Do you ever feel like the time we live in feels flat, complacent, timid, conformist, populated by people who are focused on playing it safe and are inwardly empty?
A century and a half ago, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard felt the same way about the period in which he lived, and posited that there are two kinds of ages: the revolutionary, decisive, and passionate, and the sensible, rational, and reflective.
Here to unpack Kierkegaard’s ideas on these two kinds of ages is Jacob Howland, retired professor of philosophy and author of Kierkegaard and Socrates. Today on the show, Jacob and I first discuss some background on Kierkegaard and his existential philosophy. We then get into the differences between an age of passion and an age of reflection. We discuss how in a passionate age, an individual stands as an individual, possesses an energy which focuses on truth and ideals, and has the courage to take bold leaps of faith, while in a reflective age, the individual is subsumed by the crowd, is afraid of public opinion, and gets so lost in analysis and abstraction that he never makes a decisive move. All along the way, we delve into how Kierkegaard’s description of his age parallels our own, and Kierkegaard’s evergreen call to be an individual, embrace risk, and own your opinions and actions.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Works by Kierkegaard mentioned in the show:
- Thomasine Christine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
- On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life by Friedrich Nietzsche
- “Yes, Sabermetrics Ruined Baseball”
- AoM Article: Your Three Selves and How Not to Fall Into Despair
- AoM Article: An Intro to Envy
- AoM Podcast #635: The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
Connect With Jacob Howland
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Do you ever feel like the time we live in feels flat, complacent, timid, conformist, populated by people who are focused on playing it safe and are inwardly empty? A century and a half ago, the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard felt the same way about the period in which he lived and posited that there are two kinds of ages: The revolutionary, decisive and passionate, and the sensible, rational and reflective. Here to unpack Kierkegaard’s ideas on these two kinds of ages is Jacob Howland, retired professor of philosophy and the author of Kierkegaard and Socrates. Today on the show, Jacob and I first discuss some background on Kierkegaard and his existential philosophy. We then get into the differences between an age of passion and an age of reflection. We discuss how in a passion age, the individual stands as an individual, possesses an energy which focuses on truth and ideals, and has the courage to take bold leaps of faith. While in a reflective age, the individual is subsumed by the crowd, is afraid of public opinion, and gets so lost in analysis and abstraction, that he never makes a decisive move. All along the way, we delve into how Kierkegaard’s description of his age’s parallels are owned, and Kierkegaard’s evergreen call to be an individual, embrace risk, and own your opinions and actions. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/twoages.
Alright, Jacob Howland, welcome back to the show.
Jacob Howland: It’s great to be here, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you are a retired philosophy professor at the University of Tulsa, but you’ve been staying busy, you’ve been still teaching with just other organizations, you’ve been doing Dostoyevsky, things like that, but I wanted to bring you back on the podcast because for the past year, I don’t know what it is, I’ve been on this Kierkegaard kick. I don’t know, I’ve just picked up stuff and I just wanna keep reading Kierkegaard. And what’s interesting about you, you’re a Plato guy, you spent most of your career writing about Plato and Socrates, but you’ve also written a lot about Kierkegaard as well. How did Plato lead you to Kierkegaard?
Jacob Howland: Well, that was both a wonderful accident and a very natural development. So we professors collect books with the intention to read them some day, and I was in my office probably around 1995 and just looking at my books, kind of idle moment, and I pulled off the bookshelf a book called Philosophical Fragments, which was translated by a guy named David Swenson in 1936. And as far as I know, this was the first English translation of Kierkegaard. So I knew Plato’s Socrates, and I started reading the first few pages of this book and he’s talking about Socrates, and this was the Socrates that I knew, but it was presented more lucidly and directly than anything that I’d ever read. And Kierkegaard says that Socrates made every individual that he spoke with the absolute center of his undivided attention, and that’s how Kierkegaard made me feel as a reader, like he was writing for me, like I was the center of his undivided attention, so I was, first of all, struck by this amazing magnanimity. And I should say Kierkegaard was a student of the Greeks, he wrote a dissertation called the Concept of Irony with continual reference to Socrates, which by the way, is a great title, and he saw Socrates passion for learning and living up to the eternal and transcendent truth as a philosophical analogue of Christian faith, and that’s really because Socrates took risks.
So for the socratic philosopher, there’s no certainty that one has adequately understood the truth, there’s no signs that say, “You are now leaving the cave and seeing things in their true light,” and even if there were, there’s no certainty that you’re adequately realizing what you’ve understood in your own life. So these gaps of uncertainty, according to Kierkegaard, are bridged by passion, that is, you might say, by faith in the enterprise of philosophizing, the faith that there is a humanly essential truth and that it can be known. So there was this whole religious layer that I wanted to explore. And then as I read more Kierkegaard, I was stunned by the creativity and range of his writing. He was really a literary genius of the first order. I would compare him to Mozart, this is not an idle comparison, he loved Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and that opera is light and playful and humorous, but it also contains tragic depths and religious heights, and I would really say that it’s the musical equivalent of Kierkegaard’s writing. And both men, by the way, were equally prolific. I think there are 626 catalogued musical compositions of Mozart, and he died at the age 35.
Now Kierkegaard died at 42 and Kierkegaard published at least 35 books between 1843 and 1855 when he died. Three of which, by the way, including probably his most famous book, Fear and Trembling appeared on the same day. And finally, I would say Kierkegaard is a late modern Plato, and what I mean by that is that his books, like Plato’s dialogs, are full of different characters who are all in conversation about the essential matters of human existence. But Kierkegaard is Plato raised to a higher power. His most famous writings are pseudonymous, they are books that are “written,” so to speak, and by at least 20 different distinct authorial personalities, and so unlike Plato, Kierkegaard produced the authors who wrote his books, and these books are works of cultural criticism, psychological exploration, metaphysical inquiry and scriptural interpretation that combined letters, essays, diaries, aphorisms, parables, lectures, sermons, and dialogues in truly ground-breaking ways. And if any of our listeners are really interested in literature, I would strongly recommend the book called Either/Or, which is absolutely original. I don’t think anything had ever been written like that before.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about Kierkegaard’s big ideas. Okay, so Plato had his forms, Aristotle had his ethics through reasoning, Kant had his categorical imperative. What were Kierkegaard’s big ideas? What was he trying to accomplish with his philosophy? And also, how is he different from other philosophers?
Jacob Howland: Yeah, well, maybe we could talk about his big themes.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Jacob Howland: And I should say that I think different people would have a different list, but let me mention a couple of things. So, you know that Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger made it fashionable to go back to the earliest Greek thought, these guys were interested in going back beyond Socrates to the pre-Socratics and to Homer, but it was Kierkegaard who really set the stage for this sort of thing. I describe him in my book Kierkegaard and Socrates as an archaeologist of the original forms of philosophy and biblical faith, which he found in Plato, Socrates on the one hand, and in Abraham and Jesus Christ on the other.
And so, Socrates and the Bible both emphasize the freedom and dignity of the individual, because the Bible, because of its core teaching that man is made in the image of God, which is sharpened for Kierkegaard by the Christian teaching, that God is concerned with each and every individual soul. So Kierkegaard is writing in what he perceived to be, I think correctly, an age of conformity and increasing uniformity, and it’s in this context that he tries to recover the importance of what he calls the single individual, and I should also mention some of his books are dedicated to that single individual, I’ll just use that phrase. So, Kierkegaard stands out, especially for his understanding of the task of individual human existence and the passion that is required to discharge this task. Because of this focus on existence and the quality of one’s life as an existing human being, he’s viewed in hindsight, in the hindsight of the 20th century, when we have Sartre and Camus and so forth, as a Christian existentialist. He presents a distinctive philosophical anthropology and psychology that can, in certain respects, be traced back to Plato, and I can articulate it this way, “Human being is both body and soul, and soul-body or embodied soul exists in a particular time and place.”
But it relates to a transcendent truth, so it’s a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal, in particular in the universal, freedom and necessity. And holding these together, according to Kierkegaard, is the task of human existence. And here, he again looks to Socrates. Socrates holds these together in an exemplary way, not just trying to learn the truth, which he conceived as what Plato called the ideas, but to live by it. And for Socrates, the point is not simply to know the eternal and universal idea of justice, for example, but to be just here and now. And what holds these elements together is passion: The earnestness and focus that Socrates brings to his existence. But Kierkegaard’s conception of the truth is not the platonic ideas, not non-living being, but the living infinite God or rather, what is revealed by God to human beings. And if you think of Plato’s Cave, in which the philosopher comes out of the dark cave of human existence into the sun with uplands of being and truth, from the religious point of view, that’s not gonna work, we can’t get there on our own, so the truth has to come down, so to speak, into the cave through revelation. Well, so the human being, anyway, if we conceive of the truth as God, as an infinite God, the human being is also a synthesis besides the other elements I mentioned of the infinite and of the finite.
And one of Kierkegaard’s great contributions is his psychological analysis of the conditions that we experience because of the mis-relation of these elements. He analyzes anxiety and despair, he has a book called The Concept of Anxiety and a book called The Sickness unto Death, where he analyzes despair, and the depression and the rage that these conditions which he claims afflict all human beings, by the way, produce as a mis-relation of these elements, that is the finite and the infinite time and eternity, universality and particularity, and freedom and necessity. This is all spelled out in a terrific book that I know you’re familiar with, called Sickness unto Death. And he says in that book that when despair is completely rooted out, the self rests transparently in the power that established it. So, that kind of transparent resting is the goal. And finally, I should mention one other thing, and that’s his idea of in direct communication. So what matters for Kierkegaard is the inner appropriation of the truth, and that is a zone of silence, ’cause I can tell you, for example, I can say, “Brett, God is love.” But what does this mean? And how do you in particular understand it?
Now here, there isn’t even any question of objective correctness, I can’t look inside your soul to see if you’ve grasped the idea that God is love correctly, and it’s not even clear what that would mean. That’s a question for each existing individual to answer, and the individual does so in the life that he or she leads.
Brett McKay: So Kierkegaard’s concerned with subjectivism, it’s the subjective experience, so he doesn’t… Okay, we gotta be clear about this, he doesn’t think there’s subjective truth, he believes there’s an objective truth out there. What Kierkegaard is concerned with, and correct me if I’m wrong with this, what he’s concerned with is your relation to that truth, are you actually trying to live up to that truth in your own personal interior life.
Jacob Howland: Exactly, and so the word subjectivism is a very loaded word, ’cause it makes people think of relativity and so forth. There’s a passage in the sequel to Philosophical Fragments, which is actually kind of a joke, that is the book that’s the sequel is kind of a joke, it’s called The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. And the joke is that that book is like four times longer than Philosophical Fragments. It’s supposed to be a post-script. But in that book, he makes it absolutely clear that he believes in an objective truth, but he has a very interesting passage, he says something like this, he says, “Where is there more truth?” In someone who worships the true God, but does so with no passion. So in his case, we’re thinking, say, of a Christian who just goes to church, goes through the forms, but there’s no kind of inward-ness in that religiosity, they’re just going through the motions. Or in an individual who worships a false god, but does so with all the passion of infinity.
And what’s interesting about it… Like, he leaves the question open. But what’s interesting about it is, the question is, “Where is there more truth?” That is to say there is truth, there is truth in someone, in someone who is worshipping a false god, but does so with this incredible inward-ness. And of course, the ideal for Kierkegaard is to worship the true God, the God of Revelation, the God of the New Testament, with all the passion of inwardness.
Brett McKay: And we gotta be clear here, so Kierkegaard, he is writing from a Christian perspective, obviously, that’s a lot of his work is focused on. But the big ideas, they’re applicable to anybody of any faith or non-faith, this idea of human beings are infinite, we are infinite, and that we can think of infinite things to do and our capacities are infinite, but we’re finite and we’re not able to reach that, and so you feel anxiety. And I think everyone’s felt that, where like, you have this to-do list of all the things you wanna do before you die, but you have to reconcile that with the fact that, well, you’re this human being, you maybe don’t have money to do all the things you wanna do, you don’t have the time to do, and you feel anxious about that. Kierkegaard was writing about that.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, and you’ve mentioned a couple of sources of anxiety, but I think it goes even deeper. There’s a kind of nameless anxiety that has to do with… Let’s call it metaphysical discontent, right? We’re dealing, as human beings, because we’re human, we’re implicated in the ultimate questions, like, “Why are we here?” And there’s a… It’s common today to talk about a God-shaped hole in us, but we don’t have to necessarily think religiously, we can think of Socrates who… Plato might analyze certain sorts of anxiety as resulting from not standing in the presence of the truth. Now, here conceived, again, from a Platonic perspective as kind of the eternal structure of the world, which… His highest principle was the good, which is sort of this… He compares to the sun. But the idea is that the human soul isn’t complete and isn’t really nourished without coming into the presence of ultimate reality or somehow relating to that ultimate reality, and that’s really a deep source of anxiety. And you’re right, you don’t have to be a Christian. He’s very interested in Socrates, and he describes Socrates as sort of standing on the border line of the ethical and the religious.
So for Socrates, the notion of salvation is really ethical salvation, it is the salvation of the soul through maintaining its commitment to truth and justice and virtue. But there are these, as I suggested, kind of quasi-religious elements. There’s a kind of faith, and we even see it in the dialog, like The Apology, there’s a faith in the pronouncement of the Delphic oracle that no one is wiser than Socrates, which Socrates doesn’t understand, but he comes to understand because he accepts the idea that this is a serious declaration, and so he has to start thinking about what does it mean to be wise? And for one thing it’s… Ultimately it comes down to, being wise is this passion for the truth, the belief that there is a truth and that we can discover it and we can take it into our lives.
Brett McKay: One of the… I think one of the things that I get out of Kierkegaard, whenever I read him, ’cause he has this great writing style ’cause it’s very… It’s mocking, it’s biting, it’s sarcastic sometimes, but I feel like what Kierkegaard does whenever I read him, he just… It feels like he’s grabbing you by the lapels, and he’s just like, “Do you really believe what you say you believe?” You say you believe these things, but do you really really believe it? That’s what the whole point of what Fear and Trembling is about, right? It’s like, do you… Okay, if you’re a Christian or you believe in God, do you really believe in a God that would say to a human being, “Sacrifice your first born son?” And that, it’s so stark, and it’s like, “Man, do I really believe this?” Or even if you’re not a religious person, let’s say you say, “I don’t believe that there’s any inherent meaning in the world.” Well, Kierkegaard would say, “Well, do you really believe… And how is that playing out in your life?” That’s what I get out of it. That’s why I think I keep on going back to Kierkegaard.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, and I like your description of grabbing us by the lapels, but what’s interesting is that he has this incredible lightness, an incredible sense of humor. You can compare him with Nietzsche in a number of ways, but Nietzsche… Nietzsche talks about philosophizing with a hammer. Kierkegaard doesn’t really philosophize with a hammer, except that’s the effect on the reader. So for example, when you talk about grabbing by the lapels, in the book Either/Or, it begins with a little parable… It’s not even a parable, a little story that really has religious meaning, and so it’s a little story about the editor of the book who bought this writing table, and he loved this writing table, and he put money in one of the drawers of the writing table. And one morning, he was gonna go on a trip and the coach was outside and he was blowing its horn and he couldn’t get the money drawer open, so he got angry at the writing table and he took a hatchet and he banged the writing table with a hatchet, but the money drawer didn’t open, but another drawer popped open and it contained the papers of two characters that he calls A and B, and then those are supposedly the book that is called Either/Or, it’s the papers edited by this guy. But what’s religiously significant about this is the banging on the desk with a hatchet, and this becomes a symbol of human beings need to be hit over the head sometimes, this external blow, and that blow is a religious blow.
We can think of Abraham leading Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. It’s this sort of being stunned and that is what Kierkegaard wants to do because… And I’ll talk about this a little later. He looked at his age and he said, “These people are complacent.” They’re sort of these bourgeois Christians who, if you ask them like… He’s got one passage, he says, “A man says to his wife, I’m I a Christian?” And she says, “Well, of course, you are. You were born in the Christian country, the king is a Christian, your parents were Christian, you’ve been baptized, you’re a Christian.” But you see that’s very external, the issue is, are you inwardly a Christian? Do you believe, as you said?
Brett McKay: Yeah, and Nietzsche picked up on this as well. That’s what he meant by God is dead. It wasn’t necessarily that he thought that people externally said they don’t believe in God anymore in the 19th century, they acted like… They’d still go to church, they would say, I believe in God… But he says, really, if you actually look at how they behave, they really don’t believe in God, they rely on science or whatever to explain reality for them.
Jacob Howland: Right it’s not an animating principle of their existence.
Brett McKay: So listen I wanna talk about one specific work of Kierkegaard ’cause the thing about Kierkegaard, is you read sometimes, it can be kind of hard to read, you’re just like, What is he talking about here? You have to read it a whole bunch of times, but he did write this one essay in 1846, that’s really readable. It’s a lot of fun. I think it’s very pertinent to even our age today, this essay is called The Present Age, you can read this in one sitting, I’ve read it multiple times. In preparation for this, it’s called The Present Age or On the Death of Rebellion. Can you give us some background on this essay, like what was Kierkegaard trying to do with it and what was going on in his life that caused him to write it?
Jacob Howland: Yeah, so the essay called The Present Age is part of a longer essay called Two Ages, and Two Ages started out as a review of a novel of the same name, Two Ages by one of Kierkegaard’s favorite authors, a woman named Thomasine Gyllembourg, and the novel Two Ages contrast the character of everyday life in Copenhagen at the time of the French Revolution, 1790s, and the author calls that The Age of Revolution and the 1840s, which she calls The Present Age. So the book appeared, as you said, in 1845 or 1846, something like this, at the time that Denmark was an absolute monarchy, and it would become a constitutional monarchy as political reforms swept across Europe and the tumultuous year of 1848.
And that, of course, is the year that Marx published the Communist Manifesto, but the author’s impression of life in The Present Age, which Kierkegaard shared, was that the energetic passion of the Revolutionary Age had given way to a kind of bourgeois, superficiality and triviality. And this is after the French Revolution, things had in certain respects settled down. Many features of the modern state, had emerged that are with us to this day, so for example, Napoleon instituted legal codes that advanced equality under the law, government was centralized and bureaucratized, education was expanded, and under the control of the state and so forth. And this contrast between the Two Ages that’s brought up by the novel Two Ages is what interested Kierkegaard. And his reflections on this contrast occupy more space than his review of the novel, I think the review of the novel is like 35 pages, and if you haven’t read the book, Two Ages, which I have to confess, I haven’t, and he kind of summarizes it and talks about it, but the really interesting stuff is his reflection on these Two Ages.
So there’re two other things that need to be said about the historical context, and I think that are important for understanding Kierkegaard. One is the influence of Hegel and the other is Kierkegaard’s battle with a satirical publication called the Corsair. So with regard to Hegel, in Kierkegaard’s daily intellectual world of Denmark and indeed I would say of Europe as a whole, was dominated by the thought of the great German philosopher, G. W. F. Hegel. And Hegel’s philosophy was highly abstract and systematic. His highest principal was not God, but reason you can sort of think of Hegel as kind of translating religious history into philosophical history. And reason unfolded in history, and according to Hegel history was a necessary and rational process. And it had reached its goal, its ultimate goal of human freedom in the post-Napoleonic liberal states of Europe. Now, this view, by the way, was embraced not just by Danish philosophers, but by leading theologians, and Kierkegaard thought that this triumph social philosophy gave the age a kind of smug self-satisfaction, right.
Here we stand at the end of history, human striving has reached its goal. And he thought that it debased Christian faith and in some sense even made it impossible. And Hegel’s idea of history is behind the notion of the demands of the times, which Kierkegaard criticizes in Two Ages. He starts his book Two Ages by talking about the demands of the times, and this applies to our time today, it’s common to hear people today, they talk about being on the right side of history. But you see this phrase being on the right side of history assumes that we understand the mysterious mechanism of history, which we don’t. And anyway, very often people on the right side morally, the side of what is good and just are trampled under foot by the march of history, and what’s more, the implicit assumption of people who talk about being on the right side of history is that human beings should change to keep up with the demands of the times. And Kierkegaard thinks this is completely backwards. He says that to be human is to learn from the older person who remains true to himself. And what Kierkegaard admires about the author Thomasine Gyllembourg, is that she remained true to herself.
He writes that nothing has ever been so cruel as the demands of the times in the mouth of the young. Okay, so last thing, the Corsair, this magazine, or the Corsair was a magazine that was established in 1840 as an organ for public opinion, and the founding editor said when it first appeared, that in spite of the name right and Corsair means a pirate ship, this publication would not plunder people or flay them, but that’s exactly what it did, and one of its prime targets was Kierkegaard, he was maliciously caricatured. They actually had a cartoonist who drew these rather witty, by the way, cartoons of his physical appearance, which mocked him in these funny drawings, and it was actually even vulgar, his manhood was called into question. There was a little skit where Kierkegaard keeps saying, “I have no organ.” Like by organ, I think it was meant like publication, there’s nothing I can… But obviously, has another sort of double entendre. So, this was going on when he wrote Two Ages and it colored his impression of the role of the press as an attack dog of the public, which he talks about in this book, Two Ages.
Brett McKay: Okay, so I wanna hit back on that idea of Hegel-ism, so they believe that through Hegel-ism through reasoning, we can figure out life, basically, and Kierkegaard said actually, no, you can’t do that. Because existence requires a risk, it requires, you know he talks about leap of faith, sometimes it’s either you do something, even though you don’t know the final outcome ’cause it’s impossible for us to know the final outcome, and so he’s pushing back against that idea that we can know what the final outcome is to all things. And so the best we can do is actually just take really educated guesses or finally just a leap of faith to what we think is the right thing.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, right. And concluding on scientific postscript he says somewhere that, “Look, maybe there is a system.” By the way, Hegel presented this systematic philosophy. And he said, “But that’s for God, it’s not for us.” We don’t understand that system, and actually, Hegel is very much sort of behind the discussion of the reflective age, which we’ll come to in this book, Two Ages. And so the problem with Hegel, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, is that he kind of erases the individual human being by focusing on this kind of God’s eye view, you can sort of think of Spinoza or something, of this kind of abstract system. So there’s a passage in a postscript where he says something like this, he says, “If a dancer could leap very high, we would honor that person, we would applaud, but if someone thought he could defy gravity and never come back down, then they would be subjected to laughter,” and then he says, “And that’s maybe where the system will finally found its true readers on the moon,” in other words, it’s not… This is a philosophy. If you’re taking God’s eye perspective, you can have this knowledge, but existing human beings need to live, and our calling really, if you look at it religiously, is to live life in the light of the truth, and that’s our job.
And so we don’t have the systematic acknowledge, that’s not possible, and anyway, knowing the system is not… Actually, it’s highly abstract, it’s not gonna help us with this task of existing.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So let’s get back to this idea that these Two Ages, so Kierkegaard was saying there was a period where there was an age of passion, this is the period of revolutions, this is when the French Revolution was going on, things like that. Kinda big picture, how would Kierkegaard describe… What’s the ethos of a passionate age? And then contrast that, what he and this other author were seeing in their current age in 1840s of a reflective age, what are the characteristics of the two types of ages?
Jacob Howland: Okay, so Kierkegaard’s concern is the inner condition of our souls and the contrast between the Two Ages brings out what we’ve lost in The Present Age. But to be clear, I think this needs to be said at the onset, he’s not praising the French Revolution. Kierkegaard was, if anything, a political conservative, and he’s certainly not a fan of mob violence and radical revolutionary action, but he does say that the Age of Revolution is characterized by passion and The Present Age is characterized by reflection. So what do these words mean? Passion and reflection. Well, in the first place for Kierkegaard, passion is humanly essential, it’s an inward motion of the soul, the focusing of one’s energies on an ethical or religious ideal. So someone who admires the courage of a hero and enthusiastically aspires to be like the hero has passion. This personal commitment unifies the individual, and it’s the source of individual character, it gives form to life.
Socrates Eros for wisdom, is passion in the Kierkegaardian sense. Passion is immediate and concrete, it reveals who we are, and only with passion, he says, are we in fact something definite. The passionate soul has a certain inward tension and resilience, which Kierkegaard associates with culture. So you might think of the soul, here’s an image, there’s a bow that can shoot, that can aim and shoot its arrows of action at any target it chooses, but the soul without passion is like an unstrung bow, it lacks character, it lacks form, it lacks unity, it lacks energy and aim.
Now, for Kierkegaard, thinking is a passionate activity, it’s the response of a single individual whose soul is open to the alluring mysteries of life. Again, Socrates is exhibit A. In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard writes, “The paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without passion, a mediocre fellow.” So Kierkegaard says, “The Present Age is a passionless age and an age reflection.” Okay, well, what does he mean by reflection? In the first place, reflection is thought that is untethered from passion, and it’s therefore unfocused and idle. Reflection wanders in the realm of possibility, but it never translates into actuality. Kierkegaard taught Latin for a time, it’s the only job he ever held then for a year or two to teaching Latin to high school kids, and his writing is full of grammatical analogies.
So if life is grammatically indicative, like the sentence, “I am living,” reflection is in the subjunctive mood, “I could be living, I would be living, I should be living.” It doesn’t describe what is actually the case. Reflection remains in the realm of the possible, and it never translates into action and never comes to the point of a decision, a genuine commitment of the soul to a specific course of life and the notion of a decision by the way is crucial to Kierkegaard. Reflection is also associated with abstraction, so think of a reflection in water, the image is insubstantial because it abstracts from the concrete reality of the individual or of the original. For one thing, it’s two-dimensional, while the original is three-dimensional. Abstraction drains life of its vibrancy and immediacy. Tocqueville echoes this idea, he says there’s nothing more unproductive for the human mind than an abstract idea. So idle imagination and abstraction, these are the characteristics of reflection, they generate a kind of virtual reality, which in the worst case ultimately comes to replace actual reality, and woe to us if we can’t tell the difference.
Brett McKay: Let’s make this more concrete, how can people see that in their own lives? As you were describing that, I was imagining the reflective person being this… A college student trying to figure out what they’re gonna do with their life and they’re just… They got the sheet, like a spreadsheet, and they’re laying out all their decisions and they’re thinking, “Well, if I choose this major, then it’ll allow me to get this job, which will allow me to make more money, and this will allow me to have a house, start a family.” Is that an idea of a reflective person?
Jacob Howland: Yeah, but again, the crucial element is this passion, is this focusing an energy of the soul, and what Kierkegaard is pointing to is the danger of getting lost in thought and never committing to anything. So if your college student is kind of listing possibilities, you might… It sounds kind of banal and trite, but nonetheless true, what the college student should be thinking about is, who am I? What do I want? And that incidentally requires a kind of boldness, a kind of faith in life’s possibilities. I’m sure you would agree with me that one of the hardest things to communicate to young people is things are gonna work out. If you… I’m not saying go into the world unprepared with no skills or anything like that, that’s not my recommendation, but if you follow your kind of inward calling… If you sort of look at yourself and say, “This is what I love, this is what I excel at. This is what I want to do.” You’ve gotta have a faith that that’s going to work out, but if you don’t have that focus or that passion, which is really unfortunate, then you’re just kind of wandering around again, untethered.
Brett McKay: No, you’re right. Over the years, I’ve gotten lots of letters from young men, they’re talking, what should I do with my life, and I’m worried… And I’m just like, “Man, it’s gonna work out.” They’d ask, “What should I major in?” I’m like, “Man, you can major in anything and you’ll figure it out.” I tell them I went to law school thinking I was gonna be attorney and now I’m talking to Jacob Howland about Kierkegaard. It works out. It’s gonna work out. So that’s that idea. So Kierkegaard wants you to be bold. He wants you to be courageous, he wants you to take that leap of faith, knowing that things… Because this, again, going back to he’s pushing back against Hegel, we imply that Hegel was talking politically and big picture, but you can apply this to your own life, you can’t know the end to your own life, there’s no system… I think a lot of people… That’s why people love self-help books, they think, “Well, I can find this system. If I follow this system, then I will get six pack abs and I’ll make lots of money, and then I’ll have a flourishing romantic life.” And Kierkegaard said, “No, there’s no system.” Maybe there is a system, but you can’t know it, so just be passionate, find something and just follow it.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, there’s no app, although I’m sure there will be one, but ultimately for life, like your life app.
Brett McKay: No… People have tried. There’s definitely people who have tried.
Jacob Howland: Exactly, exactly.
Brett McKay: In The Present Age, what I love about Kierkegaard, he gives parables, he loves to use parables, and he created this parable that I’m gonna call… I don’t think it’s called this, but it’s called The Treasure on Ice, to highlight the difference between an age of passion or a passionate person, or a reflective person or an age of reflection. Can you walk us through this parable of the treasure on ice?
Jacob Howland: Yeah, so just before he tells the parable of the treasure on the ice, Kierkegaard talks about the advice of an oldster who tells a youth to take the plunge into the waters of existence, and even if it’s a rash leap Kierkegaard writes, if only it’s decisive. And you have the makings of a man then life’s judgment upon your recklessness in case it is reckless, will help you to become one. To become a man. This actually reminds me, I should say of a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, where the character of Stine says, “Gives us advice,” he says, “The way is to the destructive element to submit yourself, and with the exertion of your hands and feet in the water make the deep deep sea keep you up.”
Anyway, the parable of the treasure on the ice extends this image of jumping into the water to the ultimate degree. So in the parable, the water has become life-threateningly cold, but the treasure that stands out in the thin ice is enormously valuable. And I should say I suspect here that Kierkegaard is especially thinking of the treasure of faith, he has the following beautiful description of faith in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he says, “Sitting calmly on a ship in fair weather is not a metaphor for having faith, but when the ship has sprung a leak, then enthusiastically to keep the ship afloat by pumping and not to seek the harbor, that is the metaphor for having faith. While the understanding like a desperate passenger stretches his arms toward land but in vain faith works victoriously in the depths, joyful and victorious against the understanding it rescues the soul.”
Well, anyway, in a passionate age, people would cheer the skater who goes out on this thin ice to obtain the treasure, and the onlookers would admire this daring man and they would be humbled in the comparison with him and they would be ethically encouraged to follow his bold example. But in a reflective age, on the other hand, everyone would agree that it’s foolish and ridiculous to take risks to obtain the treasure, but then an expert skater, an exceptionally skilled skater, would get the idea of skating very close to the thin ice and turning at the last moment before he falls in. And so Kierkegaard says, “Thus uninspired venture would be turned into an acrobatic stunt, and actuality would be turned into a theater.” Now, he says, “The audience would cheer for the skater, but even in cheering for the expert skater, they would secretly suppose that the stunt wasn’t so great after all, and that they could have done the same, so they would admire socially what each one privately regards is trivial.” And I think this parable captures some essential things about our age. First of all, it’s cowardly, small-mindedness. Today we call it safetyism. Everyone must be protective above all else, even from supposedly harmful emotions, and Kierkegaard says that the highest prudence sometimes requires acting contrary to prudence in a narrow calculating sense.
So for example, was Socrates imprudent when at his trial he refused to beg for his life, to pander to the judges? Or was he being true to himself, to his ideal and the goal that both he and Kierkegaard put first and foremost that is being an individual? What’s an individual? An active, passionate, thoughtful center of responsibility. And the parable points out that the passion that makes great things possible has been replaced in our age by reliance on expertise and skill. We were joking about the app a couple of minutes ago, the life app as if there’s a formula, technique that could replace passionate commitment. And it also underscores the exhibitionism, that’s characteristic of our age, the skater who wants to be admired more than he wants the treasure. And what Kierkegaard in later part of the book calls the gallery public, that is the public that’s bored and seeks entertainment.
And finally, the parable points out the phenomenon of hypocrisy, the crowd that pretends to admire socially what everyone individually secretly despises. And I think this is an increasing feature of our lives today, is that we… People, even students in college, and so forth, they’re scared to speak their minds, and they wanna be seen as sort of agreeing with what is regarded as politically correct. Whereas inwardly, they disagree.
Brett McKay: As you were talking about this idea of the skater, the passion of skaters goes out to the ice to get the treasure, the thin ice, and then he said… Kierkegaard said, in a passion age everyone will cheer him on, “Yes!” Even though it could end up in just, you know, the guy dies.
Jacob Howland: Right.
Brett McKay: And instead we’re either like, why are you doing that? You shouldn’t be… Like, a passionless age is like, don’t do that. That’s not safe. I actually… It brought up to mind, I remember when I was 22, I proposed to my wife and we got… I got married when I was 23, but I remember I was back in my home town, and I was visiting a high school friend and his family, and I told this guy’s mom’s like, “Yeah, I’m getting married.” And she’s you know… She was at time, she was in her 50s, so she’s a baby boomer, and this is like upper middle class family, and I remember the mom looked at me is like, “Why would you do that? Why would you get married so young? You need to finish college, you need to get a job.” And I remember, I just looked at her befuddled and I was like, to me it was obvious, well, ’cause I love this woman. That’s why I’m gonna do it. I was passionate, I was like, “I wanted to marry this woman.” And then I was talking to this very reflective person who was thinking, “No, you need to… That’s not the right thing to do. You need to get a job, you need to think this out more.” I mean, Kierkegaard would be like, “Yeah, you’re a reflective person.”
Jacob Howland: Yeah, I think that’s right. And just… You know, it’s interesting because I got married at the age of 21 and went off to grad school, and I sort of encountered the same thing, people said, “Well, why would you get married?” And then we had kids, and like, that wasn’t a bad idea to have kids if you’re in graduate school, actually it was great, [chuckle] because my wife got a job and she would work and I would take the kids. I mean, one kid at the time I was writing my dissertation, I would take him off to preschool, and the other kid was like, one years old, and I would just kind of do the laundry, put him on a pile of old laundry or put him in a high chair with paint and just sit there and write. Things work out, they work out.
Brett McKay: Things will work out. Also, you know… And now, going back to taking this marriage example, now the reflective agent would say, “Okay, you can get married, but you need to have skills, you need to hire an expert, you gotta find a marriage coach.” There’s coaches for everything. I don’t know if you are on social media a lot Jacob?
Jacob Howland: No, I am not.
Brett McKay: But there’s been this proliferation of coaches for every facet of human life. There are marriage coaches, there are productivity coaches, there are… I saw like an infidelity coach, so it’s like a coach to help you navigate infidelity. I mean, Kierkegaard would say, “This is a reflective age.” Instead of just following what you think is the right thing to do, you’re looking to an expert to… So you can become skilled, so you can get close to the treasure, but then at the last minute swoop away so you don’t actually encounter any danger.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, that’s right. And as you were speaking, I’m reminded of Nietzsche writes in a wonderful short book, which is, I think maybe the best introduction to his thoughts called, The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. And he says that in the modern age, part of the problem of passion is, we don’t trust our instincts. I mean, we don’t even know what we should feel. By the way, I think this is quite Kierkegaard-ian, but it also describes our age as well, because we’re so confused by thinking and by sorts of this kind of realms of abstraction that we’re just not even sure how we should respond to things. And so, if you don’t actually know how to feel or you’re so out of touch with your own feelings and desires that you don’t trust them, then I think, [chuckle] maybe you do need coaches, you know?
Brett McKay: Right. It’s also, as I was reading The Present Age and reading about the parable of the treasure on ice, I know this might seem trivial and trite and banal and not interesting, but I see this reflective in the state of American professional baseball today. I don’t know if you’ve been to a baseball game or watch baseball. It is so boring. I went to a Drillers game last year, Tulsa Drillers game, and it was the most boring. There was like no fielding, there was no base stealing, there was no… It was just… Everyone was trying to hit a home run, and I was like, “What is going on here?” ‘Cause the game always went to extra innings, and this past year I’ve been seeing more and more articles coming up, people writing about the game of baseball, and it’s this sabermetrics, that’s one of the reasons people think baseball so boring, is that it’s just completely statistic-driven. And so, you don’t see players doing what was like, risky stuff, stealing bases, stealing home, bunting, you’re not seeing fielding anymore, because we had… Baseball now is this system that can tell you exactly what you need to do to win the game, and it’s taken the fun out of the game.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, you know, my wife told me that she was speaking with my son, who’s a big soccer fan, and he said that the game is no longer beautiful, that they’re constantly sort of stopping and looking at the replays to see was this guy fouled? And there are new rules. The defenders have to keep their hands behind their back and no one’s making any contact. And it’s… So, I haven’t been to a ball game for years, I did see the Drillers maybe last five years ago or something like that. I used to be a big baseball fan.
Brett McKay: But I think it’s a… I know it’s a trivial example, but I think it shows how prevalent this idea of reflection, it can even call a sports. For us sports can be… It’s this meeting that we use to express passion, that’s what you think sports is about, but we’ve… Because of different incentives, and it’s a lot of just money is the main driver, we’ve turned it into a reflective sport, which, it’s not as fun. It’s not as fun.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, yeah, for sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Kierkegaard is all about risk. You gotta… If there’s no risk, then it’s not fun. It’s not enjoyable.
Jacob Howland: You bet.
Brett McKay: So one of the things Kierkegaard thought was part of this reflective age was this thing he called leveling, and I think the best way to describe leveling, it’s just basically this subsuming of the individual into the crowd. There’s this sort of this dynamic going on of equalizing and homogenizing, so that no one stands out, no one can be special. And Kierkegaard thought it was driven in part by the press, because the press can be used to cut people down to size. And just by sort of this abstract notion of the public and public opinion. And so, instead of doing their own thing, having their own opinions, people just sort of default to group thinking, ’cause they’re afraid of being leveled. What did Kierkegaard think was behind this leveling process?
Jacob Howland: Well, envy is crucial to this. So, and as you said, Kierkegaard can be difficult. And one of the most difficult things in this essay about their present age is, he says, “Reflection’s idea is envy.” So that’s a strange statement, and what does it mean? Well, envy is a kind of malicious grudging and discontent, another side of another’s excellence and good fortune. Envy wants to tear down the good to ensure that another person doesn’t enjoy the good, and you see that’s the effect of reflection. And reflection is critical and de-constructive, it’s negative, it disillusions and disenchants, and that disillusionment destroys action. Reflection raises doubt, doubt paralyzes and blocks our energies and reflection, Kierkegaard says, always gives one an out, an excuse for not making any decision. It analyzes everything, it dissects it, it holds it up to inspection. If you do that to a living thing, by the way, the analysis and cutting it open, you kill it, and in a way, reflection does the same thing, it uproots what’s grown organically and the stories we live by. So the effect of all this is to substitute this virtual world of fantastic abstract thought for the actual world, and we end up being unable to distinguish our fantasies from reality. So Kierkegaard says that reflection’s envy turns into ethical envy, that is censorious envy and meanness directed at other people.
I think there’s some deep psychological mechanism at work here, Kierkegaard doesn’t really spell this out, but he gives us hints. So my own sense of it is this, Aristotle rightly connects happiness with activity, with realizing our human potentialities, and those who are paralyzed by reflection are to that extent unhappy, and when these people encounter individuals who aren’t paralyzed, who are active and energetic and confident and flourishing, they actually experience it as a kind of a front, an insult, even if they don’t recognize this, and so reflections envy goes to work. They find much to criticize and they’re sure to be joined by a chorus of other impotent people like themselves. And Kierkegaard says the effect of this phenomenon is to make people fear even more than death, he says, the judgment of others, which is called down on us just by being ourselves, just by being individuals.
So the ancient Athenians had a practice called ostracism, which was among other things, an outlet for envy. And so there’s a story about a guy named Aristides, he was known as Aristides The Just, and they had an ostracism and Aristides was sitting next to a guy who didn’t recognize him, and he was ostracized, and Aristides turns to him and he said, “You voted to ostracize Aristides, why did you do that?” Then the man said, “‘Cause I’m so tired of hearing him called The Just.” But Kierkegaard says, “The one who envied and voted to ostracize for that reason, for a reason like he’s called The Just knew that the person they were ostracizing was excellent.”
Brett McKay: Okay, to kinda sum up where we’ve been so far, Kierkegaard thinks there’s two types of ages; there’s an age of passion and an age of reflection. In an age of passion, people are in touch with the energy of their soul, it’s sort of like this bow, it’s like the tension in a bow where they aim their energy at an ideal, and then they give their whole self over to truth and to purpose, and a person’s passion is what unifies a person’s character, it’s what unifies the infinite and the finite within them. But then in a reflective age, people get lost in thought, they never move into action, they get stuck in abstraction, they never come to any real decision, they don’t commit to certain outcomes in life. And then in this reflective age there’s also this leveling process going on where people lose their individual selves in the crowd, people are afraid of standing out, they’re afraid of others, they’re the public, they’re afraid of the public hammering them down or ostracizing if they try to stand out. But then they’re also envious of people who are able to escape the pressures of the reflective age and stand as individuals. So that’s kind of Kierkegaard’s idea that he set up. Did Kierkegaard have an idea of what caused this passionless age? What did he think… What was going on in Denmark in the middle of the 19th century, where it was just kind of like, “Meh.” Boring flat, complacent, what was going on?
Jacob Howland: Well, this is a big question to which I really can’t do justice, but maybe I can point us in the right direction. So in the first place, passion requires a kind of enchantment like that, which the beloved produces in the lover, but The Present Age is marked by disenchantment and disillusionment, and I think to some extent, this is one of the effects of modern science and philosophy, so if you think about the middle ages, the middle ages held that the Heavenly spheres turned out of love for the highest, love for God and the cosmos was understood to be lighted, warmed and resonant with music, as CS Lewis puts it in his wonderful book, The Discarded Image. Modern thinkers like Descartes swept all this away. The concreteness of place gave way to the cold uniformity of space and the value-laden idea of height of the highest and lowest things that are connected in a great chain of being gave way to the neutral concept of distance, the vibrancy in the created world gave way to the inertness of matter, which is an abstract notion, but Descartes further reduced it to the mathematical and measurable concept of extension, which can be mapped with Cartesian coordinates and you can turn it into equations.
So in general, modern science reduces quality to quantity, and in modernity, everything is relativised, there are no absolutes, there are no fixed standards. Today, not even nature provides such a standard because through science and technology, we can in Descartes’s words, become the masters and possessors of nature. Nothing is given, not even our biological characteristics. Today I can change my sex if I like, and again, possibility is elevated over actuality, this is a characteristic of the modern world, and the consideration of abstract possibilities is exhausting and innovating, it may even be nauseating. Modern philosophy begins in doubt and Descartes begins by doubting everything, and our age, Kierkegaard’s age, and our age is critical, negative and ironic. And this has always been one side of thought, but today it’s too often pretty much the only side, it tears down, but it doesn’t build up, it’s not constructive, but it’s de-constructive. Kierkegaard says that the age of heroes and of great and good actions is passed, there’s no great passion, no here or no lover, no thinker, no night of faith.
Brett McKay: Oh yeah, he had this idea, I think it’s interesting, every philosopher has sort of their ideal man. Aristotle had his Athenian gentlemen. Nietzsche had his Ubermensch. Kierkegaard had his Knight of faith. Any of the opposite of a knight… So knight of faith is someone who has that passion, they’re able to be an individual and really act out what they believe. But he also said there’s the opposite of that, we have the Knight of infinite resignation. So it’s this person who just turns inward. They’re just like, “I’m not gonna be involved in the world, I’m just gonna stay home and just stick to myself. I’ve got my beliefs, and I’m gonna live them out privately.” Kierkegaard said, “No.” He’s like… Kierkegaard said, “I understand why you’d wanna do that.” I totally get it. But you need to be a knight of faith. You actually… If you believe something, need to go out into the world and try to make it happen.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, on the other hand, I think there’s a passage in Plato’s republic where Socrates is speaking about the madness of the crowds, living in a city where there was violence and sort of general insanity. And he says, “You know you gotta… All you can really do is hide behind a little wall and ride out the storm, and try to live your life in justice and holiness.” On the other hand, I would point out that Socrates didn’t really do that. He went out into the marketplace and he talked to people, and he got himself killed. So there is a kind of… It’s interesting, because Kierkegaard was a public figure. That’s why he came under fire from the Corsair, and he took a lot of lumps. But he was trying to make the world a better place, he wasn’t just hiding behind a little wall. And yet there is something to that idea. So we have to sort of… How can I put it? We have to take care of our own business, and my business and your business is our individual lives. We have to have that center and that grounding.
Brett McKay: I like to get this on a micro level and apply to my individual likes. I think it’s what Kierkegaard wants you to do. I think the takeaway I got from this idea of leveling in my own personal life is… Kierkegaard talks a lot about, “You don’t want to evade.” He thought evasion was like a sin. “Don’t evade being an individual.” The thing I got from there is, never… “Be an individual and make a decision and stand for it, and have the passion to live by it. But never make a decision… Don’t pass the buck to the group.” Don’t be like, “Yeah, well, whatever the group says, I’ll just go along with that ’cause I don’t wanna cause a ruckus.” And you see that happen in just small groups you belong to, whether it’s your work. You see this in small group dynamics, “Well, whatever the group wants to do.” And then the individual is like, “Well, I got this thing I wanna say, it might cause a stink, I don’t wanna do it.” And Kierkegaard said, “No. You’re evading. Don’t evade, be an individual. Don’t try to stand up against the leveling as much as you can.”
Jacob Howland: Yeah, and of course, that doesn’t mean they want to sort of abandon all prudence. But on the other hand, I have found myself in situations where I’m speaking with a group of people, and someone says something, and I’m thinking to myself, “I really ought to speak up. I ought to pipe up and say something about that,” and I don’t. And then someone else with more courage says exactly what I should have said. And I feel humbled and shamed, because I could have said the thing, I was thinking the same thing. So those situations, they teach us something. And this fidelity to the things that you believe and the things you think are important, that should not be buried under a kind of wet blanket of cowardly submission to group think.
Brett McKay: So yeah, this goes back to what Kierkegaard was doing. He’s like, “Are you an individual?” He’s basically going back grabbing you by the lapels, “Be an individual.” And if you say you believe these things, do you really believe it? Don’t evade. Don’t say, “Well, I’m just doing this ’cause my family says it’s the right thing, or my work group or my friends say this is what I should… ” It’s like, “No. Don’t do that. I want you to be courageous, take a stand.”
Jacob Howland: Yeah, and because at the end of the day, like I said, I think the idea of the individual for both Socrates and Kierkegaard, is an active, thoughtful, passionate, center of responsibility. There’s a sense in which the ultimate outcome of this age of reflection and lack of passion, and so forth, and centralization, and the sort of abstraction in the modern age and so forth, is that there aren’t any selfs. No one’s really worthy of the name self, that there’s somebody there who’s going to stand for things, and stand behind their actions and their opinions and their speeches.
Brett McKay: Well, Jacob, this has been a great conversation. Where should people go to learn more about your work?
Jacob Howland: Well, they can go to my website, Jacobhowland.com. And they can also go to Amazon. They can look there at the books that I’ve written and the one book that I edited. I think between the two of those, you can probably… Those would probably be a good place to start.
Brett McKay: Well, Jacob, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Jacob Howland: Thank you so much, Brett. It’s always a pleasure talking with you.
Brett McKay: My guest there was Jacob Howland. He’s the author of the book, Kierkegaard and Socrates. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can also find more information about his work at his website, Jacobhowland.com. Also check at our show at aom.is/twoages where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at Artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles and interviews about pretty much anything you think of. And if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code “manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you signed up, download your Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It help us out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay. Remind us on podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.