It's All Just Talk

The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion (Harperperennial Modern Thought) BY Soren Kierkegaard. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. Paperback, 128 pages. $10.

The cover of The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion (Harperperennial Modern Thought)

If all thinkers are either foxes or hedgehogs, then Kierkegaard was decidedly a hedgehog. By his own emphatic acknowledgment, everything he wrote had a single purpose: to arouse a certain state of mind, or soul, in each of his readers. He called this state of mind “the consciousness of sin.” What he meant by that is something like what Saint Augustine and Martin Luther meant, but not exactly. In the difference lie his originality and his importance for us.

The Present Age was written in 1846 and is newly reissued with a midcentury introduction by existentialist philosopher Walter Kaufmann. Now, one might reasonably expect that a book so titled would offer some clue to the age in which it was written, yet there is nary a word or phrase in The Present Age that allows us to infer with any confidence in which century or continent it was composed. It could have appeared anywhere in the Western Hemisphere at any time in the past two hundred years.

The Present Age is a stellar entry in the genre of antimodern manifesto, an early landmark in the still-far-from-exhausted intellectual backlash against democracy, science, and unbelief. Kierkegaard did not get around to railing at democracy or science very much—he died too young—but his hostility to secular rationalism was implacable and far subtler than that of most defenders of religious faith.

Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard

So subtle, admittedly, that it can be difficult to understand exactly what Kierkegaard is exercised about. “Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose,” he begins promisingly. One awaits, at first eagerly and then with mounting impatience, some concrete development of this thesis, some penetrating analysis of a typical episode in the life of mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Instead we are given a witty and caustic but relentlessly abstract psycho-social phenomenology of Enlightened Man.

For the Enlightenment is the culprit. Not the actual doctrines of the seventeenth-century scientists and eighteenth-century philosophers, or that period’s historical and philological criticisms of Christianity. About these Kierkegaard had virtually nothing to say, here or elsewhere. What obsessed him was the process of popular enlightenment and the institutions (above all, the press) to which it gave rise, the new culture of discussion and publicity, and the effect of all this on the psychology of the individual Christian.

“Ours is the age of advertisement and publicity,” he complains, as a result of which “there is no more action or decision.” Opinions (as opposed to convictions, which require decision and lead to action) are in any case frivolous things. The upshot of continual discussion—the “deliberation” prized by theorists of liberal democracy—is perpetual stalemate and universal shallowness. As he puts it in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846): “If we wish to express in a single sentence the difference between ancient times and our own, we should doubtless have to say: ‘In ancient times only an individual here and there knew the truth; now all know it, except that the inwardness of its appropriation stands in an inverse relationship to the extent of its dissemination.’” Finally, the individual himself disappears, swallowed up in the public. “The abstract leveling process, that self-combustion of the human race, produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion, is bound to continue, like a trade wind, and consume everything.”

What is this “inwardness” whose fateful disappearance Kierkegaard is prophesying? It is, for him, the only true form of life. Neither the existence of God nor any other important truth can be known with absolute certainty—to this extent, Kierkegaard has abandoned orthodox Christianity and traditional metaphysics. Yet we must act in matters of ultimate significance—love, belief, vocation, morality—or else ignore them. The latter, according to Kierkegaard, is what the present age has contrived to do:

When people’s attention is no longer turned inwards, when they are no longer satisfied with their own inner religious lives, but turn to others and to things outside themselves, where the relation is intellectual, in search of that satisfaction, when nothing important ever happens to gather the threads of life together with the finality of a catastrophe: that is the time for talkativeness.

Obviously “talkativeness” includes celebrity journalism, self-help books, TV, Web surfing, Facebook, and Twitter. Perhaps also, less obviously, psychotherapy, novel reading, and most higher education.

Talkativeness keeps us connected and on the surface, while “silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life.” If we go inside ourselves and remain there, we will eventually be confronted, out of our own depths, with choices, decisions, and questions, that can only be resolved by an act, a leap of faith: “An objective uncertainty held fast [with] the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” To grasp the necessity of this existential decision is to live in what Kierkegaard called “fear and trembling” and what he meant by the “consciousness of sin.” The present age distracts us from this terrifying but soul-creating awareness. Getting and spending, texting and tweeting, we lay waste our spirits. Amid this carnival of stimuli, the soul, that dense kernel of spiritual gravity, evaporates, leaving behind a light ontological froth. “I have discovered,” Pascal wrote of his age, “that all our unhappiness comes from one thing: that we cannot bear to sit in our room, alone and silent.” The lightness of modern being is seductive but finally unbearable.

George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? (Pressed Wafer, 2009).