Archive for the ‘Boredom Anxiety Envy’ Category

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.4)

July 6, 2016

CONCLUSIONS

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard compares the present age to a Roman emperor, fat, bored, wandering through his palace and through life looking for something to amuse himself. He isn’t evil, exactly, so much as simply sullen, lethargic and self-centered, and desperate for something new to stimulate his senses. He torments others simply out of boredom. Likewise, Kierkegaard says, the present age delights in having a tabloid press to torment and humiliate the best and brightest, anyone who stands out from the crowd, simply so the rest of us can watch and be entertained for awhile. Kierkegaard started his authorship with a discussion of boredom, and here when he is beginning a new phase in his career he is returning to it. Boredom and envy are connected, in a way neither is to anxiety, leading Kierkegaard to mention them both in the same breath.

The connection is passion. This seems to be an easy concept to misunderstand; in The Logic of Subjectivity Louis Pojman, who is normally a pretty sharp cookie, compares Kierkegaard’s discussion of passion to Hume’s notion that “reason is a slave to the passions.” This is clearly off target, since Hume’s point is that we have no real freedom to act against our desires while Kierkegaard is saying we should strive to free ourselves from just that sort of bondage to our whims and appetites. Taking what Kierkegaard says about passion in various references and bringing it together, it is clear that the essential quality of the life of passion is that the individual feels that what he or she does matters. Don Juan, lost in the moment of pure pleasure, feels absolutely alive.[1] He is totally immersed; no part of him stands outside what he is engaged with; he is passionate. However, that sort of passion cannot survive reflection or even self-awareness; it starts to collapse as soon as it is put into words. The pre-moral, esthetic life described in Either/Or is a life lived for arbitrary goals, and thus is essentially meaningless; the more one becomes self-aware and reflective, the more one finds oneself standing outside oneself, unable to fully immerse in whatever arbitrary project one has chosen. It is simply too small. And being essentially meaningless, it is essentially boring. Don Juan can pull it off mostly because he is a fictional character in an opera, and exists only in imagination and music; a real person is never safe from the threat of self-reflection. Kierkegaard thus depicts the egoistic, pre-moral life of the esthete as something of a willful self-deceit, where the esthetic person either invests his or her life in some petty project or rotates between petty projects, and avoids boredom mostly by luck if at all.

In the age of revolution, people are swept up in a shared passion. That may not be a good thing; the same passion that led to the overthrow of tyranny also led to The Terror and to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. Passion, in and of itself, may not be moral; but it is at least alive. People feel that things matter. Without reflection to go along with that passion, you can have wildness, irrationality, and a loss of sense of individuality; but at least you have the vital force. With both reflection and passion, you have liveliness together with self-awareness, and you have a community of moral individuals. With reflection and no passion, as in the present age, you have triviality. Nothing matters, and what’s more, we feel clever because our reflection has shown us that nothing matters so we are not being fooled. We don’t fight for the good or against the evil, because we don’t feel that either matters; we simply don’t think those words apply to us. We might temporarily flare up in some passing enthusiasm, but it soon fades because it is as arbitrary as anything else, and we lapse into bored triviality. I think of how outraged we all were when Cecil the lion was killed, for awhile, but how little most of us think about the extermination of the world’s most majestic species. No one really cares about the moral principle; they just wanted to be part of the moment and part of the crowd gathered to mourn Cecil. If anyone had actually acted on all that outrage, either to avenge Cecil or to dedicate his or her life entirely to saving Earth’s endangered animals, we would have considered it madness. It is acceptable to get angry and to tweet death threats even, to sign a petition and to talk about it endlessly on Facebook for two weeks; but then, really, you have to get on with your life, right?

In an early journal entry, written when Kierkegaard was merely a perpetual student, he wrote that he was seeking “the cause for which I can live and die.” That is what it is to live a life of passion! And that is what is lacking in the present age, according to Kierkegaard. No one has a cause. In the age of revolution, everyone has a cause, whether you are a revolutionary or a reactionary; either way, you are part of the same passion, and the revolution matters. People in a revolutionary age don’t all agree, but they all care about the same thing; even if some love it and some hate it, “it” is the same. In the age of reflection without passion, we have no cause, and those who do seem strange, even fanatical.

In this boredom, when nothing matters, our attention has no common focus and no higher focus than one another. That reflection that tells us that nothing matters turns on our neighbors, as we determine to prove that any claim to “matter” is arrogance. Therefore, we level. Leveling is the prime social expression for passionlessness, which is the literal meaning of “apathy.” The leveling society is the apathetic society, knocking down the highest out of sheer boredom.

The escape from boredom, which Kierkegaard traces through Either/Or to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is to choose to live a life where things do matter. As his pseudonym The Judge says, it is not to choose the good, but first to choose to allow the concepts of “good” and “evil” into one’s life. As Ron Green points out in Kierkegaard and Kant: the Hidden Debt, Kierkegaard starts with a very Kantian notion of what “ethics” means: that one lives according to the moral law that one discovers with one’s own moral reason. Just as logic is a purely mental law that dictates what is rational or irrational thinking, so the moral law is a purely rational principle that dictates what is moral or immoral action. To reject either logic or morality is certainly possible; in fact, few of us live totally logical or moral lives. But insofar as a person is not a slave to whims and appetites and irrational impulses, one lives according to these laws of rationality and morality that one finds within one’s own reason. The only way one can escape being determined by the essentially meaningless pursuits of the egoist is to choose the ethical life. When one does this, one has something far more important to deal with than whether one’s neighbor is getting too uppity; so the moral passion of the ethical life can be the antidote to envy.

Thus, the escape from boredom and from envy is the same: reject apathy and embrace the life lived for what matters. However, at this point anxiety rears its head. As Kierkegaard says, to live with the knowledge of good and evil is to live in anxiety. One first becomes aware of the distinction by becoming aware that one has done the evil, and cannot undo it, and might even do it again. The more one tries to escape from anxiety through one’s own power, the more anxious one becomes. Eventually, since anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” the only escape from anxiety is to try to escape from one’s own freedom. For this reason, says The Concept of Anxiety, the person may be tempted to try to immerse himself or herself in the trivial and philistine life of social conformity. I find myself to be desperately bored; I realize my life and my concerns are meaningless, and seek to find what really matters, that is, what is good; when I find it, I realize that I have in fact done what is worthless and evil, and that it still remains a tempting possibility; the more I try to live a meaningful life the more stressful and anxious I find this constant threat of falling again into what I now know to be the evil; and finally I choose to simply embrace the soulless conformity of the passionless, reflective society. Thus boredom and envy are not just the problems of those who know nothing more in life; they are much more the characteristics of those many who are actively choosing to live lives without a relationship to what is truly good.

The only true escape from anxiety and envy, according to Kierkegaard, is to choose the religious life. Again, this is a claim that is likely to be misunderstood by postmodern Americans. Most of what we typically call “religious”— social conformity and judgmentalism, blindly following a charismatic leader, allowing others to tell us the moral rules and convincing ourselves that using our own minds is somehow wicked and rebellious—- this is actually what Kierkegaard would consider more of that anxious, envious, self-immolating life that Kierkegaard labels “objectivity,” “idolatry” or “demonic.” True religiousness starts with the attempt to find the good: that is, with the ethical. For Kierkegaard, the attempt to live an ethical life by following one’s moral reason serves much the same function as the Law in Paul’s epistles and Luther’s theology.[2] One must first try to live according to the ethical, and fail, and in failing realize one’s need for grace. At the same time, grace is not there to free one from trying to live a good life; it is there to free one from the burden of one’s past failures, so that one can try again. Grace allows one to finally be free from the overwhelming burden of anxiety, which otherwise leads one to flee the whole attempt to live a life as a morally directed individual.[3] Particularly in Concept of Anxiety, but consistently throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, “the good” is individuating; to pursue the good is to be an individual, and to try to evade the personal effort of being an individual moral agent before God is to choose the evil.

The irony of envy is that from the religious perspective, it is right. Envy says, “You are no better than me;” the religious person says, “Indeed, I am no better than you; we are both individuals before God, dependent entirely on grace.” Accepting this is what allows the truly religious person to escape the bondage of envy. The faithful person has the complete security of being worthwhile and even loved by God, despite knowing himself or herself to be morally unworthy of that love. The faithful one thus has no need to enviously tear down others, and can rejoice in their value before God as much as in his or her own. Therefore, if you see someone whose sense of self-worth is dependent on asserting superiority over others or tearing them down, you can be sure that this is not “religious” zeal but is in fact faithlessness.

The desire to tear down scientists and scholars and “the elites,” while adulating some self-promoting huckster whose only claims to superiority are the purely mathematical ones of wealth and popularity, is an expression of faithlessness and the bondage of sin, as Kierkegaard understands it. This is true whether the would-be idol is a political demagogue or a religious charlatan, or some combination of the two. It is a sign of an age that has, in Kierkegaard’s words, “annulled the principle of contradiction.” It is an age that fears to let Yes be Yes and No remain No, and wants to eliminate all ultimate distinctions between true and false, good and evil, logical and irrational, so it can avoid having to make a decisive choice. The present age says that all truths are partial and relative and based on perspective, so there is no need to rationally discuss or to question one’s own views; the reflective and passionate view is humbled by reflection but inspired to seek truth nevertheless, admitting that the quest for truth is never-ending while remaining devoted to the quest regardless.

When “the principle of contradiction has been abrogated,” as Kierkegaard said using the language of Hegelian philosophy, there is no absolute truth. Every concept is simply one side of a larger reality. Hegel still had an historical optimism underlying his annihilation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil; he believed history is progressing towards a state of greater human consciousness, and eventually the race will attain an apprehension of reality that encompasses all of the various perspectives. But for Hegel, that day is not yet; in the meantime, your moral values are simply expressions of your culture’s values and your own class interests. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the French Revolution was succeeded by the Munich Putsch, that optimism was harder to sustain. Today we have even more thoroughly abrogated the distinction between true and false, epistemologically and ethically, in what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is no truth, so anyone who claims to know truth is simply an oppressor trying to impose his (maybe her) will on others; thus the only morally proper and epistemologically correct option is to admit all views are equally valid, even contradictory ones. The problem with that is that the “tolerance” and “honesty” that supposedly demand this admission are themselves moral and epistemological virtues, and thus themselves become victims of reflection. What we end up with is moral nihilism and a contest of irrational wills. As Harry Frankfurt discusses in On Bullshit, today we have a whole category of verbal behavior that is neither truth nor lying, because the speaker is simply unconcerned with either sharing or avoiding the truth. And this may explain Trump’s method and success. Donald Trump does not lie; he bullshits. He says whatever will serve his purpose, and is not concerned with whether what he says is true. Much of the time he does not even know. And to the morally and intellectually vacuous public today, this seems entirely appropriate. In a world where no one can “dictate” truth, and where truth itself cannot dictate, every single person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. If I want to believe that slavery never happened, or that solar energy sucks heat out of the air and will freeze us all to death unless we burn more coal, or that most American Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers even though I don’t actually even know how many Muslims there are in America, then I have a right to my opinion. Truth and goodness are replaced by the language of “rights,” and the stupidest and most selfish has as much right as the wisest, for we are all equal. The ability to get others to agree with you is seen not as a triumph for fact over fantasy, but just as a victory of one will over the others. From the point of view of the postmodern person, there is no truth and the best leader is merely the best bullshitter; and the bullshitter who has persuaded the most people to give him or her the most money is clearly the best. From the point of view of the one who is religious in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word, the wisest is the one who recognizes that there is truth, who loves the truth (particularly moral truth) and who attempts to live according to the truth so that his or her life might have some real meaning, but who knows that human existence is always to strive for truth, never to possess it completely. That person will know that anyone might have a piece of truth, and thus anyone is worth listening to, just as Socrates listened to politicians and slaves alike as he went around Athens asking questions. And just as Socrates seemed more than a little odd in a society dominated by demagogues and Sophists, so today any real truth-seeker seems goofy at least, if not absolutely insane. The popular teachers in the days of Socrates were the ones who said “man is the measure of all things, what is that it is, and what is not that it is not;” and the popular leaders were the ones who did not try to make their citizens better morally or better informed, but took them where they were and pandered to their appetites. And in the days of Socrates, that sort of relativism led to moral and epistemological nihilism, leaving nothing to guide the society but the naked ambition of its politicians; and themselves being unguided either by moral principles or factual truth, they led the nation into defeat and destruction. The age without faith is the age without truth, without a love for truth, and thus without guidance how to live or what to choose, a mindless herd following the loudest voice without knowledge of whether it is being led to the sheepfold, or to be sheared, or to the slaughterhouse.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” in Either/Or, v. I, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 45ff

[2] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 76-107

[3] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) pp. 40-57

 

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

July 1, 2016

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

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.2)

June 15, 2016

Next, anxiety: Kierkegaard wrote during the 19th Century, which was a famously optimistic period in most of Europe. It was an age of exploration and experimentation, of invention and economic growth, of capitalism and commercialism. Kierkegaard frequently criticized the philosophy and theology of his time as both shallow and overconfident; his advice, through his pseudonyms as well as in his own name, was to cultivate a humble spirituality. His words largely fell on deaf ears, and he was nearly forgotten in the years after his death. His greatest influence was in the early 20th Century and beyond, in response to some of humanity’s darkest times. As theologians and philosophers sought to understand how so many millions of their fellow citizens could gladly throw away their freedom and their professed religion to follow earthly self-proclaimed Fascist and Communist messiahs, they found Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous discussions of anxiety to be uniquely instructive.

Most of Kierkegaard’s discussion of anxiety comes through his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, in the book The Concept of Anxiety. Important additional insights come through his religious discourse, “Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above,” one of his Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843). Haufniensis describes anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom.” What does that mean? The experience of freedom is the realization that one can do something that one knows one ought not to do. Haufniensis takes the story of Adam as a true account of anxiety and sin, and points out that before rebelling against God Adam is described as “without the knowledge of good and evil.” But Adam did know that there was something he ought not to do. There was a possibility, a real possibility. And realizing that there was this real possibility of something was both attractive and repulsive, like the sudden urge to jump off a cliff. We can’t really say Adam chose to do evil, since he didn’t know what evil was; but once he had chosen what was evil, he both knew what good and evil were, and that he had chosen badly.

http://www.gocomics.com/9chickweedlane/2006/06/27

At least as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, only human have the freedom to choose in this way, what the later pseudonym Climacus called an “existential choice,” a choice of what would be the highest guiding value of one’s life. And the realization that one has that freedom is disorienting. Every human falls, Kierkegaard claims, and falls in this same way: by throwing away his or her innocence and choosing to do wrong, as Adam did, one finds that one has succumbed to this vertigo of freedom. It cannot be explained more than that, because it is a free choice and thus has no “cause” that can explain it. Without that freedom, one would not be a rational spirit; but while an animal cannot help but obey God and be what it was made to be, humans have the ability to make themselves, an ability they discover only when they choose first to deform themselves and then must strive to be remade.

In the pseudonymous Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s alter ego writes from a psychological perspective only; then the discussion gets too theological he breaks off with a comment that “at this point, we leave the problem to dogmatics.”[1] When he writes in his own name, he is much more explicitly religious. In “Every Good and Perfect Gift is From Above (1843)” he discusses how Adam’s sin breaks the sense of God’s presence, and the results of this. Before his disobedience, Adam “walked with God,” as Genesis puts it, in apparently easy fellowship. There was no division between God’s will and Adam’s, or between Adam and any other part of Creation. Once they made that initial decision to try to “become as gods, knowing good and evil,” Adam and Eve both realized that the world is outside their control, and thus threatening. The anxiety gave the occasion for freedom to break from God; the choice to actually do so creates a separation that then opens the door for genuine fear. Concept of Anxiety focuses on how human freedom apart from divine grace, responds to this situation. Asserting my freedom meant separating myself from God and thus also from God’s creation; now I am surrounded by threats and by mysteries. Once I knew what it was good for me to do, since it was simply to obey God; but now I am left to seek the good, and faced with the danger that I will again choose what I know is wrong. And that anxiety also leaves me fearful, and particularly fearful that I could die separated from my ultimate fulfillment. “To be or not to be?” becomes a terrifying question for one caught in anxiety.[2] Every attempt to gain a sense of security and certainty by my own efforts just leaves me with an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy. The world is simply too big and too confusing for me. There are only two possible responses. One is faith, at which point I leave the psychological and philosophical perspective of Concept of Anxiety and turn to God, accepting that “every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of variation” (James 1:17). But most of us never reach that state of faith; for most of us can only escape this overwhelming anxiety by choosing to throw away our freedom. We submerge ourselves in the spirit-numbing social conformity of the modern commercial society, which Kierkegaard calls “philistinism.” Instead of struggling to find our own life values, we let the crowd around us dictate our life choices. This was the aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought that so intrigued the existentialists and dialectical theologians, as they watched their world go mad. What would make civilized people swarm into a stadium where they could throw their arms in the air and shout “Sieg Heil!” until they were hoarse? What could make millions of people worship a Stalin or Hitler or other tyrant? Anxiety offers a key. If trying to create my own values has become an overwhelming burden, turning to a strong authority who promises to tell me what is good and evil is a relief, not an oppression. And if my anxiety about myself has metastasized to fear of the world, a strong protector becomes a shield, not a cage.

No, I am not saying that Trump is just like Hitler or Stalin. But the impulse towards social conformity and authoritarianism is certainly the same in both. It is the same force that drives the Christian Dominionist and the Muslim Jihadi. It is the desire to be part of a herd and to have a strong, visible, concrete shepherd. Polls say Trump does well among self-described Evangelicals who only occasionally attend church. That is, he does not do well among those whose faith is a daily part of their lives or a directing force; he does do well among those who are social Evangelicals, who long for a traditional world with stable values and a single voice replaces the clamor of all the hawkers in the marketplace of ideas.

[1] Kierkegaard’s reasons for using pseudonyms are too complex to deal with here; for more on this, and some pointers on sorting it all out, look at W. Glenn Kirkconnell Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion and Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, both published by Continuum Press

[2] For an example of a person who, though not Christian, is quite religious in Kierkegaard’s sense, look at Socrates in the Apology. He says that either death is like a long, dreamless sleep, which is actually a pretty good night, or else it is a beginning of another existence; and he is confident that if death leads to an afterlife, that it will be a just and therefore enjoyable one. Thus he accepts the death sentence from the Athenian jury without regrets. In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Socrates is presented as the archetype of prechristian faith.

To be continued….

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt. 1)

June 9, 2016

Stephen Hawking, generally considered to be one of the smartest people on the planet, says he can’t explain Donald Trump.[1] It’s pretty rare that I think I can figure out something he can’t, so I shouldn’t waste the opportunity. In fact, though, Hawking is already onto the solution I will propose, when he adds, “”He is a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.” And to say I figured it out is also presumptuous, since in fact Kierkegaard, a fairly obscure 19th Century philosopher and theologian, is really the one who described the forces that guide mass culture in the modern age: boredom, anxiety and envy.

First, boredom: Many people have commented on the fact that Donald Trump is not primarily a politician, and (given the wealth and connections he started with and the fact that he would have made more money if he’d just put his money in the stock market and left it there) he’s not even a particularly amazing businessman. He is a reality TV star, a celebrity, an entertainer.[2] Donald Trump himself even supports this claim.[3] Why should this be enough to earn millions of votes for him to become Leader of the Free World?

Kierkegaard explored the concept of boredom extensively in his first major published work, Either/Or. Fittingly, it was considered his most entertaining work in his lifetime, the only real moneymaker he had. This work was written as a philosophical puzzle for its readers, not the least of which was “who wrote it?” Either/Or was allegedly written by four different characters and published by a fifth, and that publisher himself claims that one of the characters made up another; so you have pseudonyms writing under pseudonyms! The different alleged authors have different writing styles ranging from comical to pedantic, and different values ranging from hedonistic to severely religious. In his day, it was considered witty and beautiful by his Danish countrymen and women, with even the king of Denmark claiming that Kierkegaard was one of the finest writers in the Danish language. And, ironically, much of this witty, humorous, tragic, and widely-praised book revolves around the problem of boredom.

Many readers will ask, “Well, which of these characters is really Kierkegaard?” The answer is really “none of them.” None of the pseudonyms gives you all of Kierkegaard’s full understanding of human existence, any more than any one of Tolkien’s Fellowship reveals the full range of his faith; in both writers, the characters are all partial and flawed, some more or less perhaps but none a simple mask or alter ego for the writer. Thus, we can’t just pull out a quote and say, “There, that’s all Kierkegaard had to say about boredom.” And how boring would that be, anyway? Instead, one must jump down the rabbit hole and see how far it goes. And we start with a character with no name, called in Kierkegaard’s various writings “the Young Man” or simply “A.” We know him to be young, unattached, and apparently financially self-sufficient. And like most of us would be in such favorable circumstances, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He doesn’t need to work to support himself, he has no physical aliments or challenges to struggle against, he has no obligations or responsibilities such as a family or official office. He is perhaps more intelligent and imaginative than most of us, however, and that is perhaps his greatest burden; he has understood his life pretty thoroughly already, and he is bored by it. Looking at all the things most people obsess over—-careers and social ladders, money, sex, power, pleasure, whatever—-he has concluded that none of it is really important. Whatever you choose, you will eventually regret. He is simply tired of everything. The Young Man’s remedy is not essentially different than most people’s: variety. However, he is clever enough to see that simply doing more and bigger will eventually burn out; instead, he focuses on the details, on little things, and varies both his actions and his moods. He takes great enthusiasm in some arbitrary project, to drop it later if it gets boring; he goes to comedic plays to be happy or tragedies when he wants to feel sad; above all, he remembers that when pleasure wears out, even pain can be welcome relief from boredom. He is like most people in that he lives for himself and for sensation; he doesn’t wish anyone ill, but he primarily needs to be entertained, and even his sympathy for others is primarily a mood, not a commitment. He may be better at it than most of us, but in the end he is just an egoist.

Kierkegaard’s primary spokesman for the ethical life, Judge William, thinks that this boredom is highly revelatory. The Young Man is bored because he feels nothing matters. The fact is that he is right, at least about his own life. Boredom is the experience of meaninglessness. The one who has felt it then has two choices: distraction or despair. To despair is to admit that one’s life is without hope, and then to admit that one needs a new sort of life. The Judge does not say it is a choice between “good” versus “evil;” he says that first one must choose to make good and evil the important values in one’s own life. When one does that, one lives his or her life for responsibility for one’s own actions, for care for one’s neighbors, and for higher, eternal moral principles. One sees one’s life as meaningful, as a task, a calling to make the world better; and when one sees one’s life in that context, boredom can never be the same threat it was before. For the person primarily living on a pain/pleasure axis, which we all start with and most remain with, boredom is “the root of all evil.” It is the one motivating force, the one real threat to happiness; even misery would be better, if it were interesting. For the morally motivated person, boredom is only relatively significant; it has meaning only as an obstacle that would try to knock you off the ethical track. It is a temptation, and in that context it has meaning; it is not simply an experience of the nothingness of one’s life but instead the experience that what is significant is also challenging, and sometimes the challenge is to your patience.

Everyone is motivated by pain/pleasure, egoism, what Kierkegaard calls “the esthetic” at least sometimes. It is part of having a physical body and being bound by time. Some people have moral principles and/or spiritual inspiration, which can provide a firmer foundation for their lives; but most live solely for sensation, which means they are in a frantic, life-or-death struggle against boredom. Rome stood for a thousand years because the Caesars provided the masses with “bread and circuses,” knowing that they could riot from boredom as easily as from hunger. As long as they were entertained and their lives were safe, most people cared little if the emperor was Marcus Aurelius or Gaius Caligula. In fact, initially the psychotic and sadistic Caligula was very popular, because he was so entertaining. His problems only really began when the people became bored with the shows in the Coliseum, and his only response was to try to put on bigger shows. In the short run, a government can be about nothing and can perhaps be even more popular since it exists only to entertain; but eventually, as the Young Man found, even pleasure bores. Rome alternated between competent emperors who got things done that needed doing, and entertainers like Caligula and his orgies, or Nero who competed in the Olympics and won every prize (since he threatened to kill the judges otherwise), and Commodus, the ultimate in pre-television Reality TV stars, who became a gladiator—- as shocking in its day as it would be if Obama had taken a couple weeks off from being President to co-star on “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”

People joke about “no-drama Obama.” He can give a great speech and he can tell a great joke, but often he seems cerebral and professorial. His response to stress seems to be to avoid displaying emotion. For the bored masses, Trump is a better show than they could have hoped for. He doesn’t demand people think about economic theory or learn the difference between Shiite and Sunni. Thinking’s hard; even if it is essential for making informed decisions, it is boring. Making fun of people who are worse off than yourself (such as the disabled) or mocking them for being a different skin color or because their parents came to America twenty years after yours, that’s easy. Trump is the perfect president for the generation that grew up on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” that wants Middle East policy to be as easy as watching The Iron Sheik get beat up by Hulk Hogan, and thinks economic policy should be as fun as watching Gary Busey sell pizzas. Even the mystery of his actual policies adds to the entertainment value. In the 1980s I watched “Remington Steele” and wondered week-to-week if he and Laura Holt would ever “do it;” now, I can watch Donald Trump and wonder if he’s going to screw an entire nation. Say what you will, but one thing you can’t say is that Trump is boring, at least not in the short run. In the long run, of course, we are left wondering if The Trump Show will ever find a sustained narrative or simply remain a series of schticks, until one day we see The Donald on water skis sailing over a shark.

To be continued….

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/31/politics/stephen-hawking-donald-trump-demagogue/

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/08/03/when-should-voters-take-a-presidential-candidate-seriously/donald-trump-isnt-crazy-hes-an-entertainer-24 and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-the-entertainer-takes-centre-stage-again-and-he-knows-how-to-play-to-his-crowd-a6770251.html

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/11/politics/donald-trump-carly-fiorina-entertainer/