by Alice von Hildebrand
To write on Kierkegaard's thought is an act of daring. In a way this is true of many philosophers. One only need think of the various interpretations given to Aristotle.
Those acquainted with the voluminous literature written about the greatest Danish philosopher (and Kierkegaard remarked wittingly that "there is only one") will face a similar difficulty. Who was he? One thing is certain: Soren Kierkegaard seemed to derive an impish pleasure from putting us off track. To my knowledge, no other thinker has written a series of works under various pseudonyms. When he published Either/Or [1: Kierkegaard's Writings, Vol. 3] (a work which unlike most of his publications enjoyed great success), it was rightly suspected that the witty young man might be the author. He denied it in very strong terms, but later acknowledged his authorship. He made this confession at a time when he simultaneously claimed that none of his early works contain a single word which is his! Yet, Walter Lowrie, a devoted admirer of Kierkegaard, argues that several of them contain valuable biographical information.
In a remarkable book published posthumously, The Point of View for My Work As an Author, Kierkegaard informs us that his intention from the very beginning of his career as a writer was religious -- something which is surprising indeed if one reads such works of his as Either/Or. He intimates that, given the secularized nature of Denmark, the indirect way of communication was the one which had a chance of catching the attention of "this individual who is my reader" and bringing him to Christianity (later, however, he changed his mind). Kierkegaard was definitely a committed Christian.
It is not my purpose here to discuss some of the contradictory interpretations of his thought that scholars have offered; such would call for a whole book. In the framework of this article, my modest concern is to shed some light on Kierkegaard's views on women. His position is ambiguous; he has written about them both beautifully and spitefully. Deal Hudson, in his book An American Conversion, tells us that he did not like Kierkegaard because the latter "did not like women -- a remark likely to attract the sympathies of the fair sex.
I am going to take to Kierkegaard's defense and show that the few regrettable things he wrote about women are largely compensated by the beautiful things he wrote about them, and that his insights into the female personality and role in human and religious life could only come from the pen of someone who has loved.
That Kierkegaard loved Regina Olsen [pictured below right] is something no one can deny, for he says so explicitly and unambiguously. It is true that a German "scholar" by the name of Schrempf contested this fact. But Kierkegaard was in a privileged position to know his feelings for his fiancee; I find it wiser to trust him.
The Soren Kierkegaard-Regina Olsen love story is certainly one of the most tragic in the history of great love affairs. He fell in love with her; he conquered her; he got engaged to her and was hoping to marry her. Then, to his horror and despair, he realized that he could not achieve the universal, tread the common path, and marry the girl he loved. Kierkegaard was a penitent; he had received a special calling which was not compatible with marriage. He often refers to the tragedy of Abraham, who was called upon to sacrifice the son he loved. To read about how he broke off his engagement, about her despair, about the humiliation to which her proud father submitted himself by begging him not to abandon his daughter, and the qualms of conscience that Kierkegaard suffered make at times painful reading. To the end of his life, he makes reference to this drama. At times, he hoped he could, after all, make her his wife. All these hopes were dashed when he found out that she was engaged to a previous beau that his ardent courtship had eliminated from the picture. That this was a serious blow, that he probably had to fight against a certain bitterness and disappointment, is not unlikely. He left her his literary bequest -- this was rejected by Regina's husband, and it fell into the hands of Kierkegaard's older brother, Peter. But this is not my concern here.
My claim is that someone who has written so beautifully about the love between man and woman, who has tasted its sweetness and enchantment, cannot be a misogynist. Someone who has never been deeply moved by the sublime beauty of a sunset would be well advised not to give a course on aesthetics.
What does Kierkegaard have to say on the topic of women? We shall examine his observations in The Woman Who Was a Sinner, an "Edifying Discourse" he composed shortly before his death, and in Either/Or, a book in which the young Kierkegaard etches two radically different conceptions of life: Either is sheer hedonism; Or is an ethical conception of life and marriage. We shall purposely omit the unflattering remarks that he puts in the mouth of characters etched in The Banquet, and those clearly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, the misogynist par excellence. My exclusive aim is to show that the sublime things he has written about women prove that the true Kierkegaard - the fiance of Regina -- had deep insights into the mystery of femininity and the crucial role that women play in both human and religious life.
He refers to "that unspeakable blissful feeling, the eternal force in the world - earthly love" (Or). He puts the following words in the mouth of Judge William, the defender of love and marriage in Or: "For what would all my love and all my effort avail if she did not come to my aid, and what would I avail if she did not arouse in me the enthusiasm to will?" How profoundly has Kierkegaard understood that feelings -- powerful as they may be -- have little chance of survival if they are not backed up by the will, which gives them their full reality and validity (ibid.). Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his Ethics, calls this "sanctioning" valid feelings, just as one is called upon to disavow "illegitimate feelings." How far Kierkegaard is from cheap romanticism and the dangerous wallowing in one's own emotions sought for their own enjoyment and in which the object motivating them is purely instrumental to achieve this self-seeking purpose.
Kierkegaard addresses himself to the perennial topic, the weakness of the female sex, so strikingly formulated by Shakespeare: "Frailty, woman is thy name." Kierkegaard comments: "Woman is weak -- no, she is humble, she is much closer to God than man is. Hence it is that love is everything to her, and she will certainly not disdain the blessing and confirmation which God is ready to bestow upon her .... Man is proud,he would be everything, would have nothing above him (Or). These are certainly not the words of a misogynist!
Kierkegaard understands the crucial role that God intends to play in a woman's life. The degradation nurtured by the feminist movement is to convince women that their greatness resides not in love -- a self-giving abandonment -- but in rivaling males in creativity and exterior accomplishments. It is a repeat of the sin of Esau, who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. A woman's mission is essentially a religious one. The noble role of women is religious, "for to a woman it belongs essentially to pray for others" (Ibid.).
That it is easier (or rather less difficult) for a woman to be humble finds its expression in the following words: "A first love is humble and therefore rejoices that there is a power higher than it. If only for the reason that it has someone to thank. (It is for this cause one finds a pure first love more rarely in men than in women)" (Ibid.).
Kierkegaard has also intuited that love is the crucial factor in a woman's life. It is the value that unifies her, that makes sense of her existence. It is easy for her to grasp the meaning of the famous sentence in The Canticle of Canticles that he who gives up everything for love would consider this donation as nothing. He writes: "It would be very difficult to convince a woman that earthly love in general might be sin, since by this affirmation her whole existence is destroyed in its deepest root" (Or).
That many women betray this calling is, of course, true, just as it is also true that many men lose sight of their noble mission to help and protect the weak. But a philosopher's approach is not sociological. He is not -- or should not be -- concerned with statistics, but with "essences" -- the metaphysical "secret" of a being, unveiling what it is called upon to be. How profoundly has Kierkegaard grasped the admirable complementarity which God has established between man and woman: "It ennobles the whole man by the blush of bashfulness which belongs to woman but is the corrector of man; for woman is the conscience of man.... His proud wrath is quelled by the fact that he turns back constantly to her. Her weakness is made strong by the fact that she leans upon him (Ibid.).
Wrath is weakness under the appearance of strength; to acknowledge one's weakness and call for help is true strength. This is why St. Paul writes, "It is when I am weak that I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10). Man needs woman; woman needs man. (this is an admirable teaching of Catholic theology, illuminating the role that Mary -- the woman par excellence -- played in redemption).
Kierkegaard remarks that, according to Genesis, it is the man who leaves his father and mother, not the woman. This certainly indicated that the Bible does not look down upon the woman: "A man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife" (2:24). We would expect it rather to say that woman shall leave her father and mother and shall cleave unto her husband, for woman is in fact the weaker sex. In the scriptural expression there is a recognition of woman's importance, and "no knight could be more gallant toward her" (Or).
Kierkegaard rejects the view that marriage is exclusively the necessary means to procreate. But one should not draw the conclusion that he would favor artificial birth control or abortion. He sees the child as a fruit of love, and not as the exclusive purpose of marriage, which, if it were so, would render love an unnecessary addition: "And yet such a marriage [exclusively for the sake of procreation] is as unnatural as it is arbitrary, nor has it any support in Holy Scripture. For in the bible we read that God established marriage because 'it is not good for man to be alone,' hence in order to give him company (ibid.). And: "it is always an insult to a girl to want to marry her for any other reason than because one loves her" (ibid.).
That Kierkegaard understands the dignity of a child is expressed in the following words: "the highest thing one person can owe another is ... life" (ibid.). And: "Children belong to the inmost and most hidden life of the family.... every child has a halo around its head.... the father will feel with humility that the child is a trust, and that he is in the most beautiful sense of the word only a stepfather" (ibid.).
Kierkegaard has a keen sense of the mystery of love. How far it is from a cold, rational calculation in which one makes a careful list of desirable qualities that a spouse should possess.
An objection that could be raised to what Sheldon Vanauken calls "the wrinkled of heart" (A Severe Mercy) is that the Church does not ask the Bride and the Bridegroom whether they love each other, but whether they are willing to bind themselves with the bonds of marriage. Kierkegaard has a prompt answer: "If the Church does not ask if they love one another, this is by no means because it would nullify earthly love, but because it assumes it" (Or). He adds: "all the talk about the disparagement of love by the Church is utterly unfounded and exists only for him who has taken offense at religion" (ibid.).
These quotations should be read in connection with Kierkegaard's claim that, for women, love is everything. He sheds light on the role she is to play in marriage -- a communion that should always be lit by the light and warmth of love, for marriage is the pillar of society.
Not only is the woman the heart, but because the affective sphere is her anchor, she is given a great talent to read into the soul of her mate. Kierkegaard writes: "who is such a judge of men as is a woman?" (ibid.).
The importance of women is often downgraded or even denigrated because she is called upon to deal with the small and indispensable tasks of human life -- the tasks that the French poet Verlaine calls "les travaux ennuyeux et faciles" (the boring and simple tasks). But Kierkegaard's sharp glance makes him understand that a special loving talent is required to elevate small things through the loving attention given them. A little French girl (St. Therese of Lisieux) who became a saint and died some 40 years after him would unveil a secret of sainthood: Do everything with love, even small tasks such as cleaning or cooking. Kierkegaard writes: "She [woman] was created to deal with the small, and knows how to give it an importance, a dignity, a beauty which enchants. Marriage liberates one from habits, from the tyranny of one-sidedness, from the yoke of whims" (ibid.).
One of Kierkegaard's deep insights is his understanding that "habit" is a deadly enemy. To say one's prayers by rote while thinking about something else; to kiss one's spouse out of habit, or to go to church because one has always done it is to inject a poison into meaningful things. This is why he writes in Works of Love [Kierkegaard's Writings, Vol 16] that "one hundred cannons should warn us against the danger of habit." Habit puts dust on everything it touches. It kills poetry; it freezes the buds of spring.
Kierkegaard has also grasped the paradoxical character of women, a paradox which some men find so difficult to understand, that a man is best equipped to understand a woman -- and vice versa. But this presupposes a deep mutual love. St. Claire of Assisi was no doubt the best disciple of St. Francis of Assisi; St. Jeanne Francoise de Chantal had a unique understanding of the holiness of St. Francis de Sales. This is a pattern that keeps repeating itself.
The mysterious side of women is expressed by Kierkegaard in the following words: "It belongs to her nature to be more perfect and more imperfect than man. If one would indicate the purest and most perfect quality, one says 'a woman'; if one would indicate the weakest, and most feeble thing, on says 'a woman'; if one would give a notion of a spiritual quality raised above all sensuousness, one says 'a woman'; if one would give a notion of the sensuous, one says 'a woman'; if one would indicate innocence in all of its lofty greatness, one says 'a woman'; if one would point to the depressing feeling of sin, one says 'a woman.' In a certain sense, therefore, woman is more perfect than man, and this the scripture expresses by saying that she has more guilt" (Or).
Kierkegaard confessed on his death bed that his life had been a long suffering. He knew its bitter taste and he also knew its purifying effect if properly accepted and embraced. No doubt, this gave him a deep insight into the fate of women to give birth in pain and anguish; he knew that it is probably easier for a woman to understand that there is a deep bond between suffering and love, suffering out of love. "Is she not as close to God as you? Will you deprive her of the opportunity of finding God in the deepest and most heartfelt way -- through pain and suffering" (ibid.).
It also was his conviction that women have a religious mission toward men. Whereas Eve was a temptress who led her husband to a fall, she finds in Christianity her true role -- to help him toward God: "above all have a little more reverence for women," Kierkegaard wrote, "believe me, from her comes salvation, as surely as hardening comes from man.... It is my conviction that if it was a woman that ruined man, it was woman also that has fairly and honestly made reparation and still does so; out of a hundred men who go astray in the world, ninety and nine are saved by women and one by immediate divine grace....You can easily see that in my opinion woman [when she restores a man to the state] makes due requital for the harm she has done" (ibid.).
Kierkegaard is a radical enemy of feminism. He views it as a diabolical plan to ruin both femininity and the salvific role women are called upon to play. He writes: "I hate all talk about the emancipation of woman. God forbid that ever it may come to pass. I cannot tell you with what pain this thought is able to pierce my heart, nor what passionate exasperation, what hate I feel toward everyone who gives vent to such talk" (ibid.).
Prophetically, Kierkegaard foresees the horror of a unisex society: "But the poor wretches known not what they do, they are not able to be men, and instead of learning to be that, they would ruin woman and would be united with her on terms of remaining what they were, half-men..." (ibid.).
One could object that I am contradicting myself: I have mentioned about that Kierkegaard claimed that his early works do not reflect his own views. But the same thing can be said of The Banquet, which contained some very unflattering remarks about the weaker sex.
This is why I shall conclude by referring to an "Edifying Discourse" to his Training in Christianity that Kierkegaard wrote shortly before his death and which I consider to be his "last will" on the question of femininity. It is titled The Woman Who Was a Sinner. No one reading it could possibly draw the conclusion that Kierkegaard was a misogynist.
The Woman Who Was a Sinner contains a sublime eulogy about woman -- the match of which is not easy to find. It should be read by everyone who has a sincere interest in Kierkegaard's thought. No commentary upon this text can be satisfactory, for what Kierkegaard writes is so admirably formulated that grateful receptivity alone is called for. The "ungodly rage" of feminists might have been somewhat quelled had they been acquainted with the insights of a thinker who through prayer and suffering had undertook the noble mission of those who are told to "keep silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34). The calling of women is to piety and godliness. This is precisely what it means to remain silent -- for to keep silent in front of God is to drink at this holy fount of wisdom which teaches one godliness.
The danger of many men -- be they professors Kierkegaard hated so much, be they contemporary theologians who want to explain everything and irreverently tear the veil concealing holy mysteries - is that they raise questions about things that God, in His infinite wisdom, has chosen not to reveal. Instead of reverently dwelling on the rich fullness of revealed truths, they want to conquer by reason "the secrets of the kingdom" (Mt. 13:11). The result being that because of their proud lack of receptivity toward the content of divine revelation, they arrogantly want to teach God -- and become very foolish in their worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1).
How different from Mary's attitude. And because of her faith and silence, her holy receptivity, she was granted to become the mother of the Savior. Kierkegaard had already mentioned in Or that "woman believes that with God all things are possible." Now, his theme is to praise Mary, the blessed one among women who "kept all these things in her heart" though not understanding. No doubt, for him, Mary was the model of femininity, and Mary Magdalene, the sinner, who was also at the foot of the cross, learned from her that "one thing alone is necessary" (Lk. 10:42).
Feminism manifests its evil genius by offering a caricature of femininity and misreading the order of St. Paul that women should "keep silent in the churches." To feminists it seals their inferiority. In fact, the very opposite is true: To remain silent is to accept being fecundated, and to be fecundated by God is to be blessed. It is written in the Gospel that men will be held responsible for every unnecessary word they have uttered. One shudders at the thought of the endless perorations of some pompous theologians who inundate libraries with "theories" that are at odds with God's revelation, which as Kierkegaard writes, should be read on one's knees -- as one reads a letter from one's fiancee.
Just as one thing alone is necessary, Mary Magdalene teaches us that there is one source of great sorrow: grief over one's sinfulness. Real contrition is a response of profound grief because one has offended the Holy One whom one now loves with every fiber of one's being. Mary Magdalene has -- through God's grace -- ascended very high on the scale of perfection, but the higher she finds herself, the more she will recall that she is "the woman who was a sinner." The more miserable she sees herself to be, the more she loves the One who has come not for the righteous but to save sinners. Mary Magdalene will not be forgotten because she did not forget -- and did not want to forget -- that she was a sinner who has been forgiven.
Kierkegaard grants us that man is stronger than "weak woman." But this very weakness is compensated -- as he emphatically underlines - by the fact that she is "unified." Man has many thoughts; Mary Magdalene has but one. She has one sorrow, that she is a sinner. She has only one burning desire: to be forgiven. This burning desire to be forgiven is expressed by her tears, and the gift of a precious perfume poured on the Holy One. The fact that she dries His feet with her hair, expresses her religious "seriousness," for, Kierkegaard tells us, this is precisely what seriousness means. Mary Magdalene's sorrow over her sinful life does not drive her to despair -- the "sickness unto death" -- but to loving confidence that He who is love and mercy will cleans her of her sins. Responding to the "offense" taken by the disciples that money spent on this precious ointment should have been given to the poor, Christ says that there will always be poor among us, and that wherever His Gospel will be preached, her deed of contrition and love will be proclaimed. This precious perfume symbolizes an act of adoration -- the only adequate response to God. Mary Magdalene teaches us that this response to His holiness is the liturgical act par excellence. This is what the Holy Liturgy teaches us. This is what is being forgotten today.
Mary Magdalene's loving repentance makes her scorn shame, disgrace, and humiliation: She is publicly acknowledged to be a sinner. But all this she tramples under foot because she loved Him who is love, and knows that there is greater joy in Heaven for a repentant sinner than for one hundred "just" who have no need of repentance.
Kierkegaard tells us that Mary Magdalene (a model for all women) experiences "infinite indifference" -- an indifference which is at the antinodes of the cynical, diabolical "nothing matters" attitude which has gained currency in some modern literature. What does it matter what people think of her or say about her? She has conquered this holy indifference because she knows that men tend to be chatterboxes who make noise but say nothing. She loves, and trust that much will be forgiven her because she has loved much.
To conclude, let me refer to Pastor Boesen's testimony about Kierkegaard, he who was Kierkegaard's closest friend. Boesen tells us that Kierkegaard was the purest man he had ever known, that he "stood in a finer, purer and higher relationship to women" than other men. It is impossible to be pure and not to respect women.
In light of this, it should be evident that to compare Kierkegaard to Nietzsche -- who, brutally, advises men never to forget their whip when they go to a woman -- is not only unfortunate but very unjust.
Man-haters and woman-haters are to be pities indeed because they are blind to the biblical teaching that they are made for each other and are called to help each other to love the One who is the source of all love.
[Alice von Hildebrand [pictured left] is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is the author, most recently, of The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius), about her late husband, the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand [pictured right]; The Privilege of Being a Woman (Sapientia Press); and By Love Refined [Letters to a Young Bride] (Sophia Institute Press). She has written extensively for many Catholic periodicals and appears frequently on Mother Agelica's EWTN. This article is reprinted with permission from New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.]