Either/Or: The Aesthetic and the Ethical – Kierkegaard

In his first published book Either/Or, Kierkegaard portrays two life views: the aesthetic and the ethical.

Kierkegaard wants you to think about them as individual existences. In other words, at any given time, you’re always going to be in one of these existences, an individual is either aesthetic or ethical, even though they might overlap.

1. Aesthetic

The aesthetic is the first stage on life’s way. It is the Greek word for beauty, however it encompasses the realm of sensory experience and pleasures, such as music, seduction, and drama.

To live the aesthetic life to the fullest one must seek to maximise those pleasures. It is one way to fight boredom. Anticipation of an event often exceeds the pleasure of the event itself. However, it is presented as an immature stage, an aesthete’s pleasure is brief, and one can never do something for the good of someone else. Eventually, one must begin seeking ethical pleasures.

2. Ethical

The second stage is the ethical. We know that doing things for others without personal motives can actually be enjoyable. Ethics are the social rules that govern how a person ought to act.

It is what psychoanalyst Freud calls the superego, the internalised ideals that we have acquired from institutions and society.

La vida sexual y sentimental de Freud
Sigmund Freud

It is based on a coherent set of rules established for the good of society. As Kant would say, “live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” However, the ethical still lacks a self-exploration, since one is to follow a set of socially accepted rules.

Immanuel Kant - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Immanuel Kant

Therefore, one can choose either to remain oblivious to all that goes on in the world, or to become involved with the world.

Kierkegaard did not try to convince the reader about picking one of them, but rather show that philosophy is about the human experience. Sometimes philosophy can get too abstract and lose its practicality. Kierkegaard brings philosophy down to the human level, and that’s where we’ve got to search for meaning.

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Greatest Philosophers In History | Soren Kierkegaard

His concept of anxiety or angst is one of the most profound pre-Freudian works of psychology. His most popular work includes the leap of faith, the concept of angst, the three stages on life (aesthetic, ethical, religious) and the absurd, among others.

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4 thoughts on “Either/Or: The Aesthetic and the Ethical – Kierkegaard

  1. You keep turning me on to more and more writers that I’ve barely touched on historically. Now, it’ll have to be Kirkegaard. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to read everything I want to. Thanks for the direction. Now, if I can only find the time. 😉

    1. You’re very welcome! Thanks for the great compliment. Kierkegaard is one of my favs 🙂

      His work is quite dense and can get a bit confusing at times (Either/Or is around 800 pages!), but as you read it gets more elucidating.

      Fear and Trembling is a great introduction to Kierkegaard. It is also quite short at around 200 pages. I’d also recommend The Sickness Unto Death, which is also around 250 pages. A life changing book about the despair of not being one’s true self.

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