On Kierkegaard’s Socratic teachings for millennials

(OR: Remembering 181 years of Gilleleje)

Today is the 181th anniversary of Kierkegaard’s trip to Gilleleje. On the 1st of August 1835 the young philosopher had another one of his walks to think about his own life. This apparent simple trip (described on the AA journal) turned out to be one of the most important life experiences for Kierkegaard. This is not because of what he found there, but who he found there — himself.

Omar Costa Hamido, August 1st, 2016

Dear reader,

I do not intend for this letter to catch you off guard. I would like to present you with a set of ideas, or perhaps I should say “introduce you to the persons” that have brought those ideas to life. As a millennial myself, I was thrilled to find, in these remote individuals, such a powerful and meaningful message for our time and age.

I want to talk to you about two great philosophers of our history: Kierkegaard and Socrates. Should you be surprised? Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and a talented writer who lived in the 19th century Denmark. As for Socrates, we know him as “the wise man of old” through the works of Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon, who describe him in the ancient Greek era (5th century BC).

“How come these two philosophers, that lived two millenniums apart, have anything in common? And how is it any relevant for us today?” — you may ask. Well, first things first, Kierkegaard’s connection with Socrates began while he was still a teenage student. In fact, to speak about what Kierkegaard learned from Socrates, one might feel tempted to enumerate, instead, what Kierkegaard didn’t learn from Socrates. Indeed, the study of Socrates was not only influential on Kierkegaard’s writings but also in his personal life.

Sure enough, there were already many interpretations of Socrates’ work, but it was in direct relation to Socrates’ work that Kierkegaard would find the spirit and critical thinking that he needed to deal with his own time. In the 19th century, Danish culture had inherited the German Romanticism, of which Kierkegaard was critic. At the same time, Kierkegaard also used the art of maieutics in order to criticize the paradoxical religious concept explored by the clerics of his time. It is easy to imagine Kierkegaard as Denmark’s Socrates. In fact, Kierkegaard himself claimed:

“The only analogy I have before me is Socrates.” (Kierkegaard, 1998, p. 341)

Yet, this affinity with Socrates is not so much a mere following of a philosopher’s system but more of an acknowledgement of someone he personally relates to. Moreover, this is reflected by the life changing insight that the 22 years old Kierkegaard had at the fishing village Gilleleje. There, while confronting his self-doubts and searching for a meaning for his own life, he came to the conclusion that he needed to pursue a quest for a subjective truth, rejecting the external objective truths that were accepted by society — like Socrates, a truth within himself.

“One must first learn to know oneself before knowing anything else… Only when the person has inwardly understood himself, and then sees the way forward on his path, does his life acquire repose and meaning.” (Kierkegaard, 2008, vol. 1, p. 22, AA:12)

All of this happened, one should note, before existentialism, post-structuralism and post-modernism appeared. In this sense, Kierkegaard’s work is not only groundbreaking per se but it should also be regarded as an example for anyone who is seeking meaning to his own life. Go ahead, dear reader, ask yourself what is going on and what are you doing here. For us, millennials, as I used to say so many times to my peers: it is very easy to become no longer what one wants to be. This is what it means to be a “twenty-something nothing”. We are caught up in the rapture of modern life and ideals. We feel trapped between being highly educated and very poorly valued.

It was yesterday that I went for one of my night walks in my home town village — Coruche -, and it was with a little sadness that I realized that the main road intersection downtown is largely lit up not by street lamps but rather by light panels of two banks and one shiny new telecommunications store. There has not been a time where people were more connected to one another, and yet, we feel detached from ourselves — ha! one must be blind not to see the irony in that! Yet again, later on that same walk I passed in front of a funerary (one of the three funerary in the village) and I noticed that all the little saints’ statues on the showcase had a price tag on them, stuck anywhere in order to be visible. Do I need to say more?

It has become commonly accepted to define things by it’s quantitative value: one’s earnings, the country’s fiscal deficit, one’s number of added friends on social networks, total number of visualization on a certain publication… This is rather problematic. On the simplest example we can easily perceive that although one might “like” on something, that doesn’t mean that one cares the least about that. But even then it’s the total number of “likes” that will be valued in the end. It is like being at a crossroad, with currencies driving from one way to the other faster and faster. And with an ever increasing number of roads crossing this intersection (i.e. the network growth), when the pedestrians’ light drops green we no longer know which way we wanted to go. Without noticing, we are immersed in a culture of self-alienation.

Again, this is why I say: it is very easy to become no longer what one wants to be. This is also why, in my nightly musings and philosophical debates I talk about three spheres that one must find an equilibrium with: the professional, the academic, and the personal. Similarly, in his own time, Kierkegaard also talked about three spheres: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. And with such a broad and thoroughly developed concept of human identity, Kierkegaard’s work becomes relevant for different people with different lifestyles and perspectives. Be it a poet or a cleric, Kierkegaard’s Socratic teachings will make one question himself in order to attain an inward subjective truth. Kierkegaard exposes the fundamental distortions of both the priests who use religion in order to make a living as well as the Romantics who intend to live as if one’s life were a fiction.

The outward definitions and measurement cannot account for a complete personal identification. This is especially important in our time where, because we have so much access to information, we might get lost in the middle of definitions without ever getting the time to pose any question to ourselves. Perhaps, like Kierkegaard did for himself, we would need to find our own Gilleleje — to undergo a personal moratorium.

Is information important? Yes. But what does it mean for me?

Kierkegaard, S. (1998). The Moment and Late Writings. (Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S. (2008). Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Omar Costa Hamido, July 22nd 2016

Copyright © 2016 Omar Costa Hamido