“I think, therefore I am”; this philosophical claim of Descartes is widely-renowned for its historical importance. The question I would like to pose is this: what, then, is existence for those amongst us who do not think for themselves? Ranging from benign to malignant, from morbid to terminal, nonthink does abound. And we’ve all seen it. Be it the minor foible of ignorantly blocking a single-file alleyway, or the more egregious moral failure of having a 15-minute chat on a silent library floor.
Not to think, to allow oneself to be guided by the consensus of the world, our environs, and everything beyond our own mind, is equivalent to rejecting a full existence. For what is existence if not the chance to make manifest exactly who you are? To cite another great European philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted a prominent goal in life should be to “become who you are”. This entails thinking for yourself, and living by the conclusions of those thoughts.
‘Are you really equating more thought to a more pertinent existence?’, you may rightfully question. That is not what I’m suggesting. As someone prone to overthinking and obsessive-compulsiveness, I’m aware that ‘I think too much, therefore I am not’ seems just as valid a proposition as that of Descartes above. What I am arguing is that to be blessed with the capacity for human thought, and not to use it — be it out of laziness, fear, a lack of volition, or a desire to ‘fit in’ (fit in to what, exactly?) — actually does reduce one’s existence, if we conceive of the latter as the imposition of one’s true character upon the world.
In a world as full of progress as ours, to exist according to your own thought is likely the only way you will impose your personhood upon humankind. Our ancestors built bridges, halted waters, traversed continents, and reached the moon; it’s a hard ask to add further to these feats. The chance that you discover, create, or invent something for which you’ll be remembered in the annals of history is practically nil. And however — and this is so vital — you can nevertheless be a first. The first to live life, and to confront the challenges of life, in a way that is unique to you, and to you alone.
Yes, Einstein and Newton formulated rules that describe how the celestial forms travel, and how atomic particles zoom; the greatness of these achievements cannot be overstated. And yet. When life presents you tribulations, as it must and as it shall, by allowing your response to be guided by your own thought, by what you value and by your conception of the world, you may transcend the cookie-cutter, textbook response employed by too many. It is thereby that you, too, shall bequeath to the world something of profound value: the story of a meaningful, experimental life.
Crowds of collective thought often don’t allow for such expression of individual existence either. At an entirely imaginary and definitely unreal event I attended just the other evening, which I shall refer to only as Smelly Ball, there was a little kerfuffle with regards to homebound buses. As a fellow student hurled beside me “this is ridiculous!” (which it was, by the by), I caught a glimpse into the duality of mankind. On the one hand, the terminal nonthinkers who ran after, beat on the side of, and stood in front of the moving buses, before dangerously crushing to get on board, resembled mere sheep. Where excessive drunkenness and primal instinct reign, the behaviour of a cattle-like mob is the logical consequence. How can an individual exist in such a circumstance? One melts into the mob.
Contrarily, those who stood out as individuals, of considerable character and admirable values, were those who held back and were quite evidently engaged in the process of thinking. Through this process, they realised that, unlike livestock, humans can chart their own course in life, and that any meaningful course is precisely one we choose for ourselves.
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”, asked Jesus Christ, millennia ago. By not thinking for oneself, one’s ‘soul’ is lost. Since this question was first formulated, swathes of history have repeatedly proved that to let one’s soul slip — to bypass thought in favour of following the crowd, of relinquishing control to base desire — is not worth anything we may gain in this earthly passage. To give up who we are, which often means renouncing compassion, love, and thought, in the pursuit of some chimera which we inherently crave — popularity, social acceptance, some effervescent high — is an existential calamity.