Socrates : Kierkegaard

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates? Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world of today?

»The only analogy I have before me is Socrates.«

Without any doubts we can say, Socrates was a great role-model for Søren Kierkegaard. He was mentioned so many times in his works. Kierkegaard used Socrates' methodology; he even suggested a way of life including also Christianity by the concept of irony. I personally didn't know how important and »useful« can Socrates be until I read Kierkegaard's thought about him. It really is important and a privilege for us to read »the old ones« because time of moral crisis and relativism persuade us to follow someone stable, someone who we can believe. It was the same why Kierkkegaard found his shelter particularly in Socrates.

Firstly Socrates didn't have his own doctrine or theory. He was simply living his philosophy and believed in his life-lasting learning. Somehow his knowledge was improved during different discursions with people different ranges and occupations. He wasn't afraid of losing it or to be proven wrong because he claimed he knows nothing. That's why he was even opened to negative responses of people he talked to. How would he help himself with them after all if they wouldn't have the same opinion as he had. Aporia was the best weapon against too self-confident people. But not only against them. It was also a weapon against ignorant people. Both were settled too deep in their comfortability and loved safety more than freedom. Socrates was a free individual and didn’t care for the public opinion.



It was the same with Kierkegaard. He also saw that people in his time, especially people on high positions who were expected to be leaders, praised safety more than freedom. De omnibus dubitandum est (Everything must be doubted) what he would say was something like Socrates' I know nothing. One of Kierkegaard's last thoughts was that he's never called himself a Christian, meaning, he never had an ideal to follow. He was not a moral authority either. Being so, he would probably be a target of too many critics, maybe even prejudices. But what being a Christian actually means? Kierkegaard as well-educated thinker, who read Bible through and through and was raised in Lutheran tradition, claimed Socrates (as pagan) became Christian. Maybe also Kierkegaard denied himself to be one achieving irony or paradox mentioned in Bible: Since everyone who wants to save his soul must lose it (Mr 8, 35). Also Christian identity can offer some kind of safety, but not necessarily freedom.

Socrates believes in listening to his inner voice he named daimon. The same did Kierkegaard only that he named it differently. Cultures they were born in were different so also the name of Kierkegaard's inner voice was consequently called God. Kierkegaard claimed listening to that voice brings person to his individuality and therefore to freedom. That's why Kierkegaard also supported Danish monarchy. He said, democracy would lead to massive mainstream thinking which wouldn't happen if there was established social classes. Inside them people could live their individuality more freely and be connected to themselves better. I presume this would also lead to better relationships with others inside its own class and also between different classes. If we believe that this voice which speaks from our deepest true is God's voice living in harmony or at least seeking it, is the most normal thing at all. But also if we believe in this voice, however we call it, we believe in ourselves and don't need to explain anything to anyone. Our creative acts are led by this voice and they speak for ourselves. Theoretically.


But how to know this truth is the original one? Kierkegaard talked about the truth one can live and die for. If you know something can cost you life you would probably think twice or even more before acting. Kierkegaard gives an example of Socrates. His life was as much as it could be in his hands authentic. He was true to himself when it came to that possibility. Even if that saved him from punishment. And we can almost surely be convinced that his defence would be the most effective if we remember how effective his dialogues were. Kierkegaard wasn't charged for anything that would cost him his life but he declined to defend his authorship at the end (although he published several work under pseudonym). He also didn't want to receive last communion from the priest as a member of official institution but not true Christian as he believed. His attack on the Church in Denmark cost him his public outlook reputition for which he worked hard to achieve it. Even on his funeral there were merely people of lower social classes on who he obviously made an impression.

Kierkegaard made things harder for him. He also said we must be aware of moments in which we get too comfortable. Living righteously should be therefore risky otherwise something isn't right? Probably, yes. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation can do a lot of damage although we finally find out we are talking about the same thing. And it's not easy to live constantly listening to our own voices. In some many »truths« nowadays one can be easy lost. So coming in conflict with each other or even with ourselves from time to time isn't that bad. It makes you reconsider where your voice leads you if it really is a true voice after all.

Because of all these we can understand why Socrates talked about irony and aporia, what later became paradox of faith in Christianity. As Kierkegaard claims, human and divine nature in Jesus Christ is a contradiction, a paradox that insists to become strong faith. It's easy to believe something you can see with your own eyes or what you choose to believe. True believers developed themselves in hard conditions that don't seem changing to better. But the faith without acts is dead, is written in Bible (Jak 2, 17). So if you really believe in something you will prove it with the way you behave and act and not by only speaking about it.


At the end I found a similarity also in what concerns the methodology. As we know Socrates developed his thought during dialogs with different people who he thought they could give him an answer to different questions. Kierkegaard didn't do the same in his time again because of different culture. But I noticed in some of his works that his style of writing develops dialog, too. Kierkegaard writes as he would be answering questions of potential reader and he even writes down a question. So he might developed his philosophy the same way as Socrates did, only that he talked with himself or an imaginary reader.

I think the changes that would have to be made today are merely moral, maybe even of spiritual nature depending on the personal level. We have rules that are protected by law which is one kind of god to whom we serve as I dare to say. But for me personally it is something I could easily live without. Sure, I watch carefully not to drive too fast as I am allowed in order not to throw away money carelessly, one banal example. And it protect us against some »moral outsiders« to keep us safe. But then on the other hand how safe can one feel if we find out we are controlled and manipulated by the people who should lead us. I am not talking only about the civil state but also about different institutions, organisations and even smaller groups. What can actually make me feel secure, possibly free?

Therefore I think Socrates and Kierkegaard gave us a good example how to achieve that. It is so important to be an individual nowadays but then again, if I have a public image of myself is that already enough to satisfy my individuality? If I prove myself and my own opinion tremendously, do I get any pleasure in that? Of course we can't just walk around and talk to everyone that we know nothing as Socrates did. And I can't say I'm not a Christian and then go to Sunday ceremony regularly. There is some truth in identities we wear but they are not our true selves. They might lead us closer to our own voices but if they become part of the objective world as Berdjajev explains it's better if we don’t have them.

Therefore I think the world's change is yet to come. When the true change will happen inside us and we will be able to spread it in our lives then it might develop from small to larger groups and further on. But being open to dialogue nowadays as Socrates was in the golden age of Greek is hard. But if we lose ourselves just a bit maybe we will be a bit closer to a better world, too.


This essay was written as a final task in online course about Kierkagaard prepared by Danish theological university in December 2014.