Posts Tagged ‘Two Ages’

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.

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Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

August 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard

 

 

…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.

 

—-Søren Kierkegaard

 

 

The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.4)

July 6, 2016

CONCLUSIONS

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard compares the present age to a Roman emperor, fat, bored, wandering through his palace and through life looking for something to amuse himself. He isn’t evil, exactly, so much as simply sullen, lethargic and self-centered, and desperate for something new to stimulate his senses. He torments others simply out of boredom. Likewise, Kierkegaard says, the present age delights in having a tabloid press to torment and humiliate the best and brightest, anyone who stands out from the crowd, simply so the rest of us can watch and be entertained for awhile. Kierkegaard started his authorship with a discussion of boredom, and here when he is beginning a new phase in his career he is returning to it. Boredom and envy are connected, in a way neither is to anxiety, leading Kierkegaard to mention them both in the same breath.

The connection is passion. This seems to be an easy concept to misunderstand; in The Logic of Subjectivity Louis Pojman, who is normally a pretty sharp cookie, compares Kierkegaard’s discussion of passion to Hume’s notion that “reason is a slave to the passions.” This is clearly off target, since Hume’s point is that we have no real freedom to act against our desires while Kierkegaard is saying we should strive to free ourselves from just that sort of bondage to our whims and appetites. Taking what Kierkegaard says about passion in various references and bringing it together, it is clear that the essential quality of the life of passion is that the individual feels that what he or she does matters. Don Juan, lost in the moment of pure pleasure, feels absolutely alive.[1] He is totally immersed; no part of him stands outside what he is engaged with; he is passionate. However, that sort of passion cannot survive reflection or even self-awareness; it starts to collapse as soon as it is put into words. The pre-moral, esthetic life described in Either/Or is a life lived for arbitrary goals, and thus is essentially meaningless; the more one becomes self-aware and reflective, the more one finds oneself standing outside oneself, unable to fully immerse in whatever arbitrary project one has chosen. It is simply too small. And being essentially meaningless, it is essentially boring. Don Juan can pull it off mostly because he is a fictional character in an opera, and exists only in imagination and music; a real person is never safe from the threat of self-reflection. Kierkegaard thus depicts the egoistic, pre-moral life of the esthete as something of a willful self-deceit, where the esthetic person either invests his or her life in some petty project or rotates between petty projects, and avoids boredom mostly by luck if at all.

In the age of revolution, people are swept up in a shared passion. That may not be a good thing; the same passion that led to the overthrow of tyranny also led to The Terror and to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. Passion, in and of itself, may not be moral; but it is at least alive. People feel that things matter. Without reflection to go along with that passion, you can have wildness, irrationality, and a loss of sense of individuality; but at least you have the vital force. With both reflection and passion, you have liveliness together with self-awareness, and you have a community of moral individuals. With reflection and no passion, as in the present age, you have triviality. Nothing matters, and what’s more, we feel clever because our reflection has shown us that nothing matters so we are not being fooled. We don’t fight for the good or against the evil, because we don’t feel that either matters; we simply don’t think those words apply to us. We might temporarily flare up in some passing enthusiasm, but it soon fades because it is as arbitrary as anything else, and we lapse into bored triviality. I think of how outraged we all were when Cecil the lion was killed, for awhile, but how little most of us think about the extermination of the world’s most majestic species. No one really cares about the moral principle; they just wanted to be part of the moment and part of the crowd gathered to mourn Cecil. If anyone had actually acted on all that outrage, either to avenge Cecil or to dedicate his or her life entirely to saving Earth’s endangered animals, we would have considered it madness. It is acceptable to get angry and to tweet death threats even, to sign a petition and to talk about it endlessly on Facebook for two weeks; but then, really, you have to get on with your life, right?

In an early journal entry, written when Kierkegaard was merely a perpetual student, he wrote that he was seeking “the cause for which I can live and die.” That is what it is to live a life of passion! And that is what is lacking in the present age, according to Kierkegaard. No one has a cause. In the age of revolution, everyone has a cause, whether you are a revolutionary or a reactionary; either way, you are part of the same passion, and the revolution matters. People in a revolutionary age don’t all agree, but they all care about the same thing; even if some love it and some hate it, “it” is the same. In the age of reflection without passion, we have no cause, and those who do seem strange, even fanatical.

In this boredom, when nothing matters, our attention has no common focus and no higher focus than one another. That reflection that tells us that nothing matters turns on our neighbors, as we determine to prove that any claim to “matter” is arrogance. Therefore, we level. Leveling is the prime social expression for passionlessness, which is the literal meaning of “apathy.” The leveling society is the apathetic society, knocking down the highest out of sheer boredom.

The escape from boredom, which Kierkegaard traces through Either/Or to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is to choose to live a life where things do matter. As his pseudonym The Judge says, it is not to choose the good, but first to choose to allow the concepts of “good” and “evil” into one’s life. As Ron Green points out in Kierkegaard and Kant: the Hidden Debt, Kierkegaard starts with a very Kantian notion of what “ethics” means: that one lives according to the moral law that one discovers with one’s own moral reason. Just as logic is a purely mental law that dictates what is rational or irrational thinking, so the moral law is a purely rational principle that dictates what is moral or immoral action. To reject either logic or morality is certainly possible; in fact, few of us live totally logical or moral lives. But insofar as a person is not a slave to whims and appetites and irrational impulses, one lives according to these laws of rationality and morality that one finds within one’s own reason. The only way one can escape being determined by the essentially meaningless pursuits of the egoist is to choose the ethical life. When one does this, one has something far more important to deal with than whether one’s neighbor is getting too uppity; so the moral passion of the ethical life can be the antidote to envy.

Thus, the escape from boredom and from envy is the same: reject apathy and embrace the life lived for what matters. However, at this point anxiety rears its head. As Kierkegaard says, to live with the knowledge of good and evil is to live in anxiety. One first becomes aware of the distinction by becoming aware that one has done the evil, and cannot undo it, and might even do it again. The more one tries to escape from anxiety through one’s own power, the more anxious one becomes. Eventually, since anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” the only escape from anxiety is to try to escape from one’s own freedom. For this reason, says The Concept of Anxiety, the person may be tempted to try to immerse himself or herself in the trivial and philistine life of social conformity. I find myself to be desperately bored; I realize my life and my concerns are meaningless, and seek to find what really matters, that is, what is good; when I find it, I realize that I have in fact done what is worthless and evil, and that it still remains a tempting possibility; the more I try to live a meaningful life the more stressful and anxious I find this constant threat of falling again into what I now know to be the evil; and finally I choose to simply embrace the soulless conformity of the passionless, reflective society. Thus boredom and envy are not just the problems of those who know nothing more in life; they are much more the characteristics of those many who are actively choosing to live lives without a relationship to what is truly good.

The only true escape from anxiety and envy, according to Kierkegaard, is to choose the religious life. Again, this is a claim that is likely to be misunderstood by postmodern Americans. Most of what we typically call “religious”— social conformity and judgmentalism, blindly following a charismatic leader, allowing others to tell us the moral rules and convincing ourselves that using our own minds is somehow wicked and rebellious—- this is actually what Kierkegaard would consider more of that anxious, envious, self-immolating life that Kierkegaard labels “objectivity,” “idolatry” or “demonic.” True religiousness starts with the attempt to find the good: that is, with the ethical. For Kierkegaard, the attempt to live an ethical life by following one’s moral reason serves much the same function as the Law in Paul’s epistles and Luther’s theology.[2] One must first try to live according to the ethical, and fail, and in failing realize one’s need for grace. At the same time, grace is not there to free one from trying to live a good life; it is there to free one from the burden of one’s past failures, so that one can try again. Grace allows one to finally be free from the overwhelming burden of anxiety, which otherwise leads one to flee the whole attempt to live a life as a morally directed individual.[3] Particularly in Concept of Anxiety, but consistently throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, “the good” is individuating; to pursue the good is to be an individual, and to try to evade the personal effort of being an individual moral agent before God is to choose the evil.

The irony of envy is that from the religious perspective, it is right. Envy says, “You are no better than me;” the religious person says, “Indeed, I am no better than you; we are both individuals before God, dependent entirely on grace.” Accepting this is what allows the truly religious person to escape the bondage of envy. The faithful person has the complete security of being worthwhile and even loved by God, despite knowing himself or herself to be morally unworthy of that love. The faithful one thus has no need to enviously tear down others, and can rejoice in their value before God as much as in his or her own. Therefore, if you see someone whose sense of self-worth is dependent on asserting superiority over others or tearing them down, you can be sure that this is not “religious” zeal but is in fact faithlessness.

The desire to tear down scientists and scholars and “the elites,” while adulating some self-promoting huckster whose only claims to superiority are the purely mathematical ones of wealth and popularity, is an expression of faithlessness and the bondage of sin, as Kierkegaard understands it. This is true whether the would-be idol is a political demagogue or a religious charlatan, or some combination of the two. It is a sign of an age that has, in Kierkegaard’s words, “annulled the principle of contradiction.” It is an age that fears to let Yes be Yes and No remain No, and wants to eliminate all ultimate distinctions between true and false, good and evil, logical and irrational, so it can avoid having to make a decisive choice. The present age says that all truths are partial and relative and based on perspective, so there is no need to rationally discuss or to question one’s own views; the reflective and passionate view is humbled by reflection but inspired to seek truth nevertheless, admitting that the quest for truth is never-ending while remaining devoted to the quest regardless.

When “the principle of contradiction has been abrogated,” as Kierkegaard said using the language of Hegelian philosophy, there is no absolute truth. Every concept is simply one side of a larger reality. Hegel still had an historical optimism underlying his annihilation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil; he believed history is progressing towards a state of greater human consciousness, and eventually the race will attain an apprehension of reality that encompasses all of the various perspectives. But for Hegel, that day is not yet; in the meantime, your moral values are simply expressions of your culture’s values and your own class interests. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the French Revolution was succeeded by the Munich Putsch, that optimism was harder to sustain. Today we have even more thoroughly abrogated the distinction between true and false, epistemologically and ethically, in what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is no truth, so anyone who claims to know truth is simply an oppressor trying to impose his (maybe her) will on others; thus the only morally proper and epistemologically correct option is to admit all views are equally valid, even contradictory ones. The problem with that is that the “tolerance” and “honesty” that supposedly demand this admission are themselves moral and epistemological virtues, and thus themselves become victims of reflection. What we end up with is moral nihilism and a contest of irrational wills. As Harry Frankfurt discusses in On Bullshit, today we have a whole category of verbal behavior that is neither truth nor lying, because the speaker is simply unconcerned with either sharing or avoiding the truth. And this may explain Trump’s method and success. Donald Trump does not lie; he bullshits. He says whatever will serve his purpose, and is not concerned with whether what he says is true. Much of the time he does not even know. And to the morally and intellectually vacuous public today, this seems entirely appropriate. In a world where no one can “dictate” truth, and where truth itself cannot dictate, every single person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. If I want to believe that slavery never happened, or that solar energy sucks heat out of the air and will freeze us all to death unless we burn more coal, or that most American Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers even though I don’t actually even know how many Muslims there are in America, then I have a right to my opinion. Truth and goodness are replaced by the language of “rights,” and the stupidest and most selfish has as much right as the wisest, for we are all equal. The ability to get others to agree with you is seen not as a triumph for fact over fantasy, but just as a victory of one will over the others. From the point of view of the postmodern person, there is no truth and the best leader is merely the best bullshitter; and the bullshitter who has persuaded the most people to give him or her the most money is clearly the best. From the point of view of the one who is religious in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word, the wisest is the one who recognizes that there is truth, who loves the truth (particularly moral truth) and who attempts to live according to the truth so that his or her life might have some real meaning, but who knows that human existence is always to strive for truth, never to possess it completely. That person will know that anyone might have a piece of truth, and thus anyone is worth listening to, just as Socrates listened to politicians and slaves alike as he went around Athens asking questions. And just as Socrates seemed more than a little odd in a society dominated by demagogues and Sophists, so today any real truth-seeker seems goofy at least, if not absolutely insane. The popular teachers in the days of Socrates were the ones who said “man is the measure of all things, what is that it is, and what is not that it is not;” and the popular leaders were the ones who did not try to make their citizens better morally or better informed, but took them where they were and pandered to their appetites. And in the days of Socrates, that sort of relativism led to moral and epistemological nihilism, leaving nothing to guide the society but the naked ambition of its politicians; and themselves being unguided either by moral principles or factual truth, they led the nation into defeat and destruction. The age without faith is the age without truth, without a love for truth, and thus without guidance how to live or what to choose, a mindless herd following the loudest voice without knowledge of whether it is being led to the sheepfold, or to be sheared, or to the slaughterhouse.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” in Either/Or, v. I, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 45ff

[2] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 76-107

[3] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) pp. 40-57

 

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

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

June 15, 2013

…The more fundamental problem is that in a very real sense, leveling is right:  we are all equal (before God) and therefore the prophet really is no better than the rest of us.  Where leveling gets it wrong is in reducing the individual to an abstraction or cipher, so that the only importance anyone has is as a member of a group (a voting bloc or demographic, say), with truth to be determined by which side gets the highest poll numbers.  Truth is the individual before God; to bring one to the religious is to help that one stand as an individual before God, not as a member of a party or even a fan of a prophet.  The only way to do that these days, Kierkegaard says, is to be “without authority,” an “unrecognizable.”[1]  It is not so much a question of doing a particular thing at a particular time, being one of God’s moral secret agents 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. M-F; rather, in whatever one does, as one interacts with other persons, the unrecognizable one is to look for opportunities to call others out individually to stand before God and through the power of God.  As he writes:

 

 

Then it will be said:  “Look, everything is ready; look, the cruelty of abstraction exposes the vanity of the finite in itself; look, the abyss of the infinite is opening up; look, the sharp scythe of leveling permits all, every single one, to leap over the blade—look, God is waiting!  Leap, then, into the embrace of God.”  But even the most trusted of the unrecognizable ones will not dare and will be unable to help anyone, even the woman who carried him under her heart or the girl for whom he would gladly give his life—they must make the leap by themselves, and God’s infinite love will not become a second-hand relationship for them.  Yet the unrecognizable ones (according to their respective ranks) will have a double task in comparison with the men of distinction (in the same ranks) in an earlier structure, for the unrecognizables are obliged to keep on working—-and at the same time to conceal their working.[2]

 

 

How is it possible?  Kierkegaard does not give concrete examples; since he is discussing what one individual can do in relation to another in actuality, he cannot really say ahead of time.  But it is what one is to do, and “ought” implies “can,” as Kant said, so it can be done.  And insofar as gaming is one of those activities that bring people together, it must be possible for the moral secret agent to use this opportunity to prompt another to leap over leveling’s blade into the arms of God.  If Kierkegaard could use an historical romance, with tales of sin and adultery and illegitimate birth, as an opportunity to invite others to flee envy and the herd mentality to become individuals before God, then it should be possible to do so with a game; and if there is in fact a game that is so soul-crushing that it cannot be so used, then perhaps the unrecognizable one should politely decline to join in.

To be continued….


[1] Two Ages, pp. 106-109

[2] Two Ages, pp. 108-109

 

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

June 9, 2013

It seems that in Campbell’s view, myths and fantasy work best when one doesn’t analyze them or have conscious awareness of what they are doing, since their power lies in the symbols of the collective unconscious.  For Tolkien it seems that while the storyteller may be intentional in crafting an evangelium it is just as possible that the storyteller and the audience are unaware, without changing the fact that it is a kind of gospel and an expression of the imageo Dei.  But it seems that for Kierkegaard, the individual needs to be aware of the workings of reflection, envy, and leveling in order to resist, and aware of the religious to choose it.  This would seem to be a major difference between them.  However, the story (or the game) can still offer “illusion” that the person may then choose to see as possibility.  It can offer a place of rest before one returns to the journey of life.  It can offer imagination’s way out.  But without choice, it cannot offer the religious.  At most, it can simulate another life, where one tries on the ethical or the religious persona for a time and perhaps gets a glimpse of life beyond the merely esthetic and egoistic standpoint, and beyond the conformity of the herd and a world which has banished heroes.

What if one is intentionally religious?  Can one choose to make one’s game playing a religious exercise, on Kierkegaardian terms?  The game as genre is inherently “poetic” in Kierkegaard’s terms:  imaginative, creative, dealing with possibility rather than actuality.  Deciding to play with overtly Christian characters  (say, in a St. George vs. the Dragon setting, where Catholic priests and pious knights slay agents of Satan) would make no difference; it might even make things worse, since it would reduce a gospel intended to be an existence-communication from a call to existence in actuality to a mere imaginative possibility.  Christian first-person shooters and Left Behind games might have horrified Kierkegaard, although he does write (through Johannes Climacus) that children should be allowed to play with holy things.[1]  What he definitely would have said, though, is that such things are not eo ipso “Christianity” merely because you fight demons or your avatar is dressed as a cleric.  Such things make Christianity ludicrous.[2]  It is only a little better when the work is done well, as in the Christian allegories of C. S. Lewis; having Aslan die to save a boy who ate the witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight both presents the mystery of salvation and trivializes it (the movie studio that optioned the Narnia stories didn’t care whether viewers became Christians or not, so long as they bought tickets).  From the perspective of Two Ages, Tolkien’s more subtle religious metaphor is far preferable to Lewis’ straightforward allegory, as Tolkien is better able to avoid the power of envy.  Kierkegaard argues that in the age of reflection, it will no longer do to have a prophet step forward and thunder, “Thus says the LORD!”  The obvious problem with this is that all attention will immediately be riveted not on the message, but on the speaker.  Instead of being the Word of God, he or she would become interesting, perhaps a celebrity even, to be gossiped about and speculated about, to be attacked and defended, and ultimately to be shown to be no better than the rest of us really (perhaps a tabloid would run pictures of the prophet at the beach in an unflattering swimsuit just to make that point).  In all this flurry of excitement, the one thing no one would think to do is actually heed the prophet’s words. ………

To be continued…..


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 601

[2] Fragments, p. 594

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

May 15, 2013

These then are the “two ages,” and this perhaps is one valuable function of role-playing games.  In the “real world,” the age of heroes has past; anyone who has truly great dreams can expect to be hooted off the world stage like an opera star trying to sing an aria at a burlesque show.  In a role-playing game, every player is a hero in his or her own story.  You may be Guildenstern or Third Servant to the other players, but you are Hamlet to yourself:   a welcome change perhaps from one’s real life.  And more importantly, in the game world there are still heroes, there are great deeds to do and great people to be.  The good games, the ones that grab and hold the players’ attentions, are the ones that make a player work, and then reward that work with achievement.  The idea that striving can make one better and one can make the world better is a notion that can inspire real accomplishment, if it carries over into the player’s nongaming life. 

 

            It is in this context that I understand Kierkegaard when he writes:

 

 

It does not take nearly as much effort to achieve something with the support of an illusion as it does when all illusions are lost.  And just as scurvy is cured by green vegetables, so a person worn out in reflection perhaps does not need strength as much as a little illusion.”[1]

 

 

 

The translators point out that this does not refer so much to deception or delusion as it does to possibility.[2]  While in the English translation this passage seems oddly out of place, the context does in fact support the Hongs’ reading and may even show how the two notions are connected.  Kierkegaard is comparing the present, reflective age with the age of revolution and passion.  In the story, the character Claudine goes astray, as he puts it, makes a mistake and makes a mess of her life based on her belief that she is acting for love and that is all that matters; but that same passion that led her to a wrong decision also sustains her, Kierkegaard says, and carries her through to the final triumph of her love.  By contrast, a reflective age may be more clear-sighted, may see a thousand possibilities and their consequences, and may understand that fools rush in where angels fear to tread; but that very clear-sightedness may paralyze one who seeks to make a decision.  We may tell ourselves that in an earlier age the alternatives were clear-cut and decisions were easy; and a singer put it:

 

 

Now there was a time when it was right and wrong.

 

It was black and white.

 

It was easier to get along.

 

Now it’s only just a dream.[3]

 

 

 

 

But Kierkegaard says that in fact, there never was a time when it was all “black and white.”  Instead, the passionate person makes a decision, choosing to act on the basis of that passion and the values it presents; the apathetic, reflective one chooses to see everything in shades of grey and cannot make a decision without first taking the energy to run through all the alternatives.  For this reason, it is much harder for the reflective, disillusioned person to make a decision.  A role-playing game, like a novel, can give one a chance to experience a world where passion and decisiveness and illusion still motivate and still give their rewards.

 

To be continued…..


[1] Two Ages pp. 66-67

[2] Two Ages, p. 170

[3] Bert Jansch, “Just a Dream,” When the Circus Comes to Town; BMG Music, 1995

 

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

May 8, 2013

            Towards the end of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous phase, he wrote a book review in his own name:  Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review.  Being one of Kierkegaard’s signed works, it is a much more straightforward expression of his views.      This is a review of a novel; it is neither a fantasy nor a role-playing exercise, though it is fiction.  As fiction, it does share some qualities with the fairy-story. Kierkegaard says of the novel Two Ages that “The author has been faithful to himself.[1]  In this we see that the author has, as Tolkien would have put it, been consistent in creating her Secondary World for the reader to enter.[2]  Like Tolkien, Kierkegaard even compares the creativity of the writer to that of the Creator, although he does not go as far or become as explicitly theological in his comparison.  It is not quite religious, says Kierkegaard, but it tends in that direction; it knows “actuality’s way out” from the pain of life, rather than “religion’s way out.”[3]  And for this reason, it can offer “a place of rest” for the reader.[4]  This sounds very much like the role of Escape in the fairy-story, as described by Tolkien.  And the “way out” sounds more than a little like Consolation.  One difference is that while Tolkien is ready to describe the fairy-story as a kind of gospel, Kierkegaard takes pains to specify that no novel or work of “poetry” could be truly religious, since the realm of the religious is actuality and the poetic deals only in possibility.  But the novel simulates actuality and can thus offer insights into it.  I suggest that in the same way, a role-playing game can simulate life and in the process suggest truths about life (or, if the game is badly written, suggest lies).

 

            The “two ages” Kierkegaard discusses are the “age of revolution” and “the age of reflection,” or “the present age.”  The novel compares these two ages by presenting two love stories, both of which take place in Denmark (the country of publication).  The first takes place with the French Revolution as a backdrop.  A group of French travelers, including envoys of Napoleon, arrives at the house of a well-connected Danish merchant.  Their stay brings the passion and historical power of the Revolution to the home, stirring passion among the Danes as well.  This passion flows through everything from world-historical struggles and ideological debates to clandestine love affairs.  After love, separation, an illegitimate birth and reconciliation, young lovers are finally reunited and the first part of the novel ends.  The second part of the novel likewise revolves around a love affair, but it takes place in the reflective, petty age we live in now.  No charismatic foreigners come to Copenhagen to arouse the passions; there are no passions to be found.  Instead there is backbiting, gossip, envy and indecisiveness.  Instead of lovers who are driven by passion to do forbidden things, there are young people afraid to love because he doesn’t have enough money to support her.  Instead of the dangers and trials of a world at war, there are the snide comments of servants ridiculing the young stepdaughter of the family.  As Kierkegaard puts it, “If we say of a revolutionary age that it goes astray, then we must say of the present age that it is going badly.”[5]  As his own first pseudonymous work put it, in the Old Testament people have passion:  they murder, they curse their descendents, they sin; today they lack the energy, and at most try to weasel their ways through life with a little self-indulgence here and there.  This is what he sees illustrated in the novel.  The characters are driven by petty concerns to indulge in petty behaviors.  Instead of being united by some great passion and forced to decisively choose whether to be for or against (but all concerned for the same thing, the Revolution), today all are only interested in one another, in who is getting too full of himself or herself, who needs to be brought down a peg.  The only social force uniting people is envy, and the only result is not revolution but leveling.[6]  In the novel, Kierkegaard sees this illustrated in the petty meanness to which the heroine Marianne is subjected, merely because she is a stepdaughter (and hence vulnerable) and because she dares to love and to hope.  Kierkegaard sees this same dynamic playing out in society as a whole, becoming a social force on its own.   In the age of revolution, people looked for a great person, a Napoleon or a Luther, who would incarnate the great ideas and towards whom they could orient themselves either by joining or opposing; but today “the age of heroes is past.”[7]  Now, they only seek out the great ones to watch them, hoping to see them fall so they can all mock them for thinking themselves superior to the rest of us, or so they can tell themselves that the deed really wasn’t so great, anyone could have done it really, so again envy is satisfied:  “whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels.”[8]  Whole social institutions (most notably the modern press) exist solely to tear down what is great and noble and exceptional, without anybody having to take responsibility for doing so. 

 

To be continued….


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; translated with an introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 13, italics Kierkegaard’s. 

[2] Kierkegaard knew full well that the anonymous author was a woman, but respecting her anonymity he consistently refers to the author as “he.”

[3] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

[4] Two Ages, p. 21

[5] Two Ages, p. 69

[6] Two Ages, pp. 68-96

[7] Two Ages, pp. 87-89

[8] Two Ages, p. 84

 

A Quote from Kierkegaard

February 27, 2013

“It does not take nearly as much effort to achieve something with the support of an illusion as it does when all illusions are lost.  And just as scurvy is cured by green vegetables, so a person worn out in reflection perhaps does not need strength as much as a little illusion.”

S. Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) pp. 66-67