Kierkegaard on the lie

Writing in the 1840’s, Kierkegaard had already defined the psychology of the personality long before the the 20th century.

In Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard describes the depressed and the schizophrenic as the two extremes of personality (of course, not using those terms). The touchstone of his insight is not so much dysfunctional behaviors as the existential response of individuals to the realization of finitude, of death and decay. Freud placed this discovery and its accompanying repression early in life, to undermine the self into adulthood. In Kierkegaard’s case, the approach is philosophical, but he does not lack insight into behavior, including repression, as will be seen.

These themes pick up on previous blog entries: Society and the world define a rational norm for its members. W are socialized to function within that norm — or else be deemed mad.

On the first part of the spectrum of dysfunction, a person experiences “too much necessity” to his or her life, a crushing weight of obligations, desires, situations, people, conflicts, and entanglements — while at the same time feeling that there is “too little possibility,” too few options or solutions, that there is no escape, no exit, no way to get out with the self intact. This is a classical description of depression.

Kiekegaard sees depression as a philosophical notion as much as psychological, wherein the person sees no solution to death, finitude, the inexorable dissolution of meaning and purpose. These are fundamental observations of what would become existentialism.

On the other end of the spectrum is the person who sees through the deceptive veil of society and its norms, and is not willing or capable of conforming to basic modifications and civilities. For such a person there is “too little necessity,” for nothing is very compelling or convincing, nothing rivals their private concept of reality and the way things can be. There is “too much possibility,” too much that can and must be pursued, too much that calls for investigation, pursuit, attachment, a ready ear or eye. There are too many visions of and too many calls from what is hidden or manifest below the surface of the vast sea of what is irrelevant and unnecessary. Yet this universe overwhelms their resources. The self is shattered to the core of identity. This is a classical description of schizophrenia.

And in the middle of the spectrum lies the grand majority of society’s normal, those whom Kierkegaard calls the “philistines.”

The philistines are those whom one observer calls the “normal neurotics,” whom Freud considered repressed by their psyches for their own good because they are not capable of too much reality. They are easily duped by the powerful to do their bidding in relative silence, to pursue their pleasures in stupefying doses, to contribute to society, that great edifice of somnolence and enslavement about which Nietzsche railed. The philistines walk about in “fictitious health,” says Kierkegaard, alluding to their contentment with conventional norms, tastes, and values. They suffer “neuroses of health,” as Nietzsche wrote. The vast majority are “tranquilized with the trivial,” to quote Kierkegaard’s excellent phrase. Freud described philistinism (but not with that term) as a “pathology of whole cultural communities.”

Ultimately, philistines are living the “lie of character,” says Kierkegaard. They are presenting the false mask of self in everyday life and playing at this or that style or behavior but without conviction, without belief, ever justifying the social fiction that the lives they lead are the best possible lives. And perhaps they are the best possible given what depth of consciousness they carry in their hearts and minds, for otherwise they would be depressed or schizophrenic if they but reflected a bit. But they will not, are not capable of it. The social experience is nothing but the anesthetizing of true reflection. T.S. Eliot describes the philistine’s “sky” in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table …

So we have this:

Kierkegaard then proposes methods of breaking through philistinism without becoming dysfunctional (depressed or schizophrenic). He warns that these involve a severe disengagement from what human society values and employs its time and energy in pursuing. It cannot mimic the tranquilizing or anesthetizing solution that calms the self and permits him or her to go on with the lie of character.

The core answer is solitude and reflection. It may be a gift, or a pursued avocation, or a small and occasional withdrawal or disengagement, even while living life in society and living the lie of character. But the introvert (understanding introvert as one who looks within and not just one who avoids others) is the one who will succeed in the breakthrough. Reflection is a prerequisite to detaching the self and really examining what the world does and says and values and expends lives and energy on.

With introversion or introspection, Kierkegaard has set the stage for two responses. He does not name them but we know them from Nietzsche: one is the self-created path Kierkegaard calls the “demonic rage,” and which Nietzsche generally calls “Promethean.” The other is the deepening of the introversion to a spiritual level that Nietzsche would call Apollonian if he accepted the possibilities of a dogged and disciplined transcendence.

For Kierkegaard, transcendence (and what he will call the “leap”) will finally permit the self to understand the grand lie of character, the lie of society, and become a self-realized person.