In a series of posts for The Guardian, Clare Carlisle introduces the key ideas and concerns of the nineteenth century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard

“We may as well begin with a question that is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy: what does it mean to exist? In his 1846 book Concluding Unscientific Postscript – which, at over 600 pages, is surely one of the lengthiest postscripts ever written – he suggests that “people in our time, because of so much knowledge, have forgotten what it means to exist”. Even though all sorts of things exist, for Kierkegaard the word “existence” has a special meaning when applied to human life. This meaning arises from the fact that we always have a relationship to ourselves. For example, we can be more or less self-aware; we can wish to be other than how we are; we can trust or mistrust, like or dislike ourselves. Perhaps we can even make decisions about who we will become.”

— Clare Carlisle, The Guardian

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“In the conduct of life, habits count for more than maxims, because habit is a living maxim, becomes flesh and instinct. To reform one’s maxims is nothing: it is but to change the title of the book. To learn new habits is everything, for it is to reach the substance of life. Life is but a tissue of habits.”

— Henri-Frédéric Amiel, undated entry from Journal Intime (trans. Mary Augusta Ward)

“Reading Mabillon’s wise and delightful book on monastic studies. Among other things, this beautiful quotation from Seneca: “If you will give yourself to study, you will ease every burden of life, you will neither wish for night to come or the light to fail; neither shall you be worried or preoccupied with other things.”

— Thomas Merton, Journal, 10 November 1958

Reflecting on the decision to leave my career to pursue a vocation in art, service, and simple living

Six months ago today, I decided to change my life. I wanted to find a sense of peace and happiness in myself, and to live by my conviction that to enact social, cultural, and political change, it is essential that I change myself. I started following a healthy and balanced diet, stopped drinking alcohol, and began exercising regularly; I left an academic career to pursue my vocation as a writer; and I committed myself to getting more involved in my local community. Since that decision, I have attained a healthy bodyweight (having shed fifty-three pounds), am volunteering with local organisations, and write for my own enjoyment. I accept that meaningful change requires ongoing action and sacrifice, and I continue to be humbled by an awareness of my weaknesses and limitations. I am grateful for the understanding of my family and friends, and for their continued enthusiasm and support. I feel that I have found my peace, and I am happier than I have ever been.

“Was Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? He would not have thought so himself. But I want to show that he was a model for philosophy in the philosophical subtlety of his accounts of non-violence and in his thinking on a vital kind of freedom. Gandhi was full of surprises: in his defence of concrete particularity in ethics when exceptionless rules cannot guide conduct; in his openness to views from other cultures; and in his exemplary response to criticism, which was welcomed, promulgated without being distorted, treated with disconcerting wit, and used to lead to a radical re-thinking of his own views.

Of course, Gandhi (1869-1948) is known for his belief in non-violence, which included, but was by no means confined to, non-violent resistance to the British rulers of India. But it is less well-known that he rejected the non-violence he had heard of in India. Although the most important influence in his life was the Jain faith, on non-violence, he preferred the second most important influence – Leo Tolstoy. He thought, rightly or wrongly, that the Indian view he knew did not sufficiently mind someone else treading on a beetle, so long as one kept oneself pure by not treading on it oneself. Gandhi saw his early self as a votary of violence. It was the Russian Christian writer, Tolstoy, who converted Gandhi to non-violence, a fact that shows his openness to views from other cultures.”

— Richard Sorabji, Aeon