Coming Around To Kierkegaard

Pankaj Mishra admits he thought there was “something haughty” about Kierkegaard’s The Two Ages when he first read it as a young man. Revisiting the text this summer, however, he better understood the insights of a book that “deplores the mass society that in the mid-19th century was coming into being across Europe, and what he saw as the general diminishment of the individual by the very means — public opinion, press — devised to enlighten and unify individuals into an equitable society”:

My beliefs have not fared well during the past decade’s lowering display of disingenuous political and business leaders; meek, if not blinkered, journalists; and easily frightened and manipulated publics. The last few months alone have confirmed Arendt’s fear of a “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.”

Kierkegaard’s arguments about the modern world’s negatively unifying principles had seemed overwrought because my own perception was shallow. The process of leveling has reached an advanced stage, accomplished not only by the imagined communities of the nation-state and the statistical majorities of public-opinion polls but also the idea of sociality and community promoted by the digital media.

Kierkegaard anticipated the confining fun-house mirrors of Facebook and Twitter when he wrote that the seeker of true freedom must “break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him,” and then out of “the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates.” And though I am as far from being a Christian as ever, I am better prepared to comprehend Kierkegaard’s insistence that a genuine union of human beings required a greater spiritual strenuousness from “the single individual”: that he or she establish “an ethical stance” regardless of general opinion. “Otherwise,” he warned, with steely accuracy, “it gets to be a union of people who separately are weak, a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child-marriage.”

(Hat tip: Paul Elie)