The “Stages on Life's Way”

The essence of Kierkegaard's philosophy can be seen in his doctrine that there are three stages of life experience: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. The three stages are like outlooks or attitudes toward life.

The Aesthetic Stage

In the first stage of life experience, the individual may be either a hedonist in search of pleasure or romance, or an intellectual interested mainly in abstract philosophical speculation. At this stage it is typical to escape boredom and life's pains by sampling an entire smorgasbord of pleasures. The aesthetic stage is a stage of fulfillment of desires, of living for the moment. Here the individual can't get enough. Someone engaging in philosophical abstractions loses himself in speculation, aloft in an ivory tower, remote from events in the real world. The abstract intellectual merely observes the world in a detached and objective manner, without risking involvement.

Kierkegaard saw profoundly how man seeks to escape from himself through diversions that provide him a kind of momentary distraction. This continual search for diversion is described in his “rotation method”: Man is bored with life in the country, so he seeks fulfillment in the village; he becomes bored in the village, so he takes on the city. He soon tires of his homeland and travels abroad. He is overcome by boredom in a foreign land and so entertains the possibility of an endless journeying to alleviate his boredom. So the melancholy individual engages in a self-defeating and dizzying hunt for the perfect diversion. But his venture is bound to end in frustration: the search for diversions can never be fulfilled. The aesthetic existence ends in futility.

Kierkegaard had a knack for philosophical aphorisms. One of these showed his distaste for abstract, intellectual philosophy that didn't appeal to emotional and intellectual beings. “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

The aestheticist finally realizes that he cannot find himself outside of himself. There is no fulfillment; neither in his nonstop hedonistic and sensual pursuits nor in the abstractions of his speculative thought. Plato was right: the pleasure seeker is like a leaky sieve. He can never get enough. To discover what is meaningful the agent must turn inward. He will discover earnestness, passions, decision, commitment, and freedom. The result of the pursuits at this stage is a despair that may eventually motivate a person to a commitment of ethical values. In fact, in choosing despair, the self gives birth to itself and passes from the aesthetical stage of indecision to the ethical stage of decisive commitment.

The Ethical Stage

The ethical stage is the stage of decision and resolute commitment. The ethical person accepts limits and follows rules of conduct that the aesthetic person does not. An aesthetic person succumbs to impulse when food or drink or sexual attraction beckons. But the ethical person doesn't give in. Fulfillment at the ethical stage is sought by means of a dedication to duty and obedience to the dictates of an objective morality.

Through decision and commitment the self becomes integrated and anchored. The ethical man, by virtue of having shouldered his responsibility in decision, has his center within himself. His life is centralized and unified. But once again the experience lacks personal meaning and fails to validate one's individual existence. The commitment to the ethical stage can be achieved by an act of faith. You are aware of your guilt and sin.

It is by decision and commitment at this state that the self discovers its integrity and unity. Socrates said “Know thyself.” But at the ethical stage this is rendered “choose thyself.”

The Religious Stage

The aesthetic stage is characterized by hedonistic pursuits, the ethical stage by regard for duty, and the religious stage by obedience and commitment to God. The religious stage represents the culmination of the first two. In Stages on Life's Way (1845), which Kierkegaard wrote two years after Either-Or, he gave proper due to the religious stage.

Faith at this stage is the opposite of despair at the first stage. Despair is the unwillingness to be oneself; Christian despair is the “sickness unto death” (the title of his book written in 1849) for the wish to die is the result of despair.

Did Kierkegaard think that faith existed at the same time as doubt?

Kierkegaard thought that faith existed side by side with doubt in the same individual. Doubt was required, since faith without doubt is lacking in substance. To believe in God's existence without having any doubt would not be faith worth having.

At the religious stage you will to have a personal, subjective experience of God. Only this act can assure you of a relationship with God. A transformation occurs only if one progresses to the religious stage, by choosing to acknowledge one's mortality and sinfulness and the inadequacy of objective ethics to furnish a meaning for oneself and the emptiness that the first two stages lead to.

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