busy street

Kierkegaard On Why Busy People Are Ridiculous

Busyness is a vice, suggests a passage from 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. This article explores the passage and discusses why, even when you have minimal time, being attentive to yourself is so crucial.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  March 2020


Are you busy today? On your feet? Rushing between appointments? Well, take a moment for this quick passage from the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard...

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be someone who is brisk about their food and work. Therefore, whenever I see a fly settling, in the decisive moment, on the nose of such a person of affairs; or if he is spattered with mud from a carriage which drives past him in still greater haste; or the drawbridge opens up before him; or a tile falls down and knocks him dead, then I laugh heartily.

Kierkegaard wrote these words from the perspective of one of the characters in his 1843 work, Either/Or. A fascinating work on duality, the book’s first section is written from the perspective of an aesthetic and rather callous young man named simply A; the second from the reasonable, ethical Judge Vilhelm.⁣

The quotation above is taken from the first character, A, who lambasts busyness as a vice — and believes the appropriate response to it is laughter, for it’s the perfect way to undercut the busy person’s self-importance.

Busy people haughtily fill their time, always finding things to do — ‘I just have so much on’ — but this self-generated activity is simply a trivial means of escapism, A thinks.

Nowadays, busyness is often worn as a badge of honor. But on A’s view, ‘busy’ people block out their calendars to avoid confronting the general emptiness of their existences — to distract themselves from truly important questions, such as who they are and what their lives are for.

Everything is important but nothing is important. The busy person is thus ridiculous.⁣

But what if you just are busy?

It could be argued, however, that not every busy person is busy by choice. Sometimes circumstances are set so that time simply becomes an incredibly rare and precious resource.

And when it comes to the end of a long day, contemplating who you are and what your life is for may not be at the top of your to-do list. Much better to wind down and relax with some TV.

But here we must remember Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of ‘the unhappy person’, which comes in a later chapter of Either/Or: A Fragment of Life:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.

This passage suggests investing everything you have in external events, people, or things is a surefire way to unhappiness.

Instead, it’s crucial to be attentive to yourself, present to your own wants and needs, as understanding what’s important to you is the first step in working out how to make your life a little less ‘busy’ — knowing which things to shed, and which to pay due time, care, and attention to.

So: who are you and what is your life for?

Further reading

If you’re looking to explore him further, check out our quick articles on Kierkegaard’s approach to finding the meaning of life and his observation that while we understand life backwards, we must live forwards. For a deeper dive, Either/Or (which features on our reading list of Kierkegaard’s best books) is a brilliant place to start.

Kierkegaard invites us to explore subjects like boredom, romance, meaning, and culture from the two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives of A and Judge Vilhelm. In doing so, he writes some utterly heart-wrenching, deeply witty, and memorable prose. It’s a perfect accompaniment to break up a busy existence.

Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about the existentialist themes explored in this article more generally, check out our brief introduction to existentialism, as well as our existentialist reading list.



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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
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Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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