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


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