Sunday, November 8, 2009

Spirit and the Self

In a recent NY Times editorial, philosophy professor Gordon Marino suggests we might benefit from refamiliarizing ourselves with Galileos of the inner world such as Soren Kierkegaard, who have been stuffed in a back-closet of antiquated ideas in an age of Twitter and Facebook. He singles out for attention a distinction cultivated by the gloomy Dane between depression and despair, and suggests, following Kierkegaard’s lead, that while the former might be a medical problem, the later was likely to be a spiritual one.

There is something to be said, I think, for the argument that when we are low, the underlying issue might be spiritual rather than medical. But I doubt whether Soren Kierkegaard would be one to shed much light on it. At any rate, Marino’s line of argument is certainly not very convincing. In fact, he inadvertently exposes the central weakness of Kierkegaard’s approach to life early on in the article, when he quotes the first few lines of Sickness Unto Death.

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

Two big problems here:
1) the spirit is not the self;
2) the self is not a relation relating itself to itself, etc. etc.

To these initial stumbles Marino almost immediately adds a third, when he cites the Dane’s definition of “human being.”

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.

This, too, is off the mark, in so far as the word “synthesis” (an abstract and tendentious concept) masks the real question: in what way are the infinite and the finite brought together in us?
But all is not lost. We might reassemble and rearrange the various phrases Kierkegaard has provided to arrive at a more convincing assertion along the following lines.

Despair is the result of too closely associating spirit with the self, of wandering off into the labyrinth of soul-wracking but empty reflections that exhaust themselves due to lack of substance. What seems to be required is to cultivate affinities and associations with the world “out there” that enliven and invigorate us.

When Marino, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, suggests that despair is “marked by a desire to get rid of the self,” which is rooted in “an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are,” we might reply that most of us don’t really know who we are most of the time. That’s part of the problem. Therefore, the suspiciously abstract question “Who am I?” might better be replaced by more specific ones such as “What do I like to do?” “Where do I fit in?” “Where does my enthusiasm lie?"

Kierkegaard is certainly right
to regard this as a spiritual issue, but not because spirit is the self. Rather it is a spiritual issue because spirit is not the self. Not quite. It is far more than the self. But we share in it, participate in it from time to time. Adventure, sports, child-rearing, church-committees, food, conversation. These (and other) activities bring us to attention, engage us, lift us up and beyond ourselves, at least momentarily.

Even to wrangle with a challenging metaphysical issue like the one we're dealing with here, following threads of inference, groping for enlightenment, can sometimes have that effect.