Kierkegaard: Three Stages of Existence | Philosophy

The three levels, degrees or realities of the human are what we can call (or at least what Kierkegaard referred to as) the: Aesthetic, Ethical and the Religious.

We as a people have trouble directing our best interests let alone knowing them at all, we are eternally strangled by the ever present reality of reality, disparities lie under many a human structure and the fresh unbridled air keeps us awake in uncertain complexion.

With that in mind, there arises a question: What is best the way to live? We are not certain of a future beyond our former selves and we even doubt of our own foundation as to what existence even is, what we do know and what do become our designations as a life form are the pathways of the aesthetic, ethical or religious, these are the three degrees which humans live for, which humans know.

The Aesthetic

If to be regarded as such, the esthete is one who embodies themselves within the arts. The creative manifestations of human language and identifies with the natural epiphenomena of our own vision, sense and perception. Regarding interest and creativity as of highest virtue all rewards by living through such a domain of existence is seen as of an engaging nature. But the life of an aesthete is not always that of gleaming serenity and enlightenment.

For Kierkegaard the despair of the aesthetic is at the very conception of its own deviation from the consciousness of despair itself. The aesthetic life acts in only temporary relief whereby such an individual will only stay hiding behind anything which neglects the realisation of the void, the aesthete in relation to the ethical is of incompatibility, instead of a dichotomy of morality, such as: Good & Bad, there is instead, a dichotomy of pleasurability, there is no care for ethics in this person. In regards to the self there is no self for this individual due to a complete lack of commitment for the self, the asthete is a pleasure chaser for their instincts, the freudian id is very comparative in this instance, while swimming in existence the reflective capacity for the self is never encountered, therefore what we fundamentally get in this level is a distant individual who does not reflect upon the self.

What allows one to eventually fall into the ethical stage or that which acts as an influencer is the use of Irony, now, this is really important because irony is when one develops a tension between two existing states of reality, for example: what is MEANT and what is HEARD or what is REALITY and what is APPEARENCE. this is what I call: realisation of detachment, whereby you can negate yourself from reality and observe truth itself, this ability to observe reality and truth then allows one overcome the aesthetic stage of not having a self: whereby you can say: hang on, wait, who am I, I don’t understand my self I don’t have a self, I lack commitment to anything.

Imagination, negation of the self and a distant hedonistic lifestyle are all the fundamental aspects to living within the aesthetic stage, causing one to be completely detached from commitment and the self as a process of development.

You fall away from the aesthetic stage when something does occur that makes someone have to view themselves as a self and not someone who is not wanting to be a self, therefore, they take on the ethical stage of being selfless, taking up duties, living for the betterment of others, having ethical codes or simply by taking up a code or law for which one follows, but obviously, when we get to this stage there is further despair which is the despair of finitude or necessity,  the despair here is that we become bound to the world of finitide and necssity, thus, to act with ethical conduct but by doing so we do not gain any assurance surround possibility or infinitude for example: life after death or even by the fact that YOU cannot be the CODE or even the SELF which you WISH TO BE, for example: in a moral sense, you cannot BE the 10 commandments, again, this theme of irony and incongruity appears which is of a perpetual nature when it comes to the self, despair and every stage of human existence, in this case, when being at the ethical stage and overcoming the aesthetic stage of hedonism and immediacy we stumble upon the despair of WANTING to be a self.

When we compare the aesthetic with the ethical there is a fundamental similarity which they both don’t regard with importance, that is: they LACK a significance to something that is BEYOND the framework of morality and empirical human experience.

The catalyst for entering into the religious stage is by realising that you are within the despair of becoming a self, the absurd reality of the ironic existence after the ethical and aesthetic stage.

The religious stage is when one consciously identifies that the only way of synthesising the self is by associating it with the transcendent and in the process linking ones own finite and infinite factors to it, thus, to enter into the religious stage one must become what kierkegaard called a: Kinght of Infinite Resignation, an example kierkegaard gives is that of falling madly in love, with this, a realisation that such an ideality can never be translated into a reality, this leads to a devotion towards the infinite or a devotion towards transcendence, this (as the knight of infinite resignation) leads to one living within the world of finitide but not having a life within it, thus, resigning within the infinite, this is comparative to socrates whereby socrates devotes his being to the quote: “one must know thyself” but, in the pursuit of truth and individual conscience he is struck down by the society in which he lives (which is representative of the finite world) because in retrospect we have to come back to finitide, an equilibrium is necessary, hence forth: “I know that I know nothing” which in this case is in relation to the problem of the self.

To compare the knight of infinite resignation with the night of faith Kierkegaard gives metaphor by using ballet, in this sense the dancer is leaping into the infinite and then coming back down into the finite but the knight of faith in this instance is the only one who can perfectly pull this off, I quote:

“He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd. He is continually making the movement of infinity, but he does it with such precision and assurance that he continually gets finitude out of it, and no one ever suspects anything else. It is supposed to be the most difficult feat for a ballet dancer to leap into a specific posture in such a way that he never once strains for the posture but in the very leap assumes the posture. Perhaps there is no ballet dancer who can do it—but this knight does it. Most people live completely absorbed in worldly joys and sorrows; they are benchwarmers who do not take part in the dance. The knights of infinity are ballet dancers and have elevation. They make the upward movement and come down again, and this, too, is not an unhappy diversion and is not unlovely to see. But every time they come down, they are unable to assume the posture immediately, they waver for a moment, and this wavering shows that they are aliens in the world. It is more or less conspicuous according to their skill, but even the most skillful of these knights cannot hide this wavering. One does not need to see them in the air; one needs only to see them the instant they touch and have touched the earth—and then one recognizes them.”

To adopt the leap of faith you have to suspend the reasoning and rational faculty within consciousness, theoretically speaking reason would say: “faith is absurd!” but for kierkegaard when faith is taken into acceptance it transforms the absurd when under the dome of spirituality because, I quote: “spiritually speaking, everything is possible” and that faith is paradoxical.

“Now let us meet the knight of faith on the occasion previously mentioned. He does exactly the same as the other knight did: he infinitely renounces the love that is the substance of his life, he is reconciled in pain. But then the marvel happens; he makes one more movement even more wonderful than all the others, for he says: Nevertheless I have faith that I will get her—that is, by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible. The absurd does not belong to the differences that lie within the proper domain of the understanding. It is not identical with the improbable, the unexpected, the unforeseen. The moment the knight executed the act of resignation, he was convinced of the impossibility, humanly speaking; that was the conclusion of the understanding, and he had sufficient energy to think it. But in the infinite sense it was possible, that is, by relinquishing it, but this having, after all, is also a giving up. Nevertheless, to the understanding this having is no absurdity, for the understanding continues to be right in maintaining that in the finite world where it dominates this having was and continues to be an impossibility. The knight of faith realizes this just as clearly; consequently, he can be saved only by the absurd, and this he grasps by faith. Consequently, he acknowledges the impossibility, and in the very same moment he believes the absurd, for if he wants to imagine that he has faith without passionately acknowledging the impossibility with his whole heart and soul, he is deceiving himself and his testimony is neither here nor there, since he has not even attained infinite resignation. Precisely because resignation is antecedent, faith is no esthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence”

WIth the knight of faith one accepts all by virtue of the absurd, unlike the knight of infinite resignation who attempts to annihilate consciousness and that of the finite through eternal worship, such an attitude doesn’t work because you cannot in reality infinitely resign yourself to the eternal. Credo quia absurdum is that of the knight of faith, meaning: I believe because IT IS ABSURD.

“the finite tastes just as good to him as to one who never knew anything higher, because his remaining in finitude would have no trace of a timorous, anxious routine, and yet he has this security that makes him delight in it as if finitude were the surest thing of all. And yet, yet the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd. He is continually making the movement of infinity, but he does it with such precision and assurance that he continually gets finitude out of it, and no one ever suspects anything else.”

A teleological suspension of the ethical is the final move in the religious stage, this is the movement which allows the acceptance of the absurd which ultimately leads to the leap of faith, what makes this possible is only by going through all the previous stages, you have to fall into and realise all these different forms of despair before you can truly understand the absurd, accept it and make the religious leap of faith, you have to work through all these stages which is why kierekegaard is not a preacher of blind faith why he doesn’t accept institutional religiosity and only sees this process as only concerning the single individual:, I quote: 

“Every call from God is addressed to one person, the single individual. Precisely in this lies the difficulty and the examination, that one who is called must stand alone, walk alone, alone with God” 

When it comes down to it the only way for Kierkegaard to synthesise the self is via a teleological suspension of the rational or ethical and by linking finitude and infinity with the transcendent all by virtue of the absurd.


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