Parables of Kierkegaard

Tuesday, September 4th, 2001

Published 17 years ago -

Parables of Kierkegaard

Edited by Thomas C. Oden

Review By Dan Geddes

Editor Thomas C. Oden discovered the idea of compiling Kierkegaard’s parables during a conversation with another scholar. This volume gives Kierkegaard’s parables a wider audience, as few non-philosophers read the philosopher’s works in their entirety.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) remains one of the strangest fish within the school of Western philosophy, due to his many unusual traits, including: his use of many different pseudonyms within his works, his often surprising stance as a Christian Existentialist, and his willingness to himself offer some of the most devastating critiques of Christianity imaginable. The fact that he wrote in Danish also slowed his reception, and it wasn’t really until the turn of the twentieth century that Kierkegaard became more in vogue; as, to paraphrase the entry on Kierkegaard in the hilariously elliptical work An Incomplete Education, what once seemed like one man’s personal problem took on more universal significance during the intellectually dark time of the fin de siecle. In one passage of Fear and Trembling  Kierkegaard even roughly argues that one should believe in Christianity, precisely because it is the most absurd idea imaginable!

Kierkegaard’s parables, collected in this volume from throughout his work, are short stories (often less than a page), used to illustrate some point of his theory. Although Kierkegaard propounded his own philosophy, which is now termed Christian Existentialism (though Kierkegaard never termed it that), his arguments often target others, such as the hypocrisy of nominally Christian societies, or Hegel’s program of systematizing “the spirit of history.”

Kierkegaard was painfully aware of how absurd the central idea of Christianity—that God took the form of a man and sacrificed Himself, to Himself, for Man’s sins—appears to the intellect, and so in some parables, notably “The King and The Maiden,” he sets out to illustrate the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice. In this parable, a king falls in love with a lowly maiden, and so faces the problem of how to earn the maiden’s genuine love. The king does not want to overawe the maiden with a display of his power, or to suddenly elevate her position by decree, or to equalize himself and the maiden by various other methods. No, he must take on the true form of a servant, and make the maiden love that incarnation of him. And so, Kierkegaard argues, must God take the form of a man-servant as Jesus, so that we can love Him. Rather than a proof of Christianity of the validity of Scripture, which Kierkegaard admits to taking as presuppositions, it is an interesting attempt to illuminate the central paradox of Christianity for the believer.

Kierkegaard devotes another parable “The Wise Men of Gotham” to the question of whether a “Christian Philosopher” can ever question his Christian presuppositions. He tells a brief parable of some men who wanted to hang from the branch of a tree overhanging a stream in order to help the tree. One man gripped the branch of the tree, and each man gripped the feet of another man until one of them had reached the water. Questioning one’s fundamental assumptions is like the first man loosening his grasp of the branch: they all fall in the water.

Some of the shorter “parables” are no more than scenarios, hardly longer than a novelist’s aside. In some of the longer parables, such as “Periander” and “A Possibility,” Kierkegaard writes more memorable stories. “Periander” is the tale of a wise king who is corrupted by power, and so is unable of retaining his wisdom, or of following his own precepts. Periander anticipates Freud’s Oedipus, in that Periander has sexual relations with his mother; he also kills his own wife.

Perhaps the most striking of all the parables in the collection is “A Possibility,” which is a penetrating psychological tale of obsession. A strait-laced young man, a bookkeeper, is one night induced to visit a house of ill-repute with some boon companions. He becomes obsessed with the possibility that he has impregnated the prostitute. Soon after, he takes to methodically pacing a certain block of the city each day at a certain time. The bookkeeper inherits a fortune, and shows generosity to many children of the town, perhaps motivated by the possibility that one of them is his child. “A Possibility” shows the origins of a compulsion, and how insanity and sanity can co-existence uneasily together.

Kierkegaard’s parables lend his philosophy an interdisciplinary import that it wouldn’t otherwise possess. Although of uneven quality, many of the parables shine like marvels of moral edification. They illuminate difficult aspects of his philosophy, but are not themselves any substitute for arguments. Kierkegaard accepts, sometimes willing to play the dialectical game, but other times more concerned with convincing his readers of the errors of contemporary Christendom and philosophy, and offering a new approach to familiar problems.

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