I am perusing Kierkegaard’s essay The Present Age (Harper, 1962), one of his more concise and comprehensible works. But like many dated jeremiads, this volume seems quaint and a little naive. The following statement captures the essence of his treatise:
A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.
Like many inhabitants of more mundane epochs, the Danish philosopher railed against smugness and complacency. For him, crusades, rebellions and conflicts would come as a welcome respite from the torpor of moral indolence and self-satisfied materialism. No doubt some of his indignation was justified. But unfortunately sometimes people get what they ask for. After a century of fairly placid existence, Europe would experience nearly fifty years of the worst crimes, revolutions and wars in history, all because men were more or less bored.
I believe that an “age of action” (action for its own sake) accomplishes very little; at least little that is good. Revolutions are in fact built on the illusion of “advertisement and publicity” in ways that are more subtly insidious and false than the regime of bourgeois commercialism. Of course, Kierkegaard is not altogether wrong in his assessments. Our society prides itself on “its skill and inventiveness in constructing fascinating illusions.” The philosopher says what is “unthinkable among the young men of today is a truly religious renunciation of the world, adhered to with daily self-denial.” But as we’ve seen with the fanatics of Bolshevism, Nazism and radical Islam, renunciation that is not guided by the (unexciting) virtues of patience and humility leads only to nihilism.
Kierkegaard laments that few people are “carried away by the desire for the good to perform great things, [and] no one is precipitated by evil into atrocious sins.” I must say that this is no longer the case since we embraced so much sincerity and rebellion, at least as far as the “atrocious sins” are concerned. Ironically this has been made possible by our advanced material luxury and security. (Moral and cultural deviancy are the work of people with lots of free time on their hands.) In any case, I’m not sure that Kierkegaard realized to what degree the manifestations of ideological zealotry and ethical superficiality tend to complement one another; that you could have an age that was at once “revolutionary” and “indolent.” Both depend on a herd mentality.