Kierkegaard's early works - and Either/Or, Fear and Trembling and Stages on Life's Way were all written under pseudonyms. Kierkegaard wanted to enter into different ways of seeing the world in order to help people see their own situations more clearly, and in order that they might be able to come to their own conclusions. It's not at all that he doesn't have his own opinion or want people to agree with him, but it does make these writings a bit tricky to unpick as it's often hard to be sure where Kierkegaard stands in relation to his alter egos. In these early works, Kierkegaard distinguishes between three primary modes of life: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. Broadly speaking, he seems to think that people should progress through these different modes of life in order to arrive at the religious mode of life which is the best of the three. Roughly speaking, the three modes of life are as follows:
The aesthetic person lives for the moment. They have no deep commitments to one thing or another. They're not totally impulsive, but will only pursue long term goals as long as they're appealing, and will drop them once they're bored or something more fun appears on the horizon. They see life in terms of possibilities to be considered and enjoyed, not in terms of projects to pursue or ideals to live out. The aesthetic person is basically passive, and seeks satisfaction in things over which they have no control, dependent on what happens externally. Because the aesthetic person's life has such an uncertain foundation, it may appear pretty meaningless. There's probably some awareness of the possibility of a higher form of life, but the aesthetic person tries to deal with this either by keeping so busy that they don't have time to think about it, or by starting to see themselves as a melancholy person, for whom sorrow is the meaning of life - at least this can't be taken away. They might regard their melancholy as a fate, seeing themselves as a tragic hero, but by seeing themselves in such fatalistic terms, they absolve themselves from any responsibility for themselves and any obligation to take action and change their situation.
You can, I think, see elements of the aesthetic person both in your average small child, whose thought processes seem (from the outside at least) to go something like this: ooh, shiny thing, let's go and look at that, ow, I hit my head, waaaah! Ooh, food yum, oh, it fell on the floor, look a new person, let's pull their hair, hey, no one's paying attention to me, maybe I should throw something on the floor so they have to pick it up....
The aesthete's heroes: Homer Simpson, Kevin the teenager
The ethical seems to be focused on 'choosing oneself' - the ethical person sees themself as a goal, and where the aesthete is constantly distracted by and concerned with external things, the ethical person directs their attention and efforts towards their own nature, being something over which they have control. They examine themselves to discover what they really want, and what's important isn't so much whether they achieve the things they set out to achieve, but more the extent to which they throw their whole selves into their activities. The ethical life is basically one long training montage. One of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms says that the ethical person expresses the universal in their own life, rather than developing their own individual ideas of right and wrong, but towards the end of Either/Or the ethical starts to seem more problematic, and it is acknowledged that certain exceptional individuals might struggle to express the ethical universal in their own life.
The aesthete's heroes: Rocky Balboa, the American Dream and all who sail in her
The religious mode of life is presented in Fear and Trembling textbook of many an angsty-yet-surprisingly-intellectual teenager (Kierkegaard was, in fact, the first person to talk about existential angst, and I find that in many ways it is illuminating to think of him as the creator of teenage angst, although it's arguable that the intellectual content of angst has been declining ever since). Apparently Karl Barth said something along the lines of 'You should aways be suspicious of anyone who did not passionately admire Kierkegaard in their youth, and suspicious of anyone who still passionately admires Kierkegaard as they get older.'
Fear and Trembling is basically all about the inability of the ethical to comprehend faith, and is horrendously complicated by confusion over the extent to which Kierkegaard actually believes the things he writes. It's basically a long meditation on Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and talks about the 'teleological suspension of the ethical': the possibility of committing unethical acts in view of a higher calling from God. The person of faith is isolated from others by his faith, unable to justify his actions to them. This is a tricky subject, one which we'll talk about more later, but for now, let's say this: faith is something which, in response to the call of God, takes a person outside of the realm of socially acceptable behaviour, outside of the limits of human reason. It requires a 'leap of faith' because it can't be done by human rationality.
The religious person's heroes: Søren Kierkegaard
You can see very clearly here some of Kierkegaard's pet themes: the impossibility of fitting Christianity into socially acceptable middle-class beliefs and behaviours (= 'why I am rude and a social misfit'), the failure of attempts to reduce faith to human reason (= 'why my lecturers are wrong', the isolation which comes from following God (= 'why I have no friends'), and the difficult choices which God requires of us (= 'why I dumped my girlfriend').
One final confession. While you've probably worked out by now that I think Kierkegaard can be a bit petty and adolescent, I should admit I am firmly in the camp of people who were passionate about him as teenagers and then grew out of him a bit, so my cynicism is at least as much about my teenage self as it is about poor old Søren, who says some really good, true, important and insightful things. As, for all their faults, do many angsty teenagers.