Nicola Robertson discusses Kierkegaard's legacy towards a resilient population.
In his seminal work Either/Or, specifically in his essay Rotation of Crops, eminent existentialist Soren Kierkegaard sets out a “Theory of Social Prudence”. In short, he makes many bold claims which would not look out of place in an angsty adolescent journal: People are boring! Everything they do makes them even more boring! Never have a job, get married or have children! Live free! As an (almost) middle-aged Western woman, I have been socialised into believing that this is not the route to a fulfilling life; and yet, there is something in this aesthetic manner of living that not only appeals to me but offers a resilient way of thinking I believe could be fruitful for us all.
Firstly, I will address a couple of imagined protestations from those familiar with Kierkegaard before I begin:
He was writing under a pseudonym so we cannot assume that he was writing this in all seriousness! It would be foolish to find any philosophical value in a piece of irony.
We also cannot assume that he meant it as a joke. Besides, I regard some stand-up comedians among the greatest philosophers of all time – the ability to philosophise is not restricted to sandal wearing Ancient Greeks, idealistic Germans or polo neck wearing Frenchmen.
Kierkegaard regarded the aesthetic stage of life as a stepping stone to a higher ethical and, further, a religious stage. We should not aim to stay there.
I regard the ethical and the religious stages more as augmentations of the aesthetic rather than goals to reach. There is a misinterpretation, I believe, that the aesthetic life is a selfish one but there is no logical reason a person cannot live ethically and aesthetically.
Now, Kierkegaard does suggest things that might make us modern folk balk a little. He suggests that the only cure for the ultimate evil of boredom (he does describe it as this) is to remain idle; this does not sit well with people in a society where there is pressure on everyone to be doing something at all times – even in leisure (and yes, watching Netflix in your PJs all day still counts as something). He asks us to avoid friendship, or relationships where one becomes many (like a marriage or parenthood) but in no way should we avoid having casual friends, or casual sexual encounters. And he tells us that we should not let hope be the driver of our lives otherwise we may be consistently disappointed.
In the current culture where the need for strong relationships is routinely preached, you are defined by what you do, and there persists a universal hope for a more optimistic future, this seems like a terrible way to live. I do not expect that such a mode de vie will appeal to many. However, Kierkegaard’s method is more than a route away from boredom – he also, perhaps inadvertently, offers us a way to deal with life’s adversities thus becoming more resilient.
The crop rotation method suggests 5 key elements to living aesthetically: Resourcefulness, Forgetting/Recollecting, Letting the Land Lie Fallow, Controlling One’s Moods and Embracing Arbitrariness. Let us consider how each of these links to the idea of resilience.
Kierkegaard gives the example of how, as a young boy, he was entertained for hours attempting to catch a fly running along his school desk. He suggests that prisoners in solitary confinement are the most resourceful of all as they do not have anything to do, or to distract them. In their idleness, they are able to use their imagination to entertain themselves.
This idea should be familiar to a population who have been in quasi-isolation for some months, yet in that time it is rare that any of us have been idle. Between the glut of zoom calls, online classes, and vain attempts to tele-socialise we found ourselves as bored (and as boring) as ever. It is little wonder that so many coped so badly with lockdown. This might be difficult for always busy PGRs to hear, but it really is acceptable to do nothing.
More than just the idea of being able to forget traumatic events at will, or remembering good ones, Kierkegaard suggests that we should learn to snip at the edges of our memories in order to forget and remember with poetic licence. Indeed, we do alter our memories all the time (subjective interpretations of memories cannot be avoided), but not always with the aim of reframing them in our favour. Forgetting/Recollecting is a method of thinking positively – focus on the good times. And when you are the editor of your own memory, they can all be good times!
Let the Land Lie Fallow
This is another difficult element that our generation may find tough to swallow. Letting the land lie fallow means that it is not necessary to constantly be cultivating and tending to your crops (a metaphor for relationships). In difficult times, it is perfectly reasonable to leave them for a while and see if a little bit of time, a shift in the seasons perhaps, has changed either them or you to the point that any potential for contempt has dissipated. Constant connection is what drives our fear of missing out: everyone is doing something better than me, so I have to also do something the Twitter-sphere or the Insta-universe might consider cool. It is this perpetual need to be doing that makes us all so boring! Experiment with letting the land lie fallow; turn off your phone for a bit and consider the effect this has on your perspective.
Controlling One’s Moods
Being in control of one’s moods is important not only for the individual but has an important ethical dimension too. If one can identify and control their mood, then they can take positive action to deal with it and also know whether they should avoid others in case of inflicting their bad mood on them. Indeed, the idea of being able to identify and, perhaps, reframe our moods seems reminiscent of what is carried out in modern day Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Finally, Kierkegaard calls upon us to embrace arbitrariness. Life is full of ups and downs, surprises, and disappointments. If we plan and live in a future that we have meticulously mapped out, we are sure to be caught out by things we did not account for along the way. Resilience is about being able to get over these arbitrary occurrences (good or bad) and being able to embrace them as a part of life.
So, as you can probably note, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of Either/Or is not only encouraging us to eliminate boredom from our lives but he has also - deliberately, or not - offered a path to a resilient life. What links all the key elements of Kierkegaard’s theory is their focus on the individual’s responsibility for living. As he said, “No man can be everything to another, except to be in their way.” Thus, if we want to educate for resilience among the young (and we do, according to the Scottish Curriculum at least) then we must start from the individual and work outwards. In a time of mental health crises, loneliness epidemics and an ideal of social promiscuity, a theory of social prudence could be just what we need.
Author retains copyright of text. Image courtesy of Unsplash.