Kierkegaard On Being Educated By Possibility (And Anxiety)

In The Concept of Anxiety, Soren Kierkegaard writes

Whoever is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility, and only he who is educated by possibility is educated according to his infinitude. Therefore possibility is the weightiest of all categories….in possibility all things are equally possible, and whoever has truly been brought up by possibility has grasped the terrible as well as the joyful. So when such a person graduates from the school of possibility, and he knows better than a child knows his ABC’s that he can demand absolutely nothing of life and that the terrible, perdition, and annihilation live next door to every man, and when he has thoroughly learned that every anxiety about which he was anxious came upon him in the next moment-he will give actuality another explanation, he will praise actuality, and even when it rests heavily upon him, he will remember that it nevertheless is far, far lighter than possibility was. [Chapter V, ‘Anxiety as Saving Through Faith’)

All too often in this ‘profound and byzantine’ work¹, Kierkegaard is elliptical. Here, he hits a sustained note of lucidity. That ‘all things are equally possible’ – especially from the standpoint of human uncertainty, epistemic limitation and capacity – is a truly terrifying thought; for we know that within ‘all things’ are truly included all things, good and evil, painful and pleasurable. There is no limitation here, save that of logic and that of conceptual imagination. Monsters lurk here, as do angels. Here, indeed, be dragons. To grasp the terrible as well as the joyful here is to grasp that life is not bounded normatively or physically by these; there are no boundaries beyond which the terrible cannot advance, no wall that can hold it back; there is no specified interval for joys to last, they may be as fleeting and ephemeral as the lightest of our quicksilver fancies.

To be educated by this knowledge, to be truly educated by the journey here, one must plumb its depths, and soar into and above its heights. Here anxieties acquire shape and form, crystallizing into fears; here, within the space of possibility, as we look around at its curling edges we see abysses lurking–these indicate the limits of our imagination, beyond which monsters worse than the ones our minds have been able to conjure up find their abode. 

To retreat from this space into that of actuality, the lived empirical life, is to arrive suitably chastened by the realization that we had ever dared demand from this world any consolation whatsoever; we learn to give thanks for the spaces of possibility that have been realized in our lives to our favor; this actual, realized, world for all its terrors, is still less onerous than the world whose contours we had so vividly and powerfully sketched as we traversed the spaces of possibility. It is our memory and our understanding of possibility – another name for anxiety – that weighs us down in the actual; the closer we look possibility in the face–as the Stoics too, urged us to do–the more of a home we find in actuality, which for all its terrors, is still only a subset of the possible.   

Notes: 

  1. Gordon Marino in the New York Times

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