Cosiness and its malcontent—meet the Socrates of Copenhagenby Clare Carlisle / April 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Denmark’s most successful recent export, hygge, is difficult to translate into English—perhaps “cosiness” is the closest fit. For Danes, hygge evokes feelings of contentment, warmth and conviviality: think wood-burning stoves, knitwear, candlelight, artisanal blankets draped over a stylish sofa, and the smell of baking rye bread wafting from the kitchen. Hygge has long been important to Danish culture, but perhaps it is no surprise that many of us find this inviting fireside aesthetic especially appealing in uncertain times.
By contrast, the 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard—another famous Danish export—regarded this penchant for cosiness as pathological. Kierkegaard lived all his life in Copenhagen, where he diagnosed a spiritual complacency masking the anxiety and despair which, he argued, all human beings experience. Like almost all his fellow Danes, Kierkegaard was baptised in the Lutheran Church; during the 1840s and 1850s writings poured from his pen, challenging its teachings while also seeking a more authentic form of religious life.
Kierkegaard modelled his philosophical style on Socrates, the eccentric philosopher of ancient Athens. Socrates went around asking difficult questions. What is courage? What is justice? After conversing with Socrates, people who thought they knew the answers to these questions were left confused. He compared himself to a gadfly sent by the gods: “I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you… But you, perhaps, might be angry, like people awakened from a nap, and might slap me, and easily kill me; then you would pass the rest of your lives in slumber, unless God, in his care for you, should send someone else to sting you.” Socrates made such a nuisance of himself that he was indeed condemned to death, for the crime of “irreverence.”
Inspired by this example, Kierkegaard sought to provoke and unsettle in inventive, challenging works such as Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Anxiety, and The Sickness Unto Death. He lived through a period of intense social change: new technologies such as railways, telegraphs and mass printing were making everyday life easier, at least for affluent people like himself. He thought spiritual life had also become too comfortable. Christianity was such a settled part of 19th-century culture that for many Christians it meant little more than conforming to bourgeois family values. Kierkegaard emphasised the religion’s counter-cultural origins: Jesus, like Socrates, was an unconventional,…