The Divine Madness of Romantic Ideals

A Reader's Companion for Kierkegaard's Stages on Life's Way

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Kevin Hoffman
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , November
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his book, The Divine Madness of Romantic Ideals, Kevin Hoffman takes on one of Søren Kierkegaard’s densest works: Stages on Life’s Way: Studies by Various Persons. Inspired by his students’ questions from reading Stages, Hoffman wrote Divine Madness as a guide to help readers of Stages get into the minds of the characters and better understand what is going on in the text. Hoffman intends “to treat [Stages] as a self-contained, literary production and offer an interpretation of its significance as such” (3).  He is not terribly interested in what Kierkegaard is trying to say through the various pseudonyms deployed in the texts; rather, he wants to help the reader understand the characters on their own terms. In spite of a few grammatical, typographical, and editorial issues along the way, Hoffman’s work proves to be helpful in penetrating the murky darkness presented to us by Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous collector of these works—Hilarius Bookbinder.

Divine Madness is very well structured, with chapters corresponding to the various sections and authors of Stages. Hoffman follows Stages linearly from beginning to end, commenting on it section-by-section and including numerous quotations. While Divine Madness is most useful as a read-along guide as one works through Stages, it can also be used as a reference work for any section of Stages simply by looking for the pages of Stages Hoffman is citing (assuming the reader is using the Hong and Hong edition of Kierkegaard’s Stages, published by Princeton University Press in 1988).

Hoffman accomplishes his goal of treating the work of the pseudonymous authors as independent (but related) texts. Largely ignoring Kierkegaard, Hoffman attributes a reality to the characters created by the pseudonymous authors, and attempts to get into their minds to understand what they are thinking, and why they say what they say and do what they do. For example, Hoffman treats each of the speakers of “In Vino Veritas” according to the order in which they speak in the text. He provides commentary on the speeches and works toward an understanding of how they work together, all the while maintaining the integrity of each speaker’s position. He does not conflate the speeches into a single, overarching idea in an attempt to get at what Kierkegaard might have been after with this work. He lets each speaker speak for him or herself. In his discussion of “Guilty/Not Guilty,an “imaginary construction” of “Frater Taciturnus,” Hoffman focuses on the relationship of Quidam to Quaedam as recounted in Quidam’s diary, and what both must have been thinking as they became engaged and then broke off their engagement.

On occasion, Hoffman will refer to other works of Kierkegaard’s, most prominently, Fear and Trembling. Even when he does refer to other works, though, Hoffman’s focus is on the characters of the works; he uses those characters to illuminate the characters of Stages. Hoffman also draws on other thinkers to aid his exegesis, such as Plato (especially his Symposium), Plutarch, Hesiod, Rousseau, and Kant, to name a few. He uses various parts of the Christian Bible as the characters of Stages would have understood it. All of these external voices serve to help the reader of Divine Madness understand the lives and stories of the characters found in the various works of Stages.

As noted above, there are some issues in the text that could be corrected easily in a revised edition of this work. There are a few sentences with plural pronouns for singular antecedents. There are a number of misspelled words and instances of misquotation of the text of Stages (for two instances of the latter, see page 54 quoting from Stages page 128, and page 202 quoting from Stages page 394). In a longer, blocked quotation running from page 132 to page 133, it seems as though the copyeditor has included Hoffman’s instructions for spelling out “ο ετερος” as part of the quotation. Again, these errors can be fixed with little trouble in a revised edition.

If one is looking for a work on Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way that sets Stages in context with other works by Kierkegaard, or if one is looking for a deeper, more direct understanding of Kierkegaard’s thought as presented in Stages, Hoffman’s Divine Madness may not be the best choice. If, on the other hand, one wants to engage the literary characters of Stages intensely to get a better understanding of who they are and what makes them tick, Divine Madness is the perfect dialogue companion. It is sure to generate much lively discussion among readers of Stages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

D. Gregory Sapp is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Hal. S. Marchman Chair of Civic and Social Responsibility at Stetson University.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin Hoffman received his PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University and taught for many years at Christ College in the honors program of Valparaiso University where he was given the Caterpillar Award for excellence in teaching. He has published journal articles on Kierkegaard in the International Philosophical Quarterly and The Journal of Religious Ethics.


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