Part I: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task

A guest post by Eric Lee, Doctoral Student of Theology, University of Nottingham

A warm thanks to Cynthia for inviting me to write a series of guest posts on Søren Kierkegaard. It is a welcome opportunity to serve as a kind of ‘midwife’[1] to a Kierkegaardian text that usually does not receive very much attention.[2] I want to blog through a piece entitled “My Task” which was the last piece of writing that Kierkegaard intended to publish in the series of writings known as The Moment. I will have two posts which work through the piece itself and then a final, third post which will attempt to show how these insights can be reflected back on Kierkegaard’s prior authorship in its pseudonymous guises.

While many familiar with Kierkegaard will know the phrase “the moment” (Øieblikket in old Danish, augenblick in German)[3] from his Philosophical Fragments[4] to define that moment of decision at which something absolutely new enters the picture such that it changes everything for the reception of a moment of transformation-Kierkegaard’s series by the same name of The Moment[5] signify a collection of writings in newspaper article and pamphlet form that intended to be a kind of ‘attack’ upon the Christendom of Copenhagen generally.  Specifically, they arose from his feud with Professor Hans Lassen Martensen.[6]

The religious climate of Kierkegaard’s time was such: because everyone was a Christian, baptised a Lutheran at birth, combined with a watered-down Christianity that used Hegelian terms to direct discourse and action (and not, say, the other way around)-the end result is that nobody in Copenhagen is thus a Christian.  Those familiar with Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and Practice in Christianity will be well-versed with Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the paradox of faith-the God-Man of Jesus Christ-and his concommitant bemoaning of the ‘slackening’ of this paradox such that the Christian faith is lived with no difficulty whatsoever. In fact, it is as simple as putting on one’s socks in the morning![7]

In light of this situation, Kierkegaard saw himself as a modern-day Socrates. He spells the form of this comparison in his The Point of View for My Work as an Author,[8] but in “My Task,” Kierkegaard goes into more depth concerning the comparison itself regarding both the person of Socrates as a distant echo of Kierkegaard as well as the culture of Athens and its own Sophistical leanings as an antecedent of Copenhagen’s Christians, especially Copenhagen’s “associate professors.”

To begin, Kierkegaard starts out with the following provocative declaration:

‘I do not call myself a Christian; I do not speak of myself as a Christian.’ It is this that I must continually repeat; anyone who wants to understand my very special task must concentrate on being able to hold this firm.[9]

Kierkegaard’s situation is that his entire culture has declared itself Christian, but in doing so, and in the way in which it has (among other things) forgotten the offense of the Cross,[10] it has put itself into a situation where they have abolished Christianity. So, if this is what Christianity has become, and if these are who the Christians are, then how can Kierkegaard call himself a Christian?[11] It is here where Kierkegaard makes the Socratic comparison, culminating into a paean to Socrates himself!

The only analogy I have before me is Socrates; my task is a Socratic task, to audit the definition of what it is to be a Christian-I do not call myself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), but I can make it manifest that the others are that even less.

You, antiquity’s noble soul, you, the only human being I admiringly acknowledge as a thinker: there is only a little preserved about you, of all people the only true martyr of intellectuality, just as great qua character as qua thinker; but how exceedingly much this little is! Even though over the centuries there have lived in Christendom a few isolated significant thinkers-how I long to be able to speak with you for only a half hour, far away from these battalions of thinkers that ‘Christiendom’ places in the field under the name of Christian thinkers![12]

And in his Journals and Papers, Kierkegaard says:

I have the deepest respect for Luther-but was he a Socrates? No, no, far from that. When I talk purely and simply about man I say: Of all men old Socrates is the greatest-Socrates, the hero and martyr of intellectuality. Only you understood what it is to be a reformer, understood what it meant for you yourself to be that, and were that.[13]

And later on in his Journals, Kierkegaard compares the martyrdom of Socrates to Christ:

Socrates is the only one, is “the martyr” in the eminent sense, the greatest man; whereas Christ is “the truth,” and it would be blasphemous to call him a “martyr.”

Why cannot Christ be called a martyr? Because he was not a witness to truth but was “the truth,” and his death was not martyrdom but the Atonement.[14]

If it was not already apparent through Kierkegaard’s continual use of irony and masks throughout his pseudonymous works-and even though Kierkegaard declares Socrates a “hero” in his Concept of Irony[15] dissertation before beginning his official authorship with Either/Or-Kierkegaard reminds us at the end of his life in The Moment and in his journals of the utmost importance of the person of Socrates for his work.  Socrates is not only the one thinker worth spending time with contra the Christian “thinkers” of his age, but Socrates himself, more than Luther and the Reformers and all their passionate writings (Kierkegaard himself a Lutheran!), is the only true and proper martyr to the intellect. Socrates, more than “a few isolated significant thinkers” in Christendom, is worth mentioning as “great” in both character and thought.

Why is this so? Aside from the fact that most philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries held Socrates in extremely high regard,[16] it seems that Kierkegaard sees in Socrates a kindred spirit who is experiencing similar conflicts with his present age and dealt with these problems in a way most admirably in Kierkegaard’s eyes. In my next post, I will continue working through “My Task” in The Moment and thereby explore these themes further in Kierkegaard’s comparison of Christendom with a kind of Sophistry.


[1] Cf. Plato’s Theaetetus 150b-151d.

[2] There are a few exceptions, notably the recent essay by Paul Muench based on his PhD dissertation, see Paul Muench, “Kierkegaard’s Socratic Point of View,” in A Companion to Socrates (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), pp. 389-405. For his dissertation, see Paul Muench, “Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task” (PhD Dissertation: University of Pittsburgh, 2006). Accessed online, Major studies that tend to overlook these final “moments” are Benjamin Daise, Kierkegaard’s Socratic Art (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000) and Jacob Howland’s otherwise extremely excellent Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[3] Augenblick subsequently had prominent use in Nietzsche’s, Jaspers’, and Heidegger’s philosophies, although it is arguable that Nietzsche only had secondary familiarity with Kierkegaard’s work. On this, see Thomas H. Brobjer,  “Nietzsche’s Knowledge of Kierkegaard,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 40, no. 4 (2002): 251-63.

[4] See Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments / Johannes Climacus, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. Also, for an important new translation of this text, see Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, trans. M. G. Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). I have not read this yet but it looks hopeful!

[5] Previously, these writings were available in a collection entitled Attack Upon “Christendom, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944; 1968).

[6] For an in-depth and impressively exhaustive look at this life-long feud with Martensen (among other local Danish Hegelian targets), see Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[7] See Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 35.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[9] Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 340.

[10] Cf. Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, pp. 69-144

[11] Although he does not argue it here, Kierkegaard makes the case in The Point of View that the whole of his authorship poses the issue of “becoming a Christian” (pp. 55, 78, 93-4). It could thus be argued that the reason Kierkegaard cannot ever call himself a “Christian” is because ultimately he is only ever on the way to becoming one, and is never in a final state of “having arrived,” contra his fellow Danish Hegelians.

[12] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, p. 341, emphasis in original.

[13] Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers 2514, 3.80 (X2 A 559 n.d., 1850).

[14] Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers 2651-2, 3.160 (X.1 A 119-20).

[15] Søren Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 211: “At this point, I trust that two things are apparent-namely, that irony has a world-historical validity and that Socrates is not depreciated by my interpretation of him but really becomes a hero, so that he is seen going about his business, so that he becomes visible to the one who has eyes to see, audible to the one who has ears to hear.” C.f. Matthew 11:15 and Mark 8:18.

[16] One notable exception is Nietzsche, but even this picture is not as straightforward as Walter Kaufmann makes it out to be in his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ, 4th edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974). On this see Werner Dannhauser, Nietzsche’s View of Socrates (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974) and Paul Harrison, The Disenchantment of Reason: The Problem of Socrates in Modernity (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 121-76.

8 thoughts on “Part I: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task”

  1. Hi Eric,

    Thanks again for this series. Do you see SK’s description of Socrates as “the hero and martyr of intellectuality,” as referring also to the fact that the only knowledge Socrates claimed to have was that he didn’t know anything? In other words, is Socrates a “martyr to intellectuality” by showing us via dialogic interaction how little we truly know and how even what we think we know is easily shown to be misguided and even contradictory(or at least so shot through with inconsistencies that we have to “pull back” on our knowledge claims)?

    Best wishes,

  2. Cynthia,

    Excellent questions. I would say that it is in Kierkegaard’s comment that Socrates is “just as great qua character as qua thinker” where Socrates becomes heroic. Kierkegaard uses Socrates in different ways in his writings (which I will highlight in my next post by way of a Mary-Jane Rubenstein article), so by the time of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard as Climacus holds Socrates in such high regard because he is precisely the existential thinker. That is, his deeds match up with his thought in such a unique and distinctive way that he himself becomes a kind of event for all of western philosophy.

    I would say that is why Socrates is ultimately the hero for Kierkegaard, but regarding the element of your question regarding knowledge, I would have to defer to D. C. Schindler’s recent book Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason: On Goodness and Truth in the Republic. There Schindler says that Socrates is not exactly a pure skeptic, nor is he a Sophist who claims to have knowledge. He is somewhere in between the two, and this comes precisely from Schindler’s emphasis on the priority of the Good. Because the Good is the highest thing for Plato (Beauty is equated with the Good, too), it shines a light on all knowledge and reveals it as partial. Thus, Socrates is correct to say that he is ignorant, because, in light of the good his knowledge is only fragmentary; on the other hand though, the Good as absolute in no way abolishes the relative, and so therefore the partiality, the relative itself reflects the Good and participates in it. To put it in other terms, Socrates can know that he is ignorant. He ends up being neither a skeptic (he knows about his ignorance) nor a complete Sophist–he still claims his ignorance, the main difference being that the Sophists do not actually realize their own ignorance.

    Socrates is a martyr because of his existence, which is hopefully explained a bit here (please forgive Kierkegaard on the ‘effeminate’ comment as usual!):

    “Socrates did not first of all try to collect some proofs for the immortality of the soul in order then to live, believing by virtue of the proofs. Just the opposite. He said: The possibility of immortality occupies me to the point that I unconditionally venture to wager my whole life unconditionally upon it, as if it were the surest thing of all. And this is the way he lived–and his life is a proof of the immortality of the soul. He did not first of all believe by virtue of the proofs and then live; no, his life is the proof and not until his martyr-death is the proof complete.–You see, this is spirit. It is a little embarrassing for mimics and all those who live second-hand and tenth-hand lives, those who are result-hunters, and those with cowardly, effeminate natures” (JP I 73 [(X.2 A 406]).

    Kierkegaard follows this up with, “Used with discrimination, this may be applied to becoming a Christian.”

    Hopefully such texts will not be abused by extremists, but this has nothing to do with any kind of fundamentalism. Kierkegaard is singling out at least two kinds of people here: extreme rationalists on the one hand, and as usual, Hegelians on the other with his “result-hunters” comment (for Hegel Spirit [Geist] knows itself as result). So again we can see this come out in this journal entry:

    “No, Socrates is the only person who solved the problem: he took everything, everything, with him to the grave. Marvelous Socrates, you performed a feat which remains eternally just as difficult, if anyone should want to repeat it; you left nothing, nothing, nothing, not even the thinnest thread of a result which a professor could grab onto; no, you took everything along to the grave. This way you kept the highest enthusiasm closed up airtight in the most eminent reflection and sagacity, kept it for eternity–you took everything along. Therefore the professors are disparagingly saying of you now–O, Socrates!–that, after all, you were only a personality, that you did not even have a system” (JP IV 4303 [XI1 A 449 n.d., 1854]).

    One could say that for Kierkegaard, having a “system” could very well be equated with the Sophist presumption to full knowledge. They do not know (or at least do not acknowledge) that they are really ignorant, just as the progenitors of the system, at least as far as Hegel is concerned, actually claim to achieve Absolute Knowledge (e.g. at the end of Phenomenology of Spirit). Schindler talks about Hegel’s Geist as being “greedy”, that is, not allowing for a distinction between being and appearance, but that is perhaps the topic of a post in and of itself which would definitely need some fleshing out.



  3. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your very helpful response (and thanks for the sensitivity regarding SK’s sexist comment; we all have our prejudices, and I for one and just as guilty as the next person).

    I tend to agree with SK that we, as finite and historical begins can’t have a “system,” as we are always in process (on a multitude of levels). Though perhaps “system-talk” is appropriate when it comes to God, if by that we mean, there is no development in God (in the Hegelian sense) and we affirm that God knows himself fully (whereas full self-transparency for us is not possible).

    I look forward to your next post, which I plan to put up on Friday or Saturday.

    With all good wishes,

  4. Hi Eric, great post! I’ve never encountered the quote about Christ’s death being the Atonement rather than a martyrdom before. I’ve usually held the two together. I think there are some theo-political benefits to still utilizing the language of martyrdom in reference to Jesus, but this point is very well taken.
    Again, great piece!

  5. Cynthia,

    Yeah, it seems like every white male was prone to such language in the 19th century. Even Nietzsche has some horrendous stuff on women in Beyond Good and Evil. Regarding “system talk”, I am not opposed to say, “systematic theology,” or I guess another term for it is “constructive theology”? But yes, definitely what Hegel does with systems in a totalizing way is not to be commended. I don’t know very much about Thomas Aquinas, but it seems like for as “systematic” (and voluminous) as his writings are, it seems like from what I know about his works that there isn’t so much a ‘kernel’ as much as there is a labyrinth to this thought; not so much a firm membrane as much as something porous perhaps? I don’t know.


    What would you say would be the theo-political benefits to using the language of martyrdom in reference to Jesus? The reason that martyrdom becomes an odd word for Jesus is because, as Kierkegaard points out, it doesn’t ‘properly’ make sense. To be a martyr means one is being a martyr for something. So it makes perfect sense for Kierkegaard to say that Socrates was a martyr to the intellect; or it makes perfect sense to say that the first apostles were martyrs to Christ — but what is Jesus a martyr to? He isn’t a martyr ‘to’ the Father in an act of filliation as much as it is an ‘act’ of love from the Triune God made to or for fallen humanity. But even then, that sounds a bit odd. I guess it just gets a bit confused considering there is no truth “about” Jesus precisely because Jesus Christ exactly is the truth, way, life. Perhaps there may still be some good way to express this theo-politically though?



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