How to Behave
The final diaries of Søren Kierkegaard occupy themselves primarily with an extended discussion of faith. Søren viewed most things through the lens of Christ, usually disdaining the paltry efforts of organized religion to represent the god he felt inside of him. Over his lifetime, he composed over 7,000 pages of journals on this and various other topics. His extended thoughts on his own belief may interest believers and non-believers alike, but he was much pithier and less sacrosanct about other aspects of his life.
A serious misogynist, Kierkegaard had largely abandoned relationships with women near the end of his life. It had gone wrong once, and he refused to let it happen again. The highly edited extracts below from his last years on earth display modesty as a form of arrogance, ascended to highest ideal.
It is commonly thought that it is cowardice to flee from the world and enter a monastery.
Now perhaps it is sometimes the case that such a man doubts whether he can endure the bestial laughter and ridicule, the persecution and maltreatment which may result from his having to express the ‘spirit’ in the midst of animal creatures.
But the matter can be regarded from another side. Such a man flees because he does not have the heart to upset the others, of whom he knows very well that he will never entirely win them to his view, and so he will only be a torment to them. Would you not much prefer to be rid of a man who speaks only of one thing, of dying, of dying to the world?
My task is so new that in Christianity’s eighteen hundred years there is literally not one from whom I can learn how to behave.
When I die, there will be something for the professors! These wretched rascals! And it does not help, it does not help in the least, even if it is printed and read over again. The professors will still make a profit of me, and they will lecture away, perhaps with the additional remark that the peculiarity of this man is that he cannot be lectured about.
If I were a father and had a daughter who was seduced, I should by no means give her up; but if I had a son who became a journalist I should regard him as lost.
Evil is always more horrible the longer it lasts. Cannibals kill a man and eat him – and that is that. It lasts only a short time and when it is over, there is as it were a hope – till the next time – that the cannibal become a different man, might become better. But the priest and the professor make their preparations (with cold calculation) once for all to live on the sufferings of those saints. They get married on the strength of them, they beget children, they organize an idyllic and thoroughly enjoyable life. They live on the torment of the saints.
Is moral philosophy not, like astrology and alchemy, a science which has to do with something which does not exist?
Everyone who has a little experience knows at heart that this is a rotten world. But just as it is the done thing in a prison to keep a stiff upper lip, as it is also regarded as the cleverest thing to do, and to pretend one is having a good time, and as it is in consequence the custom in prisons to tease and torment the man who lets it be seen he is suffering, so with the whole world or with mankind in the world. In general, anyone who wants to understand human life as the whole would do best to study the criminal world – this is the really reliable analogy.
Surely not even my bitterest enemy would deny that I shall acquire a certain renown. But I am beginning to wonder whether I will not become renowned in a quite different sphere than I have hitherto imagined – namely, as a naturalist. For I have discovered, or at least made a very significant contribution to the natural history of parasites, I mean priests and professors, those voracious and prolific parasites, who even have the effrontery (unlike other parasites) to try and pass themselves off as the friends and disciples of those whose sufferings they live on.
What a woman is most afraid of, where she feels that her being and her power are annihilated, is when she has risked the utmost in seduction, and it ends with the laughter of her opponent. And strangely enough, wherever they get it from – presumably from instinct – women seem to suspect that so far as I am concerned, just when they make the greatest efforts I would burst out laughing – and no woman will risk this at any price.
Alas, there is some truth in this, that it could end with my bursting out laughing. But the reason is neither my great virtue nor my great spirituality but – my melancholy.
The daily press is properly calculated to make personality impossible. For it has the effect of an immense abstraction, the generation, which has infinite power over the single person. It is a means which was unknown in former times. For in former times the battle between a personality and the abstract was not so immensely disproportionate as now, when an individual who is impersonal and scoundrelly can use this fearful weapon against the single person.
Most men do not have enough self-esteem to be able to assert themselves in the face of other men, so their self-esteem demands that they have some people who obey them absolutely, whom they have entirely in their power, so that they also feel that they are the man and the master. These people are children. God pity what takes place in family life! What brutality and what egoism are hidden there. Is is unfortunately only too certain that the parents usually need more upbringing than the children.
When his mother is cursing him, Richard III, in order not to hear her curses, turns to the drummers and says, “Strike up the drum.” Is it not so with us all? There is something in us we do not want to hear.
Paintings by Richard Aldrich.