Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion by Soren Kierkegaard


A good quick read that shows technology may have progressed, but the human experience is not much different than it was in 1846.

Soren Kierkegaard is a towering, glowering Danish philosopher and theologian. I’m not sure I actually “got” this little book, but I sure enjoyed it. In The Present Age, Kierkegaard makes a distinction between the age of passion and revolution, which he longs for, and the current age (as of 1846) of understanding and reflection, which leaves him cold.

I’m actually a pretty big fan of reflection, and think we probably need more of it, not less, especially today, but it was still a fun, cranky read that is startlingly prescient of our phone-gazing, “like” hunting, influencer-centered society, all from more than 170 years ago.

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity.”

Oh, Soren, you had no idea.

“The present age with its sudden enthusiasms followed by apathy and indolence is very near the comic...”

Imagine if he’d had Instagram and Facebook in his day.

And, “…a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless … leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.”

And, “More and more individuals, owing to their bloodless indolence, will aspire to be nothing at all—in order to become the public: that abstract whole formed in the most ludicrous way, by all participants becoming a third party (an onlooker).”

His thinking is grounded in religiosity (though he railed against organized religion), so it’s definitely not immediately accessible to me, and requires the certainty of an external influencer and backstop — god — to support his arguments. I think that influences his underlying belief that individuals are somehow shaped by the age (or some other externality) rather than the other way around. Instead of being swept along in the social currents of an age, I can’t help but think we create those currents through individual action and get exactly what we deserve. If his age, and the current age, are best characterized by reflective apathy and paralysis, it’s up to each of us to shake that off and create the age we want. But that, of course, requires self-reflection, a trait Kierkegaard lambastes.

Still, it’s a good quick read that shows technology may have progressed, but the human experience is not much different than it was in 1846.

And, clearly, Kierkegaard is a kindred spirit. In a self-reflective, self-worshipping, narcissistic world of gossip and trivialities … “Only some one who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk—and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life.”

Again though, it would seem the inner life he espouses is one based on (silent) self-reflection, which is the opposite of passionate action grounded in some externally provided sense of certainty offered by the existence of a deity.