Posts Tagged ‘Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses’

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.


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:




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