Posts Tagged ‘Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843)’

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….