Posts Tagged ‘Kierkegaard and Envy’

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.3)

July 1, 2016

Lastly, we come to envy. Kierkegaard’s central work on envy was written under his own name, after he had finished his earlier pseudonymous discussions of boredom and anxiety. It thus builds on his earlier discussions, particularly of passion, though readers have found it valuable in its own right as well. Envy appears as a central concept in Two Ages: the Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review.[1] This work is commonly simply referred to as “Two Ages,” a habit that somewhat obscures the fact that Kierkegaard is in fact basing his thought on a popular novel of his day. The fact that a portion of this work was originally translated into English under that title “The Present Age” further buries this fact, which somewhat hinders understanding his thought here. The novel was originally published anonymously, because it was written by a woman and women generally did not publish under their own names in the 19th Century. Thomasine Gyllembourg, the author, was one of the leaders of Copenhagen’s salon society, widely traveled and the mother of J. L. Heiberg by a previous marriage. Heiberg was himself one of Denmark’s leading poets and intellectuals, and instrumental in introducing Hegel’s philosophy from Germany into Denmark. She originally published her novel anonymously as a serial in a journal edited by her son, building on the anonymous fame she had acquired from an earlier serialized novel; thus Kierkegaard consistently refers to her as “the author of A Story of Everyday Life” and as “he.” (The sources I’ve seen are unclear as to whether or not he actually had a clue who the author was or that “he” was a she; but if anyone was going to respect pseudonymity, it was Kierkegaard.)

The novel Two Ages is a generational story. The first generation is from the Napoleonic period, “the age of revolution,” and revolves around the interactions between a group of Frenchmen and residents of Copenhagen. The second generation includes descendants of these revolutionaries, and represents “the present age,” mid Nineteenth Century Denmark. In both generations, the interactions of the characters, including troubled love affairs, illustrate the differences between the two ages. The age of revolution is the age of passion. It is difficult today, after so much time and so thoroughly immersed in our own present age, to really understand how “revolutionary” that age was. The established order was being overthrown, royal dynasties rooted in the age of Charlemagne were deposed, and grand ideas of “liberty, equality and fraternity” were sweeping the intellectual world and imaginations of people throughout Europe. Even when those ideas led to The Terror and then to Napoleonic imperialism, the ideas continued to stir hearts. Napoleon himself was almost a messianic figure to some artists and intellectuals, even in countries like Germany that opposed him. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica” (the Heroic Symphony) was originally dedicated to Napoleon. Hegel regarded Napoleon as one of those world-historical events that changes everything and allows a new level of human consciousness to emerge and take concrete form in a new society; when French forces captured the city where he was teaching, Hegel famously recorded “Today I saw the Absolute Spirit riding into town on a white horse.” In short, in the age of revolution virtually all human consciousness is turned towards a great idea. Some adored Napoleon and the ideals of the French Revolution which he was seen to embody, and others equally reviled the anarchy and oppression of the Revolution and the imperial wars; either way, it was an age of passion. It was not an age of saying, “Well, it has good and bad points, let’s not be hasty,” and all the other equivocations and procrastinations that we hear so often in a less passionate, more reflective age. And this passion is shown in the characters in the novel. They act boldly, even if they act badly. Lusand impregnates Claudine, a shocking thing in Nineteenth Century Christendom, and then abandons her to follow his revolutionary ideals. She in turn is so deeply in love with him that he endures the poverty and humiliation of an unwed mother in her society, waiting for her beloved to return to her. The people of the revolutionary age do great things, whether it is great loves or great sins, taking great risks for causes and ideals beyond their own lives. They interact with each other of course, but their primary orientation is to The Idea, the great principle of the age; each lives his or her life in an individual relationship to this grand passion, and relates to the others and everything else in the light thrown by The Idea.

By contrast, “The Present Age” is an age of reflection, not passion. The characters in the age of revolution were reckless; those in the present age are prudent and calculating. The characters in the age of revolution were shaped by the great passion of the age, by the grand idea that animated everything, and even their society and their relationships with each other expressed their own passionate relationship to that great passion. The characters in the age of reflection have no such animating force to guide them or shape their social world; instead, their lives together are shaped by observation of one another, with subtle sniping and maneuvering rather than grand, open struggles, with calculating how much each has and obsession with ensuring that you never take advantage of me. The age of reflection is thus the age of envy. Envy is, in Kierkegaard’s words, the “negative unifying principle” of the age. In a revolutionary age, everyone and everything is oriented towards the revolution and each one relates to the other through that passionate idea. This provides “form,” by which Kierkegaard means human relationships and society reflect the underlying passion. It thus connects individuals to each other. At the same time, it provides a buffer between them, a mediating force; I relate to you as comrade, as compatriot, as friend or lover in the great sweep of the spirit of the times, or as adversary and enemy or victim as we come down on opposed sides. Even as adversaries, we are at least part of the same conversation. In the reflective, passionless age, people “rub shoulders.” They have no concern other than themselves and each other. I watch others enviously, lest anyone should pretend to superiority over me; and those around me are likewise watching me enviously. As Kierkegaard says, we sit sullen in the great swamp of envious reflective society, croaking. Instead of discussing grand ideas beyond ourselves, we watch and gossip about each other.

Kierkegaard says that in ancient times, society was divided between the hero—-and the masses. A few were recognized as truly great; the rest oriented towards that great person and saw themselves as expressed primarily through the hero. A more reflective but still passionate age can see the hero or leader as a conscious representative of the many and their interests. Although legally an absolute monarch in Kierkegaard’s day, Denmark’s king was already moving in that direction; the king was not the only person allowed to live autonomously, but more the incarnation of the office of state leader. The priest wears robes to reflect that it is not as an individual that he (or today, she) speaks and teaches, but as the particular instantiation of the nineteenth century Danish Lutheran Church to which we all belong. To reverence the person holding that political or spiritual office is to reverence the passion that expresses itself through that form of life, that patriotism or faith. But in the passionless and reflective age, we all know that no one is better than any other, and we express this by demanding that no one be treated as any better than we ourselves. The office means nothing, because the society essentially means nothing since there is no grand idea behind it, no life-giving spirit. The ultimate social expression of this is leveling.

If a passionate revolutionary age “has form,” then a passionless reflective age has formlessness; that is leveling. The age of revolution has a structure that springs spontaneously from the idea of the age; the present age has only artifice and pretense. When anyone seems to rise too far above the herd, the spirit of envy hammers him or her back down. Perhaps the best expression of leveling is the denigration of expertise. If 100 scientists say something, they can be refuted with a simple, “Well, I’m no scientist, but I say you’re all wrong.” If 100 historians say something happened and produce documents from the time, it is enough to say, “Well, I’m no historian and I haven’t read all those old papers, but I say you’re wrong.” As Kierkegaard said, if one real knowledgeable person says something, that is treated as a curiosity. But take a bunch of ignorant people, who each individually avoid responsibility by saying, “Well, I’m no expert,” and add them together, and suddenly their view becomes an important opinion, even that greatest oracle of all, Public Opinion. That is a superiority that envy can accept, because no one is claiming anything other than mathematical significance. You simply treat every human being as =1, add them all up, and whichever group has the most is the truth for today; tomorrow we may take a new vote.

Kierkegaard wrote in a society that was really only beginning the transition to capitalist modernity, so he did not consider the other sort of addition leveling endorses: counting money. If a scientist says, “Listen to me, I have studied this question my whole life, done experiments and examined the research of others,” envy is more likely to resent the claim of intellectual superiority. If a political leader says, “I have worked at these ten jobs in government and learned from my mistakes and my successes,” envy is as likely to resent the elite. But if someone comes along and says, “I’m really rich,” that is something envy can embrace. You would think envy would resent the other’s wealth, but no; it might covet, but does not resent, because wealth is not a claim of personal superiority. Anyone can have money, whether by inventing a new device or exploring a new land to find rare gems, or by inheriting or winning the lottery. What envy wants, above all else, is to claim that you are no better than me, and really any of us could have done the same thing so it is as good as if any of us actually had. Donald Trump exemplifies that in spades. His speeches are delivered at a fourth-grade level of vocabulary. He regularly makes statements that are demonstrably false, and it is impossible to tell when he is lying and when he is just genuinely stupid. One journalist and former political worker describes the overwhelming impression of meeting Donald Trump in one word: incurious. He has no questions, there is nothing he wants to learn, and he is unconcerned with whether reality agrees with him. He has money. Call him stupid, call him racist, call him dishonest, and he’ll lash out but basically roll with it. Question his net worth and you will wind up in court. His self-image does not depend on his personal qualities but on the abstract, impersonal characteristics of (1) money, and (2) popularity, measured in poll numbers. Leveling can accept that sort of claim to superior non-superiority. It fulfills our need to have SOME sort of authority, while at the same time insuring that the “leader” is no more essentially qualified than any of us, maybe even less.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: the Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978

Notes on “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.”

January 24, 2016

Krom, Michael P. “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.Journal of Religious Ethics, 35.3:458-77.


This essay examines the argument by Paul Weithman in “Toward an Augustinian Liberalism” that modern liberal political theory, with its beginnings in Thomas Hobbes, should see itself as a development of Augustinian political thought. For Hobbes, pride is the source of social chaos, in that individuals compete for superiority and domination. The only peace is found when every citizen admits that he is equal to every other, and that all owe obedience to the sovereign/State that protects them all and enforces peace. Augustine, too, regards pride as the original sin, and humility is the cardinal virtue; therefore, we should be able to construct an Augustinian liberalism that can balance the need for humility with the need for legitimate exercise of control by society. Krom analyzes Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” as the epitome of virtue in contrast to Augustine’s notion of humility. The magnanimous one has justified pride, being neither vain nor self-effacing; he knows he is morally superior and superior in other ways, and in fact only acts in ways that will support and increase the honor he is due. Likewise, he is ashamed to accept favors or ask for help, since his superiority implies independence and the ability to sustain himself. However, Aristotle also acknowledges that the magnanimous person, if he is to be truly happy, most have some degree of good fortune; in fact, there are many things that he cannot control. This is part of why he shuns accepting help: to do so is to admit that he cannot control all, and is in fact weak in some way.

Augustine says that this pride, which Aristotle calls a virtue, is in fact a vice. The “magnanimous” person is not in fact independent; he is a creature of God as is every other person and thing, with whatever gifts and needs that God has given. By seeking to be independent, the pagan rebels against God and is also self-deceived.

The Hobbesian understanding of “pride” is the tendency of each individual to strive for superiority against every other. Augustine sees this not as the original pride, but as an outgrowth; first the creature declares independence from the Creator, and then begins to assert control over the rest of humanity. Thus, the pride that liberalism is concerned about is not the same sort of pride as that which most bothers Augustine. We can see this further when we look at Aquinas’ attempts to rehabilitate magnanimity and reintroduce it into Augustinian ethics. St. Thomas does this by insisting that the properly magnanimous person recognizes that his (or her) gifts all come from God, and thus is proud of those gifts only as a way to give glory to the giver. To hide his or her gifts would be to hide God’s gracious power, and thus to deny neighbors the opportunity to appreciate those gifts and praise God. The magnanimous person thus can take proper pride in the gifts, but must also be humble enough not to take credit as the author of his or her own virtue.

This would again oppose the liberalism that flows from Hobbes, and sees all claims to superiority as dangerous. To liberalism, each person can claim no superiority at all, whether from God or his or her own nature; each is perfectly equal. The magnanimous person is claiming a superiority, and even at least implicitly asserting that the rest of us should honor his or her virtue; in the Hobbesian scheme this threatens the peace since social peace is based on the notion that all must bow equally to the will of the Sovereign. Krom concludes by arguing that while this shows that liberalism is not especially consistent with Augustinianism, the Augustinian tradition can coexist with any political structure that will accept the independence of the City of God. This is in contrast to Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr   and Paul Ramsey, who argue that democratic liberalism is the best or perhaps only political structure that takes account of human sin and thus the only one that admits the Augustinian demand for humility.

MY PROJECT: I am looking at pride and humility in Kierkegaard and Augustine, to help explore Kierkegaard’s relationship to the Augustinian tradition, to see what this reveals or clarifies in Kierkegaard’s thought, and whether this offers any resources for us today.

Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy as a social force could relate to this analysis of pride in liberalism. The “age of reflection” denies all distinction except sheer numbers (Two Ages). What Krom presents as simply a description or fact of liberalism, Kierkegaard presents as a sickness; what Krom presents as a striving for equality, Kierkegaard calls “envy.” Although Kierkegaard was not a student of Aquinas, he did know his Aristotle; and while I am not aware of precise words to this effect, it is clear that he would have been drawn to this description of the “magnanimous” one who combines a realistic appraisal of his (or her) own gifts with the humility before God who is the giver of all, and also the one who judges all as equally sinful and equally loved. He repeatedly says, for example, that the simple man and the simple wise man get equally far, but the simple man knows, and the simple wise man knows that he knows or knows that he does not know (I think this is from the Postscript; these are notes so I’m working from memory). But in the Present Age, the simple wise man who admitted to being wise, even if he allowed that his wisdom did not amount to anything essential, would be set upon by the forces of envy. By contrast, a thousand arrogant fools would represent authority from numbers, while the one humble wise man is despised because he is not in the majority and therefore is wrong (and if he is distinguishing himself by admitting his is wise, he is seen as attacking the herd and set upon).   For this reason, the magnanimous person cannot openly admit or display his gifts; he must behave as the “secret agent” and teach only indirectly.

My primary interest, however, is not political, but epistemic, psychological and soteriological. How does pride distort our perception of reality? How does this lead to anxiety and the bondage of the will? How does faith restore us to something resembling our original state, so that we can again approach reality in humility and freedom?

Krom cites Hobbes as saying that it is pride that leads us to each strive to control others. Kierkegaard, in his upbuilding discourse discussing Adam, describes how before eating the fruit of knowledge Adam perceived God immediately—God was not separate or hidden, but completely present and immanent all around. In disobeying, Adam establishes himself as separate, and begins to understand how dangerous and unpredictable the world can be; so Adam seeks to control the world. Thus for Hobbes, we might say, pride leads to a desire to control others; but for Kierkegaard, pride goes further, and is the reason for the desire to control the world, including others. For Hobbes, the danger of this is that all the other people are trying to control each other, so you too could be killed or enslaved. For Kierkegaard, the danger is more immediate; you can’t control, and the more you try the more you realize the impossibility and thus the more anxiety. In the end, this attempt to assert freedom before God becomes completely unfree, as everything one does is dictated by one’s anxiety, and everything becomes self-defense. Kierkegaard further develops this notion pseudonymously in Concept of Anxiety, published the day after this discourse. There, the fear of the world becomes anxiety about possibility in general, since every possibility is the possibility to go wrong; and the more the individual tries to fight his or her way out of anxiety, the deeper he or she becomes ensnared. The only way out is outlined pseudonymously in the Fragments.