The Difficulty with Our Time

Drawing of Søren Kierkegaard by N.C. Kierkegaard, c.1840
Royal Danish Library

Known to many as the “father of existentialism,” Søren Kierkegaard was a pivotal Danish philosopher, theologian, and cultural critic of the 19th century. His extensive published writings grappled with complex themes including ethics, religion, and the intricate facets of individuality, leaving an indelible mark in the annals of philosophical thought. But to fully comprehend Kierkegaard and his deeply seated convictions, one must look towards his abundant notebooks and journals—works that stand as a testament to his extraordinary intellectual output and chart the evolution of his thoughts and existential reflections. The following entry, made on June 4th, 1852, offers a glimpse into his worldview at the age of 39, just three short years before his life was tragically cut short.

The Diary Entry

[4th June 1852]

The Difficulty with Our Time.

That on the other side of “understanding” lies enthusiasm, this is what has to be fought toward.

But alas, for someone who would stir up this enthusiasm―in our time there is no thought of anything connected with it. Everywhere, only these unseasoned and therefore cynical individualities, who when quite young may have had an Anflug [‘hint’] of enthusiasm but have become sensible at just about that same young age. These individuals are now so far from letting themselves be carried away that, on the contrary, they instantly display envious opposition and, instead of taking part, think they should adopt an “observing” attitude in relation to the enthusiast, nourishing the hope that it will end, after all, either with him, too, becoming sensible, or else his coming to grief.

Have you seen a ship aground in a quagmire (e.g., on the rivers): it is almost impossible to get it afloat again, because it is impossible to put down piles; no pile can reach ground solid enough for it to be relied on. The whole race is similarly in the quagmire of the understanding; and there is no sorrow on that account: no, self-satisfaction and conceit, which always follow the understanding, and the understanding’s sin. Oh, sins of the heart and of the passions, how much nearer salvation you are than the sin of the understanding.

Further Reading

Over the course of thirteen years, beginning in 2007, Princeton University Press published an eleven-volume set of Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks, edited and translated by a collection of leading experts. I won’t pretend to have read them all, but the parts I’ve found time to absorb have somehow managed to simultaneously broaden my mind and leave me feeling quite stupid. A curious, fascinating experience.

Entry excerpted from Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks – Volume 9 (NB26–30). Edited by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Alastair Hannay, Bruce H. Kirmmse, David D. Possen, Joel D. S. Rasmussen, and Vanessa Rumble. Published by Princeton University Press in co-operation with the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre Copenhagen. Reprinted with permission.

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