The French philosopher Jacques Derrida has reflected on the Greek word ‘pharmakon’, which appears in Plato’s dialogues. The pharmakon can be either a poison or a cure. Like our English word ‘drug’, it expresses a fundamental ambivalence: drugs can be life-threatening or life-saving. The hemlock that Socrates drinks when he is put to death exemplifies this dual quality, for it is a poison that kills him but in doing so cures him of life, releasing him from bondage to the body and allowing his soul to return to the eternal truths it loves.
In Kierkegaard’s philosophy, anxiety shares with Plato’s pharmakon this ambivalence. It is both a poisoned chalice and a saving cup. Even more paradoxically, anxiety is the cure for its own suffering. Anxiety can save us from ourselves. When Martin Heidegger quotes Hölderlin in writing – this time of modern technology – that ‘Where the danger lies, there the saving power also grows’, he echoes this Kierkegaardian interpretation of anxiety.
This is why ‘learning to be anxious,’ as Kierkegaard puts it, is such a potent process. The person who confronts his anxiety, perhaps through an encounter with himself, touches a ‘saving power’ within himself:
‘Then the assaults of anxiety, even though they be terrifying, will not be such that he flees from them. For him, anxiety becomes a serving spirit that against its will leads him where he wishes to go. Then, when it announces itself, when it cunningly pretends to have invented a new instrument of torture, far more terrible than anything before, he does not shrink back, and still less does he attempt to hold it off with noise and confusion; but he bids it welcome, greets it festively, and like Socrates who raised the poisoned cup, he shuts himself up with it and says as the patient would say to the surgeon when the painful operation is about to begin: Now I am ready. Then anxiety enters his soul and searches out everything and anxiously torments everything finite and petty out of him, and then it leads him where he wants to go.’
Here, anxiety is depicted as a soul-searching, soul-purifying, soul-saving pharmakon. We might not know whether we have souls, how to find them, or even what it means to speak of the soul. This is part of anxiety’s uncertainty. But it is also part of the search that anxiety carries out.
Derrida thinks that the ambiguity and ambivalence of the pharmakon is always undecidable, essentially uncertain. In anxiety, search and uncertainty correspond to one another. For Kierkegaard, this uncertain search is where faith begins, and probably where it always remains. The adventure of anxiety is the journey of the soul.
- Clare Carlisle