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.





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