I’ve been reading lots of comics and kids’ books lately, so I thought I needed a change of pace. How about a hundred and seventy-year-old Christian Existentialist social critique? That might take us in a new direction.
Soren Kierkegaard – The Present Age (1846 / 1962) [Translated by Alexander Dru]
Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who, despite being a Christian, is often included in the Existential camp by scholars, like the brilliant Walter Kaufmann (who wrote the best book on Existential philosophy that I’ve ever read AND the Introduction to this book!) I haven’t actually read much Kierkegaard, but I found this book at a recent library book sale for super-cheap, so I thought I’d give it a read.
What we get here would probably be pretty tedious for the average reader. Here’s an example of the type of text that I’m talking about in which Kierkegaard discusses heroic individuality versus the leveling effect of the status quo. It’s pretty exciting stuff:
“This order is dialectically the opposite of the organizing order symbolized in the outstanding personality, which makes the generation into a support for the individual, whereas now, like an abstraction, the generation is negatively supported by the unrecognizable, and turns polemically against the individual—in order to save every single individual religiously” (p. 81).
To be fair, we are dealing with a translation here, and it’s possible that the original Danish text might have been more poetic, but regardless, it’s a bit daunting to work through. In Kierkegaard’s favor, several of the more pertinent concepts were discussed in the pages previous to this section, so the text makes more sense when it’s put into the proper context. Regardless, the book is abstract and based on fundamental principals that I can’t really relate to. (I’m not a fan of appeals to authority, which Kierkegaard seems to believe are the key to a functioning society, nor do I believe in Christianity as a supernatural reality.) His fundamental starting position may be out of my grasp, but it doesn’t change the fact that he does somehow write many things in this book that seem to apply directly to THE PRESENT AGE!
For example, “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” (p. 35). This was written 150 years before the internet. Kierkegaard lambasts gossipers and bland thinkers who love to discuss and reflect, but never act. (Seems a lot like now.) He writes, “Thus our own age is essentially one of understanding, and on the average, perhaps, more knowledgeable than any former generation, but it is without passion” (p. 77). People plan and argue, but few act. Those who overcome the inertia of the age, and actually DO SOMETHING, are met with an avalanche of criticism and grief. Again, this sounds like modern social media trolling. What this means, if you ask me, is that NOTHING CHANGES.
Humans THINK they’ve evolved over the last few decades, but here’s evidence that, 170 years ago, in-groups and cliques existed, people allowed themselves to be strangled by social pressures, and heroes will always be attacked by those who are bland and mundane and who want to retain the status quo. I don’t agree with a lot that is written in this book, but it was still an interesting read. It might be a bit dry and far too abstract for readers who don’t have a background in philosophy, but it’s a short book, so your struggle to get through the text shouldn’t take too long. I’m going to say that this is NOT the book I would recommend for people who are interested in Existentialism. This is much more of a religious work and a social critique based on a Christian perspective than anything else. And, really, it’s just not that fun (once you get past Walter Kaufmann’s Introduction, which is pretty entertaining.)
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)