The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character. And yet, historically speaking, the lovers of wisdom, the philosophers, have all but repressed thinking about that amorphous feeling that haunts many of us hour by hour, and day by day. The 19th-century philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard stands as a striking exception to this rule. It was because of this virtuoso of the inner life that other members of the Socrates guild, such as Heidegger and Sartre, could begin to philosophize about angst.
Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable, I most of all; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me….”
Is there any doubt that were he alive today he would be supplied with a refillable prescription for Xanax?
On virtually every third page of Kierkegaard’s authorship some note about angst is scrawled. But the adytum of Kierkegaard’s understanding of anxiety is located in his work “The Concept of Anxiety” — a book at once so profound and byzantine that it seems to aim at evoking the very feeling it dissects.
Perhaps more than any other philosopher, Kierkegaard reflected on the question of how to communicate the truths that we live by — that is the truths about ethics and religion. In the process, he devised a method of indirect communication, which involved the use of pseudonyms. Writing in “The Concept of Anxiety” under the guise of Vigilius Haufniensis (watchman of the harbor), Kierkegaard observes that anxiety “is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite.” He continues, “Anxiety is a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy,” a simultaneous feeling of attraction and repulsion. Kierkegaard explains: “In observing children, one will discover this anxiety intimated more particularly as a seeking for the adventurous, the monstrous, and the enigmatic.