“In the present age a rebellion is, of all things, unthinkable.” Soren Kierkegaard, 1846.
At the time of Dutch philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s words, a rebellion may have seemed quite unthinkable. He was noticing many of the same things in Europe that Ralph Emerson observed around the same time in America– a shortness of action in favor of deliberation and diplomacy. However, shortly after these words were published, in 1847, seven catholic cantons secede in Switzerland and are forced to return after a short war, an 1848 revolution in France ousts a monarchy and establishes a republic, and subsequent revolutions occur in Germany, Austria, and Italy. To say that Kierkegaard caused these revolutions would be erroneous, but cause and effect is less important than recognizing the magnificent shift in ‘ages’ that must have occured to make such revolts possible.
Kierkegaard identifies the ages on either side of this shift in his work, The Present Age: On The Death of Rebellion. Here he classified the present age as a reflective age– one where decisions are continuously reflected on and laboured over so extensively as to prevent or forestall action. Also characteristic of the reflective age is a ‘leveling’ process, where individual greatness is gradually suppressed as society seeks equality. The result of the leveling process is a ‘public,’ which does not think anything new, or take any new action, because it is a group of individuals sacrificed into a lowest-common-denominator which is rendered capable only of recycling old ideas and new gossips.
In business, we have seen some shifts from a reflective business age– crushing groupthink has been a hot topic over the last few decades, and there are many examples of maverick business leaders revolting against the more paralyzing aspects of traditional business decision making [An extreme, yet relevant example are Jason Fried and David Hanson, authors of ReWork]. Entrepreneurs and activists seem to be the groups most intuitively opposed to the reflective age. But, we can’t mistake entrepreneurship or action in itself to be synonomous with Kierkegaard’s favored opposite of a reflective age– the passionate age. The social ‘leveling’ that so disgusts Kierkegaard actually seems to be synchronous with many so called ‘revolutions’ of our present age. This blog is one of them– well, at least runs the risk of being one. How? It has empowered people with literally no qualification to take readership from the professional (Take a look at author Donald Miller‘s recent thoughts on the subject). The proliferation of amateur thought has led to an information overload, and I believe it is causing people to miss the truly important thoughts and concepts of our day. Rather than the public acting as a guide or referrer to more important or more relevant ideas, the important and relevant ideas are lost. If you are struggling to see what I mean, try this experiment: Go to Twitter, and search ‘information overload.’ Then read and click the ‘more results’ button until your head hurts or you can’t stomach the irony any longer.
This ties in nicely with a parable from the biblical book of 2 Samuel, which Nathan shares with David after David has an affair with Bathsheeba, moves her husband Uriah to the front lines of battle to be killed, and then takes her as his own wife:
Then the LORD sent (A)Nathan to David And (B)he came to him and said,
“There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor.
2“The rich man had a great many flocks and herds.
3“But the poor man had nothing except (C)one little ewe lamb
Which he bought and nourished;
And it grew up together with him and his children.
It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom,
And was like a daughter to him.
4“Now a traveler came to the rich man,
And he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd,
To prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him;
Rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
5Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, surely the man who has done this(D)deserves to die.
6“He must make restitution for the lamb (E)fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.”
7Nathan then said to David, “(F)You are the man!”
“You are the man!” How profound. Because we are all that man at some point. And yet we will likely still talk, deliberate, and reflect endlessly about the issue of information overload and others– effectively wasting such boundless potential for action. I like to read the statement with duality too; not only is David the one at fault, he is the only one who can accept the responsibility, who can act on the charge.
Kierkegaard echoes the sentiment of 2 Samuel and offers further diagnosis if the issue in the closing pages of The Present Age (It’s long, but this page and a half was the most cohesive way to distill the 60 page argument):
Thus our own age is essentially one of understanding, and on average, perhaps, more knowledgable than any former generation, but it is without passion. Everyone knows a great deal, we all know which way we ought to go, and all the different ways we can go, but nobody is willing to move (see Huxley x Altruism). If at last some one were to overcome the reflection within him and happened to act, then immediately thousands of reflections would form an outward obstacle. Only a proposal to reconsider a plan is greeted with enthusiasm; action is met by indolence. Some of the superior and self-satisfied find the enthusiasm of the man who tried to act ridiculous, others are envious because he made a beginning when, after all, they knew just as well as he did what should be done– but did not do it. Still others use the fact that some one has acted in order to produce numerous critical observations and give vent to store arguments, demonstrating how much more sensibly the thing could have been done; others again, busy themselves guessing the outcome and, if possible, influencing events a little so as to favour their own hypothesis.
It is said that two English noblemen were once riding along a road when they met a man whose horse had run away with him and who, being in danger of falling off, shouted for help. One of the Englishmen turned to the other and said, ‘A hundred guineas he falls off.’ ‘Taken,’ said the other. With that they spurred their horses to a gallop and hurried on ahead to open the toll-gates and to prevent anything from getting in the way of the runaway horse. In the same way, thought without that heroic and millionaire-like spleen our own reflective and sensible age is like a curious, critical, worldly-wise person who, at the most, has vitality enough to lay a wager.
Life’s existential tasks have lost the interest of reality; illusion cannot build a sanctuary for the divine growth of inwardness which ripens to decisions. One man is curious about another, every one is undecided, and their way of escape is to say some one must come who will do something–and they will bet on him.
It is quite impossible for the community or the idea of association [amongst people] to save our age. On the contrary, association is the scepticism, which is necessary in order that the development of individuality may proceed uniformly, so that the individual will either be lost or, disciplined by such abstractions, will find himself religiously. Nowadays the principle of association (which is at the most valid only where material interests are concerned) is not positive but negative; it is an escape, a distraction and an illusion. Dialectically, the position is this: The principle of association, by strengthening the individual, enervates him; it strengthens numerically, hut ethically that is a weakening. It is only after the individual has acquired an ethical outlook, in the face of the whole world, that there can be any suggestion of really joining together. Otherwise the association of individuals who are in themselves weak, is just as disgusting and harmful as the marriage of children.
It would seem the first step in launching a modern revolution is first understanding the nature of the present age, and then recognizing that you are responsible for it. But, what’s next? How can we overcome indecision, and forge a path of action? And, how can we know that we have succeeded? These are difficult questions. Kierkegaard, rather heavily, suggests that to become a passionate society we must work on ourselves, and act to better our own record of action. Every moment that we don’t act, our capacity to act becomes greater. Perhaps then, we should discuss the art of picking the right moment? I intend to do so in the future. But, for now, let us close by understanding what successful action looks like. Let us understand what it feels like. There is no definite answer, but Kierkegaard suggests that we will know it by it’s sound. He says:
At its most violent a rebellion is like a volcanic eruption and drowns out every other sound. At its maximum the levelling process [characteristic of a reflective age] is a deathly silence in which one can hear one’s heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist.
What about you? What does your daily work and life look like? Are you paralyzed by the intimidation of knowing how much you don’t know? Are you even aware of how much you could know that you don’t? Do you often declare things tenuous, when it is probably safe to act? Is it for fear you will lose a comfortable suburban home and comfortable way of life if you are wrong? Have you learned to master the system and become content with the status quo? Have you ever considered the tricks association and diplomacy are up to– robbing greatness by forcing us into a reflective levelling process? What ideas have you acted on lately? Have you acted at all? What did it sound like when you did? Harmony? Or a magnificent eruption of discord? How long will you wait to act again?