An Agora at Drury: Wrestling with Kierkegaard

Each semester, Drury University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion hosts a “Single Author” course in which students, faculty, staff, and members of the Springfield community come together to study and discuss the ideas of an influential philosopher or writer. The group meets every Monday at noon in Olin Library to enjoy complimentary refreshments and reflect together on the week’s reading. The format of the class is inspired by the ancient Greek agora, a space in which the public could gather and openly discuss important ideas. As such, it is entirely based on reading and conversation; students taking the one-credit class are not required to submit any papers or take any exams. The goal of the course is to come to a comprehensive understanding of these complex ideas and contemplate the impact they ought to have on your life, not to show your ability to remember and reproduce sets of facts.

This semester, we are reading selected works from Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher and author who is often considered the earliest existentialist philosopher. Kierkegaard was arguably not an existentialist himself — he considered himself a devout Christian in a world of hollow religious institutions and engaged in a theological project quite distinct from later existentialist thinkers — but he was certainly the first to engage philosophically with some of the central themes of existentialism. He is known for his assertion that the real experience of the individual is more important than abstract reason in determining the proper course for our lives, and stressed the importance of living to become more fully ourselves. He is also known for his investigation into aspects of human experience which are incredibly unpleasant, namely anxiety and despair, which he thinks are unavoidable for anyone trying to become an authentic individual.

So far, we have read the first half of Kierkegaard’s Either / Or, in which he writes under various pseudonyms so as to avoid giving the impression that any one of the characters is representing his viewpoint. It begins with the musings of a character named “A” who identifies boredom as the most serious of all human problems. He considers boredom the root of all evil and is wholly dedicated to the project of removing boredom from his life. Most people attempt to rid themselves of boredom by jumping from one source of pleasure to the next, craving increasingly luxurious pleasures as they grow tired of the old ones. This method keeps the individual trapped in what is commonly known as the “hedonic treadmill,” a tendency of the human mind to become accustomed to, and eventually dissatisfied with, any source of pleasure.

To escape the hedonic treadmill, “A” suggests that we stop chasing new sources of pleasure and instead adopt a new mindset in relation to pleasure. He suggests that we take control of our faculty of memory and begin to play not only with external things, but also with the internal narrative we apply to these experiences. “A” represents the view that the good life is the life of the pure aesthete, one who sees all aspects of their experience — the people they meet, the narrative of their own history, even their own notions of selfhood — as material for the creation of artful experience. He encourages a solipsistic view of the world, in which the only thing that really matters is one’s own enjoyment. The stories we tell ourselves about life need not be true, as the truth ultimately leads back to boredom. By taking control of our own internal narratives, we can begin to make our perceptions of life less accurate, but much more entertaining.

Following the musings of “A,” Kierkegaard presents the Diary of a Seducer, a journal kept by a man named Johannes who embodies the lifestyle of the pure aesthete that “A” recommends. The diary gives us insight into the internal monologue of an aesthete as he seduces a young woman named Cordelia. For Johannes, all of reality is malleable. He constantly aims to extend the pleasure of a situation by suppressing his own feelings and desires, maintaining a feeling of control over every variable in his life. Since it is only his pleasure that matters, he feels no remorse for emotionally and psychologically manipulating Cordelia into what he sees as the fulfillment of her “character arc” within his own mental story. Johannes shows no respect for the truth, no reverence for objectivity or fact; all of reality is a plaything for him, a piece to be carefully moved in a vast game. He is fully immersed in a world of fiction, one in which he alone is the author, and this protects him from ever having to rest in boredom.

The story of Johannes is disturbing to read, and yet, a mature and honest reader is likely to be even more disturbed by the traces of Johannes they find in themselves. Kierkegaard uses this character to expose qualities present in all of us; a fear of discomfort which leads, inevitably, to the treatment of ourselves and others as less than fully human. We are inclined, when faced with this most basic fear, to hide away from it by limiting our perspective to only consider our own narratives; complex individuals in our lives are simplified to caricatures, defined in our minds by the ways they serve us and our aims.

As we move forward in the book, we will begin to explore the emotions which lie at the heart of this tendency and explore other possible ways of confronting this problem without reducing individuals to toys. Our next reading will center around another way of living which Kierkegaard observes in the world, which he calls the ethical method, and will feature the response of such an ethical character to the aestheticism proposed by “A” in the first half of the book. This group is full of wonderful people, sharing wonderful perspectives in wonderful discussions. If you are interested in the topics we are exploring, we extend a warm invitation to join us on Mondays at noon and add your voice to the mix!