Kierkegaard and Justinian’s Pope: Reading The Concept of Anxiety I

Kierkegaard’s pseudonym for this book is Vigilius Haufnensis. As Albert B. Anderson’s scholarly apparatus for the Princeton University Press edition (the only English edition in print) points out, this means watchman in Copenhagen, in Latin. There are significant additional aspects of this name. Vigilius looks like a reference to Pope Vigilius who had the office from 537 to 555. Vigilius comes from the Latin ‘vigila’, wakefulness, which is evidently the origin of such English words as vigil and vigilant. ‘Vigilia’ also refers to the night watchman and it is this which Anderson takes as the most important reference for Kierkegaard’s pseudonym. Haufnensis comes from ‘hafnia’, the Latin for harbour, and Hafnia is the Latin for Copenhagen. Copenhagen is København in modern Danish, originating in Køpmannæhafn, merchant’s harbour. Hafnia is the Latinised form of hafn. The name sets up a quite intricate relation between the modern Danish and ancient Roman worlds, through the apparent reference to the late antique Pope. Kierkegaard does not refer to this pope directly, but it is highly unlikely that he was unaware of him and that the reference is just an accident. That is a general rule for thinking about apparently accidental references in Kierkegaard, and in this case it is confirmed by the Preface, where ‘Haufnensis’ says


I am as devout in my belief in authority as the Roman was tolerant in his worship of God. When it comes to human authority, I am a fetish worshipper and will worship anyone with equal piety, but with one proviso, that it will be made sufficiently clear by a beating of drums that he is the one I must worship and that he is the authority and Imprimatur for the current year’(page 8).


Kierkegaard’s method is indirect, as you would expect, but clear enough if we piece together the references. He directs our attention to the Roman world, through what loos like a reference to the pre-Christian era of tolerance for different forms of Paganism. There is then the reference to Imprimatur, which does lead us to the original meaning of the word, which is the authority to publish a book given by a Catholic bishop. There seems to be a sardonic reference to Catholic restrictions on freedom of publication and reading here, whether with regard to influence on state power, or the Church’s internal restrictions on what believers should read. It is well known that Kierkegaard was a critic of the state church in Denmark, and came into conflict with its bishops including his own brother, so we can see a reference to Kierkegaard’s own life, and Denmark of his time.


Vigilius was Pope in the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (often thought of as the transitional Emperor in the movement from eastern Roman Empire to a new Hellenic Empire, retrospectively labelled as Byzantine). This precedes the decisive split between the church in the east and in the west (the Orthodox-Catholic split) by some centuries. Justinian had reconquered parts of Italy for the ‘Romans’ by the time of Vigilius, and Rome was occupied by his most famous general Belisarius when Vigilius was abruptly called to Constantinople. This was because of debates about church doctrine which are not obviously relevant to Kierkegaard’s thoughts. The relevant point seems to be that Vigilius ended up compromising with the Emperor after a Synod and a period of imprisonment. He was allowed to go back to Rome at this point, but died on the way, in Sicily. Vigilius is open to the charge of sacrificing doctrinal conviction to compromise with power, reflecting Kierkegaard’s own dislike of Danish bishops he thought were too comfortable with the life of a prince of the church. The reference in that passage to the Imprimatur, looks like an allusion to Imperator, the word from which Emperor is derived. Imperator was a title given to the people we now know as Roman Emperors, though they also used various other titles.


That leaves the question of why Kierkegaard wished to use such a pseudonym. The reference to a watchman in Copenhagen seems clear enough as a positive reference to Kierkegaard the critical observant thinker, and the latinism reflects Kierkegaard’s ow high level of education in classical languages and philology. The Pope Vigilius reference is ambiguous in that though Vigilius seemed to bow to the authority of Justinian, he resisted for a long time, and it is possible that issues of church unity were just as important for Vigilius as fitting in with authority, and explains his actions. It is hard to say what he symbolises, but his name invokes a time of state pressures on popes of a very complex kind, since they also had to deal with the post-Roman Germanic rulers of most of Italy, as well as with the Emperor in Constantinople. Vigilius’ exile and death while still journeying back to Rome may appeal to Kierkegaard’s sense of being an exile from his own community, and from the city of Copenhagen, for which he often invokes a deep affection and sense of connection, if tinged with his constant scepticism.


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