Last night I went out for dinner with my family. My teenage son and I came 45 minutes before the rest of the family, and we had a conversation that made me want to read up on existentialist philosophy; particularly Kierkegaard and de Beauvoir.
Why? Well, we were sitting at a very beautiful restaurant in Ubud surrounded by lots of beautiful people; all looking very much alike, and apparently all agreeing on the dresscode and right thing to eat and drink; even the right way to enter the room and act (I won’t go into details here, as this observation is not meant as a critique or farce). Of course it’s normal that people want to fit in and match their “tribe”, but this was almost a little too much. And my teenage son started to laugh: it just seems so fake, he said.
I told him that they were probably all really nice, friendly people, but I must admit that the scenario around us started feeling slightly comical, as clone after clone walked in.
Why are we so eager to match our surroundings? We are people, not chameleons.
And what is the opposite of appearing fake; does being authentic necessarily involve standing out?
(Quick side-remark: In my new book-project Uncultivated, I am currently in the process of writing about our primitive brain, or our cave(wo)man brain as I have chosen to call it, and it’s immense need to feel secure, “right”, a part of something, liked, safe – and also how freeing ourselves from this innate instinct or shutting down the cave(wo)man brain might liberate us. Rewilding is a part hereof; more hereon later).
The following text consists of extracts from my book Anti-trend. It’s long, I know – and sorry about that – but maybe a long read over the holidays is an option? And if it is, and you are eager for more, I can warmly recommend diving into some of Kierkegaard’s or de Beauvoir’s writings (or Sartre’s or Nietzsche’s for that matter); they beat any self-help, personal development book ever written.
You can also read more about existentialist philosophy and its relation to sustainable living in Anti-trend.
In Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s seminal work Either-Or, Kierkegaard introduces a personality-type that he calls “the Aesthete.” The Aesthete is characterised by living in the now and constantly seeking pleasurable, easy-going experiences. The aesthetic approach to life is hedonistic, lust-based, founded on momentary desires, and hence the life of the Aesthete lacks continuity and stability: it is built up around short glittery moments that are not linked together, but rather disjointed like marbles in a box. The Aesthete is governed by an extreme focus on excitement and pleasure, as s/he views boredom and triviality as the root to all evil.
The Aesthete lives in despair and is ruled by what Kierkegaard calls the “unhappy consciousness.” Despair, in Kierkegaard’s philosophy involves having an inauthentic, malfunctioning relationship to oneself—or being unaligned with oneself. Living in despair does not necessarily mean that one is unhappy; alike the Aesthete one can be and appear happy and enjoy one pleasurable moment after the other, even though deep-down despair is governing life.
The Aesthete has discovered that the immediate human condition, referred to by Kierkegaard as the Philistine, is empty and un-essential. However, the Aesthete also lives in despair, only more consciously. The life of the Philistine can be described as “human possibilities,” and the Aesthete has comprehended that the realisation of the possibilities is lacking.
The Philistine’s conviction that he is his own master is thus an illusion. He can only make that decision which has already been made by anonymous forces. If as a businessman, he decides to open a branch in the next town it is economic forces and the law of supply and demand which controls him. If he chooses a trip to Acapulco for his summer vacation his choice is dictated by the social pressure which prompts a man in his position to vacation in Acapulco. And the same wherever it appears as if he himself is making a decision and carrying out an action (Sløk, 1994).
As shown in this quote, by Danish Theologian and Philosopher Johannes Sløk, the Philistine is governed by expectations and the “rules” of social behaviour. The Philistine is extroverted and absorbed by life’s many problems, and hence is a busy person (which tends to be a status-symbol in our late-modern capitalistic, industrious, innovation-focused culture). But to be busy in a world where nothing is of genuine significance appears petty—even comical. The Philistine thinks that s/he is living an authentic life, but is guided by cultural constructions, which are solely valid due to conventions. His/her despair is unconscious (and thereby different than the despair of the Aesthete).
The moment the Philistine recognises that s/he is in fact a Philistine (and acknowledges that s/he is living an extroverted life dependent on success, status symbols, and the approving gazes of others)—if s/he ever does; most people don’t according to Kierkegaard—s/he is immediately transformed into an Aesthete.
But what does it take for a Philistine to realise that s/he is a Philistine? Nothing in particular. Or rather, the possibility for the realisation lurks in each moment. It might show itself as a sudden feeling of meaninglessness, or as Sløk puts it, “How you can suddenly stop amidst the bustle of the day and with uncanny clarity realise that all of it is at bottom nothing, that all striving is pointless vanity, that all goals crumble in indifference”. Perhaps you choose to ignore the feeling and move on in your busy life (and perhaps you drown the lurking despair by buying a few new glittery things or by opening a bottle of wine in the evening), but perhaps you don’t. And if you don’t ignore it, if you choose to let that moment of clarity grow, the process of realisation begins.
The first step away from the immediately given reality is a move toward the Aesthetician existence, which is nonetheless also characterised by despair. As a result of the emptiness and anxiety that stems from the insight into the Philistine existence and the lack of human realisation, the Aesthete places her/himself outside of reality. Thus, the Aesthete’s main problem is that s/he is unable to find an alternative to the given, Philistine reality. S/he understands that it is hollow, but is unable to find an alternative meaningful foundation for life. An ironic distance is kept from the Philistine, bourgeois existence, which s/he now finds ridiculous—but ironically, this distance ties her/him to the bourgeois life as the one that disassociates from it—a dissenter. S/he orbits the life that s/he refuses to be a part of. Nevertheless, the conscious despair of the Aesthete is a prerequisite for removing despair and emptiness—just as self-identity requires the unhappy awareness of non-identity.
But, what does the Aesthete do in order to stand the emptiness of being that s/he has discovered?
Kierkegaard’s Aesthete embarks on a hunt for uplifting moments of pleasure: a pleasure-hunt that is characterised by volatility and consumption. Consumption of beautiful lovers, luxurious experiences, delicious meals, and state-of-the-art goods. Since the aesthetician stage is characterised by a lack of individual standards or morality, the Aesthete focuses solely on experiences, pleasure, and well-being.
Continuous devotion and long-term, loving relationships are to the Aesthete—exemplified for instance by Johannes the Seducer of “The Seducer’s Diary” in Either Or—an impossibility. The course in “The Seducer’s Diary” extends over twenty-five weeks and portraits Johannes’s organisation of a seduction, through which he attains a woman’s, Cordelia’s, affection, takes her virtue, and then immediately leaves her. The moment of devotion is the end of the self-absorbed seducer’s adventure, which is why Johannes necessarily has to leave the girl instantly hereafter. After she has given in to him, she is weak and uninteresting to him. This mechanism can actually, remarkably, with ease be transferred to object-relations: as soon as the glittery surface of a newly acquired product starts to fade the Aesthete gets bored with it and replaces it.
A desperate attempt to preserve the interesting—and to not become a victim of boredom and triviality—characterises the aesthetic stage, hence, a lack of resilience. Boredom, not idleness, says the Aesthete in Crop Rotation, is the root of all evil. Idleness, on the other hand, seems to the Aesthete, as the prerequisite to a divine life, as long as one isn’t bored.
To the Aesthete, pleasure depends on novelty. And when the novelty wears off, s/he seeks new pleasure, and feels melancholic until new entertainment arises. The Aesthete annuls all applicable norms and all forms of equal or binding interpersonal relationships. Enjoyment requires distance.
Even though the existence of the Aesthete seems like an endless endeavour of meaningless, yet pleasurable experiences, the aesthetician stage is a necessary evil in the human process toward authenticity. Not least because the Aesthete discovers the importance of passion.
The passion of the Aesthete, however, is troublesome. S/he doesn’t know how to make use of passion without an authentic goal to achieve. S/he doesn’t even understand the concept of having a goal, or dream about achieving something. A goal is something that is linked to the bourgeois reality of the Philistine. And the Philistine’s goals are all too concrete and in reality, indifferent—linked to cultural “should do’s” and traditional status symbols, which are repulsive to the Aesthete.
Nevertheless, the Aesthete feels passionate about endeavours, despite their character of being isolated adventurous activities. All s/he needs is purposeful goals to channel passion toward, not a meaningless, fleeting pleasure-hunt that will never satisfy cravings for more, but goals that can engage in life, love, and communities. When (or if ) s/he finds an objective for passion—and dares to get engaged in something—s/he will move onto the next phase of human existentialist development: the Kierkegaardian Ethicist.
In alignment with Kierkegaard’s Aesthete, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her seminal Ethics of Ambiguity describes the existence of a personality type she calls “the adventurer.”
The adventurer feels free and does whatever s/he wants in order to obtain fortune, leisure, and enjoyment. However, s/ he confuses external availability with real freedom.
In de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy, like Sartre and Kierkegaard, human development toward authenticity and true freedom is described as a progression through a range of stages (from the least free to the most): the first phase being the sub-human, which is an apathetic stage of existence defined by choosing nothing and by herd-behaviour; the sub-human submerges in the facticity of existence, de Beauvoir states.
The sub-human is defined by the daily routines, tasks, and the “should do’s” of the society within which s/he lives, essentially depriving life of meaning. The sub-human is busy with life duties. S/he might be very successful in this regard, but lacks passion or desire leading to apathy.
The second phase of existence in de Beauvoir’s philosophy is called the serious human. The serious human is a little bit freer than the sub-human, but still enslaved. S/he is in many ways similar to the Kierkegaardian Philistine; busy, “important,” and serious about what s/he is doing. The serious human escapes the anguish of freedom by falling into a state of preoccupation, of doing what “one is supposed to do,” and by “claiming to subordinate it (freedom) to values which would be unconditioned”. S/he is defined by social position and is thus vulnerable to changes and external uncontrollable events—which leads to worry; s/he is constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.
I find it noticeable that de Beauvoir underlines worrying as one of the serious human’s (limiting) characteristics. Worrying is in many ways a meaningless, yet immensely common, activity. When one worries, one can only pretend to be unfree in an “it is out of my hands, and there is nothing I can do” kind of way. Of course, we cannot control everything that happens around us, but living freely involves letting go of worries and ensuring that our happiness isn’t dependent on this or that happening or not happening (or of this or that person thinking this or that about us). Freedom involves accepting that sometimes everything works out as we hoped for and planned, and that sometimes it doesn’t, and, as a result, that external events are not a threat to our happiness or freedom.
Further up the “ladder of existence” we will find the nihilist. When the serious human realises that s/he is unable to control the surrounding world s/he wishes to be—“The serious man wills himself to be a god; but he is not one and knows it”—s/he decides to be nothing, to reject everything, and henceforth becomes the nihilist. The nihilist forgets, however, that s/he is condemned to freedom, as Sartre puts it, and therefore, responsible for making choices and creating meaning. All the nihilist does is say no: to relationships (they are empty), to activities (they are meaningless), to interaction with the surrounding world (it is hollow), and to all given values (they are unimportant). But freedom and authenticity require saying yes. The nihilist has understood the ambiguity of human existence and is disillusioned, though right in thinking that the world possesses no justification, and that humans are nothing as de Beauvoir puts it. But s/he forgets that it is up to oneself to justify the world and to make existence valid. In order to be free and to lead an authentic life, one must engage in the world.
A step further up the ladder toward freedom and authenticity, we will find the aforementioned adventurer. The adventurer is actually close to being truly free. S/he throws her/himself into life and chooses action for its own sake—and consequently doesn’t do this or that because of cultural, societal assumptions, or “should do’s.” But s/he cares only for personal freedom and self-indulgent projects, and thus embodies a selfish and potentially tyrannical attitude.
The next existentialist stage toward authenticity and freedom is the passionate human. De Beauvoir describes the characteristics of the passionate human by stating that s/he is the antithesis to the adventurer. Whereas the adventurer has no objective (indulging in indifferent escapades to feel alive), the passionate human has an object of passion. But, the problem with the passionate human is that s/he tends to isolate and set the object of passion over everything else. In this sense, s/he is similar to the serious human—prone to becoming fanatical— however, the passionate human differs in the sense that s/he is truly passionate, not just a crowd follower like the serious human.
But, when you isolate yourself you lose yourself, according to de Beauvoir. There is no freedom in isolation nor in trapping oneself in the name of total truth. The object for one’s passion only holds freedom when shared—when opened up to others rather than when convulsively possessed:
If you prefer the land you have discovered to the possession of this land, a painting or a statue to their material presence, it is insofar as they appear to you as possibilities open to other people. (paraphrased from Ethics of Ambiguity).
Passion is an important part of an authentic life— but, as this quote states, true freedom lies in opening up your “thing”—whatever you are passionate about—to others. True passion is not founded in capitalistic greediness, but rather in a genuine desire to engage, explore, understand, share, and cultivate something.
According to de Beauvoir it is typically the process rather than the result that reveals whether one is genuinely free within one’s passion or just seeking status and approval from others. De Beauvoir highlights the creative life, as it ideally is a constant matter of choices and processes, and therefore a good metaphor for free living, as freedom is an indefinite passion-driven movement, rather than a static condition or goal-fixated existence.
In Kierkegaard’s philosophy the keyword when discussing living freely and authentically is the “choice.” You must choose yourself.
The thought of choosing yourself might seem a little odd: because, what does it mean to have no other possibilities than becoming yourself? Yet, it is important to remember that to Kierkegaard to choose means to will. Choosing yourself is equivalent to willing and accepting yourself. “The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self; …the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self”, writes Kierkegaard in Sickness unto Death. The self is constituted by the action of relating to itself. Becoming a self is a process of becoming conscious—and, as a part hereof, of consciously willing oneself.
Kierkegaard discusses the importance of being transparent to oneself and taking responsibility for oneself. As a part of the choice we take full responsibility for ourselves—even our prerequisites, inheritance, and place in society. There are no excuses, no “Well, I can’t help acting like this, because I had a horrible childhood,” or “I have inherited my father’s tendency to addiction; there I nothing I can do about it.” And there is certainly no: “I am simply acting in accordance with the current norm, when I buy a manifold of cheaply produced things and use them for a very short period before discarding them; there is nothing I can do to change this societal pattern. It is out of my hands.” As a part of the choice—which is unconditional—we take full responsibility for everything we do.
And, by doing so we become free.
I could go on for much, much longer on this topic. But I won’t. As written in the beginning, if you want more, you can continue in Anti-trend or dive into reading Kierkegaard or de Beauvoir.
love from my Bali jungle
2 thoughts on “Embrace your despair – it might set you free”
Always a great read! Thanks. My question would be this : what was the discussion you had with your son ? Did you go into the philosophical details or did you have another conversation ? What would be his answer to the why we all comply and look alike and how we are to become free ? Love from Koh Lanta Island.
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I am so happy that you are following the blog, Aruna! And thank you for taking your time to read – and enjoy – this long read.
Well, Marius and I did talk about some of what I am writing about in this post (freedom, authenticity); but most about what I am touching upon in the introduction: the benefit of at times shutting down our “primitive” brain and letting go of our need to fit in and be safe… He had some really good perspectives on this actually. I am writing about it at the moment, and will share more soon.
Hope you are all well,
love from Bali