Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, c. 1720 (Public Domain, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Kierkegaard and the Burning World

Steven Gambardella
6 min readMay 25, 2024


“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.” — Either/Or

Of course, the point here is that the people in the theatre were unable to tell the difference between make-believe and reality. The clown tried but was unable to break the illusiary spell of the drama. People laughed at their impending doom. Kierkegaard’s warning is more relevant now than ever. Through the mass media — including social media — our society has created an all-consuming drama of real events. In many guises, the news is just a special category of entertainment.

The modes of how our culture frames events in the world — the battle between good and evil (good “us” against evil “them”), a sentimental crusade against misfortune, the perverse fascination with tragedy, and the seemingly timeless pursuit of scapegoats — are all dramatic. These frames allow us, like a theatre audience, to participate safely in world events through opinions and allegiances.

This brings to mind the way people scoff at the idea of global warming. Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire media magnate took a photo out of his private jet window at some ice fields, and…