The Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

The Age of Anxiety

            When Kierkegaard so ably described anxiety, he presented it as the fundamental reality of human existence.[1]  Adam was born innocent, and free of anxiety; but from the moment he conceived of the possibility of sin, we have all labored under the burden of anxiety.  How can I, a self-proclaimed Kierkegaardian, speak of an “age of anxiety”?  Was one age less anxious than another; was there a time when humans were not anxious?  That sounds suspiciously Hegelian!  Kierkegaard is clear that the story of Adam is not the history of the race, as if the race progressed from innocence to falleness to self-awareness and salvation; only if we each reenact the experience of Adam and personally travel from innocence through anxiety and sin to faith can we be true individuals.  No one gets to cut the line by virtue of being born into a more advanced age; we all start at the beginning.

And yet, even if all have had the problem of anxiety for as long as we have been free, rational beings, it also does seem as if this so-called “postmodern” age is uniquely anxious.  It is not, I think, because we are more capable of anxiety, but rather because it is so close to the surface and our strategies of hiding our anxiety from ourselves are breaking down.

At the dawn of philosophy, the individual could always choose to submerge himself in the polis.[2]  By identifying as a citizen, one could absolve oneself from responsibility to make any decisions; I belong to this polis so I will honor these gods and follow these laws, and as long as I fit in I don’t have to worry about values or the meaning of my life.  Concept of Anxiety discusses this escape from anxiety; and The Sickness Unto Death identifies it as the despair of philistinism.[3]  That is to say, this evasion of anxiety may have been present in the pagan, ancient world, but it was alive and well too in nineteenth century Danish Christendom.  Indeed, it is readily identifiable among us today.

Historically, the problem with this sort of submergence in the polis was that by the time of Aristotle, the polis was dying, crushed under the weight of the Macedonian phalanx.  Even as Aristotle described the truly happy life as the life of the rational citizen in the polis, philosophers were beginning to describe themselves as “cosmo-politian:” citizens not of this or that city-state, but of the universe.  Alexander’s empire threw people into a new, wider world, where the old certainties no longer held true.  Instead, they turned to mystery religions, and to personal philosophies such as Cynicism and Stoicism.  Both of these attempted to answer the basic need of individuals to deal with their anxiety in new, more personal ways, since the society that had served as their shelter from anxiety was itself shifting and mutating into the world empire.  Before, a person was a citizen of a compact, fairly closed community.  It had long-standing traditions, a shared history, and if you didn’t know all the citizens you probably at least knew something about everyone important.  From the time of Alexander until the collapse of the Roman Empire, people were now members of vast transnational empires, whether they liked it or not.  The vast majority knew their Emperor or King only from seeing his head on a coin—-and in fact, those pictures were often not even the actual ruler but some standard mold.  More and more, people sought to form their own senses of identity, their own senses of personal worth and their own bulwarks against anxiety.  Some simply fled awareness of their anxiety, through the Games or other pleasures.  Others chose between one of the many competing mystery cults, which promised a personal encounter and relationship with the divine reality that the state religion did not offer.  And still others embraced one of the many competing philosophies, whose adherents often preached in the marketplace much like today’s street corner preachers.  Philosophers and cultists alike promised personal salvation, immortality, and/or inner peace.

The Middle Ages saw a new escape route from anxiety.  In the West, Roman Catholicism became the one unifying reality shared by countless villages surrounded by the chaos and ruin of the Dark Ages.  In Eastern Europe, the Byzantine Empire provided something Rome had failed to produce:  a welding of the state religion with the promise of a personal relationship with God.  Islam became heir to much of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, as well as the Parthian culture, and likewise married personal religion with state bureaucracy.  Some still sought personal solutions to their personal anxiety.  Many of these became monks or nuns or Sufis; others doubtless passed through history unnoticed, concealing their inner individuality.  But for many, cultural conformity and spiritual subservience allowed an escape from anxiety.  If anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, as Haufniensis writes, then in the “Age of Faith” was the perfect time to evade the challenge of anxiety by evading one’s personal freedom.  And while conformity to the ancient polis had offered only peace in this life, and devotion to one of the many private philosophies of Hellenism had offered only a personal peace separate (more or less) from the obligations of society, the medieval theocracies combined both, so conformism also promised personal salvation.

As the medieval world transitioned into the modern, the old refuges against anxiety fell apart and had to be replaced.  With the Reformation, one’s religious affiliation became a choice.  The more freedom, the more anxiety is manifested; and as salvation became a matter of choice it became more a matter of anxiety.  The Enlightenment and modernity did, however, present some new comforts.  By and large, the modern age had faith in progress, in the ability of human reason to sort out and improve the world.  It may not be perfect now, or even the best possible (philosophers disagreed on that question); but if it isn’t, then it will be, and we will make it so.  Thinkers as diverse as Leibniz and Marx share that basic optimism; they only disagree on whether the world is fine the way it is or inevitably improving towards some greater fulfillment.  This also means that the modern age, more or less, shared a sense that there was truth.  The philosophers debated how best to find truth, but not that truth exists and that there was a best way for us to live, which all could understand and share if they wish.

Kierkegaard wrote his insightful analyses of anxiety towards the close of the modern period.  He recognized that the confidence and satisfaction that most of his contemporaries manifested was not so much a solution to the riddle of life, but rather an evasion of it.  Rather than discover what I should do with my life, the modern conformist looked around at what everyone else was doing and sought to fit in.  I was no longer I, but rather one of Us.  In the herd, there is comfort and safety from the wolves of anxiety, that threaten to drag one away into the darkness not to devour, but rather to leave one alone in the darkness to make one’s own way.

To be continued….


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39; The Concept of Anxiety, a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; by Vigilius Haufniensis; edited and translated with introduction and notes by Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Anderson (Princeton NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980)

[2] I’m using gender-specific language here because, let’s face it, in ancient Greece few women had any choice about whether or not to express their individuality.  If they were individuals, they had to keep it secret; although really, to some extent, all individuals are incognito.

[3] Concept of Anxiety pp. 93-6; Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death:  a Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuiling and Awakening, by Anti-climacus; translated, with introduction and notes by Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1975) pp.  166-68

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