The Driver and the Drunken Peasant

by Øyvind Olsholt


Discuss / diskuter

Kierkegaard’s driver

Søren Kierkegaard was too, in many ways, an “anti-philosopher,” fervently opposing the religious and philosophical doctrines and practices of his day in order to open up an inner space for the true devotion and passion of the soul. But he was not a proponent of a “middle way.” On the contrary, his philosophical outlook is based on the either-or disjunction: on difference, not identity.

According to Kierkegaard man has an I or a self which consists of two incompatible and contradictory parts: eternity and temporality, which more or less translate into being and becoming. To exist is to live conscious of this irreconcilable contradiction, to commit oneself to it fully and to establish a passionate relationship to the strange composition that is I.

In the following passage he eloquently—and humorously, as is his wont—describes how such existing is to be understood, reusing Plato’s chariot analogy:

Existing, if this is not to be understood as just any sort of existing, cannot be done without passion. Therefore, every Greek thinker was essentially also a passionate thinker. I have often thought about how one might bring a person into passion. So I have considered the possibility of getting him astride a horse and then frightening the horse into the wildest gallop, or even better, in order to draw out the passion properly, the possibility of getting a man who wants to go somewhere as quickly as possible (and therefore was already in something of a passion) astride a horse that can hardly walk—and yet existing is like that if one is conscious of it. Or if a Pegasus and an old nag were hitched to a carriage for a driver not usually disposed to passion and he was told: Now drive—I think it would be successful. And this is what existing is like if one is to be conscious of it. Eternity is infinitely quick like that winged steed, temporality is an old nag, and the existing person is the driver, that is, if existing is not to be what people usually call existing, because then the existing person is no driver but a drunken peasant who lies in the wagon and sleeps and lets the horses shift for themselves. Of course, he also drives, he is also a driver, and likewise there perhaps are many who—also exist. [3]

In Plato’s analogy the human soul is depicted as a chariot driven by a charioteer. The chariot is powered by two horses: a noble white horse with wings and an ignoble black horse without wings. [4] The charioteer symbolises reason (Kierkegaard’s “passion” or “existing”), the black horse appetite or desire (Kierkegaard’s “temporality”). The white horse represents a nobler part of the soul: heroic will, boldness, tenacity and yearning (Kierkegaard’s “eternity”).

The overall goal of this triangular constellation—which for Plato constitutes the human soul—is to ascend to divine heights, to the realm of truth. To do that it needs the energy of both horses, and according to Plato this can only be achieved under the guidance of reason. Kierkegaard substitutes the Platonic reason with “existence” or “passion” since for this Protestant philosopher reason alone cannot encompass the passion and the faith needed to accept the sacrifice of Christ and to receive the grace of God—a substitution which is, from a rational or pagan point of view, perhaps unreasonable or even absurd. However, the concept of passionate existence allows for the inclusion of “subjectivity” and “inwardness”, concepts that are alien to a strict concept of reason. And these are necessary components of the Christian, or at least the Protestant, self.

What also strikes us in the above passage is that Kierkegaard acknowledges the dialectical nature of existence. We could say—borrowing a key concept from 20th Century existentialist thought—that the drunken peasant lying asleep letting the horses shift for themselves do exist, but inauthentically so, i.e. only in an empirical sense. The awake and conscious driver, on the other hand, who takes a firm grip of the reins to manage the beasts, exists authentically. He is at home with himself, he is true, he is. Inauthentic existence is characterised by the lack of passion and presence and action, authentic existence by the active confronting and challenging of the contradiction that constitutes the self.

So, when Oscar claimed that people in the marketplace “exist too much” we could add that they exist inauthentically. Conversely, those who “do not exist,” like Oscar and other “Bodhisattvas,” exist authentically. Their passion for truth is stronger and more developed than in others, more in charge of their will. Hence, they are not controlled by base urges, nor by the need to be thought well of by others, nor by the desire to find relief and support in a community. They are individuals in their own right.

Authentic life, then, invariably sticks out as something idiosyncratic and peculiar which is often very irritating because it tries to break every established rule and convention—seemingly for no other reason than for the pure joy of acting in a mischievous manner. Inauthentic life fails to locate the deeper reason for such strange behaviour since as it tries to observe authentic life, it sees nothing but its own mirror image. And being very dismayed of what it beholds in the mirror—a drunken peasant sleeping in the back of the cart—inauthentic life turns hastily away in a fit of shame and broken pride.

Eidsvoll, March 2009


3 Kierkegaard, Søren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 311-312.

4 Plato, Phaedrus, 245c-254e.

Page created: 11.03.09. Page last modified: 12.03.09 13:58.