In 1844 Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book called The Concept of Anxiety, where he suggests that the experience of anxiety isn’t just a response to external circumstances, but rooted in the very nature of the human being. We exist, therefore we are anxious. Even when there’s nothing to worry about.
Why might this be? According to Kierkegaard, the human being is a spiritual being: not just a mind and a body, but a being who is self-aware and self-desiring. We take up a relationship to ourselves, a relationship of consciousness and desire. This is what Kierkegaard means by spirit. We reflect on ourselves and seek to know ourselves, or we ignore ourselves. We want to be ourselves, or we do not want to be ourselves – we might want to be someone else, or perhaps no-one at all.
In The Concept of Anxiety Kierkegaard also writes that the human being is a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. We are finite, limited by our bodies and other material circumstances. We are limited by space and time: we cannot do or be everything at once. We are limited by our past, which shapes each present moment and cannot be altered. But we are also infinite, unlimited: our minds, and particularly our imaginations, can go anywhere and do anything. We live partly in the dimension of what Kierkegaard calls ‘possibility’. However much the past may shape us, we face an open future, an indefinite space and time of possibilities.
Kierkegaard’s psychology, and in particular his concept of anxiety, is based on this finite/infinite structure of the human spirit. Most of us, for the most part, he claims, do not want to be who we are. (This is an interpretation of the Christian doctrine of sin.) Insofar as we are finite, we rebel against our limitations, refusing to be confined. In tradition theology, this is understood as the sin of pride or self-assertion: St. Augustine saw this as the main sin that conditions all the others. Insofar as we are infinite, however, we shrink back from the open spaces, fleeing in the face of our freedom. This response is anxiety, and in Kierkegaard’s theology it joins pride as the second fundamental form of sin.
Kierkegaard thinks that we are, spiritually speaking, both agoraphobic and claustrophobic. We want boundaries, we want to transgress boundaries. We don’t want to be put in a box, we don’t want to climb out of the box. We do not want to be free, we do not want to be unfree. We do not want to be who we are.
- Clare Carlisle