Kierkegaard: Either/Or II

May 13, 2013

My dear friend,

In Part I we looked at the many and varied writings of A, a young man of talent and sensitivity who is, it seems to me, nevertheless lost in life. He has no direction; indeed he lives in such a way that he cannot generate any momentum, for he lives in possibility and will not choose anything decisively. He is afflicted by a self-regard that prevents him from making true and forthright contact with others. And he is unhappy.

We do not know A’s name, but we now turn to the writings of one who does. The author of the letters which comprise most of Part II, known only as B, is a family friend of A. He is an older man, of an analytical bent, and though he lacks the literary flair of A his letters demonstrate that he is a man of generous understanding and personal depth. He has himself read at least some of the contents of Part I, and he is concerned for A’s spiritual well-being. He identifies A’s whole way of living as aesthetic, and against the aesthetic he offers and defends the ethical. His purpose is to convince A to abandon his current way of life in favour of a higher. His approach is twofold: he tries to show A what is bad in the aesthetic way of life, and he tries to show A that what is good in the aesthetic way of life is also found, in a higher way, in the ethical way of life. He tries this second method first.

Part II – The Papers of B

The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage

Is marriage opposed to romance? Is dutiful love true love? B does not waste any time quarreling about minor matters. If we are to be confronted with a choice between the aesthetic and the ethical, we will do so on the highest ground: love. It is first love, romantic love that rejoices the heart of the aesthete: romance is feeling, possibility, vitality. The ethical, on the other hand, is embodied in the institution of marriage with its demands of fidelity and responsibility. Which is higher?

B’s central thesis is this: the ethical both comprehends and enriches the aesthetic. Married love is not inferior to the first blush of love, it is superior. What, after all, are the qualities and characteristics of romantic love? Lovers declare their love to be eternal, but only in marriage, “filled with an energetic and vital assurance”, is the endurance of love firmly promised and lived. Lovers will call on the moon and the stars to be witnesses of their love, but marriage is more ambitious: marriage reaches above and beyond the heavens and calls on God, the Highest, to bear witness. The love of romance is exclusive, and lovers declare that they shall never love another; marriage underwrites and supports that resolution. In each case the natural tendency of romantic love is matched or overmatched by the marriage vow.

If A’s idea of love is opposed to marriage — remember that he called marriage “unmusical” in contrast to Don Giovanni’s “inherently musical” sensuality — what should we think? B declares that A’s love is a weak, diseased thing of which he should be ashamed. What is this love, this sickly victor that is vanquished by a vow? If the love of lovers were truly triumphant then duty could not defeat it.

Once you have got hold of the despairing notion that duty is the enemy of love, then your defeat is assured and you have disparaged love and divested it of its majesty, just as you have done with duty, and yet that was the last thing you wanted…

In B’s eyes the conflict A posits between love and duty is entirely false. Marriage preserves the good qualities of first love and purges what is corrupting and inconstant. The duty to which marriage commits one is not a low thing, not degrading or petty. On the contrary, it elevates and sustains the heart’s ambitions.

Duty here is just one thing, truly to love, with the sincerity of the heart, and duty is as protean as love itself, declaring everything holy and good when it is of love, and denouncing everything, however pleasing or specious, when it is not of love.

And it is really true, C, when you stand back and consider the matter. All that B says about marriage is quite solid and incontestable. For most of us, the marriage vow is a lifting of our eyes unto the hills. It is better than we are, and we are better with it.

Moreover, the heroic task which marriage sets before the couple, to love one another from their hearts, makes them strong in the virtues, the fruit of which is happiness. Marriage, we must remember, is not only a collaboration. It is also a serious personal challenge for each person, and reaps personal as well as collective rewards.

[Married love] is faithful, constant, humble, patient, forbearing, indulgent, sincere, contented, observant, persistent, willing, joyful. All these virtues have the property of being inward specifications of the individual. The individual does not fight external enemies; it is with itself and its love that it fights it out, of its own accord. And they have a temporal qualification, for their truth consists not in applying once and for all, but all the time. And nothing else is acquired by means of these virtues, just the self. Married love is, therefore, at one and the same time…the everyday and also the divine (in the Greek sense), and it is the divine through being the everyday. Married love does not come with an external mark, not like the rich bird with a rush and a roar, it is the incorruptible being of a quiet spirit.

These, I believe, are among the most beautiful and thoughtful words I have yet heard spoken about marriage. Do they seem so to you as well, C?

Marriage enjoins, then, what true love desires; the ethical sustains and completes the aesthetic. This is the argument of B’s first letter. Let’s turn now to consider the second letter, which is the longer.

Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical in the Development of Personality

Either/Or. These words have always made a strong impression on me and they still do, especially when I mention them by themselves in this way and out of context; the most frightful conflicts can now be set in motion. Their effect on me is that of an incantation… For although there is only one situation where the phrase has absolute meaning, namely where it points on the one hand to truth, righteousness, and holiness, and on the other to desire and susceptibility, and to dim passions and perdition, it is important to choose rightly even when the choice in itself is harmless; to test oneself so as never to have to begin a retreat to the point one started out from…

This opening gesture sets the stage for what follows: an ambitious attempt to explore, from the inside, the nature of the aesthetic and ethical ways of being, and of the transition, natural and necessary for any healthy soul, from the former to the latter.

We begin from the observation that we, as temporal, personal creatures possessing a measure of freedom, are obliged to choose, to make decisions that shape our lives. We are beings for whom choice is unavoidable if we are to retain the dignity of our nature. This obligation falls to us because if we fail to make such choices, they are made for us and we lose ourselves as a result. The crucial moment arises, and if we hesitate or refrain from decision it no longer lies in our power to direct our own path. Our dignity as free persons is damaged.

Entry into the ethical occurs precisely when this obligation is acknowledged and accepted. To live with the self-understanding that one is a responsible agent is to live the ethical. Paradoxically, perhaps, we must choose the ethical. This choice is not, in the mind of the chooser at any rate, a choice between the good of the ethical on the one hand and the evil of the aesthetic on the other. Rather it is the choice between good and evil on the one hand, and their exclusion on the other; it is the choice to live in contact with and in obedience to the realities of good and evil, something which is foreign to the aesthetic way of life (as we saw in the essay on Don Giovanni in Part I, for instance). “The aesthetic is not evil but indifference.”

You might wonder how entry into the ethical can be motivated as a good if the choice in favour of the ethical is prior to acknowledgement of the categories of good and evil. Can we, on these terms, even maintain that the ethical is better than the aesthetic? Objectively, of course, we can, but subjectively, in the mind of the chooser, we cannot. Or so it seems to me. But this is not the last word, for B argues that an aesthete will nevertheless be naturally led to confront the decision. He will experience the tension between the aesthetic and the ethical, not morally, but in the only way open to him: aesthetically. This is so because even the aesthete cannot destroy his nature as a soul endowed with genuine freedom:

There comes a moment in a man’s life when immediacy is as though ripened and when the spirit demands a higher form in which it will apprehend itself as spirit. …If this does not happen and the movement halts and is pressed back, melancholy sets in… If you ask a melancholic what reason he has for his condition, what it is that weighs down on him, he will reply, “I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it.” Therein lies melancholy’s infinitude. The reply is perfectly correct, for as soon as he knows what it is, the effect is removed, whereas the grief of the griever is by no means removed by his knowing why he grieves. But melancholy is sin, really it is a sin as great as any, for it is the sin of not willing deeply and sincerely, and this is the mother to all sins.

Thus melancholy is the spur; it is the self-devouring state in which no one can rest peacefully. When the obligations of choice are evaded, melancholy sets in, and the only escape is to graduate to the ethical life.

The ethical is therefore the telos of every free, rational person. What are the primary inner qualities of this way of life? It is, first, a life in which the categories of good and evil are honoured, as we have said. It is also fundamentally a life of development:

The aesthetic factor in a person is that by which he is immediately what he is; the ethical factor is that by which he becomes what he becomes.

The ethical is conditioned by choice; it is a life of change, of growth, of becoming. In this choosing the soul manifests its personal nature, for the choices are formed by and in turn form the personality of the chooser. In choosing, one chooses oneself, not in a selfish way, but in a concrete way. One gives oneself shape. The responsibility to choose well is thus a solemn one, and the heart may quiver in the face of it. Who has not experienced that solemnity, that holy dread, when one stands perched on the edge of a life-changing choice, when one confronts one’s freedom directly and cannot deny it, when all the threads of life must be gathered up for the decisive, monumental step? Are you not aware in that moment that you are engaged in spiritual labour, and that you will not be on the far side as you are on the near? B captures that sense of being poised on a precipice vividly:

What a person gives birth to in a spiritual sense is a creative urge of the will, and that is in man’s own power. What then is it you are afraid of? You are not going to give birth to another human being, you will only give birth to yourself. And yet, as I know well, there is a gravity in this which perturbs the whole soul; to be conscious of oneself in one’s eternal validity is a moment more significant than everything in the world. It is as though you were caught and trapped and now could never again escape, either in time or eternity; it is as though you lost yourself, as though you ceased to be; it is as though the next moment you would rue it and yet it cannot be undone. It is a grave and significant moment when one binds oneself for an eternity to an eternal power, when one receives oneself as the one whose memory no time shall efface, when in an eternal and unfailing sense one becomes aware of oneself as the person one is. And yet, one can still let it be! Look: here, then, is an either/or.

The remedy, then, prescribed for A’s melancholy is that he must undertake to live this drama in his own life. He must choose to live his own life in all of its concrete specificity. He must take responsibility for himself, choosing from the inside, not the outside. The task is “to clothe oneself with oneself”. And the first fruit of this entry into the ethical, says B, is repentance. “Choosing oneself is identical with repenting oneself.” In choosing you receive yourself, and part of this reception is a reception of one’s history, constituted by acts which may be judged as good or evil. This is the first step.

What follows is a portrait of the ethical life, highlighted from a variety of angles. One living ethically, for instance, retains and cultivates a memory of his life; the aesthete, by contrast, who thirsts for novel experiences, benefits by forgetting. To choose oneself ethically means not to choose abstractedly or in isolation, but to live soberly, honestly, with both feet on the ground, with acceptance of one’s situation, limitations, and human relationships.

This emphasis on rejecting artificiality leads B into a long digression against monastic vocations, which he considers fundamentally unreal, primarily on the grounds that the solitary life is an offence against God-given human relationships. B holds that every man has a duty to marry. Those who choose to live an uncommon vocation reject this duty, they “repent themselves out of themselves, rather than into themselves”. This is all pretty tendentious, I’m sure you will agree, but it is interesting to recall that Kierkegaard himself never married, and in fact wrote this book in the wake of his broken engagement. I am not sure how many layers of the authorial onion I can licitly peel back, but I am tempted to read this passage as a record of Kierkegaard’s internal battle with himself over his vocation. Step lightly, I know…

Because of his orientation toward becoming, the ethical person is not paralyzed by possibility. This, recall, was the curse of the aesthete: that he needed to float on a sea of possibilities if he was to conquer boredom. In the ethical one sees tasks — tasks of inward growth and development — instead of possibilities, and this awareness of tasks keeps an ethical person from being overwhelmed by circumstances or externals.

The person who lives aesthetically expects everything from outside, hence the sickly anxiety with which many speak of the dreadful circumstance of not having found one’s place in the world. Who would deny the satisfaction of being fortunate in this respect? But such an anxiety is always an indication that the individual expects everything from the place and nothing from himself. The person who lives ethically will try to choose his place rightly, but if he notices that he has chosen wrongly, or that obstacles arise over which he has no control, he does not lose courage for he never surrenders his sovereignty over himself. He at once sees his task and is therefore instantly active.

Finally the letter turns to a critique of certain aspects of A’s way of life. Remember that in Part I A had claimed that duty, because it was principled, constraining, and “unmusical”, was fundamentally opposed to love, which was spontaneous and full of possibility. B believes that love and duty are fundamentally harmonious, and identifies A’s central error as his supposing that “the individual is placed in an external relation to duty”. A sees duty as something imposed on him and on love from the outside. But this, says B, is false, and for the reasons stated in B’s first letter: the natural tendency of love is only augmented, sustained, and encouraged by the responsibilities of marriage. The duty of love respects the nature of love, and in fact makes it healthier than it would otherwise be. At bottom, one who honours the duty of love has seen that the aesthete’s view of love is low and insulting:

He has perceived that it was an insult and therefore ungracious to want to love with one part of the soul but not with all of it, to treat one’s own love as one element and yet take the whole of another’s love, to want to be something of a riddle and a secret. He has perceived that it would be unseemly if he had a hundred arms so that he could simultaneously embrace many; he has but one embrace and wants to embrace only one. He has perceived that it was an insult to want to attach himself to another person in the way one attaches oneself to finite and accidental things, conditionally, so that if difficulties later arose one could make a change.

The aesthete is unable to experience beauty in all of its richness. This is ironic, of course, for beauty is the principal object of the aesthete’s desire, and one would expect him to excel in its appreciation. Not so. The aesthete approaches life with a view to feeding on the beauty, using the beauty to please himself, and when the beauty passes or is no longer new, it dies for him. But the ethical person does not need beauty. As such, he can appreciate it with a calm mind wherever he finds it, accepting it for what it is, not needing to constantly refer it to his own needs:

If occasionally I have an hour free I stand at my window and look at people, and I have a regard for the beauty of each one. However insignificant and humble he may be I see him with a view to his beauty… The beauty I see is joyful and triumphant, and stronger than all the world. And this beauty I see everywhere, even where your eye sees nothing.

That is quite beautiful.

In friendship, too, the aesthete fails. We saw that A expressly forbade the cultivation of genuine friendships on the grounds that they result in obligations, which in turn hobble the capacity for “crop rotation”. Therefore the aesthete hides from friendship. The ethical person, on the other hand, has committed himself to becoming a specific, concrete person. He has no need to hide himself from others, and embraces friendship. This coming-to-be-known by others is an intrinsic part of the ethical life, and is in fact a duty of life:

‘It is every man’s duty to become revealed.’ The Scriptures teach that ‘it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement’ when everything shall be revealed. Ethics says it is the meaning of life and reality that man be revealed. So if he is not, the revelation will take the form of punishment.

Praising the strengths of the ethical life, B concludes:

[The ethical] affords to life peace, assurance and security, for it is constantly crying out to us: quod petis, hic est [What you are seeking is here.]. It saves one from all infatuations that would exhaust the soul and it brings to it health and strength. It teaches us not to overvalue the fortuitous or to idolize good fortune. It teaches one to be happy in good fortune… It teaches one to be happy in misfortune.

Thus his long essay on the virtues of the ethical life draws to a close. Believe it or not, I have excluded some noteworthy material! I have not mentioned, for instance, B’s passionate and thoroughly politically incorrect attack on feminism, which makes for bracing reading and it not without merit. But all good things must come to an end, my friend, and this letter is no exception.

But we are not quite at the end after all.

The Edifying In The Thought That Against God We Are Always In The Wrong

No, we are not quite at the end, for Kierkegaard, or Eremita, or B, has seen fit to round off the book with an enigmatic essay on a religious theme. B claims in his notes that the sermon — it is really a sermon — was written by a friend of his, and he notes that he thought it especially fitting that A read it. The style here is that of Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, and I think we must interpret it as a last-minute intervention from the religious sphere — Kierkegaard’s highest, but thus far silent, sphere of life.

The enigma of the piece is not so much in its content, but in its relation to the rest of the book. The sermon argues that when we love, we would rather accuse ourselves of wrongdoing than accuse our beloved, and that this same dynamic applies to our love of God. It is edifying, therefore, to think that when we are against God we are always in the wrong. What has this to do with the foregoing? I am remembering that entry into the ethical bears the fruit of repentance, and I see that if we are edified at the thought that “we are always in the wrong” then we must acknowledge the categories of right and wrong, which was a condition of the ethical. In this sense, the sermon asserts that it is edifying to live in the ethical — at least. But it seems a roundabout way of making the point, less forceful than what preceded it, and I suspect that I am missing something. Can you do better?


What shall I say in closing? This is a large, ambitious work that resists neat summary. It is a beautiful work, a masterpiece.

How should we receive it? It has to be kept in mind that this book is the opening move in Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. Reading your notes on his later, retrospective Point of View I am reminded of his tactic: to disguise himself, suppressing his true purpose, in order to lead his readers out from the wilderness in which they wander. It is a strategy that risks misunderstanding and failure, as Kierkegaard knew, for later in life he said, “I held out Either/Or to the world in my left hand… but all, or as good as all, grasped with their right what I held in my left.” We must not make the same mistake.

Clearly the book is an exploration of these two ways of being in the world: the aesthetic and the ethical. It is not a book from which one can extract a pithy lesson or an abstraction. As a faithful reader of Kierkegaard I will instead let the author speak to me, man to man, and where he speaks words that reveal or convict I must not dissemble within myself, for he condemns only in order to reform, and stings only to mend. If I have recognized myself in aspects of his portrait of the aesthete then that insight may not be simply dismissed. If it is a truth that touches me, then it edifies. Let it become a matter for reflection and prayer.

Perhaps my voice is not strong and warm enough to penetrate to your inmost thought; ah! but ask yourself, ask yourself with the solemn uncertainty with which you would address a person you knew was capable of deciding your life’s happiness with a single word, ask yourself even more seriously, for in truth it is a question of salvation. Stay not the flight of your soul, do not sadden what is your better part, do not enervate your soul with half wishes and half thoughts. Ask yourself, and keep on asking until you find the answer, for one can recognize a thing many times and acknowledge it, one can want a thing many times and attempt it, yet only the deep inner movement, only the indescribable motions of the heart, only these convince you that what you have recognized ‘belongs to you’, that no power can take it from you; for only the truth that edifies is the truth for you.

My friend, until now my reading of Kierkegaard has focused on his later works, so it was a pleasure to turn to his early writings. For the opportunity your request gave me, I thank you. I have been reminded once again why I admire Kierkegaard as I do, for here I have met the same passionate voice, penetrating insight, and, in an uncanny way, personal contact that I have valued before. If reading this overview has failed to convey that experience to you, it is entirely the fault of

Your friend.

3 Responses to “Kierkegaard: Either/Or II”

  1. Janet Says:

    Craig, I haven’t had much time to say anything here lately, but when it comes to this sort of thing, you are the best.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Janet.

  3. […] Kierkegaard: Either/Or II ( […]

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