“You love the accidental. A smile from a pretty girl in an interesting situation, a stolen glance, that is what you are hunting for, that is a motif for your aimless fantasy. You who always pride yourself on being an observateur must, in return, put up with becoming an object of observation. Ah, you are a strange fellow, one moment a child, the next an old man; one moment you are thinking most earnestly about the most important scholarly problems, how you will devote your life to them, and the next you are a lovesick fool.” Either/Or Part II p. 7-8 *
Just consider, your life is passing; for you, too, the time will eventually come even to you when your life is at an end, when you are no longer shown any further possibilities in life, when recollection alone is left, recollection, but not in the sense in which you love it so much, this mixture of fiction and truth, but the earnest and faithful recollection of your conscience. Beware that it does not unroll a list for you-presumably not of actual crimes but of wasted possibilities, showdown pictures it will be impossible for you to drive away. The intellectual agility you possess is very becoming to youth and diverts the eye for a time. We are astonished to see a clown whose joints are so loose that all the restraints of man’s gait and posture are annulled. You are like that in an intellectual sense; you can just as well stand on your head as on your feet. Everything is possible for you, and you can surprise yourself and others with this possibility, but it is unhealthy, and for your own peace of mind I beg you to watch out lest that which is an advantage to you end by becoming a curse. Any man who has a conviction cannot at his pleasure turn himself and everything topsy-turvy in this way. Therefore I do not warn you against the world but against yourself and the world against you. Either/Or II, Hong p. 16 *
Three stages of life
Early American Kierkegaard scholars tried to reduce the complexity of Kierkegaard’s authorship by focusing on three levels of individual existence, which are named in passing by one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, Johannes Climacus, who wrote Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Though the stages represent only one way of interpreting Kierkegaard’s thought, it has become a popular way of introducing his authorship. In continental European circles, stage theory never took hold in the same way. This typifies what Kierkegaard was talking about throughout his writing career. “Early American scholars” and “European circles” denote partitions of thought concerning the writings of his works. He was against “reflecting oneself out of reality” and partitioning the “world of the spirit” because the world of the spirit cannot be objectively divided. He wrote:
In the world of the spirit, the different stages are not like cities on a journey, about which it is quite all right for the traveler to say directly, for example: We left Peking and came to Canton and were in Canton on the fourteenth. A traveler like that changes places, not himself; and thus it is alright for him to mention and to recount the change in a direct, unchanged form. But in the world of the spirit to change place is to be changed oneself, and there all direct assurance of having arrived here and there is an attempt a la Munchhausen. The presentation itself demonstrates that one has reached that far place in the world of spirit. … The pseudonymous author and I along with them were all subjective. I ask for nothing better than to be known in our objective times as the only person who was not capable of being objective. That subjectivity, inwardness, is truth, that existing is the decisive factor, that this was the way to take to Christianity, which is precisely inwardness, but please note, not every inwardness, which was why the preliminary stages definitely had to be insisted upon-that was my idea, I thought that I had found a similar endeavor in the pseudonymous writings, and I have tried to make clear my interpretation of them and their relation to my Fragments. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, 1846, Hong translation 1992
In one popular interpretation of stage theory, each of the so-called levels of existence envelops those below it: an ethical person is still capable of aesthetic enjoyment, for example, and a religious person is still capable of aesthetic enjoyment and ethical duty. The difference between these ways of living are internal, not external, and thus there are no external signs one can point to determine at what level a person is living. This inner and outer relationship is commonly determined by an individual by looking to others to gauge one’s action, Kierkegaard believed one should look to oneself and in that relationship look to Christ as the example instead of looking at others because the more you look at others the less you see of yourself. This makes it easier to degrade your neighbor instead of loving your neighbor. But one must love the person one sees not the person one wishes to see. Either love the person you see as that person is the person he is or stop talking about loving everyone.
Back to the Stages. It is markedly different from Either/Or by a tripartition. There are three stages, an esthetic, an ethical, a religious, yet not abstract as the immediate mediate, the unity, but concrete in the qualification of existence categories as pleasure-perdition, action-victory, suffering. But despite this tripartition, the book is nevertheless an either/or. That is, the ethical and the religious stages have an essential relation to each other. The inadequacy of Either/Or is simply that the work ended ethically, as has been shown. In Stages that has been made clear, and the religious is maintained in its place. …. A story of suffering; suffering is the religious category. In Stages the esthete is no longer a clever fellow frequenting B’s living room — a hopeful man, etc., because he still is only a possibility; no, he is existing [existerer]. “It is exactly the same as Either/Or.” Constantin Constantius and the Young Man placed together in Quidam of the experiment. (Humor advanced.) Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 294, Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, VIB 41:10
* Stage One: Aesthetic
Kierkegaard was interested in aesthetics, and is sometimes referred to as the “poet-philosopher” because of the passionate way in which he approached philosophy. But he is often said to be interested in showing the inadequacy of a life lived entirely in the aesthetic level. Aesthetic life is defined in numerous different ways in Kierkegaard’s authorship, including a life defined by intellectual enjoyment, sensuous desire, and an inclination to interpret oneself as if one were “on stage.” There are many degrees of this aesthetic existence and a single definition is thus difficult to offer. At bottom, one might see the purely unreflective lifestyle. At the top, we might find those lives which are lived in a reflective, independent, critical and socially apathetic way. But many interpreters of Kierkegaard believe that most people live in the least reflective sort of aesthetic stage, their lives and activities guided by everyday tasks and concerns. Fewer aesthetically guided people are the reflective sort. Whether such people know it or not, their lives will inevitably lead to complete despair. Kierkegaard’s author A is an example of an individual living the aesthetic life. According to Vedic scriptures, Kama is such an aim of life, which ties one with bonds of repeated birth and death (reincarnation), and in this sense material aesthetics (family attachment etc.) is Kama, and one has to overcome it, proceeding to next level of control over senses (Kierkegaard’s 2nd level – ethics, and then 3rd level – religion).
Stage Two: Ethical
The second level of existence is the ethical. This is where an individual begins to take on a true direction in life, becoming aware of and personally responsible for good and evil and forming a commitment to oneself and others. One’s actions at this level of existence have a consistency and coherence that they lacked in the previous sphere of existence. For many readers of Kierkegaard, the ethical is central. It calls each individual to take account of their lives and to scrutinize their actions in terms of absolute responsibility, which is what Kierkegaard calls repentance. If we compare Kierkegaard’s idea of ethics with Vedic system of four aims of life, this Ethical system probably correlates most with Dharma – following this or that religion,set of rules, laws etc. (Indians would call any religion as “dharma”, though dharma is also a law).
“He repents himself back into himself, back into the family, back into the race, until he finds himself in God. Only on this condition can he choose himself. And this is the only condition he wants, for only in this way can he choose himself absolutely.” …. “I repent myself out of the whole existence. Repentance specifically expresses that evil essentially belongs to me and at the same time expresses that it does not essentially belong to me. If the evil in me did not essentially belong to me, I could not choose it; but if there were something in me that I could not choose absolutely, then I would not be choosing myself absolutely at all, then I myself would not be the absolute but only a product.” …. “It is a sign of a well brought up child to be inclined to say it is sorry without too much pondering whether it is in the right or not, and it is likewise a sign of a high-minded person and a deep soul if he is inclined to repent, if he does not take God to court but repents and loves God in his repentance. Without this, his life is nothing, only like foam.” … “The Either/Or I erected between living esthetically and living ethically is not an unqualified dilemma, because it actually is a matter of only one choice. Through this choice, I actually choose between good and evil, but I choose the good, I choose eo ipso the choice between good and evil. The original choice is forever present in every succeeding choice.” Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or Part II, Hong, p. 216-217, 224, 237-238, 219
“Judge Wilhelm,” a pseudonymous author of Either/Or and the voice who defines the ethical consciousness, argues that the commitment to take responsibility for one’s own choices must be made individually. To take responsibility for the various relationships in which an individual finds him- or herself is a possibility open to every human being, but it does not follow that every human being chooses to do so as a matter of course. The meaning of a person’s life for Wilhelm depends on how he takes responsibility for his current and future choices, and how he takes ownership of those choices already made. For Wilhelm, the ethically governed person takes responsibility for past actions, some good and some bad, seeks consistency, and takes seriously the obligation to live in a passionate and devoted way.
The Christian God is spirit and Christianity is spirit, and there is discord between the flesh and the spirit but the flesh is not the sensuous-it is the selfish. In this sense, even the spiritual can become sensuous-for example, if a person took his spiritual gifts in vain, he would then be carnal. And of course I know that it is not necessary for the Christian that Christ must have been physically beautiful; and it would be grievous-for a reason different from the one you give-because if beauty were some essential, how the believer would long to see him; but from all this it by no means follows that the sensuous is annihilated in Christianity. The first love has the element of beauty in itself, and the joy and fullness that are in the sensuous in its innocence can very well be caught up in Christianity. But let us guard against one thing, a wrong turn that is more dangerous than the one you wish to avoid; let us not become too spiritual. Either/Or Part II p. 50
The question, namely, is this: Can this love be actualized? After having conceded everything up to this point, you perhaps will say: Well, it is just as difficult to actualize marriage as to actualize first love. To that I must respond: No, for in marriage there is a law of motion. First love remains an unreal in itself that never acquires inner substance because it moves only in the external medium. In the ethical and religious intention, marital love has the possibility of an inner history and is as different from first love as the historical is from the unhistorical. This love is strong, stronger than the whole world, but the moment it doubts it is annihilated; it is like a sleepwalker who is able to walk the most dangerous places with the complete security but plunges down when someone call his name. Marital love is armed, for in the intention not only is attentiveness directed to the surrounding world but the will is directed toward itself, toward the inner world. Either/Or II p. 94
The choice itself is crucial for the content of the personality: through the choice the personality submerges itself in that which is being chosen, and when it does not choose, it withers away in atrophy. … Imagine a captain of a ship the moment a shift of direction must be made; then he may be able to say: I can do either this or that. But if he is not a mediocre captain he will also be aware that during all this the ship is ploughing ahead with its ordinary velocity, and thus there is but a single moment when it is inconsequential whether he does this or does that. So also with a person-if he forgets to take into account the velocity-there eventually comes a moment where it is no longer a matter of an Either/Or, not because he has chosen, but because he has refrained from it, which also can be expressed by saying: Because others have chosen for him-or because he has lost himself. Either/Or II p. 163-164
Stage Three: Religious
The ethical and the religious are intimately connected: a person can be ethically serious without being religious, but the religious stage includes the ethical. Whereas living in the ethical sphere involves a commitment to some moral absolute, living in the religious sphere involves a commitment and relation to the Christian God. Kierkegaard explained this in Concluding Unscientific Postscript like this:
Johannes the Seducer ends with the thesis that woman is only the moment. This in its general sense is the essential esthetic thesis, that the moment is all and to that extent, in turn, essentially nothing, just as the Sophistic thesis that everything is true is that nothing is true. On the whole the conception of time is the decisive element in every standpoint up to the paradox, which paradoxically accentuates time. To the degree that time is accentuated, to the same degree there is movement from the esthetic, the metaphysical, to the ethical, the religious, and theChristian-religious. Where Johannes the Seducer ends, the Judge begins: Woman’s beauty increases with the years. Here time is accentuated ethically, but still not in such a way that precludes the possibility of recollection’s withdrawal out of existence into the eternal. p. 298-299
The Kierkegaardian pseudonyms who speak of stage theory consider religion to be the highest stage in human existence. In one discussion of religious life, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, Johannes Climacus, distinguishes two types within this stage, which have been called Religiousness A and Religiousness B.[One type is symbolized by the Greek philosopher Socrates, whose passionate pursuit of the truth and individual conscience came into conflict with his society. Another type of religiousness is one characterized by the realization that the individual is sinful and is the source of untruth. In time, through revelation and in direct relationship with the paradox that is Jesus, the individual begins to see that his or her eternal salvation rests on a paradox—God, the transcendent, coming into time in human form to redeem human beings. For Kierkegaard, the very notion of this occurring was scandalous to human reason—indeed, it must be, and if it is not then one does not truly understand the Incarnation nor the meaning of human sinfulness. For Kierkegaard, the impulse towards an awareness of a transcendent power in the universe is what religion is. Religion has a social and an individual (not just personal) dimension. But it begins with the individual and his or her awareness of sinfulness. Here are several quotes from Kierkegaard’s where he discusses his concept of sin.
The sin/faith opposition is the Christian one which transforms all ethical concepts in a Christian way and distils one more decoction from them. At the root of the opposition lies the crucial Christian specification: before God; and that in turn has the crucial Christian characteristic: the absurd, the paradox, the possibility of offense. And it is of the utmost importance that this is demonstrated in every specification of the Christian, since offense is the Christian protection against all speculative philosophy. In what, then, do we find the possibility of offense here? In the fact that a person should have the reality of his being, as a particular human being, directly before God, and accordingly, again, and by the same token, that man’s sin should be of concern of God. This notion of the single human being before God never occurs to speculative thought; it only universalizes particular human phantastically into the human race. It is exactly for this reason that a disbelieving Christianity came up with the idea that sin is sin, that it is neither here nor there whether it is before God. In other words, it wanted to get rid of the specification ‘before God’, and to that end invented a new wisdom, which nevertheless, curiously enough, was neither more nor less than what the higher wisdom generally is-old paganism. The Sickness Unto Death, Hannay, 1989 p. 115
Admittance is only through the consciousness of sin; to want to enter by any other road is high treason against Christianity. … The simple soul who humbly acknowledges himself to be a sinner, himself personally (the single individual), has no need at all to learn about all the difficulties that come when one is neither simple or humble. … To the extent Christianity, terrifying, will rise up against him and transform itself into madness or horror until he either learns to give up Christianity or-by means of what is anything but scholarly propaedeutics, apologetics, etc., by means of the anguish of a contrite conscience, all in proportion to his need-learns to enter into Christianity by the narrow way, through the consciousness of sin. Practice in Christianity, Hong, 1991, p. 67-68
Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy has been a major influence in the development of 20th century philosophy, especially existentialism and postmodernism. Kierkegaard was a 19th-century Danish philosopher who has been called the “Father of Existentialism”.His philosophy also influenced the development of existential psychology.