March 3, 2005
Death of the Individual
Actions define individuals. In order to act one must have passion and faith. These are tenets that Søren Kierkegaard would likely adhere to. Action, faith, passion, the individual—these concepts are all central to the themes that Kierkegaard discusses in The Present Age and Fear And Trembling. Kierkegaard begins The Present Age by saying, “Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose” (33). By this Kierkegaard means that the present age isn’t one of action by faith and passion, but it is rather an age of excessive reasoning and reflection that will lead to the destruction of the individual.
Kierkegaard saw himself as an individual. He wanted “That Individual” to be written on his tombstone. What defines an individual? Action defines an individual. An individual must stand out, not just be part of the crowd. The only way for one to stand out is to do something and have an accomplishment associated with one’s name. Kierkegaard writes in Fear And Trembling that, “it is not what happens to me that makes me great but what I do” (64). Actions are closely related to, if not inseparable from, decisions. An action can be the process of making a decision and an action often requires that a decision to act be made. Actions and decisions define an individual’s life.
How might one go about acting in the world? One cannot act without passion. Kierkegaard’s age is one without passion. It is an age of reflection and conformity. How did this age come about? Kierkegaard believes that the people of the age have in a sense become too rational for their own good. When decisions need to be made people usually have gut feelings and reactions about what course of action to take; however, when one reasons, weighs options, and considers the consequences in order to try and determine the most appropriate and logical plan of action, often no action is taken. Kierkegaard writes that in the present age one often comes to the conclusion “that the shrewdest thing of all is to do nothing” (The Present Age 34).
In the extravagant process of reflection one often loses sight of the fervent passions that define individuals. Sometimes reflection is required in order to fully realize exactly what one’s true passions and desires are, however in a passionate age one’s passions would be so central to the character of that individual that the individual would not become lost in reflection but instead be constantly acting in the world. Passion has gotten lost in the intellectual reflection of the age. When faced with a decision, deep down one knows what he or she wants to do. People have emotional cores, sets of passions inside them that encompass their desires, but people often refrain from making the choice, ignoring their passions, getting lost in reflection worrying about the uncertain consequences. Decisions are already determined by passions before reflection; people may change their minds in reflection, but one’s inert passions steadfastedly remain. Kierkegaard expresses this when he writes, “the real position in reflection remains unchanged, for it is only altered within reflection” (The Present Age 42). Reflection does not define the individual. Only actions have value and meaning in the world. Reflection is a useless abstraction that gets in the way of pure emotional reason and decision making. In reflection one is never sure if the decision is the correct one. The only way to make a decision is to make it because you truly want to do it. This requires passion. One cannot become an individual by passive reflection and assimilation with the universal.
It is not easy however, to make decisions and act. The consequences of action and decision are uncertain. A leap of faith is required to act. Faith is central to Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Fear and Trembling is in some ways a dissertation on faith. Faith involves the ability to act as one’s passions dictate with the confident knowledge that everything will be okay. Doubt and fear enter into the decision process by reflection; only faith can overcome these. For Kierkegaard, in order to make a decision and to act one must have faith. Faith enables people to act according to their passions and desires without fear or anxiety that they are making the wrong choice. Faith enables the individual to follow his or her heart rather than logical, emotionless reason. Faith is an activity not an understanding. Faith enables the individual to say “Yes!” whereas passionless reflection causes the individual to say “I am not sure…”.
What are some of the consequences of this age without passion or faith? In The Present Age Kierkegaard writes, “while a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, raising and demolishing as it goes, a reflective and passionless age does exactly the contrary: it hinders and stifles all action; it levels” (51). Leveling is the process by which the abstraction of the public engulfs the individual. Kierkegaard writes that, “the leveling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual” (The Present Age 52). When the leveling process is complete the individual will be destroyed. There will be only one voice, the voice of the public. Political decisions will no longer have any weight because they won’t be based on passion. Important change will never come about because in light of risks leaders will be afraid to make drastic changes. Kierkegaard speaks of this as he describes the reflective age, “For, being without passion, it has lost all feeling for the values of eros, for enthusiasm and sincerity in politics and religion, or for piety, admiration and domesticity in everyday life” (The Present Age 39). Heroes are no longer honored in a passionless age. People will no longer be trying to become better people, but will instead simply believe that all persons are equal and that each person could have accomplished this or that feat if they so desired—but they choose not to because of shrewd reflection. Once the leveling process is complete the individual has been assimilated into the mindless, stagnant public.
What must be done to combat the age of reflection and to stop the leveling process so that the individual might survive? Kierkegaard writes, “man’s only salvation lies in the reality of religion for each individual” (The Present Age 56). Is religion the only salvation that will overcome the leveling process? Religion for Kierkegaard involves a strong sense of inwardness. Kierkegaard writes, “unless the individual learns in the reality of religion and before God to be content with himself, and learns, instead of dominating others, to dominate himself, content as a priest to be his own audience, and as author his own reader, if he will not learn to be satisfied with that as the highest… then he will not escape from reflection” (The Present Age 57). Later Kierkegaard writes, “Life’s existential tasks have lost the interest of reality; illusion cannot build a sanctuary for the divine growth of inwardness which ripens to decisions” (The Present Age 78). The important notion in these passages is inwardness, or the domination of oneself. Only when one finds happiness in oneself and develops a personal identity with real passions is it possible to escape from reflection and act. Religion is one means by which one might come to know oneself, but it is not the only way.
The Present Age applies not only to Kierkegaard’s age but also to the present age today. People are content to apathetically observe history moving on without them. Forty percent of United States citizens did not vote in the 2004 Presidential Election. Individuals are rare and more and more people are finding an identity in the public rather than in themselves. In order to become an individual one must act; in order to act one must have faith and passion. Kierkegaard advocates becoming an individual through religious faith, yet Kierkegaard’s notion of individuality could be attained by anyone in touch with themselves and their passions. Only individuals can change society. One can see why Kierkegaard was outraged by an age where passion did not exist and individuals failed to emancipate themselves from the public. The people of today should heed Kierkegaard’s advice, stop their endless reflection, and act.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Present Age. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962.