Life Lessons from Kierkegaard

20160320_161555So this book has been designed as an “intellectual” self-help book: the chapter titles are: “How to Wake Up”, “How to See Through Things”, “How to Avoid Living in the Past”, “Why We Should Cultivate Dissatisfaction” etc. I am a bit prejudiced towards the other kind of self-help books, because the ones I’ve tried so far struck me as banal and naïve (Kierkegaard has something to say about them: that we cannot work our way rationally out of real despair, 75). But this new genre of intellectual self-help – I remember reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life as well – is meant to give you a quick fix of sophisticated ideas in entertaining language. (I don’t know if Kierkegaard is turning in his grave or what…)

In hindsight, though, I don’t think it was a good idea to read snippets from the work of an early 19th century philosopher. Or maybe Kierkegaard’s work isn’t amenable to that kind of narration. Writing conventions change, and people have different styles anyway, so those Kierkegaard quotes, lengthy as they might be, sound somewhat incongruous with the rest of the text. I guess you have to immerse yourself into the entirety of a philosophy text in order to appreciate the author’s reasoning, so I don’t think this book is doing to justice to Kierkegaard. And I don’t like the fact that the author is not giving proper bibliographic information, including page numbers and translator names.

But still, I have my favourite bits from the book:

Just as in a passionate age enthusiasm is the unifying principle, so in a passionless and over-reflective age envy becomes the negatively unifying principle. This should not be understood as an ethical charge, because the idea of reflection is – if one can put it this way – envy. A two-fold envy, in which the selfishness within the individual himself generates selfishness in society’s attitude towards him. (Two Ages: A Literary Review: 1846)

He returns here to one of his central passions, the importance of being true to yourself and what you believe, and of sticking to that belief even if it makes you unpopular – either because of the nature of what you believe, or because those around you resent you for having the courage to think and independent thought” (52-53).

I think I’m sometimes good at this and sometimes not.

“For [Kierkegaard] it was better to hold a mistaken belief passionately than a correct belief insipidly, and in the context of his own Danish society he had more respect for the passionate atheist than for those who made life easy for themselves by their passive acceptance of the state Church’s version of Christianity (87-88).”

Yes, I agree with him in this respect.

The “Homework” chapter was one that I looked forward to and this is where, in my opinion, author Robert Ferguson shows real skill and creativity. It contains DIY thought experiments and little assignments with music, novels and films. I listened to all the recommended pieces on Youtube and resolved to reading Nabokov’s Despair and George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale.” This is one of the songs:

And this is how he makes a connection with Orwell’s essay:

“Listen to Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, in which he signs that if his thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put his head in a guillotine. Then read George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’. Note the passage referring to the Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell observes that many of the people in his circle seemed to be afraid of their own thoughts on the subject (‘Ought I to be thinking this?’). Like Kierkegaard, he regarded this kind of self-censorship as unhealthy. Ask yourself this question: How often do I find myself censoring my own thoughts?” (94).

This actually reminded me of the social anthropology argument that the function of witchcraft is to channel animosities into (more or less) acceptable forms of behaviour. So, if you’re angry with your neighbor, get a witch to cast a spell on them instead of using violence. I think gossip and evil thoughts function in a similar way, at least in the Turkish context. Next time I get angry with someone, I’ll try to imagine disaster scenarios without feeling guilty.

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