Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard

 

 

…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.

 

—-Søren Kierkegaard

 

 

The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63

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