Kierkegaard in seven quotations, Part I: Making things difficult

May 5 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of the enigmatic Danish author Søren Kierkegaard. In honor of the anniversary, each day this week I will post a long quotation from his work and a brief reflection on it. If you have never read Kierkegaard, then these postings can be an introduction to his writing; maybe you will be inspired to pick up and read a volume. If you know Kierkegaard well, then you may appreciate reading the quotations once again. These are not necessarily the best or most important quotations, or the ones that, together, best sum up everything he tried to accomplish as a writer. (We should note that Kierkegaard accomplished little in his life except as a writer.) They are instead quotations that I think are especially beautiful, or puzzling, or challenging, and that cover something of his intellectual range.

First is a passage about deciding to become a writer. The episode is almost certainly fictional; although Kierkegaard cultivated the image of a gentleman of leisure, he worked almost constantly, producing a massive quantity of writings in a 15-year career. Kierkegaard includes the scene in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, published in 1846. The Postscript was written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, who reports on an afternoon’s reverie in Copenhagen’s Fredriksberg Gardens:

So there I sat and smoked my cigar until I drifted into thought. Among other thoughts, I recall these. You are getting on in years, I said to myself, and are becoming an old man without being anything and without actually undertaking anything. On the other hand, wherever you look in literature or in life, you see the names and figures of celebrities, the prized and highly acclaimed people, prominent or much discussed, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier, some by railroads, others by omnibuses and steamships, others by telegraph, others by easily understood surveys and brief publications about everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought systematically make spiritual existence easier and easier and yet more and more meaningful—and what are you doing?

So only one lack remains [in our time], even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty. Out of love of humankind, out of despair over my awkward predicament of having achieved nothing and of being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, out of genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I comprehended that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere.

And so Climacus embarked on his writing career, aiming to interrupt his readers’ easy certainties and their confidence that everything is getting better all the time. Climacus even thinks that the people who specialize in making things easy should be grateful to him: he keeps them hard at work overcoming the new difficulties he will impose.

One recurring theme in Kierkegaard’s work is that no matter how much we learn or invent, no matter how much we “improve” physical or intellectual or spiritual life, each one of us always remains just as far away from what really matters. The railroad and telegraph can shrink the distance between Copenhagen and Berlin, but you remain every bit as alienated from yourself and God. If not more.