Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Kierkegaard on aesthetic, ethical and religious modes of life

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
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
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
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.


Andrew said...

Kierkegaard is a symbol for me of an enduring question, which concerns the relationship between authentic theological understanding and authentic Christian lifestyle. Clearly there's natural revelation, and non-Christians can understand many features of God's world. (The issue gets more interesting when the human psyche is brought in as such a feature.)

But on the other side, should a Christian theologian's lifestyle make one wary of accepting anything from them that we didn't already know ourselves? Kierkegaard represents this for me because he seems to have some great ideas (although I have to say, Marika, I'm not sure you've painted him in a very favourable light from that regard), but his life, while sincere, was miserable and rather lacking in the fruit of the spirit.

As Athanasius wrote (quoted in Tozer's Divine Conquest): 'But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honorable [sic] life is needed...so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the word of God.'

(I'm sure you have your own thoughts on Athanasius but I'm really just using him as a proof-text.)

Marika said...

I know what you mean: part of what put me off Kierkegaard, who I honestly used to love and now feel much more ambivalent towards, was reading him alongside Dostoevsky for an essay about God and suffering. It's possibly a slightly unfair comparison, but reading Kierkegaard on suffering knowing a bit about his life, and comparing him to Dostoevsky who really suffered as a result of his concern for the poor made him seem petty and self-centred.

But you're right, there is a difficult question there. Athanasius himself has been accused of being a pretty unpleasant character, willing to use violence to win his case - does that mean we should all be Arians? And it works the other way round - I've met wonderful loving people, who transform the lives of people around them, and yet somehow manage to hold all sorts of horrendous theological beliefs.

I guess we need to weigh everything, whether people have lived exemplary lives of virtue or were nasty pieces of work. Truth turns up in all sorts of odd places, and it would be sad to miss out on it or be blinded by someone's good works to the flaws in their theological system.

Andrew said...

Thanks for that, I think you've pointed up some good things to note. One, the reference to Dostoevsky reminds me that he is a figure I greatly respect and regard as having a good insight into some features of human society - but who was also an apparently unreasoning anti-semite, as well as an uncontrolled gambler. (I'm also not sure when he suffered as a result of his concern for the poor). And clearly all theological insights must come through imperfect people: if you're born choleric, that may not prevent you realising some important and overlooked things about God.

But knowing God is about much more than having the right theological system. Jer 22:16 as an example: 'He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD.' So to know God - and hence to know truth - is a matter for acting as well as thinking ('thinking', because writing and speaking count as both acting and thinking - and in a speech-act a good thought does not guarantee a good act).

And I'd go further: not only can you not know truth as long as either your thoughts or your deeds are wrong; you cannot know even part of the truth while this is the case either. So it would be misleading to say 'Kierkegaard - great insights, shame he was a vindictive loner with an inferiority complex'. Kierkegaard's insights are part of the same life as his social and emotional difficulties. It's not that the field of Kierkegaard - or Athanasius, as you were right to point out - contained some clumps of daffodils and other muddy thorny areas that can be kept separate from them. Rather, the flow of his soul was more like a human river of orange squash and tea (a blend of human tea-squash, or HTS).

Of course that's not to say that you can't distinguish the orange squash and the tea as you experience someone's HTS (whether by spending an evening with them or reading their treatise). But you can't separate them. Dostoevsky's gambling was intertwined with his desire for truth - sometimes directly, as his greatest work, Brothers Karamazov, was written to magazine editor's deadlines in order to pay off gambling debts.

So the proper way to engage with HTSes is not by finding an ox-bow lake of the soul where a little literary puddle of pure orange squash has been preserved, and collecting it in the hope that with enough of these samples the archetypal orangey river of truth can be reconstituted. The truth we want is a Person, a T-less HS (ha!), and to know this Person we must strive for more squash and less tea overall.

However, this actually leaves more space for giving Kierkegaard time and energy, since we're not trying to find the ultimate theological system because a) it's not out there as no sinful mortal could write it, and b) it wouldn't help us know truth much better anyway unless we could incorporate it into the right living that we ourselves are very far from ('The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know', 1Cor8:2). So Kierkegaard ceases to be of value because certain of his writings are true (because they aren't, as discussed above), but becomes instead a dance-partner from whose skill AND errors, by practice and observation, we can learn how to waltz. And that is the model of truth that I will end on: a dance, requiring intellectual understanding, accumulated physical practice, and cooperation with other people.

So let us not judge Kierkegaard or his thinking. Let us dance with him.

Andrew said...

(which is, of course, what you were already doing)

Maladjusted said...

"The ethical life is basically one long training montage." Gold. The aesthete in me shivers; the ethical part imagines an extended training montage (a la Rocky) in which I learn to be that funny through dedication and hard work.


catholicism in africa said...


I have being thinking about the religious stage of Kierkegaard’s stages in life ways; his night of faith ‘Abraham’ and the recent actions of terrorists like Osama bin laden who some radical Islamic group consider a hero. What exactly does Kierkegaard mean by saying that the religious has no recourse to the normal conventions that usually govern one's life: reason, rational inquiry, and objective analysis.

What exactly involve the paradoxical nature of the religious experience which cannot be discussed rationally and logically analyzed, but it is the most profound event in one's life and full of meaning.Wouldn’t it be right to say that Osama bin laden and his radical Islamic views, which cannot be rationally and logically analyzed to be true just as killing Isaac wouldn’t have being true for Abraham; is the most profound event in his life?

Anticipating your reply.

Dmitry Andreyev said...

Have you re-visited him? Many of the parallels that you make between his philosophy and your life experience (or the imagined life experience of someone following him) cast me back into my Senior Year of High School. They seem like the kind of parallels I might have made as a teenager, or if I would not have made them I would have argued against them as I do now.

I have found that at least one serious philosophical professor I've encountered re-visited a number of his favourites from his youth, and he saw virtues in their works which he would not have read into them early on.

Personally, I have found that people who put down "adolescents" as being inferior in any way are fooling themselves and in many ways have not really departed from their high school selves. Their own restlessness to escape their past shows that they haven't found answers to questions that dogged them in their earlier youth. This tends to happen in the age range of twenty to thirty; older people, from my experience, have more humility, as do many teenagers, which is why I avoid many people in my own age group.

Hopefully I misjudged you. But I would like to say some specific things: Studying for your PhD, it is understandable that you may elevate your lecturers to the degree of Authorities, but please remember that probably you will learn most of what you learn long after you have gotten your PhD. This I am extrapolating from what the philosophy professor I mentioned previously told me. Another professor I've met said that a student has to question his teachers, and this man puts up with a lot of crud from his colleagues for learning from his students.

Personally, I think that anyone interested in existentialist thought has to have a passionate commitment to questioning anyone claiming to be an authority; seeing how society works reminds me of how people get into positions of power. As for the virtues of the solitary life: "Having no friends" seems like a typical fear that many adolescents and young adults have; being able to sever ties in pursuit of higher ideals helps one to find better friends, however hard it may be to do this. I am still trying to learn this. Finally, and this may be a pretension of someone interested in psychology: It was observed by Kohlberg that most adolescents and adults tend to live on a level of moral development wherein they are determined by social norms. Some of the (pardon the pun) either/or dichotomies you mentioned -- between propriety and impropriety, chiefly, with no third variable -- seem very rationalistic, but beware that it may be pretentious to simply construe of an individual's virtues entirely in terms of whether or not they belong to social expectations. As an introvert and a religious thinker, Kierkegaard seems to have tried ardently to extricate himself from even that realm of thinking. (Mass-mindedness.)

Finally, I would recommend that you look into the Russian thinker Lev Shestov if you are interested in giving Existentialism in general a fair critique. Hopefully we can continue this discussion.


Daxe said...

I read Keirkegaard for an undegraduate class on existentialism back in the '80s. As an economist and musician now, I see his categories a little differently. In economics we see behavior as an outcome of the preferences we express through the constraints (feasible alternatives) we face. The environment are the constraints externally placed on us.
The aesthetic are our preferences over the external world. The religious are the constraints we place on our selves. The ethical are the preferences we have over who we are. I usual refer to the last as spiritual, to help contrast spiritual concerns from religious concerns.
So, the ethical becomes an aesthetic of self. This creates an interesting dynamic. The religious may attempt to put constraints on the self we choose to express, at the same time the ethical (spiritual) influences how we choose to constrain ourselves. Loosely speaking, the religious might tell us what spirit is acceptable, and the spiritual tells us what religions are preferable. The essential theological question changes from "is there a God" to "how do we listen to the divine." If God was essentially the equivalent of a white-noise generator (creating a random universe, but a creation none the less), it is the patterns we find in the noise that we treat as real and commanding. Seach google A.I. dreams to see how this shows up using neural network algorithms.
The key insight is that we ultimately choose our religion (if any at all). Unfortunately, the aesthetic value from this choice depends on our treating the religion as if we have no choice about it. The transition from adolescent to adulthood is essentially from treating our emotions as something we have no choice over, to recognizing that we do (even if it is an effort to do so). The transition from the hebrew's jealous,almost bipolar god to christ's all loving god is very similar. Compassion for the limits in our ability to choose and manifest, reminders that we still have to choose none the less. As existentialist as you can get.

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