Soren Kierkegaard was a nineteenth-century Danish philosopher who lived up to his own highest ideal: to be an individual. To him, that meant being a person whose thought was his own, not that of his age or of the crowd.

Kierkegaard’s quotes draw largely from his passion for Christianity, yet his ideas became the foundation of existentialism, a school of philosophy primarily associated with secular beliefs. This owes to the unique way he wrestled with Christian concepts like love, goodness, and moral error. The conclusions he drew are valuable not only to Christians, but to anyone trying to live a meaningful life.

Growing up in the shadow of his pious father, Kierkegaard suffered from passionate, unresolved love for Regine Olsen, the fiancée he left because he did not believe he could be a good husband to her. His perpetual melancholy drove him to live a life of intense self-inquiry. He studied the Bible and other Christian texts with great seriousness in his quest for truth.

Kierkegaard also constantly examined the society around him. He was one of the first thinkers to examine subjects we associate with the modern age, like anxiety and the chilling effect of social norms on the development of the individual. His writing is dense and circular, showing how he always questioned and re-examined his own conclusions. All the same, he established strong convictions that set him apart.

Kierkegaard’s View of the Spiritual Life

To Kierkegaard, a relationship with God was possible only for the person who turned away from the world and met God as a unique individual. Silence and solitude were prerequisites for spiritual understanding.

He thought public opinion was noise and that public religious doctrine ran contrary to the path of spiritual development outlined in the Bible and other Christian texts. Blind adherence to social convention was a sure way to spiritual death for Kierkegaard. Yet he also rejected a life of selfish hedonism and believed obedience to God was essential. He recognised the despair that ultimately arises from chasing pleasurable experiences.

Kierkegaard contrasted the life of the aesthetic person, or hedonist, with the life of the ethical person in his magnum opus Either/Or. The life of the aesthete is instinctive and self-focused while the life of the ethical person is contemplative, driven by the concern for others and the measured pursuit of goodness.

Kierkegaard concluded that neither mode of living was complete and proposed a third mode that synthesized and transcended the other two: the religious. He spent most of his life writing guidance for people living the religious life, or the life of the knight of faith, in which loving action is grounded in a relationship with the transcendent.

Kierkegaard and Existentialism

The two main lines of Kierkegaard’s thinking that contributed to the development of existentialist philosophy in the century following his death were the importance of the individual and the primacy of action. To the existentialist, the authentic person does not rely on a given definition of who they are or what life is supposed to be. The meaning of life is created through the experience of living and is impossible to condense into a formula or doctrine. To the existentialist, the meaning of life is made, not given.

This view went hand in hand with many existentialists’ rejection of the concept of God as the ultimate giver of preordained meaning. However, to Kierkegaard, an authentic life requires a deep relationship with God. Yet like the existentialists, he believed that the meaning arising from this relationship could only be found through the living of it. The essence of his faith was not in accepting doctrine, but following Christ’s example, especially his embodiment of selfless love, or agape.

To Kierkegaard, the only real truth is that which is lived. This is why he uses the image of the “knight of faith,” the person who goes forth and impacts the world through the embodiment of devotion and goodness. Doing good deeds is only the beginning: the truth of the religious life is only realized if they are done in the context of deep self-knowledge and faith, in living relationship with the Absolute. In Either/Or, he wrote:

“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself, or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity.”

Kierkegaard On Love

“Unhappiness is not to love without being loved, but to be loved when one does not love.”

– Concluding Unscientific Postscript

“Love is the expression of the one who loves, not of the one who is loved. Those who think they can love only the people they prefer do not love at all.”

-Works of Love

“To cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception; it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity.”

-Works of Love

“When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful; it consists solely of opportunities for love.”

-Works of Love

“To love another in spite of his weaknesses and errors and imperfections is not perfect love. No, to love is to find him lovable in spite of and together with his weakness and errors and imperfections.”

-Works of Love

“Every person, through his life, his conduct, through his behavior in common things, through his relationship with his fellows, through his language, his expression, should and can build up, and every person would do this if love were actually in him.”

-Works of Love

“The hidden life of love, in its most inward depths, is unfathomable, and still has a boundless relationship with the whole of existence. As the quiet lake is fed by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so a human being’s love is grounded in God’s love. If there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, there would be neither a lake nor human love.”

-Works of Love

“Love abides! Whatever the world takes away from you… whatever happens to you in life… however you may have to suffer because of your striving… if nevertheless in any of your actions, in any of your words, you have truly loved, then take comfort, for love abides. What you knew with love will be a consolation more blessed than any sort of achievement any human being could have accomplished… Neither the present nor the future, neither angels nor devils, not even the fearful thoughts of your unquiet mind, will be able to take it from you, not in the stormiest, most difficult moment of your life, any more than in the last moment of your life—because love abides.”

-Works of Love

In his voluminous output, Kierkegaard’s most favoured subject was love. For all of his stark musings on anxiety and despair, and for all of his profound abstraction on the nature of ethical action, he always returned to one simple conclusion: that the good and meaningful life is rooted in love.

As with Dostoevsky, the love Kierkegaard devoted himself to understanding and living is not the same as sentimental or romantic love. Instead, it is a course of action based on faith and selfless service. It is an embodied virtue that transforms the self as it is lived. Love erodes selfish impulses and replaces them with something far beyond the pleasure such impulses can yield: a peace that is beyond rational understanding.

One of Kierkegaard’s primary principles is that “love builds up.” He dissects this Biblical phrase from every angle in the chapter of the same title in Works of Love, but throughout his works, he considers the way the humble life of love improves the soul. Love “builds up” because it is rooted in the universal actions of everyday life, rather than in unique or special virtues. It also “builds up” in that it draws from what is already at hand, being that love is the substance of life itself.

Kierkegaard On Life

“Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life can only be understood backwards. But then it forgets the other side—that it must be lived forwards.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume I

“It is wretched to have an abundance of intentions and a poverty of action, to be rich in truths and poor in virtues.”

-Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses

“It is one thing to introduce a new doctrine into the world, it is something else to live it.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume II

“If a person does not become what he understands, then he does not understand it either.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume IV

“If I could only have the experience of meeting a passionate thinker, that is, someone who honestly and honorably expressed in his life what he has understood!”

-Concluding Unscientific Postscript

“All existence-issues are passionate. To think about them so as to leave out passion is not to think about them at all. It is to forget the point that one indeed is oneself an existing person. To exist is an art. The subjective thinker is aesthetic enough for his life to have aesthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, passionate enough in thinking to master it.”

-Practice In Christianity

“The subjective thinker is continually striving, is always in the process of becoming. How far the subjective thinker might be along that road, whether a long way or a short, makes no essential difference (it is, after all, just a finitely relative comparison); as long as he is existing, he is in the process of becoming.”

-Concluding Unscientific Postscript

“The essential sermon is one’s own existence. A person preaches with this every hour of the day and with power quite different from that of the most eloquent speaker in his most eloquent moment. To let your mouth run with eloquent babbling when such talk is the opposite of your life is in the deepest sense nonsense. You become liable to eternal judgment.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume I

“Have you lived in such a way that truth was in you, that there was something higher for which you actually suffered? Or has your life revolved around profitable returns?”

– Journals and Papers, Volume I

“To venture the truth is what gives human life and the human situation pith and meaning. To venture is the fountainhead of inspiration. Calculating is the sworn enemy of enthusiasm, the mirage whereby the earthly person drags out time and keeps the eternal away, whereby one cheats God, himself, and his generation.”

-Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses

“There are many people who arrive at conclusions in life much the way schoolboys do; they cheat their teachers by copying the answer book without having worked the problem themselves.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume IV

These quotes all show why Kierkegaard is considered to be one of the founders of existentialist thought. While many philosophers content themselves with sparkling oratory, the rhetorical force of a statement was not enough to engage or impress this spiritual thinker. For Kierkegaard, a philosophy was only proven valuable when the person who spoke it also lived it. To understand was to constantly stand under the truth, to act from the higher principles that informed your thought and speech.

To live is to dare. To Kierkegaard, truth wasn’t something to believe, but something to venture. To take a leap of faith is to act first and learn from action, though again, this is not the same as the hedonist’s impulsive way of living, or a thoughtless life free of self-awareness or introspection. Rather, it is additive: actions aren’t based on calculation, but are informed by the life of spiritual inquiry that preceded them. When actions are “spirited,” they are taken out of a radical conviction of truth.

Kierkegaard On Silence

“Silence is the essence of inwardness and of the inner life.”

-The Present Age

“Only he who can keep silence can really act, for silence is of the heart.”

-Meditations from Kierkegaard

“A person rarely amounts to anything, either good or evil, who has never lived in solitude.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume II

“Who is the authentic individual? One whose life, in the fruit of long silence, gains character and whose actions acquire the power to excite and arouse.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume III

“All genuine instruction ends in a kind of silence; for when I live it, it is no longer necessary for my speaking to be audible.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume I

“It is a frightful satire and an epigram of the modern age that the only use it knows for solitude is to make it a punishment, a jail sentence.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume IV

“God loves silence. Silence in relation to God is strengthening. Absolute silence is like a lever, or like the point outside the world which Archimedes talks about.”

-The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard

“God can imprint himself in a person only when he himself has become nothing. When the ocean is exerting all its power, that is precisely the time when it cannot reflect the image of heaven, and even the slightest motion blurs the image. But when it becomes still and deep, then the image of heaven sinks into nothingness.”

-Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses

Kierkegaard valued silence so much that one of his many pen names was Johannes de Silentio, or “John of the Silence.” For him, silence was the foremost spiritual quality and a signifier of depth. He likened it to still waters that not only reflect light, but also hide nothing. Just as roiling waters leave only the surface visible, Kierkegaard noted the way noisy human discourse made it impossible to observe the depths of truth. Superficial noise generated merely to entertain was anathema to him.

Kierkegaard deeply valued discourse and action. He did not see silence as being opposed to them in any way. Instead, it was the foundation that made them possible. If action is not to be informed by public opinion or received dogma, it must come from something deeper. That deeper source is communion with God, which can only happen in silence. Just as only a calm ocean reflects the moon, only a silent mind and heart can reveal the profundity of the Absolute.

Kierkegaard On Prayer

“To pray is a task for the whole soul.”

-Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses

“The function of prayer is not to change God, but rather to change the one who prays.”

-Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

“Purity of heart is to will one thing. The one who wills anything other than the Good will become divided.”

-Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

“The one who desires the Good for the sake of some reward fails to will one thing. He is double-minded… The Good is one thing; the reward is something else. To will the Good for the sake of reward is not to will one thing but two. Neither can one who wills the Good do so out of fear of punishment. In essence, this is the same thing as willing the Good for the sake of a reward. The one who wills in truth one thing fears only doing wrong, not the punishment.”

-Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

“He who prays knows how to make distinctions. Little by little he gives up what is less important, since he does not really dare to come before God with it, demanding this and that. On the contrary, he wants to give all the more emphasis to the request for his one and only wish. Then before God he concentrates his soul on the one wish, and this already has something ennobling about it, is preparation for giving up everything, because only he can give up everything who has but one single wish.”

-Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses

“The earthly minded person thinks and imagines that when he prays, the important thing, the thing he must concentrate upon, is that God should hear what he is praying for. And yet in the true, eternal sense it is just the reverse: the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God is asking for.”

-The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard

“As my prayer became more attentive and inward I had less and less to say. I finally became completely silent. I started to listen—which is even further removed from speaking than being silent. I first thought that praying entailed speaking. I then learnt that praying is hearing, not merely being silent. This is how it is. To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking. Prayer involves becoming silent, and remaining silent, and waiting until God is heard.”

-Lily of the Field, Bird of the Air

As with everything else he considered, Kierkegaard was rigorous in the standards he applied to the act of prayer. He observed the way most of the people around him who identified as Christian used prayer to ask for things they wanted or petition for things to go their way. To him, this was not only shallow, but wrong-minded. Like love, true prayer was something that could build up the soul. Its purpose was not to persuade a God that Kierkegaard saw as beyond persuasion, but to transform the one who prayed.

The kind of prayer Kierkegaard emphasised is a contemplative form of prayer that draws the soul into silence. It is the way to make the mind and heart the still pool that reflects the will of God. It is also a way to purify intention. Kierkegaard noted that most prayer reflected what he called “double-mindedness.” The petitioner did not truly want what was good or what reflected the will of God, but what helped them get pleasure or avoid pain. He observed that by relinquishing these ego-driven demands, the one who prayed could find greater peace than if those requests had been fulfilled.

Kierkegaard On Regret

“The anguished conscience alone understands Christ.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume III

“The opposite of freedom is not necessity, but guilt.”

-The Concept of Anxiety

“It is precisely our consciousness of sin that can lead us nearer to God.”

-Meditations from Kierkegaard

“To become involved with God in any other way other than being wounded is impossible.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume II

“The all-knowing One does not get to know something about the one who needs confession, rather the one who confesses gets to know something about himself.”

-Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

“The goal is not to merge into God through some fading away or in some divine ocean. No, in an intensified consciousness ‘a person must render account for every careless word he has uttered.’ Even though grace blots out sin, the union with God still takes place in the personality clarified and intensified to the uttermost.”

– Journals and Papers, Volume IV

“Memory is pre-eminently the real element of the unhappy, as is natural seeing the past has the remarkable characteristic that it is gone.”

-Either/Or

“If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.”

-Either/Or

Kierkegaard wrote extensively on the experience of despair. He defined it as the loss of the relationship with God, which leads to the loss of self. Kierkegaard’s concept of God was of the Absolute, of the very ground of being; he saw the loss of the relationship with God as a profound disconnection from life.

Regret can lead to despair, but it doesn’t have to. Regret is a crossroads. Guilt burdens and restricts the soul, but it can be relinquished by making a choice. That choice can be to relinquish hope or to do what it takes to reconnect to God and to life. The process of atonement can intensify the light of the soul, strengthening virtue and self-knowledge.

Kierkegaard’s final quote above playfully reflects on the typical human relationship with life. No matter what you do, you’ll probably regret it, or at least wonder how things could have been if you’d done otherwise. Like most of Kierkegaard’s quotes, it has layers of meaning. He wrote many of his works not just under different pen names, but under different personas. This quote is written in the voice of an aesthete flirting with the despair that typically comes with a hedonistic life and points to the cost of living that way.

All the same, it’s true: regret is a natural outcome of any life. Whether the person who regrets gives in to despair or embraces life depends on whether they can take a leap of faith and act from a deeper truth.

Ben Fishel

Ben is a freelance writer and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age.

View all posts

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you feeling down? Overwhelmed?

I've teamed up with BetterHelp to offer a FREE 7-Day Online Therapy Trial.

Fill in the brief personality questionnaire and talk to someone today!