Kierkegaard on the Present (Passionless) Age | Jacob Howland on The Art of Manliness with Brett McKay

Key Takeaways

  • Kierkegaard’s writing is like Mozart’s Don Giovanni – light and playful with tragic doubts and religious heights
    • “I don’t think anything had ever been written like that before.”Jacob Howland talking about Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • He is a late-modern Plato – his books are full of different characters (same as in Plato’s writings) pondering the essential matters of human existence
  • Nietzsche made it fashionable to “go back” to the earliest Greek thought
    • But it was Kierkegaard who really set the stage for this
  • He was an “archeologist” of the original forms of philosophy (Plato’s Socrates) and biblical faith (Abraham and Jesus Christ)
  • “Kierkegaard stands out, especially for his understanding of the task of individual human existence and the passion that is required to discharge it.”Jacob Howland
  • The human being, i.e the self is the synthesis of the temporal and eternal
    • Kierkegaard believes that the reason we experience conditions like anxiety and despair is because of the misrelation of oneself to oneself
  • What Kierkegaard calls “the present age” is categorized by reflection
    • Reflection is thought that is stripped of passion, unfocused and idle, wandering in the realm of possibility
    • It never translates into action, decision, or commitment of the soul and it drains life of its vibrancy and immediacy 
  • “The passion that makes great things possible has been replaced in our age by reliance on expertise and skill.” – Jacob Howland

Key Books Mentioned

Intro

  • Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy and past Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Tulsa, where he taught from 1988 to 2020.
    • He published five books and roughly sixty articles and review essays on the work of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Kierkegaard, and other subjects
  • In this episode, Jacob Howland explains some of the key concepts of the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard (anxiety and despair, faith as a passion, individual responsibility) and delves deep into Kierkegaard’s comments about the mentality of “Two Ages” (the revolutionary and the reflective)
  • Host – Brett McKay (@brettmckay)

A Literary Genius of the First Order

  • Howland compares Kierkegaard to Mozart
    • Incredible lightness and a sense of humor
    • Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a light and playful opera with tragic doubts and religious heights
    • It’s like a musical equivalent to Kierkegaard’s writing, according to Howland
  • Kierkegaard is a late-modern Plato – his books are full of different characters (same as in Plato’s writings) pondering the essential matters of human existence
    • His books are pseudonymous, written by multiple personalities
    • Unlike Plato, he produced the authors who wrote his books
  • Either/Or, Howland’s recommendation for anyone interested in literature
    • “I don’t think anything had ever been written like that before.”Jacob Howland talking about Kierkegaard’s Either/Or

What Was Kierkegaard Trying to Accomplish With His Philosophy?

  • Nietzsche made it fashionable to “go back” to the earliest Greek thought
    • But it was Kierkegaard who really set the stage for this
    • He was an archeologist of the original forms of philosophy (Plato’s Socrates) and biblical faith (Abraham and Jesus Christ)
    • Both Socrates and the Bibble emphasize the freedom and dignity of the individual
  • Kierkegaard was writing in an age of conformity and uniformity
    • Within this context, Kierkegaard shifts the focus back onto the category of “the single individual”
    • “Kierkegaard stands out, especially for his understanding of the task of individual human existence and the passion that is required to discharge it.”Jacob Howland
    • Because of his focus on the existence and the quality of one’s life, he is considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher
  • Indirect communication 
    • What matters for Kierkegaard is the inner communication of the truth
    • It’s a zone of silence; what does it mean to say “God is love”?
    • It is not a question of objective correctness, we can’t ever understand this “correctly”, and it’s not even clear what that would mean
    • This kind of question is a question for each individual to answer via the life they lead
    • There is an objective truth for Kierkegaard but his focus is on each individuals relationship with that truth

Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Anthropology and Psychology

  • The roots of his ideas can be traced back to Plato
    • The human being is body + soul
    • Embodied soul exists in a particular time and place, but it relates to a transcendent truth
    • It’s a synthesis of the temporal and eternal, particular and universal, freedom and necessity
    • Holding these elements of the synthesis together is the task of human existence
    • For Socrates, it was not enough to know about the universal ideas (Plato’s Idea) e.g. justice, but to practice them in real life (being here and now)
    • Kierkegaard’s conception of the truth is the living infinite God or what is revealed as a god to human beings
  • The human being, i.e the self is also a synthesis of the temporal and eternal
    • Kierkegaard believes that the reason we experience conditions like anxiety and despair is because of the misrelation of oneself to oneself
    • Both anxiety and despair reflect the misrelation that arises in the self when the temporal and eternal do not come into proper relation to each other
  • Anxiety and despair are not solely psychological states 
    • Kierkegaard moves beyond the mental-emotional level to the spiritual level
    • Howland calls it “metaphysical discontent”
    • Because we are human, we are implicated in ultimate questions (e.g. why is there something rather than nothing, why are we here?)
    • The idea is that the human soul is not complete until it relates to the ultimate reality
    • For Socrates, salvation is ethical salvation via committing to truth, justice, and virtue

“The Age of Revolution” and “The Present Age”

  • Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age: A Literary Review
    • The book begins with a review of the novel “Two Ages” by Thomasine Gyllembourg
    • Kierkegaard also presents a thesis that deals with the contrast between the mentality of the age of the French Revolution with that of rationalism (the present age) 
      • That part has been published separately as “The Present Age”
    • The contrast between the two ages brings out what we’ve lost in the present age
    • Kirkegaard is not praising radical revolutionary action or mob violence, but he does believe that the period of revolution is characterized by passion
    • What he calls “the present age” is categorized by reflection
  • Passion vs reflection
    • Passion is humanly essential
      • The inward motion of the soul
      • A focusing of one’s energies on an ethical or religious ideal
      • Personal commitment unifies the individual and is the source of individual character
      • It gives form to life
      • It is immediate and concrete
      • Reveals who we are
      • Only with passion do we become definite
    • The passionate soul has a sort of inward tension and resilience associated with culture
      • “For Kierkegaard, the soul is like a bow that can aim and shoot its arrows of action at any target it chooses, but the soul without passion is like an unstrung bow”Jacob Howland
      • Without passion, the soul lacks unity, character, energy
      • Thinking is a passionate activity, a response of a single individual whose soul is open to the mysteries of life
    • Reflection is thought that is stripped of passion, unfocused and idle, wandering in the realm of possibility
      • It never translates into action, decision, or commitment of the soul
      • Reflection is also associated with abstraction; it drains life of its vibrancy and immediacy 
      • “There is nothing more unproductive for the human mind than an abstract idea.” – Alexis de Tocqueville quoted by Jacob Howland
      • E.g. reflection in the water; the image is observable but unsubstantial, two-dimensional, it abstracts from the concrete reality of the individual
      • Imagination and abstraction (characteristics of reflection) generate a virtual reality that eventually replaces actual reality
      • Kierkegaard is pointing to the danger of getting lost in thought and never committing to anything

There Is No App for Life

  • “Who am I, What do I want?”
    • This kind of thinking requires boldness, faith in life’s possibilities
    • “One of the hardest things to communicate to young people is that things are going to work out.”Jacob Howland
    • Howland is not suggesting you go into the world unprepared and incompetent
    • However, he does encourage everyone to follow their inward calling, figure out what they love, excel at, and want to do with their lives
    • You gotta have faith that it’s going to work out
  • Brett McKay reminisces about young adults asking him for life advice
    • You can major in anything and figure it out
    • “I went to law school thinking I was going to be an attorney, and now I’m talking to Jacob Howland about Kierkegaard.”Brett McKay
    • You can’t ever know the end of your life; there is no system to teach you
    • People love self-help books because they want to follow a system, but even if there is a system for life, you can’t know it
    • Be passionate, find something, and follow it

Kierkegaard’s Parable of the Treasure

  • Taking the plunge into the waters of existence
    • Even if it’s a rash leap, decisiveness counts
  • The parable of the treasure extends the idea of taking the plunge into the water to an ultimate degree
    • The water is life-threateningly cold, but the treasure (located on thin ice) is extremely valuable
    • In the passionate age, people would cheer and admire the skater who goes on thin ice to get the treasure
    • In the reflective age, everyone would agree that it’s foolish and ridiculous to take risks to obtain treasure
    • A trained skater would skate right to the edge of the thin ice and turn away at the last moment
    • “Thus an uninspired venture would be turned into an acrobatic stunt, and actuality would be turned into a theater.”Jacob Howland quoting Kierkegaard
    • The audience would cheer for the skater but secretly suppose that they could’ve done the same
  • According to Howland, this parable captures some essential things about our age
    • Cowardly slow-mindedness (“safeism”)
    • Everyone must be protected (even from harmful emotions)
    • “The passion that makes great things possible has been replaced in our age by reliance on expertise and skill.” – Jacob Howland
    • But also the exhibitionism; the skater who wants to be admired more than he wants the treasure
  • Phenomenon of hypocrisy
    • The crowd that pretends to admire socially what everyone individually secretly despises
    • This is an increasing feature of our lives today
    • For E.g. students are scared to speak their minds  
    • They agree with what is politically correct but beneath the surface, they disagree

The Envy of Reflection

  • Envy is dissatisfaction at the sight of other’s good fortune
    • It wants to tear down the good to make sure the other person doesn’t enjoy it
    • That’s the effect of reflection; it’s critical and deconstructive – negative
    • It disillusions and disenchants, and that destroys action
  • Reflection raises doubt, doubt paralysis, and blocks our energies
    • It always gives the individual an excuse for not deciding according to Kierkegaard
  • The envy of reflection turns into ethical envy – meanness directed at other people
    • Those who are paralyzed by reflection are unhappy and when they encounter individuals who are active and flourishing, they experience it as an insult
    • They criticize far too much
    • The effect of this phenomenon is to make people fear the judgment of others even more than death (just because of being an individual)

The Present Age “Levels” the Individual

  • In modernity everything is relativized, there are no absolutes, no fixed standards
    • Today, not even nature provides those standards; not even our biological characteristics ( we can change our sex)
  • The possibility is elevated over actuality
    • This is a characteristic of the modern world
    • The consideration of abstract possibilities is exhausting and even nauseating
    • Modern philosophy (with Descartes) begins by doubting everything
  • Kierkegaard’s age and our age are critical, negative, and ironic
    • This was always one side of the though
    • But today it often seems like it’s the only side; it tears down what it builds up
  • Don’t evade being an individual
    • Don’t always abide by the laws of the mob
    • Things you believe in and which are important to you should not be buried under cowardly submission to group thinking
    • For both Socrates and Kierkegaard, the individual is an active, thoughtful, passionate center of responsibility

“There is a sense in which the ultimate outcome of this age of reflection and lack of passion and self-worth, and centralization, and the abstraction of the modern age is that there aren’t any selves.” Jacob Howland

Art of Manliness : , , , , , , ,
Notes By Dario

More Notes on these topics

Top Insights and Tactics From

31 Best Podcasts of All Time

FREE when you join over 25,000 subscribers to the
Podcast Notes newsletter

No Thanks