Sören Kierkegaard — The individual and the mass society


Sören Kierkegaard is considered the most important Danish philosopher and has influenced philosophy, theology and literary history in the 20th century. Kierkegaard’s criticism of the media was triggered by a very personal experience.

“Most of those who are ashamed to walk with a discarded hat or coat, walk joyfully with discarded opinions.”

Sören Kierkegaard is convinced that many people simply take their opinions from some opinion-makers.

“The mass of people have no opinion at all. And that’s where the journalist offers his assistance by lending opinions.”

For Kierkegaard, the leading opinion makers are above all journalists. They exert influence on people in two ways: First, they persuade them that “one” absolutely must have an opinion on this and that, and then immediately offer them a prefabricated one.

Kierkegaard’s criticism of the media was triggered by a personal experience. At that time, there was a weekly newspaper in Copenhagen called “Corsar”. Kierkegaard biographer Anna Paulsen:

“The paper wanted to be an organ of the liberal movement, but not in bondage to any party, but only a voice and expression for the desire for freedom and justice. In keeping with its name, the paper wanted to be witty and piquant and thus distinguish itself from the rest of the press.”

Respected notables were ridiculed and private scandals exposed. In a small town like Copenhagen, where people knew each other, such stories met with great interest. The reports in the “Corsar” also amused Sören Kierkegaard.

But that changed when he himself became the target of the paper. Caricatures appeared, for example, making fun of his eccentric clothes and his way of walking. And they mocked the fact that he had broken off his engagement to Regine Olsen. One caricature shows him on the shoulders of his former fiancée. All of Copenhagen laughed about it. Sören Kierkegaard reacted irritably:

“Every journeyman butcher now thinks he is entitled to insult me.”

After this experience, Kierkegaard saw the newspaper medium with different eyes. He now even recognizes a danger in the press. For this medium ultimately contributes to turning individuals in society into herd cattle. Heiko Schulz, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the Protestant Faculty of the University of Frankfurt am Main:

“The months-long literary feud with the journal’s spokesmen sharpened Kierkegaard’s critical awareness of the power of the press and, at the same time, the enabling dictatorship of the public by the ‘audience’ over the individual.”

For as part of the audience, individuals become an indefinable mass, that is, a herd. The audience is therefore an anonymous phantom that has no responsibility to face. Therefore, Kierkegaard feels pity for each individual who stands against this mass.

“A true martyrdom is where one has to deal with the crowd.”

By crowd, Kierkegaard sociologically means always “the Man” behind whom “the I” can hide in the herd. Moreover, the audience, as a mass, can be directed by the press.

“The duller the time, the more powerful the press. The press is the lowest attempt to state consciencelessness as the principle of humanity.”

In any case, Kierkegaard considers the masses the most dangerous of all powers. Danish Kierkegaard biographer Joakim Garf of the Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen:

“Kierkegaard’s analyses of the public in the guise of the great leveler are an excellent account of the mechanisms of mass psychology, but in addition they reveal that phenomenon which has been a recurring theme since Marx: the phenomenon of alienation.”

Both Marx and Kierkegaard turn primarily against Hegel’s seemingly rational world. But they then go their own different ways. While Marx focuses on the external existential relations of the masses, Kierkegaard is concerned with the inward existential relation of the individual to himself. Since Kierkegaard had already unmasked man in Hegel’s philosophical system as an abstract thought construct in which man is reduced only to a general being, he now recognizes that Hegel in this way contributes to making the individual man with his individual particularities disappear within the mass.

In Hegel’s conception of world history, the world spirit asserts itself as absolute reason and makes only the peoples the bearers of historical development. The individual has no special meaning for the world spirit. The philosopher Karl Löwith comments:

Marx replaces Hegel’s active spirit with a theory of social practice and Kierkegaard with a reflection of the inner action of the individual. As distant as they are from each other, as close they are to each other, in their common attack on the existing and in their distancing from Hegel’s philosophy.”

In his own time, Kierkegaard is among the few who perceptively recognize that individuality, considered an achievement of the modern era, has by no means become a given in nineteenth-century society. On the contrary. The individual is increasingly lost again in an anonymous mass. Kierkegaard also sees this danger in the collective thinking of socialism.

“There can be no question of the idea of socialism and community becoming the salvation of the age, because in our time any kind of association in any system means a leveling power.”

Passionately, therefore, Kierkegaard opposes the idea that man can develop his true nature only in community.

“As in the desert one travels in great caravans for fear of robbers and wild beasts, so individuals now have a horror of existence. Only herd by herd do people still dare to live, clinging together in the mass to be something after all.”

Kierkegaard already observes a gradual dictatorship of the “man”. One thinks, one talks, one means, one does this and that. Where the “man” rules, one becomes unawares the copy of the others. No one dares to be himself, no one dares to step out of line. Kierkegaard biographer Anna Paulsen:

“Such a person never dares to do anything first; he looks around first until he sees how the others do it. For ‘the others,’ that is what he depends on.”

Kierkegaard recognizes that if he wants to find a corrective to this development of mass society, then he must start with the single individual and make the concrete existence of the individual the focus of his thinking.

In the life forms of the aesthete and the ethicist, he had already shown that whenever man clings too much to the external, he can ultimately despair of the meaninglessness and uncertainty of his life.

For Kierkegaard, this despair comes about because man does not recognize his true identity. Richard Purkarthofer, contributor to the Danish and German new edition of Kierkegaard’s works:

“Although physically everything is in order, the existence of the afflicted person becomes an unlivable life; although man may have everything, he lacks the whole. The desperate man is an undead man, a zombie.”

The point, then, is for the person affected in each case to regain unity with himself. For this, however, he must first make clear his anthropological starting conditions.

Thereby it is clear for Kierkegaard: On the one hand man is a product of nature just like every animal and every plant, therefore he participates like all material bodies in the finiteness, temporality and necessity. On the other hand, man also has spirit and therefore also participates in the immaterial, which is not dependent on space and time. Annemarie Pieper, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Basel:

“Every human being is designed to ‘be spirit’. Existing as an individual human being is not being in the same sense as the potato is. What distinguishes man from the potato is his way of being, of existing.”

For the potato, as a pure product of nature, simply exists in space and time. But it lacks the spirit to be able to relate to itself and to its own kind. The potato is present, but it does not exist.

Man, on the other hand, is spirit and can relate to himself and all other things. Danish Kierkegaard biographer Peter P. Rohde:

“Therefore, man is a synthesis. A synthesis of infinity and finitude, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”

Kierkegaard, who as a passionate Shakespeare reader likes to pick up terms from the language of the stage, now pushes the scenery aside and shines a light into the hiddenness of human existence.

“On the stage of bourgeois existence, people play their parts as if in response to a cue that comes to them. But this is only the stage play; true existence lies behind it.”

In front of the scenery on the stage, man presents himself to objective perception as a psychological, historical or sociological given. The individual classification depends thereby on the respective point of view of the observer. The philosopher Wilhelm Anz:

“Kierkegaard does not deny that each of us is of course also a given, but we are just also ‘person’. The objectifying cognition of pure understanding refrains from this.”

It is only behind the scenes, without masks or disguises, that naked existence is exposed. Here it becomes clear that purely objectively seen the true being of man cannot be grasped at all. Moreover, everything objectively perceptible in space and time does not really offer a hold. Thus, the experience is confirmed that man does not find any security in the world with its temporal and transient things. Man seems to come up against a limit of nothingness here. Wilhelm Anz:

“In the midst of this reflection of nothingness, the existing subjectivity experiences itself confirmed as an eternal self. And this belief in unlosable existence is religious faith.”

For the existing individual experiences itself vis-à-vis an eternal power with which it is firmly connected and from which it cannot remove itself. Annemarie Pieper, professor of philosophy at the University of Basel:

“The existent returns to its ground in which it is rooted, carried by the consciousness of an indestructible meaning.”

Here, Kierkegaard echoes Martin Luther’s “coram deo” notion, according to which each individual stands directly before God. As for Luther, for Kierkegaard the ultimate reality of man is his relationship with God.

“No one stands between me and the ultimate mystery of existence. Only when a self is conscious as this particular individual, ‘being to it before God,’ only then is it the infinite self.”

Kierkegaard biographer Anna Paulsen:

“This is the tremendous concession of eternity that the individual human being, any individual human being, whatever and whoever he may be, ‘is there’ before God. God is the unchanging ground of our freedom.”

Kierkegaard had previously lamented that it was the misfortune of his time that people had forgotten what inwardness was. Now he thinks he has found a solution. He calls this immanent relationship to eternity, which can be established at any time through self-contemplation: religiosity A. With this he wants to imply that the existing individual has already entered into a religious existence, but that this is not yet sufficient to attain true identity with himself.

He even warns that in the stage of this religiosity the temptation is too great to want to exist exclusively in the eternal. But since man, as already presented, is a synthesis of the eternal and the temporal, he must also relate to these two sides.

The only possibility to get beyond this general religious existence, the so-called religiosity A, offers itself for Kierkegaard in the decision for religiosity B, the Christian way of life.

But here he is initially faced with a problem. For the Christian way of life presupposes faith in Jesus Christ. But why should one be able to attain eternal bliss today by referring to a historical event that happened almost 2000 years ago?