As we saw last week, Kierkegaard identifies a certain mode of suffering as fundamental to human life: despair. We fall into despair when we lose ourselves – when we overlook the spiritual aspect of our being that is, according to Kierkegaard, the most essential aspect of human existence. However, Kierkegaard's analysis of despair arose not simply from his interest in the human condition, but from his concern to respond to problems that he regarded as specific to the modern age.
In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes various forms of despair. He suggests that in the modern age, the most common kind of despair is that which is in ignorance of itself. A person who despairs in this way not only fails to notice that she has lost herself, but also overlooks the fact that she has a self to lose in the first place. In other words, she does not recognise herself as a spiritual being – and Kierkegaard calls this form of despair "spiritlessness". According to Kierkegaard, in modern times
"most men live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit … There is so much talk about wasting a life, but only that person's life was wasted who went on living so deceived by life's joys or its sorrows that he never became decisively and eternally conscious as spirit, as self."
Kierkegaard insists that this lack of awareness of one's true nature always involves the will: it is not, in fact, simply a matter of ignorance, for it involves self-deception. Moreover, this is not just an individual tendency, but one that is embedded within modern society. As he writes in The Sickness Unto Death,
"A self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed."
Of course, there is a great irony here, given that modern culture is widely held to be characterised by individualistic, self-serving attitudes, and by a cult of personality and celebrity. For all our talk of self-fulfilment and self-realisation, the "selves" we seek to preserve and promote are often not spiritual beings, but "consumers" whose desires need to be satisfied, or even commodities to be consumed. According to Kierkegaard's criteria, these are not genuine selves at all.
Kierkegaard suggests that the distinctive feature of modern life is "abstraction", which in this instance means a mode of relationship that is emptied of personal feeling and significance. As we have seen over the last few weeks, the idea of relationship is central to Kierkegaard's conception of human life: he emphasises not only the individual's relationship to God, but also her relationships to herself, to others, and to the things she cares about. But these relationships are undermined by the structure of modern society, in which the individual
"no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or to his science, he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction, just as a serf belongs to an estate."
This abstraction, by impoverishing human relationships, "leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance." Kierkegaard predicted that "finally, money will be the one thing people will desire, and it is moreover only an abstraction."
This, of course, has profound consequences for society. Indeed, it seems that if we go along with Kierkegaard's diagnosis of the modern age, we have to admit that there is no such thing as society. He argued that in his own time the traditional idea of a community united by shared needs and values was being replaced by that of 'the public', a mass of people who are numerically "added" rather than meaningfully "joined" together, and who are therefore related to one another only abstractly. If such a "society" does have a common goal, it is an ignoble one: diversion from the ethical and religious dimensions of existence, and from a despair that is only obscurely perceived. "The public is on the look-out for distraction", wrote Kierkegaard.
He suggested that one symptom of this mass evasiveness is "idle chatter" – a phenomenon that he thought was institutionalised in the press. Whether frivolous or pretentious, tabloid or broadsheet, idle chatter is fuelled by "curiosity" and a nihilistic thirst for novelty. This superficial kind of interest can be contrasted with the existential passion that Kierkegaard identified with our spiritual life. one can only wonder what he would have made of the media in the 21st century, where "news", "opinion" and "comment" proliferate more than ever before. Should we regard this as a sign of flourishing culture, or of spiritlessness?