Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish Philosopher, widely considered the father of existentialism, a philosophical and literary movement that emphasizes the category of the individual and discussed questions such as, ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ He was a great explorer of anxiety and made people think about the fundamental aspects of life. As a prolific writer, in a span of 17 years, he wrote a staggering number of books and compiled thousands of pages of journal entries.
Socrates as Role-Model
Growing up in Copenhagen, young Kierkegaard was disenchanted with the then-dominant Hegelian philosophical system. And, he sought answers to important questions of life by going back in history to Socrates. Emulating Socrates, Kierkegaard started questioning the commonly held beliefs of the time. He wanted to show that the only important truth is subjective truth. For Kierkegaard, only through a deep and honest analysis of oneself can one truly know what one is or is not, what are one’s values, beliefs, what are one’s truth.
What it means to exist as a Human?
Kierkegaard was one the earliest philosophers to grapple with the question of what it means to exist as a human. He felt that most philosophical explanations of existence failed to consider our ability to make choices that shape our life experiences. He argued that we as humans have the independence to make moral decisions about how to live our lives, and it is this freedom of choice that can give meaning to our lives.
Anxiety, is the dizziness of Freedom
However, this freedom of choice does not necessarily bring us any happiness. On the contrary, when we realise that we are absolutely free to choose to do anything, our minds freeze, and we have feelings of dread and anxiety.
Kierkegaard’s book The Concept of Anxiety elaborates this feeling of dread and anxiety through an example.
To borrow Kierkegaard’s example, imagine a man standing on the edge of a tall building. As he looks down, he experiences two kinds of fear: the fear of falling and the fear of being overwhelmed by the impulse to throw himself over the edge. The latter type of anxiety develops from the realisation that he has absolute freedom of choice to give in to his impulse and jump, or control his urge and refrain from jumping. Kierkegaard describes this fear that arises from the freedom to make choices as “the dizziness of freedom.”
We all experience a similar sort of anxiety while making moral choices because we know that we can make terrifying decisions.
But positively speaking, by making us aware of the choices, anxiety prevents us from making rash and unthinking decisions. Such moments of anxiety, if rightly understood, can contribute to increased self-awareness and a sense of responsibility. Kierkegaard denied that genuine anxiety is even a disorder, instead claiming it a paradoxical sign of health. He concluded,” the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man.”
In the wake of COVID 19, our collective covid anxiety is at its peak. We are struggling to keep pace with the events around us; our days loom with uncertainties. And, since the pandemic, the world has found some consolation in reading Kierkegaard. We have op-ed’s on using Kierkegaard’s anxiety advice for coping with covid anxiety in the links below.
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