I was first introduced to Soren Kierkegaard‘s work around 20 years ago in Introduction to Philosophy. Since then, I have been fascinated by him and his work, although, to be honest, it hasn’t always been easy for me to readily grasp. In this post, I will lay out how I currently understand him, having started to read Either/Or again this week.
Kierkegaard shrouds his work in pseudonyms, irony, humor, and wit. This makes him quite different from many of the other philosophers I have read. There’s a reason for all of this, however. It’s not simply whimsical character traits coming through in his work: Kierkegaard had an important project, perhaps the most important project.
Kierkegaard was a Christian and believed in God. As we shall see, the stage of life he characterized as The Religious was the final form of human life on Earth. I believe Kierkegaard, through all of his literary devices, was trying to bring his readers to that final form.
Of course, if you take this seriously, then, yes, it is important work.
In Either/Or, we see characterizations of the Aesthetic Life and the Ethical Life. Below, I will explain how I understand each of these as well as the final stage–The Religious Life.
Kierkegaard is known as the Father of Existentialism. He also developed numerous psychology concepts.
I have a degree in psychology as well as philosophy. It wasn’t until I pulled out my psychology lens that I better understood Kierkegaard.
In psychology, there are many theories of personal growth, development and motivation. A famous one you may have heard of is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When you reach the top of Maslow’s pyramid, you are able to achieve self actualization.
Kierkegaard lived long before Maslow did. However, he also posited different “Stages on Life’s Way.”
The first stage is what Kierkegaard calls The Aesthetic. This stage is characterized by flight from boredom. In our modern terms, we may think of a person in this stage as one who flees being alone with themselves and their thoughts. They are all in for entertainment as a flight from dealing with the more weighty things in life. They play games as a flight of fancy, they watch TV to flee heavy thoughts of existence, they are obsessed with reality television and trends so they don’t have to deal with serious issues. They will do almost anything to avoid dealing with existential questions. It’s not necessarily what they do, however; it’s why they do it. Kierkegaard says they do these things to flee boredom. Yet, in boredom, we confront ourselves and our lives.
The second stage described by Kierkegaard is The Ethical. In this stage, a person has probably confronted a fair amount of boredom. They become preoccupied with morals, and perhaps politics and laws. Kierkegaard says this stage focuses on commitment and responsibility. In our era, it’s common for many people to take politics as their highest cause. I have been guilty of this. But an extreme focus of things such as this isn’t yet the final stage, according to Kierkegaard. Again, it’s not precisely what they do. It’s why they do it. In this stage, people are typically looking for a universal maxim to live by and impose on others.
The final stage for Kierkegaard is The Religious. Kierkegaard was a Christian, so his theology centers on the Christian tradition. Personally, I am curious as to whether some or all of his thought can generalize to other religions.
The Religious stage is characterized by a deep, personal relationship with God. Contrary to how many Christians these days see it, this isn’t a commitment to a generalizable moral life, especially one that you force on others. In fact, although he was a Christian, Kierkegaard took serious issue with the church of his day. His primary goal was precisely this: How to be a Christian within Christendom.
In his book Fear and Trembling, we see Kierkegaard analyze the Father of Faith, Abraham. Looking carefully at this can help us understand The Religious stage.
If you take these things seriously, you will believe that a person can have an intimate relationship with the Creator. The Religious stage is, contrary to popular belief, not one of strict moral codes. Instead, it is closely and carefully following God.
Abraham did just this, which is why he is considered the Father of Faith. Yet, as Kierkegaard describes it, there must have been a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” By this, Kierkegaard means that Abraham suspended humanly moral codes, like Do Not Murder, in order to fulfill God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
Abraham trusted God and fully meant to kill Isaac. He was totally ready to do it.
Then, God sent a lamb for Abraham to sacrifice instead.
According to Kierkegaard, what’s important about Abraham is what he shows us about The Religious stage.
It’s not that we must commit horrific acts because we think God says so. It’s that we must move on from The Ethical stage to our final form: Communion with God. (And, if you follow the Bible, you will also have faith that God will not lead you astray because, if you are a Christian, you will have fruits of the spirit, and generally be a loving, caring, just person, against which, according to the Bible, there is no law.)
Kierkegaard says a person who lives in the Religious Stage is a Knight of Faith. He also says you may not recognize a Knight of Faith. That’s because the Knight of Faith can watch reality television, just like the Aesthete, or engage in politics and law, like the Ethical person.
What makes the Knight of Faith different is a deep, personal commitment to God. God has the final say in one’s life. The Knight of Faith looks to God for direction and guidance. God is never wrong. God is always right. God also always wins in the end. Therefore, when one is in this stage, one has perfect guidance, perfect understanding, and perfect grace.
Kierkegaard believed this final form, which is very different from what many people believe about Christianity, is the highest stage of human life, but he also focused on repetition in his work, because The Religious stage isn’t a final destination–it’s a constant quest. A commitment and re-commitment.
All of this, at any rate, is how I’ve come to understand Soren Kierkegaard after 20 years of pondering!