Kierkegaard and the Self: The Aesthetic, Ethic and Religious forms of Selfhood

The Three Stages of Life

    Kierkegaard grounds his philosophy in the three stages that a human being goes through on the way to the religious life. These stages are technical ones, but all deal with the relation between the ego and the outside world, or the constant struggle between objective and subjective worlds.
    The lowest form of life for Kierkegaard is that of the modern man, and that is the aesthetic life, the life devoted to escapism and self-serving fragmentation of life. Aesthetic experience is based on sensuous experience, the escape from the ever present boredom that dominated modern life. The ego is absolutely central here, and seeks a way of life according to one's own fleeting desires. The world is altered to conform to the desires and wishes of the person. Hence, this form of life is immediate, since it is not mediated by reason or any other form of choice, it is not really a form of choice at all, but an escape from it (Kierkegaard, 214).

    Kierkegaard uses the example of “following the heart” in his Either/Or, an immediate form of action that does not depend on choice, but merely upon the saturation of the self with immediate, sensuous images. This is not a form of knowledge, choice and even fails being a form of selfhood. In fine, the aesthetic mind is one that is formed when faith in science or the state falls apart, and one is left with nothing.# The aesthetic life is a means whereby one can fill the void left by the decay of modernity that existed in Europe in the late 19th century – the clash between romanticism and science that was so important in 19th century German polemics brought humanity to a situation where there was equal “truth” in both logical claims and the claims to self-absorption in romantic images and music. Ultimately, Nietzsche was to solve the problem in his infamous doctrine of the will to power, where truth had no claim at all, neither subjective of objective.#
    The middle form of life is the ethical life, a conception of reality that bleeds over into the religious, giving the impression that the religious and ethical life are two sides of the same coin. For the ethical, the fragments of aesthetic enjoyment are brought together into a unity made up of two parts – good and evil. But these are not objective realities. Objective reality has no ethical purpose, since it is dead matter. The only real ethical purpose is one that is adopted as important by the agent and only the agent. The essay on this by William McDonald (2008) seems to stress the importance of social norms, but this might be considered the lowest stage of ethical life. While the aesthetic is self-absorbed, the lower parts of ethical life are absorbed into the interests of the community, even unto death. But the serious and important element of ethical life are precisely those times where social norms (part of objective reality and are neither good nor evil) are rejected in the confusion and angst of ethical choice. But this is no different than religious angst.
    The link between ethical and religious forms of choice is found at these times, leading some to hold that there is no substantial distinction between religious and ethical forms of selfhood. In both cases the infinite is somehow grasped in the passionate loneliness of personal responsibility. In terms of ethical and religious choice, there are two subjectively powerful entities, faith or knowledge. The latter is purely objective, logical assent that leads nowhere. It is precisely this obsession with the objective that had led European man to concern himself solely with the formal, external relations between things. But this means nothing in terms of the personal struggle within which all questions of substance are waged.
    Not only is reason useless in the religious stage, it is equally useless in the ethical stage. In the one area where Kierkegaard accepted the arguments of the romantics, Kierkegaard held that formal relations among objects mean nothing. The force of passion that leads to the development of this form of knowledge is important, but it has found a dead end in constant externalization. The main problem is that reason can go in any direction – towards inner struggle or external logic. It can turn in either direction with equal force, intelligence and inward passion. The real puzzle is to understand human life and truth by seeing it as internal apprehension of objective uncertainty (Kierkegaard, 213-214).
    Kierkegaard defines truth in his Postscript as having three components: first, the existence of objective (i.e. logical) uncertainty; second, the internal appropriation of this fact, and third, the passionate inwardness that forces the ego onward in faith. Therefore, it is the failure of the objective realm that gives rise to the internal, existential world of faith. Putting this differently, if God could be known objectively, he would not be known (he might be understood, but that has nothing to do with man's inward struggle). God can only be known in the form of a subjective relationship (Kierkegaard, 215). Hence, there are two ways of asking a question about God: the objective would be to ask simply does God exist? The second, subjective way is to ask if there is some entity within which I can have a “God-relationship” (Kierkegaard, 211). Ultimately, it is this inward struggle, the seeking for a relation with God, that is the source of faith, and therefore, the religious form of life.
Three Forms of Selfhood

    The aesthetic form of life is the negation of selfhood. Sartre might call this “bad faith.” It is bad faith because it is the escape from self, from reality from the constant and insatiable claims of desire so central to Schopenhauer. It is a fragmented self in that it is constantly sinking its subjectivity into the endlessly changing. It never approaches the infinite like the other two forms of life face. It is constant possibility.
    On the other hand, the ethical form of self is a struggling one. It comes to itself in that it struggles and, regardless of the charms of the aesthetic life, seeks to experience the infinite in the fact (with strong religious overtones) that this self will be judged by God and hence, have infinite and eternal value (for better or worse). The ethical self is tragic in that it is not the “right” that matters so much as the process of choosing: the dissatisfaction with the aesthetic, the equal reason to chose x over y at every turn, the eternal value of the choices and the resultant connection with the “inner infinity.” The ethical man is one who struggles between the claims of the community (nearly always vulgar) and the true struggle with infinity, a concept, by the way, that exists completely outside of logical or mathematical reasoning (Kierkegaard, 106-107).
    The idea of selfhood in the latter two forms of life is based on the positivist distinction between subject and object, and the idea of an inner relationship. There is no mediated logical connection between subject and object, but rather the idea of having an inner relation to things that (subjectively) are good and evil. Nietzsche was to take this seriously a generation later. For Nietzsche, the religious and ethical were one and the same, coming from the individual drive for power which, if capable of dominating a whole people, come to define what is good and evil and hence, it is the will to power that creates the social norms (Barrett, 180-181). The good and evil that is the creation of power is merely taken as objective by those who cannot reach the level of the superman. The superman knows there is no “objective,” but it suits his purposes to have the world believe that.
    For Kierkegaard, the only truth is subjective, and therefore, the relationship between the self and the choice mediated by passion, a striving for truth and certainty, is the only reality and the only criterion.

Kierkegaard in Modern Life

    In modern times, that is, the early 21st century, seeing the connection between Kierkegaard's thought and the decay of the western world is not a difficult task. Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche, was aristocratic in his thought. Only the few could rise to the actual level of the ethical and religious. The masses of humanity were to suffer in the obscurity of the aesthetic. For Nietzsche, it served the purpose of the superman to have the masses wallow, for Kierkegaard it was tragic.
    In modern life, the aesthetic dominates. It takes the form of thrill seeking, enmeshing oneself in the world of fashion and cliché (while loudly denying this), work-a-day employment and its resultant drives to “let off steam.” The ethical life is not a pleasant one – no different than the superman – both suffer since both see the truth: there is no objective. Ultimately, the modern aesthete has no purpose outside of the hour to hour. In fact, the aesthete has no means of even asking the agonizing and dreadful questions that come up in Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, never mind have the ability to answer them. The life of the aesthete is meaningless, but it is easier than the existential poet. Even worse, the modern coffee shop world shows the most vulgar of the aesthetic dunning black berets and spouting half-digested cliche's about “philosophy” and “politics.” Of course, the superman does not try to impress the co-eds at Starbucks, but the aesthete, in its lowest form, becomes obsessed with proving to the world that he is not, in fact, an aesthete.
    It is difficult to tell the difference between the aesthete trying to act the ethical, and the actually ethical. This writer is willing to hold that the true ethical rarely seeks public attention does not show up on CNN, is considered sick like the Underground man, has few friends and lives the life of quiet suffering. The aesthete does not choose, he merely dons the costume of the ethical and seeks to life a life of pleasant dabbling as a result. Of course, for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, this is the lowest form of life, the imitation of the ethical, the parodying of it – the true ethical life is one of suffering, and this is why Dostoyevsky used the image of the crucified Christ so often in his work. The fates of Socrates and Christ are the end of all true philosophers, the false life comfortable lives as court writers.
    The real problem comes when one needs to answer the question about choice. Does the life of the average contain some spark of the ethical? This writer cannot answer that. As the years go on, the only rational answer seems “no,” but there are too many exceptions for that to stick. The simple fact remains that when something is easy, the majority will do it, and claim some abstract “right” to it. The few will follow the hard path. Ultimately, the existential point of view is aristocratic, and it must be so.

Concluding Thoughts

    The basic structure of Kierkegaard's thought revolves around the nature of the three forms of life. It seems that they do not “follow” one another in a kind of unfolding, but are choices that one makes. The ethical deals with secular choices of good and bad, while the religious amplifies this to eternal life and the relationship “in” God. There is no reason to hold that the aesthetic leads to the ethical, or that the ethical leads to the religious. One can claim that “bad faith” is the real problem, in that those who are stuck in either the aesthetic or religious are in bad faith, surreptitiously choosing to remain in an easier state of mind. The religious mind is the best, yet contains the most suffering because its object (so to speak) is little else but the eternal state of one's being.
    Bad faith exists in both the ethical and religious life. The aesthetic life is the very definition of bad faith, since it is a hiding in the world of sensuous data. But the ethical and religious lives can also have bad faith, but, as was said in the above section, this bad faith leads to a mere counterfeit of the ethical life, rather than being a perversion of it. In other words, the aesthete can don the costume of the coffee house philosopher while never leaving the charms of the aesthetic life. This same person will no doubt hold that she is too smart to ever be fooled, or to be in bad faith, but this approach only sinks the person deeper into illusion. For one to be truly ethical is, by definition, to not be in bad faith, unless one reasons her way out of going the next step, the step that brings the ego face to face with the eternal.
    Bad faith then forms an integral part of Kierkegaard's system long before Sartre coined the phrase. For Kierkegaard, to summarize, all non-religious forms of thought are bad faith, since some choosing process has retarded the movement towards the eternal. Coming face to face with the eternal is agony, and hence, one can easily reason oneself out of heading in that direction. In this case, the aesthetic mind is that mind of the masses, the human animals, while the ethical life might be seen to reside in the realm of politics or “issue oriented” ethical questions. In other words, ethical questions that are soaked in the mundane, and that serve to act as bulwarks against any foray into the infinite and all its pain.


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