“I believe the Left has a great deal that is can learn from these arguments. For too long we have left problems of meaning to the Right, while largely focusing on issues of material equality and political participation.”
“How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech.”
On the one hand, it might seem highly unusual to write a piece about what the Left can learn from a thinker like Søren Kierkegaard. The so-called “melancholy” Dane wrote relatively little about politics directly and often seemed to consider it a relatively superficial phenomenon. Moreover, to the extent he was political, Kierkegaard was highly critical of the liberalization of Danish society and the national Church, especially. He felt that the greater social and political freedoms people now enjoyed had the potential to turn people away from higher pursuits and towards the crude lusting for pleasure and mean satisfaction.
As he artfully put it, “People demand freedom of speech as compensation for the freedom of thought they seldom use.” Kierkegaard himself would get a taste of this when he got caught in the midst of a vicious cycle of scandal and gossip with the liberal Corsair magazine. In 1845, in response to a lukewarm article about his work, Kierkegaard had dared the Corsair to satirize him, and the magazine duly obliged. It became difficult for the legendarily intense and proud man to even step outside without facing mockery. This instilled in Kierkegaard a distrust of the press and mass society, which would culminate in works like The Present Age in which he mocked liberal mass society and its alleged freedoms. Finally, Kierkegaard was a Christian thinker who wrote voluminously on the topic of the Church and faith. This puts him at odds with much of current Left wing thing, which tends to be staunchly secular.
But if, in true Kierkegaardian fashion, we look deeper into the man’s work we find many insights that can provide important guidance to progressive thinkers. I think the most important of these relates to a topic that the Left has been notably silent on: broader questions of meaning. For decades the neoliberal ethos orienting society has maintained that the purpose of life is to become financially successful enough to achieve material prosperity and professional standing. Despite its economic processes producing greater inequality and socio-cultural instability, the argument of neoliberal apologists such as F.A Hayek and Milton Friedman was that these would be tolerated so long as all people were materially better off than they were at an earlier date.
For the past 30 years, the Left has largely accepted the spirit of these claims. By and large, the argument of identity politics movements and various egalitarian theories of distributive justice wasn’t about the objective of leaving people better off—but who was being left behind by these processes. This is an important issue, and I don’t mean to trivialize it. But what these material questions don’t sufficiently capture is the desire for a more transcendent meaning which supersedes these material concerns.
The recent rise and emergence of post-modern conservatism indicates that the Right has ascertained this problem and provided a solution. Ironically enough, its solution appeals to the group identity of those who feel left behind by the processes of neoliberal society, while directing the political energies against alleged enemies responsible for the sense of social anomie. It claims that a group identity can provide a transcendent sense of meaning and belonging-whether it be the nation, Western Civilization, Christendom, or whiteness—and that this group identity is being attacked by a shadowy cabal of globalists, elites, and immigrants. Vulgar as this narrative is, it is appealing to large swathes of individuals who long for more than neoliberal society and post-modern culture can offer them.
A more effective Left needs to look past material concerns and inclusion and take more seriously this need for meaning on the part of the population. The Right has been very effective in appealing to these concerns, and we must be as well. Kierkegaard is an excellent place to begin looking for insights.
Kierkegaard and Meaning
Kierkegaard is rightly known as the “father of existentialism.” Interpreting his rich and multifaceted writings is a complex task in itself. That’s because he rarely writes in a straightforward manner. Many of his most famous works are written under pseudonyms, who dialogue with one another in a highly complex manner. While some of these pseudonymous authors seem to represent something close to Kierkegaard’s own views, many do not. However, I think if there is one consistent theme in Kierkegaard’s oeuvre, it is how only a true individual can obtain meaning in their life. The inverse argument to this is Kierkegaard’s warnings about the meaninglessness of sacrificing one’s individuality to become a member of mass society. This includes group identities such as the nation, and even Christendom, which Kierkegaard warned would lure people into no longer being themselves in return for the vulgar sense of “meaning” provided by becoming like everyone else. A sense of the seriousness of this is given in his early book Either/Or, which recounts how our compulsion to be like everyone else can lead us to throw away what is most important in life. Kierkegaard also warned of how those who push against the group will often be subject to ridicule and derision.
“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
Kierkegaard argued that each person fundamentally longs to provide a sense of meaning to their life. In Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way, he recounts three different ways people attempt to acquire this. The first, discussed in the first part of Either/Or, is through sensual satisfaction. One can quite readily relate this to the aforementioned ethos underpinning neoliberal society and post-modern culture, not to mention the current fixation on “alphahood” on the part of right-wing male and female activists. The sensualist seeks meaning in his life through the pursuit of various pleasures.
Kierkegaard argued that most people who seek meaning from sensuality will turn to relatively vulgar and unsatisfying pleasures. This includes pure hedonistic enjoyment of drugs and alcohol, pursuing money and material objects, and so on. More refined and intelligent sensualist will turn to what J.S Mill’s might characterize as qualitatively higher pleasures. In a famous subsection of Either/Or known as “The Seducer’s Dialogue,” Kierkegaard discusses a talented romantic who wants to seduce a young and beautiful woman. He does this not because he wants to be with her permanently—but rather from a combination of pleasure in exercising his charisma and the romantic bliss he gets from the apex of seductive moments.
Interestingly, Kierkegaard argues that other refined sensualists might turn to artistic and philosophical pursuits and the intellectual pleasures they offer as a source of meaning. These sensualists operate at the highest degree of human capacity and produce the scientific and philosophical discoveries about the world that enable us to master it. However, they cannot provide an account of what the world itself actually means—or our purpose within it. To paraphrase his statement in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, at its peak, “abstract thinking” can only say that the world is as it is. Or to invoke Wittgenstein, the answer to the riddle of the meaning of space and time cannot be found within space and time. By itself, scientific and philosophical thinking cannot get any further.
This has been the implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim of many great conservative thinkers, who argue that the scientific and rational aspirations of liberalism—whether neoliberal meritocracy or the egalitarian liberalism of the (post)-modern left can never ultimately provide sufficient meaning to our lives. More sophisticated and profound versions of conservatism, such as those articulated by Patrick Deneen and Yoham Hazony argue that “liberalism”—at least in its unadulterated post-modern form—is faltering because it has never been able to meet this need. They argue that we need a return to more local or national communities—and their norms—in order to provide the effective glue required to bring true existential completion to all individuals and hold society together. More vulgar forms of post-modern conservatism attempt to do the same, but through engendering a sense of antagonism and relativism that will always be self-defeating.
Kierkegaard agrees that this conservative argument holds a great deal of power. In the second half of Either/Or, his character Judge Vilhelm writes a series of letters to a young sensualist. Vilhelm praises the energy and dynamism of his young friend but argues that his rampant individualism will always lead to him feeling unsatisfied and incomplete. Instead, Vilhelm extols the virtues of belonging to a robust community and accepting its norms. These include being a productive member of society, marrying and having children, and participating in the communal religion. Vilhelm argues that this provides a sense of meaning that is not available to the liberal sensualist, since they become committed to something outside of themselves, and that persists throughout history. Kierkegaard politically affiliates this argument with support for institutions such as marriage, the state church, and eventually even “Christendom” as a historical group identity.
But here is where Kierkegaard’s radicalism comes in. He accepts that the individualism of the liberal sensualist cannot provide meaning and, at times, suggests the conservatism of Vilhelm is superior. But it also falters and quickly becomes vulgar and unmeaningful, since in the last instance it only displaces the problem of meaning from the liberal individual to the group and its values. People in Vilhelm’s universe find meaning by associating with the nation, the Church, and so on. This in itself is understandable, but not enough, because the group then demands conformity from the individual to secure the stability of its own contingent values.
This corrupts the universal drive we have to find what is truly meaningful in the world, by encouraging us to settle passively for what others tell us we should believe in. To put it more philosophically, the conservative wants to displace the danger of nihilism by collectively ignoring it. To use Derek Parfit’s memorable phrase, we needn’t worry about “what matters” objectively because we establish a collective subjectivity that insists it has figured it out. In Kierkegaard’s mind, this solution will never be enough. Moreover, it has an idolatrous and reactionary quality to it that can become very dangerous. Competing ideas about life pose a threat to the stability of this collective sense of meanings and needs to be quashed through the pressure imposed by public opinion and coercive authority. As he memorably put it in his Diary:
“Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.”
One can hardly think of a more damning indictment of today’s populist aspirations than this.
Kierkegaard warns us that the conservative solution to the problem of meaning, while understandable, will never fully satisfy. Moreover, it runs the danger of becoming reactionary and idolizing the community at the expense of the individual who may be truly committed to discovering the real truth about the meaning of existence.
I believe the Left has a great deal that is can learn from these arguments. For too long we have left problems of meaning to the Right, while largely focusing on issues of material equality and political participation. These are no doubt crucial issues, but it is not enough. We need to provide progressive arguments that speak to our deeper human aspiration for meaning, and that stress an individualism committed to deeper principles than just those articulated by any given community. I believe the aspiration to formulate such principles—and to present them in a way that inspires and provides direction—is one of the key tasks for progressives today.
Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.