Kierkegaard’s view on Socrates and its relevance to modernity


In order to study the influence of Socrates on Soren Kierkegaard and his ideas it is required to consider the approach Kierkegaard took to understand Socrates. The German philosopher Hegel(1770 -1831), in his attempt to trace the development of philosophical concepts through history, treated Socrates more as a point of representation of the ideas he professed. Kierkegaard, unlike Hegel, found this abstract consideration of Socrates, separated from his historical context and the actual phenomenon of his life as an individual, problematic as it leads to an oversight of the nuances of the individual’s philosophy. So Kierkegaard studied Socrates and his concepts philologically in relation to his historic grounding.

Socrates: Subjectivity, Irony, Maieutics and aporia

Kierkegaard follows Hegel in viewing Socrates as the mental turning point who directed the attention inward and pondered the nature of one’s understanding itself as against the pre-Socratics who tried to understand the external world. He believed in an objective good that can be realized by an individual through rational examination. He believed that individual subject is a constitutive element of the truth. Although he never claimed to have found the truth himself he was in pursuit of it. In fact, he claimed to know nothing of truth or wisdom.

He considered his task as being the mid-wife(maieutics) helping one to bring out to the consciousness one’s own truth through dialectic method. He employed irony where he makes the listener contradict himself on what he claimed to know thoroughly. Socrates reduced one to this state of negation and aporia. This, he expected the person to reflect upon and continue searching for the truth.

Socrates against dogma:

He claimed that good must be developed by the individual through self-examination rather than accepting uncritically what’s handed by the society as universal truth. Also Socrates claimed his divine voice called Daimon prevented him from doing particular things. Daimon’s relation in instructing Socrates was strictly negative according to Kierkegaard who sides with Plato’s narration of Socrates. Due to such stance, he alienated himself from the Athenian society affording himself subjective freedom.

Socrates’ subjective freedom and persistent search:

Socrates, within the limitations of negative instructions of his Daimon, found his subjective freedom to explore the truth. And Socrates tried to emulate the negative relation of Daimon to himself with regards to his relation to the state. He held himself in a negative position to his interlocutors reducing their assumed expertise to falsehoods through the use of irony and didn’t give them any positive statement, just like his Daimon did to him. Kierkegaard agreed with Rotscher when he wrote,”The knowledge that he knew nothing is not at all the pure, empty nothing one usually takes it to be, but the nothingness of the determinate content of the world as it is. The knowledge of the negativity of all finite content is his wisdom, through which he is drawn into himself, and he expresses this exploration of his own inwardness as his absolute goal, as the beginning of infinite knowledge , yet merely the beginning since this consciousness has nowise been consummated but IS only the negation of everything established in a finite sense”. Also Kierkegaard wrote, “He admittedly freed the single individual from every presupposition, freed him as he himself was free”.

Socrates’ negativity and skepticism:

Unlike Hegel, Kierkegaard found Socrates’ importance in his wholly negative character. He wrote, “Instead of speculatively setting his negativity to rest, he set it far more to rest in the eternal unrest in which he repeated the same process with each single individual. In all this, however, that which makes him into a personality is precisely irony… Naturally this [Socrates’ claim of knowing nothing] conceals a polemic and dismays anyone who has found his repose in one or another finite relation to the divine”.

These statements are very crucial in understanding Socrates according to Kierkegaard and therefore understanding Socrates’ influence on Kierkegaard.

Socrates as a negative character throughout, stood against the people of other thoughts which he viewed as ill-founded. Though he himself believed in the good and pursued it, he never had the audacity to believe that he could ever achieve it. Socrates had praised a verse of a poem that read: “Give us the good, O Zeus, Whether we pray for it or not; Even when we pray for it, Avert the evil from us.” According to Kierkegaard, this expresses Socrates’ doubts as to whether man is able to know what is really best for him in order to pray, and whether Gods will grant it on accounts of the prayer’s actual goodness to man suggesting a greater doubt about what is really best for man.

This implies Socrates’ thorough-going negativity about all assumptions on knowledge to the extent of an epistemological skepticism. Yet he relentlessly continued his search regardless of this skepticism and remained in the negativity.

Socrates and the Sophists:

Socrates had to fight against collectivist traditional dogma and the Sophists. The Sophists as relativists who negated the truth in all finitude also denied the existence of the absolute truth which Socrates believed in. Therefore they rationalized as truth anything that suited their purposes. Socrates didn’t arrive at any conclusions as the Sophists regarding the ultimate nature of truth. He still remained in his negativity, still pursuing until he could thoroughly realize the truth in his inwardness. He remained in that state with an authentic vigor even until he was executed. All these qualities of Socrates inspired Kierkegaard to consider his life as a Socratic task of finding a truth for himself for which to live and die, as he recorded in his Journal AA. Kierkegaard found in Socrates the ever-valid spirit of irony, infinite negativity and search for the truth.

Kierkegaard’s Socratic task:

Similar to those in the times of Socrates, Kierkegaard diagnosed crises in his age which necessitated Socratic irony. He understood irony as world historically valid and decided to use it in a controlled manner against dogmatism of faith, relativism of the German Romantics, and self-assured rationalization and simplification of faith by some people through Hegelian mediation.

Through his fictional Johannes Climacus, he criticized Martensen’s students who had started with the Cartesian declaration “de omnibus dubitandum est” and doubted everything. He criticized this uncontrolled doubt which eventually leads one to alienation, meaninglessness and despair. He implied the function of doubt as a limited utility in the attainment of subjective truth.

Kierkegaard in his criticism of relativism agreed with Hegel that it’s the arbitrariness of finite subjectivity that causes it. He observed that Sophists after making infirm all finitude and denying an absolute truth, by the way of demonstrating as truth the things that pleased them, made firm everything as truth again. In this way, he related Martensen, who started with Cartesian doubt of everything only to settle with a positive construct that pleased him, to the Sophists and criticized him. He contrasted that Socrates’ didn’t use doubt to construct a positive doctrine as he wished.

Kierkegaard through his claim that throughout history irony had been an assertion of subjectivity wrote, “For a new mode of irony to be able to appear now, it must result from the assertion of subjectivity in a still higher form. It must be subjectivity raised to a second power, a subjectivity’s subjectivity which corresponds to a reflection’s reflection”.

German Romanticism, as a reaction against the Enlightenment movement which reduced the importance of individuality and subjective feelings by its over-emphasis on reason and abstraction, defended and asserted the subjectivity through its romantic irony.

In his criticism of romantics, Kierkegaard observed that in using their irony in eminent sense to attack the bourgeois values they alienated themselves from actuality itself by becoming absolute relativists. He related absolute relativists with dogmatic moralists who deny actuality as vanity and meaningless.

According to Kierkegaard, after a newer irony asserts subjectivity in higher form, “the new must forge ahead and the old must be displaced”. Subjective freedom must be increased as it were historically justified. Whereas ironist employs irony for irony’s sake and merely exposes the crisis of the old order and denies actuality even unto the future. He wrote, “The whole of existence has become alien to the ironic subject and the ironic subject in turn alien to existence”. However, he drew a contrasting example in Socrates who despite being an ironist, used irony to free himself for his search further.

Kierkegaard on his extended criticism of misunderstood faith of Christianity, attacked the over-simplification of faith and its steep requirements. He mentioned the example of Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac against all universal ethics because his subjective faith directed him. Through this example, he mentioned that faith is an absolute paradox which shouldn’t be resolved for easy acceptance. But one must embrace the absurd as it is. He also mentioned that one must not try to mediate the faith that infinite God incarnated as a finite man as Hegelian Martensen did. Kierkegaard problematized faith and made it harder. The inspiration is again derived from Socrates’ remaining in negativity and yet possessing his faith. According to Kierkegaard, such faith shall keep one well grounded in actuality with constant reflection and eternal displacement in the search which is better than constructing a convenient positive construct which may be falsified. He raised the standards of faith to that of early years of New Testament Christianity when Christians were persecuted. Implying a parallel to the authenticity with which Socrates preferred death to cessation of his search for truth.

He advocated that there’s no validity to the truth with respect to an individual unless one experiences, examines and makes it one’s own through subjective vision. And, faith is not a tool for seduction into self-narcotization but as a source of perennial unrest which necessitates insatiable passion and exerts more weight on an individual’s inward quest for meaning in life. The quest, in comparison to notions of ‘simple faith’, wouldn’t lead to self-reassurance and lassitude, rather it is essentially filled with Anxiety which one must brave and accept rather than settling for fairy tales.

Kierkegaard tried to make our volatile modern lives, uprooted from the soil of actuality, firmer again. He tried to deconstruct the ideas that we took for granted and fell prey to complacency and error as a result.

Crisis of Modernity:

The role of philosophy — especially in modern times with the domination of empirical science as the modern oracle which explains phenomena indisputably — is very much reserved to the vulnerable, little sphere of human activity. The concepts of speculative philosophy cant refute the imposing might of science lest they become dogmas in themselves. The concept of subjectivity and a self-positing ego can no longer slake entirely human’s thirst for understanding of the real world and his relative position of significance in it. Any attempt to deny the objective findings of science on the accounts of mere hypothetical, abstract constructs exaggerating the importance of us, will decrease in its appeal. However, philosophy in modern times has undeniable validity in its assistance to the evaluation of anthropocentric interpretations of the empirical world. And to address problems such as indolence, complacency, romantic excess, resurgence of religious dogmatism, democratic mediocrity and nihilism.

Socrates didn’t concern himself with the explanations of the external world as the pre-Socratic philosophers did. But he was concerned with the realm of the inner world. This very subjective, human world as against the overwhelming nature of the external. This concern — not so much the speculations he arrived at — and the spirited, authentic manner in which he sought to address the concern is still applicable and relevant in our times as it was relevant to Kierkegaard and many others and will remain so in the times to come for those who seek to understand life.

He stood as one of those sturdiest spirits of unfailing steadfastness to the Search for Truth inspiring later philosophers with his ever-relevant conviction to the task of understanding his life and knowing himself.

Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! Yes, we may well call your name three times: it would not be too much to call it ten times, if it would be of any help. Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion — but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates(and Socratic Irony)!” ~ Sickness unto death — Soren Kierkegaard, 1849

Note: Criticisms on errors of any character are most welcome.