Posts Tagged ‘Either/Or’

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


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


Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xii)

May 23, 2013

            In this regard, Kierkegaard’s discussion of imagination and the novel seem relevant, since writing and gaming are both imaginative activities by most people’s definition.  He writes that, “The poet knows imagination’s way out; this author knows actuality’s way out; the religious person knows religion’s way out.  The life-view is the way out, and the story is the way.”[1]  What does that mean?  Kierkegaard seems to feel that this novel is closer to “actuality” than a typical poem, which simultaneously transfigures its content into some higher ideality while avoiding the actual concrete reality.[2]  A casual scholar can get a clue what he means by looking at the characters he himself created and which he describes as “poets:”  the Young Man in Repetition, Johannes de silentio in Fear and Trembling, A in Either/Or, for examples.  These are characters who quickly lose themselves in the “intoxication” of their poetic activity.  They do not deal directly with reality and life, but rather deal in abstractions and a mystical sense of union with the eternal; even de silentio discussing Abraham does not deal with Abraham but imaginatively reconstructs him, while admitting that he himself never finds the easy peace with actuality that Abraham does.  Kierkegaard’s models for the poetic are the Romantic and Hegelian poets who were popular in his time, such as Adam Oehlenschläger and  J. L. Heiberg, who always moved away from actuality towards grand spiritual vistas.  Kierkegaard writes that “Where poetry to all intents and purposes stops, this author (of the novel) begins.”  That is, a poet would have taken one of the troubled love affairs and set out to discuss the grand universal power of Love, so that the heroine found her consolation not in actually gaining her beloved but in losing herself in the eternal current of Love flowing through the cosmos.  The novel instead takes the heroine who has fallen under the power of Love and, rather than stopping with a celebration of that power for its own sake, begins instead to look for a way for her to actually find an actual resolution with her actual beloved.  Kierkegaard says this is higher, more advanced, moving in the direction of the religious rather than remaining merely within esthetic boundaries as poetry does.  In his pseudonymous writings, the characters described as “poets” are generally seeking to escape reality and some pain or hardship; for example, the Young Man in Repetition becomes a poet as a result of his own failed love affair and his inability to enter into a concrete relationship with an actual woman.  The religious response, as presented in Kierkegaard’s writings, would be to acknowledge the impossibility and yet to have the faith to remain engaged with actuality (see Abraham, or the merman in Fear and Trembling). 

To be continued…..

[1] Two Ages, p. 15

[2] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. ix)

May 1, 2013


            As so often happens to me, I find I can’t help bumping up against Kierkegaard as I write this essay.  In this case, it is the question of what makes a life meaningful.  In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, this problem appears in Either/Or, which is a debate between an egoist (or “esthete” in Kierkegaard’s terminology) versus a moralist (or “ethicist”).  The first volume of Either/Or is presented as the collected writings of an esthete, a person who lives for his own amusement and the pleasure of life.  He seeks to avoid entanglements of any kind, whether they be romantic, career or moral.  He treats everything as trivial except as it suits himself at the moment, in order to be free to pursue pleasure wherever and whenever it might appear.  As the book unfolds, the reader sees the result of this life, and its ultimate self-refutation.  The esthete says, “Boredom is the root of all evil,” but cannot escape boredom.  Instead, his (or her) entire life disintegrates into a series of ultimately disconnected and meaningless episodes, each increasingly resembling what went before.  In pursuing spontaneity and novelty above all else, the esthete ultimately falls into a life where true spontaneity and true newness disappear.

The second volume of Either/Or is presented as a series of letters from a judge, addressed to the young man who wrote the first volume, urging him to adopt an ethical life.  The judge argues that the boredom which plagues the esthete is itself a symptom of a deeper psychological malaise, which he labels “despair.”  To the judge, despair is the recognition that one’s life is meaningless.  All merely esthetic lives are meaningless, so despair is the universal condition of the esthete.  Instead, the judge argues that an ethical life actually preserves the beauty and joy of life better than the esthetic alone is able to.  The ethical life is the life lived for the sake of higher, “eternal” values, such as good over evil.  It is the attempt, the judge says, to take up the universal moral duties and make them actual in one’s own life.  This gives one’s life a continuous structure, by making one’s life a task to be consciously reflected on, willed and carried through instead of simply a drifting from one pleasure to another.  It puts one in relation with others, and in doing so puts one in relation to the past and the future.

Insofar as role-playing games are simulations of life (that is what “role-playing” suggests), the challenge for the players is to create characters that are fun.  This is an esthetic criterion, of course, and a subjective one.  However, in the long run, a character whose life consists of meaningless events, just fighting and getting stuff over and over, is more likely to get tedious than a character who has long-term goals that are important in the context of the game.  Killing 3,872 orcs is fine, but killing 3,872 orcs in order to save the village or clear the valley for one’s castle, from which one will establish one’s kingdom and change the world is much more satisfying, even if in fact all of this is just a game.  For this reason, most role-playing games have opportunities for just such a narrative structure, with a past history, present challenges and the hope that by striving the players can make a better future for themselves and for others.  While playing the game may be an esthetic occupation, it has more esthetic value when the fictional characters have ethical goals.

Another aspect that perhaps makes Kierkegaard particularly applicable to understanding role-playing games is the fact that Kierkegaard wrote most of his philosophical works while himself role-playing.  In writing Either/Or, for example, he did not merely describe the esthetic and the ethical lives; rather, he took on the role of an esthete and wrote as such a character would write, then took on the role of an ethicist and wrote accordingly.  To varying degrees, Kierkegaard’s most famous philosophical works are all written in character.  These characters are not mere pseudonyms; for the most part, they are different from their author, and some have fairly significant backstories and other personal details which are as important as their written arguments.

To be continued…..

Review/Notes: David R. Law, “The Place, Role, and Function of the ‘Ultimatum’ of Either/Or Part Two, in Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymous Writings;”

February 21, 2013

David R. Law, “The Place, Role, and Function of the ‘Ultimatum’ of Either/Or Part Two, in Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymous Writings;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 233-57


I wrote this (and the others) while researching for a project I am considering, looking at Kierkegaard’s discussions of sin.  Therefore, some of the comments below relate more to my own research and writings (in particular, my comments about the Oct. 16 1834 writings).  Still, I thought someone else might find them interesting, so I am sharing them. Thank you to everyone for your comments; they have been and will continue to be extremely helpful.  


Relying on personal notes and writings from Kierkegaard himself, Law dismisses the claim that the “Ultimatum” has no essential relationship to the rest of E/O despite the fact that it was apparently a late addition to the manuscript.  He reviews the basic argument of the Pastor, which he breaks into two parts:  (1) in human relations, if you love another, you would not want to be in the right, for that would constitute a breach when you felt wronged; rather, you would want always to assume that you were the one in the wrong, and that the other loved you as much and as well as always; (2) while in the case of human relationships this may be delusion, with God it is always a fact that God is in the right and that, therefore, you are always in the wrong; so the thought that “as against God I am always in the wrong” is upbuilding because it is both true and it is an expression of my love for God (which includes faith as trust in God’s goodness).

Law argues that the “Ultimatum” serves three purposes.  First, its surface reading is that it is a theodicy.  Given human ignorance and fallibility, we cannot know the ways of God or why things happen that seem bad.  However, if we love God, we will believe that we are always in the wrong; so we can banish doubt and anxiety and choose to have faith in God despite the evil we see.  Unlike most theodicies, which function only on an intellectual level, this one also focuses on the emotional level to awaken faith rather than mere notional assent.  Second, it can be seen as part of Kierkegaard’s covert messaging to Regine.  Finally, it can be seen as illustrating the bankruptcy of the ethical.  B sees this sermon as an indictment of A’s aestheticism; but in fact, it is also a rejection of the ethical, since the goal of the ethical is to become more and more in the right.  In showing how the ethical cannot lead us to a right relationship with God, and cannot even succeed on its own standards, Kierkegaard points the way to the later works (particularly FT) which lead into the religious.

The theodicy part is particularly interesting when compared to the two essays on “Love Hides a Multitude of Sins” in the upbuilding discourses of 16 Oct. 1843.  The first of these argues that our love for God can hide the sins of others from us; the second, that our love for God can hide our sins from ourselves, and in a sense from God too.  The “Ultimatum” is not hiding God’s sins, since God is always in the right and cannot wrong us; but it does function in a similar way, as our love for God eliminates all doubt and thus it is love that establishes and maintains the relationship between us and God.

Notice that in all three discourses, there is no real separation because of sin.  As long as we love God, we are united with God; the love itself is the uniting power that overcomes any separation.  There is no real sense of grace, or that grace is needed because we lack the ability to love or to thus be saved by our own love for God.

Review: David R. Law, “The ‘Ultimatum’ of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Part Two, and the Two Upbuilding Discourses of 16 May 1843

February 13, 2013

David R. Law, “The ‘Ultimatum’ of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Part Two, and the Two Upbuilding Discourses of 16 May 1843;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 259-90



Law compares the general message of the “Ultimatum” and the two upbuilding discourses that “accompanied” it.  Law argues that while the three discourses may use different language, all three treat the ethical as “the Law” in Pauline/Lutheran theology, the “disciplinarian” that educates the individual up to the state of being ready to move from the ethical to the religious, and even to prompt the individual to move to the religious by presenting the breakdown of the ethical project.  At the same time, Law argues that all three discourses do not move completely beyond the ethical, either, since all three grant the self some self-sufficiency since it does have the power to surrender to God, to accept that as against God we are always in the wrong, that every thing that comes to us from God is a good gift, etc.  instead of conceding that even the will itself may be corrupted by sin and in need of grace.

In the discussion of the second discourse, Law points out that doubt about the future is concern over nothing; compare this to The Concept of Anxiety.  Are these discourses the beginnings of discussion of anxiety?  But anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” a fear of responsibility; concern about the future does not necessarily involve one’s own freedom, but only one’s stance in relation to the possibilities of the future.  Finally, Law argues that both these discourses and the “Ultimatum” present a Kierkegaardian theodicy, based on the book of Job’s argument that human reason is simply too limited to judge God or to complain about “evil” so we should have faith that what God wills is in fact good.


Review: “Kierkegaard’s Great Critique: Either/Or as a Kantian Transcendental Deduction;”

February 6, 2013

Ron Green, “Kierkegaard’s Great CritiqueEither/Or as a Kantian Transcendental Deduction;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 139-53



Ron Green has really taken the lead in exploration of Kant’s influence on Kierkegaard.  While the Hegel-Kant connection has been debated by many writers and from various angles, Green has leapt past Hegel to look at the Kantian roots.  His book, Kierkegaard and Kant:  The Hidden Debt, examines (among other things) how Fear and Trembling can be fruitfully interpreted as a response to Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone; this article goes even further back to examine how Kant’s influence can be seen in the writings of Judge William.  There are some issues of content that are obvious:  Kant discusses duty in terms of “universal law,” William in terms of the “duty to realize the universal.”  Green goes further in also looking at the form of the argument in E/O, comparing it to the structure of Kant’s Critiques. As he points out, Kant undertakes his transcendental deduction following a form laid down in German law, governing property claims between petty nobles:  start with what is granted by both, explore the lineage of the claim, and deduce what must be true for this given to have been true.  The first Critique starts with sense experience, and with the claim that sense experience is all that there is.  Exploring the nature of sense experience, Kant argues that in fact a number of a priori concepts must be assumed for sense experience to be what it is.

William does something similar, although his manner is far less formal and systematic.  The experience he starts with is first love.  A writes extensively about love, falling in love, the passion of love, and so on; and the Judge points out to him that he really does believe in first love.  However, A also believes that only the aesthetic is real; he rejects eternal ethical principles and claims that as soon as duty is mentioned, love goes out the window.  Judge William points out that the promise of love is that it is forever; lovers say things like “I shall love you as long as there are stars in the sky,” swear that their love will outlive life itself, and (regularly in dramas and occasionally in life) even die for love.  William argues that A’s principles cannot explain this, which is why he ends up mocking first love even though he really longs for it (see his review of Scribe’s play).  Only the ethical believes that first love can endure, and it does so by arguing that it ought to last, lovers ought to keep their promise to one another, and (as Kant would say) “ought” implies “can.”  When the ethical makes love a duty, it is saying that love can last and therefore your love ought to last.  This is what aesthetic love wanted and even believed all along, but could not fulfill on its own principles.  Therefore, it is necessary to accept these other principles, ethical principles, for the aesthetic experience of first love to be true.

Green’s interest in the first Critique is more in the formula than in the content; he doesn’t discuss Kant’s notions of causality or God as expressed there.  Green finds more direct evidence for the content of the Critique of Practical Reason, even referring to the Judge’s arguments as a working out of Kant’s argument for freedom (p.  151).  Since Green is discussing William’s position and in particular his defense of marriage, he never discusses sin; so the usefulness of this article to my purposes is simply in reinforcing the Kantian nature of William’s ethical thought.

Moral Virtue, Mental Health, and Happiness: The Moral Psychology of Kierkegaard’s Judge William

January 31, 2013

Peter J. Mehl, “Moral Virtue, Mental Health, and Happiness:  The Moral Psychology of Kierkegaard’s Judge William;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 155-82



This article discusses the relationship between “ethics and the psychological sciences (both broadly construed)” as that relationship is expressed by Judge William.  In pointing to the discussion of the self and the nature of personhood, and how these influence how we understand ethics and define mental health, Mehl has clearly put his finger on something important in Kierkegaard’s writings.  E/O I is largely intended as a depiction of how the self breaks down when one does not attend to these things.  The esthete does not strive to become a self, and hence disintegrates; even A is terrified by the Seducer, who is in fact the incarnation of A’s own psychological and moral theories.  E/O II presents an ethical person writing to A, trying to explain to him the true nature of the self, why the self needs to be ethical to be healthy, and what the nature of that “ethical” is.  Later (particularly pseudonymous) writings similarly employ this basic argument:  here is the nature of the self, and for the self to be healthy one needs to adopt this sort of life.

Mehl points out that the ethical person is often not in fact happy, and the “strong autonomy” like William advocates often leaves one the least happy because William’s ethics are not in fact livable.  You can never be perfect, you can never be completely self-aware, and you can never be fully autonomous.  Striving to be so only leads to frustration and unhappiness.  On the other hand, many self-absorbed or shallow esthetes are quite happy.  Mehl points out that William rejects this because such “happiness” is not based on anything the individual can control, but rather on external circumstances.  Mehl also argues that the only thing that makes William’s “strong autonomy” either viable or desirable is that his ethics is essentially theonomous.

I think Mehl goes astray in applying today’s standards of “mental health” to William’s argument.  Today’s therapist wants the patient to be happy above all else.  William has a more Kantian notion (and it is significant that Mehl makes so little mention of Kant).  For Kant, only the ethical person is truly free, truly rational and truly a person.  The person who aims at happiness becomes unfree and irrational; and since rationality is the hallmark of personhood, the person who acts for any reason other than moral duty is not really a person.  The fact that this moral agent may be less happy than the Epicurean is of no concern to Kant; and it seems to be of little concern to Judge William as well.  I say “little” because William, unlike Kant, does have a notion of an “equilibrium between the esthetic and the ethical.”  He believes that the ethical actually makes life more beautiful and, ultimately, happier than it would have been.  However, to act for the sake of attaining that sort of happiness would be to treat the ethical as only a means to that end, and that would not be to act ethically at all.  If I marry because I am convinced that marriage will in fact be the most romantically and erotically fulfilling life for me, my commitment isn’t to the marriage or my spouse; it is to me and my happiness.  In that case, I am not ethical at all, but still esthetic.  Only if I turn my life over to the ethical and live for its sake can I experience the happiness that comes from being ethical.  In E/O I, A remarks that one who pursues happiness often misses it by pursuing it; but he is unable to understand why.  William is offering an explanation:  the one who pursues the equilibrium that will lead to true happiness will lack the necessary condition to experience it, since the condition is that one be oriented towards the ethical rather than towards the esthetic; but the one who chooses the ethical will find that the esthetic comes back as well, even though it was not chosen.

Mehl notes that William’s description of the ethical in fact is a formula for despair, since it cannot be fulfilled.  He attributes this to William’s being part of a particular theological and moral tradition.  In this, I think he is on to something.  The overall structure of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship is to carry out the Pauline/Augustinian understanding of the relationship between ethics and faith:  the Law is a disciplinarian whose job is not to save, but to drive one to the Gospel.  Is that William’s understanding of his intention?  I don’t think so.   William tends to veer off before his reasoning reaches the breaking point.  His God is too ready to bless our moral efforts.  While the sermon in the “Ultimatum” may say that “as against God, we are always in the wrong,” William doesn’t really see it that way.  William doesn’t even realize the vast gulf between his own religious claims and those of the sermon he includes in his writings.  For William, we fulfill our duty to God by being ethical and by bearing God in mind while we do so.  We may fall short, through accident or ignorance or even failure of will; but William doesn’t see this as a major problem.  As long as one wills the ethical and strives with all one’s might, one can be said to have chosen “the good” and thus to be good.  The religion of Paul, who denounced all his previous striving to fulfill the Law as “garbage,” is completely alien to William.  His push for “strong autonomy” is more conceptual than theological, more Kant than Luther:  “strong autonomy” is the only true autonomy, and only the autonomous person is truly a person, truly free from the disintegrating forces of “obscure passions within” and social currents without.  Kierkegaard’s argument is that this sort of autonomy cannot stop short of “bankruptcy” except by an arbitrary choice:  Either willfully cut off ethical reasoning and accept one’s limited success in fulfilling the absolute moral law as “good enough”/Or follow the ethical to its logical conclusion, admit that one cannot fulfill its requirements, and throw oneself on God’s mercy.  William does not make this argument; he cannot, since he has “chosen” to remain partly unaware of his own moral failure and his own need for a radically religious alternative.  He can no more admit his need for the religious without thereby ceasing to be ethical than A could admit his need to choose good and evil without thereby choosing to be ethical.  That is why any discussion of the need for the religious or the ultimate unfulfillability of the ethical must wait for religious personae, such as Frater Taciturnus.


“Giving the Parson his Due”

January 23, 2013

I’ve started a second project, this one looking at Kierkegaard’s different understandings of “sin.”  As part of this process, I began reading and summarizing articles I found that were helpful to me.  I thought they might be helpful to someone else as well, and in any case I want to post something as regularly as I can and this is what I have.


Robert L. Perkins, “Either/Or/Or:  Giving the Parson his Due;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 207-231



Argues that the Judge’s religion is based on sentimentality and an undue confidence that God blesses our particular social arrangements, inclinations etc.  once we have referred them to God.  This would agree with the claim that the Judge’s ethics is essentially religious, in a sense; but it is a stunted, complacent and unreflective religion.  By contrast, the Parson argues that “as against God we are always in the wrong.”  Every social arrangement, every institution, etc. as well as every personal stand is at best pragmatic and utilitarian, useful, as good as we can make it; but it always could have been better and should have been better.  You shall love justice, you shall do justice; but you never do justice perfectly, which means you are never just.  This is an Upbuilding thought, because the idea that we could be in the right actually would drive us from God in the same way that the thought of being “in the right” against a friend can drive a wedge between friends.  To love is to want to be in the wrong, to want to be the one who is responsible for any distance (and then to seek to do away with that distance as much as possible).  The book and sermon end with the line, “Only the truth which builds up is true for you,” as if this were a throwaway line, a simple conclusion; in fact, it is really the conclusion of the whole and, reading of Kierkegaard’s journals reveals, a real epistemic claim.

REACTION:  What would happen if we accepted this as a serious criterion of “truth”?  Until now, it has been more of an existential slogan:  I will seek that which is upbuilding for me, and will settle for no truth that is merely objectively true.  In Kierkegaard’s writings, “objectively true” usually means either tautological, or empirically (and hence merely probably) true.  Perkins points out that Kierkegaard does not deny that there are other sorts of truth; but he does claim it is literally true.  And conversely, Perkins says, any putative truth that destroys your humanity is a lie for you (p. 230).

Clearly, this is not the rationalist truth or the empiricist truth.  It is not coherence theory or correspondence theory.  The closest it comes to is pragmatic theory, as stated by James.  There are differences, however.  James states that his definition of truth is in fact the “real” one, if everyone just thought about it.  When we say something is true, we mean that it is useful for achieving some purpose:  explaining some phenomenon, connecting our other truths into a coherent whole, helping us to solve some problem or to live better lives, or something of that sort.  Unlike some pragmatists, James allows for a “will to believe” and accepts such claims as free will or the existence of God if those claims help one who accepts them to live a happier or more productive life.  At the same time, he claims that our truths should live in peace with one another; if two of our truths seem to be in conflict, we need to find a way to understand one or both of them in a way that eliminates the conflict.  For example, writing in Pragmatism about belief in God, he says that this is not to be taken in a way that conflicts with scientific thinking:  “Remember Vivekananda’s use of the Atman: it is indeed not a scientific use, for we can make no particular deductions from it. It is emotional and spiritual altogether.”[1]  Other times, he chooses a particular religious belief on pragmatic criteria, as when he chooses “meliorism” between the extreme claims of either pessimism (the world is and always will be wretched) and optimism (the world’s salvation is inevitable).  The claim that the world could be saved (but might not, based at least in part on human actions) seems to James to agree with our own sense experience as well as the need for truths that inspire us to action.  Kierkegaard does not care to reconcile our objective truths with our subjective truths; instead, he seeks to draw a sharp line between what we can know and what is merely probable, and between that which is best left to probability versus that which demands a choice.  In James’ terms, “subjective truth” applies only to living, forced, and momentous choices. [2]   In fact, James developed his theory of truth partly in reaction to Kierkegaard, as his reference to Kierkegaard in Pragmatism reveals.[3]  James intends his theory to encompass both the insights of the empiricist tradition as these were being refined by pragmatists like Peirce and Dewey, and a notion of subjective truth similar to that offered by Kierkegaard.  However, James seems more concerned with the happiness of the individual, and considers this an important criterion for some kinds of pragmatic truth claims.  When Kierkegaard writes of the truth that “builds up,” he does not primarily mean “makes you happy.”  As Judge William points out, the esthete may be very happy, simply because life has not yet revealed the fragility and ultimate falsehood of the basis of his or her life.[4]  To be “built up” is something else, more related to becoming a full individual; Kierkegaard’s most direct statements of its meaning are that to be “built up” is to be strengthened in one’s relationship to God.  When one is more correctly related to God, one becomes less anxious, more free and autonomous, less controlled by social forces or “obscure passions within” and more of an individual.  However, it seems more true to say that these are the fruits of being correctly related to God than to say that to be “built up” is to become a certain sort of individual who will consequentially relate to God.  At times in Kierkegaard’s writings, it seems as if individuality is identical with a true God-relationship, while at other times it seems as if true individuality were the result of the God-relationship. However, given that Kierkegaard’s notions of individuality often seem to require a person with gifts for self-reflection and intellectual achievement, while we are all children of God and can choose to live in a relationship with God, it seems that (on his own criteria) it is more upbuilding to see the God-relationship as original and foundational.  We can, however, evaluate the God-relationship by asking whether it is leading towards greater selfhood, greater autonomy, greater integration of the personality, and overall better functioning; if it is destructive of the self, leads towards injustice rather than justice, hate rather than love, fear rather than faith, self-flagellation and wallowing in guilt rather than confidence in God’s love and redeeming power, then perhaps what you are related to is not actually God after all.

[1] William James, Pragmatism:  a new name for some old ways of thinking, (1907) Lecture VIII:  “Pragmatism and Religion.”

[2] William James, “The Will to Believe,” pt. I, in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Religion (NY:  Longmans, Green & Co., 1912)

[3] Pragmatism, Lecture VI, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.”

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, pt. II; edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 191-92