The Phenomenon Of Levelling In The Present

By 1846, however, a new era had dawned with different demands of the time, creating a generation gap between the aristocratic conservatism of the older generation and the bourgeois liberalism of the younger. Although still a young man, Kierkegaard did not align himself with the latter, but neither did he embrace the cultural elitism of the former. Rather, he deftly crafted a critique of both parties while setting forth a different vision of what the age needs in his review of Madam Gyllembourg's novella. In the preface to this work the anonymous author states that she has not set out to portray the great political events 'that so violently shook the close of the previous century' in the age of revolution, namely the French Revolution, nor the political agitation it continues to spawn in the present age, but to present 'the domestic reflexion' of these two ages in family life, personal relations, and individuals in order to illumine the 'glaring contrast' between them (TA 153). Analysing this contrast in his literary review, Kierkegaard identifies the distinctive character of the age of revolution as consisting above all in passion, in contrast to which the present age shows itself to be essentially a 'sensible, reflecting age devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence', thereby lacking decision and action (68, 71). The present age does not seek to overthrow the established order and abolish the monarchy as in a revolutionary age but lets everything stand, 'subtly drain[ing] the meaning out of it' and gradually transforming the monarchy into 'make-believe' (77, 80-1). An age without passion, Kierkegaard observes, has 'no assets of feeling in the erotic, no assets of enthusiasm and inwardness in politics and religion, no assets of domesticity, piety, and appreciation in

3 Heiberg (2005: 95). 4 Ibid. 98, 115. 5 Ibid. 101. 6 Ibid. 115, 117.

daily life and social life' (74). Consequently, 'there is no hero, no lover, no thinker, no knight of faith, no great humanitarian, no person in despair' to vouch for the validity of their words and observations on the basis of a primitive experience (75). Lacking passion or inwardness, individuals in the present age are spectators rather than participants in social relations; they do not relate to one another with the intensity of a mutual devotedness but watch each other in the tension of reflection, which imprisons them in a state of envy or selfishness that in Kierkegaard's estimation has become the 'negatively unifying principle' of the age (81). The more dominant reflection and indolence become in the present age, the more dangerous envy becomes, finally taking the form of levelling in the reduction of the single individual to a nonentity in the faceless abstraction of the public or crowd.

For Kierkegaard, the phenomenon of levelling is of 'profound importance' because it heralds 'the ascendancy of the category "generation" over the category "individuality" ' in the present age (TA 84). In his view, levelling constitutes the 'basic tendency' of the modern age, which has gone through various concrete upheavals that approximate levelling but do not qualify as genuine levelling because they are not sufficiently abstract (90). As Kierkegaard understands it, levelling is not equivalent to the elimination of class or economic differences between individuals but has to do fundamentally with the loss of individuality in the abstraction of the public or crowd.7 Although oriented towards social equality, the modern age goes astray in the implementation of this ideal by giving it expression in the form of levelling, which in Kierkegaard's view is the very opposite of equality because it does not value individuals. Rather, levelling constitutes 'abstraction's victory over individuals' by reducing their significance to the mathematical equality and equivalence of numbers (84-5). Only the crowd or public is significant, and the greater its number the more significance and abstract power it has. Individuals dare not take the lead in levelling or venture anything on their own for fear of being judged for setting themselves above or apart from the crowd. Consequently, in Kierkegaard's estimation the individual 'does not belong to God, to himself, to the beloved, to his art, to his scholarship; no, just as a serf belongs to an estate, so the individual realizes that in every respect he belongs to an abstraction in which reflection subordinates him' (85). This serfdom of the individual leads Kierkegaard to view the principle of sociality in the modern age as a 'consuming, demoralizing principle' that has its basis in a 'disregard for the separation of the religious individual before God' (86). In a passage excised from the final text, he states:

7 See also Tuttle (2005) and Perkins (1999c).

Leveling is the counterfeit anticipation of eternal life, which has been abolished as other-worldly and nowadays is supposed to be actualized here in abstracto. When everyone, each one separately, is essentially a part of the divine totality, yes, then there will be the consummation of equality. But if the dialectic turns away from inwardness and wants to depict equality by the negative principle that they who individually are inessential are equals in a union of externalities, this is leveling.

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