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Sunday, 3 August 2014





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Be wary of modern-day passion

A serious student of philosophy at times feels that there is something fundamentally important is missing from most of the philosophies he has studied. Philosophers down the ages have defined philosophy in many ways. They have formulated various theories to solve problems we face. But only a few of them have attempted to answer the most difficult questions: What does my life mean? Who am I? What am I to do?

Some philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas tried to prove the existence of God. Others such as Karl Marx did not believe in the existence of God. How does the existence or non-existence of God affect human life? After the Industrial Revolution the problems of the people became more and more complex. They simply had no time or the inclination to debate over ethical issues such as what is good and bad. Their main concern was how to exist in a fast changing world.

It is at this stage existentialists tried to find answers to such problems. When people were losing their individuality to become cogs in a big wheel, human freedom and dignity had to be sacrificed. When to God of Mammon began to rule the world, the rich and the powerful showed no regard to ordinary people who were mostly factory workers or farmers. Philosopher Samuel Enoch Stumpf said, “Existentialism was bound to happen. The individual had over the centuries been pushed into the background by systems of thought, historical events and technological forces.”


When people were turning away from Aristotle’s ethics, Nietzsche said, “ our scholars strangely enough, the most pressing question does not occur; to what end is their work useful?” Technology has forced people to fit their lives into the rhythm of machines. Everywhere people were being converted to things or objects.”

Soren Kierkegaard: How am I to exist?

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was the first philosopher who searched for an authentic existence. He said, “The question is not what am I to believe, but what am I to do?” His major existential issue was, “How am I to exist?” He insisted that no amount of objective, systematic and abstract knowledge could ever provide a meaning for life. He said objective facts of a life could not account for its existential quality.

Kierkegaard wanted to pass from fragmentation to integration. In his terms, he also wanted to change his life into an existence with a focus and centre. However, it is doubtful whether this could be achieved in the modern age. Today we are governed by well-organised institutions, technological innovations and scientific inventions. As a result, we never see an existing individual in the modern society.


Kierkegaard viewed the mid-19th century as an era of passionless mediocrity and conformity. According to him, there is a diminution of the individual’s role in the face of mass production and mass media. He saw how people venerate science and technology forgetting their own individuality. In a hard-hitting piece of writing he said, “Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is wretched, for it lacks passion.”

After more than a century of his death, modern philosophers question whether Kierkegaard was correct. Whether he was right or wrong, Kierkegaard addressed one of the crucial issues of our time: “ How can we be our ‘true selves’ in an age dominated by sophisticated ways of influencing our thoughts, feelings and actions? While living in a world seduced by conformity, have we not lost our passion for living?”

Passionate thinkers

Kierkegaard considered passion to be a major factor in life. For him all the major Greek philosophers - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - were passionate thinkers. What we mean by existence is different from his thinking. When we go about our day-to-day business it is not real existence. It is only a half-conscious existence because we conform to conventions. His existentialism is meant to change our attitudes and edify us. Kierkegaard’s philosophy is deliberately passionate, practical and existential, in the fullest sense of the word.

In the final analysis, few other philosophers have dealt with certain important problems of our times as Kierkegaard has done. Today most of us enjoy our leisure-time activities and lead a sophisticated lifestyle. However, we lack authenticity in all walks of life. Modern philosophers have pointed out that lack of passion is deadly but the presence of passion is no guarantee of authenticity.

The biggest danger today is not the lack of passion or too much of it but resentment and envy masquerading as passion. Whatever is said to the contrary, Kierkegaard’s question haunts us even today: “What are we to do?”



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