Søren Kierkegaard and the Corsair Affair: Public Shaming and the Assertion of the Individual

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s trial by public opinion unfolded due to an ongoing campaign of character assassination on behalf of the satirical magazine the Corsair.  Founded in 1840 by novelist Aron Goldschmidt, the Corsair had earned a reputation as being fearless in its espousal of views contrary to the conservative climate of 19th century Copenhagen, and its tone was often mocking, sarcastic and ironic.[1] No one of prominence in society was safe from the magazine’s reach, which attacked anyone it saw as deserving of its unwelcome attention.[2] Kierkegaard’s biographer Walter Lowrie described the essential task of the Corsair as ‘dragging down the great and revealing that they were not really superior to the vulgar,”[3] and it is through the magazines public denigration that Kierkegaard was to suffer one his most sustained struggles in what was already a turbulent life.  

Kierkegaard had come into direct conflict with the Corsair due to a negative review of his 1845 book Stages on Life’s Way.[4] Never one to ignore criticism of his work, Kierkegaard sarcastically challenged the magazine to target him as their next victim, imploring its editors to ‘abuse’ him so that he too might be immortalized by featuring within its pages.[5] Over the ensuing months, the editors of the Corsair took up Kierkegaard’s challenge with gusto, repeatedly maligning the philosopher for his social awkwardness and unusual physical characteristics. These attacks often took the form of caricatures and cartoons, which would exaggerate aspects of Kierkegaard’s appearance such as his dress and physical gait. As a result of this sustained campaign of mocking, Kierkegaard felt the full weight of crushing humiliation as public opinion toward him was increasingly shaped by the Corsair– one of the most widely read periodicals in Copenhagen at the time. In one of his diaries from this period, Kierkegaard reflected on the toll the controversy was taking on his ability to live a normal life: 

Young students titter and grin and are happy to see a prominent person trampled on…The slightest thing I do, if it is merely to pay a visit…if the Corsair finds out, it is printed and read by everybody, the man I visit is embarrassed, gets almost angry with me, for which he cannot be blamed.[6]

For Kierkegaard, this experience remained a painful memory throughout his life, perhaps made more bitter by the fact that he was in part responsible for its commencing. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the so-called ‘Corsair Affair’ can be viewed as an experience that played a vital role in the formation of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. This is especially evident in the development of Kierkegaard’s understanding of the relationship between the individual and the crowd. Kierkegaard had indeed suffered at the hands of the Corsair and the judgement of what he referred to as the ‘phantom public,’ yet he was ultimately able to incorporate the harsh lessons of this experience into a renewed championing of the individual in the face of the societal demand for conformity.  

Background to the Corsair Affair

The origins of the Corsair Affair can be found in an interchange between Kierkegaard and the minor Danish literary critic Peder Ludvig Møller.[7] Møller had published a critical review of Kierkegaard’s 1845 book Stages on Life’s Way in a collection of his writings. Although by no means dismissive of Kierkegaard’s literary gifts,[8] Møller expressed his view that although Kierkegaard was an intelligent and talented writer, he did not think that his work displayed thematic consistency. His erratic style and use of pseudonymous authorship compelled Møller to describe Kierkegaard as ‘the philosopher with the many names.”[9] Møller’s review went on to attack Kierkegaard personally rather than confine his review to the contents of the book. This is particularly evident in his treatment of Kierkegaard’s sexuality and his troubled relationship with his former fiancée Regine Olsen. Here Møller accuses Kierkegaard of maliciously toying with the innocent Regine’s heart, resulting in the break-up of their engagement several years earlier:

But to spin another creature into your spider web, dissect it alive or torture the soul out of it drop by drop by means of experimentation– that is not allowed, except with insects, and is there not something horrible and revolting to the healthy human mind even in this idea?[10]

Møller’s agenda was broader than offering an objective analysis of Kierkegaard’s literary qualities, and its impact on the eccentric Dane was instant. Kierkegaard initially responded by writing two articles in a publication named Fatherland,[11] designed to both clarify the intention behind Stages on Life’s Way and to discredit Møller and the Corsair personally. For Kierkegaard, Møller’s review of Stages on Life’s Way had failed to grasp the meaning of the text, and its gossipy, snide tone merely pointed towards Møller’s superficiality and dilettantish character as a literary critic. It was the purpose of Kierkegaard’s article to draw attention not only to Møller’s ignorance but to the role of the Corsair in cultivating a culture of mediocrity. Ultimately, Kierkegaard longed for the abolition of the magazine altogether. Amongst other criticisms, Kierkegaard held that the Corsair had repeatedly failed to report on matters of substance and that it had overlooked an essential opportunity to be a vital tool of existential communication.[12]  

Betraying misplaced confidence in his ability to endure a sustained attack from the press,[13] both of Kierkegaard’s articles provoked the Corsair to target him as its next victim.  This reckless act was very nearly catastrophic for Kierkegaard. The scurrilous nature of the Corsair’s subsequent character assassination affected him deeply, and the trauma of this event was to have lasting repercussions for how Kierkegaard understood his life’s work. What ultimately resulted from the Corsair Affair was a protracted period of self-reflection in which Kierkegaard wrestled with the dignity and uniqueness of individual existence in an intellectual climate of Hegelian speculative philosophy, which was dominant in Europe at the time. Within this climate, the philosophical concept of the ‘individual’ had become a causality of Hegel’s emphasis on the broad sweep of history, in which individuals were a mere cog in the dialectical wheel. Kierkegaard reacted strongly against this trend, seeking to restore the role of subjectivity as a cornerstone of philosophical inquiry.[14]

Interpreting the Press through the Lens of the ‘Single Individual.’

A recurring theme in Kierkegaard’s writing is his concept of the ‘single individual’ (den Enkelte). This apparent tautology delineates an important distinction between the individual as an existing entity in nature and the higher task of becoming a truly ‘single’ individual separated from the crowd of other ‘individuals.’ A ‘single individual’ is not an inherent reality or inevitable feature of earthly existence but is instead an inner reality one must choose to acquire. To embark on the journey toward individuality is theoretically possible for everyone, although few will choose this path. Two of the reasons for this, according to Kierkegaard, stem from a lack of will or ability. Of these, the first is worse because it points to a more damning weakness, in which the prompting of the individual conscience is ignored in order to fit in with society or live an easier life. The second factor preventing people from obtaining their individual status is an ignorance of their enslavement to society and the pressures of being part of ‘the crowd.’ This was a more hopeful state, however, as it allowed for the possibility of enlightenment and growth.   

A decision to become a ‘single individual’ was, for Kierkegaard, a necessary step toward religious enlightenment. It is impossible to divorce Kierkegaard’s philosophy from his Christian convictions, and his understanding of salvation and redemption was closely related to his view of the dignity of the individual. For Kierkegaard, the forgiveness of sin, which is conferred in the receiving salvation, is only part of the Christian requirement. What salvation ultimately leads to is a sense of estrangement from the world, in which the newly constituted individual found themselves living according to a higher authority. This naturally led to a degree of ostracization: 

If someone notes that there is an individual outside the crowd who is really and truly afraid —not of the crowd but of God, he is sure to be the target of some ridicule.[15]

Thus, true individuality was something that stemmed from religious conversion. Yet to accept the challenge of becoming an individual meant that all guarantees of meaning and purpose were forfeited. Instead, becoming a ‘single individual’ meant a life of increasing complexity and trial, guided only by a sense that to remain in the alternative state of submission was worse. Kierkegaard understood part of his task as a writer as helping to guide his readers toward making an active decision toward the attainment of their individuality, which was mediated through Christianity. His message was targeted not for the masses, but for the few who were brave enough to accept the challenge.[16] This is reflected within a diary entry from the Corsair period:

From the very beginning, neither the pseudonymous writers nor I have asked for a public but, polemically opposed to any kind of phantasmic nonentity, have always been satisfied with a few individual readers, or, indeed, with that single individual.[17]

The Corsair disaster affirmed to Kierkegaard the sinister role mass media played in curating a culture of distraction which prevented people from accessing their true selves. Of the many crimes of which the media was guilty, the most significant was that it hampered people from coming to an awareness of the purpose of their individual existence. It did this by encouraging its readers to become obsessed with trivialities rather than existential reflection. Kierkegaard felt frustrated that despite the immense power of the media to influence opinion, it chose instead to wallow in the scurrilous. Also, the media —through its obsession with scandal and gossip— introduced to 19th-century Copenhagen society the concept of what Kierkegaard referred to as a “phantom public.” The abstract concept of the ‘public’ functioned as a mechanism for promoting the assimilation of individuals in broader groups. The individual, motivated by fear and a longing to be accepted by the community, subsumed themselves in broader society to avoid judgement and ostracization. In so doing, they lost all sense of uniqueness and true diversity. The media encouraged this through its dictation of cultural trends, fashion, and moral norms.[18] For Kierkegaard, the particularly frustrating aspect to this was that the very concept of a ‘public’ was ill-defined and even non-existent, meaning that the individual sacrificed their unique identity in pursuit of a social ideal which is mythical in character. 

Such insights placed Kierkegaard at the periphery of contemporary objective philosophy. The Corsair’s ongoing attacks, however, revealed to Kierkegaard the truth of his observations through bitter first-hand experience. It was this underlying self-assuredness which led him to comment in his diary that:

I actually do not learn anything I have not already learned, and I thus learn that there is no external hindrance to the rightness of my thinking simply because I am alone in it.[19]

Being proved right, however, would have been cold comfort as the daily attacks on his person grew more mocking. The real source of comfort to Kierkegaard during this time, and what ultimately sustained him throughout his life, was his conviction that he was bound up in a spiritual reality which made the transient events of his day to day life appear less consequential than they might be. Again, his diary reflects this:

For one can grow weary of all temporal and earthly things, and so it would be tormenting if they were to continue eternally. But the person who receives a vision of ideals instantaneously has but one prayer to God: an eternity…And there is no hurry, there is time enough, plenty of time, still and eternity left…what ineffable happiness, what bliss![20]

Ultimately, Kierkegaard viewed himself as a pilgrim in the world. It is his sense of being a sort of resident alien in the cosmos which allowed him to deal with his tribulations. Whether this points to the truth of his spiritual convictions or a disturbed psychological state is up to the interpreter to decide. What is clear, however, is that it was this sense of being called to a higher purpose which allowed him to cope with the Corsair Affair and utilize this experience for the development of his theology and philosophy. 

Concluding Remarks

Kierkegaard’s experience with the Corsair raises several discussion points for interpreters. One might use the Corsair Affair as a way of discussing the often-problematic way in which the media —and social networking in particular— are used as a form of exacting justice and fostering a culture of tribalism. Additionally, one might draw on Kierkegaard’s complicity in provoking the editors of the Corsair as a source of insight into the Philosopher’s psychological constitution, which certainly appears to reflect some masochistic tendencies. Alternatively, a theologian might explore the individualistic nature of Kierkegaard’s understanding of salvation and how this might challenge more contemporary theological approaches which emphasize the corporal elements of Christianity.     

The deeper challenge presented to us through the example of the Corsair Affair, I believe, relates less to the role of technology and media in shaping our society and more in its questioning of the idea that absorption in a community is a good thing. Kierkegaard existed in a time in which the concept of an individual had been devalued, and his task of reclaiming individuality was often interpreted as self-serving and even arrogant.[21] In our own time, there are constant demands for our allegiance, be this political, cultural, or religious. The noise of these demands can easily drown out the silent voice of the individual conscience, which becomes a mere subject to the will of external forces. Kierkegaard’s admirable willingness to stand firm in his convictions ensured he walked a lonely path, but it was a necessary one for the development of his philosophy.    

Notes:

[1]Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 127. 

[2] See Howard Hong’s introduction in Søren Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair and Articles Related to the Writings, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), ix. 

[3] Walter Lowrie, A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 176. 

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).   

[5] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 50. 

[6] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 212. 

[7] K. Brian Söderquist described Møller as having a negligible influence within the Golden Age of Danish literature and argues that the main reason he is known to history is because of his relationship to Kierkegaard. K. Brian Söderguist, “Peder Ludvig Møller: “If He Had Been a Somewhat More Significant Person”, in Kierkegaard and his Danish Contemporaries: Literature, Drama and Aesthetics, vol. 7, Tome III, ed. Jon Stewart (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016). 

[8] Møller had elsewhere commended Kierkegaard for his witticisms and elegance in his critiques of Heiberg. See the introduction to Søren Kierkegaard, Prefaces and Writing Sampler, edited and translated by Todd W. Nichol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).  

[9] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 99. 

[10] Joakim Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 392. 

[11] Both of these articles were attributed the Frater Taciturnus- the same pseudonymous author of Stages on Life’s Way. The Activity of a Travelling Aesthetician and How He Still Happened to Pay for the Dinner and The Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action can be found in Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 38-46, 47-50. 

[12] Nerina Jansen, “A Key to Kierkegaard’s Views of the Daily Press,” in International Kierkegaard Commentary: The Corsair Affair, 24 vols., (ed.) Robert L. Perkins (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990),13:2.

[13] Howard Hong has also suggested that Kierkegaard might well have expected cultural and religious to come to his defense should The Corsair launch its attack. See Howard Hong’s introduction in Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, vii-xxxviii.  

[14] Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegelian philosophy finds its most forceful presentation in his 1846 study Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, 2 vols., trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). 

[15] Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper, 1938), 196-7. 

[16] In this sense, Kierkegaard shares some affinity with Nietzsche’s well-known disdain for the ‘herd,’ which functioned as a descriptor for a compliant and docile humanity. For an excellent discussion of the relationship between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche see James Kellenberger, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: Faith and Eternal Acceptance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).     

[17] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 201. 

[18] Although the media could have utilised its power for building people up, it instead chose to promote and encourage the crude and base instincts of humanity, thus further distancing its consumers from the task of attaining individual status. Kierkegaard referred to this process as ‘levelling,’ leading him to write in Two Ages that “for levelling to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of levelling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage- and this phantom is the public. Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 90. 

[19] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 179. 

[20] Ibid, 255. 

[21] One of Kierkegaard’s most vocal critics was the Lutheran State Church Bishop Hans Lassen Martensen, who once described the former as a man “without church and without history, and who seeks Christ only in the ‘desert’ and in ‘private rooms.’” See Hans Lassen Martensen, “I Anledning af Dr. S. Kierkegaards Artikel i ‘Fædrelandet’ Nr. 295,” Berlingske Tidende, 302, December 28, 1854, as cited in Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 360-62.  

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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