Part II: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task

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

In my previous post, I focussed on the importance of Socrates for Søren Kierkegaard, emphasizing the privileged place he held in his thought not only at the beginning (Concept of Irony) of his thought, but also just before Kierkegaard died (“My Task,” The Moment 10). In the remainder of “My Task,” Kierkegaard claims that ” ‘Christendom’ lies in an abyss of sophistry that is even much, much worse than when the Sophists flourished in Greece.”[1] The pastors and assistant professors he knows are exactly like the sophists of Greece, pawning off false knowledge as if it were real, but in their case they are “making those who understand nothing believe something and then making this human number the authority for what the truth is, for what Christianity is.”[2]

Earlier that year in a news paper article, Kierkegaard said, “everyone must be able to see that official Christianity is not the Christianity of the New Testament, resembles it no more than the square resembles the circle, no more than enjoying resembles suffering,” etc.[3] But still, the ones assured of their Christianity in this state want Kierkegaard to loudly proclaim his Christianity, to wear it on his sleeve, as it were. In response to these requests, Kierkegaard calls upon Socrates once again:

O Socrates! If with kettledrums and trumpets you had proclaimed yourself to be the one who knew the most, the Sophists would soon have been finished with you. No, you were the ignorant one; but you also had the confounded capacity of being able (also by means of being yourself the ignorant one) to make it manifest that the others knew even less than you-they did not even know that they were ignorant.[4]

Socrates’ behavior thereby angered the Sophists because of his gadfly-like manner of revealing the latter’s unwitting ignorance. Likewise, Kierkegaard provokes rage against himself by pointing out that even though he is not a Christian, others calling themselves such-like the Sophists in light of Socrates’ acknowledged ignorance-are even less so.  “I am not a Christian; and it is rash to conclude that because I can show that the others are not Christians, then I myself must be one, just as rash as to conclude, for example, that someone who is one-fourth of a foot taller than others is, ergo, twelve feet tall.”[5]

Kierkegaard ends his last brief treatise with a summation of his entire project: “My task is to audit the definition: Christian.”[6] If the form this takes is Socratic, the content and form taken together (which can never ultimately be pried apart I would argue) are for Kierkegaard wholly unique: “In Christendom’s eighteen hundred years there is absolutely nothing comparable, no analogy to my task; it is the first time in ‘Christendom’.”[7] One supposes one could very well compare him with Hamann, that “Magus of the North” whom Kierkegaard called “the greatest humorist in Christianity.”[8] Hamann also saw himself as a Christian Socrates before Kierkegaard did.[9] But Kierkegaard here is still correct: what he is dealing with is a new beast on par with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later describe as “cheap grace” (albeit due to over-determined speculation vis-à-vis Hegelianism), whereas Hamann’s struggles were with the so-called pure reason of the Enlightenment. In this sense then, Kierkegaard is perhaps in a unique position within Christianity.

In auditing the definition of ‘Christian’, Kierkegaard’s hope is to remind people that Christ’s invitation is not easy, indeed it is the ultimate sacrifice:

[W]hen it comes down to brass tacks and it must be certain what it is that Christ invites them to (in imitation to become a sacrifice), and this is not turned into something that pleases everybody-then it will be manifest, just as in contemporaneity with Christ, that all will most decidedly decline this with ‘Thanks for nothing’ and that only exceptionally does a very rare individual follow the invitation, and of these individuals in turn only a rare individual follows the invitation in such a way that he holds firm that it is an infinite, an indescribable grace that is shown him: to be sacrificed. … It would indeed be almost nauseating, stifling, oppressive, embarrassing that to be loved by God and to dare to love him should spiritlessly and idiotically be saddled with having the idea that one would have profit from it![10]

Kierkegaard’s tone remains Socratic, constantly questioning the ability to (Sophistically) ‘profit’ from following Christ. Instead, one must do the opposite of profiting: “to be sacrificed.”  In Cynthia’s previous post entitled “A Redemptive Historical Biblical ‘Postscript’ to Fear and Trembling,” Cynthia rightly points out that the story of the (non-)sacrifice of Isaac only truly makes sense in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross, the former of which in Cynthia’s words “was itself a sign pointing beyond itself, a sign pointing to that future Christ-event in which ultimate existential expression of both suffering and love was displayed.” Kierkegaard here (like Saint Paul and many others after him)[11] is calling us to follow this same cruciform path. Like Saint Johannes Climacus reminds us,[12] not only do we climb up the ladder to Christ, but Christ himself is that ladder[13] and thus helps us along the way as he himself is that way, beginning and ending in love.[14]

Kierkegaard ends “My Task” with this exhortation:

You common man! I do not keep it a secret from you that, according to my concepts, to be a Christian is something so infinitely high that there are always only few who attain it (which both Christ’s life affirms if one pays attention to his contemporaries and his proclamation suggests if one takes it strictly)-yet it is possible for all. But one thing I beseech you for God in heaven’s sake and by all that is holy: avoid the pastors, avoid them, those abominations whose job is to hinder you in even becoming aware of what true Christianity is and thereby to turn you, muddled by gibberish and illusion, into what they understand by a true Christian, a contributing member of the state Church, the national Church, and the like. Avoid them; only see to it that you willingly and promptly pay them the money they are to have. One must at no price have money differences with someone one scorns, lest it be said that one was avoiding them in order to get out of paying. No, pay them double so that your disagreement with them can become obvious: that what concerns them does not concern you at all, money, and that, on the contrary, what does not concern them concerns you infinitely, Christianity.[15]

Kierkegaard here singles out more Sophists, it seems: the pastors, and the state Church. In his final exhortation, these concern him even more than the “associate professors,” his usual whipping boys. Like the Sophists of Socrates day, these are the figures who ultimately demand money and moreover profit for their services. Beyond this, Socrates wanders around poor and barefoot, acting as a midwife to learning, not charging anything for his ‘services’. The only analogy that Kierkegaard himself has before him is Socrates, and so Kierkegaard’s own task is to, beyond those who seek profit, exhort his readers to be infinitely concerned with Christ and Christianity.

Next week  I will conclude with a post reflecting on the themes of these last two posts in light of his earlier writings.


[1] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, p. 341.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Would It Be Best Now to ‘Stop ‘Ringing the Alarm’?”, published April 7, 1855, in ibid., p. 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 342.

[5] Ibid., p. 343.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 344.

[8] Journals and Papers II 1681 (II A 75 n.d., 1837).

[9] For example, Kierkegaard makes the same parallel of Hamann’s relationship to his contemporaries that he ultimately does with himself in “My Task”: “Hamann’s relationship to his contemporaries-Socrates’ to the Sophists (who could say something about everything)” (Journals and Papers II 1547 [III B 17 n.d., 1840-41]). On Hamann’s own works, see Johann Georg Hamann, Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary, trans. and with an introduction by James C. O’Flaherty (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1967) and “Part I: The Making of a Christian Socrates” in John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), pp. 23-87. On Hamann’s influence upon Kierkegaard, see John R. Betz, “Hamann Before Kierkegaard: A Systematic Theological Oversight,” Pro Ecclesia 16, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 299-333.

[10] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, pp. 345-6.

[11] Romans 12:1. Cf. Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:4-5.

[12] After whom, of course, Kierkegaard named his pseudonym who wrote Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments.

[13] Jesus identifies himself with Jacob’s ladder in John 1:51.

[14] See John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982). On similarities between The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Johannes Climacus’ Philosophical Fragments see Jacob Howland, Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 12.

[15] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, pp. 346-7. Also, for Kierkegaard’s affinity for the “common man” see Jørgen Bukdahl, Søren Kierkegaard and the Common Man, trans. and ed. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).