Posts Tagged ‘Boredom’

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

July 6, 2016


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. 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….


[2] and