26 Musings from Kierkegaard on What It Means to be A Human Being

I read the The Quotable Kierkegaard at the same time as Mike Tyson. Yes that Mike Tyson1. Apparently he loves the political incorrectness of philosophy. “I don’t really do any light reading, just deep, deep stuff,” he says in an interview. I wonder if he reads Farnam Street? If not, he should.

Kierkegaard’s philosophy developed in the mid-19th century, in the midst of German idealist thinking. He wanted to examine “what it means to be a human being,” not as part of some great philosophical system, like Georg Hegel, but as a self-determining individual. Kierkegaard believed that our choices determined actions and that actions, in turn, determined our lives. He believed these choices were free. Combined with the idea that we continually search for meaning and purpose, he formed the basis of existentialism.

Anyway, here’s a few bits of awesomeness from Kierkegaard.

On understanding humans:
“I really did imagine that I understood a little something about human beings; but the longer I live, the more I realize that we absolutely do not understand one another.”

On the freedom independent means gave him:
“Had I not been of independent means, I would have gotten along well with my contemporaries. First of all, I wouldn’t have had the time for large and thematically unified works; my achievements would have been like those of other men. That’s how to be loved. They would have been trivialities—then they’d be read.”

On being a fool:
“I am no fool who believes that the world becomes better because it praises me or, worse, because it censures me.”

On false prophets:
“Beware of false prophets who come to you in wolves’ clothing but inwardly are sheep—i.e., the phrasemongers.”

On ego:
“There is nothing more dangerous for someone, nothing more paralyzing, than a kind of isolating fixation on oneself, in which world history, human life, society—in short everything—disappears and, in an egoistic circle …. one constantly sees only one’s own navel.”

On abstract ideas:
“Abstract concepts are as invisible as a straight line, they are only visible when they are made concrete.

On what to watch out for:
“The cowardly dogs, which do not bite, bark right away when they see a stranger; when we has gone past they fall silent. The dangerous dogs keep quite still when one walks past them; they follow a couple of steps behind, bark once or twice, then they bite. This is how it is with human beings and the impression made upon them by life’s events: The lower sorts bark right away—the more serious ones follow behind slowly and store everything away.”

On the revenge of the insignificant:
“It is quite curious: naturally the life of a little insignificant thing is viewed with contempt, and is overlooked by all intelligent people; in return, the little insignificant thing sometimes takes revenge, for when a man goes mad it is almost always over some little insignificant thing.”

On courage:
“It takes more courage to suffer than to act, more courage to forget than to remember, and perhaps the most wonderful thing about God is that he can forget the sins of human beings.”

On being misunderstood:
“Fundamentally, the world always remains just as clever—that is, just as stupid. Thus when a man—who has been misunderstood, mocked, persecuted, ridiculed, despised by his times—has fought for a truth the next generation discovers that he was great—and admires him.”

This is basically what happened to Kierkegaard. His ideas were largely rejected by his contemporaries but proved influential to subsequent generations.

Knowledge changes the mind:
“All knowledge has something captivating about it, but on the other hand it also transforms the entire slate of the knower’s mind.”

On worries:
“Daily worries, daily derision year in and year out, are far worse than any catastrophe, because, among other things, this always looks like nothing to an outside observer.”

On why we have two advisers:
“Most people would prefer to have two advisers, one for the hour of danger, when they are afraid—and then, when things go well again, then they would prefer not to have anything to do with him, because the sight of him reminds them of how weak they were, and now they prefer to imagine that they have triumphed by dint of their own strength.”

On creeping villainy:
“What is dangerous about the creeping villainy is that it takes considerable imagination and considerable dialectical abilities to be able to detect it at the moment and see what it is. Well, neither of these features [imagination or dialectical ability] are prominent in most people—and so the villainy creeps forward just a little bit each day, unnoticed.”

On conversation:
“Appropriation is precisely the secret of conversation.”

On sophistry:
“Whoever has some understanding of men knows very well that sophistry always fixes upon one particular point and continually skirts the point.”

On the difference between imitators and admirers:
“And yet there is an infinite difference between an admirer and an imitator, because an imitator is, or at least strives to be, what he admires.”

The value of walking as a thinking aid:
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Two people can say the same thing and have a different impact:
“In one person’s mouth the same words can be so full of substance, so trustworthy, and in another person’s mouth they can be like the vague whispering of leaves.”

Our weak temptation:
“It is only too certain that every human being, unfortunately, has a great inclination to see his neighbor’s faults and perhaps an even greater one to want to tell them. If there is nothing else, there is, alas, to use the mildest term, a kind of nervous debility that makes people very weak in this temptation.”

The pursuit of pleasure:
“Most people rush after pleasure so fast that they rush right past it.”

In something that could be mapped to monetary policies …
“Frequently I have noticed in life that the costlier the liquid on which a person becomes intoxicated, the more difficult the cure becomes; the intoxication is more beautiful and the consequences apparently not as pernicious.”

Echoing Daniel Goleman on focus:
“What one sees depends on how one sees.”

How we gain courage:
“This is the way a person always gains courage; when he fears a greater danger, he always has the courage to face a lesser one; when he is exceedingly afraid of one danger, it is as if the others did not exist at all.”

Defending is disparaging:
“To defend something is always to disparage it.”

We demand freedoms:
“How unreasonable people are! They never use the freedoms they have but demand those they do not have; they have freedom of thought—they demand freedom of speech.”

The Quotable Kierkegaard is full of fascinating insights on observations, anxiety, depression, despair, freedom, possibility, choices, and more.

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