Most of us strive for happiness in life, whether it be by seeking it directly through pleasures or by seeking it indirectly doing one’s duty, or a combination of both.
In the first part of Either/Or, containing the papers of an anonymous aesthete, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard dedicates a chapter on the problem of boredom and the difficulty of maintaining happiness, and proposes his solution for it.
Kierkegaard was famous for writing under pseudonyms and exploring different spheres of existence, namely, the ethical, the aesthetic and the religious. This makes it all the more difficult to figure out his personal opinion on the matters discussed, it is thus up to the reader to make his own conclusions.
The aesthete begins stating that:
“People of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle. I grant them that and start with the principle that all men are boring. Or will someone be boring enough to contradict me in this? … Were one to demand divorce on the grounds that one’s wife was boring, or a king’s abdication because he was boring to look at, or a priest thrown out of the land because he was boring to listen to, or a cabinet minister dismissed, or a life-sentence for a journalist, because they were dreadfully boring, it would be impossible to get one’s way. What wonder, then, that the world is regressing, that evil is gaining ground more and more, since boredom is on the increase and boredom is a root of all evil.”
The aesthete traces the origin of boredom from the very beginning of the world.
“The gods were bored so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, so Eve was created. From that time boredom entered the world and grew in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone, then Adam and Eve were bored in union, then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored as a family, then the population increased and the people were bored all together. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of building a tower so high it reached the sky. The very idea is as boring as the tower was high…”
He explains that people do not think of ways of diverting themselves, but accelerate the ruin. He suggests that the state of Denmark should take out a loan of fifteen millions to use it not to pay their debts but for public pleasure. Everything would be free for a while, and people would not even need to spend money to amuse themselves, this would lead everything great to pour into Copenhagen, the greatest artists, actors and dancers. Copenhagen would become another Athens.
This is, however, merely a thought of his. He continues to think that all people are boring. However, one can bore oneself or bore other people. He explains that those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect, the nobility. Strangely, those who don’t bore themselves usually bore others, while those who do bore themselves amuse others.
“Those who do not bore themselves are generally those who are busy in the world in one way or another, but that is just why they are the most boring, the most insufferable, of all.”
The other class of men, the select, bore themselves. The more profoundly they bore themselves, the more powerful a means of diversion they offer others, when boredom reaches its zenith, one either dies of boredom (the passive form) or shoots oneself out of curiosity (the active form).
Idleness, it is usually said, is a root of all evil. To prevent this evil one recommends work. However, the aesthete indicates that it is by no means a root of evil: quite the contrary, it is a truly divine way of life as long as one is not bored. The Olympian gods were not bored, they prospered in happy idleness.
The aesthete talks about the “apostles of empty enthusiasm”, those whose admiration and indifference have become indistinguishable.
“People who are always making a profession of enthusiasm, everywhere making their presence felt, and whether something significant or insignificant is taking place, cry ‘Ah!’ or ‘Oh!’, because for them the difference between significant and insignificant has become undone in enthusiasm’s blind and blaring emptiness. The acquired form of boredom is usually a product of a mistaken attempt at diversion.”
The aesthete now delves into how to tackle the problem of boredom.
“Seeing that boredom is a root of all evil… what is more natural than to try to overcome it? But here, as everywhere, cool deliberation is clearly called for lest in one’s demonic obsession with boredom, in trying to avoid it one only works oneself further into it. ‘Change’ is what all who are bored cry out for. With this I am entirely in agreement, only it is important to act from principle… My own departure from the general view is adequately expressed in the phrase crop rotation.”
Crop Rotation: Extensive Cultivation
The whole chapter, in fact, is called Crop Rotation: An Attempt at a Theory of Social Prudence. It is a sort of science of seeking pleasures characteristic of the reflective aesthete, and not mindlessly doing it as an unreflective aesthete, such as the legend of Don Juan.
To explain how one avoids boredom, the aesthete’s worst enemy, he uses the agricultural notion of crop rotation. It can be done in two ways. The first is the extensive cultivation, growing the same crop in the same land area for many years and gradually depleting the soil of certain nutrients and making it less resilient to pests and weeds. This makes the land lose its fertility and one has to constantly find new land. He writes:
“One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one moves abroad… One is tired of dining off porcelain, one dines off silver; one tires of that, one dines off gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration at Troy. This method defeats itself, it is the bad infinite.”
The “bad infinite” is an expression of Hegel’s which connotes an infinite perpetuation, as against the notion of an infinite that somehow contains all that is finite. In a perpetual need of avoiding boredom, one eventually reaches a dead end.
Crop Rotation: Intensive Cultivation
The second is way is the intensive cultivation: focusing on changing the method of cultivation and type of grain. This is the one the aesthete proposes, the more you limit yourself the more resourceful you become.
The experienced farmer now and then lets his land lie fallow, uncultivated, so as to restore its fertility. The theory of social prudence recommends the same. He writes:
“One thinks of one’s schooldays. When one is at the age when no aesthetic considerations are taken in the choice of one’s teachers and the latter are for that very reason often very boring, how inventive one is! How amusing to catch a fly and keep it imprisoned under a nut shell and watch how it rushes about with the shell! … How entertaining it can be to hear the monotonous drip from the roof! How thorough of an observer one becomes, the slightest noise or movement does not escape one! Here we have the extreme of the principle that seeks relief, not extensively, but intensively.”
Remembering and Forgetting
The more inventive one can be in changing the mode of cultivation, the better; but every particular change comes under the general rule of the relation between remembering and forgetting. The whole of life moves in these two currents, so it is essential to have control over them.
When we come across something unpleasant we say “If only I could forget”, but forgetting is an art that must be practised beforehand. Being able to forget depends on how one remembers, and how one remembers depends on how one experiences reality.
The age that remembers best, but is also the most forgetful, is childhood. The aesthete tells us that we should have the spirit of the child but also be careful of how we enjoy:
“If one enjoys without reservation to the last, if one always takes with one the most that pleasure can offer, one will be unable either to remember or to forget… For then one has nothing else to remember than a surfeit one wants to forget, but which now plagues you with an involuntary remembrance. So when you begin to notice that you are being carried away by enjoyment or a life-situation too strongly, stop for a moment and remember. No other expedient gives a better distaste for going on too long. One must keep the reins on the enjoyment from the beginning, not set all sail for everything you decide on… Having perfected the art of forgetting and the art of remembering, one is then in a position to play battledore and shuttlecock with the whole of existence.”
The aesthete seeks to create a well-organised arrangement in a reasonable mind. Forgetting is not a passive act but rather an active one in which one puts away what one cannot use – it is identical to memory. When we forget, the thoughts are consigned into oblivion and it is simultaneously forgotten yet preserved.
One might think here of the unconscious and the conscious life of an individual. One’s unconscious contents can affect an individual without him being aware of it.
The aesthete indicates that it is an art that can be developed and ought to be exercised as much in relation to what is pleasant as to what is unpleasant. If someone pushes the unpleasant side altogether, as many of those who dabble in the art of forgetting do, one soon sees what good that does. In an unguarded moment, it often takes one by surprise with all the force of the world.
This is again analogous to letting your unconscious direct your life. One must necessarily have control of moods – controlling them in the sense of being able to produce them at will is impossible, but prudence teaches how to make use of the moment.
“As an experienced sailor always looks out searchingly over the water and sees a squall far ahead, so should one always see the mood a little in advance. One must know how the mood affects oneself, and in all probability others, before putting it on.”
For this, he recommends that one must never stick fast, and for that one must have one’s forgetting up one’s sleeve.
“One never accepts any vocational responsibility. If one does so, one simply becomes Mr. Anybody, a tiny little pivot in the machinery of the corporate state; you cease to direct your own affairs, and then theories can be of little help.”
Though one abstains from vocational responsibility, one should not be inactive but stress all occupation that is identical with idleness. One should develop oneself not so much extensively as intensively and prove the truth of the old proverb that it takes little to please a child.
“The whole secret lies in arbitrariness. People think it requires no skill to be arbitrary, yet it requires deep study to succeed in being arbitrary without losing oneself in it, to derive satisfaction from it oneself. One’s enjoyment is not immediate but is something quite different which one arbitrarily injects. You see the middle of a play, read the third part of a book. In this way one derives a quite different enjoyment from the one the author has been so good as to intend for you. One enjoys something entirely accidental, one regards the whole existence from this standpoint, lets its reality run aground on it.”
He gives an example:
“There was someone whose chatter certain circumstances made it necessary for me to listen to. He was ready at every opportunity with a little philosophical lecture which was utterly boring. Driven almost to despair, I discovered suddenly that he perspired unusually profusely when he spoke. I saw how the pearls of sweat gathered on his brow, then joined in a stream, slid down on his nose, and ended hanging in a drop at the extreme tip of it. From that moment everything was changed; I could even take pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction, just to observe the sweat on his brow and on his nose.”
Apart from this arbitrariness within oneself there is also the accidental outside one. He indicates that one should always keep an eye open for the accidental, always be ready to march if anything should offer. The social pleasures which are planned have no great interest. Through accident, on the other hand, even the least significant thing can become a rich source of amusement.
The next section “The Seducer’s Diary” is the aesthete’s position taken to an extreme. A man who documents his journey of seducing women for the aesthetic fun of abandoning them later. The aesthete himself cannot help but feel anxious upon reading about it. Kierkegaard may have written it as a warning to the aesthetic sphere of life.
Part II of Either/Or contains the response to this aesthetic way of living by the ethicist. He tries to convince the aesthete to the ethical sphere of life. The ethicist who focuses on duty believes that he ends up being more happy than the aesthete who is too fixated on finding happiness.
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” – Viktor Frankl
It is ultimately up to the reader to make his own conclusion.
KIERKEGAARD: How To Avoid Boredom and Maximise Happiness
In Either/Or, Kierkegaard dedicates a chapter on the problem of boredom and the difficulty of maintaining happiness, and proposes his solution for it through the aesthetic sphere of existence.