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Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind (Burnt Norton, 1-15)

Burnt Norton (Rose Garden) - P7040004

The “Burnt Norton” manor house in Cotswold, south central England that T.S. Eliot drew his inspiration from. These are some of the beautiful rose-gardens.

If you have been following my blog, you might have noticed I changed its name. I decided this was best. My previous title The Popular Front seemed to outlive any meaning I had attached to it initially. This blog has changed from what I had originally intended it to be — from a (loosely) Marxist commentary on history, to a medium where I can write about the other humanities. All of these many topics intersect and the name The Popular Front, I feel, carries too much historical weight. It corners me to uphold certain political beliefs I had when I created it, some of which I do not hold now. I needed something more amenable, a title that didn’t signify an exact political ideology, and also one that was more curious than definitive. This isn’t to say that the bases of my politics are drastically different of course, but I am saying that the way I view my interests in relation to one another has changed, for the better. This has led to me to rename my blog to what it is now: Into the Rose-Garden, taken from the first part of T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton. 

Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of work I have ever read. It is part of a greater set of poems titled Four Quartets. Part I, especially, evokes a certain feeling (which I’ll get to in a bit) that I have yet to see captured in other literature so brilliantly. In the opening stanza of this poem (cited above the image), Eliot is merging two very crucial movements in intellectual history to reach an understanding of Truth. One is the European tradition of Romanticism which centered on ideals and realizing them. It was a very uplifting interpretation of human progress and historical necessity and was captured probably most famously in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich (you’ve likely seen it before; if not, here is a link). One of the problems of Romanticism, however, was that in a finite world, how can you capture the fullness of all experiences and all we can achieve (i.e. the infinite)? The early romantic poet Novalis writes of this:

Time originates with displeasure. Thus, all displeasures [are] so long and all joy so short… displeasures are finite like time. Everything finite originates out of displeasure [1].

In other words, finality becomes the ultimate limitation to the Romanticist dream: time and eventual death are the ultimate equalizer. As it is said, “whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”

The second school(s) of thought that are also at play here are also some elements of Buddhism. Eliot was clearly familiar with Buddhist thought because it’s outright mentioned in his other poem The Waste Land. Eliot’s conception of time in the first above-mentioned stanza of the poem is extremely similar to Buddhist conceptions of dependent origination — the idea that everything which exists, all beings, are intrinsically related to one another. Eliot applies this idea of dependent origination to also include time itself; a moment captures either all of time or none of it because all temporality is intimately linked together. These concepts of “past, present, and future” are merely our own abstractions and the only real reason we can make these distinctions is because of the present experience. Time can thus be viewed as a metaphorical “hall of mirrors” — where the present encapsulates all that has occurred and all of what is to come. It is through the reflection of the present that we can see all time. As the Buddhist philosopher Dogen rhetorically wrote in the 13th century:

Just reflect: right now, is there an entire being or an entire world missing from your present time, or not? [3].

The present is thus the most important moment there is. This makes all of our choices immediately relevant and if you read further down in the poem, T.S. Eliot writes:

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate…

The poem goes on to describe what the bird (symbolic of Truth) leads Eliot to sees in his Manor. He moves from one thing to the next, following the bird, showing the continuity of all experience. Finally, the second section closes with:

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

What exactly is this “rose-garden?” — I view it as the greatest manifestation of the Romantic ideal, where language breaks down into what we cannot ever describe; it is the infinite, the most perfect, and an encapsulation of all time; it is also the metaphorical escape from the limits of materialism. However, the irony is that the rose-garden, despite being the greatest manifestation of the infinite, must still be viewed through time. This is because we have no choice. It is “only through time [that] time [be conquered]” and thus it is only through the finite that we can step into, or even glimpse, the rose-garden. Therefore, I do not view entering the rose-garden as an actual choice between one event or another. The choice isn’t to go into the rose-garden or not. We can never fully comprehend this splendor (i.e. actually go into the rose-garden) because we are bound as finite beings. Because of this, we are forced to view it through time itself — which, if we understand what T.S. Eliot said in the beginning of the poem and its Buddhist origins — encompasses virtually everything we can conceive of. The rose-garden is thus present in virtually every situation, we just need to make the conscious choice to be aware of it and capture whatever part of it that we can. The bird even hints at this in these excellent lines where the “hidden” (a crucial word, here) laughing children in the leaves are comparable to the rose-garden itself:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

This symbolic potential for transcendence — the rose-garden– is present everywhere; held together by a radical conception of the present, the rose-garden is the interpolation of all time, of every possible narrative, and a symbol of infinitude. It captures a feeling that can be grasped but never fully realized, and as such its poetry more often resembles fervent religiosity rather than just an elaborate illustration of what life could be. 

I highly recommend reading the entire poem. I have only broken down this small portion of a greater masterpiece, but it definitely deserves a very detailed read. Regardless, this was the inspiration that brought me to alter the meaning of my blog, and even to reconsider all my writing in new light — my own literature should reorient itself to this end. And on that note, after a long hiatus on this blog, I would like to make it active again.

 

Kierkegaard & Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard are often grouped together as some of the first thinkers in what would become existential philosophy. However, Nietzsche (who outlived Kierkegaard by decades) likely never encountered the other’s work directly. The differences between them are therefore stark. Although diametrically opposed on religion, both philosophers find some common ground in making the subject the most prescient matter in their works. It is this similarity which leads them into comparable territory – it forces them to reconsider the metaphysical tribulations that were (and still are) ingrained in Western culture, critiquing and dismantling them, all in hopes of giving the individual the philosophical focus it so deservingly needs. Nietzsche arguably does this best since he begins by overturning basic assumptions, leaving nothing unchecked, and then works his way up to the individual and the herd. Thus, although Kierkegaard writes poetically of the self, Nietzsche truly provides existentialism with an all-encompassing critique of contemporary thought by beginning with basal ontology and then moving forward, in an engaging fashion.

I. Ontological Differences and Categorizations of the Self

Kierkegaard does not have a strident ontology of anything but the self. For him, the self is all-encompassing and the most pressing issue. Therefore, he is not concerned with the categorization of “being” in the tradition of Aristotelian thought. Rather, he turns his focus to subjective experience. This is particularly why in Martin Heidegger’s notes on Being and Time he gives Kierkegaard much credit. He writes, “Søren Kierkegaard explicitly seized upon the problem of existence as an existentiell problem, and thought it through in a penetrating fashion” (Perkins, 187). Heidegger recognizes Kierkegaard as the first to establish the self not as a category of thought, but rather as a way of being. In other words, one becomes a subject rather than thinking subjectivity into being. It is on this basis that Kierkegaard largely stays away from abstractions on religion, the self, or society. In the same vein as Nietzsche’s polemics against metaphysics, William Barrett describes Kierkegaard’s skepticism in Irrational Man:

Existence and theory about existence are not one and the same, any more than a printed menu is as effective a form of nourishment as an actual meal. More than that: the possession of a theory about existence may intoxicate the possessor to such a degree that he forgets the need of existence altogether (Barrett, 141).

Kierkegaard was attempting to fight against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the time, which posited that man was merely a victim of social forces – a philosophy where the individual disappears in change, rather than creating the change himself. Whereas many thinkers of his time influenced by Hegel and Kant saw existence as a concept, Kierkegaard realized that “[his] own existence [was] not a matter of speculation to [him], but a reality in which [he was] personally and passionately involved” (Barrett, 145). Therefore, Kierkegaard viewed the categorization of the self as a perversion of subjectivity. Existence is not mirrored as a concept in the mind, it is self-created and self-categorized through the “Either/Or of choice” (Barrett, 145). No metaphysical abstractions will do the self justice – only the subjective choices truly represent it.

Similar to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s conception of “being” is difficult to pinpoint since he is mostly a political writer interested in polemics. Yet, his ontology is the cornerstone of his greater ideas and is therefore necessary to understanding his positions fully. His ontology can thus best be watered down to a kind of opposition to Kantian conceptions of “being.” Kant considers there to be two realms of knowledge regarding an object, that which is phenomenon (i.e. experienced by the senses) and that which is noumenon (i.e. “something that is thought” or “the object of an act of thought”). Thus, Kant differentiates a “thing” from a “thing-it-self” and posits that the latter is not fully knowable since we can only infer from the appearances of phenomena. Kant uses noumena as a way to defend reason and metaphysics by arguing they are a “necessary limitation” since they leave questions of the divine outside of its scope.

The "thing-in-itself" is seen as that which is beyond perception.

The “thing-in-itself” is seen as that which is beyond perception.

For Nietzsche, Kant’s distinction is a meaningless metaphysical construction. A “thing-in-itself” cannot be conceived separate from its appearance, since that would undermine our entire ability to perceive. Noumenon is therefore identical to phenomenon. It is from here that Nietzsche begins to break down Western metaphysics from its dogmatic roots. By eliminating the “metaphysical realm,” Nietzsche inadvertently opens the door to an innumerable amount of questions – if there is no noumenon, if appearance is all we have, then there is no objective ethics, no distinction between metaphysics and science, and no knowledge greater than us. This trail of thought inevitably leads to a form of subjectivity, one which Kierkegaard embraces as the only real truth. Nietzsche pushes this idea to its ultimate conclusion by arguing for a morality beyond good and evil, giving agency to the individual rather than to “objective” categorizations of what one ought to do. It is through his rejection of the noumenon that he affirms life, the subject, and experience as the basis of philosophy itself.

Questions of noumenon for Nietzsche are useless since this reality is the only reality we can conceive of. Discussions on “ideal” or “greater” forms are thus useless in accruing usable knowledge. Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols, “the reasons for which this world has been characterized as apparent are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable… The apparent world is the only one, the true world is merely added by a lie” (Addis, 27). It is here that he accuses Western metaphysics of perpetrating a lie, of creating a “true” world of greater forms that distorts our actual perceivable reality. He goes even further, laying a criticism on Kant’s influence on metaphysics in The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy by contrasting him with Schopenhauer.

Kant clung to the university, subjected himself to governments, remained within the appearance of religious faith, and endured colleagues and students… Schopenhauer [had] no consideration for the scholars’ caste, stands apart, strives for independence of stat and society… wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher (Kaufman, 123).

Therefore, Nietzsche mostly rejected metaphysics as institutionally illegitimate. William Barrett speaks of this in the Irrational Man, arguing that “Nietzsche ridiculed the very notion of Being as one of the most deceptive ghosts spawned by the brains of philosophers, the most general and therefore the emptiest of concepts” (Barrett, 178). Hence, there are no transcendent features of humanity that are always true irrespective of context. Such claims are that which philosophers want to be true since every great philosophy, as Nietzsche writes, “is the personal confession of the author” (Magnus, 216). Therefore, for Nietzsche, Western metaphysics ironically proves his argument for will to power – be it Kant’s a priori arguments for noumena, or Plato’s forms, these metaphysical claims are merely descriptions of what the author wants to see in the world, all to grant him to the power of knowledge, in the hopes of foolishly making the world more recognizable.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche value the subject and largely reject metaphysics, which is where they intersect ontologically. Kierkegaard’s position against universals bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s position of perspectivism – that there are many different interpretations, and different perspectives, of a particular truth. He echoes this sentiment in Three Upbuilding Discourses, “When one person sees one thing and another sees something else in the same thing, then the one discovers what the other conceals” (Hong, 59). Therefore, it is through subjective perspectives and the commonality between them that we find truth and fulfillment as individuals, rather than through categorizations and abstractions.

II. Ontology Applied: Consciousness, the Subject, and the Masses

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both place emphasis on the individual, but apply these emphases differently. Nietzsche is concerned with the will of the individual in social relations and is thus concerned with questions of consciousness that Kierkegaard neglects to mention. He begins this inquiry from his ontology – if there are no metaphysical claims “beyond” human capacities, all that is required is the will for it to be done. It is from here Nietzsche explores consciousness, stemming from his ontological foundations.

gay-scienceHe theorizes in the Gay Science that “consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication… consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings” (Solomon, 70). This “net of communication” Nietzsche speaks of can be conceived as a type of organization within an individual himself. In other words, consciousness is necessary to reconcile and communicate competing instincts, drives, desires, and passions. Given all of this burden internally, man is left powerless. Nietzsche writes:

Our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness… as the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress to make himself understood (Solomon, 70).

It is here that Nietzsche’s position on the self becomes clear – we are not a kind of “Platonic essence” or a “Cartesian thinking substance”; we are a product of competing drives and perspectives. He goes further argue a controversial point that cements most men into the herd.

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature (Solomon, 71).

It from here that man finds himself stuck. Nietzsche describes our “subconscious world [as one of] servant organs working in mutual co-operation and antagonism” (Samuel, 34). We neglect this internal relationship and create a “little tabula rasa of the consciousness” through induced forgetfulness“ to make room again for the new, and above all for the more noble functions and functionaries, room for government, foresight, predetermination” (Samuel, 34). Thus, the creation of structure and the herd requires a kind of forgetfulness that is self-induced.

Kierkegaard fails to properly discuss consciousness in the context of the crowd. He only briefly explores phenomenology in The Concept of Anxiety where he argues that anxiety serves as a means for the mind to induce self-conscious reflection before a choice of either/or. The lack of analysis on consciousness leaves a gap in Kierkegaard’s work – he jumps into analyses of the self without fully establishing his foundations. Nietzsche’s claims, on the other hand, build off each other by philosophically reaching the self from the ground-up rather than assuming certain characteristics of the self and its interaction with the world.

Looking past consciousness, Nietzsche begins to dismantle the herd and its characteristics. He sees it as the main opponent of the individual since it values what does not have value. The herd accepts pessimism and makes value judgments based on fear and peer-approval rather than personal conviction; They take comfort in being in relation to others. For Nietzsche, the herd denies their own will. Similarly, Kierkegaard writes that “a crowd – in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision” (Solomon, 13). The crowd (or the herd) therefore dissipates responsibility among itself, acting as one unit, but not taking responsibility as one. This creates a dissonance between action and accountability, which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are correct to be wary of.

III. How Do We Ought to Live?

The question of what we ought to do is a difficult one and both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche treat this question differently. Kierkegaard argues that the leap to faith is necessary reach the religious state where one is personal dialogue with God. It is at this level that the self is actualized and becomes fully authentic in serving a greater subjective purpose. Therefore, the religious stage is beyond living as a mere ethical individual; it suspends the universal ethical for a subjective realization of God’s purpose. Nietzsche, too, suspends the universal ethical, but he does this from a very different philosophical position. Nietzsche’s discussion of ethics is not normative. He is very polemical in his writing and fervent in his criticisms, but he does not prescribe an easy solution to the social ills he diagnoses. He is simply interested in removing constraints, both real and imagined, which prevent individuals from reaching their actual potentiality. He worked to bring philosophy down from divine instruction to more human relations, in the grasp of our will. Kierkegaard, alternatively, wishes for us to subjectively realize this divine instruction rather than have it be commanded to us by others.

Despite not having a normative description of ethics, the point to take away from Nietzsche’s writing is clear – He was for the affirmation of life, to be able to look back on your life and confidently say “once more,” and to be able to celebrate one’s whole life in full. Kierkegaard was for this affirmation, but with strings attached which envelops man into an innumerable amount of paradoxes and inconsistencies. Despite Kierkegaard’s push for subjectivity above all else, he still leaves man’s subjectivity in the presence of God. Despite his desire to be authentic, his argument for the divine still robs the individual of pure autonomy since he is beholden to a greater power beyond himself. Nietzsche would find this to be a perversion of man’s will. Therefore, abandoning the divine as a legitimate argument truly places power back into the hands of the individual by eliminating the unnecessary contradictions Christian theology brings and all the institutional baggage it holds.

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche's affirmation of life; that one would do it all over again if need be, for eternity. This piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s affirmation of life; that one would do life all over again, if need be, for eternity. This particular piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX.

IV. The Existential Diagnosis

Being polemical authors, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are both heavily invested in social criticism and vindicating the self against the masses. Kierkegaard identifies these social ills in The Present Age where he eloquently argues against the social excesses of temporary pleasure as a means of coping with existential angst. It is an age of confused spontaneity and misdirection, an “age of advertisement and publicity” where “nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere” (Solomon, 4). It is also an age where the public domineers, leveling passion to the lowest common denominator; “it hinders and stifles all action” (Solomon, 7). Kierkegaard argues that the public is “the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant” since one can speak to the whole nation on behalf of all, but yet actually be speaking to no true individual at all.

Nietzsche characterizes his contemporary society as approaching the “advent of nihilism” and Kierkegaard would surely agree. However, they would differ on the reasons behind the cultural malaise that sweeps Europe. Nietzsche would attribute the age of nihilism as a consequence of the death of God. He writes in The Gay Science, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms” (Kaufmann, 126). Nietzsche is arguing that we have exhausted religion as a moral compass and source of meaning, yet the objectivity we derived from the divine we still use foolishly. Kierkegaard would certainly disagree with this characterization, instead arguing that the cultural malaise is due to a lack of true religiosity of the self through institutional Christendom. Here, Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s diagnosis of society can be synthesized to form a more complete picture – the kind of hedonism Kierkegaard describes is one of worry and concern, but it is directly linked to Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism. It is because we are living in the age of nihilism that the present age is so bleak.

V. Conclusion

Overall, Nietzsche provides a far more nuanced existential critique of society and the limitations imposed on individuals from realizing themselves fully. Kierkegaard sets the foundation for analysis of the self through his assertions, but he fails to build on his ideas. Nietzsche’s thought can be mapped from his ontology, to his definition of consciousness, and then consistently applied to his social criticisms – Kierkegaard fails to create this basis and instead places the ideal individual in the hands of God. Inadvertently, Nietzsche pokes holes into Kierkegaard’s dependence on the divine through his anti-Christian rhetoric, during which he makes the case that the divine is yet another limitation on self-realization. Therefore, Kierkegaard – although passionate and refined in his interpretation of God – fails to capture the spirit of individuality fully, since it is constantly being anchored in Christian imagery. Nietzsche breaks all assumptions, questioning the very basis of Western though, forcing us to start from scratch and affirm life for what it is, in all its contradictions and absurdities.

***

– Perkins, Robert L. The Concept of Anxiety (International Kierkegaard Commentary). Mercer University Press, 1985. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Addis, Laird. Nietzsche’s Ontology. Ontos Verlag, 2012. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre,. New York: Meridian Books,    1956. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University    Press, 1996. Print.

– Hong, V. Howard. Hong, Edna H. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses: Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 5.    Reprint Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

– Samuel, Horace B. The Genealogy of Morals. New York. Dover Publications, Inc., 2003. Print.

– Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 1st ed. New York: Modern Library, 1974. Print.

I. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maxim

sartre-endIn October of 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a speech at the Club Maintenant. His remarks would become the basis of his next book, Existentialism and Humanism, published in 1946. In it, he establishes the idea of “existence precedes essence,” which would become the maxim of successive existentialist thought. This statement was a reversion of previous Christian arguments on existence, which argued God crafted an essence before one’s actual birth through a divine plan. Sartre recanted this idea and instead inverted it – rather than preceding existence, each individual is responsible for subjectively crafting one’s own essence, where he defines himself to his own liking. Thus, true “freedom” is the ability to authentically craft our own individual essence.

Sartre makes these claims of “defining our own essence” within a capitalist framework. In retrospect, our “essence” cannot be autonomously defined in an environment which manipulates desire. In other words, in order for our desires to be authentic, our environment must, too, be authentic. Capitalism maintains its hegemony through a production of desires which manifests itself through our consumption. Therefore, since consumers – which is all we are reduced to, consumers – exist in an artifice, their essence is also artificial. Sartre’s maxim would be unequivocally true if a coercive environment did not precede our existence. However, the truth in his statement is only partial. Rendered inauthentic by mass consumerist society, we are left with merely just existence without essence. As Oscar Wilde put it half a century beforehand, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” [1].

II. Marx’s Conception of Alienation 

Philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century described a phenomenon known as proletarianization. It is a form of downward mobility, where the working class grows larger through increasing levels of capital accumulation. As a result, wealth becomes transferred to fewer and fewer hands as the individuals who were once employers now are demoted to mere workers with labor power. And with this transformation, more individuals are coerced into selling their work for a wage. It through proletarianization that an increasing number of individuals experience “subjectivity without essence” – in Marxist terms, alienation.

responseIn modern late capitalist society, this idea has been pushed to its very extreme. Contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek argues that the current historical situation should push us to radicalize the idea of proletarianization further, since its use has expanded far beyond the confines of the industrial setting [2]. Proletarianization is much more than a reference to a growing working class; it is a condition where an individual is ripped of his/her product, that which is naturally theirs. Therefore, Zizek argues, capitalism embraces this as an end far beyond the base of production. The current ecological crisis is yet another attempt to separate us from our environment. Similarly, intellectual property is a way to separate us from collective ownership, ripping us apart from our substance. In an effort to compartmentalize every aspect of life, capitalism detaches man from his surroundings and creates separation where there was previously none [3].

Thus, given these efforts to fundamentally alter human relations, can Sartre’s conception of essence truly exist in any authentic sense? If essence demands subjectivity than we cannot call anything contemporary “authentic” since our subjectivity is constantly being created for us rather than by us. As Zizek calls it, capitalism leaves us “subjectivity without substance,” in that it leaves us with constant displacement beyond our personal control.

III. Existing within the Simulacra

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Now, how does freedom fit into this end? It simply cannot. True freedom cannot coexist with institutions which subjugate, separate, and alienate individuals. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation denounces contemporary society as merely an artifice masquerading as the Real by eliminating any alternatives to its hegemony. He writes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” [4]. Therefore, contemporary capitalist society – the simulacrum – attempts to normalize exploitative relations in an effort to make them appear universal. Because of this, we oftentimes assume liberal conceptions of liberty are the only form of liberty. In retrospect, this is the only form of liberty that can exist within a capitalist framework. Since systemic forms of oppression are cyclical in capitalist systems, they become normalized and expected. Therefore, commonplace conceptions of “freedom” are skewed and limited to the current economic paradigm and fail to transcend it.

Because liberal freedom is mainstay, proletarianization is seen as complementary to liberty in contemporary Western society. It is not seen as a menace; rather, it simply is. It is this acceptance and rationalization of oppression which prevents freedom from expanding. Worse so, it makes individuals hesitant to even accept greater conceptions of freedom. Again, it all relates back to Baudrillard’s conception of the artifice – the simulation becomes the only reality, while the Real is nonexistent. And it is within this artificial framework that radical freedom, free of institutional oppression and real autonomy, cannot exist.

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation derives much of its theories on artifice from the French Situationist school of thought, particularly Guy Debord. He writes in Society of the Spectacle, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing” [5]. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of the artifice as symbols; these symbols reaffirm themselves and the existing artifice they create. Most importantly, such an environment induces individuals to uphold the artifice as if it were the Real. As Debord argues, “The more powerful the class, the more it claims it does not exist.” Because the Real can never be acknowledged, subtle censorship is crucial to maintaining its hegemony; and it is within this paradigm that freedom cannot exist in any complete context.

While we continue to exist in the artifice, individuals cannot achieve their essence. Hence, Sartre’s maxim is incomplete. Since human agents are victim to their circumstances, hierarchies of oppression hamper any realization of true freedom. These systemic imbalances in in class, race, sex, and gender maintain themselves by merely being viewed within liberal capitalism, rather than through the Real. Freedom is unable to be fully realized with this intact. In order for real freedom to be actualized, man has to transcend efforts of marginalization in order to complete the second half of Sartre’s phrase – and it begins by dismantling the institutions that constrict individual autonomy and liberty.

***

– Estranged Labor by a young Karl Marx discusses alienation as a concept. It is part of a greater collection called Economic Manuscripts of 1844. 

Anxiety is the unpleasant feeling of an unrealistic fear. It is a human response to the absurdity of life’s displeasure and its seemingly aimless journey. Such feelings are largely created before choices of consequence, when an individual feels powerless, and where such an action could lead to possible pain.

One of the few actual sketches of Søren Kierkegaard.

The classic example is one philosopher Søren Kierkegaard mentions in his writing, The Concept of Anxiety. Take it that a man is standing alongside a cliff. He looks down and sees the drop below him. He fears the he may fall, but at the same time, he is terrifyingly intrigued. He has an impulse to jump, but he also experiences fear because he knows it would mean his imminent death. Kierkegaard calls this the “dizziness of freedom” — we have the freedom of choice, to make even the deadliest of choices, and this induces existential anxiety and dread. For most people, the fear of the death strays us away from jumping. For those that psychotically lack it, they succumb to their impulses and jump. In the case of the Biblical story of Adam of Eve, anxiety is understood by Kierkegaard as a precursor to sin. God tells Eve not to eat the fruit or she would face death and pain. Through this restriction, Eve is given a choice whether or not to eat the forbidden fruit. The anxiety of the moral decision is captured by her interaction with the serpent which tempts her to eat it — like the cliff, she feels compelled to jump. Kierkegaard, through this story, comes to a conclusion on sin. Sin is always preceded by anxiety. And the first such instance in Genesis, according to old Christian theology, was precluded by anxiety.

Although I take literal interpretations of Biblical texts with a grain of salt, the religious language in Kierkegaard’s writing can be replaced with more secular lingo and still be considered valid. “God” is symbolic of objective morality and sin is the failure to live up to it. Whenever an immoral act is committed, and a grave choice is involved, there is existential anxiety that precedes it. Kierkegaard contends that this anxiety can be mediated through eternal values that transcend the choices we are placed into, since our decisions are subject to the twists and turns of everyday life. He argues we must establish meaning through objective concepts that we should abide by. To explain this, he illustrates an image of a sailor lost at sea.

How, then, shall we face the future? When the sailor is out on the ocean, when everything is changing all around him, when the waves are born and die, he does not stare down into the waves, because they are changing. He looks up at the stars. Why? Because they are faithful; they have the same location now that they had for our ancestors and will have for generations to come. By what means does he conquer the changeable? By the eternal. By the eternal, one can conquer the future, because the eternal is the ground of the future, and therefore through it the future can be fathomed. What, then, is the eternal power in a human being? It is faith. What is the expectancy of faith? Victory-or, as Scripture so earnestly and so movingly teaches us, that all things must serve for good those who love God. [Eighteen Upbuilding Discourse, 19]

The Signal of Distress by Winslow Homer

The Signal of Distress by Winslow Homer

I disagree with Kierkegaard’s final conclusion on faith, because I take it that moral objectivity can be reached without divine inspiration, but his thought process is valid. Through an “eternal” morality, one can guide oneself through all of life’s moral decisions. The closest such axiom that exists in secular thought would be the “Golden Rule” which is derived from empathy: one should not treat others in ways that one would not want to be treated. Moral conclusions should not be based on the arbitrary ebbing and flowing of subjective life. If that was the case, to the common observer, heinous acts of immorality would be considered “moral” in the time period they were committed. Because slavery was at one time considered “moral” by popular standards, did that make it truly ethical? No, because it breaks eternal moral codes that are always true. Regardless of the time period, these principles stand tall and serve as a guide with which to judge decisions made in the past and those yet to be made.

Anxiety, therefore, is a symptom of a lack of existential direction. It is induced when an individual is lost in the random spontaneity of the natural world. Likewise, such anxiety can be mitigated when the individual develops a proper objective view on life. However, there is a minor caveat — the conclusions that the secular explanation gives us through the Golden Rule is one that still lacks proper foresight. Surely, acts of self defense are morally permissible, but how does that fit within the context of the Golden Rule? We know the assailant is committing an immoral act according to this axiom, but the question of self-defense is left unanswered. Therefore, an objective moral code that is derived from secular understanding requires a more nuanced explanation that is all-encompassing. It requires expanding to cover all aspects of an ethical life. It also requires constantly being tweaked using the Golden Rule as an objective starting point. Although not complete, the Golden Rule is the closest estimation of a moral maxim that many of our own decisions can be based around.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, turns this conclusion on its head and argues that faith brings one to an eternal understanding that would work to subdue the existential anxiety and dread we experience. A morality based on divine command, a list of necessary obligations, is the simplest solution to the problem of objective ethics — the question is, however, from which command on high does one follow and is it ever disputable? I would prefer an objective ethics that is able to be tinkered with until a seemingly perfect code is established. One that is always applicable but subject to minor changes based on enlightened understanding, rather than an absolutist position that is easily exploited by power. Regardless, Kierkegaard is correct in his assertion of the necessity of an all-encompassing life view. It is necessary so that, just like the sailor of the story, one does not get lost in the waves of everyday life itself, which is too oftentimes muddled with subjective preferences and fleeting emotions. And succumbing to such feelings would be a perversion of reason and a squandering of life’s many splendors.

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