The Present Age (1846)
Søren Kierkegaard (Harper, 1962)
108 p. First reading.
This small volume collects two essays. The first, entitled “The Present Age”, was part of a book review Kierkegaard published in 1846, and the second, entitled “Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle”, is excerpted from his rarely read work The Book on Adler. Both essays were written under his own name, and belong to his direct communication. They are each, in their different ways, part of a polemic directed against the spiritual lassitude of Christendom, but the themes are sufficiently different that I will discuss them separately.
The Present Age
This, the more substantial of the two essays, belongs to the time-honoured tradition of the jeremiad. It is a passionate, fiercely witty critique of modern Western society. I often have doubts over how to receive such works. Casting aspersions has a certain affinity with casting horoscopes: almost anything one says will be true to some extent. This is probably unavoidable when your target is a many-headed hydra like “modern society”. The mere fact that one can think of counter-examples doesn’t mean the critique is worthless.
The general picture Kierkegaard sketches of modernity is not very positive. It is an age of advertising and publicity; it lacks magnanimity; it is satisfied with loud talk and mediocrity; it shuns self-sacrifice and renunciation. It is clever, and believes that it sees through things. It does not see the value of eros; it lacks enthusiasm and sincerity in politics and in religion; it is without piety, modesty, or repentance; it destroys authority; it is reflexively skeptical. It is an age that would rather gossip about inconsequential matters than boldly commit good or evil deeds. It encourages a slackening of intensity in the inner life.
His central claim, from which the rest of the argument flows, is stated at the beginning:
Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose.
He is not completely clear what he means by this “reflection” which is the key note of modern life, but I believe he means something like “ratiocination”, a logical but bloodless exercise of the intellect that neither draws on nor sustains moral convictions. As I read, I was tempted to associate his “reflective men” with C.S. Lewis’ “men without chests”, and I believe the comparison is a fair and instructive one. “Reflection” is constantly contrasted with “passion”.
One of the disorders that plagues a reflective soul is a gradual incapacity to act with confidence or decisiveness. Rather like Hamlet, a reflective man is paralyzed, his actions “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. A reflective man can become genuinely trapped in his own dialectic, unable to find his way out. Some, in an attempt to make a virtue of an apparent necessity, even claim that this paralysis constitutes a higher state of life:
With every means in its power reflection prevents people from realizing that both the individual and the age are thus imprisoned, not imprisoned by tyrants or priests or nobles or secret police, but by reflection itself, and it does so by maintaining the flattering and conceited notion that the possibility of reflection is far superior to a mere decision.
A consequence, says Kierkegaard, of this mindset is a gradual retreat into abstraction. As passion subsides, rationality detaches itself from the deep places of the inner life, and one begins to live by abstractions instead of values. (In a long digression he laments the practice of acting “on principle”, seeing it as a manifestation of exactly this drift toward mere rationality.) As the commitment to values erodes, so does their power to compel action and to foster ambition. Reflection “leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance”. The result is a loss of character (in the sense of uprightness and fortitude) and inwardness.
At this stage Kierkegaard introduces something unexpected. He argues that the process I have described results in a soul dominated by envy. It is somewhat unclear what he means by this, but it seems to be something like conformity, or mimesis. It is a desire to be like others in a spiritual and psychological way. It is fair to ask why he comes to this conclusion. Here is one possible explanation: if it is true that one’s basic convictions grow thin and insubstantial under the influence of dialectical reflection, it is reasonable to suppose that one loses a basic awareness of and orientation toward the good. But without that transcendent pole-star to guide, would it be surprising to find people looking about at one another for guidance? If the vertical dimension of one’s inner life is closed off, one naturally defers to the horizontal. If one is particularly lacking in spirit (as Kierkegaard supposes), the easiest thing is simply to copy others. Thus, envy.
In fact, he argues that the envy works in both directions. Not only do we want to be like others; we want others to be like us. This results in levelling, the next major theme of his critique. He defines levelling as “the negative unity of the negative reciprocity of all individuals”, which doesn’t help me very much. Levelling tries to erase the differences between people (think “non-discrimination”), and idealizes the concept of equality. Kierkegaard sees levelling as an externalization of the same process wrought by reflection in the inner life; it is the public face of reflection. If no values are very important, or compel assent, or are non-negotiable, there can be little reason to allow them to divide us. It would be better if we were all the same, or, what amounts to the same thing, if our differences were declawed and rendered harmless, even to the point of their being something worthy of benign “celebration”.
In making this last point, I seem to be following his logic fairly competently, for he stresses that reflection compensates for its loss of intensity by expanding its scope. This is accomplished by doing away with crucial distinctions that, in the past, have served as barriers to contradiction. The present age can flirt with contradiction because it doesn’t really insist on its ideas anyway; diversity becomes a good on its own.
Having done away with the distinction between talking and keeping silent, the present age is talkative. The silence of the inner life should be where passion and conviction ripen into action, but a passionless soul is empty, and chatters to distract itself. Having done away with the distinction between form and content, the present age is formless. That is, it values content without form, without context, and is happiest when “the most varied ideas are found dallying in the same company”. Having done away with the distinction between concealment and manifestation, the present age is superficial. “The concealment and reserve of inwardness is not given time in which to conceive an essential mystery, which can then be made manifest, but is disturbed long before that time comes…” Having done away with the distinction between love and debauchery, the present age is flirtatious. Flirtation is surface play, and tries to combine the indiscriminateness of debauchery with the exclusivity of love: “one can flirt with anything, but one can only really love one girl”. Having done away with the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, the present age is rationalized. It traffics in abstractions, as we have said, and individuals do not appropriate truth subjectively. They have knowledge, but not character giving rise to action.
That sounds pretty bad, and to the extent that it is true, it is bad. But all is not lost. This would not be a true jeremiad in the Biblical tradition if there were not a ray of hope breaking through the dark clouds. It will be clear, either from certain things I have written here, or from acquaintance with Kierkegaard’s other works, that he sees the remedy to the disorders of the present age in a return to inwardness and religion, for the inner life derives its intensity from its awareness that it stands before God and is called to goodness:
. . .unless the individual learns in the reality of religion and before God to be content with himself, and learns, instead of dominating others, to dominate himself, content as priest to be his own audience, and as author to be his own reader, if he will not learn to be satisfied with that as the highest, because it is the expression of the equality of all men before God and of our likeness to others, then he will not escape from reflection.
It is in the inwardness of religion that one learns the meaning of responsibility, conviction, and courage, and is equipped to live them out. The very assault that the present age makes on inwardness and religion spurs souls to resist it, and therein lies the seed of renewal.
Much of this argument is plausible, and I think it deserves attention. In my view, the picture he paints of modern society is in many respects faithful to the original. The fact that he ties everything back to a particular disorder of the inner life is most interesting. It is too bad that he doesn’t try to understand why that particular disorder is overtaking modern souls — I mean the loss of passion and the ascent of reflection. Well, everyone has to start somewhere.
As I said at the beginning, I have trouble knowing in what spirit I should take such critiques. When someone cries out that society is in decline and that things are bound to go from bad to worse, what should I do? In his parting words, Kierkegaard himself addresses my concern:
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 are only valuable and allowable as a recreation, or a joke, like playing bowls or cards.
Nothing is inevitable. The world will only be changed by changing one person at a time, beginning with yourself. This is true.
“And so when the generation, which itself desired to level and to be emancipated, to destroy authority and at the same time itself, has, through the skepticism of the principle association, started the hopeless forest fire of abstraction; when as a result of levelling with this skepticism, the generation has rid itself of the individual and of everything organic and concrete, and put in its place ‘humanity’ and the numerical equality of man and man: … then the time has come for work to begin, for every individual must work for himself, each for himself.”
“Now satire, if it is to do good and not cause immeasurable harm, must be firmly based upon a consistent ethical view of life, a natural distinction which renounces the success of the moment; otherwise the cure will be infinitely worse than the disease.”
Of the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle
According to Kierkegaard, the central difference between a genius and an Apostle is that while a genius has influence by virtue of his talent, spirit, intelligence, or profundity, an Apostle has authority by virtue of his election by God. It is a qualitative difference. The Apostle belongs to and speaks from the sphere of transcendence, the genius from that of immanence.
Kierkegaard accuses his co-religionists of confusing the two categories by speaking of Apostles (or, we might add, anyone with religious authority) as though they were geniuses. Thus one hears evaluations of St. Paul based on the beauty (or the lack thereof) of his writing, or one hears that Christ merits respect because of the profundity of his teachings. These aesthetic criteria, says Kierkegaard, miss the point entirely, and their use is a stratagem to avoid divine authority. What, after all, should we think of a soldier who obeys his superior’s orders only because of their eloquence? To attempt to treat authority in this manner is to deny that it is authority at all. True filial obedience looks through the manner of expression to the meaning.
And it’s a good thing, too. An Apostle’s words, after all, will often lack those marks of greatness that distinguish the genius, for an Apostle is not an Apostle by any merits of his own, but only because he has, unaccountably, been called:
To become an Apostle is not preceded by any potential possibility; essentially every man is equally near to becoming one. An Apostle can never come to himself in such a way that he becomes conscious of his apostolic calling as a factor in the development of his life. Apostolic calling is a paradoxical factor, which from first to last in his life stands paradoxically outside his personal identity with himself as the definite person he is. A man may perhaps have reached the age of discretion long ago, when suddenly he is called to be an Apostle. As a result of this call he does not become more intelligent, does not receive more imagination, a greater acuteness of mind and so on; on the contrary, he remains himself and by that paradoxical fact he is sent on a particular mission by God.
This essay throws a valuable light on Kierkegaard’s thinking about faith. He is sometimes cast simply as an individualist and subjectivist who railed against the hierarchy and established church of his time. But this essay makes clear that he was not railing against the foundations of the church; he saw an irreducible need for authority and obedience in the Christian religion.