By Soren Kierkegaard.
108 pages
Translated by Alexander Dru
Introduced by Walter Kaufmannby
New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962

Comments and notes by Bob Corbett
October 2012

This brief but challenging volume has three sections:

  1. Walter Kaufmann’s “anti-introduction” introduction
  2. Soren Kierkegaard’s essay: The Present Age
  3. Soren Kierkegaard’s essay: On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle.

I will comment on each separately:


His central thesis is: “But in the present age one no longer literally changes texts; instead . . . one betrays with interpretations.”

Kaufmann’s preface mocks and repudiates prefaces in general. His advice:

Read for the flavor, chew the phrases, enjoy the humour, feel the offence when you are attacked, don’t ignore the author’s blunders, but don’t fail to look for your own shortcomings as well: then the book will make you a better man than you were before.

He does suggest:

“But those who would know Kierkegaard, the intensely religious humorist, the irrepressibly witty critic of his age and ours can do no better than to begin with this book.”

Kaufmann concludes:

“If God is really to make a moral difference in our lives, Kierkegaard insists, we must admit that he might go against our reason and our conscience, and that he should still be obeyed.”

He claims The Present Age anticipates Heidegger while The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle anticipates Barth.


This is the age of deliberation:

“Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes from thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die deliberation but deliberation.”
“. . . an age without passion has no values, and everything is transposed into representational ideas.”

The present age is not an age of action but of reflection:

“. . . the individual and the age are thus imprisoned, not imprisoned by tyrants or priests or nobles or the secret police, but by reflection itself, and it does so by maintaining the flattering and conceited notion that the possibility or reflection is far superior to a mere decision.

The dialectic of antiquity tended toward leadership. Modern Christendom tends to the majority and leveling results – worst of all possibility – lowest denomination of understanding and practice.

Today’s individual fears the protest of REFLECTION to his wishing to risk something on his own.

“. . . the decay of an age without passion is something just as harmful, though, on account of its ambiguity, it is less obvious.”

His account of the process of knowledge is quite difficult to grasp, however, I think with the idea of “the Public” he is aiming at the much more clearly exposition by Martin Heidegger in BEING AND TIME, especially with his notion of “das Man, the ‘one’.” (Having written that sentence I had to giggle. It is the first time I have ever written that ANYTHING that Heidegger ever wrote was clearer than ANYTHING written by anyone else. However, in this case, I think it is so.)

In any case what is crystal clear is that Heidegger accepted the analysis of Kierkegaard virtually intact. In the section of Heidegger’s BEING AND TIME. The “Everyday Being-one's-Self and the "They." (Macquarrie and Robinson translation, pp. 163-168 or (p.163 -168 in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit) he talks about the relationship of one individual to another. Briefly Heidegger, seemingly following Kierkegaard, argues:

First there is a distance which concerns us: Distantiality: Being-with-one-another leads to a concern of where I am in relation to the other:

  1. I am ahead of the other ---> and want to stay there.
  2. I am behind the other -------> and want to catch up.
  3. I am on a par with the other ----------> and want to even it out.

This concern ends up revealing the dominance of what Heidegger calls the “they” (das Man) the subjection of each and the dominance of THE THEY

Averageness ----> a concern of THE THEY

Leveling down -----> flows from averageness

Publicness = distantiality, averageness, leveling down And all of this flows from the ways of being in the world of the "they."

Publicness is always right. No one answers for anything.

Further it is disburdening the individual of responsibility for anything. The “they” can always have “them” taking responsibility for every belief which leads to an accommodation.

Thus the "WHO" of the everyday person is nobody it is the “they.”

In Kierkegaard’s account he especially deplores the loss of the heroic actor. The modern world is the leveling process and loss of true passion.

Kierkegaard does realize that even “leaders,” those who do take responsibility for their acts have at times failed, but

“If it is true that in former times authorities and powers were misused and brought upon themselves the nemesis of revolution, it was weakness and impotence which, desiring to stand alone, brought this final nemesis upon them.”

Yes, authorities can err. Kierkegaard argues one needs religion. His leap of faith is not easy to tell from his dangers of misuse of principles.


A Genius knows via the self and mind.

An Apostle is the tool of God.

The news of the genius

  1. Comes from the self.
  2. Is assimilated into the culture.

The news of the prophet

  1. Comes to and from an unlikely source.
  2. It is from God.
  3. It is paradoxical knowledge in that it cannot be demonstrated and can only be accepted by faith. The appeal is to God, not to the prophet.

Also: some worldly authority is a bit like this – a king or father, but that authority figure eventually passes away. Not so the message of the prophet.

“To ask whether Christ is profound is blasphemy, and is an attempt (whether conscious or not) to destroy Him surreptitiously; for the question conceals a doubt concerning His authority. . . “


“Doubt and superstition, which make of faith a vain thing, have among other things also make men shy of obedience, of bowing before authority.”


“A priest who is quite correct in his discourse would, when quoting the words of Christ, have to speak in this way: ‘These words were spoken by Him to whom, according to His own statement, is given all power in heaven and on earth. You who hear me must consider within yourselves whether you will bow before His authority or not, accept and believe the words or not. But if you do not wish to do so, then for heaven’s sake do not go and accept the words because they are clever or profound or wonderfully beautiful, for that is a mockery of God.’”

This is a challenging claim. I think it has to be true of the believer. If one believes the prophet is a prophet of God, then the prophet doesn’t much matter, he or she is merely a messenger. However, if one is NOT a believer, then the prophet may well still be seen as a wise person with some (perhaps) unaccountable knowledge, but knowledge none the less, so one could then inquire into the prophecy to see if, indeed, outside evidence can demonstrate it. This is open to the non-believer, but, ironically, not really to the believer.

However, the believer might, it seems to me and contrary to Kierkegaard, realize that not all believers in God are necessarily easy believers of a claimed prophet, so then, one might still ask, since one may doubt if this person is really a prophet, can this claim still be verified in some other way? This would not make the believer a non-believer, but rather a sort of realist who recognizes not everyone will take the alleged prophet as genuine. That doesn’t seem to me to reflect on any lack of trust in God, but in a realistic understanding of other people.

This little book is quite worth the read. Challenging and fascinating.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett