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Papering over the cracks of Kierkegaardian despair

Monday, 26 May 2014

Kierkegaard on Staff and Scrip, Dr Johnn Dunn.

Søren Kierkegaard

Modern liberal democracy appears to be the natural outcome of a long and inevitable process of history, the final flowering of rationality out of the dark millennia of superstition. Indeed, even to question this seem alien, even dangerous to our rational western minds. Is not our western rationality precious after all? The very fruits of it, for example science, democracy and education, the component parts of liberalism, are surely the future of a world in which freedom and human rights are to be enjoyed by all, and for which people are sacrificing their lives today? It is upon enlightened rationality, the end-product of inevitable progress, that liberalism stands now and for millennia ahead, if Hollywood is to be believed. Traditionalism challenges this acquiescence to ‘progress’.

Liberalism has its roots in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and, later, Descartes, amongst others; a mode of thought that is founded on a dualism of mind and body, or mind and material world. It is inculcated into us, from birth and through all the separated disciplines of the education system,that we are disembodied subjects (Augustine would extend this principle into the form of an eternal soul), observing and negotiating objects, the material world external to the mind. This historical separation of mind and body or world, this opposition of an interior life to an external world, would lead ultimately to our sense of individuality, the individualism of modern times.

The dualism of mind and material world became manifest in the the separation of the economic sphere from the religious and moral sphere, leaving the individual, at least notionally free to lead a parallel desacralised life, accumulating wealth in a way that would have been once abhorrent to the church and society at large in the pre-Reformation world. For a life led in pursuit of financial gain was considered sinful, and gain through usury, the lending of money for interest, the worst form of this avaricious sin. A dualistic life was not considered sustainable by Biblical precepts. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 24.

The dualism was manifested too in political struggle, with individual liberty underpinning the the related philosophies of liberalism, Marxism and anarchism.
And, of course, it is Cartesianism dualism that underpins science; it is the very foundation of today’s scientific world view, one in which the disembodied observing subject seeks to understand all it can about the objective state of the material world external to it, through experiment and measurement. Measured in quantity against a human scale, science has met with a success that has served to reinforce Cartesian dualism as the unquestioned mode of modern thought. And why not? Has not western rationality since the renaissance given us democracy and freedom of thought and expression? Then there are the benefits of modern medicine and has not scientific progress fed and clothed us and kept us warm? Would we not put all this at risk by questioning the very mode of thinking that achieved it all? Surely we should all spring to the defense of our western way of life whenever it is under threat, and aid those who want to throw off whatever tyrannous yoke they are under in order to join us in our liberty.

And yet, what is this disembodied mind of western rationality? Nothing, argues the Cartesian position itself, most famously championed by John Locke. It is a ‘tabula rasa’, to be filled in by whatever worldly experience happens to come its way, for from where else might ideas and influences come if not this world? That the individual is a passive receptor is the implication of this position, a state of affairs which is distinctly at odds with the western mind’s avowed defense of individual freedom.

Oh the quest for knowledge, with which our minds are imbued, it fills not the emptiness, it simply hides it and buries the despair. If we commence life as a void, upon what is our knowledge grounded? More knowledge simply raises to consciousness our own innate emptiness. From the Cartesian standpoint, we are born into a fixed and finished world, thereto labour within the strict confines of a mind-independent reality. Could there be a more cruel, elaborate and stultifying fiction? To be thrust at birth into a prefabricated external world, where most of our responsibilities are unacknowledged and are progressively diminished and our freedom is in reality a figment of our imagination. We imagine ourselves the product of genes and the environment, functions of complexes and familial trauma, inextricably dependent on external contingencies, but then proclaim ourselves free!

To hold a conviction that we can only come to know the world by observing it as spectators is to prescind from a direct, active and moral involvement. It is the very opposite of freedom. Perhaps we should not be surprised after all that western rationality, with its credo of liberalism and individual freedom, has led to inhumanness and sameness the world over. The paradox is that this sameness is all-pervasive under liberalism, a political creed that proclaims individual liberty. And it is about more than mere imposition of global uniformity, it is about the loss of self. Under the individualism of modern times, the self has disappeared.

Soren Kierkegaard identified the paradox. He defined the self as a conscious synthesis of the infinite/finite, the temporal/eternal, and freedom/necessity, all in relationship to God, who is the Source and End of self-conscious life. We will be in a state of ‘despair’ when we attempt to deny any one of these paradoxes and thereby choose to understand ourselves apart from a relationship with God.

And what is living apart from God? Kierkegaard explains:

By seeing the multitude of people and things around it, by being busied with all sorts of worldly affairs, by being wise to the ways of the world, such a person forgets himself, in a divine sense forgets his own name, dares not believe in himself, finds being himself too risky, finds it much easier and safer to be like all the others, to become a copy, a number, along with the crowd.
Now this form of despair goes practically unnoticed in the world. Precisely by losing himself in this way, such a person gains all that is required for a flawless performance in everyday life, yes, for making a great success out of life. ...He is ground as smooth as a pebble, as exchangeable as a coin of the realm. Far from anyone thinking him to be in despair, he is just what a human being ought to be. ... A man in this kind of despair can very well live on in temporality; indeed he can do so all the more easily, be to all appearances a human being, praised by others, honoured and esteemed, occupied with all the goals of temporal life. Yes, what we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world. They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out enterprises, make prudent calculations etc., and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not themselves. In a spiritual sense they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self for God - however selfish they are otherwise.1
Wait a minute, did not Karl Marx consider religion itself to be an inauthentic way of coming to terms with a heartless world? Wasn’t it the ultimate way of dulling the self against the anxieties of the world, the ultimate analgesic, the ‘opium of the people’

Surely in this view the authentic person is the one free of religion. But what then is the opium-free self, the clean self, the authentic self? Well surely it begins on day one of the truly post-revolutionary world under communism, the moment perhaps when the state will have ‘withered away’. What will the authentic individual do? Well, he will do what he likes. The individual will have achieved victory over the division of labour.

Perhaps Marx's best known statement on this subject is his claim that
in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.2
Yet what are these accomplishments if not various ways of papering of the cracks of Kierkegaardian despair. They are distractions from the inevitability of death and ways of forgetting God in the busying of the self. With regard to the authentic life, communism would change nothing. Marx himself said that under capitalism, ‘all that is holy’ would eventually be ‘profaned’, and how right he was. But the profanation of religion would not lead men and women to face the truth in Kierkegaardian terms, far from it. Communism, as Marx envisaged it, would simply give people more opportunities to be distracted from the truth in worldly accomplishments devoid of God.

1 Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification and Awakening by Anti-Climacus, tr1anslated by Alastair Hanney, Penguin Classics, London, 2004.

2 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, German Ideology, Part 1 and Selections from Parts 2 and 3, ed. Christopher John Arthur, International Publishers, New York, 2004, p. 53.

John Dunn.

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