Essays & Opinion Professor Wu's Rulebook

Kierkegaard and the Existentialists join the Stoics in Popular Appeal

In an age of anxiety and panic, author Gordon Marino explores the popularity of stoic philosophy, as well as the increasing popular appeal of existentialist philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard
Soren Kierkegaard: rising in popularity? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons).

As the myriad blogs and burgeoning number of philosophy magazines aimed at a general educated audience attest, interest in philosophy is fast spreading beyond the cool halls of academe. I sometime speculate that the awakening interest is in part the result of the fact that for many, belief in God has been put to bed. And yet many of those who find a personal god on an equal footing with Santa Claus, resist the idea that there is nothing “deeper” in life. Many of these hungry spirits are willing genuflect before philosophers as the priest class who can help guide them to that deeper and sacred sanctum.

Of the various schools of philosophy, none has reached the shores of a general audience more than the Stoics. The popularity of Marcus Aurelius and company is not surprising. After all, many of their works are non-technical, accessible, and choc-a-block with concrete applications.

The internet is full of inspirational quotes and images of Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius.

After all, we abide in an age of anxiety and panic, and, for the Stoics, “ataraxy” or calmness of spirit is the bull’s eye of life. The ancient and modern proponents of Stoicism preach that with practice we can learn to stop gnashing our teeth over matters outside of our control. Take notice though, the existentialists are also making headway into the public mindset.

Western philosophers have tended to treat emotions and moods as impediments to reason. The patron saint of the Stoics, Socrates, expressed an eagerness to die, imagining that in death he would be free of the chains of the body and the emotions that becloud the mind. While the Stoics might have regarded the emotions as obstacles to a peaceful spirit, they were also depth psychologists who took the management of feelings with the utmost seriousness. The same can be said for the Existentialists, and in particular Kierkegaard. On this issue, I can speak from experience and have done so in my memoir, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to be Authentic in an Inauthentic Age (Harper).

In contrast to the Stoics, who would help us talk ourselves out of troublesome feelings, Kierkegaard and his epigones glimpsed something positive in the unnerving feelings that we have medicalized and come to regard as symptoms. For Kierkegaard, it is in anxiety that we come to feelingly understand that we are free. Or as Kierkegaard puts it, “Freedom’s possibility announces itself in anxiety.” (CA 74)

Of course, Sartre and Heidegger will develop this insight; but for now it is enough to note that pace Kierkegaard, anxiety is feeling with a cognitive content, not a feeling that tosses a wrench into cognition. Kierkegaard wags a finger at the individual who boasts of being angst free, writing if “…the speaker maintains that the great thing about him is that he has never been in anxiety, I will gladly provide him with my explanation: that is because he is spiritless.” (CA 157)

In the final chapter of his dizzyingly complex The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard acknowledges that anxiety is perilous, that it put us in “danger of a fall, namely suicide.” And yet, in the same spate of pages, he pronounces, anxiety is “an adventure that every human being must go through — to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing in anxiety.” And then comes the exclamation point, which is not exactly a Stoic teaching, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” (CA 155)

The ultimate lesson in life is to learn what and what not to be anxious about. From page one to page last of the authorship, Kierkegaard insists that courage comes from one fear driving out another. For example, anxiety about becoming a liar should mute anxiety about the negative consequence that I might experience if I refrain from lying.

Lately, our threshold for tolerating the jitters is diminishing. But unlike the medicalizing life-style engineers who currently rule the psychological roost, Kierkegaard and other existentialists advice that anxiety is something we should learn to sit with on the couch.

Depression is also pandemic today. Kierkegaard maintained that there is kernel of wisdom that can be extracted from the funk. In his journals and clearly referring to his own melancholy, he sighs:

I dared to pray about everything, event the most foolhardy things, with the exception of one thing, release from a deep suffering that I have undergone from my earliest years but which I interpreted to be part of my relationship with God.

Therapists will pull faces at this suggestion but Kierkegaard insists that his depression helped him to understand his brokenness, his sinfulness. Those offended by such pieties might entertain the notion that depression can augment our capacity for empathy. For example, the profoundly melancholic Abraham Lincoln was perpetually haunted by suicidal impulses and yet perhaps those ominous moods were instrumental in his becoming a virtuoso of compassion. Walking under what Julia Kristeva calls the “back sun” can also help us to more fully fathom our all too human fragility and mutual dependence.

Kierkegaard’s go-to wisdom is often tucked-in quietly between the lines. Along with Freud, Kierkegaard recognized the rage at the core of depression. In one of his most edifying discourses, “At a Graveside” Kierkegaard addresses someone consumed by the inexplicable sadness. He advises the downhearted individual to grab himself by the collar, perhaps with the words, “My soul is in a mood, and if it continues this way, then there is in it a hostility toward me that can gain domination.” (TDI 84) Here Kierkegaard might be in agreement with the Stoics in that his recommended therapy is to repress thoughts and feelings that are an expressway to the underground in human beings.

In his customarily oblique way, Kierkegaard implores us to be honest with ourselves, to develop what Freud would have termed an “observing ego”, an internal vantage point from which we might be able to recognize being overrun by feelings that if permitted to blossom will lead to a nihilistic benumbed state of mind. Kierkegaardian psychoanalysis intimates that we humans frequently put the bellows to our emotions to the point where we experience ourselves as victims of feelings that we have largely brought upon ourselves. There are, for instance, people whom I, quite frankly, relish hating. And there have been nights when I have enflamed this ire to a level where I could neither concentrate nor sleep. The agitation felt like an attack from the outside but it was an experience that I brought upon myself.   

Once again, akin to the Stoics, Kierkegaard was concerned with developing the virtues that enable us to lead righteous lives. For him, self-deception is the most formidable obstacle to doing the right thing, and on his reckoning, hoodwinking ourselves is oiled by our boundless proclivity for procrastination.

Kierkegaard emphasizes that when faced with an ethical quandary, we must act as soon as we know what is right, but because most moral either/or’s require sacrificing self-interest, we tend to hesitate saying to ourselves, “We shall look at it tomorrow.” In the process of mulling over our decisions, “ knowing becomes more and more obscure…And when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other…eventually they agree completely.” And voila that right thing to do now becomes the easy thing to do. Drawing a dark conclusion, Kierkegaard roundly states, “And this is how perhaps the great majority of men live: they work to gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious knowledge.” (SUD) 

“He who studies with a philosopher,” the Stoic Seneca tells us, “should take home with him some good thing every day; he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to become sounder”; or else, he or she is wasting their time. Kierkegaard and at least some Existentialists would concur that philosophy, the love of wisdom, is all about being possessed of an esurient desire to live wisely – which for at least some of the black beret cadre does not necessarily imply becoming a happier person.

Raphael’s The School of Athens depicts ancient philosophers in Greece. For further evidence of the rise in popularity of philosophers – stoic and existential alike – look no further than ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’, an illustrated satirical book currently crowdfunding through award-winning alternative publishing house, Unbound.

Today, approximately one in six Americans regularly ingest some form of psychotropic drug. Both the Stoics and the Existentialists provide a fresh vocabulary for reading our inner-lives, a vocabulary that competes with current approaches understanding the pangs of the psyche. Still, there are striking differences between these two schools of practical thought.

 The Stoics were laser focused on self-control. One the favorite Stoic adages, was “control your mind and you control everything.” For all his sermonizing about choice, Kierkegaard underscored our fragility. For Kierkegaard if there is anything we should know and trust, it is this –  “we are nothing before God” or again that “we are always wrong before God.” Neither Marcus Aurelius nor your therapist is likely to countenance that kernel of counsel.

About the author of this post

Gordon Marino, who took his doctorate from the Committee on Social Thought (University of Chicago), is a professor of philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. He is the author of The Existentialist Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age, Kierkegaard in the Present Age, and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, editor of Basic Writings of Existentialism, Ethics: The Essential Writings and The Quotable Kierkegaard. An active boxing trainer, Gordon is also an award-winning boxing writer, who has written for the Wall Street Journal and other outlets.  His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many other domestic and international publications. He lives in Northfield, Minnesota.

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