A Dialectical View of Identity

Being an individual is not the same as having a unique identity that sets one apart from the community or the whole of society. Ants are individuals within the entirety of their nest, and yet they do not appear to hold any sort of personal identity. Human beings, on the other hand, stand out among eusocial animals because they are atoms in their respective societies and, at the same time, struggle to establish unique identifiers of their own. Individuals with a personal identity are individuals plus ultra, so to speak.

Section 1: Introduction

The goal of this philosophical paper is to explore the creation of individual identity. Being an individual is not the same as having a unique character that sets one apart from the community or the whole of Society. Ants are individuals within the entirety of their nest, and yet they do not appear to hold any sort of personal identity. Human beings, on the other hand, stand out among eusocial animals because they are atoms in their respective societies and, at the same time, struggle to establish unique identifiers of their own. Individuals with a personal identity are individuals plus ultra. ‘Plus-Ultra’ in the sense that as eusocial animals’ human beings seek to go beyond their status as individuals in a community. This philosophical paper will explore the psychological ideas of individuality and identity as elaborated in Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (Kierkegaard), as well as The Antichrist (Nietzsche)and The Genealogy of Morals by Fredrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (Nietzsche).

The works will be examined within the framework of the Hegelian Dialectical model, which will help to show the conflict that arises between individuals and Society during the establishment of an individual’s identity. First, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s views of society will be examined, and a definition of the thesis will be established. Following this, an examination of the individual as the antithesis once again using Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s writings. Finally, how Nietzsche and Kierkegaard define the synthesis, which is a society with strong personal identities, there will be a conflict between Society and the individual along the way to establishing a secret identity. It is a conflict between individuals and Society’s ethical and cultural norms that create a character.

Section 2: The Hegelian Dialectic.

A Hegelian Dialectic is a philosophical tool that has three sides. The first side is the thesis, the second side is the antithesis, and finally, the third side is the synthesis. The thesis and antithesis combine or collide to create the combination (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In this case, Society has been marked as the thesis, and the individual is the antithesis.

Section 3: Thesis – Kierkegaard

For the thesis, Kierkegaard’s analysis of Society will be used, and this generally will mean a discussion about his polemical view of Danish Society as well as the state church of Denmark. Section 4 of the analysis of the thesis will involve Nietzsche’s view of Society from a moral and ethical standpoint.

According to Kierkegaard, most individuals only go through the motions of living from day today. The whole of Society is lacking faith and is dishonest with themselves. “People believe very little in spirits, and yet making these movements depend upon the spirits, it depends upon whether this is not a single result of a dira necessitas, and if this is present, the more dubious, it always is whether the movement is normal. (Kierkegaard, Location 629). Moreover, this lack of faith leads to an unrefined and vulgar materialistic worldview and so he continues, “If one means by this that the cold, unfruitful necessity must necessarily be present, one thereby affirms that no one can experience death before he dies, and that appears to be crass materialism” (Kierkegaard, Location 630). Most people show little interest in learning to be spiritual or what Kierkegaard referred to as purposeful in their dealings with God.

Kierkegaard has divided Society up into three psychological movements. The aesthetic movement which is comprised of people “governed by sense, impulse, and emotion” (Copleston 342). The artistic movement or stage seeks and is open to all experience derived from the emotions or the senses. The second movement is the ethical stage, which recognizes limits on what ought to be experienced both for personal reasons and for the good of others. “If Don Juan typifies the aesthetic stage, then the ethical stage is typified by Socrates” (Copleston 343). A man moving from the aesthetic stage to the ethical stage will, for instance, give up sexual freedom to get married and accept the associated ethical rules and responsibilities. The nobleman believes in reason, and moral responsibility and so may stoically resign himself to his fate; however tragic it may be for him. The ethical movement does not exhibit faith, and the primary difference between the second movement and the third movement is faith. Hope for Kierkegaard is further beyond Society’s ethic or plus ultra. People, according to Kierkegaard, are a mixture of the finite or the material world and the infinite or spiritual world (Copleston 343). The third movement requires the affirmation of one’s relationship with God. Kierkegaard relegates all the people in Society to one of these three movements.

Section 4: Thesis – Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s view of Society is a full-on polemic. First, his view of society is that it is infected by what he has termed slave morality, and which is the morality of the weak, “Let us submit to the facts; that the people have triumphed – or the slaves, or the populace, or the herd, or whatever name you care to give them” (Nietzsche, Location 300). Nietzsche has great disdain for most of Society. He rails against virtues such as pity and touts’ traits like cruelty, “Without cruelty, no feast: so teaches the oldest and longest history of man – and in punishment to is there so much of the festive” (Nietzsche, Location 707). Nietzsche mentioned that Society was divided into the strong and the weak. Within this viewpoint, he felt that most of European Society were of the soft variety. It was infected by Judeo-Christian values, which championed the hated slave morality. Slave morality, which was advocated by Christianity and its priests, kept most of Society living as a herd (Durant, Location 8592). This is a simple view of Society and not nearly as sophisticated and elegant as Kierkegaard’s three movements. But it is a view which none the less sets the stage for the individual to become an individual plus ultra.

Section 5: Antithesis – Kierkegaard

As referenced in section 3, Kierkegaard makes a case for individuals in a society moving through three stages or movements. The first is aesthetic; the second is ethical, and the third is faith or religion. Kierkegaard speaks of the need for the individual to isolate oneself from society and, in so doing, find inwardness. This is pointed out in the fact that he sees two types of individuals existing. He makes an example of two men driving a cart. One man sits in the carriage holding the reins, but the horse is allowed to travel the path it is used to following without any guidance by the man. This man may very well be asleep. The second man actively guides his horse down the path. In a sense, both men are drivers, but in another reason, only the second man is driving his horse along the road (Copleston 347). This example is elaborated more on by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling.

Fear and Trembling concentrate on the example of Abraham and Isaac to show how a person might make a move to the religious stage. Abraham is directed by God to sacrifice Isaac to him on Mount Moriah as a burnt offering. Kierkegaard points out that if Abraham could have refused to sacrifice Isaac or not proceeded, then he wouldn’t know that God never intended for him to sacrifice Isaac. Also, Abraham would have lost his place in God’s favour and salvation. Kierkegaard also pointed out that had Abraham resigned himself to Isaac’s fate and decided to just sacrifice Isaac before proceeding to Mount Moriah. He would not have seen what God had in store, and both his son and his salvation would be lost. Thirdly, because Abraham did as God had requested and not for himself or Isaac, but God’s sake, he obtained both his salvation and Isaac was regifted to him.

Abraham neither listened to his emotions, and he ignored the reality of life and death in the material world. He had also put aside the ethical ideas of murder and his obligations to Society in this regard. “If faith does not make it a holy act to be willing to murder one’s son, then let the same condemnation be pronounced upon Abraham as upon every other man” (Kierkegaard, Location 372). Abraham had instead placed his faith in his relationship with God. He had maintained faith that he would, in the end, have Isaac and that because he was following God’s will, the result would be benevolent. Abraham had shut himself off to the morality of Society and turned inward and found the truth of God by ignoring the outside influences of Society. “An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth” (Copleston 345).

Abraham, in ignoring Society’s rules and ethics, was assuredly putting himself forth as its antithesis. In today’s world, going against societal norms and ethics is considered anti-social. In Kierkegaard’s time, Abraham would have been accused of attempted murder.

Section 6 Antithesis – Nietzsche

Nietzsche looks to the individual as the saviour of humanity. Not just generic individuals but human beings who can understand the concept of suffering. Nietzsche wanted to do away with the idea of good and evil and replace it with good and bad. His primary concern for individual human beings was that they did not spend their time living for an afterlife. He viewed Christianity as a tool used to keep the herd in line. In his mind, the morality of the weak or the crowd had gotten out of control. What was needed was for individuals to adopt the ancient virtue of the Greeks and the Romans—an ethical system without the concept of sin or the pressure to be altruistic. Pity was a weakness to be shunned (Nietzsche).

“We should not deck out and embellish Christianity: it has waged war to the death against this higher type of man, it has put all the deepest instincts of this type under its ban, it has developed its concept of evil, of the Evil One himself, out of these instincts—the strong man as the typical reprobate, the “outcast among men.” Christianity has taken the part of all the weak, the low, the botched; it has made an ideal out of antagonism to all the self-preservative instincts of healthy life; it has corrupted even the faculties of those natures that are intellectually most vigorous, by representing the highest intellectual values as sinful, as misleading, as full of temptation” (Nietzsche 3).

Like Kierkegaard, the truth was not to be found in Society but in oneself. The reality was inward, and that is why he insists that it is subjective. Christianity, according to Nietzsche, tried to pass off its religion as truth, but the fact, according to him, must be found in oneself. Thus, the individual can find truth through the subjectivity of his own experience, and like Kierkegaard, this could mean a solitary inward existence (Nietzsche, Location 1949).

On this idea, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche converge (Brobjer). The truth cannot lie outside oneself in religion and instead is inward in the individual (Miles XV). For Kierkegaard, it is found in one’s faith, not Society or belief. Nietzsche agrees with Kierkegaard that religion is not the answer; however, he urges individuals to place trust in themselves. Whereas Kierkegaard talks about an inwardness that leads to a leap of faith for Nietzsche, it is the will to power (Nietzsche, Location 1013).

Section 7 Synthesis – Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

Finally, one may now examine the synthesis, which is the result of the collision between the individual and society. In Kierkegaard’s example of the individual plus ultra, it is Abraham. Abraham understood his position as the inward human being, which represents the finite. Abraham quietly took Isaac to Mount Moriah without delay. Abraham also did not discuss what he had been commanded to do by God. He considered the fact that God had given him Isaac at impossibly old age for both him and his wife, Sarah. Therefore, Abraham held out faith that God would not take Isaac from him. Even if he followed through with the sacrifice, he knew that God could remake Isaac. Abraham did not resign himself to the loss of Isaac, and this is a fundamental point of Kierkegaard. Even knowing that he would follow through when the time came to sacrifice Isaac, he had faith that God would not take Isaac from him. “Let us go further. We let Isaac be sacrificed. Abraham believed. He did not believe that someday he would be blessed in the beyond, but that he would be happy here in the world. God could give him a new Isaac, could recall to life him who had been sacrificed” (Kierkegaard, Location 470-472) Inwardly, Abraham had bridged the gap between the finite and the infinite.

Kierkegaard points out that Society would have seen this as murder. In modern western Society, Abraham would have to be considered insane or a criminal. This is where the conflict arises because Abraham pits himself against Society through his act of faith (Kierkegaard, Location 363). He knows the truth, and within himself, his act of faith is not just faith that God will not take Isaac from him but the confidence he would accomplish God’s request. Abraham has become an individual plus ultra in the sense that he has established his own identity, which goes beyond who he is in Society but who he is despite Society. Others have not defined him, but he has distinguished himself.

Nietzsche gives the example of the ubermensch, the Superman, or the individual plus ultra. This individual has refused to accept the objective truth of Society, which Nietzsche equates with Judeo-Christian morality. The ubermensch understands that there is no objective truth because Christianity is a lie created to keep the weak and sick pacified. An ubermensch is one who looks to himself alone and is willing to stand alone even when it is painful. Nietzsche states that all a human being must do is be ready to endure suffering, to start the journey to becoming a genuine individual. It is not science or religion that teaches one the truth but individual experience, and here he agrees with Kierkegaard that this means that revelation must, therefore, be subjective.

Nietzsche holds up Napoleon as an example of the ubermensch because of his obvious will to power. Napoleon, like Abraham, is not subject to the rules of Society’s ethical and moral norms. Napoleon makes his own rules and establishes his reality, and this is the will to power. He seizes every opportunity and lives for energy and excitement in this world. He does not wait for the next world as religion would have men do. Both Napoleon and Abraham have decided to live in the now. According to Nietzsche, Napoleon lives now because there is no afterlife. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham lives for now because he has established an intimate relationship with God in this world, which will carry over into the next one. Both individuals have rejected the rules and demands of other people and are following rules that exist for them. This places them beyond good and evil.

Section 8 Conclusion

The result is that Napoleon and Abraham were not created by Society but instead created a new society. In effect, Napoleon permanently changed Europe and the world through his conquests and laid an example for future individuals about what was possible. “Thus the whole importance of the period from 1789 to 1815 is summed up in Napoleon: ‘The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification. We ought to desire the anarchical collapse of the whole of our civilization if such a reward were to be its result. Napoleon made nationalism possible: that is the latter’s excuse.’ Almost all of the higher hopes of this century, he says, are due to Napoleon” (Russell, Location 13562). Society was forever changed by one individual imposing his subjective truth and not the other way around; thus, the world that is left is a result of a new synthesis of the struggle between Napoleon and Society.

As for Kierkegaard, his example Abraham who leapt faith forever changed Society as well (FOCA-RODI 367-368). The resulting synthesis has spawned three religions that encompass most of the religious belief in the world. Modern Christians would not dream of doing what Abraham did today for fear of going to prison and condemnation by everyone in Society. Yet Abraham did the unthinkable to most human beings.

“The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrifice Isaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread. Or perhaps he did not do at all what is related. Still, something altogether different, which is accounted for by the circumstances of his times — then let us forget him, for it is not worthwhile to remember that past which cannot become a present. Or had perhaps that orator forgotten something which corresponds to the ethical forgetfulness of the fact that Isaac was the son? For when faith is eliminated by becoming null or nothing, then there only remains the crude fact that Abraham wanted to murder Isaac — which is easy enough for anyone to imitate who has not the faith, that is to say, which makes it hard for him” (Kierkegaard, Location 377).

Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have pointed out that individuals must find truth in themselves (Miles XVi). Personal revelation, such as faith in oneself, trumps the reality of religions or science for both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. For Nietzsche, it is personal truth about suffering, anxiety, and the will to power, and for Kierkegaard, it is the truth of faith. That suffering and loneliness have meaning and purpose. To understand these things is to transcend beyond societies ethical and moral justifications for one’s life. When individuals discover these truths, it is often Society that must change and learn.

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