Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.3)

Lastly, we come to envy. Kierkegaard’s central work on envy was written under his own name, after he had finished his earlier pseudonymous discussions of boredom and anxiety. It thus builds on his earlier discussions, particularly of passion, though readers have found it valuable in its own right as well. Envy appears as a central concept in Two Ages: the Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review.[1] This work is commonly simply referred to as “Two Ages,” a habit that somewhat obscures the fact that Kierkegaard is in fact basing his thought on a popular novel of his day. The fact that a portion of this work was originally translated into English under that title “The Present Age” further buries this fact, which somewhat hinders understanding his thought here. The novel was originally published anonymously, because it was written by a woman and women generally did not publish under their own names in the 19th Century. Thomasine Gyllembourg, the author, was one of the leaders of Copenhagen’s salon society, widely traveled and the mother of J. L. Heiberg by a previous marriage. Heiberg was himself one of Denmark’s leading poets and intellectuals, and instrumental in introducing Hegel’s philosophy from Germany into Denmark. She originally published her novel anonymously as a serial in a journal edited by her son, building on the anonymous fame she had acquired from an earlier serialized novel; thus Kierkegaard consistently refers to her as “the author of A Story of Everyday Life” and as “he.” (The sources I’ve seen are unclear as to whether or not he actually had a clue who the author was or that “he” was a she; but if anyone was going to respect pseudonymity, it was Kierkegaard.)

The novel Two Ages is a generational story. The first generation is from the Napoleonic period, “the age of revolution,” and revolves around the interactions between a group of Frenchmen and residents of Copenhagen. The second generation includes descendants of these revolutionaries, and represents “the present age,” mid Nineteenth Century Denmark. In both generations, the interactions of the characters, including troubled love affairs, illustrate the differences between the two ages. The age of revolution is the age of passion. It is difficult today, after so much time and so thoroughly immersed in our own present age, to really understand how “revolutionary” that age was. The established order was being overthrown, royal dynasties rooted in the age of Charlemagne were deposed, and grand ideas of “liberty, equality and fraternity” were sweeping the intellectual world and imaginations of people throughout Europe. Even when those ideas led to The Terror and then to Napoleonic imperialism, the ideas continued to stir hearts. Napoleon himself was almost a messianic figure to some artists and intellectuals, even in countries like Germany that opposed him. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica” (the Heroic Symphony) was originally dedicated to Napoleon. Hegel regarded Napoleon as one of those world-historical events that changes everything and allows a new level of human consciousness to emerge and take concrete form in a new society; when French forces captured the city where he was teaching, Hegel famously recorded “Today I saw the Absolute Spirit riding into town on a white horse.” In short, in the age of revolution virtually all human consciousness is turned towards a great idea. Some adored Napoleon and the ideals of the French Revolution which he was seen to embody, and others equally reviled the anarchy and oppression of the Revolution and the imperial wars; either way, it was an age of passion. It was not an age of saying, “Well, it has good and bad points, let’s not be hasty,” and all the other equivocations and procrastinations that we hear so often in a less passionate, more reflective age. And this passion is shown in the characters in the novel. They act boldly, even if they act badly. Lusand impregnates Claudine, a shocking thing in Nineteenth Century Christendom, and then abandons her to follow his revolutionary ideals. She in turn is so deeply in love with him that he endures the poverty and humiliation of an unwed mother in her society, waiting for her beloved to return to her. The people of the revolutionary age do great things, whether it is great loves or great sins, taking great risks for causes and ideals beyond their own lives. They interact with each other of course, but their primary orientation is to The Idea, the great principle of the age; each lives his or her life in an individual relationship to this grand passion, and relates to the others and everything else in the light thrown by The Idea.

By contrast, “The Present Age” is an age of reflection, not passion. The characters in the age of revolution were reckless; those in the present age are prudent and calculating. The characters in the age of revolution were shaped by the great passion of the age, by the grand idea that animated everything, and even their society and their relationships with each other expressed their own passionate relationship to that great passion. The characters in the age of reflection have no such animating force to guide them or shape their social world; instead, their lives together are shaped by observation of one another, with subtle sniping and maneuvering rather than grand, open struggles, with calculating how much each has and obsession with ensuring that you never take advantage of me. The age of reflection is thus the age of envy. Envy is, in Kierkegaard’s words, the “negative unifying principle” of the age. In a revolutionary age, everyone and everything is oriented towards the revolution and each one relates to the other through that passionate idea. This provides “form,” by which Kierkegaard means human relationships and society reflect the underlying passion. It thus connects individuals to each other. At the same time, it provides a buffer between them, a mediating force; I relate to you as comrade, as compatriot, as friend or lover in the great sweep of the spirit of the times, or as adversary and enemy or victim as we come down on opposed sides. Even as adversaries, we are at least part of the same conversation. In the reflective, passionless age, people “rub shoulders.” They have no concern other than themselves and each other. I watch others enviously, lest anyone should pretend to superiority over me; and those around me are likewise watching me enviously. As Kierkegaard says, we sit sullen in the great swamp of envious reflective society, croaking. Instead of discussing grand ideas beyond ourselves, we watch and gossip about each other.

Kierkegaard says that in ancient times, society was divided between the hero—-and the masses. A few were recognized as truly great; the rest oriented towards that great person and saw themselves as expressed primarily through the hero. A more reflective but still passionate age can see the hero or leader as a conscious representative of the many and their interests. Although legally an absolute monarch in Kierkegaard’s day, Denmark’s king was already moving in that direction; the king was not the only person allowed to live autonomously, but more the incarnation of the office of state leader. The priest wears robes to reflect that it is not as an individual that he (or today, she) speaks and teaches, but as the particular instantiation of the nineteenth century Danish Lutheran Church to which we all belong. To reverence the person holding that political or spiritual office is to reverence the passion that expresses itself through that form of life, that patriotism or faith. But in the passionless and reflective age, we all know that no one is better than any other, and we express this by demanding that no one be treated as any better than we ourselves. The office means nothing, because the society essentially means nothing since there is no grand idea behind it, no life-giving spirit. The ultimate social expression of this is leveling.

If a passionate revolutionary age “has form,” then a passionless reflective age has formlessness; that is leveling. The age of revolution has a structure that springs spontaneously from the idea of the age; the present age has only artifice and pretense. When anyone seems to rise too far above the herd, the spirit of envy hammers him or her back down. Perhaps the best expression of leveling is the denigration of expertise. If 100 scientists say something, they can be refuted with a simple, “Well, I’m no scientist, but I say you’re all wrong.” If 100 historians say something happened and produce documents from the time, it is enough to say, “Well, I’m no historian and I haven’t read all those old papers, but I say you’re wrong.” As Kierkegaard said, if one real knowledgeable person says something, that is treated as a curiosity. But take a bunch of ignorant people, who each individually avoid responsibility by saying, “Well, I’m no expert,” and add them together, and suddenly their view becomes an important opinion, even that greatest oracle of all, Public Opinion. That is a superiority that envy can accept, because no one is claiming anything other than mathematical significance. You simply treat every human being as =1, add them all up, and whichever group has the most is the truth for today; tomorrow we may take a new vote.

Kierkegaard wrote in a society that was really only beginning the transition to capitalist modernity, so he did not consider the other sort of addition leveling endorses: counting money. If a scientist says, “Listen to me, I have studied this question my whole life, done experiments and examined the research of others,” envy is more likely to resent the claim of intellectual superiority. If a political leader says, “I have worked at these ten jobs in government and learned from my mistakes and my successes,” envy is as likely to resent the elite. But if someone comes along and says, “I’m really rich,” that is something envy can embrace. You would think envy would resent the other’s wealth, but no; it might covet, but does not resent, because wealth is not a claim of personal superiority. Anyone can have money, whether by inventing a new device or exploring a new land to find rare gems, or by inheriting or winning the lottery. What envy wants, above all else, is to claim that you are no better than me, and really any of us could have done the same thing so it is as good as if any of us actually had. Donald Trump exemplifies that in spades. His speeches are delivered at a fourth-grade level of vocabulary. He regularly makes statements that are demonstrably false, and it is impossible to tell when he is lying and when he is just genuinely stupid. One journalist and former political worker describes the overwhelming impression of meeting Donald Trump in one word: incurious. He has no questions, there is nothing he wants to learn, and he is unconcerned with whether reality agrees with him. He has money. Call him stupid, call him racist, call him dishonest, and he’ll lash out but basically roll with it. Question his net worth and you will wind up in court. His self-image does not depend on his personal qualities but on the abstract, impersonal characteristics of (1) money, and (2) popularity, measured in poll numbers. Leveling can accept that sort of claim to superior non-superiority. It fulfills our need to have SOME sort of authority, while at the same time insuring that the “leader” is no more essentially qualified than any of us, maybe even less.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: the Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978

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