the time of Frederik VI and Christian VIII saw the abolition of serfdom, a land reform program which led to Denmark becoming the European country with the broadest distribution of land ownership, erosion of economic monopolies, regional representative assemblies, and other measures to establish equal rights of citizens.

We can see the successful development of liberal democracy and a culture of civic values, which Kierkegaard did not eulogise, but when he did refer to it, he did so in terms of a cautious welcome, as we see in ‘Armed Neutrality’ [Den væbnede Neutralitat, 1849]:

[M]y view is that the essentially Christian, unchanged, at times may need by way of new modifications to secure itself against the new, the new nonsense that is now in vogue. Let me clarify this relation by reference to another circumstance. In the far, far distant past, in times more simple than these, it was of course also the custom to draw up legal documents, contracts, etc. But if we take such a contract from olden times and compare it with a contract of the same kind from 1848, we certainly find the latter considerably modified. We must not, however, be in a hurry to say that this one is therefore better than the former, ironically it might turn out that it is still a question whether it would not have been better that all these modifications have become necessary. But since those simple times there have been so many rogues and swindlers that modifications have become necessary.

(Kierkegaard 1998b, 131-132/X B107 291)

This is the most minimal and indirect possible endorsement of a liberal constitution.  Kierkegaard does not even refer to the 1849 constitution in this text finished on the nineteenth of May 1849 (Kierkegaard 1998b, xxv), just before the constitution was signed by the King on the fifth of June.  Frederick VII conceded that the monarchy would become limited by a constitution in February 1848, and the  1849 constitution was the results of the deliberations of a constitutional assembly appointed afterwards. Maybe it is mere coincidence that Kierkegaard wrote about contracts days before the Constitution came into force, but it is a particularly propitious coincidence if so. The idea that the state and its laws is based on contract goes back to Hobbes, who was referring to a covenant to establish the sovereign, itself following up on Grotius, and we can keep going back in the history of philosophy and political thought to find precedents. We can take from this passage in Kierkegaard, the idea that political contracts have to be revised to adapt to the imperfect nature of humans. The first contract may have been the best one, but it had to be surpassed to adapt to deceptive and dishonest behaviour. Change is inevitable and law, therefore presumably constitutions, both become better and worse over time. Better because more resistant to dishonest, but worse because lacking in the original simplicity.  Extrapolating further, early constitutions may give power to kings, but their simplicity must later give way to the complexity of a contract, or constitution, designed by representative institutions. Kierkegaard’s liking for original simplicity connects him with both the monarchism of Humboldt and the republicanism of Montesquieu and Rousseau.  As we have already seen, in The Limits of State Action (1993, 39-40), Humboldt states a preference for the simplicity of royal government, the choice of early free people which avoids the multitude of demands for state action which follow from other governmental regimes, as the monarchy clearly only serves in the functions of army commander and chief judge. For  Montesquieu, simple democratic republics in which there is little inequality, and laws are indistinguishable from customs, have an elevated role, though that is certainly not the end of his discussion of liberty (The Spirit of the Laws, Part 1). For Rousseau, the ideal republic will be simple, poor and equal, and laws will be accepted as part of customs (Social Contract, II.12). Rousseau accepts that modern states are mostly larger in territory, and more complex in function. Hume had argued that the original contract completely disappears in history, so we are constrained by general respect for laws and political institutions and the recognition that they are generally beneficial (‘Of the Original Contract’ in Hume 1987). Applying Kierkegaard’s argument in context, we can say that political systems which have more laws and more representation are worse than pure kingship, but necessary as more functional in the face of human limitations

Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book IV

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 3 ‘Previous Perspectives on Kierkegaard and Politics’ There are some difficulties in selecting a passage from a chapter concerned with a large number of commentators on Kierkegaard, which does not lend itself to extracts which read well on their own.  The passage below stands up reasonably as self-contained writing not too dominated by an argument with the commentators concerned. I haven’t included full bibliographical information on the texts mentioned, but it’s very easy to get that online from the information provided.  Themes covered include pre-political and anti-political attitudes, Antique republicanism, Hegel, liberalism and conservatism.

A big issue in thinking about Kierkegaard on politics is his attitude to democratic tendencies of his own time, particularly with regard to the 1848 constitutional revolution in Denmark. Too many commentators on Kierkegaard mistake scepticism and reserve about democracy for rejection, as in Jon Stewart’s preface to Kierkegaard’s Influence on Social-Political Thought (Stewart 2011). It is true that the default assumption about Kierkegaard’s political attitudes has been that he was both apolitical and conservative, and this is broadly correct, going back to his student days (Kierkegaard 1990, 34). There are reasons to qualify that claim though. The harshness of Kierkegaard’s conservatism has been exaggerated, and the liberal side understated. That is we should see Kierkegaard more as a liberal or at least a constitutional conservative, and less as a reactionary ultra-conservative monarchist absolutist. The apolitical side should not be confused with the claim that Kierkegaard’s writings have nothing important to say about politics. The apolitical way of reading Kierkegaard is most obviously linked with a conservative reading, but has also been linked with a moralistic anti-political leftism, which shows how difficult it is to stop talking about politics in Kierkegaard. What is being argued for here is a contextualisation of apolitical and conservative Kierkegaard, looking at how there are political implications in his work, how they are on the liberal side of  conservatism, or even radical liberal, and arguing that he makes significant contributions to political thought in those directions.

There are some political interpretations which capture some aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought, even if they go to far in attributing reactionary conservatism of Kierkegaard, and which do contain evidence for political richness of his work. A good example of the very conservative, even reactionary, reading of Kierkegaard can be found in Robert Perkins’ ‘Kierkegaard’s Critique of the Bourgeois State’ (1984). Some similar points are made in Bruce Kirmmse’s ‘Kierkegaard and MacIntyre’ (in Davenport and Rudd, 2001). Perkins quotes from Two Ages [En Literair Anmeldelse, 1846], and elsewhere to establish, correctly to some degree, Kierkegaard’s criticism of bourgeois liberalism. What Perkins focuses on is a lack of absolute foundations to bourgeois politics, though that that is also a positive claim from the point of view of the liberal, who is trying to define the political rules of a society where there are different values.

This fits with a correct appreciation of the tension between the pluralist goal of liberalism and the need to have a starting point, which is supplied by utilitarianism, deliberative reflection on norms, natural law, or something which is presented as pre-political, as far as that is possible. However, recognising that is not the same as the rejection of liberalism, since we could consider such efforts of liberal thinkers as the best that come be done in a world of plural values. Certainly attempts at radical alternatives from the authoritarian right, Marxist left, and allied phenomena have tended to be folded back into liberalism, in a general tendency for political thought in all traditions to be pulled towards liberalism. Going back to Perkins’ argument, he does not explain what Kierkegaard’s alternative to liberalism is, nor does he he provide any evidence of a longing  on the part of Kierkegaard for a lost paradise of monarchical absolutism. Perkins thinks of Kierkegaard as thinking in a Hegelian way about the inevitability of the unfolding of new political forms over history, which surely does not lead inevitably to a reactionary form of conservatism, as Perkins recognises. Hegel’s views were certainly not reactionary conservative by the standards of the Prussia of his time. Perkins interprets Hegel as mourning the loss of Periclean Athens, which has some truth to it, but then every moment in Hegel’s arguments about history and politics is a loss of some unity, never to be regained. Clearly Hegel thinks Periclean Athens lacks advantages which result from Roman law, Christianity, Protestant Christianity, civil society and other outcomes of the movement of history since the time of Pericles.  As Perkins notes, Kierkegaard was displeased by the fate of Socrates under Athenian democracy, but then so are all modern liberals.  Anyway, like Hegel, Kierkegaard sees that modern liberalism has some origins in Christianity, and his own views of subjectivity and individuality cannot be understood without the model of liberalism, however much Kierkegaard may sometimes write as if he is just returning to the Bible. In addition, the fact is he does not always write like that.  Perkins tries to draw too sharp a distinction between: a Hegelian position, which he defines in terms which are both progressivistic and nostalgic; and a Kierkegaardian position, which he defines as a religious scepticism about political community. While it is right to say that Kierkegaard had more an individualistic-religious scepticism about political communities than Hegel, there is much common ground in accepting that the progress of liberty is apparent in history, as well as seeing antique polities as allowing a kind of connectedness between individual and political community lost in the modern world.