There’s been a real need for a biography on Kierkegaard that would be both accessible and enjoyable to a broad audience. In so many respects, Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life fills this lacuna.
A Window in Denmark: Approaching Kierkegaard
Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan, 2016)
What Backhouse does so successfully is provide readers with a window into Kierkegaard’s life in Denmark; he draws us into Kierkegaard’s world and enables us to walk with him as though we were his contemporaries. We are given the chance to see him as a school friend (chap. 2), a family member (chap. 3), a companion (chap. 5), a writer (chap. 6), an intellectual (passim), as well as a source of difficulty and a source of complexity. And, as the reader is given the opportunity to connect with Kierkegaard in these ways, it will be hard for them not to be compelled by this acquaintance.
There is a lot more time and energy that goes into writing a book like this than is made obvious from the pages of the book. Backhouse’s humility should thus not go unrecognised, however discrete it may be. Undergirding this book is a sophisticated writer who has spent countless hours researching many details of Kierkegaard’s life that never made it onto the pages of this book, but which contribute in crucial ways to the nuance and accuracy of its portrait. Backhouse expresses no anxiety to burden readers with every detail he has uncovered but, instead, gives the reader the space to develop a clear vision of who Kierkegaard was.
For these reasons, Kierkegaard: A Single Life will be a book that I will readily recommend to new students of Kierkegaard. At the same time, when I do so, I will need to make a qualification. For me, there is something missing in this book that I had hoped to see. My reason for saying this may speak more to the book that I would have written, but it is nonetheless a flag I want to raise.
A More Approachable Kierkegaard?
While Backhouse has some very enthusiastic things to say about Kierkegaard, he does not always present the most positive image of him. As William Cavanaugh notes in his endorsement on the back of the book: ‘This is an extraordinarily likeable book about a not-very-likeable, though fascinating figure.’ To be fair, this statement is balanced by Rowans Williams’ endorsement, who writes: ‘A wonderfully lively and sympathetic portrait of one of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century, sparing us nothing of Kierkegaard’s abrasive, contrarian personality, but also illuminating the extraordinary courage and spiritual depth of the man.’ However, I’m not sure that this book is as sympathetic and charitable to Kierkegaard as it could have been. I also would have liked to have seen it do more to illuminate ‘the extraordinary courage and spiritual depth of the man’. In some respects, Backhouse makes Kierkegaard more approachable, which is clearly his intention; but, in other respects, he makes him less so. My slight fear is that this book may make Kierkegaard less approachable to some readers.
So, in what way would I have liked to have seen this book developed (given the biases of my own reading of Kierkegaard)?
I would like to have seen Backhouse wrestle a bit more with mind of Kierkegaard—wrestle a bit more with the reasons for why Kierkegaard was the way he was. Upon reading this book, I was again reminded of how different Kierkegaard’s public persona was from his authorial persona. Upon reading this book, I was again reminded of how different Kierkegaard’s public persona was from his authorial persona.There are, of course, clear continuities between the two; Kierkegaard the writer was not always a warm figure, particularly in some of his later works. Yet, it is much easier to be sympathetic with the latter Kierkegaard. Through his writings, we’re given insight into the mind of someone who believed that Christian discipleship requires a person to take up their cross and follow Jesus Christ, at all costs. And this theological vision was a major factor in shaping his life journey.
It may be that there were problems with Kierkegaard’s theology (a point that Kierkegaard would not have doubted). It may also be that there were ways in which he was too self-involved. Further, I think it is true that his renegade ways became so habitual to him that he was blinded to some of the good things that were happening in the Church in Denmark. However, what is clear from his writings is that he walked his lonely road out of an utter commitment to following Christ. It was this that led him to carry burdens that he would have preferred not to have borne. By recognizing this, it is much easier for the reader of Kierkegaard to sympathize with some of his more negative features.
A Singular Life
This point is not only important for coming to terms with Kierkegaard’s theology but also his biography. Why is this?
Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postcript (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013)
In his spiritual autobiography, The Point of View for My Work as an Author, Kierkegaard describes Concluding Unscientific Postscript as the decisive turning point in his authorship, because it is here that he posed the question that was most critical to him: what does it mean to become a Christian? When we read Postscript, we find that the critical turn in this volume, as it defines the Christian life, is a turn to emphasising the decisiveness of the reality of God in time (Jesus Christ). So, following Postscript, in the second period of Kierkegaard’s authorship, we find a Christocentric theology that is not only critical to the development of his theology but also critical to his existential journey—there are few thinkers whose theological development is more tied up with their existential journey than is the case with Kierkegaard.
In short, my slight concern is that Kierkegaard: A Single Life slightly elevates Kierkegaard’s singleness over the singularity of his commitment to following Christ. Personally, I would want this emphasis to be the other way around. I would want to say that Kierkegaard’s single life was not only secondary to his life as a follower of Christ, but it was also a consequence of this singular commitment. As such, I think it is hard to make sense of Kierkegaard’s single life without due attention to his commitment to following Christ. (I should add that there is reason to think that Backhouse would agree with me on this point: see 33 and 207.)
That said, that is a matter of my own opinion. And, to be fair to Backhouse, contemporary Kierkegaard scholarship is generally going to be much more sympathetic with the view that solitude was more fundamental to Kierkegaard’s identity than his commitment to following Christ. So, Backhouse’s biographical assessment of Kierkegaard’s life is going to resonate much more with current trends in the world of Kierkegaard studies, than my own assessment.
Let me finish by saying that, while my recommendation of Kierkegaard: A Single Life may come with qualification, it will not come with hesitation. This is a brilliant book that will serve a critical role in making Kierkegaard much more accessible to the world outside of Kierkegaard studies.