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Søren Kierkegaard : "The Present Age" (1886)

Dernière mise à jour : 9 mai 2023





Extracts from :

Søren Kierkegaard

Two Ages : A Literary Review



The Present Age

(1846)


"The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence.


If we had statistics on the use of prudence from generation to generation as we have them on the consumption of liquor, we would be amazed to see the enormous quantity used these days, what a quantity of weighing and deliberating and considering even a small non-official family uses although it has ample income, what a quantity even children and young people use, for just as the children's crusade symbolizes the Middle Ages, so the shrewdness of children symbolizes ours. I wonder if there is a person anymore who ever makes just one big stupid blunder.


Not even a suicide these days does away with himselfin desperation but deliberates on this step so long and so sensibly that he is strangled by calculation, making it a moot point whether or not he can really be called a suicide, inasmuch as it was in fact the deliberating that took his life. A premeditated suicide he was not, but rather a suicide by means of premeditation.


Therefore it would be extremely difficult to be a prosecuting attorney against an age such as this, because the whole generation is expert on legal matters, and its competence, its sensibleness, its technical skill consist in letting matters reach a verdict and decision without ever acting. If we say of a revolutionary age that it goes astray, then we must say of the present age that it is going badly. The individual and the generation are continually contradicting themselves and each other, and therefore it would be impossible for a prosecuting attorney to establish any fact, because there is none.


From the abundance of circumstantial evidence, one might conclude either that something extraordinary had happened or is about to happen. But that would be a wrong conclusion, for circumstantial evidence is the present age's only attempt at a show of strength, and its inventiveness and technical skill in contriving spellbinding mirages and the rashness of its flares of enthusiasm employing the misleading shortcuts of proposed formal changes rate just as high in calculating shrewdness and negative use of power as does the energetic and creative passion in the performance of the age of revolution.


Exhausted by its chimerical exertions, the present age then relaxes temporarily in complete indolence. Its condition is like that of the stay-abed in the morning who has big dreams, then torpor, followed by a witty or ingenious inspiration to excuse staying in bed.


The single individual (however well-intentioned many of them are, however much energy they might have if they could ever come to use it) has not fomented enough passion in himself to tear himself out of the web of reflection and the seductive ambiguity of reflection. The environment, the contemporary age, has neither events nor integrated passion but in a negative unity creates a reflective opposition that toys for a moment with the unreal prospect and then resorts to the brilliant equivocation that the smartest thing has been done, after all, by doing nothing.


Vis inertia [the force of inertia] is at the bottom of the age's tergiversation, and every passive do-nothing congratulates himself on being the original inventor - and becomes even more clever.


Just as weapons were freely distributed in the age of revolution and the insignia of the enterprise was conferred publicly during the crusades, so today we are everywhere lavishly regaled with pragmatic rules, a calculus of considerations, etc.


If a whole generation could be presumed to have the diplomatic task of procrastinating and of continually frustrating any action and yet make it seem as if something were happening, then we cannot deny that our age is performing just as amazingly as the age of revolution. If someone were to make an experiment and forget all he knows about the age and the plain fact of its habitual and excessive relativity, if he were to come as if from another world and were to read some books, an article in the paper, or merely talk with a passer-by, he would get the impression:


By Jove, something is going to happen this very night-or something must have happened the night before last !


In contrast to the age of revolution, which took action, the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity.


An insurrection in this day and age is utterly unimaginable; such a manifestation of power would seem ridiculous to the calculating sensibleness of the age.


However, a political virtuoso might be able to perform an amazing tour de force of quite another kind. He would issue invitations to a general meeting for the purpose of deciding on a revolution, wording the invitation so cautiously that even the censor would have to let it pass. On the evening of the meeting, he would so skillfully create the illusion that they had made a revolution that everyone would go home quietly, having passed a very pleasant evening.


(...)


The age of great and good actions is past; the present age is the age of anticipation. No one is willing to be satisfied with doing something specific; everyone wants to luxuriate in the daydream that he at least may discover a new part of the world.


Ours is an age of anticipation; even appreciative acknowledgment is accepted in advance. Just like a young man who, having resolved to study earnestly for his exams after September 1, fortifies himself for it by taking a vacation in the month of August, so the present generation - and this is much more difficult to understand - seems to have determined in earnest that the next generation must attend to the work in earnest, and in order not to frustrate or deter them in any way, the present generation attends banquets. But there is a difference: the young man understands that his enterprises are rash and reckless; the present age is sober and seriouseven at banquets.


(...)


As an age without passion it has no assets of feeling in the erotic, no assets of enthusiasm and inwardness in politics and religion, no assets of domesticity, piety, and appreciation in daily life and social life. But existence mocks the wittiness that possesses no assets, even though the populace laughs shrilly. To aspire to wittiness without possessing the wealth of inwardness is like wanting to be prodigal on luxuries and to dispense with the necessities of life; as the proverb puts it, it is selling one's trousers and buying a wig.


But an age without passion possesses no assets ; everything becomes, as it were, transactions in paper money. Certain phrases and observations circulate among the people, partly true and sensible, yet devoid of vitality, but there is no hero, no lover, no thinker, no knight of faith, no great humanitarian, no person in despair to vouch for their validity by having primitively experienced them. Just as in our business transactions we long to hear the ring of real coins after the whisper of paper money, so we today long for a little primitivity.


(...)

So ultimately the object of desire is money, but it is in fact token money, an abstraction. A young man today would scarcely envy another his capacities or his skill or the love of a beautiful girl or his fame, no, but he would envy him his money. Give me money, the young man will say, and I will be all right. And the young man will not do anything rash, he will not do anything he has to repent of, he will not have anything for which to reproach himself, but he will die in the illusion that ifhe had had money, then he would have lived, then he certainly would have done something great.


(...)


The dialectic of antiquity was oriented to the eminent (the great individual, and then the crowd ; one free man, and then the slaves); at present the dialectic of Christianity is oriented to representation (the majority perceive themselves in the representative and are liberated by the awareness that he is representing them in a kind of self-consciousness). The dialectic of the present age is oriented to equality, and its most logical implementation, albeit abortive, is leveling, the negative unity of the negative mutual reciprocity of individuals.


Anyone can see that leveling has its profound importance in the ascendancy of the category "generation" over the category "individuality." Whereas in antiquity the host of individuals existed, so to speak, in order to determine how much the excellent individual was worth, today the coinage standard has been changed so that about so and so many human beings uniformly make one individual; thus it is merely a matter of getting the proper number and then one has significance.


In antiquity the individual in the crowd had no significance whatsoever; the man of excellence stood for them all. The trend today is in the direction of mathematical equality, so that in all classes about so and so many uniformly make one individual. The eminent personage dared to consider everything permissible, the individuals in the crowd nothing at all. Nowadays we understand that so and so many people make one individual, and in all consistency we compute numbers (we call it joining together, but that is a euphemism) in connection with the most trivial things.


(...)"


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