More students today visit the counselling center for anxiety than for any other reason. Of late, the unpleasant anxious feeling of worry or dread in the face of life’s possibilities has been treated with medicine, but there remains the question of why we have anxiety, whether there is a way to deal with our anxieties without resorting to drugs, and how me might best understand our anxiety in the first place.
One of the earliest writings on anxiety was published in 1844. It’s called The Concept of Anxiety, and it’s written by Søren Kierkegaard, under the pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis. Whereas Haufniensis poses the question of how we deal with anxiety without ever answering it clearly, Kierkegaard tries to solve the problem of anxiety in 1847 with a book published under his own name: Works of Love. Pseudonyms were an avenue for Kierkegaard to express different perspectives that he personally may not have believed, while avoiding charges of internal contradiction were he to publish discrete views under his own name. Each pseudonym is meant to represent a different platform, or look at an issue from a different subjective angle. Vigilius Haufniensis specifically is meant to take on the guise of a psychologist, exploring how psychology can engage with the Socratic maxim to “know yourself.” Works written by Kierkegaard himself, in contrast, often express religious or theological views on how an individual can be faithful God.
I was initially interested in the Haufniensis’s Concept of Anxiety because I was growing more and more aware of my own anxiety, as I had no idea what I wanted to do with my own life. I read Works of Love to see if Kierkegaard’s solution to anxiety was something that could work for me.
According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, all human beings, beginning with Adam, are born with free will, as evidenced by original sin. Therefore all human beings sin freely. And even for those who may not believe the Genesis account, it’s worth understanding Genesis in terms of its insight that we humans possess a mysterious freedom that appears out of nowhere. Only the most hard-pressed determinist might argue that our free will is actually an illusion, and even then, it still certainly feels as though we are free. And that feeling of freedom is just something we are born with.
Free will, ironically, is not chosen, but rather forced upon individuals. Even in our own lives, when confronted with difficult choices, it is never a question of who makes the decision, but rather of what the best decision is.
The anxiety that Adam experiences comes as a result of God’s prohibition of the fruit, which awakens Adam’s awareness of his free will. Before, Adam was ignorant of his ability to do anything of consequence. Eating other fruits or naming the animals held no weight, and Adam’s free will thus occurred in a vacuum where he had no opportunity to meaningfully exercise it. However, the order from God is the catalyst for Adam’s realization that he is capable of being free in a more real sense—that he is “able” to act against an authority.
A person’s individual freedom is best exemplified in opposition to an authority because it affirms the person’s ability to disobey (compared to an unfree person, who is forced to obey a command). So, had Adam not been free, he would literally not have been able to disobey the order from God. And while the order from God is not intended to test his loyalty, the effect is ultimately similar. Someone who is put under a moral test may not realize the extent of their own weakness or strength until after the test is over, but the test itself has not fundamentally changed the nature of their moral weakness or strength; rather it lets them become aware of themselves.
In my own childhood, it at first did not occur to me that I was able to disobey my parents. But one fateful night after I forgot to brush my teeth, I realized at once that it was both possible to disobey them, and that in the future, I could willfully disobey them again. The awareness that I stumbled into as a child is ultimately the same awareness of freedom’s possibility that awakens in Adam. More generally, what we now describe as anxiety can be traced back to the recognition of the possibility of asserting our choices, or the awareness of our free will. We are anxious because we are free.
Picture yourself on the edge of a diving board; you can do any number of things. You could try to do a flip, belly flop, maybe just jump like a pencil, or even walk back down the steps, and not dive at all. But as you stand on the diving board, they are all still just possibilities; in direct contrast with the moment your feet leave the board and you fling yourself towards the water, having already decided to make a splashy cannon ball. In that moment when you choose, the possibility of going back down the steps or of doing a flip disappears. When an individual actuates just one of their possibilities, they necessarily lose out on any number of other possibilities, although new opportunities can open up. One could not possibly reach a fork in the road and walk down both paths at once.
Anxiety, thus, exists as the intermediary state between innocence and sin, between possibility and defined choice, and the moment of decision goes against the ambiguous nature of freedom that you would experience at the edge. A single concrete possibility manifests itself and dominates the other hazy possibilities that a person might have once had. Haufniensis describes the feeling of such freedom as ultimately “dizzying,” because we are caught in the idea that we are fundamentally able to do anything, yet unsure of what exactly it is that we want to do.
Kierkegaard offers a solution to this anxiety problem: When “I” obey the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” I necessarily give up the choice on who to love or not love because I must love every person. I cannot meaningfully give preference or enact my “will” in any meaningful sense, unless I choose to disobey the compelling force of that command. The ignition comes from outside, and is oriented outwards, but the person at the center still has to obey the call. On these grounds, Kierkegaard argues that a duty-based understanding of love makes it “eternally secure” and “perfect,” and as it participates in the eternal, it is valuable because it is forever “unchanged.”
But, though it can be unpleasant, Haufniensis is not so sure that we should want to eliminate anxiety. He goes so far as to claim that human beings are meant to be anxious, since they are, he argues, a synthesis between the physical and the psychical, and between the infinite and the finite. It’s no coincidence that in the Bible, human beings are made from the dust and the breath of God. Whereas dust will naturally sink to the bottom, the breath of God will naturally rise to the top, and to synthesize these opposing elements is to understand one’s own internal contradictions. This, for Haufniensis, is what it means to be a human being.
In Plato’s Symposium, readers learn about a dinner party in the house of Agathon, a celebrated tragedian, where a group of men decide to take turns giving speeches in praise of Eros, or erotic desire, and how it relates to love. Eros is characterized as the hermeneutical force intermediate between mortals and gods. In Socrates’s encomium on Eros, he describes an encounter with a Mantinean woman, Diotima, who teaches him the true nature of Eros.
The secret is that each person is already pregnant with ideas, but needs the right beautiful prompt to induce their birth. Ultimately, this intertwinement of erotic desire and intellectual desire in the ladder analogy provides an ideological framework for better understanding the experience of anxiety.
Explaining the concept of spiritual pregnancy and the human process of self-renewal, Diotima comments that Socrates “may be initiated” into such rites, but warns that perhaps he will not be able to achieve the more important “revelations” soon to come. Regardless, she goes on talking anyway, with hopes that Socrates can and will follow. After her disclaimer, in perhaps The Symposium’s most famous literary device, Diotima introduces the “ladder of love,” whereby one’s desire for beauty allows one to “ascend” or transform their erotic love into a different type of love entirely. Yet to even begin such upward motion, one must first participate in the process of spiritual pregnancy. One’s ascension on the ladder—or metaphorical “climbing”—necessarily happens by way of Eros, or a state of heightened erotic desire, which allows the appreciation of a beautiful body to become the appreciation of the beauty of all bodies, which are “one and the same.” This kind of realization, from specific instances of beauty to a general type of beauty, tracks the fundamental logic critical to Plato’s theory of the forms.
In this process of pursuing beauty and giving birth to ideas after encountering the right beautiful prompt, one sheds, or changes their desires for the beauty; moving on from a desire for the specific instantiation of spiritual beauty that had theretofore preoccupied them. And yet, because one does not possess beauty itself, they still desire what they lack, and so they are pregnant once more with a more intense desire for an even more beautiful prompt. This cyclical action of no longer desiring what they once had, only to desire something more reflects a process that Diotima likens to immortality itself. Once the new vision of beauty is birthed, new desires re-enter, or impregnate, the birther: it’s almost as if they were inspired by the previous “pregnancy.” Although a flawed example, when eating spicy food, one’s taste buds will signal the brain to numb a person’s taste to protect against the pain that peppers bring. So when one first begins to eat spicy food, their taste buds may not be able to numb themselves well. But as one continues with their enjoyment of spicy food, one’s taste buds slowly attune and become better at numbing themselves, so someone could begin to tolerate successively more spicy foods, until there are either no more spicier foods to eat, or one dies from something that was too spicy.
Necessary to even begin this journey though, is the desire for spicy foods to begin with. Yet, unlike enjoyment of spicy food, the ability to engage in spiritual pregnancy is, for Diotima, an essential human quality. And one’s erotic drive then becomes the driving force for self-renewal or change in the human.
However, as one climbs the hypothetical “ladder of love,” realizing more about the true nature of beauty, and clearing up their understanding of beauty, we see that this process actually brings a person further away from their original state of being, and one’s original pursuit of the beautiful in terms of beautiful bodies. In the beginning, erotic desire was our first signal that we had come into contact with the beautiful, and it was a visceral, carnal experience. Yet the successively more intense encounters with beauty and the ultimate form of beauty, or “beauty” itself, leaves a person “dumbstruck,” and is totally unlike our initial experiences of beauty. A person living in a dimly lit cave might be similarly “dumbstruck” when they first see the sun. However, as one begins the journey up the “ladder of love,” there is no way for them to know what successive “steps” entail or to where they will lead as long as the climber remains on the previous step. Although cliché, in order to “ascend,” one has to “trust the process” in their pursuit of beauty. There will always be an element of mystery, of the unknown, in starting something new.
Consider the ladder of love as analogous to a conversation with someone new. How do you traverse the incremental degrees of intimacy or closeness that must first be reached before you can have a good, or “the ultimate,” conversation? First, one must hypothetically begin talking to another person and get to know their basic details like where the other person is from, what they are studying, and what they want to do in life. From there, if the conversation goes well, one might get to deeper topics like opinions on social media, politics, or relationships. And if one is really lucky, perhaps the conversation may even take on a life of its own, pushing into the realm of ideas and wisdom, where both interlocutors get a fundamental insight into the mind of the other person. But this last “ultimate” form of conversation is rare because it might not happen every time you engage in conversation, and usually you must first reach a level of intimacy with another person before they are willing to engage in such a discussion. To use another analogy, when sitting by a fire, there will be sparks that naturally fly out of the immediate vicinity of the fire. However, one cannot force these sparks to fly out, or to start something new (another fire) but can only hope that in lighting the fire to begin with, something will result from that effort. Kierkegaard would seemingly propose that if both parties are truly willing to engage with one another, it is possible to reach that “ultimate” level of conversation without having to go through the extra “small-talk.” He expects the sparks even when they are not guaranteed. And while Kierkegaard is not necessarily wrong in such an expectation, the approach of gradual building up, or letting things progress at their own pace seems to be more akin to how human beings actually behave.
Alcibiades demonstrates an inability to idealize beauty and ascend the ladder when he stumbles in drunk, intending on seducing Agathon, only to be shocked and horrified when he discovers that Socrates is there as well. From there, the famously beautiful Alcibiades describes the hardship of being in love with Socrates, despite, ironically, first intending on seducing Agathon, which might suggest his “love” is not totally genuine. However, readers learn that Socrates himself is like the demigod Eros, and is unique in his ability to change himself from the lover to the beloved. So we see that Alcibiades tries or has tried to bed both Socrates and Agathon, yet is seemingly unable to maintain or avoids a conversation that might actually reveal the beauty of their souls.
Alcibiades participates in this drunken, sex-fueled, “bacchic frenzy” and the pleasures of the body precisely because he is so physically beautiful and understands the power that his beauty has, yet he is critically unable to resist the charms of Socrates because he is “stuck” on the first rung ladder, and unable to follow through on the insight into beauty that would shift his priorities. The problem that Alcibiades reveals about himself is that, while he feels an intense desire for the truth, as demonstrated by his love for Socrates, he is unable to submit to that desire, for fear that it will change his life.
Unlike a more theoretical question like “what a self really is,” love and obligation are motifs in every person’s life, and the goal of philosophy in my mind should be to challenge the average person’s way of thinking about their own life. Reading these works, although it is cliché, really should “change your life.” And in re-examining my own life, it follows that I would/should make subsequent changes if I discover that my fundamental presuppositions are incorrect. If one does see the truth in a progressive view of human life, where we are meant to change, then it makes sense that one would allow such a change to happen, and continue with their pursuit of beauty and truth. My initial issue with Kierkegaard in Works of Love was that his work seemed unrealistic, since “I” would have an issue with just giving up my life and will to god, flipping the switch, and never experiencing anxiety again. However, The Symposium solves this issue because it changed my understanding of what a human being should be. I now realize that being human is not just a static experience with instances of momentous change. I realize that anxiety, like love, and like my own human life, will change over time, and that such change is a consequence of being human. While Kierkegaard argues that such change, by which we become like God, can happen in an instant, Plato, via Diotima, reminds readers that it can also be gradual, and that there will be intermediate states. Ultimately though, to participate in ascension at all means allowing oneself to be open to such change, even while the end point remains unknown. ▩
Peggy Li is a tetris fan and succulent mother who lives in New York.