The Danish proto-existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) put forth an intriguing account of the demonic in chapter 4 of his 1844 work The Concept of Anxiety. There Kierkegaard claims the demonic person has “anxiety about the good” which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good. This ambivalent anxiety gives rise to defiant actions that seek to undermine the good in various ways. But what is the good? The good, for Kierkegaard, is free, integrated, selfhood; and so the demonic person acts in defiance of freedom. This defiance leads to three interrelated modes of behavior: “shutupness” which is shutting oneself up with oneself in order to be as mute as possible; the “contentless or the boring” in which one seeks to drain meaning from the world and one’s interactions with others; and “the sudden” in which the continuity of the personality gives way to discontinuity:. These modes of action in defiance of the good are evil insofar as they willingly destroy integrated selfhood in oneself and others by negating continuity, communication, and meaning and leaving meaningless disintegration, muteness, and isolation in its wake. Since integrated selfhood presupposes communication and revelation, the more the demonic person’s defiance succeeds—the more he is isolated and shuns modes of salvation and redemption—the more he disintegrates himself and, in the process, may unfreely disclose what was so carefully hidden.
Kierkegaard argues, in The Sickness Unto Death and elsewhere, that this defiance is undertaken to avoid the burdens of integrated selfhood: it is, essentially, an escape from freedom. To exist as a free, integrated self is to be responsible for one’s actions. And with this responsibility comes a heavy burden: the burden of judgment from ourselves and others that brings guilt, remorse, regret, a sense of failure, and so on. To be integrated is also to be revealed to others: people know where we stand. But this revelation can bring tremendous suffering since, once revealed, people can harm us and manipulate us. Lastly, an integrated self is integrated into the lives of others and is therefore dependent on them to a large extent. But this dependence thwarts the Promethean drive to omnipotence and domination that many people have. Very often demonic defiance is essentially revenge on a world that prevents total domination. The demonic person essentially says: “If I can’t have it all then I will make myself and others as miserable as possible! In doing so I will prove the world is actually a miserable world not worth having in the first place“. This would also apply to individual things as well: if x can’t be controlled then demonic defiance will show x is worthless.
I go over Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil in far more detail in a post here. Please visit that post for more comprehension. But for now this summary will allow us to consider an interesting and overlooked example of the demonic in part 1 of his book Stages on Life’s Way (Princeton). It is here that we encounter the troubling words of a demonic “Fashion Designer” who seeks to reduce all vestiges of taste, beauty, and virtue to crassness, vanity, and silliness. True style is an authentic expression of one’s individuality. But fashion can be a means of negating the good content of free individuality into something with no individual content at all, something totally superficial, something determined from the outside. Consider this passage from the Designer:
“If I ever find a girl who is humble and content and uncorrupted by indecent association with women, she will fall nevertheless. I bring her into my snare; now she stands at the place of sacrifice, that is, in my boutique. With the most contemptuous glance that snobbish nonchalance can exercise, I measure her. She is perishing with dread; a laugh from the next room where my trained minions are sitting demolishes her. The when I have her dolled up in fashion, when she looks crazier than a mad hatter, as crazy as someone who not even be admitted to a loony bin, she blissfully sallies forth from me. No one, not even god, could dismay her, for she is indeed in fashion.”
The Designer in his boutique, like the Devil in hell with his legion of trained minions, snares virtuous women, sacrifices the humble content of their characters, and sends them into the world of fashion. This world facilitates a fall from grace in which a desire for superficial sameness replaces the desire to be a profound individual. Humans seem to be miraculously transformed into dolls that, despite being objectified, manipulated, and mocked, feel no dismay in their blissful world.
James Ensor, Death and the Masks (1897)
The Designer thinks his successful corruption justifies his cruel treatment of women. He declares that “if a woman has reduced everything to fashion, then I will use fashion to prostitute her as she deserves. I never rest, I, the Fashion Designer; my soul rages when I think about my task; eventually she is going to wear a ring in her nose.” And why not resort to prostitution and mockery? After all, “there is nothing so sacred that she does not immediately find it suitable for adornment, and the most exclusive manifestation of adornment is fashion. No wonder she finds it suitable, for fashion, after all, is the sacred.” The sacred, which is never to be used as a means to an end only, has now become used as a means to vanity and vanishing selfhood. Shouldn’t we rage against such desecrators?
Perhaps. But I think we should see through the Designer’s rationalizations. He is attempting to remain in shutupness by sucking the content out of those fellow human beings who can potentially lead him out of his stronghold. After all, superficial doll-like women pose no threat to his existential freedom. They can’t be taken seriously let alone befriended and loved. But those of us that want to foster free selfhood in ourselves and others may be more generous. We can believe that, despite all the rings in the noses out there, there are still hidden selves longing for freedom and authentic individuality.
In his book Works of Love (Harper Row) Kierkegaard points out that “The evil element in the world is still, as I have always said, the crowd — and small-talk. Nothing is as demoralizing as gossiping small talk.” At times this gossiping takes on a “raging, demonic passion in a man, almost on a terrifying scale.” This passion to gossip is in contrast to love which, rather than multiplying and exaggerating people’s sins, “hides the multiplicity of sins, for what it cannot avoid seeing or hearing, it hides in silence, in a mitigating explanation, and in forgiveness.” Love enhances the freedom of others and helps them transcend their past and move into a better future through forgiveness and promising. Gossiping thwarts such freedom enhancement and makes people more beholden to their past or, in some cases, beholden to a past that they did not create but is created by the gossip itself. Perhaps we can try to see how we can bring out the best, most authentic self in others rather than contribute to their inauthenticity like those gossiping minions in the Designer’s boutique.
Of course, in the end we may find, in accordance with contentlessness of evil, that those who claim the sacred is nothing but fashion will become exactly what the Designer says they will be become: fashion “phantoms.” But we must be cautious. For the Designer wants us to further and believe that the phantoms of fashion are all there is. This way, we don’t even look for the real thing in ourselves and others. This way, the world becomes a worthless and loveless game. And with nothing worth loving we can finally remain alone: the Good that calls us out of ourselves into communication, redemption, growth, freedom, and so on will have no content and cease to have an effect. But without the unity of the Good we can expect to be afflicted by the sudden or that discontinuity of the personality that is bound to arise in the presence of evil.
So let us beware of those aspects of The Fashion Designer in ourselves and others lest we become exactly what he accused his dining guests of being in Kierkegaard’s story: “fellow conspirators” who measure others with snobbish and contemptuous glances and, in doing so, allow his demonic defiance of the Good to spread its disintegration through us.
I go over Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil in far more detail in a post here.