Pathologies of Passion


Kierkegaard’s penetrating analyses of the human condition merge psychology and religion; as Ernest Becker puts this, “psychological and religious analyses of the human condition are inextricable, if they get down to basics” [p 70, ‘The Denial of Death’]. In ‘Fear and Trembling’, and particularly ‘The Sickness Unto Death’, Kierkegaard seeks to expose the many ways in which we lose our real personhood and lose real living because of lying to ourselves; the fundamental question is raised= what would a person be like who does not lie to himself? Only this person realises the genuine human opportunity. Crucial to this realisation is existential ‘faith.’

1, normal social pathology

Kierkegaard says that too many persons, if not most, live in an “half obscurity” about their own condition [p 181, ‘The Sickness Unto Death’, 1849; Anchor Edition]; they are in a state of “shut-upness” wherein they block off their own perceptions of reality, and thus deny to themselves any testing of their own powers in relation to the possibility that existence offers to them. For the sake of a bogus security, the human being becomes closed down and closed in. They build extra thick walls of defense against anxiety all around themselves, the Reichean ‘character armour’, thereby becoming inflexible, and rigid. The open person, by contrast, has an inherent flexibility and fluidity, and a willingness to push the boat out.

Kierkegaard’s description, applied to religion, never the less is immediately recognizable from social organizations of any ilk in politics, commerce, education, medicine, and similar=

“A partisan of the most rigid orthodoxy.. knows it all, he bows before the holy, truth is for him an ensemble of ceremonies, he talks about presenting himself before the throne of God, of how many times one must bow, he knows everything the same way as does the pupil who is able to demonstrate a mathematical proposition with the letters ABC, but not when they are changed to DEF. He is therefore in dread whenever he hears something not arranged in the same order.”

Kierkegaard is saying that being shut-up entails not being willing to face anxiety, open to possibility and choice, and thus free to discover himself and his world. Being shut-up is called a ‘lie’, and this “untruth is precisely unfreedom..” Heidegger echoed Kierkegaard when he declared, ‘everyone wants to be someone else.’ As Kierkegaard puts it, people passively fall in with others, “imitating how they manage to live”, yet paying a price for this= “but a self he was not, and a self he did not become…” The authentic personhood was never risked, thus never forged in existential adversity.

Kierkegaard is describing what Heidegger would later call people living ‘inauthentically.’ These are people who avoid developing their own uniqueness; Ernest Becker says of them, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, that “they follow out the styles of automatic and uncritical living in which they were conditioned as children. They .. do not belong to themselves, are not ‘their own’ person, do not act from their own center, do not see reality on its terms; they are the one dimensional men totally immersed in the fictional games being played in their society, unable to transcend their social conditioning….” [p 73, ibid].

Kierkegaard identifies this kind of non-living with the Biblical Philistines= “Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs… Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial…” [pp 184-187, ibid].

For Philistinism, the full horizon of experience is to be diminished, and kept severely restricted; freedom is dangerous. Philistinism keeps the “prodigious elasticity” of possibility prisoner, carrying it round in “the cage of the probable.” Predictability, stability, control= these are the goal and shield of the shut-upness that is a character defense and a profound existential lie.

2, psycho-pathology

Kierkegaard sees psycho-pathology, basically, as our defeat by existence= a defeat that happens because we will not face up to the truth of the existential condition in which we are situated. We are freedom, and thus possibility, but we are also necessity, and thus limitation. Our possibility is fated to encounter that which challenges it and puts it under question. If we deny possibility or deny necessity we live a lie. Psychosis happens when the lie we attempt to live is too flaunting of reality= for this is the complete breakdown of what in the 19th century would have been termed our ‘character structure’, our backbone, our flame, our belly of endurance, our heart of sacrifice.

In real psychosis, Kierkegaard shows, there is always an exaggeration of one half of the human paradox at the expense of the other. So, at one extreme there is the schizoid position, where possibility defeats necessity; at the other end of the equation is the depressive position, where necessity defeats possibility.

[a] Schizoid Possibility [infinitude without finitude]

“For the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the limiting factor, and the infinite is the expanding factor. Infinitude’s despair is therefore the fantastical, the limitless” [p 163, ibid].

At one end of psychosis, there is no grounding of the self= the self splits from the body, and seeks to find an infinity in which its creative powers know no limitation. This is the schizoid state. “The full-blown schizophrenic is abstract, ethereal, unreal; he billows out of the earthly categories of space and time, floats out of his body, dwells in an eternal now, is not subject to death and destruction” [p 76, Ernest Becker, ibid]. Kierkegaard= “the fantastical is that which so carries a man out into the infinite that it merely carries him away from himself and therewith prevents him from returning to himself.. The self thus leads a fantastic existence in abstract endeavour after infinity, or in abstract isolation, constantly lacking self, from which it gets further and further away.”

Kierkegaard continues= “Now if possibility outruns necessity, the self runs away from itself, so that it has no necessity whereto it is bound to return– then this is the despair [sickness] of possibility. The self becomes an abstract possibility which tires itself out with floundering in the possible, but does not budge from the spot, not get to any spot, for precisely the necessary is the spot; to become oneself is precisely a movement at the spot” [pp 164-169, ibid].

Kierkegaard sums it up thus= “What the self now lacks is surely reality.. What really is lacking is the power to.. submit to the necessary in oneself, to what may be called one’s limit. …the misfortune is that the man.. lost himself, owing to the fact that [his] self was seen fantastically reflected in the possible.”

[b] Depressive Necessity [finitude without infinitude]

Depressive states are the extreme on the continuum of too much necessity, that is, too much finitude, too much limitation — and not enough freedom of the inner self. This often takes the form of a ‘bogging down’ in the demands of others– family, job, the narrow horizon of everyday duty. The person does not feel that they have alternatives, cannot imagine any choices or differing ways of life, cannot release themself from a network of obligations even though these no longer give the person any sense of “primary value, of being a heroic contributor to world life” [p 78, Ernest Becker, ibid]. The schizoid is not built into this world enough= the depressive is too much built into this world. This is what Kierkegaard calls “finitude’s despair”=

“But while one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by ‘the others.’ By seeing the multitude of people about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself… does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd” [pp 167-168, ibid].

The depressive person is so afraid of being himself, Ernest Becker comments on Kierkegaard’s analysis, “that he seems literally stupid. He cannot seem to understand the situation he is in, cannot see beyond his own fears, cannot grasp why he has bogged down” [p 79, ibid]. Kierkegaard says of depression= “the lack of possibility is like being dumb.. for without possibility a person cannot, as it were, draw breath.”

Ernest Becker sums up Kierkegaard’s account of depression thus= “the depressed person avoids the possibility of independence and more life precisely because these are what threaten him with destruction and death. He holds on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, belittling interaction, precisely because these people are his shelter, his strength, his protection against the world. Like most everyone else the depressed person is a coward who will not stand alone on his own center, who cannot draw from within himself the necessary strength to face up to life. So he embeds himself in others; he is sheltered by the necessary and willingly accepts it. But now his tragedy is plain to see= his necessity has become trivial, and so his slavish, dependent, depersonalised life has lost its meaning. It is frightening to be in such a bind. One chooses slavery because it is safe and meaningful; then one loses the meaning of it, but fears to move out of it. One has literally died to life but must remain physically in this world. And thus the torture of depressive psychosis= to remain steeped in one’s failure and yet to justify it…” [pp 80-81, ibid].

Kierkegaard speaks of a despair so searing and comprehensive that in the end the person tortured by being a self with possibilities turns against having any self at all, and seeks its total obliteration.

3, conclusion

At both extremes the self fails to be existentially born.

Yet pathology demonstrates what our real situation is like, from its underbelly of weakness and failure, and as such is arguably closer to existential realism than the normality of Philistinism, where the person does not succumb in anxiety only by pretending that anxiety does not attack them= they always remain ‘on top of it’, through power and success. Ernest Becker says of this= “Life sucks us up into standardized activities. The social ..system into which we are born marks out paths for our [phoney, purely egoic] heroism, paths to which we conform, to which we shape ourselves so that we can please others, become what they expect us to be. And instead of working out our inner secret we gradually cover it over and forget it, while we become purely external men, playing successfully the standardized hero-game into which we happen to fall by accident..” [pp 82-83, ibid].

Pathology= the truth undiscovered.
Normality= the lie established.

Most people avoid the schitzoid and depressive extremes of pathology by remaining on the middle ground of Philistinism. Kierkegaard says of this= “philistinism.. celebrates its triumph.. imagines itself to be the master, does not take note that precisely thereby it has taken itself captive to be the slave of spiritlessness and to be the most pitiful of all things” [pp 174-175, ibid]. Ernest Becker sums it up= “The Philistine trusts that by keeping himself at a low level of personal intensity he can avoid being pulled off balance by experience..” [p 81, ibid].

4, the urge to freedom that falters

Kierkegaard also speaks of two other existential positions which manifest some urge to freedom, but fall short of it.

The first he terms the ‘introvert.’ This is the person who tries to cultivate his interiority, bases his pride on something within, and creates a distance between himself and what he regards ‘the average man’, the swallowed up ‘immediate man.’ The introvert feels he is something different to the world, has something in himself the world in its conventionality cannot appreciate, and so he holds himself somewhat apart from the world. But this person is weak, in a situation of compromise, and thus will not do anything to rock the boat. He is content to live in a kind of incognito, content merely to toy with the idea of who he might really be, content to pride himself on a vaguely felt superiority. He will not push his personal uniqueness to any total confrontation with the world.

The other failure to reach real freedom, despite an urge to it, is the person Kierkegaard describes as trying to be a god to himself, the master of his fate, a ‘self-created’ man. This person will not be the pawn of others; nor will he just be a “secret dreamer” like the introvert, but will be “a restless spirit.” In extremis the defiance involved in the act of self-creation can become a “demonic rage”, an attack on all of life for what it has dared to do to one, a revolt against existence itself. Ernest Becker sums up this Promethean spirit as “a rage against our impotence, a defiance of.. our pathetic creature limitations. If we don’t have the omnipotence of gods, we at least can destroy like gods” [p 85, ibid].

5, true to where we are

Kierkegaard marks out these different ways of being in the world not to sneer at them, but to clear a path toward what they all lack= truthfulness about the human situation. This is made clear in ‘Fear and Trembling’= “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.” Ernest Becker comments= “Kierkegaard wanted to show the many ways in which life fails when man closes himself off against the [existential] reality of his condition. Or.. what an undignified and pathetic creature man can be when he imagines that by living unto himself alone he is fulfilling his nature” [pp 86-87, ibid]. To throw off the “dead-ends of human impotence, self-centeredness, and self-destruction”, we must choose a different way of being in the world with truth. Only the truth sets us free, by calling us out to where we really are.

Kierkegaard’s quest is posed by the question= what would be a person who is truthful about where he is? What would be a person who stands in truth, personally, even before he can stand up for truth in the world?

According to Ernest Becker, this would be, basically, a person without all the false evasive manouevres, all the false supports, of self-esteem and social belonging. Angst can, if we allow it, strip away all our false protections, to reveal the unadorned reality of our creaturely condition, out over the deep, subject to fate, moving toward death, and all the other existential givens. If this state becomes in its pathological version a matter of weakness and failure, its truth is not so far off.

The real person — emergent from Kierkegaard’s analyses of all those ways of being in the world that fall short of becoming a real person — is the one who has transcended himself, and this can only be done by finding one’s authentic vocation, and giving its uniqueness, its ‘inner secret’, form by dedicating it to something beyond oneself.

However, for this to happen, we must break down the prison we have built for ourselves. Ernest Becker=

“In the prison of one’s character one can pretend and feel that he is somebody, that the world is manageable, that there is a reason for one’s life..” [p 87, ibid].

This arises from childhood ‘cultural conditioning’ difficult to awake to and shed. Every child grounds himself in some power that transcends him, such as parents, social group, symbols of nation, and the like. This unthinking network of support allows the child to believe in himself, though he does not admit that he is living on borrowed powers. He has denied his creaturely helplessness by imagining that the borrowing of powers renders him secure. Unconsciously, he is leaning on the persons and things of his society. But once a person’s existential vulnerability is exposed, through the tough school of anxiety, then he is forced to re-examine the whole problem of power linkages. Suddenly he stands naked in the buffets of existence.

This might be thought to rule out any religion, but Ernest Becker claims it is in fact where real religion begins. Kierkegaard signals this when he says= “The self must be broken to become a self” [p 199, ibid].

This brokenness, for Ernest Becker, is the full and frank admission that we are a creature.

“Anxiety is the result of the perception of the truth of one’s condition. ..This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life.. and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food? Cynical deities, said the Greeks, who use men’s torments for their own amusement” [p 87, ibid].

And= “If you admit you are a creature, you accomplish one basic thing: you demolish all your unconscious power linkages or supports” [p 89, ibid].

Faith grapples with this question= does one’s very creatureliness have meaning to a Creator?

6, faith only arises in the shipwrecked

Kierkegaard contends only truth gives birth to faith, and it does so only through brokenness. Jose Ortega Y Gasset= “These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost is without remission.”

But this implies something surprising= only faith can prevent us from perishing in our human paradox. Our bracing existential condition is the only source of faith, and faith is the only truthful resolution of it.

7, faith answers a call

Once free of all social and cultural props and borrowed power link-ups, once broken, once shipwrecked, once dead to everything, we discover something otherwise obscured= this is where there arises in the heart a connection to the only God who could have put us in this awful and awe-filled predicament. In this there is an irrational sense of being summoned precisely to this human condition, precisely to this human tragedy. That is our significance for the Creator= and we ‘know’ this irrationally in the heart, at the very source of the irrational stirring of its passion, its willingness to go into, and go through, it all.

Kierkegaard= “If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.”

Faith is the heart’s irrational urge to embrace the ‘suffering position’ into which God has placed it in this existence. Through faith we confirm the veracity of Pascal’s ‘the heart has reasons the reason knows not of.’