Notes Psychology

Chapter 5: The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard (The Denial of Death)

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Religion and psychoanalysis are related. Kierkegaard can be considered a psychologist, even though he was a theologian and a philosopher.

The foundation of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is the Fall in the story of Adam and Eve.

This myth contains the basic insight of psychology, that man is a union of opposites – self-consciousness and the physical body. The fall into consciousness from a carefree life came with a grave penalty: anxiety.

Kierkegaard observed that one cannot find dread in the beast, since the beast does not have a spirit (or a “self” in psychoanalytic language).

If man were a beast or an angel, he would not experience dread, but it is his ambiguity that dooms him. Since he cannot reconcile his paradoxical nature. He cannot forget about his fate, and at the same time, he cannot take full command of it.

But the real cause of dread is not the ambiguity itself, but the judgment on man, that if Adam eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge God tells him “Thou shalt surely die.” It is the knowledge of one’s own death that is the final terror of self-consciousness.

Kierkegaard describes the man who limits himself from possibility, a closed personality, and says that this type is the inauthentic man. He is the one who avoids developing his uniqueness, he follows uncritically the modes of living that he was taught as a child. They are inauthentic because they do not belong to themselves, they do not see reality for what it is, they are completely immersed in social games. This is the corporate man in the West, the bureaucrat in the East, and the man of tradition in the tribe, they shy away from the possibility of thinking for themselves. This is the immediate man.

The philistine (the immediate man) to Kierkegaard was the man who is lulled by simple pleasures – a city dweller in his time. In today’s world, they content themselves by buying cars, going to shopping centers, or taking a two-week summer vacation.

Why would man accept to live a trivial life? Because there is danger in the full horizon of experience. Philistinism celebrates triumph over possibility and freedom. The real enemy is freedom because it threatens to pull you into a void, while giving it up too much would make you a prisoner of necessity. The safest thing is whatever is socially possible. Kierkegaard understood that too much possibility can put you in a madhouse, and he understood that psychosis is just the extreme version of neurosis.

The truth about man is that he has two natures. If he ignores the symbolic self and the boundedness of his finite body, then he will live a lie, fail to realize his own nature, and be “the most pitiful of all things.”

The ideal man for Kierkegaard was the one that acted from a unified center, that acknowledged one’s dualism, that understood one’s own limitations, and combined it with possibility. The person that goes too extreme in exploring without limitations becomes schizophrenic, while the person is constantly chained by what is possible, and refuses to explore, becomes depressed. And the depressed person, because they cannot act or move or draw breath, appear dumb.  

There are two types of men, who are opposites. The immediate man lives for trivial things and distractions, and they are enough to keep his mind away from existential dread, and self-contradiction. He may lead a normal life, have a job, and a family, and he will hope for awards and victories, with the secret that only he knows, that he has no “self.”

Then, Kierkegaard describes the introvert, and he is someone who withdraws from the world, reflects on his true nature, and what unique talents he might have that he could offer the world, he is not like the immediate man, he cannot content himself with trivialities. Unlike immediate man, the connection to family, or his country’s flag, are not enough for the introvert, since he feels within himself something deeper that has not yet been realized or discovered, but he does not always find it. For this reason, the introvert is described as a “real man” only in appearance, but not necessarily in reality.

Kierkegaard describes the introvert type who can lead a normal life, he can become a university professor and start a family, and have some quiet moments, and content himself with a feeling of slight superiority to others, but he will not go further, since he is afraid of where that may take him. But this is not a sustainable position, since self-awareness even in small doses can get you in trouble. This person, if they are strong, may not be able to bear it, they may drown themselves into the world desperately in the rush of experience.

And then there is the final type of man.

The one who asserts himself out of defiance of his own weakness, who tries to be a god unto himself, the master of his fate, a self-created man. He will not be merely the pawn of others, of society; he will not be a passive sufferer and secret dreamer, nursing his own inner flame in oblivion. He will plunge into life. into the distractions of great undertakings, he will become a restless spirit… which wants to forget…. Or he will seek forgetfulness in sensuality, perhaps in debauchery.

Kierkegaard did not claim to know what a healthy life was, but he knew that it had possibility and freedom, and he knew what it was not. It was not being a “normal cultural man” for this was a sign of sickness. There is such a thing as “fictitious health.”

This idea was also recognized by Nietzsche. Mental health is not typical, it is ideal-typical. It is not in being oneself, but in overcoming oneself. The ideal man is something to be achieved. The healthy man, and the true man is the one who has transcended himself.

How does he transcend himself?

By recognizing the truth of his situation, by breaking away the lie of his character, and running free from his conditioned prison. Like Freud, the problem for Kierkegaard was the Oedipal Complex, the defenses that protect self-esteem against terror. They are the very defenses that allow him to move forward in life with self-confidence – these are his life-long trap.

Kierkegaard knew that it was difficult to break out of one’s routines, to explore life with its possibilities and accidents and choices. In the prison of one’s character one can pretend and feel that the world is manageable, that there is a reason for one’s life. The truth of man’s condition is that he is an animal, and this is where the anxiety comes from.

But this flood of anxiety is not the end, it is the school that provides man with the ultimate maturity. It is a better teacher than reality, because the latter can be twisted and distorted by culture, but the feeling of anxiety can never be a lie.

The curriculum in this school is the unlearning of repression, and this includes the fear of death. The key is to face one’s own finitude.

Kierkegaard’s whole argument now becomes crystal clear, as the keystone of faith crowns the structure. We can understand why anxiety “is the possibility of freedom,” because anxiety demolishes “all finite aims,” and so the “man who is educated by possibility is educated in accordance with his infinity.” Possibility leads nowhere if it does not lead to faith.

To summarize his argument, the task of man should be to break free from the chains of the social fictions he has been indoctrinated with, and to go on a journey of self-discovery. In this journey, he will encounter the feeling of dread, because of his dualistic and paradoxical situation, because of his finitude, and it is at this point that he must resist using character defenses that have worked for him in the social world. Once he has accepted this anxiety, he can allow himself to be open to possibility, and the destination for man is faith. The truly open person who has shed his character armor is beyond the help of “science” or any social standard of health.

He is alone, and on the brink of oblivion. Only faith can give him the support he needs, and the courage to renounce dread without any dread. This is not an easy way out, and not a solution for everyone, but since man is an ambiguous creature, he will always experience anxiety, he cannot get rid of it.

What he can do is to use this anxiety as an eternal fountain that produces new dimensions of thought and trust.

Faith poses a new life-task, the adventure in openness to a multi-dimensional reality.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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