Kierkegaard: Stages on Life’s Way

September 29, 2010

Stages on Life’s Way (1845)
Søren Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1988)
798 p. First reading.

Stages on Life’s Way followed two years after the publication of Either/Or, and it is something of a sequel, reiterating, developing, and extending the first book’s argument. Either/Or had explored Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” and “ethical” spheres of life, touching only briefly at the end on the “religious” sphere. In Stages on Life’s Way the focus shifts: all three spheres are again represented, but the greater part of the work is devoted to consideration of the religious sphere.

Ultimately Kierkegaard is an advocate for the superiority of the religious sphere, but, knowing this, we must be cautious in our interpretation of this book. Stages on Life’s Way belongs to Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. Once again he speaks to the reader through layers of pseudonyms, an indication that he is labouring under a teleological suspension of the ethical, including the ethical obligation to speak the truth. Though the book dwells on the religious sphere, it would be an error to suppose that we should take the pseudonymous authors at their word. With a little help from D. Anthony Storm (and a little help was needed, for this is a ferociously difficult book), I believe that we are to understand the book — and the sections pertaining to the religious sphere in particular — as portraying the religious as it seems to an aesthete. Like all of Kierkegaard’s indirect communication, the point is to illuminate error by illustration.

In these notes, I intend to give little more than an overview of the book’s main sections, of which there are four. Let me begin with a summary of the pseudonymous authors responsible for each. The book as a whole has been edited and published by Hilarius Bookbinder, who reports that the manuscripts here collected were discovered in his bookbinding shop, their origins unknown. Hilarius confesses that he himself understands little of their contents, but has undertaken to publish them on the recommendation of his son’s tutor. A likely story. The first section, “In Vino Veritas”, is written by one William Afham; the second, “Reflections on Marriage”, by Judge William, who was also the author of a large part of Either/Or. The last two sections are both the work of Frater Taciturnus; in the first he himself adopts the voice of a fictional character, and in the second he speaks without disguise.

“In Vino Veritas”, the opening section of the book, is evidently modeled self-consciously on Plato’s Symposium: it describes a gathering of men at which each delivers a speech about erotic love. The list of attendees is illuminating, and also somewhat amusing, for those who have read a little in Kierkegaard’s works: Johannes the Seducer, who wrote “The Seducer’s Diary” in Either/Or, is there, as is Victor Eremita, the erstwhile editor of that earlier volume.  Constantin Constantius, the author of Repetition, is also present. A Young Man — perhaps the same as wrote portions of Either/Or? — and an unnamed Fashion Designer round out the group, not forgetting, of course, the narrator William Afham.

The Young Man speaks first, and he argues that erotic love is irrational and comical — comical, that is, to everyone who observes the lovers. So disgraceful is the spectacle that the Young Man vows never to fall in love himself. Constantin speaks next and contends that erotic love is overrated and not worth the fuss; women, he admits, are attractive when viewed aesthetically, but when viewed ethically they become “a jest”, and it is not fitting that a serious-minded man be subject to eros. Eremita disagrees that women are incidental to the good life; on the contrary, they inspire in men a desire for gallantry, or even for transcendence, they awaken “ideality” in the soul. Yet they are only stepping stones, means but not ends in themselves. Both marriage and seduction, he argues, take women and eros too seriously. The Fashion Designer speaks fourth, arguing that women are themselves essentially aesthetic; they think only under the categories of fashion. One suspects that the claim is in fact an unwitting self-revelation. Finally Johannes speaks; he is dismissive of all that came before. Against Eremita he argues that women are not merely means to an end, but possess their own native telos: to be seduced by men. As an advocate and an experienced practitioner of seduction, Johannes is bound to defend the value of eros, but it is plain enough that he can perceive women only through the lens of his own desires. Each of these viewpoints is defective — there is little wisdom to be gleaned from this symposium — and the trouble, in most cases, is that the speakers can see only the aesthetic elements of eros. They, for the most part, do not see the ethical challenge that erotic love generates, nor, just as importantly, are they willing to engage it.

The nature of that ethical challenge is articulated and developed by Judge William in the second part of the book. His section, “Reflections on Marriage in Answer to Objections”, is a long essay in praise of marriage, which he considers to be the quintissential form of the ethical life, and the principal means by which one comes to personal maturity. The bridge, says the Judge, from the aesthetic to the ethical sphere is resolution. Against Eremita’s thesis in the previous section, the Judge argues that a life lived in relation to ideals, to “ideality”, is not achieved through an aesthetic experience but solely through resolution, and resolution manifests the ethical. It is marriage, with its vows and unswerving commitment, that is the principal expression of resolution in human life, and therefore the principal form under which the ethical life is engaged.

As he did in Either/Or, the Judge argues that the relationship between eros and marriage is that the latter is the fulfillment of the promise of the former:

The husband is the young lover, totally so. His love is unchanged, except that it has something the youth does not have, the holy beauty of the resolution. Is he not just as rich and happy as the young man? Is my wealth less because I possess it in the only adequately secure way; is my claim upon life less because I have it on stamped paper; is my happiness less because God in heaven guarantees it, and not in jest, as Eros would do it, but in earnestness and truth, as truly as the resolution holds him fast!

Eros in itself cannot consitute a marriage, but likewise a marriage without eros falls short of the requirement. Yet it is true that marriage includes various elements, such as duty, that can, especially to one who lives aesthetically, seem foreign and even contrary to eros. Falling in love is immediacy, but marriage partakes of reflection and commitment, which are not immediate but abstract. Somehow marriage must do honour both to the god of eros and to the God who is spirit and before Whom one utters one’s vows. This subsuming of eros into marriage is accomplished through resolution: “Love is the gift of the god, but in the resolution of marriage the lovers make themselves worthy of receiving it.”

The Judge then develops a general account of the characteristics of the kind of resolution that is most powerfully conducive to an individual’s personal growth and maturity, and he then argues that marriage has precisely the required characteristics. This good resolution, he says, must not respect probabilities, for one who looks to probabiltiies is hedging bets, and is unable to make a true resolution. Likewise, resolution cannot look to potential outcomes, as though resolve could be revoked because of an unfavourable outcome. No, one cannot know for certain the consequences, but still one must make the resolution. The ideal resolution is also “just as sympathetic as it is autopathetic”, which is perhaps an odd quality to insist upon in a resolution but is incontestably a requirement for marriage. Resolution should be “just as concrete as it is abstract”, for it should have real and immediate consequences, but remain in relation to an ideal; marriage is both unavoidably concrete and unavoidably abstract. Finally, the good resolution must be “just as dialectical with regard to freedom as it is to the divine dispensation”; I do not know what this means.

The remainder of the book is an examination of the religious sphere. It begins with an “imaginary psychological construction” in the form of a young man’s diary. The young man, a fictional creation of Frater Taciturnus, is in love with, and engaged to, a young woman, but he breaks off the engagement in order to devote himself completely to the religious life — the Kierkegaardian religious life, of course, not the Catholic one. (I am tempted to read into this scenario autobiographical elements, for Kierkegaard himself broke off an engagement in just this sort of way, but I will resist.) Dwelling as it does on the decision between marriage and something else — something higher — it is reasonable, I would think, to see the diary as an exploration of the relationship of the ethical (represented, preeminently, by marriage) and the religious.

Unfortunately Taciturnus has given us an extremely difficult text, and I am not at all sure that I am on the right track with this interpretation. D. Anthony Storm, in his commentary on Stages, suggests that the situation is complicated by the fact that the young man is himself living in the aesthetic, and is therefore unable to really understand either the ethical or the religious. In any case, the diary is hard to understand. Frankly, I have no idea how it bears on the religious, nor even what Kierkegaard means by the religious sphere.

Whether to console or discourage, the fourth and final section of the book, a “Letter to the Reader”, also by Frater Taciturnus, begins by remarking that the preceding section was so difficult that “two-thirds of the book’s readers will quit before they are halfway through”. He then goes on to offer an interpretation of the diary, but his interpretation kicked me while I was down: I did not understand what it was all about, nor why. I understood so little of it that I cannot even summarize it, much less evaluate it. So I failed. I am one of those readers who failed to get to the end, in any meaningful sense.

On that self-mortifying note, I will simply say that Stages is, in my judgement, justly less famous than Either/Or. Granted that I failed to grasp much of what was going on, it seems to me to lack the cunning insight, psychological richness, and simple charm of its predecessor. This is a pity, since the transfer of focus onto the religious sphere would ideally have called forth an even greater, richer performance on Kierkegaard’s part. Perhaps it did, and I am just too much a dullard to see it. This is a real possibility. As it is, it is principally the Judge’s discourse on marriage that I admire. For your edification and mine, I close with two excerpts from the Judge’s essay:

[Freedom and choice]
If that phrase “to choose” is used to mean wanting to set someone up as the beloved, instead of wanting to accept the beloved, then a deluded reflection promptly has something to hold to. The young man then dissolves love into loving the lovable — after all, he must choose. Poor fellow, that is an impossibility; and not only that, who would still dare to choose if it is supposed to be understood in this way; who would dare to be so doting on his own manliness that he would not grasp that he who proposes must first be proposed to by the god himself, and any other proposing is a foolish having it all one’s own way. I decline to choose in this way; instead I thank the god for the gift — he chooses better — and to thank is more blessed.

[Probability and resolution]
There is a phantom that frequently prowls around when the making of a resolution is at stake — it is probability — a spineless fellow, a dabbler, a Jewish peddler, with whom no freeborn soul becomes involved, a good for nothing fellow who ought to be jailed instead of quacks, male and female, since he tricks people out of what is more than money and more valuable than money. Anyone who with regard to resolution comes no further, never comes any further than to decide on the basis of probability, is lost for ideality, whatever he may become. If a person does not encounter God in the resolution, if he has never made a resolution in which he had a transaction with God, he might just as well have never lived. But God always does business en gros, and probability is a security that is not registered in heaven.

Related reading:

4 Responses to “Kierkegaard: Stages on Life’s Way”

  1. Rufus McCain Says:

    Nicely done! I agree with you on the difficulty of Quidam’s Diary. Walker Percy somewhere said he preferred SK’s treatment of the three spheres in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript — and I agree with him on that. Although parts of Quidam’s Diary did indeed deeply resonate with me.

    Btw, were you aware that Korrektiv did an ongoing treatment of Stages a few years ago? (

  2. cburrell Says:

    Egad! I did not know that Korrektiv had such a thorough treatment of the book. I am definitely going to look through that. I need all the help I can get.

    Concluding Unscientific Postscript is up next, I think, in my Kierkegaardian queue, though there’s no telling when I’ll actually get to it.

  3. philosphy Says:

    philosophy is harder than talking to a hispanic downs syndrome person

  4. cburrell Says:

    Possibly true, but I confess I haven’t tried the latter.

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