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Søren Kierkegaard On the Perils of Procrastination

Gordon Marino can’t wait to tell you about moral self-deception.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), like Immanuel Kant before him, believed that ethical knowledge was universally distributed. Bob Dylan sang “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, and Kierkegaard might have said you don’t need an ethics expert to know right from wrong. He held that when it came to ethics, there was no object of knowledge – for instance, no set of rules or standards – to be transmitted. But just because the ethics expert can’t provide anyone with some new morsel of moral knowledge they don’t already know, it doesn’t follow that there’s nothing a writer can do to help a reader lead a more upright life. From Kierkegaard’s perspective, it becomes a matter of drawing something out of a person rather than putting something in, or as he expressed it in one journal entry, when it comes to the ethical, “… one has to pound it out of him” – as the corporal sees the soldier in the farm-boy and says, “I will have to pound the soldier out of him.”

The belief that when it came to matters moral there was nothing specific to communicate spurred Kierkegaard, often writing under pseudonyms, to develop his ‘method of indirect communication’, the aim of which was in part to prod people into a more vibrant and authentic relationship with the moral and religious ideals they already had.

One of the defining characteristics of existentialism is the enormous accent placed on action. Kierkegaard, the original existentialist, emphasized that when we don’t act on our convictions, we don’t understand them. He writes, “Precisely this is the profound untruth in all modern teaching, that there is no notion at all of how thought is influenced by the fact that the one presenting it does not dare to express it in action” (Journals and Papers, Vol. 1). By not expressing ideals through action, “the power of the thought disappears.” So his project involves prodding people into moral action, not just thought. Here I want to look at how this relates to procrastination.

Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard © Woodrow Cowher 2019. Please visit woodrawspictures.com

Procrastination & Self-Deception

We cannot pass on our moral knowledge to others; but perhaps we can help one another avoid talking ourselves out of what we ourselves know.

In The Sickness Unto Death (1849), Kierkegaard, writing under the pseudonym of Anti-Climacus, urges the view that the sickness unto death is despair. And what is despair? In Part One, Kierkegaard defines despair in secular terms; for example as a spiritual imbalance and/or a lack of consciousness of being a self. In Part Two, however, he comes straight out and announces that despair is sin. And what is sin?

Kierkegaard commences with the Socratic notion that sin is ignorance. Yet, going from Socrates to Aristotle, we see that sin would not be sin if we sinned out of an ignorance of which we were not culpable, since sin implies some sort of guilt.

But suppose that our ignorance is self-induced? At this point, Kierkegaard launches into one the clearest explanations of self-deception to be found in the Western tradition:

“if a person does not do what is right at the very second he knows it – then knowing simmers down. Next comes the question of how willing appraises what is known. Willing is dialectical and has under it the entire lower nature of man. If willing does not agree with what is known, then it does not necessarily follow that willing goes ahead and does the opposite of what willing understood… rather willing allows some time to elapse, an interim called: ‘We shall look at it tomorrow’. During all this, knowing becomes more and more obscure, and the lower nature gains the upper hand more and more; alas, for the good must be done immediately, as soon as it is known… the lower nature’s power lies in stretching things out… And when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what [willing] wants is absolutely right.”

Kierkegaard is convinced that at some level we understand that doing the right thing will frequently bring us into collision with what we perceive to be our short and even long term self-interests. Consider, for example, a police officer who witnesses her partner of ten years abusing a suspect. Turn your partner in, and the thin blue line will more than likely turn its back on you. Outraged as she is, perhaps the officer thinks, “I have a family to feed and maybe I’d better sleep on the decision.” Sleep indeed she does. By the next day, she leads herself to believe that her partner’s over-reaction was just an aberration.

Kierkegaard warns then that putting moral decisions off is a common way of talking ourselves out of them. So for Kierkegaard, the relatively innocent-appearing sin of procrastination, something we associate with writing papers or filing taxes, and shrug off, is a door to perdition. However, he offers a prescription for neutralizing it.

Death & Time

In his powerful discourse ‘At a Graveside’ (1845), Kierkegaard emphasizes the existential importance of coming to a first-person understanding of our mortality. It might seem anachronistic but, to listen to Kierkegaard, earnestness (alvorlighed) as opposed to happiness ought to be the ultimate aim in life. He writes, “Earnestness is that you think of death, and that you are thinking it as your lot.” He then explains a number of ways in which people go wrong in trying to walk over their own grave, for example, by thinking of death as a ‘rest’, or as a ‘great equalizer’, or by putting yourself outside of death with rote memorized phrases such as, “Where I am death is not, and where death is I am not”. However, when we achieve the bone-deep understanding that it is certain that at some uncertain time it will be over for us, that understanding will give a force to life and help us avoid the temptation to procrastinate. The individual for whom the day receives high worth as being limited is not going to be inclined to procrastinate, to put off decisions with palliatives such as “I’ll sleep on it.” As Kierkegaard writes:

“Indeed, time (Tid) also is a good. If a person were able to produce a scarcity (Drytid) in the external world, yes, then he would be busy. The merchant is correct in saying that the commodity certainly has its price, but the price still depends very much on the advantageous circumstances at the time – and when there is a scarcity, the merchant profits … with the thought of death the earnest person is able to create a scarcity [of time] so that the year and the day receive infinite worth.”

Regarding our predilection for pulling the wool over our own eyes, Kierkegaard pronounces this dire verdict: “This is how the majority of men live; they work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension, which would lead them into decisions that their lower nature does not much care for.” And after we have given in and taken the road most travelled once, twice, thrice, maybe we lose confidence in our capacity to stand up for what is right.

The author of The Sickness unpacks despair in terms of ignoring your God-relation. Nevertheless, this austere and otherwise dogmatic text retains purchase even for adherents of the ‘God is dead’ gospel. After all, those who have put the question of religious belief to bed need only to read Kierkegaard’s anatomy of despair as referring to the process of losing faith in one’s agency – in one’s moral capacities – and thereby running up the white flag towards one’s moral aspirations.

Kierkegaard is often misunderstood as believing that we ought to act on feeling or impulse. But in his analysis of procrastination he is implying that we ought to act as soon as we know what’s right. This knowledge may require reflection. But we should be wary of reflecting our way out of tough decisions.

© Prof. Gordon D. Marino 2019

The author of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (Harper), Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St Olaf College.

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