“Kierkegaard is not innocuous, not genteel, not comfortable . . .. Kierkegaard deliberately challenges the reader’s whole existence.” — from the Introduction.
You need to keep that in mind while reading this, or anything else written by Kierkegaard. He may be ironic, subtle, satirical and even outright humorous at times, but rest assured, this is not “feel good” material. Kierkegaard’s writings are the foundational documents of Existentialism, and their purpose is to show you how you have been deceived into believing you are someone that you are not, and that the life you are living is a lie. Maybe you do not believe this; maybe you think that you are your opinions, your job, your friends and your family, and who you are is essentially how you fill your place in the world. That was a common belief in Kierkegaard’s time, as it is now, and was expressed in the philosophy, religion, and social environment of Kierkegaard’s time, as it is now.
If you are comfortable with this, then maybe you do not want to read Kierkegaard. On the other hand, if you begin to feel a certain emptiness in the endless blogging, and in the never ending back-and-forth of opinions on social media that seems to lead to nothing but more blogging and opinions; if you begin to worry that the endless chatter about current events is actually sabotaging the possibility of any action that might change things — then maybe the layers of social engineering and media chatter are beginning to unravel in front of your own eyes. Maybe, even, you sense that something might be wrong with YOU; not with your brain, your DNA, or your “chemicals”, but something much deeper than that — something that threatens your own sense of what makes life worth living, if it is worth living at all.
If so, then welcome to the world of existential despair. This is the world that Kierkegaard describes in The Present Age. In actuality this is a part of a larger work, a literary review of a novel by another author entitled “Two Ages”, that examines how the lives of its characters change in the transition from the passionate age of the French Revolution to the more “reasonable” age of the (then) present. It is in the third chapter of that review, presented here as “The Present Age”, that Kierkegaard unleashes his attack against the despair of an age in which endless chatter replaces passionate action; an age that, you might begin to think, is too similar to our own for comfort.
But who was Soren Kierkegaard, and what is the significance of his work? He grew up, and lived most of his life, in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the early 1800’s, where he studied for the ministry and became engaged. It seemed as though his future was set, and then all of a sudden, something went wrong. He broke off his engagement, and turned against the Church with a venom unseen since Martin Luther. Why, we will never know; he never told anyone, at least not directly. But that is the key to understanding Kierkegaard and his work: he never tells you directly what he wants you to think. He uses the method of indirect communication — he lays out the arguments, and leaves it for you to draw your own conclusions. For example, most of his works are written under pseudonyms, with each pseudonymous author presenting and arguing for a particular point of view in which he believes. It is then up to the reader to decide if that point of view is logically or morally tenable.
Perhaps that is the key to understanding Kierkegaard’s life — that in turning against the future that had been planned out for him, he is indirectly communicating something to the world: that life, or at least an authentic and worthwhile life, cannot be lived according to a predetermined plan or formula. To have a meaning, a life must be discovered and lived by each individual. This is why Kierkegaard is known as the founder of Existentialism: as he writes elsewhere: “A logical system is possible, an existential system is impossible,” meaning, among other things, that life cannot be lived according to rules and formulae, it cannot be lived according to a predetermined plan, and truth cannot be found by believing in dogmas or by accepting “facts” or rationalizations laid out by others. “To find the truth, one must become the truth” — one cannot just think about it or believe in it, one must actually live it. This is one meaning of “existential authenticity” — living the life of who you are, not one that has been decided for you by others, or one that others have convinced you that you want.
As Castaneda’s Don Juan once said: “There are many paths in life, but only one has heart, the others will be your death.” For Kierkegaard that death is despair — the disconnection between the life one lives and who one actually is as an individual. The only escape from despair is authenticity, but how is one to find it? That is to say, how is one to discover who one, at some level, really is, stripped of all the social role playing, lies and deceptions perpetrated against the individual by “society?” Kierkegaard will elsewhere equate despair with sin, and his solution to the problem is an essentially religious solution, though one might be shocked, or perhaps elated, to discover that what Kierkegaard means by “religion” has absolutely nothing to do with what is associated with the term in his own time — or in ours.
To discover what Kierkegaard means by authenticity, one must first understand despair, and how pervasive it is in the world. This is the message of The Present Age — to show a world that has sunk into despair, what drives individuals into despair, and how that despair paralyzes anyone who might try to escape from it. “Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose.” Another translation reads, “… prudentially relaxing in indolence,” which better captures what Kierkegaard really meant. Also note that when reading the text, the word that gets translated as “public” might, in our own time, better be read as “society”, and then the full force of Kierkegaard’s critique becomes more apparent.
Kierkegaard identifies two main factors responsible for the immersion of the individual in despair, and those are chattering and levelling. Chattering is the endless discussion and conversation about any and everything; in his time, what we might call “yellow sheet journalism”, and today, “social media” and “mass media”. The constant, unending and inescapable chatter and interplay of opinions plays upon an evolutionary vestige of human psychology — the need for social acceptance — that in the hands of social media becomes an addiction that literally sucks the psychological life out of the individual. Kierkegaard’s discussion shows how this chatter collapses the distinctions between individuals — the “I” sinks into the “we” — and the possibility of distinguishing who you are from who “we” are fades into despair. This is what is wrong with interactive social media: by enticing and, yes, addicting, users into chattering their opinions and private business in public, it destroys privacy, and in so doing, obliterates the distinction between the individual and the group. “God knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” says former Facebook executive Sean Parker.
That bit about “brains” leads directly into the second problem, levelling, which in our own time might be called “the lowest common denominator.” It has become common, for example, to explain individual’s personalities, and particularly those aspects of the personality that don’t fit conveniently into social “roles”, as defects in genetics and/or brain chemicals. Depression — the psychological manifestation of despair — is explained away as a genetic defect that alters one’s “brain chemistry”; it cannot, no, MUST not, have anything to do with the fact that living in a world that rejects individuality and demands that one must live as “we” is a psychologically, and maybe biologically, fatal condition. Those personality traits that do not “fit in” are levelled into a biological lowest common denominator — brain biology — and thereby trivialized and dissolved in chatter about medications and yoga classes. That once advantageous evolutionary need for social participation has become, in the hands of levelling and chatter, a monster that threatens the very life of the individuals it once existed to protect. Is it any wonder that suicides and mass shootings are on the rise, given that the world as it is going today seems intent on destroying every aspect of the individual it possibly can?
If so, then how does one escape from despair? If there were a stock solution, some formula or recipe one could follow, then there would never have been anything such as existentialism, and Kierkegaard would be irrelevant. It cannot come from the outside; not from a job, not from friends or family, not from yoga classes, not from “medications” and therapy, not from the Internet or from anywhere else — those things are all the antitheses of authenticity, the very things that suffocate one in despair. Authenticity must come from the inside, and how it comes cannot be dictated, calculated, or predicted for any individual. As Kierkegaard says: “But I break off. All this is only fooling, for if it is true that every man must work for his own salvation, then all the prophecies about the future of the world [or one’s own life, my addition] are only valuable and allowable as a recreation, or a joke, like playing bowls or cards.”