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Double-mindedness is a concept used in the philosophy and theology of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) as insincerity, egoism, or fear of punishment. The term was used in the Bible in the Epistle of James.[1][2] Kierkegaard developed his own systematic way to try to detect double-mindedness in himself.

In Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard asked himself: Do I want to be a Christian or not? Do I want to be a preacher or not? Do I want to be a teacher or not? Do I want to get married or not? All these questions have to do with the future. Many were willing to give him advice but he felt the decision was ultimately his own. Individuals fear making a decision because of external opposition but this need not stop one from making a decision so long as one has the capacity to learn through experience whether the decision was a good decision for one's self.

David F. Swenson was born in Sweden October 29, 1876, and his family moved to America in 1882. He became a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota in 1917 and was very interested in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. He ended up translating many of his books into English. At the time, America's human population was increasing and the same question asked in the Psalms was asked by people like David Swenson: "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" (Psalms 137:4). Below are several quotes from Kierkegaard's book, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, published on March 13, 1847, where he tried to answer that question.

There were brazen teachers of brazenness who thought that justice was to do wrong on a large scale and then to be able to make it appear that one nevertheless willed the good. Thus they had, so they thought, double advantage, the wretched advantage of being able to do wrong, of being able to have their will, of letting their passions rage, and the hypocritical advantage of seeming to be good. But in ancient times there was also a simple wise man whose simplicity became a trap for the quibbling of the brazen; he taught that in order to be really sure that it was the good one willed, one should avoid even appearing to be good-presumably lest the reward should be tempting. Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Hong p. 37

The Good Samaritan

What is your frame of mind toward others? Are you in harmony with everyone-by willing one thing? Or are you divisively in a faction, or are you at loggerheads with everyone and everyone with you? Do you want for everyone what you want for yourself, or do you want the highest for yourself, for yourself and for yours, or that you and yours shall be highest? Do you do unto others what you want others to do to you-by willing one thing? This willing is the eternal order that orders everything, that brings you in harmony with the dead and with the people you never saw, with strange people whose language and customs you do not know, with all the people on the whole earth, who are blood relatives and eternally related to divinity by eternity's task to will one thing. Do you want a different law for yourself and for yours than for others; do you want to have your comfort in something different from that in which every human being unconditionally can and will be comforted? If a king and a beggar and one of your peers came to you at the same time, would you in their presence dare with bold confidence to assert what you want in the world, with bold confidence to assert wherein you seek your comfort, positive that his Royal Majesty would not disdain you even though you are an inferior, positive that the beggar would not go away disheartened as if he could not have the same comfort, positive that your peer would rejoice in your bold confidence! Alas, there is something in the world called an alliance; it is a dangerous thing, because all alliances are divisiveness. It is divisive when the alliance excludes the commoner, and when it excludes the nobleman, and when it excludes the government worker, and when it excludes the king, and when it excludes the beggar, and when it excludes the wise, and when it excludes the simple soul-because all alliances are divisiveness in opposition to the universally human. But to will one thing, to will the good in truth, to will as a single individual to be allied with God-something unconditionally everyone can do-that is harmony. Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Hong p. 144

The first type of double-mindedness, that of willing for the sake of reward or out of fear of punishment, is akin to the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic values. The second type of double-mindedness, that of willing only to a certain degree, is akin to distraction or half-hearted willing. Each type of double-mindedness is a human weakness and an obstacle to an individual pursuit of greatness and strength towards willing and reaching the Good.[3] To counter double-mindedness, Kierkegaard argues that discipline and clarity of the self is essential and necessary to overcome double-mindedness. Double-mindedness isn't something evil but not recognizing that you, yourself, are a self-contradiction and double-minded is self-deceit.

Kierkegaard constantly writes about "willing the Good" but he does not go so far as to tell the single individual, "my reader", what the Good is, because, as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, the Good is something that each individual finds by living life and believing that God creates purposefully. He asks the individual to consider whether or not his or her life is a contradiction. Does the individual see the Good and the reward or the Good and the punishment? Only the individual involved in the task of living knows and when it is found you might not be able to explain to anyone why you think it is a Good.

Expert knowers

Friedrich Nietzsche around 1869 spoke of Übermensch

Is there a way for an individual to choose a career and have certainty that the career will offer the same rewards others have been given? Is there a marriage which will offer, with certainty, happy love between the beloved? Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were interested in these questions. Are there certain gifted individuals who know if you should marry or become a minister or a journalist or a philologist or is it something you should perhaps speak to God about and yourself? Nietzsche thinks the ethicist can help the person find the good. Kierkegaard said, "the ethicist can tell a person it's her duty to marry but the ethicist can in no way tell her whom she should marry."[4] Kierkegaard questioned the supposition that anyone had a "duty" to marry. He was against people becoming "soul experts"[5] and "expert knowers of love".[6] But can an individual be an expert knower of him or her self? Nietzsche says no,

Vanity is the involuntary inclination to set one's self up for an individual while not really being one; that is to say, trying to appear independent when one is dependent. The case of wisdom is the exact contrary: it appears to be dependent while in reality it is independent. Friedrich Nietzsche, Axiom 13 We Philologists.

Kierkegaard made an analogy to this idea of taking knowledge and putting it into practice in his 1845 book, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (Hong 1993), also translated as Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life (Swenson 1941). He questions if knowledge has any importance at all without making use of it in daily life:

"Let us imagine a pilot, and assume that he had passed every examination with distinction, but that he had not as yet been at sea. Imagine him in a storm; he knows everything he ought to do, but he has not known before how terror grips the seafarer when the stars are lost in the blackness of the night; he has not known the sense of impotence that comes when the pilot sees the wheel in his hand become a plaything for the waves; he has not known how the blood rushes to the head when one tries to make calculations at such a moment; in short, he has had no conception of the change that takes place in the knower when he has to apply his knowledge. What fair weather is to the sailor, that for the ordinary person is to live at the same pace with others and with the race, but the moment of decision, the dangerous moment of reflection when he takes himself out of the environment to be alone before God, to become a sinner, this is the stillness that upsets the customary order like a storm at sea. He knew all this, knew what would happen to him, but he did not know how anxiety would seize him, as he felt himself deserted in the manifold wherein he has his soul; he did not know how the heart beats when help from others, and the guidance from others, and the standards and the distractions afforded by others, vanish in the stillness; he did not know the trembling of the soul, when it is too late to shout for human aid, since no one can hear him: in short, he had no idea of how knowledge is changed when he needs to apply it."

"Is this perhaps your case, my reader? I do not judge, I merely ask you. Alas, while the number of those who know so much increases more and more, the really able men become fewer and fewer! But it was such a man that you once wished to be. You have surely not forgotten what we said about sincerity: that a man must retain a clear recollection of what he once wished to be; and now you are to prove your sincerity before God in the confession of sins. What was it you once wished? You wished to strive after the highest ideals, to apprehend the truth and dwell in it; you would spare neither time nor effort; you would renounce everything, including every illusion. If you did attain the highest goal, you wanted to make sure of being clearly conscious of what you had formerly meant in striving to attain it. If this was ever so little, you would rather be faithful over a little than unfaithful over much. If this was your sole thought, and you became the poorest of all in the midst of the rich who know everything, you would rather still be as true as gold-and this is in the power of everyone who wills it, for gold is for the rich, but a golden loyalty is possible also for the poor. And he who was faithful over a little, faithful in the day of trial, when the reckoning is made in the stillness where no reward beckons, but only the guilt becomes clear, faithful in this sincerity which acknowledges everything, even the imperfection of the sincerity, faithful in the love that repents, the humble love whose demand is for self-accusation: he shall also be made ruler over more. Was not this what you wished? For we are agreed that in relation to the essential, knowing it is essentially identical with the ability to do it."

  • Soren Kierkegaard, Thoughts on Crucial Situation in Human Life, 1845, Swenson translation 1941 pp. 35–37

Kierkegaard wrote much about the validity of marriage in all his books with this same idea in mind. Again, you can know everything in an objective way about marriage but its only when you actually decide to get married that you stand alone with your spouse and live the married life. He says, "It is told that Socrates is supposed to have answered someone who asked him about marriage: Marry or do not marry-you will regret both. Socrates was an ironist who presumably concealed his wisdom and truth ironically lest it become local gossip, but he was not a mocker. The questioner's stupidity lies precisely in asking a third person for something one can never learn from a third person." The Good is always a good gift from God:

Marriage likes deserters just as little as it allows one to serve two masters. Solomon puts it beautifully when he says that he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains a good gift from God-or, to modernize the saying a bit, to him who falls in love, the god has been gracious. If he marries the beloved, he does a good deed and does well to finish what he has begun.[7]

He put it this way in Judge for Yourselves!:

In newspapers, in books, from pulpits, from podia, and in assemblies there is a solemnity, a pomposity-a pomposity that suggests that everything revolves around spirit, around truth, around thought. Perhaps it does, too, perhaps. But perhaps everything nevertheless revolves around the job, around the career, perhaps. Is it the job, the career, that inspires the theological graduate, or is it Christianity? No one knows. He accepts the job, he maintains that it is Christianity. Is it the job, the career, that inspires the graduate, or is it scholarship? No one knows. He accepts the job, becomes a professor, he maintains that it is scholarship. Is it the number of subscribers that inspires the journalist or is it the task? No one knows. He amasses subscriptions, he maintains that it is the task. Is it love of the masses that motivates someone to place himself at the head of the masses? No one knows. He accepts the advantage of standing at the head of this force-that is apparent; he maintains that it is out of love. Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourselves!, Hong 1990 pp. 123–124

"What a wonderful expression Lichtenberg proposes, "the simple phrase, 'graduate student prose', to describe the writing pattern of those who write in a fatuous popular style ordinary everyday thoughts which at best express what sensible people have already thought." Journals and Papers II A 124

Friedrich Nietzsche questioned why individuals choose a career in his 1872 book, We Philologists.

On inquiring into the origin of the philologist I find:

  1. A young man cannot have the slightest conception of what the Greeks and Romans were.
  2. He does not know whether he is fitted to investigate into them;
  3. And, in particular, he does not know to what extent, in view of the knowledge he may actually possess, he is fitted to be a teacher. What then enables him to decide is not the knowledge of himself or his science; but
  • (a) imitation
  • (b) The convenience of carrying on a kind of work which he had begun at school.
  • (c) His intention of earning a living.

In short, ninety-nine philologists out of a hundred should not be philologists at all.

  • Friedrich Nietzsche, We Philologists, 1872, Editor: Oscar Levy, Translated 1911[8]

Can the effectiveness of a minister, journalist, professor, be quantified? How does anyone really know when something said had a great effect for good or for evil? Kierkegaard believed in the power of the single individual but didn't leave out others since no individual is stronger than himself. All individuals "create in the innermost being temptations of glory and temptations of fear and temptations of despondency, of pride and of defiance and of sensuality greater than those we meet in the external world, and this is the very reason we struggle with ourselves."[9] The struggle is a good struggle as long as the "task" is maintained in its proper place. Not to know what a minister is, but to become and be a minister, not to know what a journalist is, but to become and be a journalist, not to know what a professor is, but to become and be a professor, etc. He didn't want to intrude in another's growth in the direction of religion because, Christianly speaking, "The difficulty is not to understand what Christianity is but to become and be a Christian." The task isn't to know what the good is or the beauty or the true but to become the good, the beauty and the true God meant you to become.[10] He wrote this in 1846:

There is nothing, no ‘thus and so,’ that can unconditionally be said to demonstrate unconditionally the presence of love or to demonstrate unconditionally its absence. Truly, love is to be known by its fruit, but still it does not follow from this that you are to take it upon yourself to be the expert knower. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love 1847, Hong pp. 14–15

A person can very well eat lettuce before it has formed a heart, but the tender delicacy of the heart and its lovely coil are something quite different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Busyness makes it almost impossible for an individual to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, the religious person who has actually formed his heart never becomes popular, not because he is difficult but because a quiet and protracted occupation and intimacy with himself and a remoteness go along with it. Even if I could raise my voice and say something of which everybody would approve, I would not say it if it was of a religious nature, because there already is a kind of religious impropriety if the main point is to cry aloud; for religiousness the main point is to speak quite softly and with oneself. Ah, it gets so turned around! We think that religiousness, instead of being a matter of every individuals going alone into his private room to talk quietly with himself, is a matter of talking very loudly.

  • Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers II 1995 (Pap. VII 1A205) 1846 (Works of Love, Hong p. 407)

Pride and cowardliness

Søren Kierkegaard wrote his Four Upbuilding Discourses on August 31, 1844. One of them was named Against Cowardliness and he used the Bible verse from 2 Timothy 1:17, which says, "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control." He says, "we creep before we learn to walk, and to want to fly is always precarious."[11] Many people, Christians included, make great resolutions and then just imagine that they will come about by the help of God, but "striving" is needed if one wants to try to do a "good" thing, called "the highest good" by philosophers. Kierkegaard asks about the lowest thing a person can do, isn't that a highest good for that single individual?

Christianity presents a goal which Kierkegaard calls an eternal happiness and Christ called "Paradise". Jesus said, "Verily I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise," or it might be interpreted as, "Verily I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise," (Luke 23.43) to the thief on the cross.[12] The goal was very close for the thief but might not be so close for the single individual who wants to be a Christian. Kierkegaard asks why the Christian should not set a few intermediate goals that can be accomplished before the eternal happiness arrives. One does not have to start with saving the world. Kierkegaard suggested exploring the relationship between pride and cowardliness to see if one of these two passions is keeping you from reaching intermediate goals. He has advice for goal setters. Stop talking and start! Don't worry so much about the outcome. Set a goal for yourself and try to reach it. It's alright if you fail because you can start again immediately. If you need help, ask someone. But this goal should be something in particular, something concrete, so that your passions can be aroused. If Christianity is the task then it's a task that lasts a lifetime.

... the good, the truly great and noble is not just something in general and as such the general object of knowledge; it is also something particular in relation to the individual’s particular talent, so that one person is capable of more than another, so that one person is capable of it in one way, another in another. The talent itself is not the good, talent is the indifferent that nevertheless has its importance. If the capability is exceptional, then cowardliness says, “When one is so equipped, there certainly is no rush about beginning. This is such an easy thing to do; take your time, take a little loss: the expert player likes to begin when the game is half lost. I know it so well; right now I am idly hanging fire, but shortly, soon now, I will really get under way” How proudly cowardliness does talk! What does it mean to say that the task is too easy-it means that it is difficult, and by calling something more difficult, cowardliness has brought the person choosing to choose that which in the eyes of the world seems to be hardest but is the easier task. In other words, it is more difficult to begin quietly because it is less prestigious, and this bit of humiliation is precisely the difficulty. Consequently, it was not pride but cowardliness that was the counselor. Everyone knows that the moment of danger gives a person greater strength, but note well to what extent and in what way one is thereby greater. Is it such a great thing, after all, to need to have the terror of danger in order to muster one’s strength, not to mention that the opposite could also occur, that the terror would certainly be there, but the strength would vanish. It was so easy that he could not resolve to begin. It was proud, but it was cowardly, because actually he was afraid that what he had let himself call a trifle might not turn out to be exactly that, and then he would be in the awkward position of being obliged to feel his own weakness without confronting the colossal name of the supreme terror, of being obliged to stand there in disgrace, deprived of every brilliant exit. Or the capability is slight. Then cowardliness says, “This is too little to begin with.” It is very fatuous, indeed, even foolish, to say this, because if one does not have more to begin with, it must indeed always be enough, and the less one begins with the greater one becomes; but cowardliness, you see, has won sagacity over to its side, and sagacity declares that this is absolutely right, because the person who begins nothing does not lose anything either. Sagacity of that sort is certainly something of which to be proud, and pride has already discerned that rejecting everything is a much prouder thing than beginning with little, and this the person can do who rejects the little offered to him and in addition everything that was not offered to him at all. It seems proud, but cowardliness was, after all, the original inventor. Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Hong pp. 358–359


  1. "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like a wild flower he will pass away. For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away." James 1:2-11
  2. "Keep near to God, then he will keep near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." — James 4:8; Søren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, p. 24
  3. Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard, Routledge, pp. 220–225.
  4. Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or part II Hong pp. 301–302
  5. Four Upbuilding Discourses, 1844 (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Hong p. 172ff, 365ff
  6. Søren Kierkegaard, Words of Love, Hong p. 15, 230-231
  7. Stages on Life's Way, Hong pp. 155–156
  8. We Philologists at Gutenberg
  9. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 320
  10. Concluding Postscript, Hong pp. 557–559
  11. Against Cowardliness; Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Hong pp. 347–348 The Discourse is 28 pages long 347–375
  12. See Soren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, (1847) Hong translation p. 265ff