15 December 2012

I read Kierkegaard

I read The Present Age by Soren Kierkegaard.

In it Kierkegaard starts out by contrasting his present age - the 1840s, with the revolutionary age that exploded a few decades before then. He finds his time wanting.

Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiams and shrewdly relapsing into repose.
It is a time, he says, filled with shallow materialism, virtue put on for show, and "reflection." Reflection isn't genuine thought, but more a variety of self consciousness, superficial brain spasms. He discerned a preference for appearance over action and a flight from inwardness. Instead of passionate enthusiasm, we suffer from envy -- all products of being stuck in the process of reflection.

Because of this paralysis, we fall into ressentiment -- we can't stand what's truly great. We need to level whatever surpasses our abilities. We exalt the mass and squash great individuals. The greatest engine of that levelling is the "public" -- a phantom manufactured by the press and sustained by society. This creates the necessary pressure to adopt whatever ideas public opinion cherishes.

A by-product of this is that more individuals will aspire to be nothing at all in order to become a member of this public. They abandon themselves to distraction and to gossip. They are indolent rather than bad, given over to sensuality and easy laughter.

The mass prefers talkativeness over silence, chatter about trivialities to real conversation or solo reflection. We take on the attitudes and values of the public, and ignore or never cultivate our own ideas: "The introspection of silence is the condition of all educated social intercourse; the exteriorized caracature of inwardness is vulgarity and talkativeness."

He urges us to develop an inner life, and to return to a hierarchical society, one based on the recognition of true authority. We should accept suffering and leap into the arms of God. To act with boldness and faith.

As usual with me and those 19th century guys, I agree with his diagnosis, but can't accept a lot of the prescribed cure. Overall, I was surprised by how immediately applicable Kierkegaard's critiques were. If you streamlined the language and reduced some of the complexity of his arguments, it sounds very much like more recent complaints about how shallow and stupid we have become.

It made me think that the society of the spectacle is more of a continuation of what occurred before it, and made me remember that the struggles we're facing are not new to a time dominated by electronic media. The Internet is less a rupture with the past than the perfection of modernity, distilling processes that started with mass industrialization.

Key quotes:

...ours is the age of advertisement and publicity (in 1847)
As soon as the artist prostitutes his own reality he is no longer essentially productive.
In the end, therefore, money will be the one thing people will desire, which is moreover only representative, an abstraction. Nowadays a young man hardly envies anyone his gifts, his art, the love of a beautiful girl, or his fame; he only envies him his money. Give me money, he will say, and I am saved. 
It is a fundamental truth of human nature that man is in capable of remaining permanently on the heights, of continuing to admire anything. 
Reflection is not the evil; but a reflective condition and the deadlock which it involves, by transforming eh capacity for action into a means of escape from action, is both corrpt and dangerous, and leads in the end to a retrograde movement.

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