Personalist features in Grundtvig’s philosophy

By Regner Birkelund, professor

In his book The Common Good, Jonas Norgaard Mortensen points towards a shared framework of understanding between the philosophy of Personalism on the one hand, and Grundtvig’s anthropology and sociology on the other. This especially applies to Grundtvig’s understanding of freedom and community. In this article I argue that this shared framework is no illusion. However, its content should not be considered as more than a few dispersed downstrokes in Grundtvig’s thoughts and the philosophy of Personalism. Due to the size of Grundtvig’s authorship, as well as the rather undefined and dynamic nature of personalist ideology, this seems to be the only possible approach.1

The idea of a shared framework was already suggested by Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) in 1949. Mounier was, at the time, one of the most pronounced trendsetters among the French personalists. After a visit to Denmark, Mounier writes of his impressions in the periodical Esprit. In his article he highlights Grundtvig’s thoughts as a useful foundation for understanding the message of Personalism. In addition, the fact that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) – the most acclaimed representative of Dialogical Personalism – found inspiration in Grundtvig’s thoughts on the Danish folk high school, points towards a shared framework.

A fundamental feature shared by the personalists is their abstention from ideological, systematic thought, which is replaced with a phenomenological openness towards the problems posed by reality. They resist any commitment to a specific way of conceiving the problems of reality, and their possible solutions, something Mounier expressed in the following way: ”A taste for freedom and reality dictates that one, in his search for it, is on his guards against any doctrinaire a priori, that he is truly ready for anything, even to change his direction in order to stay faithful to reality and the spirit”.

The fundamental skepticism towards ideological and systematic thought that Mounier here addresses is also strongly present in Grundtvig’s work. This is apparent in his parliamentary speeches as well as in his political writing. He refuses to submit to a particular ideology but insists in every case on using his own (historical) discernment. With clear inspiration from Greek philosophy, he refused, as he said, to be a ”man of the party”. Neither was he thrilled about the expression ”Grundtvigianism”, exactly because this label indicates that we are dealing with an ideological and dogmatic system.

Grundtvig wanted freedom, in all given situations, to judge what would be for the common good. He would not allow his freedom or the freedom of others to be limited by a specific ideological framework. Therefore, it seems fair to assess that he would also not have appreciated the designation ”personalism”, even though there is a shared understanding between him and the Personalists on such central issues as anthropology and the social themes of freedom and community.

Fundamental values
Various personalist intellectuals have, through their ethical-philosophical, epistemological, or political points of departure, contributed to the blueprint of a movement that revolves around an anthropology in which humans are placed above philosophical systems and political ideologies. Central to Personalism is the view that humans have inherent dignity that can never be oppressed or violated, neither by fellow human beings nor by society.  In addition, Personalism ascribes to an anthropology that understands humans as relational and engaged beings, who are in need of both freedom and human community in order to thrive and release their potential.

Basically, the anthropology of Personalism asserts a set of fundamental values that should be self-evident. However, from a perspective of historical reality, they have had a hard time manifesting themselves. Political, economic, and religious systems have, by claiming their own necessity in the development of ”the good society”, to a large extend produced human debasement, oppression, and suffering – in the name of freedom, equality, or God.

Through establishing an anthropology that places humans at the center, i.e. above the systematic thought of ideology and dogma, the French Personalism of the 1930’s developed into a culturally critical and activist movement; a movement that also addressed the socially oppressed position of women, and the condition of a world that was created ”by men for men”. It was their opinion that the gender inequality and oppression of women had to be changed based on the notion that ”the woman too, is a person”.

It was intellectuals such as Arnaud Dandieu (1897-1933), Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985), and Emmanuel Mounier who lead the movement. They claimed that modern civilization was the result of a flawed development, and that a cultural revolution directed at rationalism, materialism and individualism was necessary. In the political sphere they pointed their critique at Liberalism as well as Socialism.

They criticized Liberalism for destroying freedom in the name of freedom, by turning an economically capitalistic rationality into a universal ideology: An ideology that reduces the human to a selfish object of consumption and destroys the interpersonal relationships. They criticized Socialism’s attempt to restrain the concept of freedom through the development of centralism and bureaucracy, and through submission to the interests of a singular party and social class. Without reaching ”the solution”, the personalists worked to create an understanding of an alternative direction for society that contained a high degree of freedom and community, activity and responsibility. They tried, in other words, to find a ”third way” that was in line with their anthropology. 

Mounier wrote in Esprit, a periodical founded in 1932, a series of culturally critical contributions directed at the inhumane living conditions that the capitalist social structure had brought about. To those who claimed that the historical development should be left to laissez-faire mechanisms, Mounier argued that the course of history had to be directed and humanized through active participation and objection. In his personalist thought, and no less in his critique of the laissez-faire capitalist society, he was strongly inspired by the German phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928) who claimed that the individual person’s value, in capitalist society, had become secondary to the system, and that capitalism had developed into a universal framework.

He claimed, in other words, that the capitalist development had brought about an economic rationality that was not limited to the economic sphere alone, but had spread to other spheres of life, more precisely to the sphere that the modern phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) calls the lifeworld; a concept that the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas (f. 1929) has adopted and used as the central idea in his thesis on colonization.

On the one hand we have the lifeworld. The lifeworld denotes the sphere of existence that deals with the symbolic reproduction. It is directed towards the creation of shared cultural systems of interpretation, human communities and the structures of personality that define our identities. On the other hand we have the system. The system is a summarizing expression of the part of society that is controlled by the economic rationality of the market, in which the criteria of success are productivity and efficiency, or by governmental and bureaucratic regulations. The thesis of colonization, however, argues that it is the rationality of the system that colonizes the lifeworld. Strongly inspired by Max Scheler, the thesis of colonization was anticipated by Mounier.

However, Mounier was, in his critique of capitalism, inspired by Karl Marx (1818-1883). Nonetheless, he did not support the Marxist idea of breaking down the social structures through revolution. Instead he promoted a spiritual revolution, which he connected to an awakening of consciousness and responsibility, and a cultural struggle. In his book Personalism he expresses his vision: ”The historical development is something that can only be created by free human beings, freedom must keep a firm hand on its structures and that which determines them… keeping a firm hand on the development is an eminent sense the task of man”.

These words were mainly directed at the intellectuals whom he critiqued for having relinquished their influence on the social development. He wanted to awake the sense of responsibility of the intellectual elite, which was mainly concerned with issues that had no connection to concrete reality. The gap between theory and reality, between thought and action, had become too wide. The overshadowing purpose of the personalist ”revolution” was to develop a society in which human dignity was at the center. A society in which the state and its laws existed for the people, and not the other way around.

This essential point of departure was shared by a large group of phenomenological and personalist intellectuals such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) and Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), who, each in their own way, have contributed with existential, ethical, and socially critical observations. The I-Thou philosophy developed by Martin Buber was a fundamental brick in the construction of the dialogical personalism, and, as mentioned earlier, Buber found much of his inspiration for this in Grundtvig’s work. Some of Buber’s interests were Grundtvig’s anthropology and his understanding of the pedagogical conversation, which is expressed in his thoughts on the Danish folk high school.

Other central figures have, with connection to the personalist anthropology and sociology, and with inspiration from the cultural struggle of the French personalists, fought for a more just and more humane society. With their roots in personalist thought, Martin Luther King (1929-1968), Desmond Tutu (f. 1931) and Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) are some off most well reputed front-line fighters who have managed to convert thought into action with positive social changes as the result. Martin Luther King’s famous speech from 1962, and the words ”I have a dream”, is a clearly expressed support for the belief in the inherent dignity of man. In the spirit of personalism he converted thought into action through nonviolent means. 

Grundtvigs culture struggle
Many years earlier, Grundtvig began a cultural battle focusing on civility, freedom and community. Like the French personalists he was not satisfied by theory alone; he wanted to perform his social critique, and fight for a better and more just society. Already in his early work Nordic Mythology from 1808, he proclaimed the cultural battle that he would continue to fight throughout his life, including his time as member of the political council and his time in parliament.

Through his political involvement, Grundtvig proved that he intended to make an active contribution to the development of society, and move beyond the level of thought. Even though his arguments were often based on rather marked and unconventional opinions, he believed that is was a necessary pre-requisite for a member of parliament to be able to acknowledge some degree of personal uncertainty as to what serves the common good, and, through deliberation, to let himself be convinced by the best solution. If necessary, one must even be willing to change his position, for as he writes: ”Even in our small, personal, and domestic matters we often find ourselves in a state of doubt when trying to determine our own position”.  To him it was therefore natural ”that we often encounter doubt as to what is preferable and advisable”. When occasionally doubting what would be the best way to reach the common good, he never questioned the greater goal.

His stumbling block was the oppression, inequality and constraint that ruled at the time, in a society where serfs were peasants and were tied to the land. Through general education he wanted to create a foundation for dismantling this social oppression, replacing it with a civil society in which freedom, community and justice ruled.

Slavery in England
In the years 1929-1931 Grundtvig conducted three journeys in England. Here he experienced a great contrast between the high degree of freedom and activity on the one hand, and the country’s large social problems on the other. He critiques the development that the liberal, capitalist structure has caused. I.e. the fact that free enterprise has removed itself increasingly from being a catalyst for the spiritual development and the civil community, towards being exclusively about money. ”The money-bourgeois” had, in his words, made themselves the ”the soul of both parliament, legislation and public life”. He also claimed that the capitalist and industrial development had brought about slave-like conditions for a large section of the English population. 

It turns people, young and old, and by the thousands, into a matter of secondary importance, mere appendixes to the machinery, which is the main component and driving force; so that even those Englishmen who allow themselves time to reflect on other things than the economic value of their possessions, gazes with a hidden horror at every new invention and colossal application of the fundamental mechanic forces, which gradually drive out the old craftsmen and turn them into mere tools in the hands of the machine, thoughtless slaves in the factory owner’s courtyard. 

England’s elevated ideals of freedom had only made a positive impact on a small, privileged elite in the English society, while the majority of the population lived in social destitution under inhumane conditions.

On the basis of this, Grundtvig claimed that the so called liberals in England had subjugated freedom itself by structuring society in accordance with the rationality of money rather than the rationality of humanity and brotherhood. On the same basis he argued that ”neither man nor people exist for the sake of the state or the agriculture, the capitalists or the balance of trade, but that earth and everything earthly exists for the sake of man and the people and must be used to their benefit”. According to Grundtvig, freedom was only real and humane in as far as it served the common good, which, in his opinion, was not the case in England.  

Grundtvig’s political struggle

Educated by the flawed attempt on freedom in England, Grundtvig’s message, as he stepped into the Upper House in 1848, was that he would work for ”the common good as the unshakable constitution of all constitutions”. Grundtvig refers to a fundamental constitution that has social and civil community as its main target, and not the selfish interests of the individual. His dream was ”The Civil-Association as one large group of friends”, as he phrases it in the periodical Danskeren in 1850. His words are aiming at the necessity of changing the contemporary social structure into a more civil, and thereby more just, society:

It is a new equal and civil state of affairs that you have been called to see through in corporation with a national council, which neither will nor can follow in the footsteps of the Assembly of the Estates of the Realm. Yes, this era is over, and if things work out for the best it must be followed by a time of true civil society. It is my conviction that such a civil era will come to Denmark as well, for the common good and the common joy. When only we dare, without compensation, to dissolve all advantages for the sake of society as a whole, whether it be those of individuals or those of social classes. 

From this civil point of departure he spoke up against many of the conservative elements, which were introduced in the Danish constitution of 1849. Even though it was his opinion that freedom has its limits, he saw the freedom represented in the constitution as far too limited. Also, it did not promote sufficient equality. The election rules favored, in his opinion, those who were well off in society. At the time, the Parliament was separated into two chambers: A Second Chamber that held 100 members and an Upper House holding 51 members. The minimum age was 25 in the Second Chamber and 40 in the Upper House. Additionally, one had to have an annual income of at least 1200 rix-dollars or pay at least 200 rix-dollars in municipality- and state tax in order to be elected to the Upper House.

In Grundtvig’s opinion, this structure favored the upper class to an unacceptable extend. As he said: ”It is not within the power of ordinary folk to accumulate such capital”, and ”ordinary folk” was after all dominating the Danish demography at the time. His critique was especially directed at the Upper House, which in addition obtained the right of veto in relation to the suggestions produced in the Second Chamber. It was his opinion that ”such a money chamber, interest chamber, or whatever name you would give this chamber of rich men”, would work towards its own advantage rather than working towards the common good: ”Such a chamber would not just vote against any proposal to change a 5 % loan into a 4% loan, it would vote against any tax-related legislation that would have the rich pay the most”. This unjust structure was the reason that he could not vote in favor of the constitution of 1849. He abstained from voting.

Grundtvig spoke of the idea of reforming the current society into a civil society as a revolutionary thought. In the periodical Danskeren, which he published in the years 1848-1851, he wrote:

Some call me a conservative because I stay on the bridge. Others call me a revolutionary because I truly intend to cross over the bridge and into a brand-new condition of civil society; a condition in which the inalienable human rights are truly made valid; a condition in which the population is considered to be the possessors of the nation, and in which we truly work towards the full freedom and equality, and all the brotherhood that, in accordance with the character of the people and the era, and under increasing enlightenment and prosperous formation, with no reasonableness is being postponed.

Shortly after, he wrote in the same periodical that ”The entire Human-Lineage is one blood”, which implies the fundamental anthropology that all humans are made of the same pre-individual, and pre-cultural, human material, and therefore are contained by the same inherent dignity. It follows from this, that all can claim the right to a humane treatment, a right that both then and now is far from the actual state of affairs. The ”inalienable human rights” that Grundtvig refers to are not respected in the Danish pre-democratic society, nor anywhere else.

The peasants, who constituted the majority of the population at the time, still had the compulsion of power of the privileged estate-owners forced upon them, and also the women, as well as the slaves at the West-Indian Islands, were oppressed. In accordance with his positive anthropology, Grundtvig fought, before, under and after his time in the Upper House and the Secondary Chamber, for the dismantlement of the injustices of the contemporary social structure.

The slavery of the West-Indian islands
Grundtvig’s anthropology was clearly expressed in the debate that took place in the Upper House in 1848 in relation to the abolition of slavery at the West-Indian Islands. He did not follow those parliamentarians who saw the acquirement of slaves as both necessary and natural. During the debate, the wholesaler H.P. Hansen, very logically, refereed to the fact that the well-being of the inhabitants was bound to the production on the Islands, and that it, due to the production, was necessary for the inhabitants to ”acquire slaves as possession”. Implying that the slaves were not part of the category of inhabitants, but were considered as mere objects of possession.

This idea made Grundtvig stand up and say: ”I can do nothing but object to what has been said repeatedly at this inquiry, that is should be acknowledged that one can truly claim ownership over ones fellow human beings. I object to this in the name of all my fellow human friends”. It was Grundtvig’s personal opinion that personal freedom comes before the economical interests that were connected to the slaves and the abolition of slavery.

As early as 1812, in his World Chronicle, Grundtvig pointed to the inhumane and non-Christian aspects of slavery. In the book he compares the concept of slavery to the villeinage of the peasants. In 1839 he took the initiative in founding a ”help-association” for the abolition of slavery. In the call-up prior to the first meeting, he emphasized that the association, through ”legal and peaceful means”, would work towards the determination of ”this contemptible trading of humans”.

The invitation was directed at citizens who wanted to discuss a case that ought to be seen as ”inseparable from the participation in the unfortunate lives of our fellow human beings, who are sold as goods and treated, whether roughly or mildly, as mere domestic animals, with no marriage, no children, or anything that naturally allows the human to feel its higher nature and urges it towards an occupation of which he or she is worthy”.

Grundtvig had a clear intention to create awareness about the injustice that follows when the few privileged, for the sake of economic gain, oppress others and rob them of their dignity and their human rights. His visions of public appeal, freedom, and justice was not limited to the Danish population, but included the slaves at the West-Indian islands. This is reflected in the famous lines of his poem ”Far higher mountains”, they go like this: ”And then, in wealth, we have come far, when few have too much and fewer too little”.

The poem is written in 1920 to Christen Henriksen Pram, who was a close friend of Grundtvig. It was written for a party on the occasion of Pram’s departure to the West-Indian Islands. Pram, who along with Grundtvig had been a sharp critic of the slave-condition in the Caribbean, was taking over the position as inspector of customs at the island of Sct. Thomas, where the plant owners lived a luxurious life of wealth, while the majority lived as slaves. Pram was one of the most prominent writers in Copenhagen at the time, and besides Grundtvig he counted people such as Oehlenschläger, Ingemann, Baggesen and Thorvaldsen to his circle of friends.

Meanwhile, his critique of the conditions at Sct. Thomas ceased, as he himself became a royal official at the island. Shortly after his arrival he wrote a letter to his home saying: ”Everything is ideal here at the islands”! It seems that this surprising statement was a direct answer to Grundtvig’s poem. In the letter Pram goes on like this: ”Sct. Croix consists of mountains; insignificant compared to other mountains, but yet a hundred times higher than the Danish hills”.

In opposition to Pram, Grundtvig maintained his critique of the slavery that took place at the West-Indian Islands and elsewhere. As we have seen, he played a central role in relation to the debate that eventually lead to the abolition of slavery in 1848.

The women’s emancipation
In the same way that Grundtvig fought against slavery in the Caribbean and against the oppression of the peasants in the Danish society, he also spoke for the emancipation of women and “the feminine” in general. His engagement in this debate is clearly expressed in his many speeches in parliament.

The perhaps most significant statement was expressed in November 1857 as a legislative proposal regarding the official authority of women was treated in the Danish parliament. The suggestion was that women should be considered of age at 25. During the second treatment of the proposal two suggestions for changes were presented. Theses suggestions stated that women should be considered of age at 25, but ”under curator”, as it was phrased.

The original suggestion had been formulated in order to ”neutralize the colossal injustice”, that the one half of the population had been exposed to, as one of the progressives in the field, O.F. Müller, expressed it. However, J.T. Hasle, the originator of the idea that women should be subject to a curator, had a very different approach to the question. Unlike Müller, he considered it an injustice committed towards then woman, ”when a legislation is passed that gives her authority and control over her own financial affairs”.

Grundtvig did not even comment on the changed legislation, but expressed himself in a way that reveals his constant anticipation of any opportunity to celebrate the woman as equal to the man: ”I am convinced that she, in a profound way, has a calling, a destiny, and an endowment that both can and shall reveal the fact that she is a revelation of human nature, which in no way and under no circumstances is neither smaller, or less important, or less reliable than the finest man.”

Previously, Grundtvig had referred to an article in which a correspondent reports on the position of women in the East. In a conversation with one of ”Buddha’s idol-priests” the correspondent had been told that, in their understanding, a woman had no hope than ”through the next transmigration of the soul to become a man”. Grundtvig used this account as a point of departure for explaining how the Danish people had been preaching the same idea for years, making masculinity every woman’s ideal. He claimed the woman had been in such a degraded position ”that one should think we strongly questioned her human nature, given that it was impossible to grand her the same human rights as we men claimed to possess”.

Grundtvig was therefore excited about the original proposal, and he was happy that it had been formulated along with a range of other possible changes that would improve the position of women ”both in relation to heritage and in terms of legal access to occupation”. He claimed that women were now moving towards access to non-domestic occupations on equal terms with men, ”whether it be handicraft or trade”.

The proposal was ”dear to him”, he said, ”because it is my deepest wish that the woman, instead of fostering the wish to become a man, takes the alleviation that the new legislation brings and strives to become, even more, a woman”. His contribution to the debate was a celebration of the woman and the feminine, but it was also a protest against the common idea that human rights only applied to men.

Freedom for the common good
In the political sphere, Grundtvig, who refuses to be affiliated with a specific party, is still brought up and referred to at celebrations and other occasions, and by more or less every Danish political party. Now and then there almost appears to be a battle going on over who can claim Grundtvig as the founder of their political ideology. It is often his statement of freedom, ”Freedom for Loki as well as for Thor”, or his manifesto: ” ”And then, in wealth, we have come far, when few have too much and fewer too little”, that are cited. And these references are not random choices; they both express central ideas in Grundtvig’s thought. The core meaning of the two expressions can be summoned in the one statement: ”Freedom for the common good”. These are words that he neither connected to Liberalist nor Socialist ideology.

Grundtvig’s thoughts show no sign of the Liberalist concept of freedom as we encounter it in the work of Adam Smith. In Smith’s thought it is man’s selfish interests, in combination with the free movement of market forces, which is considered to be the central catalyst in the social development. Grundtvig used the phrase ”unrestrained freedom” to address the economic freedom that he encountered during his time in England. He claimed that the economic Liberalism in England had come too far, leading to the paradoxical result of enormous poverty throughout the nation that used to be the most wealthy on the planet. In England freedom had in no way been converted into a common good.

To insist on the Liberalist freedom of the individual, a freedom that is based on the idea that the individual can give the best contribution to the community through following his own egoistic interests, was, to Grundtvig, not just a flawed and awkward thought, it had, in England, been denied by nothing less than reality. Generally, the concept of egoism is a destructive element in Grundtvig’s scheme of things.

But Grundtvig wasn’t a socialist either. His understanding of freedom differs clearly from the one represented by Marx, in which ”the realm of freedom” first and foremost is connected to the abolition of the right of ownership. Grundtvig is not even close to this conclusion. He wanted to spread out the right of ownership and convert it into a realistic opportunity for a wider group of society than the few who enjoyed the privilege at the time.

Grundtvig’s concept of freedom was inspired by the Greek version, or as he said: ”the true or Greek tolerance, which allows everyone everything, whereby no one is harassed and whereby everything can prevail”. We are here dealing with a concept of tolerance that builds on the idea that some things are inherently better than other, and that there must be a limit as to what can be tolerated in the name of freedom. Grundtvig spoke of this form of freedom as ”structured freedom”. There should of course be freedom for Loki as well as Thor, but the Fenrir the wolf has to be tied. As we know, Loki was the father of Fenrir, who had jaws so wide that he could swallow the whole world.

This concept of freedom that aims at the common good is also apparent in the philosophy of the personalists who, in the same manner as Grundtvig, tied this understanding to the inherent dignity of humans; a dignity that, throughout history, has been affronted in the most inhumane ways. Along with the struggle against materialism, individualism and egoism, Grundtvig shared the personalists’ active objection to the inhumane oppression and offence against the inherent dignity of humans.

The shared framework, that was implied in the outset, between Grundtvig and the Personalist philosophers, and which I have sought to support through the central themes in Grundtvig’s work, also seems to include the Danish philosopher K.E. Løgstrup (1905-1981). Through his position in the Danish philosophical tradition, which Grundtvig is an important part of, Løgstrup was one of those who had the right premises for understanding the social critique and visions of a better world provided by Personalism. In 1939 he wrote an article in the periodical The third standpoint and the Danish way. The article was titled ”Thought and action must be one – Personalism in France”, and dealt with the French personalists. In the article he affiliates with their social critique, which claims that ”the fatal development of things has replaced human autonomy”. It was hardly a coincidence that the article was written in 1939.


ON THE AUTHOR - Regner Birkelund 
MA in Health Science, PhD and dr.phil. Professor in patient-focused cancer treatment at Lillebælt Hospital & University of Southern Denmark. Former lector at the Institute of Public Health, University of Aarhus. Among other things, Birkelund has written a range of articles on the philosophy of Grundtvig. His book Frihed til fælles bedste. En oppositionel stemme fra fortiden was published in 2008. 


1) For the following short description of Personalism, I have gathered inspiration and information in Jonas Norgaard Mortensen’s book The Common Good. Boedal 2012. I have treated the philosophy of Grundtvig more thoroughly in the dissertation Freedom for the common good – an oppositional voice from the past. Aarhus University Press 2008.


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