Søren, Socrates …and Us

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Heavily influenced by Greek philosopher Socrates, in aspects of especially moral, ethical, religious, cultural, social and aesthetic values,  Kierkegaard throughout his life and works emphasized the Individual, the Truth, Identity, Autonomy, the personal process and the search for Subjectivity. His theories and writings had a profound and lasting effect on philopsophy, founding the basis for the later Existentialism.

For Socrates, the truth itself was not the point, but finding out what the truth is for oneself is what matters. One of Socrates’ main starting points was ‘We do not know anything’. He sought to find the truth through irony. Socrates did this by adressing the inner voice of his interlocutor, daimonion.

Socrates would pretend to go along with his interlocutor’s way of thinking, while later in the debate it would turn out he did not agree with him. Socrates will keep asking questions until the other party will admit they do not know anything, after hearing all the counter-arguments. He then proceeds to use maieutics (midwifery), meaning that he merely will ‘pull out’ the knowledge that already is present, but dormant, in the other person. Kierkegaard’s point of view is that the individual is defined by subjectivity.

Kierkegaard thinks the Concept of Irony as introduced to us by Socrates was a way to analyze shortcomings, assure our own objective truth, liberate ourselves and guarantee or own autonomy. The basis for this is exposing our ignorance and that of others and launching a discussion on the matter. The scales of existence, the aesthetic, ethical and religious processes are the criteria which Kierkegaard sees as the choices we make and in this create our lives and become ourselves.

In a moment of conscience we realize that we are temporary, fleeting and which we are inclined to reject because of our own desire for timelessness and eternity. In this, Kierkegaard agrees with Hegel. However, seeking to explain this through a rejection of the individual existence, the development of the mind ‘in abstracto’ and worshipping the universal ‘truth’ of history, as did Hegel, thus trying to grasp timelessness and eternity, we risk losing our own identity which for example may occur during a Fin-de-Siècle period when the realization dawns that the pleasures of life (art, music, food etc.) are but ephemeral and this sends us into despair and doubt. It will lead to a decrease in ethics, taste, aesthetics, morals and autonomy and cause a strong need for ‘a sense of belonging’ and being part of a crowd, at the same time, in a kind of panic, causing people to want an affirmation of their individuality and making their mark in a time where society feels like it’s on very shaky ground.

One could see parallels between the search of subjective truth as founded by Socrates and later reformulated by Kierkegaard  in the emphasis on a personal process, an attempt to grasp eternity, fear of losing one’s identity and the importance of autonomy. For example: our modern obsessions with spiritual growth, food, physical appareances, financial and social success and ourselves. It could even maybe be said this culminates in the social media, like Twitter and Facebook, where simultaneously we have the feeling to belong to a crowd, a group (social platform) yet still, by placing photos or remarks online, make ourselves stand out as individuals and demanding (and getting) attention. Personal family tragedies make headlines in elitist newspapers.  One singular action of an individual on YouTube goes viral and the next day is on everyone’s lips. A collective humiliation in a talent show program is devoured by the television-watchers as a fresh, delicious prey. The negative effect, which would be described by Kierkegaard as horrific, is that slowly but surely we are in more ways than one, starting to look, write, feel etc. alike. Like Kierkegaard mentioned in “The Point of View of My Work as an Author”, an opinion that is different should be respected but is of no importance when it’s not shared by a group. (“The crowd is evil”).

It is the paradox of celebrating the individual, self-liberation and non-conformist with the undermining of alternative lifestyles or cultures.

Personal tragedies, individual hyped media actions, Instagram giving us the feeling we are all amazing photographers – all these media are a celebration of individuality – yet what happens is we are all falling into the social trap of uniformity. We might think we are no grey mouses, but in the meantime, we are. We might think we are non-conformist, but we are.

Through his polemics with Heiberg, the Corsair affair and his attack on Jakob K.Mynster Kierkegaard once again emphasized the importance of the individual, but this time in relation to Christianity. He advocated the true Christian should be a “suffering witness to the truth” and that humility, self-sacrifice, inwardness thus one’s own relation to God, were the values that one should strive for. Kierkegaard is not trying to suggest there is one form of ‘true’ Christianity, for him it’s not about true Christianity, but the fact that Christianity exists as such and concludes from this “The individual’s own ethical actuality is the only actuality.” [ Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Vol 1, p. 326-327 Hong ] . Yet there is a very interesting parallel between this and this day and age. Could it be that between all the self-help books, spiritual therapies and food gurus if we were to look more closely, we would find nothing but doctrines – the same doctrines that Kierkegaard disapproved of ? If we apply his view of Christianity and how the individual would have to live it to this day and age – would there not be more humble healers, more modest mind-mappers? It is hard to find the balance between humility and a kingsize ego. So, while we should each and everyone follow or own path to find or own truth, perhaps it is important to find a balance between introspection and declaring one’s ego to the world. Humility is not a bad word, it just means you can speak up and speak out about life, yourself, everything but it does not need to be a scream. Sometimes something that is said softly is more powerful. Let’s try and not get to mixed up in our Twitter and Facebook lives, and remember the value of a touch or a stranger’s smile in the street. Remember to every now and then, close our eyes and enjoy a Mozart quintet or enjoy the taste of something we worked hard on in the kitchen….our truth is not on our iPads but inside ourselves.

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