Søren Kierkegaard and The Present Age
In 1846, Søren Kierkegaard published a small pamphlet called “The Present Age”. While relatively short, within it he elaborated on his feelings regarding the society that he lived in. To put it bluntly, he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t take issue with the particulars or details of the modern world, but with the unconscious attitudes that had infected everyone living within it. The reasoning that he employs to demonstrate this point is nothing if not unique.
I myself am fascinated by Kierkegaard’s critiques on modern society. Ultimately, I am not completely sure what to make of it. On one hand, I can find agreement with some of his arguments and see the very same issues that he raised only exacerbated today. On the other, his entire presentation reeks strongly of nostalgia over a past that never really existed. Even 176 years later, his analysis is nothing if not fascinating.
For an overview of what Kierkegaard feels is wrong with the present age, I will allow him to speak for himself:
“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. Such an expression of strength would seem ridiculous to the calculating intelligence of our times…The age of good and great actions is past, the present is the age of anticipation when even recognition is received in advance. No one is satisfied with doing something definite, every one wants to feel flattered by reflection with the illusion of having discovered at the very least a new continent.”
Kierkegaard summarizes his feelings by asserting, “There is no more action or decision in our day than there is perilous delight in swimming in shallow waters.”
According to Kierkegaard, the present age is one in which we have access to more than ever before, but we take less action than we ever have. Whereas in the past, men had the capacity and will to accomplish great things and commit themselves to heroic deeds, that degree of character no longer exists. Instead, people are now content to indulge themselves in the copious amount of information around them and act upon none of it.
Kierkegaard expands on this notion, writing:
“Thus our own age is essentially one of understanding, and one the average, perhaps, more knowledgeable than any former generation, but it is without passion. Every one knows a great deal, we all know which way we ought to go and all the different ways we can go, but nobody is willing to move. If at last some one were to overcome the reflection within him and happened to act, then immediately thousands of reflections would form an outward obstacle. Only a proposal to reconsider a plan is greeted with enthusiasm; action is met by indolence.”
This problem is not only one of the individual, but the collective. Even if someone were to attempt to break out of their cage of docility and attempt to act, pressure from all around them would force them into retreat. Nobody else is interested in diverging from the status quo, so you shouldn’t be either. The result is everyone remains uniformly inactive and without interest in decisive action.
Kierkegaard provides an illustration of the effects that the lack and disdain towards action has upon the minds of the people:
“If the jewel which every one desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while, closer in, the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he drowned, they would make a god out of him if he secured the prize. But in an age without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other cleaver in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worth while to venture so far out.”
This lack of decisive and authentic action throughout society has profound implications on that society’s notions of meaning and value. Kierkegaard writes:
“A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless, transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance. Instead of culminating in a rebellion it reduces the inward reality of all relationships to a reflective tension which leaves everything standing but makes the whole of life ambiguous: so that everything continues to exist factually whilst by a dialectical deceit, in private, it supplies a secret interpretation — that it does not exist.”
Because of the continued indolence of the people, all the substance and meaning that existed in its institutions and collective constructs are completely drained. Ideas such as patriotism or duty to country, for instance, have little motivational power and even less meaning in such a world. Under these conditions, even if one did manage to somehow act and carry oneself with passion, it seems as if it would fail to accomplish anything of note.
If, however, everyone is made equal through their lack of internal vitality, then each person is interchangeable with everyone else. The individual means nothing at all in such a world. Kierkegaard writes of this development in thought as the “leveling process”:
“The resentment which is establishing itself is the process of levelling, and while a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, raising and demolishing as it goes, a reflective and passionless age does exactly the contrary: it hinders and stifles all action; it levels. Levelling us a silent, mathematical, and abstract occupation which shuns upheavals…Each individual within his own little circle can participate in the levelling, but it is an abstract power, and the levelling process is the victory of abstraction over individuals.”
“The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or to his science, he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected in all things by reflection, just as a serf belongs to an estate.”
A lack of action entails a lack of differentiation. This in turn results of a lack of identity, which is the levelling process. In all the ways that matter, there is no more “you”. For all intents and purposes, you are just part of the homogenous population that lives within the nation. Nothing sets you apart or makes you distinguishable in any way.
Can the levelling process be reversed? Is it possible to bring ourselves back into a world with authentic people and real action? Kierkegaard believes so, but to do so entails suffering on those that undertake it:
“Only be suffering can the “unrecognizable” dare to help on the levelling process. And, by the same suffering action, judge the instruments. He dare not overcome the levelling process directly, that would be his end, for it would be the same as acting with authority. But he will overcome it in suffer, and in that way express once more the law of his existence, which is not to dominate, to guide, to lead, but to serve in suffering and help indirectly.”
Kierkegaard, more than a little tongue-in-cheek, declares that it ultimately won’t matter whether or not he is vindicated in his views of the present age. It won’t matter to anyone, so the true or falsity of his views carries no true consequence:
“In our times, when so little is done, an extraordinary number of prophesies, apocalypses, and glances at and studies of the future appear, and there is nothing to do but to join in and be one with the rest. Yet I have the advantage over the man who bears a heavy responsibility when they prophesy and give warnings, because I can be certain that no one would think of believing me. So I do not ask that any one should make a cross in their calendar or otherwise bother to see if my words are fulfilled. If they are fulfilled, then people will have something else to think about than my accidental being and if they are not fulfilled, well, then I shall simply be a prophet in the modern sense of the word — for a prophet nowadays means to prognosticate and nothing more.”
Now we turn to an evaluation of Kierkegaard’s views. Is there any truth or value in what he says, or are these the ravings of a man lost in the throes of hopeless nostalgia?
When Kierkegaard speaks of the constant barrage of information, he was referring only to the newspapers and gossip of the day. However, in the age of the internet, this effect has intensified to a level that he would have never thought possible. We have access to the news 24/7, and as soon as anything happens anywhere around the globe, we can near-instantly read and hear about it. Indeed, we even carry around a device to access this information around in our pockets everywhere. Is such a constant deluge of information healthy for the human mind and psyche? Kierkegaard answers in the negative, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Kierkegaard claims that the present age is without passion. In certain ways, one could see his point. Modern art, for instance, is confusing at best and grotesque at worse. Even though we have access to greater tools and techniques than at any other point in history, the works of the old masters, such as Michelangelo’s David, are still considered as the greatest works of art. It isn’t a question of if we have the capabilities, but if we have the passion to produce such art. In order to have any great men or heroes, one must also have passion. Are there any great heroes in the modern world, as there were in generations past? Perhaps there isn’t enough gas left in the social tank to produce heroes anymore.
Similarly, Kierkegaard’s description of the levelling process is reminiscent of later dystopian novels, such as the famous “1984” or “Brave New World”. With modern states increasingly embracing the model of techno-fascism, whereby the state allies itself with the tools of technology to monitor its population, the free expression and uniqueness of the individual becomes increasingly stifled. Conformity is the flavor of the day, and rebellion will not be tolerated. True and authentic action, as Kierkegaard suggests, isn’t possible under such uniformity.
However, it is impossible to read Kierkegaard’s account without thinking his view of the past is tinted with rose-colored glasses. The past may have had its share of passion, bravery, and valor, but it also had its fair share of disease, starvation, and death. Its hard to live decisively when you are one bad harvest away from starvation. Perhaps it is that element of danger that injects a sense of meaning into life, but I find that a hard sell. I’d much rather have to figure out how to live life with vigor in modern comforts than live in Kierkegaard’s past.
Furthermore, Kierkegaard mentions the downsides to the availability of information in the modern age but fails to mention the upsides. People want access to information about the world they live in, which is why they bought newspapers in his day and read and watch the news today. Are we to make this people better off by snatching the newspapers from their hands? The invention of the internet has further increased the availability of information, and has led to new wonders and luxuries that we all enjoy. In fact, its how you are reading this article right now! I don’t think any reasonable person would deny the downsides to information becoming more available, but Kierkegaard seems singularly focused on the negatives here.
Perhaps Kierkegaard’s “The Present Age” are nothing more than the rantings of a philosopher who is past their time, but it is difficult not to recognize the problems he saw in his own time that remain in the world we inhabit today. His description of the way that a deluge of information affects the human psyche is eerily applicable to the internet today. Even though the developments of the modern world have raised mankind out of the poverty of his natural state, not every aspect of these modern comforts is perfect. Kierkegaard raises some legitimate criticisms, and insofar as it goes, can be understood and appreciated. In that light, “The Present Age” is read best not as a full description of the world as he saw it, but of the problems within it to be attended to. Indeed, most of these problems have probably only festered into present day.
While the present age of Kierkegaard is long past, his analysis remains relevant even today. What he wrote contains piercing truths, as well as chimerical thoughts of the past. In any case, what he wrote should not be ignored, even as the years have passed.