This is Jacob’s third essay in Numéro Cinq. He is giving us lessons in the roots of modernity. It’s always good to know where you are and where your ideas come from.
By Jacob Glover
The first sentence of Søren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age is: “Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose”. I will argue that underlying this quote is the Platonic premise, continuous throughout Western philosophy, that there are two worlds, the world of existence (the material or phenomenal world, the world of empirical science) and the intelligible (the world of Forms, universals, God, and the Good). Kierkegaard says that man in the present age finds himself no longer rationally able to conceive a relationship between himself and God or the Good (the intelligible world). (Kierkegaard’s present age was the 1840’s, but his ideas seem applicable now because they describe what was the beginning of modern industrial capitalism that exists today.) Earlier philosophical claims for interaction between the two worlds such as mediation (Hermes Trismegistus), emanations (Plotinus), or imminence (Spinoza) are no longer possible. In the present age, man cannot know anything about the intelligible world, God, or the Good. The intelligible world is radically separate from the material world. So Kierkegaard’s question is: What can or do we know? Reflection, Kierkegaard seems to be saying, is a form of thought, characteristic of this new age, which re-conceptualizes the material world without God. Kierkegaard contrasts reflection with idea of passion which seems to be a desire to know or engage with something radically unknowable. Passion, this desire, is linked to Kierkegaard’s idea of the leap of faith. Since in the present age we cannot know anything beyond the material world, the only way to live an authentic, ethical, or individual life is to passionately embrace a radical uncertainty about God or the Good. We must take a leap of faith, a leap into uncertainty.
Reflection, this process of thinking in the material world separated from the intelligible world, changes our motives and the way we value things and actions. Reflection suggests a new sort of rationality grounded solely on the material world and without regard for an intelligible world. This new rationality changes the objective and subjective value system for actions and decisions. For Kierkegaard, “eternal responsibility, and the religious singling out of the individual before God, is ignored.” Kierkegaard is referring to two effects, or characteristics, of reflection. In the present age two things are ignored: “eternal responsibility” (the drama of sin, salvation, and grace) and the “singling out of the individual” (the creation of individuals in relation to God or the Good). In other words, people in the present age, the age of reflection, now cut off from the intelligible world (and God and the Good), no longer have an “eternal” telos, or purpose; man in the present age can only perceive a purpose for himself that is dependent on, or related to, the material world. Without this “eternal” telos there is no reason to act or make decisions as if the actions or decisions have “eternal” importance, which is to say, in the age of reflection, there is no “eternal responsibility.”
People lose a sense of individual eternity as they lose or, “ignore,” this idea of “eternal responsibility” and further separate, metaphysically, from the intelligible world, God, or a greater Good. Kierkegaard calls this the “leveling process” or “the victory of abstraction over the individual.” That is to say that people in the present age, the age of reflection, lose a sense of eternal importance in what they do or think because essentially all people are so radically equal no one can capture any uniqueness, no one can conceive of themselves or what he does or thinks as eternal. People in the age of reflection are all entirely dependent on and, in a sense, enslaved to an obscure form of community. Not a community based, as I say, on anything eternal, but on pragmatic values derived from the new rationality of the age of reflection. It is a community of slaves whose master is their own interdependence. In Kierkegaard’s words, “The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved to his art or to his science, he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected by reflection, just as a serf belongs to an estate.” In the present age, the age of reflection, a person is so radically separated from anything that he can derive lasting, eternal, importance from individually that he loses his individuality and is swallowed into obscurity and dependency.
In the original quote Kierkegaard contrasts reflection with passion. According to Kierkegaard, the present age is passionless. But what is passion? The word “passion” derives from the Latin verb patior which means to suffer. I think this crucial in the discussion of what passion is to Kierkegaard because it emphasizes the inherent struggle that defines passion. Also the word probably refers to the Passion of Christ. Christ at the end of his life does not know, with any certainty, that God exists, but he wants to believe and does so anyway. Christ on the cross demonstrates what passion is: a desire to know, believe, or engage with, something you cannot rationally conclude exists, or even establish a metaphysical connection with. Passion, as Kierkegaard seems to imply, can only really exist in relation to reflection. Reflective thought occurs when people try to understand the material world, now that it is radically separated from the intelligible world, and passion is the desire to believe in an intelligible world, God or a greater Good even though you have no reason to. What’s crucial is the idea of reasons for something, something’s rationality. Like I said above, with reflection there is new rationality grounded in the material world, so of course there is no “reason” to believe in an intelligible world. But crucially this situation only exists in the age of reflection. Before Kierkegaard philosophers thought that the intelligible world was accessible in some form, knowable, and, in fact, based their rationality “in” it, thus they had “reason” to believe in its existence. So passion, to Kierkegaard, is the desire to believe in something that, rationally, you cannot, and, according to the word’s etymology, is a sort of internal suffering. To Kierkegaard, in the present age it seems unlikely that, “there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly.” For Kierkegaard this “outrageous folly” is passion. It would seem outrageous, ridiculous, or foolish to want to believe in, or know, something that you cannot.
Kierkegaard gives the example of a skater on a lake. This example, to me, best demonstrates the differences between passionate and reflective thought. In a passionate age “the courage of the man” to skate out near the middle where the ice is thin, “would be applaud[ed],” but in the present age “people would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worthwhile to venture out so far.” In the present age, the age of reflection, the people don’t admire the skater at all, in fact, they admire each other as members of a group; they show dependence upon one another. The value judgments the people in the age of reflection do make are of the act of skating out so far, “an outrageous folly.” They conclude it to be unreasonable and not worthwhile. This is another example of the different rationality created by reflection that makes acts, such as are done by brave people, seem “unreasonable.” That is to say that in the age of reflection the people have no rational grounding for these sorts of actions; to them they have no purpose in the material world and are, therefore, purposeless. Furthermore these acts designate an individual and allow him, if only for a moment, not to be dependent on the others. He has found some purpose outside of the material world that is inconceivable in the age of reflection when the material is radically separate from the intelligible. Contrariwise a passionate age appreciates the individual and his attributes. The act itself seems to just demonstrate that which the man already possessed i.e. his courage. Essentially the differences stem from reflection and the lack of reflection, which is to say the separation of the intelligible world from one (the present age) and not from the other (a hypothetical passionate age).
The Present Age is essentially a thought experiment. Kierkegaard starts by describing the age of reflection when man has no rational connection to the intelligible world and finds himself radically subsumed in an abstraction of interdependence. Before the age of reflection people would derive their ways of life from ideas founded in the intelligible world. So now the question for Kierkegaard is: How do we live authentically? What do we base things like morals and ethics on, if our old fundamental principles are no longer rationally accessible? Moreover, how do we maintain any sense of self, or individuality, when we exist as eternally purposeless? Kierkegaard writes, “If you are capable of being a man, then danger and harsh judgment of existence on your thoughtlessness will help you to become one.” That is to say that, to live authentically, to have morals, to be an individual, you must do something that seems an “outrageous folly.” And in the age of reflection nothing seems more “outrageous” than assuming a connection with the intelligible world because in the age of reflection it is unknowable. But Kierkegaard insists, “Come on leap, leap cheerfully, even if it means a light hearted leap, so long as it is decisive.” In other words to live as an individual with morals, we must “leap” into belief. That is to say we must believe in something we have no reason, in the age of reflection, to believe in. We must contradict ourselves as rational beings and behave irrationally, we must embody passion, and “[our] thoughtlessness will help [us] to become” an individual.