Existentialism’s grandad walks us from the abyss
The contemporary spiritual issue isn’t whether people believe in heaven, but whether they’re aware of being alive.
That could seem insensitive at first, but consider how it plays out. We decide to train for our dream career — later. We postpone traveling abroad — for later. We commit to begin the process of building the courage to find love — later. This level of impotence should be impossible among people who believed in life. Instead, most are bystanders to what they genuinely want and glaze over as the years ooze by.
Occasionally, first world problem can be profound and so nowhere has the current milieu been better captured than ‘Sunday Scaries’. It describes waking up on Sunday hung over, likely in the afternoon. A short day remains before another work week. Having drunk away the week’s frustration, the hungover conscience compensates with remarkably clear insight.
Was anything gained last night? Will anything be gained in the upcoming work week? Is life going anywhere?
One friend compared all this to swimming breaststroke — alternating between swimming underwater and breathing every other stroke — until you retire or die.
Passion’s been recommended, but something more fundamental is at stake in Sunday Scaries. The fear doesn’t come from boredom or wasted potential, but in losing touch with our ‘true selves’. The fear isn’t not being a passion follower and/or a world traveler, but in becoming another face among the masses on the subway, eyes glazed over to the passage of time and, for all intents and purposes, resembling a cleverly constructed automaton.
In this regard Søren Kierkegaard, existentialism’s Danish grandfather, is indispensable. In a rare accomplishment for philosophy, his specific diagnosis of modern angst and specific prescription allows for incremental, actionable steps to embrace the true self and to appreciate the immensity of existence.
The Culture of The Masses
When we defer our various wants, what is apathy defaulting to? Necessarily, it’s the unconscious conditioning of the masses.
We called this ‘selling out’ in college. Some of the most brilliant students work their ass off in STEM majors. Then, they fight an arena for jobs they barely tolerate but predictably pay pretty well.
Let me make the caveat that, up to a point, finances are completely serious. Many students are the first in their families to go to college and enter the middle class. Others must wittle down stupendous amounts of debt. The stakes of not securing a finance or consulting job can be serious.
Most of the time, however, these jobs are pursued with an internal condition. These people believe they’ll pursue what they genuinely want — later. ‘Others procrastinate on life, not me’, goes the logic. There are just a few necessities to be handled first.
Of course, procrastination always persists longer than expected especially when there’s no hard deadline. And these jobs really do pay well. They allow one to bar hop, eat hors d’ oeuvres around the city, and create a dream life each weekend. There’s also social media, political scandals, and other things to fixate on. All of this helps lubricate time as it goes down the pipe. Then: oh shit, now there’s kids, retirement, and it’s hardly the time to take risks.
Coincidentally, it’s all very useful for the power structure. A distracted upper-middle class workforce that won’t disrupt industries or managerial structures is perfect for an increasingly old and hereditary elite. The alcohol, psychiatry, and media oligopolies are also allowed to pile in on the fun.
Thus America has shifted from the wild vitality of the frontiersman to a generation even more commodified and dominated than the feudal peasantry it escaped.
‘Follow your passion’
From within the mire of Sunday Scaries ‘follow your passion’ is often floated as the antidote.
If selling out is stifling your inner child, passion is letting it romp about. It allows you to ‘never work another day in your life’. Steve Jobs talked about it at Stanford, and so on.
It’s been critiqued from multiple angles, but what’s relevant is how the scheme typically allies with rationalization. There are very practical alternatives to the 9–5 that also allow you to train for your dream career. Does the typical passion dream resemble them at all? Sadly, no.
Passion has developed into mental masturbation of a grandiose lifestyle people know is unattainable. It imagines effortless work, exotic experience, and people aparating from the ether to hand over money. Anything short of this feels like work and is dropped. Therefore, postponing action and binging on Netflix for another weekend becomes that much easier.
It corrupts the genuine urge for self-hood. Against the brunt of mass conditioning, we want a sense that we are actively choosing our lifestyle. This doesn’t require a gigantic leap, but certain mental models that to better detail self-hood.
Kierkegaard is rewarded ‘the grandfather of existentialism’ because he diagnosed meaning had changed by the 19th century. The analogy is of cut flowers. While the Enlightenment un-ironically supposed a mechanical universe and natural law, by Kierkegaard’s time the Christian intuitions taken for granted had dried up. Meaning used to have content in a god-infused universe. Kierkegaard had to redefine it in a mechanical one.
He turned to the last topic available: the self. Who can say what’s ‘out there’ but what are we fundamentally? Thus was formulated one of the densest passages in philosophy:
But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis.
Congrats, you made it to the other side.
We may find it more digestible by small-chunking and going back-to-front:
A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis.
We are a hybrid synthesis of ‘freedom’ and ‘necessity’. To an extent, consciousness lets us float into abstract philosophy and art. To an extent, we have animal needs to address like food, sex, and sleep. It’s impossible to imagine pure consciousness or pure animal-hood. As a synthesis, each binds the other into a unique combination.
“…the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.”
We’re not just the synthesis, we’re self-conscious on a secondary level. We don’t just have conscious-animal thoughts. We have thoughts about these thoughts (…Shit, he’s right, there’s a thought. Shit, I just thought about that thought, I’m just trying to read this medium post…). We’re thinking animals, and we’re aware of being thinking animals on a spinning rock around the sun.
This enormous self-consciousness is the basis of Sunday Scaries and Kierkegaard’s despair. Existence is dealing with this unbelievable pressure and either ignoring it completely to join the unconscious masses, or using it as motivation to pursue life. In this regard, Kierkegaard believed the self would pass through multiple phases.
One phase was the aesthetic. The logic is something like ‘life is short, I’m going to try everything at least once’. While Kierkegaard was disdainful of lower hedonists like alcoholics, he was fascinated with other aesthetes like seducers, travelers, and art collectors and other connoisseurs of cultivated taste.
The reward is an apparently interesting life. Under the orgy of stimuli, the aesthete’s imagination becomes active and flexible. Simultaneously, they become ironically, bemusedly detached. They care little for morality, shrugging: ‘life is art’.
What inevitably arrives, however, is the despair of the necessary. It’s basic dopamine mechanics. The luxurious wine is inevitably appreciated as much as the McDonalds past. All of the novelty exhausts the body. Boredom and fatigue return larger than ever and, in alliance, the same despair and Sunday Scaries the aesthete tried to outrun.
A persona has to crystallize over the true self for this lifestyle to continue. ‘Life as art’ implies putting on an act for someone. This is even at the price for our ennui and fatigue chafing against the mask. The aesthete is elevated over the unconscious mass but still, Kierkegaard finds this inauthenticity unsatisfactory in his search for the true self.
The ‘ethical’ stage takes righteous causes seriously. It considers an alternative thesis to society and forges ahead with charities, ‘disruptive startups’, and other causes we should be wholly familiar with in the rainbow capitalist age.
The rewards are a degree of self-worth. The ethicist knows at least some people value them.
Still, they are hardly rid of despair. What’s ‘ethical’ has always been subjective to a very decent extent.
Well and good you fed people in the third world. But what if this contributes to over-population? What if free commodified US grain bankrupts local farmers and creates dependents? If the grain ruins the topsoil leading to ecological decline? If it’s part of the political game of post-imperial paternalistic reliance?
These questions don’t end when we commit to one charity.
Added to this is a psychological dissonance. Did you really partake in charity while ignoring the benefits of it on your resume, Instagram followers, or tax breaks?
The ethicist has to shutter out all the conflicting voices and submit to one. Like the aesthete dogmatic to ‘life as art’, the ethicist worships exterior approval and principles. This internal muting will, similarly, be unsatisfactory to Kierkegaard.
Faith & The Transcendent Personality
The end of Kierkegaard’s development is someone who faces despair head on with what he calls ‘faith’.
Consider the journey up till now. From despair, some were motivated to pursue novel stimuli in the aesthetic. Others tried to improve the world within the ethical. In each case, Kierkegaard maintained, despair would become more acute. With the failure of each pursuit, the world would only seem more disappointing.
From this outer exhaustion, however, there would be space for the self-consciousness of a new mood and — eventually — a new identity: An internal, transcendent self.
By accident, glimpses of this self may be found when we hear the wind rushing through the trees, when we’re waiting for the subway — or when we’re aware of its lack on a Sunday afternoon.
This transcendent self is detached from the world, time, and was unconditionally glad. It could be found through prayer, meditation, and being present (he actually used this term pre-Eckhart Tolle). Engaging with the world was only an exercise to become more close to this transcendent self-consciousness.
To break up some of the mystical vibes, consider other analogies. It’s never the alcoholic who understands wine, it’s the moderate connoisseur. It’s never the codependent who understands love, it’s the fairly self-realized. Just so, existence is only appreciated by leaning away from it and becoming it centered in something else.
Only through ‘dying to the world’ do we gain it. Kierkegaard’s surprise encounter with such an exemplar, the ‘Knight of faith’, is described as follows:
The moment I first set eyes on him I thrust him away, jump back, clasp my hands together and say half aloud: ‘Good God! Is this the person, is it really him? He looks just like a tax-gatherer.’ Yet it is indeed him…He is solid through and through. His stance? Vigorous, it belongs altogether to finitude, no smartly turned-out townsman taking a stroll out to Fresberg on a Sunday afternoon treads the ground with surer foot; he belongs altogether to the world, no petit bourgeois belongs to it more.
He takes a holiday on Sundays…In the afternoon he takes a walk in the woods. He delights in everything he sees, in the thronging humanity, the new omnibuses, the Sound…
[He believes] his wife will surely have some special little warm dish for his return, for example roast head of lamb with vegetables. If he were to meet a kindred spirit, he could continue as far as Østerport so as to converse with him about this dish with a passion befitting a restaurateur. As it happens he hasn’t a penny and yet he firmly believes his wife has that delicacy waiting for him. If she has, to see him eat it would be a sight for superior people to envy and for plain folk to be inspired by, for his appetite is greater than Esau’s…
Only with centeredness in something else, do we actually allow existence and the world to land on our palate.
The parable Kierkegaard draws awe-inspiring and violently beautiful prose from is the sacrifice of Isaac. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac: Abraham’s one heir, the one joy of his otherwise gristly patriarchal life.
If Abraham sacrifices Isaac for aesthetics, Christianity worships a monster.
If Abraham makes ethical calculations and hesitates, Isaac will see he lacks faith.
The immensity of the task, writes Kierkegaard, is enough to:
Hegel himself hasn’t been altogether clear. All this I do easily, naturally, without it causing me any mental strain.
But when I have to think about Abraham I am virtually annihilated…I am constantly repulsed, and my thought, for all its passion, is unable to enter into it, cannot come one hairbreadth further. I strain every muscle to catch sight of it, but the same instant I become paralysed.
But Abraham was a knight of faith. His stab at Isaac was assured and fluid until God stopped him. Correspondingly, Isaac becomes Israel and the nation is born.
This is the paradox of what genuine religion studies: that only in dying to the world is it gained.
Ultimately, the despair of Sunday Scaries is a kind of guilt as much as it is fear. It’s the fear that we’ll become another subway commuter automaton, and then the corresponding guilt that we’ve become numb to the terror and profundity of existence. It’s the guilt that daily chores and salary have become our only focus and that we’re wasting the ultimate privilege of being alive.
While Kierkegaard’ conclusion was unique to contemporary Christianity, it has parallels elsewhere. Current neurology rejects the empirical reality of ego, thus clearing space for some kind of detached, elevated self-awareness. The Vedas describe the transcendent personality of Atman attained through meditation. Sufism describes gnosis. Kierkegaard was ultimately dealing with a perennial concern but formulated the solution in uniquely contemporary and beautiful prose.
And so, urges Kierkegaard, taste the aesthetic. Violate the daily routine, call in sick, and take the train to a new neighborhood for coffee, pastries, and to stare out of new windows.
Support ethical causes. Enter the political arena to picket, protest, and spread the righteous word.
But know that the sweetness isn’t in them, but from the elevated self-consciousness they develop. Action isn’t intended to ‘fight against the dying of the light’, but as the triumphant celebration of someone at peace with the absurd.
To leave him the last word:
“Whether you are man or woman, rich or poor, dependent or free, happy or unhappy; whether you bore in your elevation the splendour of the crown or in humble obscurity only the toil and heat of the day; whether your name will be remembered for as long as the world lasts, and so will have been remembered as long as it lasted, or you are without a name and run namelessly with the numberless multitude; whether the glory that surrounded you surpassed all human description, or the severest and most ignominious human judgment was passed on you — eternity asks you and every one of these millions of millions, just one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not, whether so in despair that you did not know that you were in despair, or in such a way that you bore this sickness concealed deep inside you as your gnawing secret, under your heart like the fruit of a sinful love, or in such a way that, a terror to others, you raged in despair. If then, if you have lived in despair, then whatever else you won or lost, for you everything is lost, eternity does not acknowledge you, it never knew you, or, still more dreadful, it knows you as you are known, it manacles you to yourself in despair!”