Born on the 5th of May 1813 the great philosopher, theologian and cultural critic, Søren Kierkegaard, would have been 200 years old this month (if he'd lived). An eccentric, rather earnest man, his life's work was dedicated to shining a light on how human beings ought to live their lives meaningfully through totally objective personal honesty about one's true self - best summed up by his own words from one of his personal journals:"The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.…What is truth but to live for an idea?"
As the founding thinker behind what would later become known as Existentialism, he believed people needed to defy the norms of society if it would lead to a valid and purposeful life. To this end he asserted that each individual - not society or religion - is responsible for the meaningfulness of his or her life and living it passionately and legitimately by stripping away socially acceptable external layers of persona and just being that which we are in essence:
Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when every one has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? Or are you not terrified by it? I have seen men in real life who so long deceived others that at last their true nature could not reveal itself;... In every man there is something which to a certain degree prevents him from becoming perfectly transparent to himself; and this may be the case in so high a degree, he may be so inexplicably woven into relationships of life which extend far beyond himself that he almost cannot reveal himself. But he who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all.
Kierkegaard felt that human beings are basically subjective creatures who gravitate naturally to a group-think mindset, and that this poses an obstacle to cutting through the veils of illusion with which we layer our psyches. In other words individuals are not who they really are but instead are figments of what they wish to be or see themselves as. For example, a business executive lives his or her life through the prism of a pin striped suit - eats, acts, laughs, talks, jokes, muses, behaves like an executive - and so never gets to the core of his or her real self. All through our lives we subjectively don a series of herd-friendly masks made to fit social norms while keeping our authentic selves buried.
So it's intriguing to ponder what such a man - dedicated as he was to championing core individuality and personal authenticity - would make of the internet, more specifically, social media if he was around today. For instance, what would he think of the elephant in the room, Facebook? It's highly likely he would be aghast at the ease with which individuals can construct an identity layered with a user friendly persona that appeals to the many but is bereft of the core authenticity he would see as crucial for leading a truly meaningful existence.
The FB profile as ultimate mask would confirm in his mind that people have been conditioned to be more comfortable hiding behind a false self than facing life with a real one; that co-joining in perenial rounds of mutual congratulations at being ...Nice would have so much shallow meaning to them. He would be astounded by the banality of the Like button which in a single click reduced an individual to the same pedestrian level as everyone else's expressionless kudos; that Liking something is not necessarily for the Liked but often for the expediency of the Liker.
Kierkegaard was not anti-society, however, he preached true individuality within a strong social framework. He was also acutely aware of the troubling side effects of enlightenment-led democracy and the social media - the press - in his own time. As he saw it, people in the 1800s were the fodder of an encroaching mediocrity by way of perpetuating sameness; that with the democratic opportunity to speak one's mind in the press or in pamphlets or elsewhere, most people basically said the same thing - that which conformed with a prevailing set of populist values. Without the inner determinator drawn from being one's essential self, most people would be unable to differentiate themselves as unique individuals.
It's not hard to see that today's social media for him would be little more than an extension of what he felt was happening in the 19th century. He would have a point. Perhaps we need more thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard to keep us alert to the persistent threat of self-satisfied mediocrity.