December 1, 2010
The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion by Soren Kierkegaard. Introduction by Walter
Kaufmann. Harper Perennial, 87 pp, $10.
If all thinkers are either foxes or hedgehogs, then Kierkegaard was decidedly a hedgehog. By his own emphatic acknowledgment, everything he wrote had a single purpose: to arouse a certain state of mind, or soul, in each of his readers. He called this state of mind "the consciousness of sin." What he meant by that is something like what
The Present Age was written in 1846. Now, one might reasonably expect that a book so titled would offer some clue to the age in which it was written, yet there is nary a word or phrase in The Present Age by means of which we might infer with any confidence which century or continent it was composed in. It could have appeared anywhere in the
But only in the West, and only in the last two centuries. The Present Age is a stellar entry in the genre of anti-modern manifesto, an early landmark in the still far-from-exhausted intellectual backlash against democracy, science, and unbelief. Kierkegaard did not get around to railing at democracy or science very much - he died too young - but his hostility to secular rationalism was implacable, and far more subtle than that of most other defenders of religious faith.
So subtle, admittedly, that it can be difficult at times to understand exactly what K. is exercised about. "Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose," he begins promisingly. One awaits, at first eagerly and then with mounting impatience, some concrete development of this thesis, some penetrating analysis of a typical episode in the life of mid-19th-century
For Enlightenment is the culprit. Not the actual doctrines of the 17th-century scientists and 18th-century philosophers, or that period's historical and philological criticisms of Christianity. About these Kierkegaard had virtually nothing to say, here or elsewhere. It was the process of popular enlightenment and the institutions - above all, the Press - to which it gave rise, the new culture of discussion and publicity, and the effect of all this on the psychology of the individual Christian that obsessed him.
"Ours is the age of advertisement and publicity," he complains, as a result of which "there is no more action or decision." Awareness of too many viewpoints produces paralysis, and so does the habit of seeing oneself as part of "the public," an entity hitherto unknown. Cosmopolitanism is a distraction, since there is no point in forming opinions about matters one cannot hope to influence. Opinions (as opposed to convictions, which require decision and lead to action) are in any case frivolous things. The upshot of continual discussion - the "deliberation" prized by theorists of liberal democracy - is perpetual stalemate and universal shallowness. As he put it in Concluding Unscientific Postscript: "If we wish to express in a single sentence the difference between ancient times and our own, we should doubtless have to say: 'In ancient times only an individual here and there knew the truth; now all know it, but the inwardness of its appropriation stands in an inverse relationship to the extent of its dissemination.'" Ultimately the individual himself disappears, swallowed up in the public. "The abstract leveling process, that self-combustion of the human race, produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion, is bound to continue, like a trade wind, and consume everything."
What is this "inwardness" whose fateful disappearance Kierkegaard is prophesying? It is, for him, the only true form of life. Neither the existence of God nor any other important truth can be known with absolute certainty - to this extent Kierkegaard has abandoned orthodox Christianity and traditional metaphysics. Yet we must act in matters of ultimate significance - love, belief, vocation, morality - or else ignore them. The latter, according to K, is what the present age has contrived to do:
When people's attention is no longer turned inwards, when they are no longer satisfied with their own inner religious lives, but turn to others and to things outside themselves, where the relation is intellectual, in search of that satisfaction, when nothing important ever happens to gather the threads of life together with the finality of a catastrophe: then instead we get talkativeness.
Obviously "talkativeness" includes celebrity journalism, self-help books, TV, Web-surfing, Facebook, and Twitter. Perhaps also, less obviously, psychotherapy, novel-reading, and most higher education.
Talkativeness keeps us connected and on the surface, while "silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life." If we go inside ourselves and remain there, we will eventually be confronted, out of our own depths, with choices, decisions, ultimate questions, which can only be resolved by an act, a leap of faith. "An objective uncertainty held fast [with] the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual." To grasp the necessity of this existential decision, or leap of faith, is to live in what Kierkegaard called "fear and trembling" and what he meant by the "consciousness of sin." The present age distracts us from this terrifying but soul-creating awareness. Getting and spending, texting and twitting, we lay waste our spirits. Amid this carnival of stimuli, the soul, that dense kernel of spiritual gravity, evaporates, leaving behind a light ontological froth. "I have discovered," Pascal wrote of his age, "that all our unhappiness comes from one thing: that we cannot bear to sit in our room, alone and silent." The lightness of modern being is seductive but finally unbearable.