Posts Tagged ‘Concept of Anxiety’

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….

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

February 29, 2016

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

 

 

This is relevant to my paper because I am researching Augustine and Kierkegaard on humility. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that Kierkegaard did not promote any particular values or virtues, except a vacuous “sincerity” of commitment to totally arbitrary values chosen by the individual. In this, it provides an important step in his historical argument that the virtue tradition has collapsed, and with it all notion of good or evil, and that moral language cannot be salvaged except by adopting MacIntyre’s own communitarian version of secular Thomistic virtue ethics. But in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a more detailed description of the Augustinian tradition, including a passing mention of Kierkegaard. Understanding the Augustinian tradition, and possibly Kierkegaard’s place in it, has several important possible consequences. First, if Kierkegaard is indeed part of the Augustinian tradition, that means MacIntyre’s depiction of the history of liberalism’s breakdown is seriously weakened. This in turn undermines his insistence that his philosophy is the only alternative. Furthermore, if Kierkegaard is a modern mediator of the Augustinian virtue tradition, that means that the 20th century successors to Kierkegaard, particularly the dialectical theologians, may offer a valid alternative for the postmodern world as well.

The scholars we have seen have pointed out the importance of humility in Augustine’s personal life. In the Confessions and in his sermons we repeatedly see him call on God for guidance and renewal, pointing to both a sense of personal humility and the importance of humility as a hermeneutical tool. This is reinforced when we see Augustine’s repeated references to the limits of human reason, including his own, and reason’s inadequacy to fully comprehend the vast treasury of God’s wisdom and truth. But the essence of the Augustinian tradition is that humility is not just a useful virtue, but the cardinal virtue; and pride is the original sin. Adam and Eve sinned because the serpent’s promise that “you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” was so flattering to their pride. As Augustine says, they wanted to stand on their own instead of relying on God. They wished, he says, to be “self-pleasers.” The irony, he argues is that as created beings only, they could only be “like gods” by participating in God, using similar language to how Plato describes a merely earthy triangle as having its triangular nature by participating in the Form of Triangle, or a good act or good person as participating in the Form of The Good. By turning away from God in pride and in a desire to be like self-sufficient gods, they became less godlike and fell away from God; had they remained humble and turned towards God they would have been more like God, and as much gods as their created nature was capable of being.

To use terms in keeping with MacIntyre’s description of a moral tradition, the “fulfillment” that the Augustinian tradition aims at is oneness with God. This is so because, in its understanding, God is Being, to be close to God is to exist fully and to turn away from God is to exist less. The act of will in turning one’s heart and one’s attention away from God makes the individual exist less, to have less being; but to exist at all is still to participate in God to some extent. Therefore, the proud person who turns away from God becomes a lower grade of being, less fulfilled, less “god-like,” but does not completely cease to exist. To be completely fulfilled (or “happy” in the sense of that first great moral tradition, Aristotelianism) one must be humble and turn to God, to “participate in” God (in Augustine’s words) or to be “grounded in” God (to use the metaphor of Tillich, a more modern and liberal successor). When thus grounded in or participating in God, one is more good and more fulfilled. This means that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” It also means that God will make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; when the humble person turns to God, that person’s will becomes more inclined to do good. Thus humility is the cardinal virtue, just as pride is the mortal sin from which all other sins flow.

Possible links Kierkegaard:

First, as discussed in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, the near-simultaneous release of the Fragments, the Concept of Anxiety and the upbuilding discourse discussing Adam’s Fall gives a picture of how sin leads to the desire of the individual to control his or her world out of a feeling of anxiety, how these efforts lead only to greater anxiety and to the complete bondage of the will, and how only the appearance of God in our existence in the person of Jesus can give us a way out of that anxiety so we can begin to turn back towards God.

Second, Hamann’s empiricist epistemology is based on his understanding of the revelation of Christ. The world gives itself, reveals itself to the senses, just as God reveals Himself to us through Christ. Truth must give itself, and the individual can only receive this truth if he or she is humble enough to accept it. By contrast, Hamann claims, the Enlightenment is a time when human pride led to attempts such as Descartes’ to found human knowledge on the efforts of human reason, which led only to greater confusion and disagreement; which is why Hamann saw this period as more of an “Endarkenment.” Kierkegaard shares Hamann’s empiricist epistemology about the world, together with his Augustinian/Lutheran metaphysical beliefs about God as Creator who reveals Himself in Christ.

Humility is necessary to understanding not only God, but also this world. First, without humility, we are tempted to fall into rationalism or other attempts to gain knowledge that is not revealed to us through our senses or to seek more certainty than the nature of our existence allows. Hume’s mistake (from Hamann’s perspective) is also a sort of pride, though different from Rationalism’s. Hume’s mitigated skepticism is too proud to risk error, and thus holds back from making any commitments. However, Hamann argues, to refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error: both are mistakes. Rationalism believes too much and tries to go beyond the world’s self-disclosure; Hume believes too little and refuses to accept the fullness of the world’s self-disclosure. Humility accepts the need for revelation while also recognizing that one’s own imperfect and limited nature means that one will never have a full and perfect revelation and will in fact sometimes make mistakes; but that is the price one pays for being open to the truth.

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety: addendum

July 10, 2013

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety:  addendum

 

 

 

            Recently, the United States has been rocked by/comforted by/bored by/confused by (make your choice) the revelation that the National Security Agency is logging every electronic communication made ever, whether it be cell phone, e-mail, Skype, Facebook or whatever.  Reactions seem to cut across ideological lines, with conservatives like Rand Paul opposing conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and liberals similarly divided.  One news report discussing this ambivalence is here:

 

            http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-june-11-2013/good-news–you-re-not-paranoid—taking-sides

 

As this report stresses, there is a deep irony in the support of NSA surveillance offered by conservatives:  yes to government recording and storage of virtually every electronic communication by everyone, yes to government listening in on private conversations by U.S. citizens with secret and seemingly perfunctory oversight by the judicial branch, but absolutely no to any sort of gun registration.  If the government has a record of who owns a gun, says Senator Graham, they may be able to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens, and that would be bad.  But if the government has recordings of a citizen’s phone calls, e-mails, etc. there is absolutely no danger of any sort of overreach or misuse of that information.  The very same people who believe the IRS and the White House engaged in a sinister conspiracy to deny conservative groups their rightful tax-exempt status (despite the fact that they did in fact get tax exemption, and the fact that no evidence of a conspiracy has been found after extensive investigation) are some of the people most vociferously defending NSA universal surveillance and calling for the prosecution of Edward Snowden, who exposed this surveillance program.  How is it that the right to own a gun is so sacred that it must be protected even at the known cost of protecting gun dealers who repeatedly sell to criminals (possibly including terrorists) but the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” without the threat of government blackmail by the threatened exposure of one’s legal but possibly embarrassing texts or phone calls is so trivial that we are willing to spend billions of dollars to enable to government to collect this information?  Why is there one area where we deliberately blind our government, while allowing it unfettered access to the private lives of millions of people?

 

            To a Kierkegaardian, this puzzle that so confuses John Oliver is no puzzle at all.  First, remember that most people are sinners.  This is no particularly controversial claim, at least not to a Protestant like Kierkegaard.  As a pastor of mine is fond of saying, “Hell is full of forgiven sinners.  So is Heaven.”  Or as Paul said, “All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.”  What is a bit more controversial, or at least more philosophical, is Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin and the results of sin.  Sin leads to anxiety.  In prelapsarian innocence, humanity (represented in Adam and Eve) lived in easy confidence within the world.  When they sinned, they  lost that confidence and lost their sense of closeness with God; God was still everywhere, but they hid themselves.[1]  “The Garden of Eden was closed; everything was changed, the man became afraid of himself, afraid of the world around him.”[2]  Anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” as Vigilius Haufniensis says; “anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.”[3]  As such, anxiety is not itself a bad thing; it is a sign of spirit, and thus paradoxically the more profoundly one experiences anxiety, the more truly spirit one is—despite the fact that anxiety is itself a profound danger to the spirit.[4]  There is one legitimate response to anxiety:  to live in the anxiety, through faith.  But this is not so easy as it sounds; more commonly, we look for human responses to our anxiety.  Anxiety is a fear of nothing, a fear of possibility itself; so one can free oneself of anxiety either by fearing something finite and particular, or by divesting oneself of one’s sense of possibility.  For example, to be earnestly concerned with death is a mark of spirit, and a sign that one is spiritually developed.[5]  Death is absolutely certain and absolutely uncertain; we all know we are going to die, but if we are honest, very few of us have any real idea when death will occur.  As such, death is an object for anxiety more than it is for fear; it is a possibility, the possibility of non-possibility, but it is not an actuality; “when I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not,” as Epicurus said, so we never experience the actuality of death.  The honest, earnest response is to recognize that all our finite cares and ambitions are passing away, and that only what has eternal validity truly matters; but most of us are not that earnest, says Kierkegaard.  Too often, we seek to deny the possibility of our own death.  One way, as Kierkegaard discusses, is to refuse to take death personally, but rather to think of it as something that happens only to others or to think of it as simply fulfilling our worldly desires a la the movie “Ghost.”  The other way is to finitize death, to transform the possibility of death into the possibility of some particular kind of death.  If I can take the uncertainty of death away, I can control it, and it is no longer an object of anxiety but merely something to be feared.  My sense of my own mortality induces anxiety; but if I transform “fear of death” into “fear of death by some burglar or other stranger,” it becomes something I can control.  Now, if I only have a gun, I am safe from death and can assume that I will live forever (or at least until I have completed everything I wanted in this world, and am ready to rest).  If I have more guns, I have more control.  In much the same way, a germaphobe can rightly point out that germs are a real danger and hygiene is important, but because this danger has become the focus of his or her anxiety in general, he or she must pursue irrationally extreme methods to be “safe.”  The person who is using fear of violence to avoid anxiety will react as irrationally to the danger of gun confiscation as the germaphobe will react if you attempt to hide the Purell.  And just as there is a billion-dollar industry devoted to stoking people’s fears of sickness in order to sell more medicines, there is a vast economic and political complex devoted to promoting the legitimate concern over crime to irrational proportions, and then selling solutions to this irrational need.  Senator Graham, and many others, are good examples of this.  Rationally, we know that a large percentage of the guns used in crimes are sold by a very small percentage of unscrupulous dealers; but because of irrational fear of the Gun Confiscators, the Federal government is forbidden by law from keeping track of who is selling guns or even from requiring gun dealers to keep accurate inventories of their own merchandise to ensure nothing has been stolen!  Painkillers can be regulated, registered, tracked and monitored by the government; but peoplekillers cannot be. 

 

            When we turn to the question of government monitoring cell phone conversations instead of monitoring gun sales, the anxiety equation shifts.  Generally, the object of “fear” is something external:  terrorists.  Greater government intrusiveness seemed like a threat to an individual’s control over the object of fear; but now, greater government intrusiveness is a way for the individual to feel safe from the object of fear.  Rationally, spending billions of dollars to collect personal, private information from every American just so it can be sifted through to look for the 0.001% who might be terrorists seems pretty inefficient and excessive, a sacrifice of vast personal freedom for a relatively small gain in security that might have been achieved some other way.  And the threat from terrorism was never that great, statistically speaking; after all, you have a far, far greater chance of being killed by your own handgun than by a terrorist in the U.S.  But we are not talking about rationality or cold, hard statistics; we are talking about anxiety.  Admitting that rationally there are a thousand ways I could die that are more likely than terrorist attack would be to admit that there are a thousand unpredictable and often uncontrollable ways I could die, which is to recognize my own mortality and the relativity of most of the things that charm me most in this life.  Feeling that there is a Big Brother who is watching over me (albeit by watching me), keeping me safe from harm and so on allows me to transform the anxiety over mortality into fear of a particular danger, and then to feel that that risk is being controlled so I can ignore both the fear and the anxiety. 

 

            In a way, both unrestricted, anonymous gun ownership and unrestricted, anonymous government surveillance serve the same purpose.  Both serve to “protect” the anxious person from an object of fear that, while legitimate, was also adequately controlled by less extreme methods.  And the politician who panders to anxieties and fears can always be assured of picking up votes from the anxious people whose security blanket was allegedly threatened.  The fact that that politician must at one time defend the anxiety-ridden voter from the boogeyman of Big Government, and a week later must defend Big Government, a problem only for logic, which means only rational people will notice it; and as a prominent politician once observed, you need way more than all the thinking voters to get a majority.

 

            Now, some statistical studies have shown that conservatives tend to be more anxious and fearful; and this makes sense, since the essence of social conservatism is “don’t rock the boat,” and one who is already anxious is likely to become more anxious at the prospect of change of any sort.  But really, anxiety reactions can be “liberal” or “conservative.”  The person who thought that electing Obama would magically cure all the nation’s ills by 2010 was just as much a security fetishist as was the person who ran out and bought three more handguns when Obama was first elected.  The person who runs out and buys an AR-15 because he saw a story on a mass shooting and owning an assault rifle makes him feel safer is clearly irrational, since the rifle won’t defend your child unless you are with your child, with your gun, at school, at the playground, at the movie theater, and everywhere else.  But the person who is so anxious that he or she just wants to eliminate all guns, and feels that passing a law will make him or her not just incrementally safer but absolutely safe, is just as irrational in the other direction.  Sure, we need to do what we can to make the world a better place; but even after doing all we can, we cannot control everything.  We can either try to blind ourselves to that reality, allow that uncertainty to drive us to irrational fears, or learn to live with it.  Kierkegaard’s argument is that one either draws on the power of a relationship with God to allow one to live in faith despite life’s uncertainties, or one will succumb to anxiety, and fall deeper into anxiety the more one tries to work oneself out of it. 

 

            We really shouldn’t be surprised, then, when some politician or citizen calls for the death of Big Government in one breath, and summons the beast back from its grave with the next.  The impulse to gut the Fourth Amendment flows from the same source as the impulse to expand the Second to the infinite degree.  Anxiety explains how apparently rational people can both demand an end to Big Government intrusion into their lives, while supporting making that same government $6 billion bigger (for starters; that’s just the part of Prism we know about and is only the hardware, not the annual upkeep, staffing etc.).  Kierkegaard would say it is essentially a lack of faith.  Faith, for Kierkegaard, is not the confusion of God with Santa Claus, whistling in the dark and blindly asserting that everything will turn out happily ever after.  We always want to control God, just as we want to control everything else.  The belief that we can prevent terrorist attacks by fighting against gay marriage, that God punishes us with hurricanes for allowing abortion and so on is one more anxiety reaction; if I can only stop Those Other People from doing these things that I know are wrong, God will make me happy and keep me safe.  That isn’t faith, because that isn’t God.  God is in control, and does what God wills.  Doesn’t God punish sin? No, thank God!  Before God, we are all always in the wrong.[6]  If God punished everyone according to his or her deserts, we would all be condemned (Psalm 130:3-4).  And in any case, the person seeking to use religion as a crutch doesn’t get to tell God which sins to punish and which to forgive.  Maybe God will punish the hypocrisy and intolerance of the one who says Katrina was caused by the gay pride parade in the French Quarter.  Maybe God will punish the one who made money by causing global warming, which led to more devastating storms and death and suffering for many while some businessmen made billions of dollars.  Maybe God will punish the nation for faithlessness and sexual decadence, just as Pat Robertson and his ilk always claimed.  Maybe all three are true, or all are false.  Faith, Kierkegaard would tell us, only knows that whatever God does is for the best, and that whatever God does, each of us still must act as an individual, doing what we ought to do and having faith that we are both called to obey God and called to recognize that our efforts to please God are less important than a child’s helping a parent fix the car.  The point is to do and to live faithfully, and to turn one’s fears and anxieties over to God—-whatever may happen.

 

            All of us are imperfect in our faith; all of us succumb to anxiety.  But for the many who seek to deal with anxiety without faith, the anxiety only gets worse.  So we call on Big Brother to save us, at the same time demanding someone protect us from Big Brother who wants to take our guns, maybe.  Politicians generally sell their services just as any other huckster does in a consumerist economy; if anxiety creates a felt need for more unregistered and untraceable military hardware in the hands of private citizens, while also creating a demand for an omniscient and omnipotent government that knows everything (except who owns guns) and is able to stop all the Bad Guys, then the politicians will sell their services as defenders of our right to have a government that is simultaneously all-seeing and blind. 

 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Anderson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) pp. 25-80; Genesis 3:1-13

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) p. 127

[3] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 42, 61

[4] Concept of Anxiety, p. 155

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 70-102

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, pt. II, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 339-54

 

POSTSCRIPT: Philosophy, Politics and the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

September 10, 2012

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety:  postscript

In the AP report, “GOP Eyes November with Optimism, but the Future?” Republican strategists and political leaders speak of their short-term optimism and long-term concerns for their party.[1]  While the speakers in the video report are optimistic about their success in channeling the anxiety and fear of voters caught in an ongoing economic malaise, some worry about their monolithic base.  In 2004, George W. Bush got 91% of his votes from Caucasians; in 2008, McCain got 90% of his from whites.  The country is becoming more ethnically diverse, while the Republican Party is becoming as segregated as the voting rolls in the Antebellum South.

From a rational point of view, this is insane.  Even Jeb Bush has said that he finds himself out of step with his party on some issues, such as immigration, because it alienates the rapidly growing Latino vote.  But when one considers that the postmodern conservative movement is driven by anxiety and not by reason, it seems both natural and inescapable.  The Tea Party is not, primarily, about issues.  It is about feelings.  Its slogan, shouted again and again at town meetings across the nation, is, “My America is changing so much I don’t recognize it anymore, and I want my America back!”  I first heard this exact phrase shouted, tearfully and desperately, by a woman attending a town hall meeting about health care.  At that time, there was no health care plan.  It was being debated.  Nothing had been decided.  There had been no major initiatives to change the direction of America.  Obama had inherited both the economic freefall and the TARP bailout from Bush, and had tweaked the bailout to stop the collapse; and it was working.  Empirically, there was no reason for panic.  But that woman, the entire room full of older white voters, and rooms full of older whites across the nation were in full panic.  “We want our America back!”  was the rallying cry.  What was so terrible?  The only thing that had changed was that there was a black, Democratic family in the White House.

I do not believe most of the people in those Tea Party crowds were racists per se, and I am uncomfortable with those who expand the notion of “racism” to include any sort of race awareness.  But two things were occurring to fuel the white panic in 2009.  First, conservative media were spreading conspiracy theories, fantasies and distortions.  These things generated huge income; the more anxious people are, the more they listen to doomsayers; the more people who tune in to listen to the “truth” they are “denied” elsewhere, the more radio and television stations can charge for advertising; and the more anxiety, the more people will pay for everything from overpriced gold coins to luxury survival bunkers.  Anxiety has become a commodity.  The manufacturing of anxiety, which is then repackaged as fears for which cures can be purchased, is big business.

The second thing that drove the Tea Party Panic, and continues to drive it, is not the fact that there is a black family in the White House, but what that symbolizes:  that the old certainties are vanishing.  Abstractly, when the U.S. Census projects that by 2040 whites will be a minority, that certainly raises eyebrows; but that is abstract, and distant, just words echoing down a decades-long corridor.  The Obamas on television are a walking, talking manifestation of that future, and that future is now.  But it isn’t just the racial make-up of the nation that’s shifting.  We are talking about the decline of white culture, and the extinction of white bears.  When I was a child, I needed a quarter to call home on a pay phone; today, anyone can call from anywhere, if one has the money to pay for a cell phone plan (but good luck if you still need a phone booth!).  Vietnam was considered remarkable because television brought the war into our homes; now, we fear that war will be made against our homes, maybe by some sleeper cell or radicalized neighbor we’ve lived next to for years.  As Kierkegaard points out, death is both “the only certainty, and the only thing about which nothing is certain.”[2]  For some, this can lead to earnestness, by which Kierkegaard means a recognition of one’s own limitations, a subsequent reliance on God, and a sober recognition that every moment of life is precious.  For most of us, however, this leads only to one or more strategies for evasion.  Death is the ultimate indefinable.  My death is never an actuality, and always a possibility, as long as I live.  And anxiety is precisely the dizziness of freedom when it recognizes the importance of possibility and knows it must act and live with uncertainty.  The more the symbols of stability and the cultural assumptions around me change, the more my own mortality and my own anxiety are made visible to me.

It is clear that much conservative angst centers around the presence of a minority family in the White House.  The racial slurs and attempts at humor that flew around the Internet, were seen on Tea Party signs at rallies, and so on testify to that.  At the same time, I think the shock and outrage many Tea Party members feel at being called “racist” is genuine.  They do not hate all minorities; they only hate and fear what they think is being done to their America.  And of that, roughly half is paranoid fantasy concocted by Fear Inc. and the 24 hour Anxiety Telethon, and the rest is simply the unfocused, free-floating anxiety of people caught in a flash flood of change.

To be continued…..


[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, translate, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1993) p. 91

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 26, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

 

            The anti-intellectualism that is so rampant today also makes sense when seen as an anxiety reaction.  Logically, you would think that anxious and fearful people would long for a smart person to come along with all the answers.  However, the true thinker is anathema to anxiety, because the true thinker challenges others to think.  The anxious person does not want to think; reflection only increases anxiety.  The individual thinker is a challenge to the others, presenting them with the possibility that maybe they too could wrestle with the big issues.  On the other hand, the small-minded blowhard gives everything and asks nothing.  The one who has no ideas or only bad ones does not make me feel inferior or lazy for not thinking about the world; he gives me easy answers and then reassures me that I am smart and important because I was smart enough to hand over all my thinking to him and important enough to submerge myself in a herd.  That, more than anything else, is why college dropouts with histories of drug abuse can become national heroes, and Nobel Prize winners are laughed at.  Limbaugh and Beck tell me that I don’t have to be an individual; they’ve thought it out for me, and they didn’t get a formal education either.  I can tell myself how smart I am simply because I am afraid of who they tell me to fear.  Authority takes away responsibility, fear and conspiracy theories allow me to trade in my anxiety for easily managed fears, and anti-intellectualism allows me to feel smarter than those people who challenge me to think and make me feel more anxious.  The miracle isn’t that Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh are national authorities despite manifest and documented lack of expertise in everything; the miracle is that there is anyone who will take up the challenge of being a single, reflective individual in such a fluid and anxiety-inducing age as this one.  Really, it is no wonder that Chu is laughed at when he proposes simple and reasonable solutions to combat global warming; he only has a Nobel Prize in Physics, while his critics have the sense to know that offering a solution to a problem means admitting there is a problem, which means the world has changed from before when the climate was fine.  Chu offers us anxiety and thinking and the call to solve problems; the clever self-promoter offers us self-delusion and thus the security of believing that all is as it always was and can never be different.

Anyone who finds it paradoxical that the hard-working lower-middle class people vilify the poor and idolize (I use the word deliberately) the wealthy, simply does not understand anxiety.  Logically, it makes the most sense to apply Rawls’ “veil of ignorance:” If you did not know whether you would be rich, poor or somewhere in the middle, would you choose this nation as it is or would you change things?  If you would, it is fair and just; if not, that implies it is unfair.  Today, it is increasingly difficult to move up the economic ladder, increasingly easy to fall into poverty, and increasingly improbable that any rich person will fail to get richer from the sheer inertia of interest payments.  Clearly, this is not what Rawls would call a “fair” society.  But to even take up the challenge of thinking in those terms is to admit the very real possibility of becoming poor.  On the other hand, if one holds fast to the delusion that hard work is always rewarded, one can calm one’s feeling of loss of control.  To the anxious person, the poor are a threat the same way a chasm is a threat; the best way to avoid dizziness is to not look at how far you might fall but to keep moving forward.  So we find it easier to blame the poor for being lazier or stupider than we are, rather than admit that they may be smarter and more industrious than many of the wealthy who control our economic world.  And we would rather believe that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, since then we can believe that if we too deserve to be rich it will happen.  Anxiety cannot bear to hear what reality shouts at us every day:  that wealth in America has more to do with the luck of having rich parents than with anything else.[1]  Falsely idolizing the supposed merits of the wealthy and falsely demonizing the supposed vices of the poor both allow me to reassure myself that I am powerful and in control, that my anxiety is false, and that all I have to do is work harder and everything will be fine.  To see the poor as human would awaken the possibility that I might become one.

I think that every crazy thing we see in politics today can fruitfully be understood as the fruits of anxiety.  We seek false fears that we can then conquer.  We seek false security and a false sense of power, rather than risk confronting our anxiety.  Today the news is full of the Congressman who claimed that rape victims can’t get pregnant.  What a comforting myth that is!  “We need not fear the rapist; he cannot impregnate our daughters or wives unless they themselves wish it, which of course is impossible.  And we can be sure that those who do get pregnant wanted it and enjoyed it, in which case they deserve whatever happens.  So we can be assured that our easy answers have no moral collateral damage, and we can be sure that the true horror of this evil cannot touch us or the good people we love.  Forcing women to have babies born of rape and incest is therefore just hunky-dory, since the pregnant women must have chosen to be pregnant and such a thing will never, never happen to the good women we care about.”  By embracing this myth, Akin and the many who agree with him can quiet the anxiety stemming from a lack of control over our world, and the anxiety over oneself and whether the “good” one champions is really so good after all.  What good is science, when it just makes me question my settled moral assertions?  How can I possibly get on with the important work of reforming the world, if I am constantly examining myself?

Just try looking at every irrational, self-defeating stance adopted by the American people, and try understanding it as a reaction to anxiety; I think you’ll find that while you may still be dismayed, you won’t be mystified anymore.


[1] “If a man has $100 and makes ten more, that’s work; if he has $100 million and makes ten million, that’s inevitable.”    From The Barefoot Contessa

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

August 23, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

            Journalists have wondered why the massacre in Colorado has not inspired any calls for gun control, unlike previous atrocities such as Columbine.  True, there have been some pleas from die-hard activists and even from non-politicians such as Jason Alexander.[1]  Jon Stewart has pleaded with us to at least have a conversation about the need to balance gun rights and gun dangers.[2]  But politicians do not dare even discuss gun control, and Americans are more opposed to gun control than ever.  We can talk about banning costumes in movie theaters, but we can’t talk about banning guns in movie theaters.  Are we more afraid of turning our movie theaters into Castle Frank-n-Furter than we are of turning them into war zones?

A quick Internet search (Wikipedia followed by checking the sources used there) reveals some interesting facts.  First, gun violence overall has fallen significantly over the last decade.  Second, most gun deaths are suicides.[3]  When you add in the gun deaths from accidents, from lost tempers during family disputes, and from previously unarmed criminals who take the owner’s own gun and use it, it seems clear that guns are, on the whole, far more dangerous to their owners than to criminals.  And yet, despite these facts, people cling to gun ownership more tightly than ever.  Even the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse.  Why not legalize machine guns?  At least a .50 cal requires a tripod, which would be a lot harder to smuggle into a movie theater than an M-16 without being much more dangerous to the innocent.  If the 2nd Amendment is absolute, then banning any weapons is unconstitutional; if it is permissible and moral to ban machine guns, tanks and RPGs then it is not qualitatively different to ban other military hardware.  Banning guns is banning guns; if society has the right to say that heavy machine guns are too much firepower and thus beyond constitutional protection, then it has the right to make the same judgment about any military-grade weaponry.  That is not so much a plea for gun control as it is a plea for logic.  As a society, we have in fact made judgments about what weapons our neighbors and ourselves will be allowed to own, and what we will not.  It is illogical to claim that such judgments are illegal or immoral while we continue to make them.

If logic cannot explain waning support for gun control, perhaps psychology can.  Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety is a philosophical, psychological and religious analysis of anxiety as a personal and social force.  His discourse “Every Good Gift and Perfect Gift is From Above” is a theological examination of anxiety as the fruit of sin.[4]  Together, these writings present an analysis of anxiety as a primordial driving force in human life.  Briefly, anxiety is described as “the dizziness of freedom.”  Life is full of choices that are both significant and underdetermined by the facts.  We experience anxiety because of this.  This anxiety is compounded when we begin to be anxious not only about our own capacity to choose wisely and justly, but also about the world and the uncertainty of existence.  In the face of such anxiety, the common human reaction is to seek for authorities that can take the burden of freedom from us, or to transform our anxieties into fears.  Both play into the current state of the gun control/rights debate.  Logically, the idea that “I will be safer if I have a pistol, so I can stay and fight a madman in Kevlar hurling tear gas rather than running for an exit” is a stupid idea.  But as Kierkegaard points out, the person in the grip of anxiety will latch onto anything to regain the delusion of security.  The only logical, not to mention pious reaction is to admit that we live in a dangerous world and that we cannot hope to fight off all dangers; we can only commit our souls to God and then live as we are called.  The faithful person is the one who is schooled by “the earnest thought of death,” recognizing that death is both the one certainty in life and yet absolutely unpredictable, so that the only fitting response is a humble recognition of one’s own powerlessness and a commitment to live each day for values that are truly worthy.[5]  Instead, as most of us are not truly faithful, we seek a false sense of security and then turn around to devoting our time to trivialities.

Gun sales always spike after a mass shooting.[6]  Logically, what should spike are calls for gun control.  But from the point of view of anxiety, “gun control” means “I am not the master of my fate;” no control means “I can have a gun and feel safe, relying on my own power.”

In much the same way, the call for voter I.D. laws have caught the imagination of the electorate:  I say “imagination” because all the evidence is that that is where the fraud these laws supposedly will prevent exists.  Millions of dollars are being spent to prevent voter impersonation fraud, which has never taken place in sufficient numbers to affect an election.  These laws even encourage fraud by pushing more people to use the easily-faked absentee ballots instead of showing up in person.  At a time when we cannot afford to repair bridges, pay teachers what we promised them, feed the hungry, and on and on, we are spending millions to chase phantoms.  Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating:  at a time when we cannot afford to honor contracts signed with our teachers, firefighters and police; at a time when we cannot afford to fix the bridges which we cross every day, at a time when we are capable of feeding every person on the planet and yet we claim to not even have enough money to feed, cloth, shelter and provide health care for all of our own citizens—-at this time, we are ready to spend millions of dollars to fight a crime which the best evidence available suggests occurs once per state every two or three years, on average.  It is as if we were to unplug the life support system for Grandma in order to power up the yeti-repelling force field.

But from the anxious perspective, it makes perfect sense.  Those whose sense of security is invested in a certain social order find that security undermined when they contemplate the latest census.  In a few decades, whites will be a minority in this country for the first time since we invaded and occupied it.  As Kierkegaard would point out, faith is “to be out over 70,000 fathoms and yet be joyful;” but most of us don’t have faith, and want to imagine the water is only a few feet deep.  We can reestablish that sense of security first by transforming our anxiety into fear.  Anxiety’s object is really nothing; it is the possible, and thus cannot really be controlled.  Fear is fear of something actual; we feel that if we can only defeat the object of our fear we can be safe.  The fact that the whole world is changing daily and unpredictably induces anxiety; but by focusing on “illegal aliens” and convincing ourselves that if we can just control those “illegals” we can solve everything, we quiet our anxiety.  Someone comes along and says, “Don’t be anxious about the vast range of possibilities the future presents, and your responsibility to respond to them; just be afraid of illegals, and then we’ll pass laws to protect you from illegals stealing your vote and you can rest easy.”  And we jump at the offer of phony solutions to false dangers that can distract us from our real anxiety.

To be continued….


[1] Jason Alexander, reposted on Salon (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/22/jason_alexanders_amazing_gun_rant/) Sunday, Jul 22, 2012 04:38 PM EDT

[3] “55% of all Gun Deaths are Suicide,”  July 21, 2008 (http://www.shortnews.com/start.cfm?id=71736)

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, “At a Graveside,” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 71-102

[6] Dylan Stableford, “Gun Sales Spike in Colorado After Shooting, Just Like They Did in Arizona,” The Lookout July 24, 2012 (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/gun-sales-aurora-colorado-shooting-spike-tuscon-161409369–finance.html )

Review: The Avengers (2012)

May 14, 2012

The Avengers

Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; film, directed by Joss Whedon (Manhattan Beach, CA:  Marvel Studios, 2012)

            “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”   Loki of Asgard

If, as Hamann thought, there is more joy in hearing five words of truth from a blasphemer than in a chorus sung by legions of angels, then there is little more delightful than finding philosophy in a Summer Smash’em Up Blockbuster Film.  That was the joy I found from this movie.  It makes the whole Ph.D. student debt thing totally worth it.

The movie revolves around a super-secret organization , S.H.I.E.L.D.  (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) attempting to exploit an alien artifact of immeasurable power, and the trouble caused when beings who understand and can control that power far better arrive on Earth to claim it.  Thus put, the premise doesn’t sound much more exciting than the motivating force of the aliens in Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Human hubris leads to tinkering in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, which in turn attracts the attention of powerful beings who feel they were meant to know, and then the wackiness ensues.  The philosophy, however, is deeper than that, and involves the very essence of human nature:  freedom.  Freedom is the ultimate question.  Are we mere organic mechanisms seeking nutrition and procreation, material complexes with no more freedom than a rock finding its way down the hill?  Or are we beings that create ourselves at least as much as we are created, choosing our own goals and values?

Given that the movie is largely driven by the sibling rivalry of two Aesir, it is fitting to analyze it through the eyes of Teutonic philosophers.  Loki seems to be the most philosophically inclined character, or at least the most philosophically verbose; so I shall start with him.  Loki presents himself not as a tyrant, but as a savior.  He has come, he says, to bring peace and joy to all humanity.  And he will do that, he says, by taking away human freedom.  Freedom is a burden, an oppressive responsibility; surrendering freedom allows one to enjoy the pleasures of life while allowing others to make the big decisions.  In essence, Loki seems to have put his finger on the problem of anxiety.  As discussed by Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom.”[1]  When confronted with a real, significant choice, good/or evil, life/or death, salvation/or damnation, the individual is overwhelmed by his or her own sense of power—-the power to go wrong.  The individual may know what choice he or she ought to make, as Adam knew not to eat the apple; but all the individual concretely knows is that a possibility exists.  There is no rational reason why the individual would choose evil; there is only the vertigo of freedom, the anxiety of possibility, and the individual swoons.  When the individual realizes he or she has chosen wrong, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with the continued burden of freedom, compounded now by the actual knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the mere possibility of freedom with no first-hand knowledge of the alternatives).  Most individuals, Haufniensis says, find the burden of freedom intolerable, and seek to give up their individuality.  Freedom becomes the very thing they flee; conformism, philistinism, determinism become salvation. Haufniensis calls this attitude “the demonic.”[2]

Loki is the very personification of the Kierkegaardian demonic.  Your pain, Loki says, comes from the unending, wearisome task of constantly making oneself, the burden of freedom.  I will take that burden from you, and I will tell you what you are and what you may become; then you will have peace.  Haufniensis would say that whether we know it or not, most of us take Loki’s offer.

And in the scene where Loki makes this offer to a crowd of terrified Germans, who is the one individual who stands up and chooses to die rather than live as a slave?  It is the one who has first-hand experience with a previous offer of this sort.  This too fits the philosophy:  Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, drew on Kierkegaard’s explanation of anxiety and the demonic to explain the appeal of Hitler and Stalin in their own day.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the man did not die; his being saved by Captain America could seem to symbolize the idea that individual freedom is protected by the United States, and I don’t think that was the intention.  From the Kierkegaardian perspective, expecting any human agency to safeguard your personhood would be to surrender your personhood.  On the other hand, of course, Captain America doesn’t make the man free; he did that for himself.  All Captain America can do is show up later and try to shield the individual from the physical risks of having declared himself to be an individual.

But before I try to discuss the superheroes, I want to look at Loki himself.  He says of himself, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose….  I come with glad tidings, of a world made free (from) freedom.  Freedom is life’s great lie.  Once you accept that, in your heart… you will know peace.”  This is from the opening scene of the movie, and it is the most Nietzschean thing he says.  In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes that freedom is a lie, invented to make men responsible for their actions—to make them guilty.  By telling them they were free and hence guilty, they could in fact be bound by their sense of guilt.  By contrast, the immoralists proclaim the psychological theory that there is no freedom, that all human action is determined by the instincts, and hence there is no guilt.[3]  Loki has come to free humanity from the burden of freedom, and thus to give them peace.  And in fact, he himself is not free, either.  He says of himself that he is “burdened.”  Banner says of Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”  He is not free; he is driven by forces beyond his control—-by the bargains he made to get an army, by his ambition, by his hubris, his envy, and in short, by his instincts and his will-to-power.  If he has come to free humanity from freedom, he has started by liberating himself from its burden; now he is in thrall to his “glorious purpose.”

This very lack of freedom is what gives Loki his strength, and what initially weakens his opponents.  As he describes them, “You were made to be ruled.  In the end, it will be every man for himself.”  Hobbes comes to mind here; the only escape from war of each against all, says Hobbes, is when all surrender their freedom to a greater power that will enforce peace between the rest.[4]  Without an absolute monarch or other overwhelming leader, there is anarchy; no one can trust another so none can cooperate.  Initially, that seems to be the truth of the so-called Avengers:  “we’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.”  As free men, they struggle against each other, each determined to be the High Alpha of all Alpha Males.   As Hobbes would put it,  “All men (are) by nature equal… From equality proceeds diffidence…. From diffidence (proceeds) war.”[5]

The turning point in this story of superheroes is the death of a perfectly ordinary person, Phil Coulson.  In fact, it could well be said that he is the one who saves Earth.  Everything up to that point has shown Loki pulling everyone else’s strings, either literally turning them into puppets through his mind control “spell” or metaphorically by playing them off against each other.  The superheroes have spent more time bashing each other, or spying on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, than they have fighting their supposed enemy.  Loki’s plans come to fruition when he finally traps Thor, turn the Hulk loose to fight the others, and cripples S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s command ship.  He seems to have won.  At the moment of his victory, he is confronted by a perfectly ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D.  agent with a more-than-ordinary gun.  He’s still no match for a god, though, and Loki mortally wounds him.  The scene continues:

[after dropping Thor to earth, Loki turns to leave but Coulson stops him]
Agent Phil Coulson: You’re gonna lose.
Loki: Am I?
Agent Phil Coulson: It’s in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?
Agent Phil Coulson: You lack conviction.
Loki: I don’t think I…
[suddenly shoots Loki through the wall with the Phase 2 weapon which blasts out fire]
Agent Phil Coulson: So that’s what it does.

Minutes later Coulson dies, but not before expressing his belief that his death would be the catalyst that would bind the superheroes together as a group.  And in fact, that is precisely what happens.  With his self-sacrificial death, the heroes gain a sense of unity.  They become a team, “The Avengers,” their proclaimed goal to protect the Earth but their more pressing motive to avenge Coulson.  His sacrifice, his willingness to do his duty even when all logic said it was hopeless, moves them to put aside their rivalries and to work together for a higher purpose.  They gain conviction.  Loki lacks conviction.  He has no cause, no “idea for which I may live and die.”[6]  It is not his nature to put anyone or anything first, to “get behind” a cause.  And ultimately, that means he will abandon any cause that seems to be failing in order to try to save himself.  It is thus in his nature to lose, rather than to take the risks or make the sacrifices necessary to win.  By contrast, the superheroes sacrifice their safety, and what is more important to them than safety; each sacrifices his own personal sense of his superiority and independence.  Each must sacrifice a little pride, a little sense of self-sufficiency, to become part of a team.  When each subordinates his pride to the higher cause, they are able to win as a group.

Ultimately, The Avengers is about two conflicting paths to unity.  Loki’s path is the abandonment of freedom.  In this conception, “freedom” is an intolerable burden for the individual and fatally divisive for the group; the only way to attain personal peace or group success is to recognize freedom as “the great lie,” and to instead subordinate the people to the unifying will of a leader who is himself only a pawn for forces he barely recognizes and cannot control.  The other path accepts the individual differences and disagreements, rivalries and conflicts, personalities and freedom; but these are subordinated to a conviction.  When individuals freely accept a cause for which each can live and die, they have a unity without slavery.  They can accept authority for the purpose of achieving a task, and the one with authority can accept the individuality of the other and join it to the group rather than treating others as threats to his (or her) own status.[7]

It’s not my purpose to write a review that will tell people whether to go or not go to this particular movie.  My guess is that whether or not one enjoys a film has more to do with individual taste; and in any case, enjoying a movie because it got a good review is like laughing at a joke because someone else told you it was funny.  And I don’t suppose it even makes much sense to tell you that if you do go to see this movie, you should enjoy it for the philosophy rather than for the special effects or clever dialogue.  But there is joy in finding truth where one did not expect it, and that is a joy that anyone may experience who is open to it.  When one finds that joy oneself, one wants to share the news of one’s good fortune; that is what I have done here.  And if reading this helps anyone to be more open to reflecting on the moral and philosophical values of his or her own experiences and entertainments, so much the better.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with an introduction and notes by Reider Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Nelson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 61

[2] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 118-54

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1978) pp. 499-500

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan:  or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an introduction by Richard S Peters (New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.  1997) pp. 98-141

[5] Leviathan pp. 98-99

[6] as Kierkegaard writes of seeking for himself; it was this sort of conviction that Kierkegaard said led him ultimately to turn from egoism to the ethical-religious life.

[7] Even the Hulk can be a team player, when Captain America gives the proper order:  “Hulk:  smash.” I can think of no better example of a leader who recognized the individual strengths and needs of each team member, and who gave “orders” that allowed each to apply his or her uniqueness most appropriately.