Søren Kierkegaard; drawing by Niels Christian Kierkegaard, circa 1840

But Kierkegaard was an unbending conservative, and the political consequences of his religious absolutism remain uncertain. His hatred of the mob, for instance, fosters a healthy skepticism toward political conformity but also a disabling contempt for the public good. A rather different line of influence connects him to illiberal critics of modern democracy such as Carl Schmitt, the Nazi legal theorist who cited the Dane as an authority when he claimed that the ultimate problems in politics require radical decision, not reasonable deliberation. The world of Kierkegaard scholarship is thick with complaints that he has been misunderstood and that he was in fact neither an arch-conservative nor an “irrationalist” (a standard charge). But the truth is that his influence spans ideologies of all kinds, and his legacy is contested only because its meanings overflow all boundaries of doctrine and argument.

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