In the annals of philosophy and theology, Søren Kierkegaard looms large. Known for his profound reflections on existence and faith, this Danish philosopher’s ruminations ask readers to confront the often uncomfortable realities of human existence and the nature of belief. In a new article, Hannah Venable navigates the intricacies of Kierkegaard’s lesser-known work, “The Concept of Anxiety,” and emerges with revelations that feel curiously timely.
Today, discussions of ‘anxiety’ are increasingly common. However, Venable challenges us to view anxiety as a condition deeply linked to our collective history. She suggests that melancholy springs from an “ever-increasing, ever-deepening anxiety” deeply influenced by the zeitgeist of an era.
“Like anxiety, melancholy is another fundamental aspect of our human condition, manifests itself in apathy, and is often brought on by feelings of intense guilt; unlike anxiety, however, it thrives in a particular cultural and historical environment. Kierkegaard argues that during his time, the cultural and historical environment has allowed melancholy to flourish into a dominant characteristic of society,” Venable writes.
She argues that “contrary to the usual interpretation of Kierkegaard, melancholy is more than an individual’s struggle with existence, but is intimately tied to the historical environment, coming from an ever-increasing, ever-deepening form of anxiety.”
While existentialists have long infused Kierkegaard’s insights into psychological debates, Venable’s work in the psychological humanities offers a fresh perspective. She posits that a deeper grasp of anxiety and melancholy might provide a more nuanced understanding of modern-day depression.
There’s also a spiritual undercurrent. Kierkegaard believed that while melancholy might seem enveloped in darkness, it holds a beacon of hope. This introspective journey can lead one to a profound connection with transcendence.
In “The Concept of Anxiety,” Kierkegaard uses Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Anxiety Was,” to highlight the deep connection between the human experience and the feelings of anxiety and melancholy. He sees both moods as fundamental to our nature, with everyone facing anxiety, and melancholy emerging more prominently during certain cultural and historical times, often manifesting as guilt-induced apathy.
Venable points out that Kierkegaard uses two Danish terms to describe melancholy: “Melancholi,” which originates from the Greek word meaning “black bile” and points to sorrow without a clear cause, and “Tungsind,” translating to “heavy-spiritedness” or “heavy-mindedness.” Scholars debate the distinction between the terms, with some seeing “Melancholi” as a milder form that evolves into the deeper, more religious “Tungsind” and others challenging that interpretation. Regardless, “Tungsind” is the term Kierkegaard emphasizes, reflecting its cultural cachet during his era; melancholy was not just sorrowful but also associated with intelligence and artistic prowess.
Kierkegaard hoped readers would probe their own melancholy, moving from awareness of it to a deeper faith. He interweaves this mood with anxiety, suggesting that the weight of melancholy stems from a collective, burdensome anxiety about the world’s sins. His perspective on melancholy is built on historical understanding and its ties to anxiety.
Crucially, Kierkegaard asserts that objective anxiety deepens into melancholy as sin accumulates historically. This melancholic mood is more than an individual’s emotional trajectory; it signifies a larger cultural and historical progression. Kierkegaard introduces the idea of a genius – a potential beacon of hope – capable of challenging this profound melancholy.
Kierkegaard posits two types of genius in addressing the anxiety resulting from sin. The “immediate genius” centers on externalities, indulging in the present and avoiding self-reflection. While this outward focus initially provides relief from internal anxiety, this fleeting solace ultimately results in an inner void and melancholy. Despite achieving external greatness, these individuals fail to realize their internal potential.
In contrast, the “religious genius” embraces self-reflection and confronts anxiety. With evident personal resonance, Kierkegaard describes the transformation from immediate to religious genius as arduous yet spiritually fulfilling. Despite acknowledging their deep guilt, the religious genius finds solace in their relationship with something transcendent, spiritual, or divine.
For Kierkegaard, anxiety serves as a conduit for introspection. Before achieving peace or rest, an individual must first confront and traverse the depths of their soul. He believes that anxiety, especially in its intense form of melancholy, propels an individual deeper into self-awareness. The deeper one dives, the higher one can potentially soar, thereby attaining a profound understanding of truth. This voyage to the depths fosters a desperation for truth and transformation. Kierkegaard contends that without embracing this melancholic state, one remains oblivious to the potential for a profound metamorphosis.
Venable highlights a particularly beautiful passage from “The Concept of Anxiety,” where Kierkegaard writes:
“Truth has always had many loud proclaimers, but the question is whether a person will, in the deepest sense, acknowledge the truth, will allow it to permeate his whole being, will accept all its consequences, and not have an emergency hiding place for himself and a Judas kiss for the consequence. (Kierkegaard 1980, 138)
Kierkegaard’s personal connection with melancholy, seen in his father and himself, might have made it a challenging and painful topic for a straightforward discussion. Yet, traces of melancholy weave through many of his writings, presenting it experientially rather than methodically.
In his work, “Either/Or,” Kierkegaard defines melancholy as a spiritual hysteria that arises when the spirit doesn’t progress to a higher form. It’s portrayed as an indefinable sorrow. Highlighting its profoundness, Kierkegaard links melancholy to hereditary sin, painting it as not just an individual affliction but a collective burden. This ties it to anxiety, especially the anxiety of inherent sinfulness.
While anxiety and melancholy have unique traits, they often intertwine, sharing space in Kierkegaard’s philosophical landscape. In essence, Kierkegaard’s examination of melancholy underscores its depth, roots in anxiety, and profound impact on the individual and collective psyche.
This scholarship offers a rich lens through which modern depression may be explored and contemplated. It posits that as anxiety intensifies, it envelops society, leading to an era marked by melancholy. Yet, within this darkness, Kierkegaard perceives the potential for hope. When faced candidly, melancholy can pave the way for self-reflection. Such introspection, despite its often somber findings, can lead to a spiritual reawakening, connecting individuals and offering a path to healing. This holistic interpretation underscores the richness of the human experience far beyond standard diagnostic constructs.
Venable, Hannah (2014). Situating Melancholy in Kierkegaard’s “The Concept of Anxiety”. Philosophy and Theology 26 (1):39-64. (Link)