I keep thinking about marriage lately, especially as I’ve been reading about Søren Kierkegaard, who, depending on how you spin it, is either the institution’s greatest advocate or its greatest enemy. Some biographical information may be necessary here. In September 1840, Kierkegaard became engaged to one Regine Olsen. There is no doubt he was deeply in love with Olsen, as passages like the following from his journals suggest:
You, my heart’s sovereign mistress [a pun on “Regine,” or queen], stored in the deepest recesses of my heart, in my most brimmingly vital thoughts, there where it is equally far to heaven as to hell—unknown divinity! Oh, can I really believe what the poets say: that when a man sees the beloved object for the first time he believes he has seen her long before, that all love, as all knowledge, is recollection, that love in the single individual also has its prophecies, its types, its myth, its Old Testament? Everywhere, in every girl’s face I see features of your beauty, yet I think I’d need all the girls in the world to extract, as it were, your beauty from theirs.
My wife is no doubt blushing as she reads this; my sister read that passage at our wedding.
But something happened. Less than a year later, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, for reasons that are still debated 170 years later. What we know for sure is that when he came up with his famous “spheres of existence,” he made a libidinous bachelor his image of the lowest sphere, the aesthetic, and marriage his image of the middle, or ethical sphere. As St. Paul tells us, “It is better to marry than to burn.”
A sizeable group of modern critics nevertheless tell us that the broken engagement is a symptom of a personality quirk, neurosis, or more serious mental image on Kierkegaard’s part. This interpretation strikes me as indefensible, largely because it ignores the third sphere in Kierkegaard’s schema, the religious sphere. He deals with notions of the religious mainly in two books, Fear and Trembling and Stages on Life’s Way.
Fear and Trembling is by far the more famous of these two texts and deals with God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. To enter the religious sphere—in other words, to put his faith in God—Abraham must transcend the ethical sphere of universally applicable law. Remembering that he elsewhere equates the ethical with marriage, it’s easy to see what Kierkegaard is talking about here. He speaks painfully of why he is not, like Abraham, a “knight of faith”:
If—in the guise of the tragic hero, for higher than that I cannot come—I were summoned to such an extraordinary royal progress as that to the mountain in Moriah I know very well what I would have done. I would not have been coward enough to stay at home, nor would I have rested on the way or dawdled, or forgotten the knife to create some delay I am fairly certain I would have been there on the dot, with everything arranged . . . But I also know what I would have done. The moment I mounted the horse, I would have said to myself, “Now everything is lost, God demands Isaac, I sacrifice Isaac, I sacrifice him, and with him all my joy—yet God is love and for me continues to be so.
The reason Kierkegaard can be so sure what he would do in Abraham’s shoes is that, metaphorically speaking, he had already done it. In breaking his engagement to Regine Olsen, he had sacrificed the person dearest to him in all the world, in an attempt to enter the religious sphere.
That modern critics insist on finding neuroses in Kierkegaard’s actions demonstrates nothing so much as an utter refusal to take the religious sphere seriously. Or, as William Barrett puts it in Irrational Man,
To make [the broken engagement] a mystery that can only be explained by some unspoken and unspeakable blight within his character is simply to cast doubt on there being such a thing as a religious personality for which the ordinary life of marriage and family is impossible, simply because it has other tasks.
My one quibble with Barrett’s otherwise excellent analysis of Kierkegaard’s work is his claim that Kierkegaard “convert[ed] his renunciation into a dedication and an eventual triumph.” I’m not convinced of this, for reasons that should be obvious from the passage of Fear and Trembling I quoted above. I’ve only skimmed Kierkegaard’s later works, so the triumph of which Barrett speaks might well come later in his life; however, Barrett barely mentions anything other than Fear and Trembling. (In particular, his failure to bring up Stages on Life’s Way, which directly equates the religious sphere with a renunciation of marriage makes me wonder if that book had not been translated into English by 1958.)
What I’m getting at is the suggestion that Kierkegaard may be one of the monks Protestantism doesn’t have. In rejecting marriage, he frees himself to devote his soul to a higher cause. Now, his philosophy is radically individualistic, so I’d agree with anyone who pointed out the communal aspects of monastery life he misses out on—but his life is still a useful corrective to the near-worship of the family one finds in Evangelical circles, not to mention the fixation on sex our culture lays upon us.