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Jeff Mason on Kierkegaard’s three forms of life: the ethical, the aesthetic and the religious.
Why get up in the morning? Should we get up for ourselves, for others, or for the Christian God? If we get up for ourselves, we live for pleasure, interest or boredom (the aesthetic life). If we get up for others, we live according to universal moral principles (the ethical life). Finally, if we get up for God, then we live for an absolute power that creates and supports us (the religious life). Which one is best? What are the consequences of living each sort of life? These are some of the questions addressed by the Danish philosopher and Christian religious thinker, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).
Kierkegaard died young, but left a vast amount of writing. He wrote under a variety of aliases, in many different styles and genres, including philosophical tracts, novellas, aphorisms, sermons and journals. In them modern Christendom appears spiritless and despairing. Without even knowing it, we have reverted to paganism.
Kierkegaard writes about a faith that is not bounded by self-interest or good works. In Fear and Trembling, the pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio, describes the true Christian as a solid citizen, little given to reflection. He is not a poet, and does not live in an imaginary world, like people who live only for themselves. At the same time, he is not totally bound by human ethical systems, since his allegiance is to a higher law that calls the faithful to an awareness of an Eternal or True Self. To reject this Self is to despair.
In Sickness Unto Death, the author, Anti- Climacus (another of Kierkegaard’s pennames) argues that the religious life is the only truly satisfactory life. From his perspective, the prospects and rewards of the other two ways of living appear bleak. Those who live for pleasure or duty are either too frivolous or too serious. A vague sense of anxiety, guilt, or dissatisfaction haunts them. They may not be aware of it, but they are in despair. The more thoughtful among them progress to an ever-growing consciousness of their despairing condition.
Compare the aesthetic, ethical, and religious lives. The aesthetes are people with spirit and intellect, who live for themselves, make life imitate art, judging it by the aesthetic criteria of beauty, interest and novelty. The rewards are an ‘interesting’ life, an active imagination, and the possession of an ironic detachment. Kierkegaard himself lived something like an aesthete, having refined tastes and having never needed to work for a living.
The aesthetic life promises us a series of temporary reliefs from the consciousness of despair. However, pleasures pale before the onslaught of experience. With repetition, they lose intensity and interest. The appeal of pleasure itself evaporates. The aesthete fears boredom as much as pain, and boredom slowly descends as memory and self-consciousness extend further into the past and anticipate an increasingly repetitive and limited future. The aesthete is incapable of commitment and thus never becomes a Self. In a book Kierkegaard signed with his own name called Purity of Heart, he puts it this way, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” To become Oneself is to have a direct relation to God, to cease being double-minded or self-deceived.
Ethical terms are not part of an aesthete’s vocabulary. The important thing is not right or wrong, but the interesting or the boring. An aesthete cultivates distance and irony, and finally gets so far away from ordinary reality as to become, in Anti- Climacus’ view, an imaginary self.
The ethical life fares hardly better than the aesthetic. Obedience to duty brings no relief from anxiety. Duty and inclination pull in opposite directions, and we learn what duty is by contrast with what we want to do. Guilt belongs to the ethical life, and one never does one’s duty perfectly. Even in success, thoughts of extraneous pleasures or desires cloud ethical motives.
The ethical person lives to serve others. The rewards of living this way are a sense of self-worth and nights of blameless sleep, though neither are assured. Living the ethical life can end in ‘infinite resignation’ and a despairing sense of the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’. The ethical person appeals to an absolute standard of conduct and identifies with it absolutely. This gives her or him a solid and predictable ethical self. In Sickness Unto Death, Anti-Climacus identifies this state of affairs as the despair of finitude or necessity. The self is bound by morality to act rightly, but living an ethical life does not prevent anxiety about death or about the ultimate goodness of one’s motives.
The ‘aesthetic’, ‘ethical’ or ‘religious’ lives are not dialectical stages through which we emerge out of despair. Each is a self-contained way of life, and there is no process of thinking that leads from one to another. One cannot think one’s way to Christian faith with ideas belonging to philosophy, because Christianity is paradoxical and embraces the absurd.
Anti-Climacus believes that only a life lived in eternity is eternally worth living. Eternal life is the reward of Christian faith. However, in order to attain this state, we have to believe the dogmas of the Christian religion without the backing of human reason. We must simply leap into the arms of God, a Being whose behaviour and thinking are eternally incomprehensible to us.
Each set of existential categories reveals the world in a different light. Nothing prevents individuals from spending the greater part of their lives cultivating the ‘interesting’ or the ‘ethical’. For example, with enough money, it is possible to spend years appreciating and collecting art, touring the world, and seeking aesthetic delights. This may be enough to sustain a person all the way to the grave. Only the imagination can produce the variety of effects necessary to maintain aesthetic interest. The body’s capacity for pleasure is soon exhausted, and must be augmented by thought to maintain variety.
Others grow old under the moral law or die in its service. Such persons speak a language of good and evil, right and wrong. They anchor themselves to moral principles, and from there judge the aesthetic life self-defeating and superficial, not doing justice to the seriousness and sufferings of life. The moral law is absolute. God, if He exists, simply supports it. We do not need God’s Word to live ethically, for reason or self-interest discovers ethical standards by which to live. There is no need to refer to a Divine Being to argue for them.
According to Anti-Climacus, the aesthete and the ethical person lack a relation to something that totally transcends the flow of time and the precepts of moral law. They become conscious of despair when they start to sense the ultimate futility of their projects, either aesthetic or ethical, and of the mortal self that depends on them.
Anti-Climacus approves of those who live in simple faith, supposedly in touch with something beyond pleasure, morality and all understanding. This is an absolutely transcendent being, a God who transcends even ethics. However, a person who lives within the limits of moral rules can never have faith in a God who calls to us from beyond good and evil.
Religion appears to ethical consciousness as a superstition with, at best, a benign moral interpretation. When religion supports ethics, well and good, but when it goes against ethics, then we should discard it. The ethical person disapproves of stories like the one about God betting with the devil to test a man’s faith (Job), or commanding someone to sacrifice a child (Abraham). The ethical person takes the ‘terrible’ out of God, and puts reason or nature in its place as the prime mover in ethics. For Anti-Climacus, this is not a satisfying outcome. The ethical life is merely palliative and no more relieves the despair of futility than the aesthetic life. Faith alone escapes such hopelessness.
To live religiously, we ‘die to the world’ and afterwards start to live in earnest. By ‘dying to the world’ and giving up our lives to God, faith promises a miraculous return of life and possibility. This paradox is at the heart of religiosity.
However, we can ask whether the religious life is really any more satisfying than the aesthetic and the ethical lives. Kierkegaard himself appears ambivalent about religion. The pseudonymous Anti-Climacus, in Sickness Unto Death, is much more positive about faith than Kierkegaard ever is. Despite the lack of evidence, the faith of Anti-Climacus promises everyone an Eternal Self, and an end to all despair, sin and death. It is almost as if Kierkegaard envies Anti-Climacus his dogmatic beliefs.
Do we lose the aesthetic and the ethical by living in the category of religion? Presumably not. We will get them back when we gain the religious life, but in a different form. Before, they were the ends of life. What are they now? The rewards of an existential leap of faith? Or, when we get them back, are they so transfigured as to be unrecognizable?
Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, distinguishes the knights of faith from the knights of infinite resignation. The latter are ostentatiously spiritual. They are like dancers we see always just landing or just taking off. They are proud of their spirituality. The knights of faith, on the other hand, look undistinguished and give no hint of the superiority or pride betrayed by the knights of infinite resignation. The faithful person walks firmly anchored to the ground, and receives back in extra measure the world that she or he gives up to God. A miraculous repetition occurs in virtue of the absurd. In Sickness Unto Death, grace is attained when you ‘rest transparently in God’.
A secular philosopher is certain to disagree with Anti-Climacus’ belief in the power of the Christian God. It is not rational to believe that by giving oneself up to God, everything will be returned in virtue of the absurd. Yet there may be a philosophical re-description of what Anti- Climacus is talking about that will help us escape from Anti-Climacan despair.
The problem of despair is a misrelation of the self to itself. It is a sign of spiritlessness. The self, for Anti-Climacus, is not a thing but a task. We have to be in earnest about this task or the Self we might become will never be actualized. We understand ourselves by relating to ourselves, other people or other things. If you define yourself in relation to your own needs and interests alone, then you end up a selfish aesthete who lives for pleasure and interest. If you understand yourself only by relating to other people, then you will be as changeable as their opinions. At best, the self can attain an ethical stability. If you identify yourself with material possessions, then you will be a slave to fashion and reputation. Only by relating to God does the Self become itself, an Eternal being standing before its Creator and finding itself whole.
Anti-Climacus says that it is only when we first relate ourselves to God that we relate to ourselves correctly. Only then are the ‘interesting’ and the ‘good’ seen in proper perspective. If he is right, a leap of faith into the absurd beliefs of the Christian religion seems to be the only escape from despair. Indeed, the motive behind writing Sickness Unto Death is to make one increasingly conscious of what despair is, its commonness, its different forms, and how it intensifies to the point where a leap of faith begins to look inviting. Anti-Climacus’ writing about despair is part of his Christian rhetoric, not an academic exercise.
If we accept his terms, then we have to accept that despair is universal. The fact that we are not always conscious of it only shows how deeply enmeshed in despair we are. However, this is not a wholly satisfactory answer. Anti-Climacus makes despair such a general phenomenon that it is in danger of completely losing its meaning. He fails to see that despair also has its episodic nature, when we directly experience it, and is not merely a structural feature of human existence.
Another response is to rethink the meaning of despair in human life. Perhaps the absurdity of the universe is intrinsic to it, in which case there is no overarching meaning that people in despair are somehow missing. On this view, it would be double mindedness or self-deception to think that we are missing something that would give our lives an eternal meaning and remove the possibility of despair from human life.
Anti-Climacus’ analysis of the self as a set of relationships has much to recommend it. Despite its religious cast, the thought ofescape from Anti-Climacan despair. The problem of despair is a misrelation of the self to itself. It is a sign of spiritlessness. The self, for Anti-Climacus, is not a thing but a task. We have to be in earnest about this task or the Self we might become will never be actualized. We understand ourselves by relating to ourselves, other people or other things. If you define yourself in relation to your own needs and interests alone, then you end up a selfish aesthete who lives for pleasure and interest. If you understand yourself only by relating to other people, then you will be as changeable as their opinions. At best, the self can attain an ethical stability. If you identify yourself with material possessions, then you will be a slave to fashion and reputation. Only by relating to God does the Self become itself, an Eternal being standing before its Creator and finding itself whole. Anti-Climacus says that it is only when we first relate ourselves to God that we relate to ourselves correctly. Only then are the ‘interesting’ and the ‘good’ seen in proper perspective. If he is right, a leap of faith into the absurd beliefs of the Christian religion seems to be the only escape from despair. Indeed, the motive behind writing Sickness Unto Death is to make one increasingly conscious of what despair is, its commonness, its different forms, and how it intensifies to the point where a leap of faith begins to look inviting. Anti-Climacus’ writing about despair is part of his Christian rhetoric, not an academic exercise.
If we accept his terms, then we have to accept that despair is universal. The fact that we are not always conscious of it only shows how deeply enmeshed in despair we are. However, this is not a wholly satisfactory answer. Anti-Climacus makes despair such a general phenomenon that it is in danger of completely losing its meaning. He fails to see that despair also has its episodic nature, when we directly experience it, and is not merely a structural feature of human existence. Another response is to rethink the meaning of despair in human life. Perhaps the absurdity of the universe is intrinsic to it, in which case there is no overarching meaning that people in despair are somehow missing. On this view, it would be double mindedness or self-deception to think that we are missing something that would give our lives an eternal meaning and remove the possibility of despair from human life. Anti-Climacus’ analysis of the self as a set of relationships has much to recommend it. Despite its religious cast, the thought of relating oneself to something other than oneself or other people does give a new selfperspective. We don’t have to agree that an Eternal Self comes into view. Our question then becomes “Is it possible to escape despair without believing in an Eternal Self?” Christianly speaking, the answer must be an emphatic “no.” Humanly speaking, it may still be “yes.”
What is a secular philosopher to conclude? For me, a new self comes into view when we relate ourselves to something other than ourselves or other people. It is not an Eternal Self, but it is different enough from the others to liberate us from the restrictions of living a one-sidedly aesthetic, ethical, or, indeed, religious (spiritual) life.
The despair of the aesthetic and the ethical lives comes from the feeling of being unable to move. This feeling derives from an inability to break free from the existential categories that define a specific life. However, the ability to relate to oneself in a third way breaks the hold of the categories of the other two, breaking the cycle of despair that leads to increasing immobility.
I deny that a life spent without eternal reassurances is as despairing as Anti- Climacus makes out. The best life may not be aesthetic, ethical, or religious (spiritual), but one that encompasses all three.
Perhaps having possibilities is a matter of being able to break free from the confines of any given life. What each life clarifies, when all three of them are in view, is that none are as all-encompassing as they appear to their exclusive occupants. We need all three perspectives to live a full life, even if, humanly speaking, we must live with the permanent possibility of despair. This means living aesthetically, ethically and ‘spiritually’, taking ‘spirituality’ as far as philosophy can take it, without accepting religious beliefs as revealed truths.
To live this way frees us from Anti- Climacan despair. Life can renew itself from within. Just when things are getting too serious, the aesthetic perspective arrives to make a joke of it. Just when aesthetic enjoyment is growing stale, a ‘spiritual’ consciousness emerges that puts everything back into its proper perspective. Just when spirit threatens to take one away from the world, duty reminds one to see to the needs of others. I disagree with Anti-Climacus about the interpretation of the ‘religious’. For Anti-Climacus, religion is a corrective to philosophy; for me, philosophy is a corrective to religion.
The challenge is to explain the ‘something else’ through which we can relate to ourselves in this liberating way. I choose to define this ‘something else’ negatively. I leave the expression without a definite description, since to describe it would introduce a content without the warrant of reason. This minimal reference to a third way of relating to ourselves is sufficient to break the hold of the other two on their occupants. The ‘something else’ simply gives a limit to the other activities of self-relating.
An aesthetic life pursued to the exclusion of ethics and spirit does lead to despair for all the reasons that Anti-Climacus gives. The same goes for the ethical life. To me, the zealous religious life also has its drawbacks. The earnestness of Anti-Climacus is repellent. The fervour of the religious life of pure faith is too rigorous and lacks the aesthetic detachment, humour and irony that a full human life requires. Anti- Climacus has little humour, and what he possesses is quite black. Ethically speaking, he lacks respect and compassion for others.
The most philosophically acceptable formulation that Anti-Climacus gives to describe the third way of self-relating is “to rest transparently in the power that supports you.” This makes some sense. I discover that my continued existence depends upon many things outside my control. Forget yourself and other people. Whatever you are aware of now is something else. Stop thinking and remain awake. Think of nature and the physical universe on a level that does not contain either yourself or other people.
There are moments when the flash of a bird’s wing or a sunset’s colours transports us to a world beyond despair, and beyond caring or thinking about the ultimate futility of life. They do not last long, but it would be a mistake to believe that they are unreal for that reason. Moments of real satisfaction do exist in helping others, doing a job well, and taking one’s duties seriously. There are good times and bad times in life, and though despair remains a potentiality in the human situation, neither the good nor the bad times are any less real if they are ephemeral. Love and the other psychological states can bring joy as well as pain, and also have a claim to reality.
If we are honest with ourselves, it is unwise to claim that we can banish the possibility of despair from our lives. The conditions for producing it are all too common, for example, the loss of loved-ones, poverty, disease, chronic pain, approaching death. Without Divine warrant, we must concede the reality of death and live in that knowledge. For Anti-Climacus, death is not real. The body may die, but the soul lives eternally.
Lacking the religious fervour of Anti- Climacus, the important thing is to develop all three ways of relating oneself to oneself. Doing this promises a degree of that selfknowledge sought by philosophers. The third way of self-relating gives us a valuable perspective on the different kinds of life we can live. No one life captures us completely. We can move from life to life, never forgetting the other two. If this sounds like a relapse into a modified aesthetic life, so be it.
Despair is the failure to accept the impossible task of synthesizing the finite and the infinite, the possible and the necessary. It ends in total isolation and misery. The aesthete embraces the infinite with its false freedoms; the ethical person embraces the finite with its false restrictions. Both are unreal, and that unreality permeates the life of the aesthete and the ethicist. The bind is that reason cannot approve belief in an Eternal Self.
Even according to Anti-Climacus’ own argument, there is a problem with the religious sense of Self. Despair is the misrelation of self. Self-relating activity is all there is to a self. It is not a thing, but comes into being. Its activities define it. How, therefore, can it become an Eternal Self? If each of us has a God-granted nature, then we are no longer defined by our self-relating activities, and this contradicts Anti-Climacus’s original discussion of the self.
Anti-Climacus claims that unless one first relates to God, the self mis-relates itself. This failure to embrace God entails despair. Given this assumption, we can see how the deck is stacked against us. We are made to feel guilty if we do not make a leap of faith into the absurd. Since this leap is our only remedy, it is not surprising that despair is the condition of any sort of nonreligious life. Philosophy is not a religious exercise, but an exercise of thought and reason, and therefore comes in for the criticism of Anti-Climacus. Yet, if honesty demands that we give up hankering for perfection in this world or to exist in the next, then we would be mistaken to follow the lead of Anti-Climacus.
Philosophy remains this-worldly, and in this world there is an unavoidable lack of perfection. Anti-Climacus hankers for a perfect life, and it leads him to embrace religion. But if one accepts that despair is not something we must escape at all costs, but that it, too, has something to teach us, then we can put Anti-Climacan insights to philosophical use.
© Jeff Mason 1999
Jeff Mason is an American philosopher who has written several books and has recently fled the wonderful British weather to take up bodysurfing in California