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Posts Tagged ‘Søren Kierkegaard’

26 NOVEMBER, 2014

Kierkegaard on the Individual vs. the Crowd, Why We Conform, and the Power of the Minority


“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her spectacular meditation on happiness and conformity, “you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” And yet conformity is not only a survival strategy for us but also something institutionally indoctrinated in our culture.

A century earlier, the great Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard, celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher and an active proponent of the benefits of keeping a diary, contemplated this eternal tension between the individual and the crowd. Writing in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library | IndieBound) — the same fantastic window into his inner world that gave us Kierkegaard’s prescient insight on the psychology of online trolling and bullying — he considers how our incapacity for quiet contemplation cuts us off from our true self and instead causes us to adopt by passive absorption the ideals of others.

Lamenting the tendency to take our values from the “very loud talk” of the crowd rather than by “each individual going alone into his secret closet to commune quietly with himself” — something he had come to consider the root of our unhappiness — he writes:

One can very well eat lettuce before its heart has been formed; still, the delicate crispness of the heart and its lovely frizz are something altogether different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.

A year later, in 1847, Kierkegaard revisits the question of the individual and the crowd:

The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd… But as yet we have not come very far concretely, though it is recognized in abstracto. That explains why it still impresses people as prideful and overweening arrogance to speak of the separate individual, whereas this precisely is truly human: each and every one is an individual.

And yet, Kierkegaard argues, most of us find it too daunting to live as individuals and instead opt for the consolations of the crowd:

Most people become quite afraid when each is expected to be a separate individual. Thus the matter turns and revolves upon itself. One moment a man is supposed to be arrogant, setting forth this view of the individual, and the next, when the individual is about to carry it out in practice, the idea is found to be much too big, too overwhelming for him.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl. Click image for more.

Conformity becomes our hedge against this overwhelming idea:

Of course it is more secure to have a solid position in life, some official appointment which does not demand nearly as much of one… Most people lead far too sheltered lives, and for that reason they get to know [the divine] so little. They have permanent positions, they never put in their utmost effort…

Another year later, he returns to the subject and argues that the real arrogance is not in living up to our individuality but in denying it, and in effect denying the individuality of others:

Each human being has infinite reality, and it is pride and arrogance in a person not to honor his fellow-man…. It is a paralogism that one thousand human beings are worth more than one… The central point about being human is that the unit “1” is the highest; “1000” counts for less.

Two years later, in 1850, Kierkegaard makes a poignant case for the vital role of the minority as an antidote to the chronic groupthink of the majority:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

In regard to Truth, this troublesome monster, the majority, the public, etc., fares in the same way as we say of someone who is traveling to regain his health: he is always one station behind.

Two centuries before Zadie Smith wrote about the privilege of self-actualization, Kierkegaard is keenly aware of the class element in this interplay between minority and majority, between the individual and the crowd:

I want people to sit up and take notice, to prevent them from idling away and wasting their lives. Aristocrats take it for granted that a lot of people will always go to waste. But they keep silent about it; they live sheltered lives pretending that all these many, many people simply do not exist. That is what is ungodly about the superior status of the aristocrats; in order to be comfortable themselves they do not even call attention to anything.

Vowing not to be like the aristocrats himself, he — a self-described “complete composite of dialectics” — offers his own solution:

I will call the attention of the crowd to their own ruination. And if they don’t want to see it willingly, I shall make them see it by fair means or foul. Please understand me — or, at least, do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to beat them… I will force them to beat me. Thus I actually compel them. For if they begin to beat me, they will probably pay attention; and if they kill me, they most definitely will pay attention, and I shall have won an absolute victory.

Kierkegaard’s rationale behind this strategy is rather humanistic in considering what it takes to awaken the individual human spirit from the trance of the crowd:

[Individuals] are not so corrupt that they actually wish to do evil, but they are blinded, and don’t really know what they are doing. It is all a matter of baiting them for decisive action… A crowd triumphs if one cedes the way, steps aside, so that it never comes to realize what it is doing. A crowd has no essential viewpoint; therefore if it happens to kill a man it is eo ipso halted; it pays heed and comes to its senses.

He later adds:

Nobody wants to be this strenuous thing: an individual; it demands an effort. But everywhere services are readily offered through the phony substitute: a few! Let us get together and be a gathering, then we can probably manage. Therein lies mankind’s deepest demoralization.

Photographs from 'Exactitudes,' a global project highlighting the implicit conformity of subcultures. Click image for more.

But Kierkegaard’s most poignant point arrives shortly before his death, in 1854, when he addresses with prescient precision our modern anxiety about being alone, stressing its absolute vitality in living up to our individual potential:

The yardstick for a human being is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others.

A man who can bear being alone during a whole life-time, and alone in decisions of eternal significance, is farthest removed from the infant and the society-person who represent the animal-definition of being human.

In a remark to which Anne Lamott might have the perfect response, he adds:

Testifying to the fact that man is spirit … with the passing centuries, as polished brutishness mounts, becomes increasingly necessary, but also requires increasingly greater effort.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard is a short yet infinitely rewarding read. For a counterpoint to this particular excerpt, see Norman Mailer on the instinct for nonconformity, then revisit Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness and why anxiety enhances creativity rather than hinders it.

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13 OCTOBER, 2014

Why Haters Hate: Kierkegaard Explains the Psychology of Bullying and Online Trolling in 1847


“Showing that they don’t care about me, or caring that I should know they don’t care about me, still denotes dependence.”

Celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher, Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) may have only lived a short life, but it was a deep one and its impact radiated widely outward, far across the centuries and disciplines and schools of thought. He was also among the multitude of famous writers who benefited from keeping a diary and nowhere does his paradoxical blend of melancholy and idealism, of despair about the human condition and optimism about the purpose of life, shine more brilliantly than in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library | IndieBound) — a compendium of Kierkegaard’s frequently intense, always astoundingly thoughtful reflections on everything from happiness and melancholy to writing and literature to self-doubt and public opinion.

In an immeasurably insightful entry from 1847, 34-year-old Kierkegaard observes a pervasive pathology of our fallible humanity, explaining the same basic psychology that lurks behind contemporary phenomena like bullying, trolling, and the general assaults of the web’s self-appointed critics, colloquially and rather appropriately known as haters.

Kierkegaard writes:

There is a form of envy of which I frequently have seen examples, in which an individual tries to obtain something by bullying. If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging. Essentially it shows that he regards me as something great, maybe even greater than I am: but if he can’t be admitted as a participant in my greatness, at least he will laugh at me. But as soon as he becomes a participant, as it were, he brags about my greatness.

That is what comes of living in a petty community.

It is unlikely that Kierkegaard was aware of what would become known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect — the Founding Father formulated his famous reverse-psychology trick for handling haters — and yet he goes on to relay an anecdote that embodies it perfectly. He recounts coming upon three young men outside his gate who, upon seeing him, “began to grin and altogether initiated the whole gamut of insolence.” As he approached them, Kierkegaard noticed that they were smoking cigars and turned to one of them, asking for a light. Suddenly, the men’s attitude took a dramatic U-turn — the seemingly simple exchange had provided precisely that invitation for participation in greatness:

Instantly, all three doffed their hats and it would seem I had done them a service by asking for a light. Ergo: the same people would be happy to cry bravo for me if I merely addressed a friendly, let alone, flattering word to them; as it is, they cry pereat [he shall perish!] and are defiant… All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one’s knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.

Seven years later, shortly before his untimely death, he revisits the subject in a sentiment that explains with enduring insight the psychology of haters:

Showing that they don’t care about me, or caring that I should know they don’t care about me, still denotes dependence… They show me respect precisely by showing me that they don’t respect me.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard may be short in both pages and lifetime covered, but it is a treasure trove of equally penetrating insights into the human experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, then revisit Anne Lamott’s brilliant modern manifesto for handling haters.

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05 MAY, 2014

Kierkegaard on Our Greatest Source of Unhappiness


Hope, memory, and how our chronic compulsion to flee from our own lives robs us of living.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in reflecting on why presence matters more than productivity. “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller asserted in his beautiful meditation on the art of living. And yet we spend our lives fleeing from the present moment, constantly occupying ourselves with overplanning the future or recoiling with anxiety over its impermanence, thus invariably robbing ourselves of the vibrancy of aliveness.

In a chapter of the altogether indispensable 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), the influential Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), considered the first true existentialist philosopher, explores precisely that — how our constant escapism from our own lives is our greatest source of unhappiness.

Kierkegaard, who was only thirty at the time, begins with an observation all the timelier today, amidst our culture of busy-as-a-badge-of-honor:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.

(It’s worth remembering, here, that “busy is a decision” — one we constantly make, and often to our own detriment.)

In a latter chapter, titled “The Unhappiest Man,” he returns to the subject and its deeper dimension:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

He considers how the very architecture of our language perpetuates our proclivity for absence:

The unhappy one is absent. But one is absent when living in the past or living in the future. The form of expression is important, for it is evident, as philology also teaches us, that there is a tense that expresses present in the past, and a tense that expresses presence in the future; but the same science also teaches us that there is a pluperfect tense in which there is no present, as well as a future perfect tense with the same characteristics. These are the hoping and remembering individuals. Inasmuch as they are only hoping or only remembering, these are indeed in a sense unhappy individuals, if otherwise it is only the person who is present to himself that is happy. However, one cannot strictly call an individual unhappy who is present in hope or in memory. For what one must note here is that he is still present to himself in one of these. From which we also see that a single blow, be it ever so heavy, cannot make a person the unhappiest. For one blow can either deprive him of hope, still leaving him present in memory, or of memory, leaving him present in hope.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Kierkegaard goes on to explore these two key forms of escapism from presence, via hope and via memory:

Consider first the hoping individual. When, as a hoping individual (and of course to that extent unhappy), he is not present to himself, he becomes unhappy in a stricter sense. An individual who hopes for an eternal life is, indeed, in a certain sense an unhappy individual to the extent that he renounces the present, but nevertheless is strictly not unhappy, because he is present to himself in the hope and does not come in conflict with the particular moments of finitude. But if he cannot become present to himself in hope, but loses his hope, hopes again, and so on, then he is absent from himself not just in the present but also in the future, and we have a type of the unhappy. Though the hoping individual does not hope for something that has no reality for him, he hopes for something he himself knows cannot be realized. For when an individual loses hope, and instead of becoming a remembering individual, wants to remain a hoping one, then we get this form.

Similarly if we consider the remembering individual. If he finds himself present in the past, strictly he is not unhappy; but if he cannot do that but remains constantly absent from himself in a past, then we have a form of the unhappy.

Memory is pre-eminently the real element of the unhappy, as is natural seeing the past has the remarkable characteristic that it is gone, the future that it is yet to come; and one can therefore say in a sense that the future is nearer the present than is the past. That future, for the hoping individual to be present in it must be real, or rather must acquire reality for him. The past, for the remembering individual to be present in it, must have had reality for him. But when the hoping individual would have a future which can have no reality for him, or the remembering individual remember a past which had had no reality for him, then we have the genuinely unhappy individuals. Unhappy individuals who hope never have the same pain as those who remember. Hoping individuals always have a more gratifying disappointment. The unhappiest one will always, therefore, be found among the unhappy rememberers.

For a potent antidote, pair this with Alan Watts on how to live with presence and Anna Quindlen on how to live rather than exist, then see Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

Either/Or is a consciousness-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the relationship between creativity and anxiety.

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