Kierkegaard on the present age

It has been wonderful to cover a couple of Kierkegaard’s shorter volumes.  Given my last post on my readings I was surprised at how social this volume was.  This volume is actually an extended review of a contemporary piece of fiction entitled Two Ages.  The two ages are the age of (the French) revolution and the present age.  While the opening sections do deal directly with the content of the novel it is the longer third section that gets the most attention as it is Kierkegaard’s own appropriation of the novel for his context.

Kierkegaard refers to the age of revolution as one represented by passion.  In the age of revolution there are figures of eminence that act with broad social effect.  The present age is depicted as one under the spirit of leveling.  Leveling is the equalizing of humanity under the abstract rubric of the numeric.  Kierkegaard spends a great deal of time talking about ‘the public’ which is both nothing and everything.  This condition is characterized by paralyzing reflection in which general knowledge in society increases but decisiveness vanishes.  Kierkegaard is critical of leveling but not nostalgic for revolution which would be a retrogression and return to eminent figures.  Leveling is necessary so that the individual might emerge without the help of the authoritative figures.  Here are excerpts from a few sections I found interesting.

First is an uncommon account (for Kierkegaard) of the positively social.

When individuals (each on individually) are essentially and passionately related to an idea and together are essentially related to the same idea, the relation is optimal and normative.  Individually the relation separates them (each on has himself for himself), and ideally it unites them.  Where there is essential inwardness, there is a decent modesty between man and man that prevents crude aggressiveness [perhaps the Corsair affair is in mind here]; in the relation of unanimity to the idea there is the elevation that again in consideration of the whole forgets the accidentality of details.  Thus the individuals never come too close to each other in the herd sense, simply because they are united on the basis of an ideal distance.  The unanimity of separation is indeed fully orchestrated music.  On the other hand, if individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness. . . . The harmony of the spheres is the unity of each planet relating to itself and to the whole.  Take away the relations, and there will be chaos.  But in the world of individuals the relation is not the only constituting factor and therefore there are two forms.  Remove the relation to oneself, and we have the tumultuous self-relating of the mass to an idea. (62-63)

Kierkegaard then continues on a long discourse regarding the Present Age and how it creates an environment in which it allows everyone to feel informed and ethical without actually doing anything.  Think here of ethical consumerism that creates the illusion of purchasing things that will save us but never demands that anything actually has to change.  This age is characterized by what I would call ‘the liberal’ who does good up till a point (thinking in part here of this great quote)  Everyone sees the person as coming close to the ‘edge’ of safety and common sense and so admires the liberal for his or her courage.  The liberal, however, always knows precisely where that edge is.  I am the liberal in this instance.

Kierkegaard then talks of the movement towards living under an abstraction (part of leveling).  First is money.  Life is not considered possible without the symbolic abstraction of ‘token money’ (75).  Another is Christian terminology.  Social and religious order continues but it becomes ‘equivocal and ambiguous’.  “We are willing to keep Christian terminology but privately know that nothing decisive is supposed to be meant by it” (81).

Towards the end Kierkegaard returns to the question of individuality and society.  He begins decisively,

Not until the single individual has established an ethical stance despite the whole world, not until then can there by any question of genuinely uniting (106).

Kierkegaard then goes to state that the age of looking to an eminent figure is over (the Age of Revolution).

It will no longer be as it once was, that individuals could look to the nearest eminence for orientation when things got somewhat hazy before their eyes.  That time is now past.  They either must be lost in the dizziness of abstract infinity [perhaps read slippery slope of relativity here] or be saved infinitely in the essentiality of the religious life (108).

It is of course important to consider what Kierkegaard means by ‘religious’ (the individual formed before God).  And so in the Present Age which is one of leveling  we must be careful not to go back to the age of revolution but function under the spirit of leveling and not prop ourselves or anyone else up as ‘an authority’.  The call now is to suffering.  This is the only possible mode of contribution.  However even here (and precisely here) there is not certainty,

because certainty could only come from [the individual], and if he provides one single person with it directly, it means he is dismissed, for he would be unfaithful to God and would be assuming authority, because he would not in obeying God learn to love men infinitely by constraining himself rather than faithlessly constraining them by dominating them (109).

This is a significant statement and goes some way towards understanding Kierkegaard’s notion of power and ideology (and perhaps provides another bridge towards my own desire to connect Kierkegaard with Liberation Theology).  Kierkegaard’s next volume includes an ‘upbuilding discourse’ on suffering so I will hopefully get a better sense of what he means by that.  However, to summarize the preceding I think it is fair to say that whatever Kierkegaard means by the individual being formed before God what is necessary is a clearing away of human authority which gives expression through a power that dominates and therefore creates not individuals but slaves, whether partial or full.


3 comments on “Kierkegaard on the present age

  1. Megan Eliza says:

    Thanks for this analysis. I am working on a presentation for a class this week, and this is a succinct and spot-on read of The Present Age – to to mention our current liberal age where not a single individual lives to the fullest ethic (afraid of that thin ice I suppose we all are). I think this RSA by Slavoj Zizek gets nice to the heart of abstraction when it comes to the neutralizing ethics of the present:

  2. Glad you liked it. The RSA shorts are fantastic. David Harvey’s is great if you haven’t seen it.

  3. mark says:

    Thank you for this read!

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