Life of a Philosopher for Whom Life Was the Main Question

Early in life, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was bestowed the nickname gaflen, or “fork,” for his talent at detecting weakness in others — and his taste for prodding at it.

Recently, that gaflen, that proud gadfly of the church, “the doctor of dread,” the father of existentialism, has emerged as a curious figure of consolation. “Trying to find peace amid uncertainty? Try Kierkegaard,” op-ed writers implore. Quarantine getting you down? Emulate Kierkegaard’s “knight of infinite resignation.” Recall his maxim: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” Recall that anxiety is a sign of health, and the task of being human is to learn “to be anxious in the right way.” Kierkegaard is proclaimed a balm against “Trump-related anxiety”; his quotes festoon articles on quarantine routines, essays by Joe Biden (“faith sees best in the dark”).

Kierkegaard commonly complained that he was misunderstood (he also complained that he was not misunderstood in the right ways). But few philosophers have wanted so keenly to be of use, according to a new biography, “Philosopher of the Heart,” by Clare Carlisle. Not for Kierkegaard the abstractions of philosophy — he saw the discipline as performing the painful, prosaic work of becoming human: “We must work out who we are, and how to live, right in the middle of life itself, with an open future ahead of us,” Carlisle summarizes his approach. “Just as we cannot step off the train while it is moving, so we cannot step away from life to reflect on its meaning.”

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