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Volume 12 (2016)

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Contemporary Leveling in the Spirit of Kierkegaard

C. Don Keyes
Duquesne University

Richard A. S. Hall
Fayetteville State University

The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Oscar Wilde

Nothing remains except to endure the absurdities with heroic defiance to the end.
---Julian Victor Langmead Casserley

“Leveling” is the use of words or their substitutes to denigrate an object (human or otherwise) by an individual person or many, either an identifiable social group or the anonymous public. G. W. F. Hegel’s moralistic valet who belittles a hero because he knows the mundane or perhaps unsavory details of the hero’s life exemplifies the former, and Søren Kierkegaard’s belittling “public,” a collective, anonymous crowd, which inspired this article, exemplifies the latter.[1]

Kierkegaard anticipates Martin Heidegger’s ontology of leveling.  For Heidegger, the “leveling down” [Einebnung] of and by the everyday “they self” [das Man] demands and preserves the ordinary and average, to the extent that all that is successful or praiseworthy is denigrated to the ordinary.[2]  This process in itself is, for Heidegger, part of what it means to exist, to be. In addition to this ontology, this essay returns to Heidegger’s view of time, which is related to the problem of contemporary leveling.

Predispositions to Leveling Today

In 1989, one of the authors described Kierkegaard’s leveling as self-consumption of the human species, along with three additional types of value destruction: needling, reality distortion, and debunking.[3]

Envy is possibly the most egregious predisposition to leveling, according to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.  It is psychologically prior to reflection, a kind of innate covertness, the illusion that one is entitled to objects that belong to another. Indeed, one of Nietzsche’s comments goes immediately to the heart of the matter, as Helmut Schoeck’s quotation from him shows: 

In a relatively short aphorism in Dawn of Day Nietzsche points out the connection between envy and nihilism.  Under the heading ‘The world destroyers’ he writes: ‘when some men fail to accomplish what they desire to do they exclaim angrily, “May the whole world perish!”  This repulsive emotion is the pinnacle of envy, whose implication is “If I cannot have something, no one is to have anything, no one is to be anything!”’[4]

This suggests why envy or a peculiar mode of it would plunder what it cannot possess.  Some kinds of it have an urge to diminish certain objects, regardless of who owns them—whether a neighbor, one’s self, the state, or nature.  Tall objects are especially vulnerable, whether physically tall or high in some other way.  There is the proverbial lunatic who wants to shoot the moon down or blow it up, even though it has proven impossible (at least up to now). Tall trees can actually be felled whether one’s own, a neighbor’s, or those in publically owned forests.  More abstractly there is “altaphobia (a deliberately ugly neologism) or fear of whatever is highest, best and noblest.


Kierkegaard characterizes leveling as the process that always, “at its lowest equates itself to the divisor by means of which every one is reduced to a common denominator.”[5] Marx says it proceeds from a “preconceived minimum.”[6]  Granted that the preconceived minimum is momentarily the lowest common denominator, degradation is dynamic, an unceasing swirl downward, or, so to speak, a “downward bootstrapping.”  Leveling does not have to seek a lowest common denominator as much as it establishes one.  It acts as if it had a purpose when it dismantles what would obstruct the plunge.  It issues linguistic prohibitions to make resistance seem obscene.  It sets up a system of inverse oughtness, such that one ought not to be elite. Levelers, both conservative and liberal, skillfully wield the righteous sword to cut off the tongue of free speech of anyone suspected of being “elitist.”  Such declivity comes from both the right and the left; triumphantly it plunges downward on two political bandwagons at the same time, counterfeits of conservatism and liberalism. 

Leveling invariably plunders anything of high value, for instance the beautiful as found in works of art and a variety of natural objects.  Some cruel children (following a lead from Erich Fromm’s explanation of sadism) attest to the beauty of a butterfly by tearing it to pieces.  One of the authors heard a man say, “See how beautiful that deer is.  That’s the kind I love to shoot.”

Realms of Leveling/Degradation[7]

An old Lutheran hymn states something like, “The ancient dragon [Satan] lies in wait to spoil Church and School and State.” The following analysis of degradation is not limited to these three. Furthermore, they are considered primarily as functions and only secondarily as specific institutions.  Church and State refer to the sacred and secular power, respectively, and School to intellect.

1.   Church

Once, the church, despite its many faults, at least safeguarded the sacred and helped build up the culture.  Now it works hard at secularizing itself and feels self-righteous when it “succeeds” by succumbing to the forces of cultural decadence, as for example lowering the standards of music. Institutional religion, as Nietzsche poignantly accused it, has been an accomplice in the death of God.  In ancient Greece athletic contests, like the Olympic Games, were ways of honoring the gods.  By contrast, today, the Church of America, a kind of organized religion, worships balls.  It consists of a number of denominations depending on which ball it honors.  The celebrants of this religious rite dribble, throw, and kick. They are beyond criticism.  The worshipers of this established civic religion rejoice in a sacred space, the stadium, a modern coliseum, where deception and force are made visible.

2.   State

As might be expected, leveling infects the secular, political realm as well.  One form it takes is the denial of an objective and historically grounded political reality.  A piece by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine of October 17, 2004 illustrates this.  Suskind had interviewed a Bush aide concerning truth-telling in politics:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”  I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism.  He cut me off.  “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued.  “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.  And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.  We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. 

Political leveling not only puts itself beyond criticism as shown above, but it also plays fast and loose with political terms. This can be seen when pundits overlook the distinction between authentic and counterfeit forms of “conservatism” and “liberalism,” terms that have been so overworked as to become virtually meaningless.  Authentic conservatism respects fair trade and, as Julian Casserley says, would preserve the cultural heritage.[8] However, counterfeit conservatism dispenses with both and preserves only laissez-faire for businesses that redistribute wealth upward, from those who have less to those who are already rich; some normalize even the tactics of organized crime to do it.  This leveled version of conservatism is regressive and obstructionist, and quashes the free speech of those who try to oppose it or even expose it.  Authentic liberalism would promote social justice and freedom of thought and speech.  However, counterfeit liberalism regresses to an arbitrary mixture of anarchy and authoritarianism.  On the one hand, it says, “anything goes.”  Yet on the other, it imposes the tyranny of political correctness and limits free speech.[9]  

3.   School

Anti-intellectualism, ironically, and most disturbingly, is evident even in universities.  The function of intellect (noesis) is the elevation of minds above the irrationality of archaic superstition and conventional stupidity.  Those who are invincibly ignorant, and who refuse to listen to anything new, have degraded intellect on account of their intolerance of ambiguities.

A particularly disturbing case of anti-intellectual leveling came to the attention of one of the authors of this paper.  It occurred when a professor from a department other than philosophy faulted the University for allowing courses on Plato since Plato, in his famous Allegory of the Cave, endorsed pedagogical “arrogance” by having the freed prisoner return to the cave.

This is a blatant misrepresentation of why the prisoner went back.  At best it fails to distinguish between interpretation and what the text actually says.  He reads something into the text that is manifestly not there.  The freed prisoner, though fearing the captives still underground, pities them—not to mention that the rulers compel him to return because it is his duty.  Furthermore, the objector complained that Plato’s appeal to religion, mystical experience and mythology are products of his own personality and culture, and are therefore irrelevant to life today. 

Finally, the critic advocated moral relativism as if it were absolutely true.  Morality, he claimed, depends for its authority solely on the societies from which it emerges and so cannot be universalized.  However, he then, inconsistently, gave certain relativist claims status as absolute truth, and he demanded unquestioning assent to them. Some post-modernism is intelligent and worthy of respect, but, in this case, the objector distorted the reality of what Plato said and then debunked it in order to level the Western intellectual tradition. He engaged in what might be called “logocide”—etymologically, “the killing of reason and meaning.”

4.   Persons

The leveling of the person consists in reducing the ontological status of personhood—indeed, even of denying it—and concomitantly devaluing it, sometimes even killing it. Leveling, even the lethal type, has insidiously invaded the practice of psychotherapy.  A man known to one of the authors related (and gave permission to publish) his experience of how a series of psychiatrists, psychologists, and a social worker had harmed him by causing him to have several close calls with disaster, interfering with his family life, and diminishing his ability to undertake his profession.  His problem began when he failed to recover from the culture shock of moving from the Chelsea area of Manhattan where he lived and worked to a busy, inland American city where a number of its residents derogated him as an “intellectual.” One of the most extreme cases of shock concerned the contrasting beliefs regarding music.  The prevalent belief there was that musical taste is nothing but the audible expression of class consciousness.  He liked music of the pre-classical period, but disbelieved in class altogether, a combination widely found in Manhattan.  He recognized the impossibility of explaining his musical taste and his other differing beliefs to his neighbors and, to avoid confrontation, he turned them inward, sinking into a deep depression.  As a result, he first sought psychiatric counsel, and when that failed, he sought other types of psychotherapy, all of which failed to help him, but instead made him more depressed.

The malpractice of which he was the victim exhibited the following themes.  One was the identification of mental health with conventionality, but always interpreting it only within the context of his new location.  A second theme was the therapists’ overemphasis on shallow interpretations of Freudian defense mechanisms, especially intellectualization and reaction formation. Most likely, some of the patient’s statements were intellectualizations, but it would be a distortion of reality to claim that all of his intellectual judgments were instances of it.  The patient did not give the author permission to explain the specific ways in which the therapists brutalized and persecuted him for being an intellectual.  So the following account is limited to reaction formation.  As a hypothetical example, the therapist would ask: “You like bubble gum, don’t you?”  And the patient answers, “I hate bubble gum.”  The therapist then says: “You love bubble gum!” Now, some strong statements could be reaction formations, but they are not all inevitably so.  Such discrediting of the patient’s strongly held views by dismissing them as Freudian defense mechanisms, interpreted in shallow ways, distorts reality.


In 1999, ten years after the author identified the four types of value destruction (needling, reality distortion, debunking, and leveling), he used the term “scavenging” to mean leveling by means of one or more of the other three types.[10]

The malpracticing “therapist” described above used all three to level the victim. To scavenge is to bludgeon a person’s thesis, “no matter what it is, with some crudely shaped antithesis. Such bludgeons include leveled stereotypes, conventional ideologies, and informal fallacies.”[11] Scavenging in the present essay, however, is only incidentally an attack on specific persons. It is mainly reality distortion that attacks our collective perception of time and space.

1. Scavenging of Time

Scavenging in the sense just mentioned is a leap beyond the leveled temporality of everydayness. Heidegger’s leveled temporality, as the term is used here, is only the point of departure for understanding the more extreme condition called “scavenging” here.  Heidegger distinguishes between primordial, authentic temporality and the time of everydayness.  His everydayness preserves the averageness in which the “they self” [das Man] renders all that is extraordinary simply ordinary.  The ordinary experience of time as a series of “nows” comes from the leveling process, the “leveling-off” (Nivellierung) of primordial, authentic temporality into present-at-hand everyday time.[12] Scavenging is not the leveling of primordial temporality into the “now” in which one hops from one now to the next.  Instead, it is violence against the reliability, predictability, and continuity of our everyday experience of time.

A recent theological examination of contemporary despair says, “Our time is both the bitter tragedy of its passage and the instability of what it is now. Time disintegrates. It disconnects experience.”[13] Logan Pearsall Smith speaks of what we have called scavenging in a fictional episode from his All Trivia: “‘But Time,’ said another of the group, ‘sure Time is a worse nightmare.  Think of it!  The Past with never a beginning, the Future going on for ever and ever, and the little Present in which we live, twinkling for a second, between these black abysses.’”  The passage quoted continues:

“What’s wrong with me,” mused the third speaker, “is that even the Present eludes me.  I don’t know what it really is; I can never catch the moment when it passes; I am always far ahead or far away behind, and always somewhere else.  I am not really here not with you….  My life is all reminiscence and anticipation—if you can call it life, if I am not rather a kind of ghost, haunting a past that has ceased to exist, or a future that is still more shadowy and unreal.  It’s ghastly in a way, this exile and isolation.  By why speak of it, after all?”[14]

However, the tragic disintegration of experience endemic to time has been exacerbated in our own day by the frenetic pace of our lives, which increases unabated.  Its consequence is the loss of a coherent world-view or image of reality adequate to its depth:

Another reason the images used in our time are lacking in depth and seldom penetrate to archetypal levels (or when they do, are immediately discarded as irrelevant) is simply the speed at which we live.  The fury of haste with which we are impelled atomizes time and life in such a way as to isolate quite effectively every event and experience.  Everything is made discrete, unconnected with a past or a future.  It stands alone, with nothing under it.  Going through experience as fast as we do, we have not time to probe beneath the surface, to hold an event long enough in our attention to break through to the sustaining mystery out of which it came, by which it is sustained, and into which it may pour its meaning and mystery.  In a world as hell-bent as ours, hell is simply a void in which there are not images to support continuity or significance; life becomes a storm of shadows, dreaded in coming, haunted in going.[15]

The effects of scavenging, as described above, have a parallel in the effects of frontal lobe injuries on patients, which impair the patients’ ability to grasp meaning.  A. R. Luria reports on a patient who “becomes so distracted by irrelevant stimuli that he cannot carry out complex actions” because “uncontrollable floods of inert stereotypes” overwhelm him.  When Luria asked another patient to light a candle “he struck a match correctly but instead of putting it to the candle…he put it in his mouth and started to ‘smoke’ it like a cigarette.”  Time scavenging on the culture at large itself induces a pathological fragmentation in the population similar to that in an individual noted by Luria in a medical context.[16]

2. Scavenging of Space

E. E. Cummings remarked, “Time is the autobiography of space.”[17]  If so, then the scavenging of time might reflect the scavenging of space—the disintegration and disassociation of time, which renders it meaningless, may mirror similar processes in space.  Scavenged space is in evidence all around us: the decayed areas of many American cities, Detroit being a conspicuous example; American highways blighted with unsightly billboards; haphazard urban planning because of lax zoning laws; bleak tracts of suburban housing, stultifying in their uniformity and dullness; and the degradation of the natural landscape by the clear-cutting of forests.[18]


The physical forces of the degradation of the environment and overpopulation,[19] if not stopped, will likely cause the downfall of civilization independently of the cultural processes described in the foregoing essay.  Those processes of leveling certainly contribute to the persistent scavenging of our natural world.  The combined result of these physical and cultural processes suggests that there is little hope for the survival of civilization.

The scavenging of the environment regrettably threatens the whole of life, as we know it.  The exhaustion of natural resources, the decimation of species, and the pollution of air, land, and water, have resulted in the potentially catastrophic and irreversible phenomenon of global warming—which the scientifically illiterate deny for political reasons. Various types of cultural leveling described in the foregoing essay have also contributed to the problem, such as reality distortion and debunking.[20] 

Even though the self-consumption of the human race might seem inevitable, both for physical and cultural reasons, the authors argue that we nevertheless have an ethical responsibility to act as if this were not so in the belief that our actions could make a real difference. Kierkegaard’s “secret agents” know that those like themselves who try to stop leveling will themselves be vulnerable to leveling, but their “plain-clothes policemen” have nevertheless discovered covert ways of resisting leveling, thereby obeying their ethical imperative, at the expense of their own suffering:[21]

Only by suffering can the ‘unrecognizable’ dare to help on the leveling process… He dare not overcome the leveling process directly… But he will overcome it in suffering, and in that way express once more the law of his existence, which is not to dominate, to guide, to lead, but to serve in suffering and help indirectly.[22]

Their actions spring from paradoxical faith in the Biblical God. According to Kierkegaard in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, faith requires risk:

Without risk, no faith… If I am able to apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith, but because I cannot do this, I must have faith. If I want to keep myself in faith, I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty…[23]

Faith means, “… that the individual relates himself to something in such a way that his relation is in truth a God-relation.[24] Our contemporary ethical responsibility, in the spirit of Kierkegaard, would be to recognize the seeming inevitability of leveling, and our relationship to it, so that we may leap over its destructive scythe. “The abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveler makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade—and behold, it is God who waits.”[25]


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper and Row, Torchbook Edition, 1962).


[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 165. 


[3] C. Don Keyes, Foundations for an Ethic of Dignity, (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989). These types of value destruction often use deprecatory language. Needling is cruelty expressed through words, often gradually escalated in severity in a way that builds up the victim’s tolerance. Reality distortion is deception about facts through causing illusions, positive and negative hallucinations, and various irrational states of mind in the victim. Debunking is deception about values through more or less deliberate use of fallacious language. Leveling, as Kierkegaard describes it, includes deprecation of once commonly held values by the public.


[4] Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1953), p. 216.

[5] Kierkegaard, 1962, p. 67.


[6] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1972), p. 133.


[7] The following criticism describes only some, not all, of the phenomena within the respective categories.


[8] Julian Victor Langmead Casserley, In the Service of Man: Technology and the Future of Man (Chicago: Regnery Company, 1967), pp. 9-10: With respect to conservatism, Casserley distinguishes three types: economic, political, and cultural. He defends the third as compatible with the non-violent political left and even necessitating it.  The reason is that authentic cultural conservatism “is chiefly preoccupied with maintaining the momentum and identity of specifically Western culture, including humane, scientific, aesthetic and theological elements of the profoundest significance… In my judgment, this third type of conservatism is far more significant than either of the others, and it is this element of our past that can and should survive. The proper role of conservatism is not to resist change in a stubborn misunderstanding of the necessity of history, but rather to insist that all change be tactfully assimilated or wholesomely digested.”


[9] Marx distinguishes between authentic and counterfeit or “crude” communism, which “wants to do away by force with talent, etc… The task of the laborer is not done away with, but extended to all men… The crude communism is only the culmination of this envy and of this leveling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum. It has a definite, limited standard… the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilization, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and undemanding man who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not yet even reached it.” (Marx, 1972, pp. 133-134).


[10] Charles Don Keyes, Brain Mystery Light and Dark: The Rhythm and Harmony of Consciousness (London and New York: Routledge Publishing, 1999).


[11] Ibid. pp. 84-85.


[12] “The only time one knows is the public time which has been leveled off and which belongs to everyone—and that means, to nobody” (Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 477).  The distinction between authentic and everyday time was made clearly in the 1924 lecture The Concept of Time.  To be human means to be always moving in the direction of one’s own death. Dasein is “running ahead to its past,” a past that is unique to me: “it is my past” (12E, emphasis in original).  The past is a mode of being (“the authentic ‘how’ of my Dasein”), and along with its ontological counterpart of the future, throws Dasein “back upon itself as still Dasein” (13E).  But, Dasein being thrown back on itself is nothing other than Dasein’s return to the ordinary, everyday existence that is so redundantly governed by clock time.  In a sense, the authentic temporality can be seen as a dynamic process, whereby Dasein “maintains itself in this running ahead,” which is Dasein’s persistence in advancing towards its own possibilities and its own future.  The inauthentic, or everyday temporality is the static attempt to persevere in the “now,” and to treat Dasein’s ordinary life as something that can be measured and even understood by temporal quantities: “Dasein is there with the clock, albeit only with the most proximate, everyday clock of day and night.  Dasein reckons with and asks after the ‘how much’ of time, and is therefore never alongside time in its authenticity” (15E). Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time, trans. William McNeill (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992).

[13] C. Don Keyes, “The Immaculate Conception and Time: A Critical Epistemology of Faith,” The Anglican, Pentecost 2013: 21.


[14] Robert C. Baldwin and James A. S. McPeek, eds., An Introduction to Philosophy through Literature (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1950), p. 443.


[15] Samuel H. Miller, The Dilemma of Modern Belief (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), pp. 33-34.


[16] A. R. Luria, The Working Brain: An Introduction to Neuropsychology, trans. Basil Haigh (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 199; Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi, The Three Pound Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 41-42.


[17] Baldwin and McPeek, An Introduction to Philosophy, p. 442.


[18] A literal case of leveling that is an apt symbol of cultural leveling at large is strip mining, where the tops of mountains are sheared off to expose veins of coal beneath.  Rapi Nui (Easter Island) is now bereft of its aboriginal people because they denuded the island of its forests, exposing the rich volcanic soil to erosion, thereby effecting their own extinction.  The sole relics of this ancient civilization are the monumental moai statues that bear mute witness to its demise.  This is the inexorable result of environmental leveling. In contrast to this scavenged space, one could argue that there exists something like true spatiality.  Examples of such space are those created by the Adams brothers in their design of New Town, Edinburgh, a model of city planning, and by Raphael in the mythical space represented in his School of Athens.  Kenneth Clark refers to this fresco as “one of the most life-enhancing effects of space in art” (Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969), p. 131).

[19] Overpopulation, especially in poorer areas of the world, further levels the environment.  Addressing this threat is now taboo from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.  The triumphant left criticizes attempts to curb overpopulation as an expression of the control of people by the elite.  The triumphant right, as typified by some religious conservatives, criticizes these attempts because they see them as contravening the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply.  However, both groups fail to recognize that curbing population growth by artificial birth control is more humane and, arguably, more ethically desirable than by Malthus’ alternatives of famine and war.   


[20] Reality gets distorted by politicians who try to convince the public that the preservation of the Earth is less important than the preservation of profit by corporations.  The deliberate use of fallacies (debunking) occurs when unqualified individuals attempt to refute science with pseudo-science, and cover over the whole problem with propaganda and political gain.  These problems will become more critical, along with the increase in population, which will produce greater demands on the already taxed environment.  


[21] Kierkegaard, 1962, pp. 80-83.


[22] Ibid. p. 83.


[23] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postcript to ‘Philosophical Fragments,’ trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna W. Hong (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 204.


[24] Ibid. p. 199.


[25] Kierkegaard, 1962, p. 82.

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