Long before Sigmund Freud psychoanalyzed it or Jean-Paul Sartre dramatized it, the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard declared anxiety to be at the heart of the human condition.
Anxiety, for Kierkegaard, comes as the high cost of freedom, the fear of the nothing that enables us to commit to one possibility over another.
Nothing hinders our freedom, he writes, yet nothing paralyzes it as well. This paradox, which Kierkegaard called “a sympathetic antipathy,” continues to plague us in the age of Xanax and Prozac.
Here, briefly, is how the process works: As freedom swoons before an infinity of possibilities, it causes anxiety, which finds relief not by a choice between alternatives (say, good and evil) but by a qualitative leap into a new state of being – a leap arising from nothing (meaning it is not caused by anything), which in turn becomes a commitment of one’s authentic self.
Anxiety is thus about possibility, about being able to reach into the yawning abyss of the infinite. What makes anxiety so tenacious is that we cannot escape our freedom; we are “condemned to be free,” in Sartre’s terminology. And so anxiety haunts freedom the way a ghost haunts the living.
If all this sounds overly abstract or fanciful (to speak of nothing as though it were something), we would do well to remember that Kierkegaard understood the human self to be a synthesis of finitude and infinity, time and eternity, body and soul – held together by spirit, which is eternal.
Kierkegaard developed his groundbreaking theory in “The Concept of Anxiety,” published under a pseudonym in 1844. The book forms a brilliant exercise in analyzing self-consciousness, and it established Kierkegaard as the father of modern psychology, influencing dozens of 20th-century thinkers from Martin Heidegger to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Emmanuel Levinas.
It can be argued that each generation needs its own version of a classic. And it has been nearly 25 years since “The Concept of Anxiety” was last translated into English. Alastair Hannay’s new, lithe edition breathes life into the text, which in previous translations had bogged down in stilted or excessively florid diction.
Hannay’s translation has a crisp, authoritative ring to it, despite his quirk of using the pronoun “it” for “the individual.” His book sets the standard for the 21st century. And rightly so:
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo, he has translated six other books by Kierkegaard, including his two most important works, “The Sickness Unto Death” and “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” Hannay knows whereof he speaks.
Like many of Kierkegaard’s books, “The Concept of Anxiety” has proved doubly influential – in philosophy and religion – because it tackles the problem of anxiety within a theological framework, namely, the dogma of hereditary (or original) sin.
Kierkegaard wonders how sinfulness could enter the world through Adam (in the biblical book of Genesis) when sin did not exist before Adam’s fall, even as an inclination.
Hereditary sin clearly cannot explain Adam’s sinfulness, because Adam had no sin to inherit; thus we cannot say that he was prone to be a sinner before he sinned. Nor can his knowledge of good and evil be the cause of sin, since he was blissfully unaware of these alternatives until he sinned.
Instead, sin came into the world through a sin, Kierkegaard writes. “Sin is its own presupposition … its manner of coming into the world is to be presupposed in the fact that it is.”
For Kierkegaard, sinfulness results solely from Adam’s free leap to sin. And, as with all acts of freedom, anxiety remains the necessary state preceding that leap.
In this way, Kierkegaard links the two aims of his book: to articulate the anxiety of freedom and to translate that into the anxiety over sin.
“Anxiety, then, means two things: the anxiety in which the individual posits sin through the qualitative leap, and the anxiety that comes in and enters with sin, and in that respect also enters qualitatively into the world every time an individual posits sin.”
This leads Kierkegaard to conclude that all of us are born with the same freedom and anxiety that Adam possessed in a state of sinlessness. We recapitulate Adam’s leap to sinfulness – not out of a selfish compulsion to sin, but out of a free act that creates self-consciousness. “(I)nnocence is always lost solely through the individual’s qualitative leap.”
Hence, the movement of sin, like freedom, is circular – the leap and the quality caught in a dizzying dynamic of presupposing then positing each other.
“The Concept of Anxiety” is not an easy work to read. Kierkegaard’s dialectical skills will challenge even the most lucid and engaged mind. But Hannay’s translation makes philosophical abstraction as lively as it can be. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.
And though we may approach this profound, existential text with a sense of trepidation, we can say with Kierkegaard that “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”