I got today’s inspiration from another blog post I read in the NY Times. Check out this link. Kierkegaard has been probably one of my favorite authors for some time now. He was one of the best at wrapping up life’s little mysteries into bite-sized pieces, readily giving his readers food for thought when trying to digest his conflicting pseudonyms’ stances on some of life’s most interesting paradoxes.
The book that the blog makes reference to is the Concept of Dread. In it, Kierkegaard conducts a psychological analysis of dread, by first starting with the presupposition of the dogma of Original Sin.. Okay, so I won’t venture too far into religious considerations. The point, however, that Kierkegaard – or should I say, Vigilius Haufniensis – makes is that visualizing and interpreting the problem of dread through the lens of a Christian worldview is useful in making sense of the consequent notion of freedom in dread. This is the paradox which I will be getting at shortly.
Haufniensis initially argues that there is a sense of ambiguity in the nature of the self, given its metaphysical make-up. He thinks that our selves are constituted out of various opposing syntheses, or relations, which we struggle with to relate to ourselves in a way that makes for a definite perspective on life. The key syntheses that he refers to is the temporal vs. eternal and freedom vs. necessity. Haufniensis wants to suggest that dread is posited in us once we accept that there is such a thing as sin in the world, and that we accept that Adam’s first sin was presupposed in that Adam’s sin was brought about by sin, and that every subsequent sin which we commit is due to Adam’s sin. Only after this is accepted, Haufniensis thinks, can we really understand dread.
Haufniensis then describes the phenomenon of dread in several ways, but the way that I always thought was most interesting was that of an even more ambiguous middle term which sits somewhere between two terms: the guilt of sin and the freedom from sin. Haufniensis is careful to point out that there is no focused object of our dread. In fact, it is precisely this: Nothing. This is due to the ambiguous position which dread takes when thought of in terms of sin. To be clear, one who is in dread would feel the guilt of sinning without ever having sinned, because, our nature has already been determined to be that of sinners who always fall short of God’s commandments. But at the same time, we are inclined to feel free from sin, since we haven’t actually done anything wrong in the first place that would be considered a sin. Haufniensis thinks these two opposing forces which would simultaneously want to pull us either in or out of sin is what best explains the concept of dread.
Now comes the fun part. If we just admit for the sake of argument that sin exists out in the world, how do we make sense of our freedom? Kierkegaard, as a Christian himself, speaks of the “dizziness of freedom,” and how this is a major component of dread. We realize our absolute freedom in the overwhelmingly vast number of possibilities which we could choose to realize for our selves, and this leaves us feeling a very real sensation of psychological vertigo. But now, if all of this is true, don’t we stumble across a paradox of being responsible for exercising an unfree freedom? Don’t we, in our dread, feel powerless to the push-pull struggle which we experience as sinners, or, in the other case, feel unable to ground ourselves in pursuing a single path, given the boundless number of possibilities. Wouldn’t either of these work to hamper our supposed freedom?
Here’s my thought on how to make this paradox come apart. There’s no way easy way to break free from sin once it’s there, but this doesn’t mean that we are enslaved or made unfree by it. To be sure, our free will allows us to choose to sin on our own, but even after this choice is made there is a way out. Namely, that is to revise our sets of beliefs and corresponding intentions so that we keep ourselves from making the same mistakes again. Although we may be subject to making mistakes, we are still free from sin when we have the best intentions for ourselves and everyone around us. Kierkegaard might disagree with this, insofar as sin is an all-or-nothing description of acting in a way which is against God. He might suggest that it has nothing to do with our intention, or attitude, toward our actions. But I’d reply to say that if we’re really careful to narrow the scope of the argument into the psychological frame of analysis which he sets out to study the problem in, then having the best intentions does allow us to understand that we are capable of exercising a degree of control despite sin – or what would seem to be an uncontrollable consequence of the human condition. On the surface, then, we can say that we are, in our dread, still free; though this freedom, under this description, doesn’t really consist of anything, since it is a freedom from sin.
To make freedom more substantive, we have to analyze it under the second example of vertigo. Here, I would argue that we are free in having the acute awareness of infinite possibility, because we are always in a situation in which we have to make a choice. There’s no not choosing. When the man on the ledge realizes that he is absolutely free, he not only comes to realize that his freedom can go one of many (morbid) ways, but that it also demands him to decide to live or to die. So to put this back into perspective, the fact that the man is living literally on the edge makes it so that he is confronted with his freedom. In other words, the situation or context one finds one’s self in is what imposes the limits to possibility, in a way that allows possibility to collapse into a particular choice so we can best focus on a particular task. So in short, the abyss of possibility does not drop down as far as we would initially think. Only after we realize that we are living in the present and knocked back down to earth from our tower can we truly see the impact of our choices; choices which are biconditional on our freedom. We only get one opportunity to make life count, and knowing this is what drives me to direct my energies toward becoming the particular future self who I would like to be.
So Kierkegaard was on to something with his analysis of dread. It made it clear for me that freedom would be the essential paradox to consider. Even if you are someone who is daunted by having to enter into religious speculations, I still think that something meaningful and worthwhile can be taken away in trying to pick this guy’s mind(s)! There is always more paradoxes for us to dismantle within Kierkegaard’s world – a world full of such irony and wit. I think that even if you disagree with something that he says, you’ll always be surprised to hear that, somewhere else, he’ll be nodding his head in agreement with you. And this is why we still don’t understand him.
But that’s okay, because the point which he – and now I – am making is that some things just don’t need to be completely understood. As he put it himself: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
A paradox, as a true paradox, is one such thing which defies comprehension. But it’s funny because even this brute fact won’t stop me from freely living it out.
Wait, that’s a contradiction. I guess he was right: Life apparently is unreasonable.