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Chapter Seven
The Ghost of Irony in Kierkegaards Authorship
The aim of this study is to offer an interpretation of On the Concept of
Irony which focuses on Kierkegaards conception of irony as an existential position or worldview. Because much recent research has mined On
the Concept of Irony in search of Kierkegaards contribution to a theory
of literary irony, the focus of this study departs in many respects from
those of its immediate predecessors. Most importantly, I suggest that
Kierkegaards analysis of irony is centered on existential consequences
associated with it. Since critics in Kierkegaards time had already noted
that his analysis of irony is as much an investigation of ethics as it is
aesthetics, this reading returns to an earlier understanding of irony and
it is my hope that it brings to the fore some of the issues implicit in On
the Concept of Irony that have been neglected.
Although the focus of this study is On the Concept of Irony, I am
also hopeful that the results of this research can be used as a point of
departure for future studies of Kierkegaards other works. In particular,
I would like to suggest that an existential reading of On the Concept of
Irony underscores themes that recur throughout the authorship, including problems like finding meaningful practical guidelines in the finite
world, closing oneself off from relationships with the other, and opening
oneself to a divine power. For this reason, I think that the results of
this analysis of On the Concept of Irony can be helpful in interpreting
Kierkegaards corpus.
In this concluding chapter, I present both an overview of the results
of this study and offer examples of how these findings can contribute
to Kierkegaard studies in general. In section one, I summarize what
I take to be the essential arguments in each chapter, focusing on the
implicit existential movements of irony. In section two of this chapter,
I turn my attention to other works, including Either/Or, and some that
might not seem to be directly related to On the Concept of Irony, including


Chapter 7

Fear and Trembling. I suggest not only that the major theme in Fear and
Trembling, for exambleregaining finitude though the movement of
faithis a development of themes from Kierkegaards dissertation, but
that the pseudonymous author, Johannes de silentio, is acutely aware of
the problem of closedness and openness. One might say that de silentio
continues the investigation of the religious consciousness that was identified by Kierkegaard as the key in On the Concept of Irony to a genuine
reconciliation with actuality. Finally, I conclude with some thoughts
about one of Kierkegaards later works, The Sickness unto Death.

I. A Glance at the Foregoing Chapters

In order to understand Kierkegaards strategy for treating irony as an

existential position, it was necessary at the outset to provide an interpretation of the general structure of this complicated book which begins
as a detailed philological study of the historical Socrates and ends as a
loosely-organized diatribe against romantic literature.
I argued in Chapter One that Kierkegaard has dual aims in his text,
one historical and another existential. With regard to the historical, he
employs a historical-philosophical methodology which shares many of
the features of a Hegelian analysis of history. At least on the surface,
one of Kierkegaards aims is to give a philosophical account of Socrates contributions to world-history. While Kierkegaard is ambivalent
or perhaps even unconcerned about the degree to which his project is
consonant with a strictly Hegelian approach to history, he is nonetheless
insistent that he has more accurately and persuasively identified the key
to interpreting Socrates activity and ultimately his personality: Socrates
was an ironist, he says, and contributed to world-history the possibility
of seeing the world through ironic lenses.
When Kierkegaard writes that Socrates is an ironist, he does not mean
that Socrates ironically acted as if he were ignorant about philosophically
important matters. As Kierkegaard sees it, the irony which permeated
Socrates speech and behavior was grounded in a genuine ignorance.
Socrates irony is characterized as a thoroughgoing skepticism with
regard to the culturally established order of things. Whether he knew
it or not, Socrates interrogating conversations with his contemporaries
illustrated a novel critical approach to the authority of the state. For

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


Socrates showed that public laws, traditions and religious beliefs need
not be taken as the authoritative source for defining human purposes and
ends. Socrates showed that an individual also had the possibility to look
inward to find a guide for practical activity. In this sense, Kierkegaard
can argue that Socrates contributed a rudimentary understanding of
subjectivity to world-history.
Kierkegaard has a second aim with his investigation of Socrates,
however. Even more important for him than defining Socrates place in
world-history is getting an accurate picture of how the ironic worldview
is instantiated in Socrates personality. As we saw in Chapter Two
of this study, Socrates is said to inhabit an existential no-mans-land.
On the one hand, he is isolated from his cultural environment because
he cannot accept its values as personally binding. He simply cannot
take seriously the social and political goals of Athenian culture. On
the other hand, he has not discovered any other standard which could
provide him with purpose or direction. Nor is he interested in finding
new ethical guidelines. Socrates is happy to hover in the nihilistic void
of ignorance and, crucially, he is said to house this emptiness within
himself. Kierkegaards Socrates is in no way an ethical hero who consciously argues for the sake of bringing a consciousness of the Good to
light. Socrates is said to be a mere critic who destroys all conceptions
of truth.
One might say that the result of this historical investigation in Part
One of the dissertation is a psychological characterization of the ironic
personality. For with this in hand, Kierkegaard then subjects the ironic
worldview to an existential analysis in Part Two. Here he turns his
attention to contemporary conceptions of irony and attempts to show
how irony can be viewed as both truth and untruth.
In the course of his existential assessment of irony in Part Two,
Kierkegaard sketches more clearly what we might call the movements
of ironyand in doing so, outlines a problem that exercises him
throughout his authorship. First, he suggests that the consciousness
of irony results in an alienation from a life of immediacy. The ironist,
who recognizes that ethical custom and inherited habits of mind are
ultimately arbitrary, frees him- or herself from serious engagement with
others and becomes psychologically isolated from his or her world. In
Chapter Three of this study, we saw that Kierkegaard defines irony in


Chapter 7

terms of the subjects relationor mis-relationto his or her objective

world. The more extreme the discontinuity between the individual and
the world, the more thorough the irony. Like Socrates, the worldview
of pure irony is one in which the values of the objective world mean
nothing. The ironic individual is alone, uncommitted to any of the rules
that govern human interaction or personal consistency. The ironist who
sees the world through the lenses of pure irony has removed him- or
herself from a commitment to his or her life conditions and relationships: the ironist has broken with actuality.
As far as this first movement of isolation goes, Kierkegaard insists that
it is healthy. In fact, he insists it is necessary for every authentic human
life. With this he means that one can never become a self or develop a
personality without first becoming radically aware of oneself as a subject.
The psychological recognition that one is ultimately completely alone,
apparently free from all merely inherited ethical rules and purposes, is a
necessary existential insight, he suggests. This is the truth of ironyfirst
made possible by Socrates contribution to world-history.
At the same time, Kierkegaard also notes that irony is untruth: it is
the way, he writes, but not the truth. Kierkegaard implies here that
another movement is necessary if the full development of personality is
to be realized; irony must be overcome. In essence, the movement of the
ironic individual away from actuality has hollowed out actuality. It has
replaced an immediate world with nothing. Kierkegaard presupposes
that selfhood can never be achieved if this nihilistic vision continues
to guide ones activity. The finite world must become re-enchanted;
finite goals and tasks must be viewed as if there were some permanent
non-finite purposes behind them. In short, the isolated individual must
become reconciled with actuality.
Irony brings one, then, to an existential crossroads: Kierkegaard
suggests that, in the strict sense, one cannot live without some sort
of guidelines. In order to act at all, one must find a way to overcome
the ironic insight that there are no objective criteria for valuing one
choice over another. One can either 1) close oneself off from sources that
originate outside ones own will, and thus consult oneself in search of
purposeeven if that purpose is to maintain a negative freedom from
obligation, as is the case with many of Kierkegaards ironic figures. Or
one can 2) open oneself to another possible source, the divine. It is the

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


former option, says Kierkegaard, that romantic irony has chosen. And
this is why he takes it to be problematic.
As we saw in Chapter Four, Schlegelwho is the prime example of
what Kierkegaard has in mind with a romantic ironistis interested
in many of the same kinds of existential problems as those Kierkegaard
addresses in On the Concept of Irony. Schlegels authorship arises in a postKantian context in which the relationship of the finite and the infinite
was a guiding philosophical problem. Schlegels ironic literature can be
read as an attempt to articulate the existential tension of an individual
whose finite relationships have lost meaning, and who demands the
wholeness that a spiritual meeting with the infinite promises. Guided
by a belief that artistic genius is an inner light originating from a divine
infinite sphere, Schlegel seeks his own reconciliation with actuality. His
hope is that by using the gift of irony or wit, he can transform the
finite world, that by experimenting with the destruction and creation
of personal ends and purposes, a series of fluid syntheses of the finite and
infinite will emerge. The gift of irony allows the romantic poet to serve
as a prophet, bringing the divine light of the infinite back to earth. As
Schlegel sees it, finitude is illuminated by infinitude; the actual world,
and the self which inhabits it, becomes reunited in an endless process
of experimentation.
Kierkegaard, however, is suspicious of the romantic construction of
the self and its world. Following a host of his contemporaries, he argues
that the Schlegelian project does not lead to genuine reconciliation but
rather rules it out. As he sees it, romanticism ends in an empty egoistic
closure, not a reintegration into the world. We saw in Chapter Five that
Kierkegaards arguments against the romantic position rely extensively
on those of his predecessors. Along with Hegel and Mller, he claims
that the romantics have misunderstood the philosophical premises of
their own arguments: they have assumed that idealist philosophy justifies
their project of subjectively creating existential purposes. Furthermore,
Kierkegaard holds that as the romantic ironist destroys and creates the
things that matter to him- or herself, he or she loses touch with the self
that is already potentially present. On the one hand, instead of taking
ownership of the primitive inner life which is unique to each individual,
romantic irony celebrates the cultivation of fabricated moods. As the
ironist plays with possible personalities, he or she loses touch with the


Chapter 7

unique self. On the other hand, as the ironist goes about redefining
and redescribing his or her own purposes, he or she undermines the
consistency of his or her relationships with others. The result of the
ironic worldview is an individual who is closed off from the concrete
conditions for selfhood. There is no development of personality since
there are no relationships the ironic individual can identify as binding.
The ironist closes out content, and closes in emptiness.
The most important aspect of Kierkegaards argument against romanticism, however, is his claim that it is irreligious and thus ultimately
unpoetic. With this assertion, Kierkegaard moves beyond the ethically
oriented argumentation presented by many of his contemporaries in order
to push an issue that was peripheral for many of his contemporaries. As
Kierkegaard sees it, the most tempting aspect of the romantic project
is located in the claim that the individual has become reconciled with
the world based on a kind of divinely inspired art. Despite the language
of mysticism present in works of authors in the Schlegelian school, as
Kierkegaard sees it, the romantic project lacks an essential feature of a
religious consciousness: an willingness to open oneself to a power that
is greater than ones own ego. In fact, romantic irony not only lacks
humility, but it celebrates a deification of ones own private intuitions.
According to Kierkegaards interpretation of the romantics, they have
failed to recognize the distinction between a subjective will and a divine
will. Thus, the ironist not only creates provisional principles of morality
and ethics, but he or she creates God in his or her own image.
For Kierkegaard, this irreligious worldview results in the ultimate
creation of irreligious and thus empty artworksand here, the artwork he has in mind is the life of the artist, the artists personality.
As Kierkegaard sees it, the constructed personality which emerges is
aesthetically empty because it lacks the essential element which could
give it aesthetic validity, so to speak. The romantic life builds on the
private, arbitrary interests and moods of the artist rather than the actual,
concrete circumstances in which a person finds him or herself. These
artworks are said to be missing an ideal binding truth behind their
appearance, the original an sich.
With this negative criticism in place, it is also possible to see what
Kierkegaard adds positively to a concept of irony. It is possible to infer the
general direction he thinks one must go if there is to be a reconciliation

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


with actuality. As noted above, he underscores on several occasions that

the first movement of an authentic human life is the movement away
from immediacy to a psychological consciousness of isolation; but once
this consciousness of negative freedom is achieved, the individual must
also find a way back to finitude again if this life is to be meaningful.
Freedom must also become positive. The only hope, as Kierkegaard sees
it, lies in a subjective openness, a willingness to receive a transfigured
world as a divine gift. This implies that at bottom, a genuine reconciliation with actuality presupposes that the subject accept his or her
inability to be independently free.
In Chapter Six, we saw that even before he wrote On the Concept of
Irony, Kierkegaard had been working out the basic structure of irony and
the accompanying problem of a reconciliation with actuality. In his early
journals, Kierkegaard investigates a topical issue of his day, working out
what he takes to be the essence of the ironic position by comparing it
with the related position of humor. These early journals confirm that the
solution to overcoming ironic isolation is an open willingness to accept
the gift of a transfigured world. In general agreement with his Danish
contemporaries, Heiberg and Martensen, Kierkegaard writes that the
ironist places him- or herself in a position of superiority with regard
to the conventional world. The ironist laughs at the world, congratulating him- or herself on having achieved this insight. The humorist,
by contrast, looks at him- or herself with the same critical eye as the
ironist, but then discovers that his or her own subjective values are no
more meaningful than those of his or her cultural environment. The
humorist laughs at him- or herself while laughing at the world. From
the perspective of humor, were all in it together. For Martensen and
Heiberg the solidarity implied in the humorous consciousness of fallenness is already a kind of salvation. For Kierkegaard, this insight is still
only a preliminary step. The individual must still make a move of openness. In a biblical image which captures this movement, Kierkegaard
writes that after the ironistor humoristhas cut him- or herself off
from the actual world as if he or she inhabited a solitary island, he or
she releases a dove in hope of rejoining actuality again. Like Noah,
he or she cannot force the reconciliation, but must wait for the dove to
return to him or her, signaling that the cleansed or transfigured world
has been given back again.


Chapter 7

With this image of reconciliation, the logic behind Kierkegaards

argument in On the Concept of Irony reaches its provisional endpoint.
Kierkegaards analysis ends with the suggestion that a humble religiosity
is the key to a reconciliation with actuality and thus to a reconciliation
with ones original self. Beyond the relatively undeveloped assertion
that an authentic reconciliation with actuality requires an openness to
the divine power that posited it, however, he does not explain how this
spiritual openness is related to Christian concepts like sin and redemption. Such theological considerations lie beyond the scope of his study,
he writes in the concluding section. For the most part, he is content
to spell out the existential problems associated with the ironic subject
who refuses to be a part of the actual world.
After Kierkegaards dissertation was published, the formal discussion
of romantic irony all but vanishes from the pages of Kierkegaards books
and journals and one might conclude that the issues which engaged him
in the dissertation fade in importance as well. I do not believe this is the
case. The problems associated with overcoming isolation and becoming
a self integrated into the actual world are, of course, lifelong interests
for Kierkegaard. A comprehensive treatment of these general themes in
Kierkegaards authorship lie beyond the scope of this study as well, but
I would like to offer some examples from a few pseudonymous works,
without offering a full justification, of how the problems identified with
irony reappear. More specifically, I will focus on the dilemma of ironic
isolation: one can either attempt to create a concept of self based on
ones own subjective desires and interestsor one can cultivate oneself
in faithful dependence on a higher being.

II. The Discussion of Irony Recast

I suspect that the general claim that On the Concept of Irony anticipates
themes from Kierkegaards pseudonymous works is not in need of much
argumentation. As a matter of fact, the relationship has been observed
in the secondary literature from the outset. Danish critic Hans Frederik Helweg noted as early as 1855 that On the Concept of Irony was the

CI 329 / SKS 1, 357.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


springboard for Kierkegaards activity and his observation been repeated

ever since. Georg Brandes made similar claims in the latter part of the
nineteenth century, and one finds such sentiments in English language
literature as early as 1923 via the first translator of Kierkegaards writings
into English, Lee M. Hollander. In his introduction, he notes that even
though Kierkegaard did not consider On the Concept of Irony to be a part
of his project as an author,
his magisterial dissertation, entitled The Conception of Irony, with Constant
Reference to Socrates, [sic] a book of 300 pages, is of crucial importance.
It shows that, helped by the sage who would not directly help anyone, he
had found the master key: his own interpretation of life. Indeed, all the
following literary output may be regarded as the consistent development of
the simple directing thoughts of his firstling work.

But even if it is intuitively clear that On the Concept of Irony is the foundation for much of Kierkegaards later thought, the way these themes
reappear is less often treated.

A. The Shadow of Irony in Either/Or

The similarities between Kierkegaards critique of romantic irony and

Kierkegaards first major pseudonymous work, Either/Or, are especially
often noted. As has often been suggested, As writings in the first part
of Either/Or can be read as a literary staging of the ironic consciousness,
Hans Frederik Helweg, Hegelianismen i Danmark, in Dansk Kirketidende
51-52, 1855, pp. 825-837, 841-852.

Georg Brandes, Sren Kierkegaard. En kritisk Fremstilling i Grundrids, Copenhagen: Gyldendal 1877; republished by Gyldendals Uglebger 1967, p. 49.

Selections from the Writings of Sren Kierkegaard, trans. by Lee M. Hollander,
Austin: University of Texas Bulletin 1923; reprinted as Selections from the Writings of Sren Kierkegaard, trans. by Lee M. Hollander, New York: Anchor Books
1960, p. 6.

This has been noted by a host of authors, including Sylvia Walsh Living
Poetically. Kierkegaards Existential Aesthetics, University Park: The Pennsylvania
State University Press 1994, pp. 63-67, and Howard and Edna Hong in their
Introduction to Either/Or, pp. ix-x.


Chapter 7

while Wilhelms letter can be viewed as a critique of romantic irony.

Indeed, I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that what Kierkegaard describes as the romantic or ironic consciousness in On the
Concept of Irony is essentially what Wilhelm has in mind when he labels
As worldview aesthetic. Of course, it should be noted that Either/Or
is organized as a sort of dialogue between an ironic aesthete and his
critic, and neither position is obviously victorious. And A is not simply
an ironist. His consciousness might be better termed post-ironic: it is
as if A has read and acknowledged the insights of Kierkegaards interpretation of romantic irony, but chooses to embrace irony nonetheless.
He is a hardened ironist well aware that he is unable to be present to
himself because he lives outside himself. Already here we see that
Kierkegaards style in his pseudonymous works makes it difficult to
simply label the ironic position the loser without recognizing that there
is a truth to irony as well as an untruth.
Part One of Either/Or reveals several themes related to Schlegels
works including the difference between ancient and modern thought, the
categories of the beautiful and the interesting, boredom, and the
liberation of eros from societal constraints. Beyond these clear similarities,
however, the most important ironic theme is this: A is an instantiation
of a poet who wants to create and recreate himself, even if the project is
doomed. A seems to take it for granted, like Schlegel, that the modern
individual has no choice but to create an interpretation of the self.
All other categories that could serve as guides for shaping the self have
becomes fragmented in modernity, and only the subject can reorder or
recreate them. In his essay on ancient and modern tragedy, for example,
he notes that our age has lost all the substantial categories of family,
state, kindred; it must turn the single individual over to himself in such
a way that strictly speaking, he becomes his own creator.
In perhaps the best example of the despairing ironist, we find the
story of a young man in The Seducers Diary who tries to control and
survive his own principles of re-creating the self. Most importantly, the
seducer is careful to protect the possibility of re-creation by refusing to
recognize his past behavior as his own. He is convinced that he must avoid
objective demands like marriage since this sort of ethical obligation

EO1 149 / SKS 2, 148.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


stifles and suffocates love. He is far more interested in creating situations that he will be able to recollect, reorganize and reinterpretjust
as Julius speaks of in his introduction to Lucinde. In a sense, the seducer
argues that his reflective approach to love allows him to avoid the pitfalls
of committing to anyone or anything, and this frees him to live with
his own memories of erotic moments and situations.
In The Unhappiest One we find a similarly ironic perspective. But
here A offers a slightly different interpretation of his refusal to take
ownership of his behavior. He cynically and sarcastically celebrates his
own discontentment, congratulating himself that he has understood the
deepest principle of unhappiness: not being present to oneself. He speaks
of the sadness of living outside oneself since one lives in a recollected
future and a hopeful past. With these paradoxical formulations, he
admits that the unhappiest people never live in the present and never
obtain a realized past or a realizable future. In essence, the strength
which allows him to distance himself from the now is also the stubborn strength that seals him into an impotent lack of self.
These same melancholy insights are repeated in the Diapsalmata
as well. In many cases A ironically praises his lack of self; but he also
willingly admits to the inner pain of not being present to himself. The
Diapsalmata are also replete with passages about hovering above actuality, returning to it to take memories away, etc. Of course, unlike the
analysis of romantic irony in On the Concept of Irony, As writings do not
treat the problems of poetic construction academically; one reads about
them from the inside, as it were, from the perspective of an ironist who
experiences the dissonance of irony and the lack of selfhood it entails.
Wilhelms letters to A in the second volume of Either/Or can be read
as response to the fundamental problem introduced in On the Concept of
Irony, namely, how can an ironist overcome his own ironic insight and
become reconciled with actuality. It is also important to admit, however, that while Wilhelm develops Kierkegaards critique of the ironist,
Wilhelm is not speaking to Schlegel or any other particular historical
ironist. He is speaking to A, Kierkegaards own instantiation of the
ironist. Particular romantic ironists are not directly the issue here. It
is rather Kierkegaards interpretation and perhaps misinterpretation of

EO1 226 / SKS 2, 221-222.


Chapter 7

Schlegel and the romantic ironists. For as we saw, even in On the Concept
of Irony, Kierkegaard interprets Schlegels Lucinde such that his irony
ends in emptiness and nothingness rather than the happy reconciliation
Julius himself celebrates.
That being said, Wilhelm seems to think A suffers from many of the
same problems Kierkegaard mentions in his critique of romantic irony:
a disillusionment with the traditions, norms and ethical principles that
govern human relationships, an unengaged attitude with regard to the
people he interacts with, a freedom from the continuity of past, present
and future, and a freedom from an original self. In both of Wilhelms
letters to A, he laments the fact that A is set upon defining himself at
the expense of cultivating his self.
Wilhelms strategies for overcoming the self-creative tendencies of
modern irony are also more nuanced that what we saw in On the Concept
of Irony, for he focuses first and foremost on how he might convince A
that there is indeed an original self he could keep watch over. He can
appeal to A to take his self seriously, for example, by appealing to As
sense of despair:
Are you not aware that there comes a midnight hour when everyone must
unmask?.can you think of anything more appalling than having it all
end with the disintegration of your essence into a multiplicity, so that you
actually became several, just as that unhappy demoniac became a legion,
and thus you would have lost the most inward and holy in a human being,
the binding power of the personality?

More directly addressing As perceived self-creative tendencies, Wilhelm

suggests that if A chooses to take ownership of his actions, he will indeed
discover the self or personality that is bound up with the actual world in
which he lives. He will experience a kind of reconciliation with actuality.
To take just one example, he writes that in the moment of choice,
the individual, then, becomes conscious as this specific individual with these
capacities, these inclinations, these drives, these passions, influenced by this
specific social milieu, as this specific product of this specific environment.

EO2 160 / SKS 3, 157-158.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


But as he becomes aware of all this, he takes upon himself responsibility for
it all. He does not hesitate over whether he will take this particular thing or
not, for he knows that if he does not do it something much more important
will be lost. In the moment of choice, he is in complete isolation, for he
withdraws from his social milieu and yet at the same time he is in absolute
continuity [with it], for he chooses himself as a product.

And echoing Kierkegaards assertion in On the Concept of Irony that a

transfiguration of the conditions for selfhood is tied to a religious openness to the divine, Wilhelm writes,
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 seem to open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the soul has seen the highest, which no mortal
eye can see and which can never be forgotten; then the personality receives
the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity. He does not
becomes someone other than he was before, but he becomes himself. The
consciousness integrates, and he is himself.

Wilhelms admonitions to A in Either/Or give nuance to Kierkegaards

critique of romantic irony, but the Kierkegaardian story of selfhood is, of
course, far from exhausted. The problem of how religiousness is related
to Christian doctrines like sin and faith is only touched upon briefly
in Either/Or. Wilhelm represents a general religious consciousness that
takes seriously the search for a primitive self as opposed to A who is the
instantiation of an ironic consciousness that wants to create itself.
As Tjnneland notes, insofar as books like Repetition and Stages
on Lifes Way are variations of themes from Either/Or, On the Concept
of Irony is also implicitly present there. Indeed, Kierkegaard returns
EO2 251 / SKS 3, 239.
EO2 177 / SKS 3, 172-173.

Eivind Tjnneland, Ironie als Symptom, Frankfurt am Main, et al.: Peter Lang
Verlag 2004, pp. 1-2. Tjnneland adds Johannes Slk and Josiah Thompson
to the list of interpreters who see On the Concept of Irony as the starting point


Chapter 7

indirectly to the problems raised in his Magister thesis in many of his

early works like Repetition, where the key charactersthe young man
and Constatin Constantiusstruggle with the problems of the poetic
life vs. religious life. And in Guilty? / Not-Guilty? in Stages on Lifes
Way, one finds a discussion of why poetry can never fully capture inward
suffering. In the course of this exposition, Frater Taciturnus mentions
Schlegel directly, and repeats the crucial critique of irony from On the
Concept of Irony: poetry is not a true reconciliation with ones factical
self, but rather a mediocre reconciliation. Only a religious perspective, he says, can approach the inwardness necessary for appropriating
subjective experience.
To show how this study of On the Concept of Irony can cast light on
yet another of Kierkegaardian pseudonymous works, I have chosen to
examine a text which is rarely compared with On the Concept of Irony,
namely Fear and Trembling. My suggestion here is that Fear and Trembling can be read as a more detailed investigation of the very issue that
troubles Kierkegaard in On the Concept of Irony, namely the problem of
becoming reconciled with actuality via a religious consciousness. In fact,
it is not an exaggeration to say that on this issuelike Either/OrFear
and Trembling also takes up where On the Concept of Irony left off.

B. Ironic Closure in Fear and Trembling

1. Johannes de silentio on Closure, Openness

and a Reconciliation with Finitude
As Kierkegaards pseudonym Johannes de silentio makes clear, the issue
of a reconciliation with actuality is the motivating theme in Fear and
Trembling. More than anything else, de silentio is fascinated to the point
of sleeplessness by the Abraham story because it represents an aspect
of the religious life that he is unable to grasp: the story of Abraham
of Kierkegaards authorship. See Johannes Slk, Shakespeare og Kierkegaard,
Copenhagen: Berlingske Forlag 1972, p. 131, and Josiah Thompson, Kierkegaard,
A Collection of Critical Essays, New York: Anchor Books 1972, p. 120.

SLW 458 / SKS 6, 423.

SLW 454-465 / SKS 6, 420-429; cf., CI 297 / SKS 1, 330-33.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


promises that ones relationships in the finite world can become valuable
even after one has given up all hope in that possibility. For as de silentio
emphasizes, the truly amazing thing about Abraham is not his willingness to follow Gods absurd command to sacrifice Isaac, but rather his
conviction that he will receive the finite world back againin the person
of Isaaceven though he has given it up as irretrievably lost. Abrahams
faith transforms the circumstances of his existence right here and right
now, in the temporal, finite world: Abraham had faith, and had faith
for this life, writes de silentio.
De silentio is in awe of the fact that Abraham and other knights of
faith are able to live in the finite world again after all rational hope for
living happily in finitude has been resigned.
Alastair Hannay nicely summarizes the critical issue explored in Fear
and Trembling in the introduction to his translation. The key issue, he
suggests, is the rediscovery of values in a world which has been emptied
of anything that was once significant. Hannay writes that de silentios
account of resignation:
could be read as symbolizing the way a person must look upon everything
he values, whether or not it is attainable. It could symbolize the attitude
that says that nothing in the world has value simply because one values
it. This would be resignation about values generally, as in Max Webers
disenchantment (Entzauberung). Faith would be, correspondingly, the
attitudinal appendix to this, that things have their value nonetheless, but
they have them on their own account and from God. It would be plausible
to attribute this compound attitude to the shopman knight of faith, but also
of course, to attribute it to Abraham and his belief that what he is giving to
God will be returned, as it was but with its clarified status. 

As Hannay notes, the decisive category which enables reconciliation

is of course faitha more nuanced category within the religious. In
order to make Abrahams movement of faithful reconciliation with the
actual world as vivid as possible, de silentio contrasts faith with a number
of incomplete modes of reconciliation. The key in each case is the way

FT 53-54 / SKS 4, 116; Hannays italics.

FT, Hannays introduction, p. 24.


Chapter 7

in which the individual relates to the actual finite world. As de silentio

writes, the relationship to actuality [Virkelighed] is that upon which
everything turns. De silentios first step in identifying the characteristics
of faith is thus clearly to demarcate the line which separates faith from a
host of worldviews which might seem to resemble faith. Crucially, this
demarcation is marked by their respective relationships to actuality.
It is important to note here that the most fundamental distinction is
said to be the line which separates faith from a life of resignation. As
we will see, this is ultimately the line which de silentio uses to indicate
that every worldview on the other side of faith falls into the category of
self-sufficiency: it is the line which separates the individual who saves
himself, and the individual who is saved by another.
De silentio characterizes the infinitely resigned individual as one
who lives as a stranger in the actual world, having given up all claims
to finitude. Put differently, the resigned individuals given actual world,
the sphere of human relationships which was once loved and valued
immediately, has been made relative. What once was the center of
the resigned individuals life is no longer central and maybe not even
important any longer. Whether this alienation from actuality stems
from the disappointment of failed expectations, the loss of others in
death, or the pain which results from a loss of existentially orienting
landmarks, the individual has accepted that a deep happiness is not a
part of existence. The finite relationships which make life meaningful
have become hollow.
One of the best examples of a character living in resignation, de
silentio himself, admits that he does not expect to find fulfillment in
this life. If he were tested as Abraham was, he would be courageous
enough to follow Gods command, he says; but unlike Abraham, at the
very moment he were to receive such a command, his joy in this life would
disappear. The knight of infinite resignation receives no consolation in
actuality. De silentio, however, does claim to find some comfort. He is
FT 70, 78 / SKS 4, 136, 143. I have changed the translation of Virkelighed from
Hannays reality to actuality for the sake of consistency. In general, however,
I agree with Hannays choice since the less formal reality better captures
Kierkegaards Virkelighed.

FT 64-65 / SKS 4, 130.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


reconciled with existence in some sense: his original passion for living
in the finite world is redirected away from actuality and transformed
into a love of God. He is reconciled with the world in this weak sense
by giving a spiritual expression to his earthly love since he cannot give
it an actual expression.
It is in connection with the discussion of resignation that the category
of irony explicitly reappears in Fear and Trembling. De silentio himself,
who claims to know a thing or two about irony, draws the comparison
between infinite resignation and the resigned distance which accompanies an ironic worldview. He writes that the distance resulting from
an ironic worldviewand the humorous worldview which is closely
related to itfalls under the category of infinite resignation. Drawing
comparisons with the worldviews of irony and humor, he writes:
our hero of faith was not even an ironist and humorist but something still
higher. A lot is said in our time about irony and humor, particularly by people
who have never succeeded in practicing them but who nevertheless know
how to explain everything. I am not altogether unfamiliar with these two
passions; I know a little bit more about them than is to be found in German
and German-Danish compendia. Therefore I know that these two passions
differ essentially from faith. Irony and humor reflect also upon themselves
and so belong in the sphere of infinite resignation; they own their flexibility
to the individuals incommensurability with actuality.

FT 72-73 / SKS 4, 138.

FT 80 / SKS 4; 145; translation modified. The targets of de silentios accusations are likely Martensen and his students. While de silentio says that Hegel
does not understand irony, Hegel does not emphasize that humor or irony are
essential aspects of Christianity (See also FT 136 / SKS 4, 199). As noted in
the previous chapter, in Martensens review of Heibergs Nye Digte, he claims
that humor is a Christian category. He writes: [Humor] relates to irony just as
depth of mind relates to sharpness of mind. Humor, which belongs exclusively
to Christianity, contains all irony, the poetic justification over the fallen world,
but also the fullness of love and reconciliation. It contains all the pain of the
world conquered in a deep wealth of happiness. See Martensen, Fdrelandet,
January 10-12, 1841, no. 398400. In another small study Martensen writes,
Humor is the most inward background in every Christian view of the world.


Chapter 7

It may be apparent already that this movement of resignation emerges

from the basic categories Kierkegaard speaks of in On the Concept of
Irony. As noted above, Kierkegaard there argues that an ironic critical
distance from the values of conventional life precedes the religious life.
De silentio repeats this move in Fear and Trembling. Like the ironist who
never returns to the harsher reality of actual ethical life but finds solace
in his own higher actualitya closed [indesluttet] and self-centered
interpretation of actualitythe resigned individual admits that his movement toward the infinite transforms the finite into a kind of higher
actuality, an abstract, spiritual actuality. The knight of resignation
consoles himself with a one-sidedly ideal version of actuality, devoid of
the concretion of meaningful activity in the world.
De silentios abstract spiritual life does not include the most difficult
move, however. The paradoxical move of faith which receives the world
at the same time as it is relinquished. De silentio gives nuance to the idea
of a faithful reconciliation when he moves to the three problemata in the
last section of the book. Abrahams return to the world is the primary
issue, but instead of focusing on the psychological aspects which make
the story come alive, he focuses on the philosophical structure. In other
words, he promises to extract from the story of Abraham its dialectical element in the form of problemata in order to see how monstrous a
paradox faith is. Here Kierkegaard makes use of a discussion that was
central to On the Concept of Irony: He draws upon the critique Schlegel
which was inspired by Hegels Philosophy of Right. This time, however,
de silentio will not only make explicit the ways in which he agrees with
Hegel but also the ways in which ways he does not.

2. Reconciliation in the Problemata

De silentio begins his dialectical discussion in the Problemata by sketching

a position in which ethical and moral rectitude is taken to be the telos
of human striving. In this worldview, the goal of every individual is to
discipline him- or herself in such a way that his or her activity can always
See Hans Lassen Martensen, Grundrids til Moralphilosophiens System, Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzels Forlag 1841, 56, p. 60.

FT 82 / SKS 4, 147.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


be said to be an expression of a universal ethical demand. A persons

eternal happiness [Salighed] is said to be dependent upon the degree to
which he or she is able to practice and attain a virtuous life. As noted
above, de silentio attributes this position to Hegel, and refers the reader
specifically to a discussion of the Good and Conscience from Hegels
Philosophy of Right. De silentio argues here that if Hegel is correct in his
assessment that the highest human telos is to surrender a particular will
to a universal will, then it is impossible to praise Abraham for his faith.
De silentio writes that if indeed it is the case that the purpose of human
existence is to live an ethically upright life, then Hegel is right in his
Good and Conscience where he discusses man seen merely as the single
individual and regards this way of seeing him as a moral form of evil
to be annulled in the teleology of the ethical life, so that the individual
who stays at this stage is either in sin or a state of temptation. The point
de silentio wants to highlight by introducing this apparently Hegelian
position is clear enough: he wants to point out that Abrahams faithful
willingness to sacrifice Isaac cannot be justified if one accepts Hegels
absolute ethical life as the telos of human existence. Rather one must
admit that from an ethical perspective, faith is a moral form of evil.
But one might initially wonder why de silentio singles out this particular
chapter of a book which Hegel conceives of as a philosophy of law. Why
has de silentio chosen this section of textthe only specific reference to
Hegels primary works cited in Kierkegaards authorship after Either/
Or rather than a Hegelian text which deals with the relationship of
ethics to faith? Furthermore, an examination of the Good and Conscience chapter in Philosophy of Right reveals that it is not an explicit
FT 83-84 / SKS 4, 148-149.
FT 83 / SKS 4, 148-149.

Louis Dupr, Kierkegaard as Theologian New York: Sheed and Ward 1963.
p. 74.

See Jon Stewart Kierkegaards Relation to Hegel Reconsidered, especially chapter
7, Hegels View of Moral Conscience and Kierkegaards Interpretation of
Abraham. Kierkegaard refers to the very same chapter, Good and Conscience,
again in Practice in Christianity (PT 83 / SV1, 83). Even in Either/Or, the specific
references to Hegels texts are limited to those which Kierkegaard studied in
connection with his dissertation, namely Hegels Lectures on Aesthetics, and a
section of the Phenomenology of Spirit.


Chapter 7

account of the highest human telos at all; it is not even an account of a

fully developed ethical position. The Good and Conscious describes
various subject-oriented ways of thinking about morality, something
which Hegel ultimately considers to be an unsatisfactory ground upon
which to found law or ethics.
The key to understanding why de silentio alludes to Hegels Good
and Conscience lies in On the Concept of Irony. As we saw in chapter
five of this study, Kierkegaard makes careful use of Hegels Good and
Conscience in his discussion of Schlegel. For this is where Hegel argues
that Schlegelian irony is an example of the worst form of subjective
thinking, the supreme form of moral evil. Hegels calls the ironist the
particular individual who refuses to accept the restrictions of any moral
or ethical standard which does not originate in the particular desires
and interests of the individual him- or herself. For him, an egoist like
the ironist is nothing less than evil.
In essence, de silentio refers to Good and Conscience to support
his claim that if we use Hegelian ethics to judge Abraham, we must
admit that insofar as Abraham places his own subjective convictions
about right and wrong above those we all accept as rational, Abraham
is no different that the ironist who also places his or her subjective particularity higher than ethics. De silentios next move, though, is to call
the sufficiency of the Hegelian view into questionand in a sense, he
begins to nuance his own position outlined in On the Concept of Irony.
While Kierkegaard could use Hegel to argue against the egoism of
irony, he cannot use him to explain the position of faith. Hegelian ethics
cannot excuse the faithful individual like Abraham who is willing to
break moral and ethical law at Gods command since Hegel requires
the particular individual to act in accordance with universal principles.
There is no room for a justified suspension of ethics.
It becomes apparent here that the aim and result of de silentios break
with the Hegelian position is to uncouple faith from ethics. He calls
attention to the difference between a faithful worldview in which submission to the will of God is an uncompromising absolute, and an ethical
worldview in which submission to the demands of ethics is central. For
de silentio, God and the Good are not identical, and he forcefully insists

PR 140, 184 / Jub. 7, 222.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


on holding the two apart: in the case of faith, the individual is absolutely committed to God regardless of the possible ethical judgments of
the human community. In the case of the ethical person, an individual
ought to be fundamentally committed to the common good. To use
de silentios own terminology, there is a crucial difference between an
individual who is related absolutely to the absolute, and an individual
who is related absolutely to the universal. In other words, de silentio
breaks with Hegel here because, as he sees it, Hegel presupposes the
ultimate harmony of just human laws and divine law. For Hegel, at their
core, they are one and the same. Ethical principles are grounded in a
divine rationality which orders and supports the universe, a divine
rationality which is capable of being understood and articulated by
the human mind. For de silentio, Hegels position resembles that of
the Greeks insofar as both assume an immanent theology. De silentio
writes, If the ethical life is the highest and nothing incommensurable
is left over in man, except in the sense of what is evilthen one needs
no other categories than those of the Greek philosophers or whatever
can be deduced from them. This is something which Hegel, who has
after all made some study of the Greeks, ought not to have kept quiet
about. In short, de silentio places Hegels anthropology within the
Greek tradition since for Hegel, the truth about the aims and goals of
human life are immanently available. The truth about how one ought
to live, the ethical truth, is rational and available for every seeker,
even without divine revelation. By contrast, de silentio wants to hold
open the possibility that the task of existing as a human being is more
complicated. Gods truth does not have to be identical with a rational
conception of the ethical truth.
But as de silentio pulls faith apart from ethics and makes the subjective relation to God central, one might wonder if another distinction
becomes less clear, namely, that which holds ironic subjectivity apart
from faithful subjectivity. In other words, when the demands of ethics
are made relative, it is no longer clear by what authority ethics can
demand that the particular subject respect the demand of the universal.
Is it possible to distinguish the ironist, who suspends the ethical for
the sake of his own interests, from the person of faith, who suspends

FT 84 / SKS 4, 149.


Chapter 7

the ethical at the command of God? What is the objective difference

between these positions now that Hegels objective criteria have been
made relative?
De silentio recognizes, of course, that he is in an odd position. When
considered objectivelyor as he puts it, when the form of the suspension of ethics is viewed ideallythe ironist and the person of faith
cannot be distinguished. Viewed objectively, they are both in a state of
sin or temptation. Objectively, the kind of faith de silentio advocates
is in ordinary company, it belongs with feeling mood, idiosyncrasy,
hysteria and the rest. In other words, from an objective perspective, it
belongs to the same class of emotions as irony.
Despite the objective similarities, however, de silentio is insistent
that viewed from within the psyche of the individual subject, there is
a decisive distinction between the closed, self-sufficient subjectivity of
the ironist and the open, dependent subjectivity of the person of faith.
There are at least two ways de silentio holds these two subjective positions apart: 1) first, he simply posits the claim that an ethical seriousness
is a precondition for faith. In a more subtle argument 2), however, he
reveals that pride and humility are the key factors.
De silentios first argument 1) is an appeal to a sort of developmental
psychology which reveals that de silentio does not relinquish the notion
of ethical discipline. He argues that the internal seriousness which
accompanies an ethical worldview is a prerequisite to faith. A respect
for the universal demands of the sort attributed to Hegeland to the
Greeksis not in itself problematic. De silentio praises the ethically
oriented person for taking up the task of self-examination and the
search for an ethical mission. He is careful to note that the individual
who has not disciplined him- or herself by following the dictates of the
universal can never become a person of faith. In order to underscore his
point, each time he describes the formal structure of the suspension of
the ethical, he repeats that this can only take place after the particular
individual has gone through the phase of ethically disciplining him- or
herself under the universal:

FT 90 / SKS 4, 155.
FT 97 / SKS 4, 161.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual as the particular is
higher than the universal, is justified before the latter not as subordinate
but superior, though in such a way, be it noted, that the single individual who,
having been subordinate to the universal as the particular, now by means
of the universal becomes the individual who as the particular stands in an
absolute relation to the absolute.

De silentio holds on to a central aspect of Hegels critique of the Schlegelian ironist. Ethical discipline comes prior to an absolute relation to the
absolute. One must take the demand of ethics seriously before the move
to faith takes place and thus before one can be authentically reconciled
with actuality.
But this first way of explaining the difference between the ironic
suspension of the ethical and the religious suspension of the ethical
does not allow de silentio to give a full inventory of faithful subjectivity.
At this juncture, de silentio has simply asserted that ethical seriousness
is a precondition to faith. There are other features of faithful existence
which have not yet been explicitly identified that will make the differences
between ironic subjectivity and religious subjectivity unmistakable.
De silentios second way of explicating these differences sets the
critical movement of faith into reliefand it is here we see the critical
distinction made in On the Concept of Irony between the closed, self-sufficient position of irony and the open humble position of the religious
individual. These are the decisive categories. For by framing the issue in
terms of closure vs. openness or self-sufficiency vs. divine dependency,
de silentio can show how the attitude of faithful subjectivity is different
not only from the category of particular subjectivity, but how it is different from any other non-faithful position he has mentioned, whether
it be the ironic or the ethical. With the category of self-sufficiency, he
can show that only through a dependence upon God can one find value
in a world which has been stripped of meaning, that only through an
openness to the divine does a genuine reconciliation with actuality take
place. To see this most clearly, let me return to de silentios discussion
of resignation vs. faith and examine them in light of the category of
self-sufficiency. I begin with resignation.

FT 84-85 / SKS 4, 149; my emphasis.


Chapter 7

De silentio knows resignation intimatelyfor this is his own worldview. He claims that it takes great strength to resign oneself to an existence for which meaning and value are concentrated somewhere outside
actuality. It is hardly a simple matter, he says, to give up all ones finite
hopes and interests for something greater than the finite world, even if
that something greater is the infinite, Gods love. Many human relationships are immensely important to us, he admits, and relativizing
these immediate loves to such a degree that one could live without them
requires heroic discipline. In fact, the pain of such a maneuver colors
every aspect of finitude, making it impossible for the resigned person
to ever fully enjoy the world. De silentios most intriguing example is de
silentio himself. He claims to have understood the pain of disappointment and to have understood the alienation of ironic skepticism. And
he claims that despite his loneliness and pain, he receives an abstract
consolation in the love of God. His otherworldly relationship with the
infinite is the center of his existence.
But de silentio also claims to have a good idea of what faith is. He
understands it far enough to know he does not have it. But he claims
not to have faith, and I think he also has a good idea of why he does
not have faith. And he admits it. The important aspect of de silentios
resigned worldview for my purposes here is his description of how he
makes the movement of resignation, or more specifically, a description
of the source of his strength for making this difficult move. Importantly,
de silentio admits that he does not receive strength from a divine source.
Gods love is his consolation, but not an active element in his existence.
He resigns his happiness in the world on his own. He goes to the infinite on his own, and when he cultivates his soul enough to sense the
infinite, he takes consolation in this abstract spirituality. But he never
claims that he relies on a divine being to help him make that move. He
emphasizes repeatedly that helike other knights of resignationmakes
the movement of renunciation by his own human strength. A knight of
infinite resignation is self-sufficient:
In infinite resignation there is peace and repose; anyone who wants itcan
discipline himself into making the movement which in its pain reconciles

FT 63-64 / SKS 4, 128-129.

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


one to existence. Infinite resignation is that shirt in the old fable. The thread
is spun with tears, bleached by tears, the shirt sewn in tears but then it also
gives better protection than iron and steel.

Anyone can inoculate him- or herself from actuality with the pain of
disappointment or disillusionment. Anyone can build up a defense against
the arbitrariness of finitude. Everyone can understand this move. On
this note, de silentio knows that despite his ethical seriousness, he shares
something essential the romantic ironist: self-sufficiency. The ironist
takes control of his own life when he recognizes that conventional ethical systems are questionable. He consciously creates a provisional value
system based on his own desires. As Kierkegaard describes it in On the
Concept of Irony, the ironist tries to become reconciled with actuality by
transforming it creatively.
Unlike the ironist Kierkegaard describes, however, de silentio will
admit that the consolation of self-sufficiency pales when compared with
a religious reconciliation, when compared with faith. He is amazed at
the knight of faith who, like himself, infinitely renounces the claim to
love which is the content of his life. But then in a movement which de
silentio cannot himself make, he receives the world again. Or perhaps
one ought to say that de silentio will not receive the world again. For
he knows he is proud:
I do not burden God with my petty cares, details dont concern me. I gaze
only upon my love and keep its virginal flame pure and clear; faith is convinced that God troubles himself about the smallest thing. In this life I am
content to be wedded to the left hand, faith is humble enough to demand
the right; and that it is indeed humility I dont, and shall never, deny.

Faith demands the right hand, he writes. That is, faith demands a
transformation of the actual world so that finite relationships become
meaningful. But this demand is at the same time the most profound
expression of humility. De silentio is not humble enough to accept the
FT 74 / SKS 4, 140.
FT 75 / SKS 4, 141.

FT 64 / SKS 4, 129; my emphasis.


Chapter 7

offer of a world endowed with meaning. When it comes to the final

movement of faith, de silentio is as closed and self-reliant as the romantic ironist.
Let me return to Hegels Good and Conscience and de silentios
interest in this particular section of text. As noted, Kierkegaard can use
Hegels discussion of irony because he agrees that the practical result
of Schlegels literature is an ethically self-sufficient individual. In other
words, Kierkegaard and Hegel agree that an ironic lifestyle is a kind
of sickness: the particular individual who views all moral and ethical
principles as bankrupt egoistically closes him- or herself off from the
sphere of actuality. But Kierkegaard and Hegel do not agree on the
treatment of the ailment. They offer different paths back to actuality,
so to speak. For Hegel, an egoistic suspension of the ethical is refuted
by a demonstration that the ethical life is rational. The reconciliation
with actuality is complete when the particular individual again acts in
accordance with the universal demands of ethics. De silentio argues,
however, that a faithful person might be compelled to suspend the
ethical for a higher purpose. In such a case, the world cannot be taken
back through ethical discipline but must be given back. I have argued
that de silentio contrasts the resigned figure with the faithful figure in
order to show that faith ultimately requires an individual to sacrifice all
worldviews which are grounded in self-sufficiency, whether that self-sufficient worldview is satisfied with a Schlegelian aesthetic construction
of actuality, or a Hegelian rational understanding of actuality. For de
silentio, a reconciliation with actuality is a personal and subjective
matter, as it is for the ironist. But unlike the ironist, the power to bring
about that reconciliation is not within the subjects creative capacities.
The individual is not in a position to self-sufficiently make a home in
the actual world, it must be given as a gift.

C. Creating the Self in The Sickness unto Death

The problem of ironic self-creation, reappears most obviously in Kierkegaards anthropological study, The Sickness unto Death. The book is, of
course, about despair understood as an imbalance in the potentially
healthy self. This imbalance can arise if the individual orients himself

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


incorrectly to any of the essential relationships which constitute the self.

The result of correcting the imbalance, he writes, is a realized primitive
self: For every individual human being is primitively organized as a
self, characteristically determined to become himself.
We see the hallmarks of romantic irony in Anti-Climacus discussion of the despair of infinitude and the despair of possibility, which
are described as existential positions that lack a proper relationship to
finitude and necessity, respectively. The despairer who lacks finitude
is said to be governed by an abstract imagination; i.e., like the ironic
consciousness, this form of despair arises because the individual is not
attentive to his own concrete relationships and finite context. By power
of artistic genius or the imagination, one becomes a fantastic self.
Similar descriptions are found in his discussion of a despair which lacks
necessity, or limits:
What is really missing is the strength to obey, to yield to the necessary in
ones self, what might be called limits. Nor therefore is the misfortune of
such a self not to have become anything in the world; no the misfortune is
that he did not become aware of himself, that the self he is, is a quite definite
something, and thus the necessity. Instead, though this self s fantastically
reflecting itself in possibility, he lost himself.

The most explicit treatment of the power of self-creation, however, is

found in the section called Despair considered with regard to consciousness. Here Anti-Climacus looks at despair from the inside, i.e.,
he charts an increasing awareness of the problem of selfhood from a
psychological perspective. After describing what he calls unconscious
despairwhere there is no proper concept of a self since the idea
of an self is missing from ones understanding of human anthropology Anti-Climacus speaks of various forms of conscious despair.
It is in a discussion of the most reflective form of despair, the despair
Cf., SUDP 45-46 / SV1 9, 130-131.
Cf., SUDP 63 / SV1 9, 146.

SUDP 60 / SV1 9, 144.

SUDP 66- 67 / SV1 9, 149.

SUDP 72-77 / SV1 9, 155-159.


Chapter 7

of defiance, that Kierkegaards analysis of romantic thought reappears.

In short, for the defiant despairer, interpreting the self is a continuous
process in which one consults oneself about who and what the self is and
ought to become. One interprets the self on ones own termswhich
means, of course, that the original self that resides beneath the inauthentic, self-defined self is never realized. Here, the threat to the self is not
that one does not want to become oneself, but rather just the opposite:
that one wants to become a self one creates. Indeed, the despairer
is reflective enough to realize that he is capable of defining something
that he calls a self; like the romantic ironist, he has discovered that a
conception of self can be poetically constructed in the space opened
up by negative reflection. This capacity to create a self-conception in
this empty space is here called a consciousness of an infinite self or a
consciousness of the most abstract form of the self. He writes:
In order to want in despair to be oneself, there must be a consciousness of
an infinite self. However, this infinite self is really only the most abstract
form of the self, the most abstract possibility of the self. And it is this self
the despairer wants to be, severing the self from any relation to the power
which has established it, or severing it from the conception that there is
such a power. By means of this infinite form, the self wants in despair to
rule over himself, or create himself, make the self the self he wants to be,
determine what he will have and what he will not have in the concrete self.
His concrete self, or his concreteness, has indeed necessity and limits, is this
quite definite thing, with these aptitudes, predispositions, etc. in this concrete
set of circumstances, etc. But by means of the infinite form, the negative
self, he wants first to undertake to refashion the whole thing in order to
get out of it such a self as he wants, produced by means of the infinite form
of the negative selfand it is in this way he wants to be himself. That is to
say, he wants to begin a little earlier than other people, not at and with the
beginning, but in the beginning; he does not want to don his own self,
does not want to see his task in his given self, he wants by virtue of being
the infinite form, to construct it himself.

SUDP 99 / SV1 9, 179

Irony in Kierkegaard s Authorship


It is also apparent from this passage that Anti-Climacus is attuned to

the critical spiritual move Kierkegaard discussed in On the Concept of
Irony: the defiant despairer must detach himself from the conception of
a higher power, a rival deity as it were, that would threaten his creative
autonomy. Defiant despair recognizes no power over itself. As AntiClimacus sees it, the defiant despairer says to himself: I will define
myself exactly as I want. For I am a better creator than a god if indeed
a god has created the flawed individual I am. Anti-Climacus describes
this form of despair in language similar to that of Kierkegaards thesis
written almost ten years earlier, when he spoke of the ironists tendency
to appropriate the creative powers that bind and unbind heaven:
The negative form of the self exerts the loosening as much as the binding
power; it can, at any moment, start quite arbitrarily all over againThe self
is its own master, absolutely (as one says) its own master; and exactly this is
the despair, but also what it regards as its pleasure and joy [Nydelse].

And in the end, Anti-Climacus would agree with the following analysis
from On the Concept of Irony: the ironist most often becomes nothing,
because what is not true for God is true for manonly nothing can be
created from nothing. For as Anti-Climacus sees it, the self-creative
despairer rules over an empty self, over nothing:
All these experimental virtues look very splendidYes they do that for
sure, and beneath it all there is nothing. The self wants in despair to savour
the full satisfaction of making itself into wants to take credit for
this poetic [digteriske], masterly project, its own way of understanding itself.
And yet what it understands itself to be is in the final instance a riddle; just
when it seems on the point of having the building finished, at a whim it
can dissolve the whole thing into nothing.

SUDP 100 / SV1 9, 180.

SUDP 98-105 / SV1 9, 178-185.

SUDP 100 / SV1 9, 180.

CI 281 / SKS 1, 317.

SUDP 101 / SV1 9, 180-181.


Chapter 7

One final important parallel with Kierkegaards discussion of irony ought

to be mentioned. Though the discussion of the religiosity required for
authentic selfhood was described cryptically in On the Concept of Irony
and is still incomplete in many of the early pseudonymous worksAntiClimacus adds more detail concerning what he considers the authentic
religious consciousness to be. In short, Anti-Climacus suggests that
the refusal to become oneself, before God, is precisely what sin isand
thus the cultivation of faith, the counterpart to sin, is the path toward
a reconciliation to actuality and the self. Sin is not an epistemological
problem, he says, solved via a proper rational understanding, nor is it
an ethical problem solved by living virtuously. It is a problem bound up
with the will. The root of the problem is said to be that the individual
will not to open him- or herself to the will of the creatorand here the
creators will can be summarized simply as the demand that the creature
willingly realize the potential self it was created to become.
Even here, Kierkegaard has not said his last word here about overcoming the sin of self-creation or the cultivation of faith. But it is
apparent, I hope, that the issues tied to irony that Kierkegaard addressed
as a student are very much alive in the later authorship. His assertion
in On the Concept of Irony that the only true reconciliation happens for
me in religious openness is a conclusion that becomes a premise for
his authorship as a whole.