W. H. Auden on Kierkegaard


The wide-ranging poet, playwright, and essayist, W. H. Auden, was also an avid reader and interpreter of Kierkegaard in the 1940’s and early 50’s. This was a time when existential voices were resounding throughout the academy and church, in the wake of another catastrophic war. Auden’s attraction to Kierkegaard also makes sense in the context of Auden’s struggle with sexuality and loneliness (see Wesley Hill’s article), for Kierkegaard is the premier theologian for those who feel homeless in this world. That does not convey the sense of all of Kierkegaard’s vast corpus, but with book titles like Sickness Unto Death, The Concept of Anxiety, and Fear and Trembling — I think the characterization is justified. Auden would soon move his theology in a more anglo-catholic direction, presumably for the sake of finding a doctrine of creation that is not eviscerated by sin and idolatry.

Yet Kierkegaard is enduringly valuable, to wake and stir the sleepy Christian. I think the gospel brings an aesthetic and ethic in the creaturely realm, on this side of the eschaton, but the creation as such knows nothing of it, not apart from the light that illumines all our darkness. Those who are contented with the darkness, so long as it provides the modicum of security and pleasure necessary for a sense of well-being, will repudiate the light — or, more often, politely ignore it. Some of this is very well-captured by Auden in this brief description of Kierkegaard’s apologetic strategy:

To show the non-believer that he is in despair because he cannot believe in his gods and then show him that Christ cannot be a man-made God because in every respect he is offensive to the natural man is for Kierkegaard the only true kind of Christian apologetics. The false kind of apologetics of which he accuses his contemporary Christians is the attempt to soft-pedal the distinction between Christianity and the Natural Religions, either by trying to show that what Christians believe is really just what everybody believes, or by suggesting that Christianity pays in a worldly sense, that it makes men healthy, wealthy, and wise, keeps society stable, and the young in order, etc. Apart from its falsehood, Kierkegaard says, this method will not work because those who are satisfied with this world will not be interested and those who are not satisfied are looking for a faith whose values are not those of this world.

[The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, Indiana University Press, 1952, p. 20. In the new edition from New York Review Books, it is p. xxvii].

That last sentence is especially good and well worth memorizing.


Image: “Kierkegaard In the Street” by Luplau Janssen


  1. I personally enjoy Kierkegaard’s theological writing (‘Spiritual Writings’ and ‘Works of Love) more than his well-known philosophical works. ‘Spiritual Writings’ in particular is lovely devotional reading.

    • Yes, even Auden recognized that too much attention has been given to his philosophical writings. He recommends ‘Works of Love’ and ‘Training in Christianity’. I’ve read some of the former and Purity of Heart. In his journals (that I’ve skimmed through), he recognizes that his faith is constantly struggling against his melancholy — that life and gladness become real and abiding in his life. I was profoundly influenced by Kierkegaard in my undergraduate days, especially since he is very similar to Simone Weil. But I see a turn toward constructive dogmatics as necessary, certainly for my own spiritual life.

  2. ” I was profoundly influenced by Kierkegaard in my undergraduate days, especially since he is very similar to Simone Weil. But I see a turn toward constructive dogmatics as necessary, certainly for my own spiritual life.”

    The problem I have with Kierkegaard is that the form of heroic and strenuous Christianity he embraces seems like it could only be undertaken by childless bachelors; ironically, I get the sense that the same could be said about Weil. They seem like monastics without monasteries.

    If Christianity is a faith not just for the faithful, strong and courageous few (which is one of the things that Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor claimed turned him and his spiritual peers against Jesus Christ), then there must be room in it for the the domestic, for the family, and most of all for children.

    Is there room in Kierkegaardian thought for idea of the child as faithful Christian? If not, then perhaps there is no room for any of us, since we are all really children.

    • Ha, yes, that’s very good. You are expressing some of my own thoughts precisely — the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote about the need for “a doctrine of creation that is not eviscerated by sin and idolatry” and “I think the gospel brings an aesthetic and ethic in the creaturely realm, on this side of the eschaton.” Kierkegaard fails to do this. I realize that Kierkegaard specialists today are quick to talk about his “positive” works, but I seriously doubt this truly challenges the previous consensus about Kierkegaard’s limitations as an existentialist. (As a side note, I am not impressed by a lot of scholarship today on various figures from Schleiermacher to Barth, but that would require a very long discussion.)

      It was also common in previous studies, with which I basically agree, to interpret Kierkegaard’s philosophy in the light of his failed relationship with Regine Olsen and his troubled relationship with his father. And Kierkegaard himself encouraged us to do this, with his many exhortations that philosophy should be intimately related to one’s personal life.

      • “It was also common in previous studies, with which I basically agree, to interpret Kierkegaard’s philosophy in the light of his failed relationship with Regine Olsen and his troubled relationship with his father. ”

        I’m not familiar enough with the particulars of his relationship to his father to comment about that, but didn’t Kierkegaard himself in effect intentionally abort the relationship with Olsen precisely because he could not find a way to fit married life into his understanding of what it meant take up one’s cross and follow Jesus Christ?

        My own experience has taught me there is plenty of room to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus in the very midst of marriage, and that marriage has its own peculiar forms of asceticism and self-denial. I can’t help but feel that it’s unfortunate that Kierkegaard refused to undertake the dying to self that is involved in the baptism of Christian marriage. If he had, I’m sure he would have had much that was profound and edifying to say on the subject.

      • That’s been my understanding, and, yes, I agree that he could have had profound things to say about marriage. There seems to be a fear of form and order, that marriage expresses. It is as if form and authenticity (sacrifice) are mutually exclusive.

      • Well, why ought we to assume that Kiekegaard “should” get married? Some are celibate for the Kingdom and in the US, this vocation (equal, if not even more beneficial (according to Paul), to marriage) is denigrated as a mere waiting stage. It’s not celibates and married, but those looking and those who’ve found.

        The Lord does speak to our marriages and puts them beneath our calling as disciples. “Those who have wives be as those who do not”? The problem is the false dichotomy between a radical (i.e. root-effecting) faith and the mundane.

        When a doctrine of creation is emptied of a doctrine of grace, we end up with Kierkegaard’s enemy, the bourgeois christian infrastructure.

        Just because we’re constantly unfaithful as the Lord’s body, doesn’t mean the courageous life is not the call. A courageous life for those who are married and those who are not, for women and for men, for freeman and for slave, for Greek and Jew, for Black and White, for child or adult.

        The hope is that we truly are predestined to conform to the image of the matchless Son.


      • Cal, I would be the last person to say that everyone “should” get married, being unmarried myself. The question is whether marriage and family is somehow unbecoming of the pure philosophical spirit or ascetic spirit, which has been a constant in the West from Augustine to Kant to Kierkegaard to Weil — basically Platonists. Kierkegaard’s ambivalence about marriage was influenced by his belief that eros and agape were always opposed to one another.

        “All pleasure is selfish. The pleasure of the lover…is not selfish with respect to the loved one, but in union they are both absolutely selfish, inasmuch as in union and in love they constitute one self” (Works of Love, p. 56). Alan Soble comments: “As a result, ‘The more securely the two I’s come together to become one I,’ the more in loving each other, they love only themselves” (see Works of Love, p. 68). I highly recommend Soble’s article, “A History of Erotic Philosophy,” Journal of Sex Research 46.

      • I don’t think it’s so simple as a category of Platonist to peg Kierkegaard’s aversion to love. Augustine certainly did not disdain marriage (at least when he was older) in an age where it was common place for serious-minded Christians to do so.

        His articulation of the ordering of loves is what sets this apart. It’s why he gets much more worked up over sex and marriage than a Pelagian like Julian of Eclanum or some in the East.

        If Kierkegaard is truly unraveling it in a dichotomy, which he may very well be, that’s that. But the quote you pulled leaves out enough that I’m not sure what it means. Kierkegaard liked Luther’s parable of the king who leaves his throne to find a the dirty peasant girl and marry her. I wonder how God’s love for His people fits into the quote, and whether ‘selfish’ is a negative connotation here.

        All and all, the marriage comment wasn’t directed to you Kevin, or anyone here in particular.

        The philosophic/ascetic spirit (as you call it) is not so easy to define. Augustine blasted the neo-Platonists for their arrogance. It’s a difference of focus,and without getting that, it’s impossible to understand Augustine outside of Platonism, despite his appreciation and appropriation of their concepts and grammar.

      • I am perhaps relying too much on Soble’s article, which I happened to have just read before reading your comment. Soble traces a rather convincing narrative from Plato’s idealization of intellectual (eternal) union over carnal (transitory) union — most famously in the Symposium — to Augustine’s belief that Adam/Eve would have had sex but without passion (eros) as a purely intellectual mastery over the penis! After the fall, marriage is good…for procreation. If a married couple has sex for the purpose of satiating their desires, then the wife plays the harlot and the man the wife’s adulterous lover. Soble is citing Aug’s mature works (like On marriage and concupiscence, 418-421 BC).

        As for SK, he is notoriously difficult, and Soble recognizes that he is ambivalent — hence, I wouldn’t say that he “disdains” marriage. In Either/Or, it appears to remain a dialectical tension, recognizing the validity of marriage under one pseudonym (vol. 2) after disparaging it under the first pseudonym (vol. 1). In the citation I gave, from Soble, it is indeed perplexing because it is unclear the role or value of eros, so I am willing to retract playing off eros and agape too simplistically in SK.

        I own these works from SK, so I just need to do my own investigation. I’m not committed to any of these interpretations, not even for Aug, so I’m happy to be corrected.

      • I’ve not read much of Kierkegaard outside a little book that collected his “parables” (which was great).

        But I have read quite a bit of Plato and Augustine.

        Plato did have a place for eros, but, as you say, for the eternal Forms over any changeable thing in this world. However, when it comes to people, Plato selfishly would use people to help see the Form. So Socrates could smile at Alcibiades and believe his beauty pointed to Beauty. But the youth is misguided if he still wants to have sex with Socrates. It is better to contemplate. Socrates many times uses the language of conception and child-bearing when it comes to bringing someone into Wisdom.

        However, Plato only makes sense in light of his doctrine of recollection. So erotic infatuation is sort of a nostalgia for the neverland of eternal Forms (Beauty) that our souls once inhabited.

        Augustine’s major problem was not sex, but the selfishness and uncontrollability that comes in the act. Allow to be a little graphic: Augustine thought our enslavement to desires could be summed up in a man’s inability to control an erection. It would happen when he didn’t want it to, and vice versa. Unlike most of the Patristics, who thought there was no sex in paradise, or that humans didn’t have fleshy bodies, Augustine affirmed both. But it was sex that was not consumed in a selfish orgasm.

        However, again, the problem was not self-love, but a wrongly ordered self-love. It is true Augustine only counciled sex for children, but it was because sex to him had power, and one that could hardly be retained. The self exalting itself over the beloved in sex was inevitable to him.

        While his justifications for why may not be correct, he is a certain balm to the crowd that “everything can be redeemed”. We need more awareness of our inabilities and feebleness in this world than the arrogance of some would allow.

      • That’s a solid presentation of both Plato and Augustine. And your points about Augustine are actually almost identical to Soble’s.

      • Maybe I misunderstood your initial reply, but if Soble and I are in agreement, then why do you imply that the Platonistic spirit thinks marriage is unbecoming and that agape and eros are opposed?

        I’m of the opinion that while Augustine can be included within a discussion of Platonism, he is not a platonist, Christian or otherwise. At least, not in the same way Psuedo-Dionysius or Duns Scotus Eriugena are ones.

        Where do you place Paul’s council to remain unmarried? It’s certainly not out of the Platonic/Ascetic spirit, and why I would contend against putting Augustine or Kierkegaard in that box, though there are some who’d say otherwise.


      • Right, I was just thinking of the details of your presentation, like the uncontrollable erection in Aug, not the conclusions. For Soble, sex is indeed the problem if, as you say, “The self exalting itself over the beloved in sex was inevitable to him.” Thus, it makes sense that Augustine thinks that sex without the sole intent of procreation is adultery and that Adam/Eve would have had passionless sex (via purely intellectual control). The passion or appetite or desire — however we describe it — is the problem with eros, and it has to be replaced with agape. So, I am still inclined to think that the Platonist spirit opposes agape and eros, but “oppose” is not the best term for describing Plato himself — rather, for him, eros is a lesser means for attaining (attempting to attain) what only agape can attain. Eros, for Plato, isn’t “wrong,” but it belongs to the transitory and should be surpassed by agape — as you rightly described. But it still puts eros in an ambiguous position and not truly good, though it can point to the good. With Augustine, we get less ambiguity about the value of eros — it has to be banished entirely from the marital bedroom.

        Paul’s council to remain unmarried is because it allows for greater service to God — not dividing one’s attention. It has nothing to do with an ascetic prioritization of agape over eros, celibacy over marriage. It seems that Augustine shares some of the blame for this prioritization that dominated the West after him and until the Reformation, even if his anti-docetic christology prevented him (thankfully) from making Gnostic or Neoplatonist adjudications about the body in eternity.

    • Keep in mind though that a lot of Kierkegaards writings are polemical in nature, against what he perceived as a very lukewarm/nominally Christian church. His monastic-without-monastary (great phrase) is purposefully extreme.

    • My understanding of Augustine is that the intention of procreation is the only justifiable reason for engaging with such a wild-fire as sex. Even in that, the fallen act of sex still comes with total selfishness. Using the word ‘passion’ is ambiguous, considering Augustine wrote mostly out of devotion and awe, both of which would be categorized as ‘passion’ today.

      The problem was that everything was out of whack. The self vaulted itself over the other; emotional intensity destroyed intellect. He witholds from describing what unfallen sex would have been like, since we wouldn’t have a clue.

      And, in my understanding, Plato definitely had no adversarial definition. It wasn’t that eros was bad, it’s that it was targeted towards the wrong object. Socrates would not fantasize about Alcibiades, but through him, lust over the eternal Form, Beauty. It’s an eros of the Mind, or Platonic Soul, and not the crudeness of Spirit or Appetite which misses the reality.

      However, how Porphyry or Plotinus thought may be very different. I have not read them. However, my impression is that Augustine wrote about sex and marriage through his own experiences.

      Paul both understood, according to his letters to the Corinthian believers, that marriage would take away from devotion to the Lord’s mission both economically and emotionally. Augustine focused in on the latter and read it through his own adventures through youthful lust and his mistress of so many years.

      I don’t agree with Augustine’s conclusions, but neither do I think the medievals really understand him. As much as Augustine is said to have impacted the West, and he has, most of what is claimed in his name is misunderstood. It’s why the Jansenists, who merely repeated much of Augustine’s thought, were bitterly hated by the Jesuits.

      Where Kierkegaard comes back in is that this warning was tossed out.. Christendom, either medieval or bourgeois, tries to create a false hierarchy and denies the pilgrim state of the church. If you get this, one will understand why the magisterial reformers, many times, misunderstood or utterly hated the radical reformation. It had little to do with baptism.

      • I am not normally one to adopt the Augustine = West = bad narrative, but this is one area where I think the standard criticism is valid. As for Plato, yes, I was intentionally not posing an “adversarial” relation between eros and agape, since the former can point toward the proper object and find its true “fulfillment” in agape.

        Anyway, as for your final point, I am not as aligned toward “radical Christianity” as I once was, though it is a well from which I frequently drink.

  3. I’m a big fan of Soren K. If I wasn’t reading Barth’s Dogmatics, I’d be pushing on through Hong’s compilation of Kierkegaard’s work (”Essentials”). 100% in agreement here with you as well: ‘Those who are contented with the darkness…will repudiate the light — or, more often, politely ignore it.’ – Until people can see that darkness (can we swap this with ‘nothingness’?) ‘is not normal – or are so consuming the repetitive reinventing of itself as “the new black”, until they are shown that an invitation into God’s heart precedes an invitation of God into ours, I think that the light will remain to be held at a distance.

    • Barth would definitely characterize it as nothingness, because the darkness in this sense (evil/sin) is not a part of creation and, therefore, not a part of reality properly speaking (as either God himself or God’s creation).

      There are good reasons to be a fan of SK, as am I, so long as we recognize the dangers. The danger arises especially if we try to make his thought into a holistic platform, which he would not want anyway. On this point, whitefrozen’s comment about the polemical genre of his writings (most of them) is important.

      • I guess it’s in the cautious reading, i.e.: being aware of context etc, that makes the reading something we can actually apply and not just say we’ve read about. e.g.: doing theology not just thinking about it. And true. I’ve been following the discourse this morning, very helpful for when I get to read more of SK in the future.

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