Kierkegaard’s own devotion to his faith was unqualified. Although he was born into financial comfort, his father had arrived as a nearly destitute youth in the Danish metropolis of Copenhagen, and he brought with him a lingering nostalgia for the Moravian pietism that flourished in the Jutland countryside. Søren himself was schooled in the evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, but he was racked by doubt about whether its respectable teachings were genuinely Christian. During Denmark’s so-called Golden Age (the era that spans the first half of the nineteenth century from the nation’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars to the democratic revolutions of 1848), the country remained culturally divided between its enduring agricultural traditions and the relatively small but powerful aristocracy that clustered in the capital. Popular taste hugged the shores of convention, and the tales of Hans Christian Andersen typified the nation’s longing for rural virtues.
The prestige of the official church was personified by Jakob Peter Mynster, a prominent theologian who by 1834 had secured the lofty title of Bishop of Zealand and Primus. As a boy Kierkegaard was devoted to Mynster—in fact it was Mynster who performed his confirmation—but his father also brought him on occasion to gatherings of the Moravian Brethren. This deep split in Kierkegaard’s character is still visible in the 1840 portrait sketched by his cousin: the ardent defender of Christian simplicity can be found in the eyes of the young man who is, in all outward respects, a sophisticated son of the Copenhagen bourgeoisie.
That same year, at age twenty-seven, Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen. Garff informs us in his biography that Kierkegaard already realized the next day that he had made a mistake. But it took him until the following summer to annul the engagement, and when he returned his ring he gave the false excuse that he was just a young cad who needed a “lusty young girl” for excitement. He told himself that this was “a necessary cruelty” since it guaranteed that Regine would not continue to hope for a liaison with him, though it also meant that Kierkegaard himself would spend nights alone in tears. Regine went on to marry Johan Frederik Schlegel, a high official of the Dutch West Indies; after his death she returned to Copenhagen where she helped to curate the legacy of her former fiancé, who had left her his entire inheritance.
One is tempted to read this sad tale of eros interrupted as a foreshadowing of Kierkegaard’s mature philosophy. Its plot—in which he betrayed bourgeois convention to achieve pious solitude—would resound in nearly all of his later works, though its echoes are loudest in Either/Or, a meditation on the conflict between romance and ethics, which he wrote at a feverish pace during a long winter in Berlin after the break with Regine.