Kierkegaard conceives of life to proceed in three stages. These are aesthetic, ethical and religious stages. His analysis and discussion of these stages is developmental in the sense that an individual must pass through every stage. The first stage, which is the aesthetic stage, is characterized by eudaemonic pursuit. It is during this stage that man’s actions are focused on bringing self pleasure and happiness (Kierkegaard, 1945). In other words, his actions become fundamentally driven by the quest for pleasure and happiness. Within this stage, there are various other sub-stages which he also has to go through. At the lowest level within this stage is the least sophisticated individual. This is the kid of person who exists mainly to mainly to satisfy his physical senses. This may adopt the form of self-indulgence and an eat, drink and be merry philosophy.
Still within the aesthetic stage but higher up is the “busy man of affairs”. As mush as the main activity of this man is still focused on satisfying his worldly and selfish pleasure, this pleasure becomes that of success in the world. Being involved in the worldly activities that lead to self success, regardless of how one conceives of it, is still motivated by pleasure of that success for self gain. The highest level of aesthetic stage is more aristocratic. It is that of the cultivated sophisticate. This stage is characterized by the appreciation of culture which may be more refined than in the lower level but it is still being motivated by pleasure and pleasure seeking.
The aesthetic stage, basically characterized by eudaemonic pursuit as the basic motivation for ones actions and purpose, eventually results in satiety and boredom. The pleasure that an individual seeks ceases to satisfy. The result is that the individual attempts to find a solution. If he chooses to remain an aesthete, the solution becomes rotational. The aesthete continuously rotates the roles, places and people in his life. By evading commitment to any specific thing, person or role in life and remaining external of life a spectator of life, the aesthete can continually seek new and different experiences of the generalized abstraction of the chosen pleasure. Once he gets bored, he discards them, moving on to new ones. In this way, the aesthete avoids extreme pleasures or pains associated with close intimacy and commitments. As such, he must constantly distract himself with a variety of experiences, persons or vocations. Even this solution disintegrates into a cynical apathy leading to the aesthete to conclude that every action leads to regret.
Up till this point, the aesthete has been merely role playing which does not reveal his true inner self. Actually, at this point, the aesthete has no true inner self to reveal-the multiple roles are pleasurable distractions for his personal narcissistic satisfaction (Norton, 1977). In reality, however, his inner self is splintered and fragmented. The aesthete inadequately defines himself by a multiplicity o socially defined roles rather than being free of the dictates of the society as he assumes he is. All these are inconsistent and complicated in a single individual. If he is to leave the aesthetic stage and proceed to the next, the aesthete must do this blindly. No knowing what new self will emerge, he loses his own self. The aesthete is morally neutral up to this stage in the sense that his choices are not within the realm of ethics. As he leaps to the next stage, he chooses to enter the realm of ethics where every choice will be a moral choice.
This stage is a consequence of the distracted aesthete, tired of rotation. It is within this stage that he makes a commitment to a specific singular role in relationship with other individuals and life. According to Kierkegaard, any commitment will suffice as long as it is a commitment to self and commitment to other human beings. A genuine and non-fragmented identity, role and position in life are possessed by the ethical person. This is given definition by his commitment to self and others. Instead of directing his actions toward the pursuit of pleasure, one’s actions become motivated by his commitment to others (Silverman, 1991). The individual in the ethical stage regards the needs of others and community when making any decision. It is during this stage that every decision made becomes an ethical one. The ethics and the consequences of the situation on others and the world infiltrates into every decision being made.
The spiritual journey of an individual does not end with the ethical stage. According to Kierkegaard, commitment to a course, others, mission or purpose, and role, whatever one has chosen it to be, must finally pave way to the ultimate commitment which is to God. This leap of faith into the religious sphere is more difficult than the leap from aesthetic to ethical realm. There is much sacrifice required before an aesthete abandons a lousy self and spiritually unsatisfying life for a better one. In this regard, a good and rewarding life is sacrificed.
Kierkegaard holds that a commitment to god may contradict with living an ethical life in this world. He also holds that at times, following God may get in the way of our commitment to others and society. This is what he refers to as teleological suspension of the ethical and holds that a faith in God is logically ludicrous. His argument for the absurd is that if we are not willing to sacrifice everything in this life, which includes commitment to others and ethics, then these things still remain commitment to God. In order to illustrate this point, he uses the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham would not have sacrificed any greater thing in the world yet he was asked to sacrifice his son which he willingly acts towards obeying. He passed the test of faith with his commitment being to God. Within the religious sphere, his actions were right while within the ethical realm, they were absurd.
Abraham is the knight of infinite resignation owing to his willingness to lose everything he dearly regards for God. He was so much willing to renounce his position as a moral agent, himself and the world. Yet, he is the night of faith since he never gave up hope in God. In day to day living, those in the realm of religion usually act like any other individual. In most cases, they are not in the progeny of sacrificing progeny at the command of God. However, the same willingness exists. If at all they were in Abraham’s position, they would have acted the same.
Kierkegaard’s idea is that every individual has the choice between two contrasting ways of life. An individual who opts for the aesthetic line is choosing a life of being concerned with pleasure and beauty for self satisfaction. The ethical line on the other hand comprises the realm of duty, universal rules, unconditional demands and tasks. He also believed that an individual’s relation to God was paramount, preceding over all other considerations.
Kierkegaard, S. (1945). Stages on life’s way. Princeton university press
Norton, D. (1977). Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. Princeton University Press
Silverman, H. (1991). Writing the politics of difference. State University of New York Press