SØREN KIERKEGAARD (1813-55)
Two Ages: A Literary Review (1846)
Diagnosis of the Present Age
inwardness, engagement of entire being or whole person in life’s tasks.
reductive leveling, abstract power over the individual, dissipation of the
individual, negative equality, etc. (cf. the herd, crowd, masses, public, press, etc.).
3. Snak: idle
chatter, banal and inane discourse.
dialectical annulment in the sense of Hegelian overcoming = Aufhebung
(negation which does not annihilate but rather preserves).
8. Latin, Credo quia
absurdum est = I believe because it is absurd (Tertullian).
9. Enkelte: single,
existing, exceptional individual with inwardness and passion.
neutral term denoting persons as sheer numerical units, quantitative and
physical instances of the human species or race.
reflection as "reflection," that is, a kind of mirror or reflected image in
which you derive your individuality from imitating the people around you.
For Kierkegaard, reflection is a leveling mechanism for generating your
identity solely by imitating others. This gives rise to the public.
Cf. Rousseau’s interpretation of modern society, in which individuals derive
their identity entirely from the opinions of others.
reflection as deliberation, thinking, as opposed to acting and doing.
13. den literaire
Foragtelighed: literally, the literary scandal sheets; "tabloids."
envy, spite, contrariness (cf. to Nietzsche’s ressentiment)
15. Pressen: the
16. Tergiversation (English): evasion, recusal.
17. Vis inertiae:
way of inertia
18. en masse in corpore:
"In mass, in a single body"
THE PRESENT AGE: PASSIONLESS REFLECTION
Just as one might say about
Revolutionary Ages that they run out of control, one can say about the
Present Age that it doesn't run at all. The individual and the generation
come between and stop each other; and therefore the prosecuting attorney
would find it impossible to admit any fact at all, because nothing happens
in this generation. From a flood of indications one might think that either
something extraordinary happened or something extraordinary was just about
to happen. But one will have thought wrong, for indications are the only
thing the present age achieves, and its skill and virtuosity entirely
consist in building magical illusions; its momentary enthusiasms which use
some projected change in the forms of things as an escape for actually
changing the forms of things, are the highest in the scale of cleverness and
the negative use of that strength which is the passionate and creating
energy during Revolutionary Ages. Eventually, this present age tires of its
chimerical attempts until it declines back into indolence. Its condition is
like one who has just fallen asleep in the morning: first, great dreams,
then laziness, and then a witty or clever reason for staying in bed.
The individual [Enkelte]
(no matter how well-meaning he might be, no matter how much strength he
might have, if only he would use it) does not have the passion to rip
himself away from either the coils of reflection or the seductive
ambiguities of reflection; nor do the surroundings and times have any events
or passions, but rather provide a negative setting of a habit of reflection,
which plays with some illusory project only to betray him in the end with a
way out: it shows him that the most clever thing to do is nothing at all.
Vis inertiae [way of inertia] is the foundation of the tergiversation
[evasion, recusal] of the times, and every passionless person congratulates
himself for being the first to discover it—and becomes, therefore, more
clever. Weapons were freely given out during Revolutionary Ages . . . but in
the present age everyone is given clever rules and calculators in order to
aid one's thinking. If any generation had the diplomatic task of postponing
action so that it might appear that something were about to happen, even
though it would never happen, then one would have to say that our age has
achieved as mightily as Revolutionary Ages. Someone should try an experiment
with himself: he should forget everything he knows about the times and its
relativity amplified by its familiarity, and then come into this age as if
he were from another planet, and read some book, or some article in the
newspaper: he will have this impression: "Something is going to happen
tonight, or else something happened last night!"
Action and passion is as absent in the present age as peril is absent from
swimming in shallow waters….
If a precious jewel, which
all desired, lay out on a frozen lake, where the ice was perilously thin,
where death threatened one who went out too far while the ice near the shore
was safe, in a passionate age the crowds would cheer the courage of the man
who went out on the ice; they would fear for him and with him in his
resolute action; they would sorrow over him if he went under; they would
consider him divine if he returned with the jewel. In this passionless,
reflective age, things would be different. People would think themselves
very intelligent in figuring out the foolishness and worthlessness of going
out on the ice, indeed, that it would be incomprehensible and laughable; and
thereby they would transform passionate daring into a display of skill…. The
people would go and watch from safety and the connoisseurs with their
discerning tastes would carefully judge the skilled skater, who would go
almost to the edge (that is, as far as the ice was safe, and would not go
beyond this point) and then swing back. The most skilled skaters would go
out the furthest and venture most dangerously, in order to make the crowds
gasp and say: "Gods! He is insane, he will kill himself!" But you will see
that his skill is so perfected that he will at the right moment swing around
while the ice is still safe and his life is not endangered….
Men, then, only desire money, and money is an abstraction, a form of
reflection . . . Men do not envy the gifts of others, their skill, or the
love of their women; they only envy each other’s money…. These men would die
with nothing to repent of, believing that if only they had the money, they
might have truly lived and truly achieved something.
The established order
continues, but our reflection and passionlessness finds its satisfaction in
ambiguity. No person wishes to destroy the power of the king, but if little
by little it can be reduced to nothing but a fiction, then everyone would
cheer the king. No person wishes to pull down the pre-eminent, but if at the
same time pre-eminence could be demonstrated to be a fiction, then everyone
would be happy. No person wishes to abandon Christian terminology, but they
can secretly change it so that it doesn't require decision or action. And so
they are unrepentant, since they have not pulled down anything. People do
not desire any more to have a strong king than they do a hero-liberator than
they do religious authority, for they innocently wish the established order
to continue, but in a reflective way they more or less know that the
established order no longer continues….
The reflective tension this
creates constitutes itself into a new principle, and just as in an age of
passion enthusiasm is the unifying principle, so in a passionless age of
reflection envy [misundelse] is the negative-unifying principle. This
must not be understood as a moral term, but rather, the idea of reflection,
as it were, is envy, and envy is therefore twofold: it is selfish in the
individual and in the society around him. The envy of reflection in the
individual hinders any passionate decision he might make; and if he wishes
to free himself from reflection, the reflection of society around him
re-captures him . . ..
Envy [misundelse] constitutes the principle of characterlessness,
which from its misery sneaks up until it arrives at some position, and it
protects itself with the concession that it is nothing. The envy of
characterlessness never understands that distinction is really a
distinction, nor does it understand itself in recognizing distinction
negatively, but rather reduces it so that it is no longer distinction; and
envy defends itself not only from distinction, but against that distinction
which is to come [the Final Judgment].
Envy that is establishing
itself is a leveling [Nivellementet= it flattens or reduces
everything to the same level]. And while a passionate age pushes forward,
establishing new things and destroying others, raising and tearing down, a
reflective, passionless age does the opposite, it stifles and hinders, it
levels. This leveling is a silent, mathematical, abstract process that
avoids upheavals…. Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death,
where one can hear one's own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which
nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.
REDUCTIVE LEVELING (Nivellementet)
One person can head a
rebellion, but one person cannot head this leveling process, for that would
make him a leader and he would avoid being leveled. Each individual can in
his little circle participate in this leveling, but it is an abstract
process, and leveling is abstraction conquering individuality. The leveling
in modern times is the reflective equivalent of fate in the ancient times.
The dialectic of ancient times tended towards leadership (the great man over
the masses and the free man over the slave); the dialectic of Christianity
tends, at least until now, towards representation (the majority views itself
in the representative, and is liberated in the knowledge that it is
represented in that representative, in a kind of self-knowledge); the
dialectic of the present age tends towards equality, and its most consequent
but false result is leveling, as the negative unity of the negative
relationship between individuals.
Everyone should see now
that leveling has a fundamental meaning: the category of "generation"
supersedes the category of the "individual." During ancient times the mass
of individuals had this value: that it made valuable the outstanding
individual . . .. In ancient times, the single individual in the masses
signified nothing; the outstanding individual signified them all. In the
present age, the tendency is towards a mathematical equality . . .
In order for leveling really to occur, first it is necessary to bring a
phantom into existence, a spirit of leveling, a huge abstraction, an
all-embracing something that is nothing, an illusion—the phantom of the
public…. The public is the real Leveling-Master, rather than the
leveller itself, for leveling is done by something, and the public is a huge
The public is an idea,
which would never have occurred to people in ancient times, for the people
themselves en masse in corpore [in mass, in a single body] took steps
in any active situation, and bore responsibility for each individual among
them, and each individual had to personally, without fail, present himself
and submit his decision immediately to approval or disapproval. When first a
clever society makes concrete reality into nothing, then the Media [Pressen]
creates that abstraction, "the public," which is filled with unreal
individuals, who are never united nor can they ever unite simultaneously in
a single situation or organization, yet still stick together as a whole. The
public is a body, more numerous than the people that compose it, but this
body can never be shown; indeed it can never have only a single
representation, because it is an abstraction. Yet this public becomes
larger, the more the times become passionless and reflective and destroy
concrete reality; this whole, the public, soon embraces everything . . ..
The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a
simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an
association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these
exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who
belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he
belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in
those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the
public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the
public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and
emptiness, which is everything and nothing….
The media (Pressen=press) is an abstraction (because a
newspaper is not concrete and only in an abstract sense can be
considered an individual), which in association with the passionlessness
reflection of the times creates that abstract phantom, the public,
which is the actual leveller . . .. More and more individuals will, because
of their indolent bloodlessness, aspire to become nothing, in order to
become the public, this abstract whole, which forms in this
ridiculous manner: the public comes into existence because all its
participants become third parties (viewers, onlookers, spectators).
This lazy mass, which understands nothing and does nothing, this public
gallery seeks some distraction, and soon gives itself over to the idea that
everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the
public something to gossip about…. The public has a dog for its amusement.
That dog is the media (den literaire Foragtelighed=literary
scandal sheets). If there is someone better than the public, someone who
distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement
begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of
vulgar liberties with his leg—until the public bores of it all and calls the
dog off. That is how the public levels.
C. THE PRESENT AGE:
SUMMARIZATION OF SALIENT TRAITS
- Dissipation of vital,
- Incapable of prolonged,
(superficial dabbling into everything)
- Instant notification and
- Ubiquitous advertising
- Sensible, prudent
- Ephemeral, fleeting
eruptions of enthusiasm
- Reductive leveling (Nivellementet)
of all qualitative human distinctions, negative equality, the crowd
or herd, etc.