I. The Aesthetic Aesthete:
To live in the moment is to be a sentimental fool and deny the complexity of the human condition.
In Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophical text Either/Or (EO), the writing is done in a pseudonymous fashion. In the portion entitled, A Fragment of Life; Part I Containing A’s Papers, Kierkegaard uses the characters Victor Eremita, the poet A, and Johannes to elucidate the first stage of his dialectical progression of individual development. This initial stage concerns the aesthetic approach to existence. Kierkegaard begins with an announcement stating an editor named Victor Eremita has found anonymous manuscripts that he then attributes to a poet he calls “A.” Eremita describes the papers as the product of a “witty, ironical, disillusioned young aesthete” (EO I, 2). These papers authored by A are meant to convey the essence of an aesthetic life, and Kierkegaard uses the character of A to communicate indirectly and haphazardly the nature of the aesthete to the reader.
A begins with a polemical argument that tells of the misery an artist experiences in life. “What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music” (EO I,3). A claims that his present cultural atmosphere (Denmark 1843) is unhappy because the overall climate is one without passion. He writes of the boredom and meaninglessness of life, and appeals to the work of Shakespeare and the writings of the Old Testament for consolation; “There one still feels that those who speak are human beings; there they hate, there they love, there they murder the enemy, curse his descendants through all generations – there they sin” (EO I, 13). Contrasting the despair of ordinary existence, aesthetic works of supreme pathos speak to the informed aesthete. A writes of sunshine penetrating his dark apartment as he hears a piece of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and goes on to explain the nature of music and its relationship to language as a form of language. For A, artworks that can be heard are the highest form of art and possess a sensuous quality. This is to say that aesthetic pleasure is a hedonistic solution to the problem of boredom. Later in the first half of EO, the character of Johannes writes of romantic seduction and the pleasure found in its planning.
Through the characterization of A and Johannes, Kierkegaard displays the whimsical and intense nature of the aesthete. While Johannes’ thoughts are more distilled and concentrated, A’s thinking is diffused and repetitious. He employs irony and wit but is ultimately “disillusioned” as Victor Eremita first attests. Through A, Kierkegaard evokes a capricious attitude toward life. A embodies the aesthete that is only concerned with the present moment and pursues the present to avoid the complacency of boredom and the misery of recollection. In this way, A has achieved a version of happiness that he thinks is the pinnacle of existence. However, Kierkegaard implicitly conveys the limitations of A’s conclusions to the reader. A is unable to realize anything beyond the aesthetic realm. He falsely believes that by living in the moment and experiencing aesthetic pleasure, he has overcome the problem of boredom that infests the culture around him.
According to A, boredom is “corrupting” and “the root of all evil” (EO I, 258). This knowledge is not known to the common person and A purports to know this by way of his aesthetic or experiential immersion in boredom; “for like is only recognized by like” (EO I, 21). Humanity suffers boredom and is boring, yet the enlightened aesthete has achieved a redemption of the kind that is so often central to religious doctrine. Thus “idleness” is bliss and the answer to boredom; “[idleness] is a truly divine life, if one is not bored” (EO I, 261). A calls this solution the, “rotation of crops” (EO I, 263). He likens the phrase to a farmer continually changing his soil to promote new growth. Likewise, the individual who seeks constant change will be free of boredom. This is to live in the moment and eschew notions of hoping for the future and remembering the past. “Not until hope has been thrown overboard does one begin to live artistically... hope was one of Prometheus’ dubious gifts; instead of giving human beings the foreknowledge of the immortals, he gave them hope” (EO I, 264). The careful, selective choice of what to remember and how, is the outcome of experiencing the present and constant change; “The more poetically one remembers, the more easily one forgets, for to remember poetically is actually only an expression of forgetting. When I remember poetically, my experience has already undergone the change of having lost everything painful” (EO I, 265).
Also important to the “rotation of crops” is a commitment to non-attachment. The denial of friendship and romance in one’s life is tantamount to the successful aesthete. A calls this non-attachment a “social prudence” (EO I, 268). Attachment to others, according to A, is problematic to the enjoyment of the present and the pursuit of an arbitrary existence. Of friendship he writes, “A friend is not what philosophy calls the necessary other but the superfluous third” (EO I, 267). Of marriage, A contends that it will inevitably produce faithlessness and pain. The aesthete is to focus on themselves by only living for individual experiences of pleasure. This can come through the sensuousness of the arts and erotic hedonism. And finally, A declares “Arbitrariness is the whole secret” (EO I, 270). To be arbitrary is to live unattached and to constantly rotate the crops. For Kierkegaard’s A, this is the way to eradicate boredom and succeed at the aesthetic level.
II. The Ethical Being:
Facing the truth and challenging individual awareness.
In the second half of Either/Or; Part II Containing the Papers of B, Letters to A, Kierkegaard uses the character of B, or more frequently dubbed Judge William, to respond to the claims of aesthetic superiority made by A in Part I. B writes two letters to A: the first is a defense of marriage and the second is a call for balance between an aesthetic and ethical way of life. Judge William admits to A that the aesthetic stage is valuable, but ultimately a skewed and unstable way to live.
In his letter The Esthetic Validity of Marriage, Judge William tactfully accuses A of speaking in generalities. The judge posits that this method of aesthetic justification invalidates any claim to individuality A might seek. The judge then writes of inner and outer histories that flow in opposite directions, and how the two function dialectically within an individual. Outer history is related to conquering nature, while the inner form possess nature intrinsically. Comparatively, the outer history of conquering nature, as in experiencing nature in an aesthetic way, is related to A’s conception of living in the present. The judge uses the concept of pride to illuminate the aesthetic lifestyle; “what is essential in pride is not sequence but intensity in the moment” (EO II, 123). This is contrasted with humility and the gradual accumulation of experience that humility of the inner history requires.
Humility is harder to portray precisely because it is sequence, and whereas the observer needs to see pride only at its climax, in the second case he really needs to see something that poetry and art cannot provide, to see its continuous coming into existence, for it is essential to humility to come into existence continuously, and if this is shown to him in its ideal moment, he misses something (ibid).
Judge William then connects the immediate of the outer to the slower growth of inner history, respectively, to erotic lustful passion, and marital love and passion. He concedes that eroticism is better conveyed to the aesthete, but is not as aesthetically gratifying as marital love because the latter requires time and living to achieve a superior aesthetic quality; “Marital love, then has its enemy in time, its victory in time” (EO II, 126). All this is meant to show that both inner/outer or immediate/gradual aspects aestheticism are vital to the ethical level of the individual Judge William is advocating.
In his second letter to A, The Balance Between the Esthetic and the Ethical in the Development of the Personality, Judge William pursues the ethical stage while maintaining the importance of the aesthetic. More specifically the judge writes that the ethical stage is when “a person becomes what he becomes” and further that this stage “does not want to make the individual into someone else but into the individual himself; it does not want to destroy the esthetic but to transfigure it” (EO II, 227). Kierkegaard wants to communicate that the aesthete individual who is caught in the aesthetic stage is really no individual and is merely a loose amalgamation of partial roles. The aesthete in their immediate and unattached position is no one. They have only made aesthetic choices and “an esthetic choice is no choice” (EO II, 151). The individual, the judge argues, needs to doubt themselves willfully and then reach a nadir of despair. Once this despair is felt, they realize a more critical choice of their ethical nature. “The only absolute Either/Or is the choice between good and evil, but this is also absolutely ethical” (ibid). Once the choice and hence knowledge of an ethical self is known, the individual progresses farther into their inner history which B mentioned at the beginning of the letter; “Inner history is the only true history” (EO II, 122). The despaired individual has now felt the choice of the ethical that further leads toward personal inner awareness; “In choosing the personality declares itself in its inner infinity and in turn the personality is thereby consolidated” (EO II, 152).
III. The Knight of Infinite Resignation:
Surrender to despair, and to the death of the self.
Kierkegaard furthers his concept of inwardness in his text Fear and Trembling (FT). From the aesthetic sphere of A to the judgment of A by Judge William (or B), FT continues this path of individual awareness to the hierarchical religious stage Kierkegaard has outlined. The author once again assumes a pseudonymous character of Johannes de Silentio to symbolically and ironically communicate his philosophy.
In the section of FT titled, Repetition; Exordium, Johannes sets out to understand the Biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac found in The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Johannes attempts to understand the story in four sections (I – IV), but ultimately is perplexed by the logic of the situation. Briefly the story tells of God commanding the leader of the Hebrews, Abraham, to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering to examine faith. Isaac was given to Abraham and his Sarah by God when the couple were very advanced in age. God wants to test the faith of Abraham by commanding the elderly man to kill his only son as a sacrificial offering. Abraham sadly follows the word of God and takes Isaac to Mount Moriah where he is to be sacrificed. At the moment just before Abraham kills Isaac, an angel appears and offers a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son. Abraham’s faith is tested in multiple ways: 1) he follows God’s command and prepares to sacrifice his son, 2) Abraham’s faith inwardly tells him that God would never make him do this and will stop him at the final moment, 3) Abraham is to believe the angel as a rightful messenger of God.
Toward the end of the next section, Eulogy for Abraham, Johannes writes of Abraham’s struggle with faith and metaphorically invokes the notion his possible failure in the word “flight.”
If Abraham had doubted as he stood there on Mount Moriah, if irresolute he had looked around, if he had happened to spot the ram before drawing the knife, if God had allowed him to sacrifice it instead of Isaac – then he would have gone home, everything would have been the same, he would have had Sarah, he would have kept Isaac, and yet how changed! For his return would have been a flight, his deliverance an accident, his reward disgrace, his future perhaps perdition (FT III, 74).
When Johannes uses “flight” he means Abraham after having escaped the test of faith, he would essentially lose his faith. The flight is a flight away from faith after Abraham’s presumed failure. If Abraham had seen the ram before he killed his son, he would have known the whole process was a ruse to test his faith. In this way, Abraham’s faith would never have been tested, and in fact failed with the knowledge of God’s true plan. Abraham would take flight from his God and faith to live out his days in secure, but quiet failure.
IV. The Knight of Faith:
Surviving personal death.
Kierkegaard’s system of inwardness begins with the aesthetic, then moves to the ethical realm, followed by extreme despair and angst to realize the the religious stage. This last stage before infinity is dived into knights of infinite resignation and knights of faith, with the latter being the highest known form of Kierkegaard’s spiritual attainment.
Johannes describes this path as different for every individual. Thus the path of Abraham to the ultimate knight of faith cannot be duplicated. An individual must face their own stages of individuality and despair to reach their unique positions of faith. Johannes begins with a physical description of a knight of infinite resignation; “[they] are easily recognizable – their walk is light and bold. But they who carry the treasure of faith are likely to disappoint, for externally they have a striking resemblance to to bourgeois philistinism, which infinite resignation, like faith, deeply disdains” (FT III, 89). These knights for Johannes are what monk and nuns are to the Christian faith. They have resigned themselves to the infinite, to worship and acceptance of their faith. These knights have no attachments in relationships or material possessions, yet they are beyond common philistinism in that they are able to deeply feel the pathos of art and culture. The knight of infinite resignation is exemplified in Abraham as he resigns himself to God. He follows an ordered love that realizes God as the zenith of love. Once Abraham has reconciled this to himself, he has thus placed himself, Isaac, Sarah, and every other kind of love below that of his love for God. He has resigned himself to a life of the infinite.
Johannes then proceeds to describe the ascendance of the knight of faith, which happens simultaneously with the infinite resignation stage but is superior. He writes; “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in the infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith” (FT III, 97). This passage exemplifies Kierkegaard’s descriptions of the stages of individual inwardness. The knight of faith is an individual of the highest individual awareness because they have renounced absolutely everything for a belief or faith in something. As Abraham resigns everything he cherishes to the infinite in the service of his faith in God, he then loses himself. He has lost himself in a death-like despair, to become his ultimate self. Johannes calls a “paradox of existence” (ibid). Abraham as a knight of infinite resignation and then faith, realized in his actions and commitment to God that “he can be saved only by the absurd, and this he grasps by faith” (ibid).
Transcendence of ethics and morality.
In attempting to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac, Johannes asks himself and the reader if there is suspension of the ethical realm in this story. It is perplexing that on an ethical level, Abraham is an evil murderer while in the religious level he is considered to be the father of Christian faith. Johannes believes that in this way, the ethical and religious realms cannot function properly together.
This inability to understand superior levels of individual inwardness resembles the previous inability of the aesthete to understand the guiding principles of the ethical stage. A assumes to himself and others that he has in fact reached the highest form of individuality in his immersion and understanding of aesthetic experience. The ability to believe that this view could be mistaken lies outside of his aesthetic self. Judge Williams’ letters to A are hopeful and optimistic in the attempt to explain this to A. However, no amount of explanation could convince A of the superiority of the ethical over the aesthetic. Instead A has to experience a deep personal crises and loose himself to an ethical choice. To choose the ethical, A realizes its existence and in turn moves into a universal ethical realm. If he denies the ethical, he wallows in the despair of its existence and the failure of the aesthetic stage to deliver him from the knowledge of the ethical. Similarly, Abraham as man in the ethical realm must face an even greater test of angst and despair to realize and to understand faith.
For Johannes, the ascendance to a knight of faith requires a betrayal of the ethical stage. He asks, “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” (FT III, 104). Johannes compares Abraham’s story to a modern day scenario wherein a churchgoing father takes a this sermon describing a test faith literally and then goes home and murders his son. Johannes wonders if the murder is justified as a suspension of the ethical to serve a higher unknown understanding to faith. The test of faith would be to believe this suspension is necessary to attain faith – even if the religious realm is unknowable to the ethical man. So the teleological or purposeful suspension of the ethical does not happen. Abraham and the modern churchgoer are seen as vile murderers on the ethical level.
This paradox reveals itself in the dichotomy of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. Abraham had to resign everything and Isaac to the infinite, while at the same time having personal faith that Isaac would not be lost.