Saturday, 28 September 2013

Philosophical Healing: Life Lessons from Kierkegaard by Robert Ferguson

In my last post  I mentioned a lovely new 'Life Lessons From Great Thinkers' series from The School of Life, consisting of a selection of books that outline the teachings of various philosophers and consider how we can apply these to our own lives.

While I somehow stopped myself from buying Life Lessons From Kierkegaard by Robert Ferguson on my recent visit to the Waterstones in Liverpool, I soon gave in and bought it on my Kindle. I keep telling myself that it's only a little book, and £3.99 is a much more reasonable price than £6.99 for the paperback, but the truth of the matter is that I really want the book on my shelves.... This could easily get dangerous and I'll not only end up buying the paperback copy of the Kierkegaard, but also the rest of the series.

Life Lessons by The School of Life
The series features 'Life Lessons" from Bergson, Byron, Freud, Hobbes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
Image from The School of Life.

But anyway, I really love the concept of applying philosophy to your own life: most blog readers will know how much I go on and on about Marcus Aurelius's teachings on anxiety and Michel de Montaigne's meditations on low self-esteem. Kierkegaard, however, I knew much less about. I'd read The Seducer's Diary, and found it really quite odd yet compelling, but I'd never explored Kierkegaard's philosophy itself much.

Life Lessons From Kierkegaard aims to be an accessible introduction to the philosopher as well as a guide to how his teachings apply to modern life, and I certainly found myself learning more about Søren himself. He was the youngest of seven children, and before he reached the age of twenty-two all but he and one older brother had died, leaving a certain expectation in his mind that he too wouldn't last long.

Søren's father Michael was from the lowest peasant class, but at the age of twenty-one he was released from service and ended up making a fortune from importing textiles; a fortune that would later allow for Søren's comfortable life as a thinker and writer. Robert Ferguson introduces us to so many more stories about the philosopher's early life and its influence of his later work, but this would require a separate post!

The 'life lessons' of Kierkegaard discussed in Ferguson's text are as followed:


  • How to Wake Up
  • How to See through Things
  • How to Avoid Living in the Past
  • Why We Should Cultivate Dissatisfaction
  • On Not Thinking Too Much
  • When to Say Nothing
  • How to Deal with Despair
  • How to Think about Death
  • Choosing to Choose

There's a wonderful selection of themes covered really, and it's a really interesting philosophical approach to self-help (although does classifying it as 'self-help' ruin the concept here slightly?) Some of my favourite quotes are as follow:

"[One of Kierkegaard's main teachings is] to the effect that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. I still think of it every time I sit facing the wrong way on a train." Ferguson
"[Kierkegaard] suggests that there are very good reasons why we don't want to open our eyes, not the least of which is how frightening and disorientating it might be to wake up one day to the true confusion and despair from which sleep has shielded us." Ferguson
"One does not enjoy the immediate object of one's pleasure but something else, another element which one has arbitrarily introduced. One sees the middle of a play, one reads the third part of a book. In this fashion one derives a quite different enjoyment than that which the author has so kindly intended for us." Kierkegaard, Either/Or
"Ours is essentially a common-sense, reflective age, passionless, briefly flaring up in moments of enthusiasm and then wisely reverting to indolence." Kierkegaard, Two Ages: A Literary Review, 1846

Robert Ferguson's writing could have been polished a little more in this book, and at times it got quite confusing and complex (even for a discussion of Kierkegaard), but it was worth reading. All in all, I'm really enjoying this series by The School of Life so far and I'd love to read more.

The next "Life Lesson" I'm planning to read and review? Almost certainly that of Nietzsche or Byron.

4 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Very interesting series. As I have mentioned before I am definitely
an advocate of applying lessons and ideas that thinkers such as Kierkegaard espoused to day to day life.

At the risk of being a bit contrarian, I do think that there is a
danger on the other side. I have known, and known of folks, who read philosopher or other thinker and go very overboard. They seem to fall too in love with the ideas and buy everything uncritically, hook, line and sinker. Sometimes the results are very detrimental.

Of course the solution is balance, taking what seems sensible and
rejecting what is not.

“life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards” is a very insightful observation!

Sharon Henning said...

I know exactly what you mean by buying something on Kindle then going out and getting the hard copy anyway. I am cheap and love getting free downloads on Kindle, but if the book is something I really want to keep, I go out and get a nice hardcover. I have built up a nice hardcover library this way.

tolstoytherapy said...

Sharon, I definitely agree with this! Often I buy paperback/hardbacks of "pretty books" that I know I'll read more than once - or at least enjoy looking at! - and leave the cheap one-time reads for my Kindle. I wonder if this saves me any money overall! I'm definitely selective about what books I have on my shelves, especially since I've had a Kindle.

tolstoytherapy said...

Brian, I think it would be a series you'd enjoy reading. It's really relieving to hear you say that some people take philosophical teachings too far! I know one or two people who are so caught up in trying to be like their idolised philosophers that they lose sight of their own life itself. I definitely agree that balance is the key here, and there's so much to gain from selecting ideas from the work of different philosopher's and rejecting other concepts.