December 10 (1850): Søren Kierkegaard and Lodovica de Bretteville


Below, a letter to Søren Kierkegaard from Lodovica  de Bretteville (to a certain extent, fan mail), along with Kierkegaard’s unsent response. (Lodovica, the daughter of a respected colonel, was the author of a work on the place and role of women in society, written under the pseudonym Sibylla.) Lodovica wrote to Kierkegaard as a self-styled “confessant,” requesting that “the philosopher”  help resolve the knot of doubt and rebelliousness then plaguing her faith.  Kierkegaard, apparently, found the entire matter distinctly off-putting; he resisted the role of confessor and enjoined Lodovica to turn inward, rather than outward to others, for a solution to her spiritual ailments. However, he never mailed his reply: it was found among his papers, tucked into an envelope on which was written, simply, “I cannot become involved with this.” 



December 10, 1850, Copenhagen


To Kierkegaard, the philosopher, from a confessant:

Please forgive a little creature for disturbing your studies! But the world often lies heavy on my shoulders, and no matter where I turn there is no one to whom I can bring my troubles. If you do not have unlimited patience for a stranger or the time to listen to a little nonsense, then please throw these confessions into the fireplace and let them be devoured by smoke and flames. Were I Catholic, I might perhaps kneel with burning devotion before the image of my saint and pour forth all that is in me in the hope of an answer; were my father alive and could he understand me, then I would sit at his feet, rest my head on his knee, and tell him everything that pains and distresses me and read the answer in his eyes; had I my friend, I would rest my head on his shoulder and confide everything in him, and ask for his counsel and advice. But I can do none of those things; I have no one to talk with. Were I to ask about something, I would be laughed at, meet a shake of the head, and be told, “That sort of thing is unsuitable for ladies,” or at best be given an incredulous reply, some comfortless Byronic remark or other—and therefore I come confidently to you, for although I know you only from your works I have always recognized you as one who is on the path and on the path to truth and light.

Yet perhaps you too will laugh at me, ridicule me, but you will give me an answer I can trust, will you not?—one that will enlighten my thoughts so that there will be some order in things. You could probably turn my head completely, but you will not do that because you know how one can brood over the enigma of life and how infinitely much one wants to resolve it. I come to you openly, hoping for your indulgence; judge me leniently—or judge me harshly, I shall thank you anyway.

There have been times when I have met you when many, many questions were on the tip of my tongue; you were so close to me, and yet I had to be silent, for convention is the dragon that guards the golden apples of the Hesperides. But I ought not to waste any more of your time than necessary, and therefore I shall come to the point.

There is a total revolution in my mind and thought, which I think I can best tell you about by sending you the following little comments. Last summer I was out in the country, and there I read The Spirit in Nature. It appealed to me very much; here expression was given to many theories that I had only felt obscurely, even though there was too much physics and too little philosophy, too much religious restraint and too little dialectics in it to satisfy a searching soul; it is as if it were cloaked in a veil behind which one is supposed to divine the godhead. But then Mynster’s reply appeared in Videnskabsskriftet, which was lent to me for a few hours—and I was told that it contained a statement of the popular objections, that this was what people found fault with in The Spirit in Nature. I read it through and was so absolutely amazed—for it was like hearing my own opinion affirmed—that I had to cry aloud, “No! This is impossible! Can he be right?” In order to clarify my thinking a bit, I then wrote down what I could remember and added my differences of opinion. I realize very well that this is carelessly jotted down, that many important points are probably passed over. Now that I have come this far, perhaps I ought to get hold of the work again, study it thoroughly, and correct and improve my opinions. But in the first place, it is not, after all, a critical essay I want to send you, for it is matchless effrontery on my part anyway to dare to raise objections—it is like the dog barking at the moon. In the second place, I found it so terribly alien and contrary to me that I shrank from doing so. I was reminded of Goethe who in his Die Wahlverwandtschaften [Elective Affinities] compares our sympathies and antipathies with the process of elective affinity and repulsion in chemical substances—my being was separate from his. In the third place, what happens to me is really similar to what happens to someone who has walked a long way in the dark and then discovers that he has walked a long way in the dark and then discovers that he has lost something; he dreaded that long walk in the dark but still he went forward, hoping to reach the light—only to have to turn back now, to turn away from the light and the hope, and make the road even longer. No! That is more than one can bear. Therefore, I have hope in you as in the light, and that is why I longed to write to you, to reach the end of the road.

Two buckets are seen to

Be lowered and raised in the well,

And if a full one hangs suspended above,

Then the other must be below.

Restlessly they travel back and forth

Alternately full and now empty again,

Then that one hangs at the bottom.

They can never with their gifts

Refresh you at the same moment.


 Is this not the battle of faith? The conflict between religion or feeling and awareness? That battle is most difficult, and yet we must all experience it, we must strive and seek until we have found the point of affinity, for otherwise we slay our best selves. This is a battle of despair, because feeling is nourished with our hearts’ blood, so to speak; it has its roots in our earliest thoughts and is closely tied to our most sacred memories. We are accustomed to considering ourselves the children of God; we believe that He guides our every path invisibly; we pray to Him in His mercy to protect us and our loved ones. If we encounter grief, then this is a trial with which Our Lord afflicts us; if our loved ones die, then it seems to us as if they are watching over us invisibly, we speak to them, we seek them in Heaven. A beautiful image for this is:

But with your crown of victory

You do still let your paternal eye light on me.

Pray for me at the throne of Jehova

And Jehova will hear you.


Hover over me when the drop of time runs out

Which God allowed me from his urn;

When my death struggle begins,

Hover by my deathbed.


 This pious devotion is our comfort; it is the invisible thread that binds us to Heaven; thereby it is as though we had not completely lost them. If our awareness now begins to wander along its own path, then it is as if we were tearing ourselves away from our ties to God and were caught up in the infinite responsibility of having to wander alone; then we come to think of our departed loved ones as independent spirits who have a more exalted relationship than the simple relationship they had with us when we lost sight of them; then our old faith reproaches us—we fear for ourselves—we fear being disobedient to God’s Commandments, we seem to ourselves to be willful and ungrateful. In our fear we then cast ourselves into the arms of faith, but soon we sense that the former trust has been shaken. In order not to see the manifold shapes of doubt, we must then close our eyes; in order not to hear its thousand voices, we must close our ears—a dumb stupor has replaced the former devotion.

But this condition is unbearable. One must free oneself from it lest one succumb; and once more the battle begins, and it is truly desperate, this gradual annihilation of everything we were nursed on, of everything we have learned to love and revere. The temple crashes down on our heads; our past fails us and the present is alien to us. The old world has been lost to us, and we have no roots in the new one.—But in a way I have now regained my foothold, and essentially my religious faith satisfies me, although I do not feel truly at home in it and dare not really believe in it, and that is why I feel in infinite need of hearing a human being in whom I have confidence say to me, “Here you are wrong, and here you are right.” From my point of view I feel as if I had worked my way up to the top of a cliff and were sitting up there in the pure clear air with the world spread out before my feet. There it lies in all its beauty, but I cannot get down to it; everything lives and breathes, stirs and moves, but I can only look and not perceive—I cannot reach up to Heaven and I cannot get down to earth; I cannot truly be myself and make life external a revelation of life internal, for everything that surrounds me, almost everything I hear and see and read, stands in unending contradiction to everything that is sacred, profound, and true to me; I dare not truly believe in myself, for if life is to be lived, then it seems to me that one must become like the Yggdrasill tree with its roots in the earth and its crown in heaven.

Now my confession is over. Perhaps you will say that in despair I have willed to be myself and am now too weak to sustain myself. Now the judgment is up to you. Oh, if it is possible, please restore my faith in myself. If you are now angry with me, distressed with me, surprised at my presumptuousness, then I beg you to remember how difficult it is to find anybody to whom one can turn for refuge. The Church confines us in chains and shackles that kill our moral consciousness. It takes the bread away from us and gives us a stone instead. People talk about the freedom of the Protestant Church. The chain is a little longer, voilà tout [that’s all], so for a moment one imagines that one is set free; yet do but try a gigantic assault on heaven, and the chain grows taut, constricts itself around us—and with wings clipped—we let fall our arms and we desist.

If you would indulge me with a reply, dare I then send for it on Wednesday the 18th or Saturday the 21st between 1 and 2 p.m.? Perhaps it could be addressed to “Miss F. L.”

Once more, pardon a confessant.   




Søren Kierkegaard’s unsent draft [1850]


In your letter you call yourself a “confessant”; but indeed, what you enclosed is in a way the work of an author, a small scholarly essay. This is a self-contradiction that indicates that it is either not quite clear to you what it means to confess or what it means to think.

Not having any particular inclination toward what must at times surely be the exceedingly difficult task of trying to understand others, I strive all the more to understand myself.

And long ago I understood that I am no confessor, so much so that I even scrupulously refrain from explaining why I am not.

But suppose that I were or could be: it would still be impossible for me to be one for you. For you have put what is wholly disparate into one envelope and turned everything into self-contradiction. In your letter you call yourself a “confessant,” whereas what you enclose [deleted: the confession, that is,] is in a way the work of an author, a small scholarly essay of emancipated thought, a philosophical sample, or the like. [Deleted: but in other words to be brief, no confession, which] This indicates that it is either not quite clear to you what it means to confess or what it means to think, something I qua thinking can tell you.

Just one more thing. It is typically feminine, whenever one has ventured too far in self-reflection, then to cry out suddenly to another person, “Restore me to myself!” But that cannot be done, and to demand it is self-contradictory. Yet, it is also typically feminine in a more momentary mood to consider the danger far greater than it really is. Should this in any way be the case with you, then you yourself will surely come to realize in time that it was fortunate that I am not a confessor.

What you have written is being returned to you. I would not dream of burning it, let alone for the reason that occurs to you, that I do not have the time to read that sort of thing. Oh, no, I am not all that busy. But I do not see what good could come of it when that which needs doing is something you will have to do yourself. And besides, such an act on my part might seem akin to being a confessor, which I am not.

You write that you are turning to me with confidence. That I do not doubt; your letter does indeed seem to bear the mark of it. But do ask yourself if you have not been expecting which now has happened. [Deleted: In any case, I am unable to act.] That I—as you believe—should burn what you have written because I do not have the time to read that sort of thing: no, I am not all that busy. But I do not see what good could come of it; if this is what needs doing, you will have to do it yourself. Besides, any other act on my part might also seem akin to being a confessor, which I am not.