François Hollande and Søren Kierkegaard

The agony of choice was a favourite topic of the Danish Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. He lived in Copenhagen in the early part of the 19th Century and was a keen observer of what, at that time, was a very new freedom: the possibility of marrying for love. To many this seemed an obvious sign of progress.

For countless generations, people had had to get married for distressingly practical reasons: for children and a partner on the farm; for your parents and the neighbours. But Kierkegaard, whose father was a successful businessman, belonged to a newly emerging group, the liberated middle-class, that believed that marriage should be a romantic choice. Kierkegaard was the very first philosopher to grapple with this development in the history of love, and to think through its darker sides.

François Hollande, 1979

To help us understand the difficulties in our modern experience of trying to hook up, and stay together with, one life partner, Kierkegaard introduced a peculiar and useful Danish word: angst. He was one of the first philosophers to pay attention to the hidden costs of the very thing so many people had been struggling so long to attain: freedom of choice. Angst is the suffering – the anxiety – that choice brings with it.

When faced with a choice, we are likely to feel beset by angst because all choices lead to regret. It is the downside of freedom which we overlook at our cost in our enthusiasm for choice.

In his mid twenties, Kierkegaard met Regine Olsen, a pretty clever brunette. They were deeply attracted to each other and soon got engaged. But, after a few months, Kierkegaard couldn’t decide whether he really wanted to get married or not. What if he met someone else who was better? Regine was nice, but what about the others?

He wrote a book on the topic, with a title that summed up his quandary: Either / Or. Either get married to Regine or don’t get married. What’s it best to do? Settle down to family life? Or look for someone else? Stay single? Or settle for what you know already? After a year of agony (of angst), he broke off the engagement. But he pined for Regine nevertheless, leading to a memorable outburst: “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”

Kierkegaard was alive to the emergence of a new kind of romantic character, an individual who moves from person to person always looking for perfection, never finding it, always regretting their choice. They are desperate to reach a sure knowledge that, finally, this is the right one, the person with whom there will be no more heartache, no more regrets. Instead what they get is usually a life of messy splits, bitter exes, fractious children, and a growing sense of chaos.

Relationships are inevitably filled with painful moments, boredom, mutual incomprehension and plain differences of taste and outlook. The other person, even a very lovely soul, is always wrong in some quite significant ways.

Since all choices lead to regret – Kierkegaard reasoned – the wise person realises that there is no such thing as the right person. They are hence less inclined to chop and change. They let a little bit of hope die. But this pessimism turns out to be a better guide to a more or less sane life.