- Area: Humanities
- Program: Philosophy
- Type of Writing: Essay (Analytical, Interpretive)
- Course Level: 1000
- Paper ID: H.P.E.1.5
Of the great philosophical questions, “What is the purpose of life?” is monumental. For Kierkegaard, this was a question that plagued his existence from a young age, and it was often met with dreary self-exploration and a surprising amount of humor. A deep sense of the pointlessness of life gave a feeling of overwhelming dread in many of his works, as evident in the classic, “Either/Or,” a famous quote from the work being:
If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.
This realization, this understanding of the inevitable lack of foreknowledge on any and every decision we will ever make led Kierkegaard to create the concept of “Angst”. In his philosophy angst is the intense attraction to, and fear of, our ability to make choices. We live, exist, and continue through life in a series of choices that carry consequences. As so brilliantly pointed out in the quote above, he recognizes our anxiety in reacting to these consequences, our regret of poorly made choices, and our inability to know which choice is the poor choice until it is too late. To this thought, he laughs; how insane it is that we live our lives with a complete inability to make rational decisions! We are constantly looking backwards as we wade through life, walking blindly before us with an ever-present critique of where we have been.
All the more gripping in terror is Kierkegaard’s comprehension that all his thoughts on the matter, all of his realizations and illuminations to the status of the world does nothing to cure the meaninglessness at hand; that he is just as blind as the rest of us. The only difference being that he is aware of it. In that he finds condemnation in his own thoughts as the rest of humanity gets to blissfully walk through the void of life unaware of their terrorizing state, leaving him alone and isolated in his realization. Truly, most people who come across this realization find a sense of isolation and loneliness awaiting them. A common example in popular culture of an “existential crisis” is a person who appears to go insane in regards to the mental stability of an average person. To the existentialist, these average people are nothing but blindfolded, naive children, stumbling about in a field and finding some sort of cosmological or divine reasoning for why they trip and fall, when the reality of their falling is because the ground simply is uneven and bothersome. Try as an existentialist may, it is hard to convince others of this conclusion, as people prefer their cosmological reasoning over the bland reality, in a sense fulfilling William James’ ideal of pleasant lies over difficult truths. Often, the truth of the matter is not so grand or romanticized as to be divinely appointed, and whether that divine appointment is decreed by a God of holiness or a Demon of hate, it is surely more easy to think of that than the void, shapeless, answer that there is no appointment.
In short, existentialism is an unpopular opinion.
To respond to Kierkegaard, a normal, modern-day American would have the question of, “well what about my happiness? My pleasure? Doesn’t that give my life meaning?” The existentialist would probably respond, “what about it? Does the universe care if you’re happy? Is your happiness consistent? Does it change you for the better? What is ‘better’ if there is no meaning to what you do?” In Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure is included, but is merely the first level of action that one can take and is equated to the mentality and behavior of a child. Indeed we can see this behavior exhibited in most children; the self-centered pursuit of innocent and simple joys is the central driving force of them as a whole. Though not condemned as “bad”, the action is simple, shallow, and lacks depth of any actual purpose to Kierkegaard. These actions could be used to deter the existential dread we all feel from time to time, but would never truly remedy it. It would be like simply putting the blindfold back on after having taken it off to see the world.
The next action that could be taken is to seek purpose in the service of community and the progression of such. This is a particularly interesting action, as it has great potential to contradict Kierkegaard’s frustration and hatred of large bureaucratic systems. In this action, or stage of life, one must come to the conclusion of where their personal aesthetic pleasures must stop and where the ethical “good” of their community begins. At some point, doing what pleases us conflicts with what is determined as “good” by the community we belong to. As we are social creatures, this need for belonging is important. Kierkegaard himself often loathed the large bureaucratic systems of church and state for being so large and impersonal as to quickly and easily lose many of the people supposedly kept among their ranks, making them replaceable.
Regardless, it is important to be a part of some sort of community, and a greater sense of purpose can come from sacrificing your own meaningless pleasures for the good of the community.
Usually, whatever is good for the community is a traditional definition of “good”, but unfortunately we have seen many instances in history where the majority’s definition of “good” doesn’t fit the general outcome we expect from it. In early American history, it would have been considered “good” for a white man to return a runaway African slave back to the property he came from. His community and culture would have celebrated his actions, and the man would feel more purpose in his life as he had aided in the purpose of the community. He could have chosen a more personal set of actions by ignoring the runaway slave, or even helping the slave escape if it was his prerogative, but these actions wouldn’t have given him as much purpose in his community as returning the slave would have.
To examples such as this, Kierkegaard shares his philosophy of truth’s subjectivity and the idea that every individual is indeed accountable for themselves:
Everyone must make an accounting to God as an individual; the king must make an accounting to God as an individual, and the most wretched beggar must make an accounting to God as an individual – lest anyone be arrogant by being more than an individual, lest anyone despondently think that he is not an individual, perhaps because in the busyness of the world he does not even have a name but is designated only by a number
In other words no one is exempt from personal responsibility, even when they act with the community in mind. We are not more than one person, as an emperor might suppose, and we are not simply a number obeying commands, we are all individuals who are in a state of terrorizing ability to completely act for ourselves at all times.
The final action we can do, or stage in life we can reach, is seeking purpose in the divine; the Christian God. I understand that I’ve already pointed out the absurdness in seeking purpose from cosmological things, but in a strange way that’s exactly how Kierkegaard ends up coming to this conclusion, and specifically how he finds results in the Christian God.
Considering himself a version of Socrates, the concept of falling back on “only God knows” isn’t outside of his philosophical spectrum. His reasoning for it, however, differ from Socrates initial intentions. Kierkegaard eventually finds himself thinking of a paradox, an inconceivable idea. How is it that man, who is flawed, can be aware of their sinful nature? In different terms, how can a mind that is not omnipotent be aware of exactly which parts it is not omnipotent of? Even more alarming: how can a human begin to even understand the idea of god incarnate through Jesus Christ? Where would any rational understanding of such a thing even come from? Kierkegaard gave these types of notion particular power in his mind, as he considered our drive for power and knowledge beyond our understanding as the foundation of religion itself. For how could he balance the two ideas that there is no meaning in the little things we do, and the idea of an omnipotent god that will pass judgement on every particular thing we do? These paradoxes must mean something.
In this continuing struggle for meaning and identity on a personal level, Kierkegaard is famous for a certain phrase, “a leap of faith”. In very Socratic fashion, Kierkegaard gives in to the idea the we, as human beings, do not know everything. In our search for meaning he found that there is very little meaning to be found aside from artificial meanings we will create for our own sanity. With these things in mind, Kierkegaard urges a very important idea that there is no empirical evidence of purpose in life; the only purpose that can be found is in a paradoxical god, who refuses to provide the empirical evidence needed to prove his own existence. So, for our natural religious, social natures as human beings, we must make this “leap of faith” to believe in a god that may or may not exist in order to find true, solid meaning in our lives. To truly reach the epitome of our authentic selves we must continue our paradoxical reach for purpose beyond our understanding. It reminds me a little of mathematics, the way that we use the number i, or the square root of negative 1. In reality, there is no square root of negative one, but by imagining that there is a value for such a number, we allow ourselves to progress much farther in mathematics than we would have otherwise. These imaginary numbers of mathematics provide a good parallel to the use of religion in our lives, as the leap of faith is i, and imaginary tool that is used to reach real solutions.
I find all of this fascinating. I am a religious man, and there is a lot of Kierkegaard’s struggles both philosophical and religious that I feel myself relate to. The biggest difference in perspective that I can see between Kierkegaard and myself is that I have never felt so gloomy about this existential reality. The void, the absurd, the emptiness of meaning in our everyday lives has seemed apparent to me since a young age, and I would promote a different take on the matter: it is absolutely marvelous and liberating. To me, pulling back the curtain on life and revealing the absolute terror of the frivolous attempts at purpose simply free me from a large amount of emotional baggage.
What am I going to do with my life? What will I do for my career? Who will I marry? Where will I live? What will I do if things don’t go the way that I’ve planned? My response: it doesn’t matter, so the answer to all these questions is whatever I want it to be. I know I will not find the greatest amount of happiness in doing whatever I want, but I also know that there is no possible way for me to know which choice will give me the most happiness, so it doesn’t really matter. If I wanted to be a hippie, living in the grand forests of the American west, camping between the great national parks and living off of food scraps, I would find just as much purpose in my life as if I became a CEO of the biggest bank in the world. If I had married one of my ex-girlfriends, or if I had messed up my relationship with my current wife, I would be very sad, but my life would continue and there would be more options in the future. The point being: if all the options yield the same interpersonal result of purpose, then I might as well choose the options that resemble the most authentic ‘me’.
Kierkegaard encouraged a behavior set on the ‘authentic’, meaning behavior set around who each of us really are as opposed to what the bureaucracy expects or wants us to be. These three actions, or stages of life are to help and encourage us to discover exactly who our authentic selfs are, and what purposes and actions we could truly commit ourselves to (without constant reluctance). Through the personal level we find what it is that we want: do we want a lot of money? Social fame? A warm house in the sun? Space to be left alone? We discover these types of things. Through the ethical level we discover what it is we are willing to compromise on: do we want to be alone so badly that we cut all ties to everyone? Do we want money so badly we’ll stab friends and coworkers in the back? If not, to what extent do we want alone time and money?
Finally, through the leap of faith and religious portion we (according to Kierkegaard) find true purpose and meaning by submitting ourselves to what a divine god would want or expect from our authentic selves. An omnipotent god would know exactly what every individual is capable of and willing to do, and by submitting oneself to seek supernatural guidance one can seek out a purpose that ascends above the possible faults of the ethical group and the hedonistic self to find lasting happiness and purpose.
So far, I have discovered that the ‘authentic me’ enjoys science, doesn’t care too much about money, avoids problems I don’t know how to solve, spends hours at a time developing solutions to problems I do know how to solve, is lackadaisical about day to day problems, is sometimes overwhelmed with the large problems of the world, etc. These things don’t change regardless of social situations, peer expectations, religious expectations, or family obligations. Interestingly enough, I do dedicate myself to church every sunday, to my wife to provide for the home, to my family to keep social connections strong, but I do all these things because they too are part of the ‘authentic me’, not because they have been taught as the ideal set of standards to uphold. Religiously, my authentic self seeks out a very christian lifestyle, much concerned with the poor and the needy and constantly looking for ways to help. I say this not to boast, but to show once again that this is not because my religion told me to do these things, but because I want to and I feel the divine wishes it from me. My religious leaders also encourage a clean shaven face and a mouth free of curse words, to which I say, “hell no!” because that is not my authentic self, and I see no purpose for that in the divine.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy of the existential is deeply personal and introspective, allowing for individuals to come to the realization of their own futile existence as they are able to. He would, through his writing, hope that more people could come to this realization sooner, but I suppose he understands that it’s not a perspective that can be taught, only experienced. The gripping reality of reality is sometimes frightening and uncomfortable, but I think it would be less so if more people let go of the things they assign meaning to and realize and laugh at the absurd. The more people dawn upon this realization, the more we can spend our time and effort on things that truly do have value and purpose. We can spend more times being our true selves.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Either, or. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Pr., 1987. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Quotable Kierkegaard. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Pr., 1987. Print.