Philosophy Weekend: Kierkegaard’s Either-Or

The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.

The documents present a literal “either/or” representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man’s uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a “diary of a seducer”, a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the “Aesthetic Man”, and the second figure as the representative “Ethical Man”. In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the “Existential Man”, and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard’s own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.

I gathered some quotes from this book last week for my blog post celebrating Soren Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday, but they quickly bloomed into a blog post of their own. It’s not fully clear how to weigh the words of the fictional authors speaking below: both are clearly pretentious and deluded, and too smugly satisfied by their intellectual conclusions. The irony of Kierkegaard’s juxtaposition of the two opposing voices provides a thick layer of indirection that cannot be ignored. Still, these texts spoke clearly enough to the European intellectuals of Kierkegaard’s time to gain wide readership. Here, to begin, are three quotes from “the Aesthetic Man”, the “Either” of our “Either-Or”:

In ancient tragedy, sorrow is more profound, pain less; in modern tragedy, pain is greater, sorrow less. Sorrow always has in it something more substantial than pain. Pain always indicates a reflection upon the suffering that sorrow does not know.

Psychologically, it is very interesting to observe a child when he sees an adult suffer. The child is not sufficiently reflective to feel pain, and yet his sorrow is infinitely deep. He is not sufficiently reflective to have an idea of sin and guilt; when he sees an adult suffer, it does not cross his mind to think about that, and yet if the reason for the suffering is hidden from him, there is a dark presentiment of the reason in the child’s sorrow.

So it is also, but in complete and deep harmony, with the sorrow of the Greeks, and that is why it is simultaneously so gentle and so deep. On the other hand, when an adult sees a young person, a child, suffer, the pain is greater, the sorrow less. The more pronounced the idea of guilt, the greater the pain, the less profound the sorrow … It is appropriate at this point to show, as with tragic guilt, which sorrow is true aesthetic sorrow and which is true aesthetic pain. The most bitter pain is obviously repentance, but repentance has ethical, not aesthetic, reality.

Again, from the same presumed author:

As is well known, there is said to be a grave somewhere in England that is distinguished not by a magnificent monument or a mournful setting but by a short inscription: “The Unhappiest One.” It is said that the grave was opened, but no trace of a corpse was found.

Which is the more amazing — that no corpse was found or that the grave was opened? It is indeed strange that someone took the time to see whether anyone was in it. When one reads a name in an epitaph, one is easily tempted to wonder how he passed his life on earth; one might wish to climb down into the grave for a conversation with him. But this inscription — it is so freighted with meaning! A book can have a title that prompts a desire to read the book, but a title in itself can be so thought-laden, so personally appealing, that one will never read the book. This inscription is in truth very freighted with meaning — shocking or gratifying according to one’s mood — for anyone who perhaps secretly in his heart pledged his troth to the thought that he was the most unhappy one. But I can imagine a person whose soul has never been preoccupied in that way and for whose curiosity there was the task of finding out whether anyone was in that grave.

And look, the grave was empty!

Here he is one more time, expounding upon the topic of boredom:

How ruinous boredom is can be seen by watching children. As long as children are having a good time, their behavior is always good. This can be said in the strictest sense, for if they at times become unmanageable even while playing, it is really because they are beginning to be bored; boredom is already coming on, but in a different way.

Therefore, when selecting a nursemaid, one always considers essentially not only that she is sober, trustworthy, and good-natured but also takes into esthetic consideration whether she knows how to entertain children. Even if she had all other excellent virtues, one would not hesitate to give her the sack if she lacked this qualification. Here, indeed, the principle is clearly acknowledged, but things go on so curiously in the world, habit and boredom have gained the upper hand to such a degree, that justice is done to aesthetics only in the conduct of the nursemaid. It would be quite impossible to prevail if one wanted to demand a divorce because one’s wife is boring, or demand that a king be dethroned because he is boring to behold, or that a clergyman be exiled because he is boring to listen to, or that a cabinet minister be dismissed or a journalist be executed because he is frightfully boring.

Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse …

What is being done in our day? Is consideration being given to any means of amusement? On the contrary, our doom is being expedited. There is the idea of convening a consultative assembly. Can anything more boring be imagined, both for the honorable delegates as well as for one who will read and hear about them? The country’s financial situation is to be improved by economizing. Can anything more boring be imagined?

Idleness, we are accustomed to say, is the root of all evil. To prevent this evil, work is recommended. But it is just as easy to see from the dreaded occasion as from the recommended remedy that this whole view is of very plebian extraction. Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is truly a divine life, if one is not bored.

To be sure, idleness may be the occasion of losing one’s property etc., but the noble nature does not fear such things but does indeed fear being bored. The Olympian gods were not bored; happy they lived in happy idleness. A female beauty who neither sews nor spins nor irons nor reads nor plays an instrument is happy in idleness, for she is not bored. Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good.

Now, we move on letters from this confused young man’s uncle, a happily married judge, who wishes to set his intellectual nephew straight:

You must admit that, particularly among more common folk, one finds marriages entered into for the purpose of acquiring a home which have a rather pleasing effect. These are for men of younger years. Not having been especially buffeted by life, they have accumulated the necessary income and now think of getting married. That is agreeable. I also know it would never occur to you to direct your scorn on marriages like these. A certain noble simplicity lends them a touch of both the aesthetic and the religious. For these is nothing egoistic in the thought of wanting a home; on the contrary, the notion they attach is that of duty, of vocation, which is laid upon them, but at the same time a duty that is dear to them.

The judge tries to calm his nephew’s nervousness energy:

What more I wish to say to you involves a particular expression I think can justifiably be applied to you, and one you often use: that you are a “stranger and an alien” to the world. Young people who have no idea of the cost of experience — and no idea of its unutterable wealth either — could easily let themselves be carried away in the same swirl. Your talk may perhaps affect them like a fresh breeze which lures them out onto that infinite ocean you show them; even you yourself can be youthfully intoxicated, almost out of control at the thought of this infinity, which is your element, an element which, like the ocean, changeless, hides everything on its deep floor.

Finally, the mature judge quotes a preacher who has inspired him, in the final section of the text known as “Either-Or”:

It is painful to be in the wrong, and the more painful the more often one is so, and it is edifying to be in the wrong and the more edifying the more one is so! This is, indeed, a contradiction. How can it be explained but by the fact that in the one case you are forced to recognize what you want to recognize in the other? But if the recognitions are nevertheless not the same, how can one’s wanting or not wanting help? How can this be explained but by the fact that in the one case you loved and in the other you did not — in other words, that in one case you found yourself in an infinite relationship to a person, in another case in a finite relationship?

So wanting to be in the wrong expresses an infinite relationship, and wanting to be in the right expresses a finite relationship! So the edifying, then, is to be always wrong, for only the infinite improves and educates us, the finite does not!

One Response

  1. I’m not smart enough to know
    I’m not smart enough to know the difference of “true aesthetic sorrow and which is true aesthetic pain.”

    Look dude, I don’t care which is “true aesthetic” or not, that shit hurts! Pain bad. Pleasure good. Sorrow bad. Joy good.

    This article reminded me of something a patient at the hospital i used to work at said to me one day. He said, “I’d rather be thought of as an idiot than a genius. If I’m an idiot, I have room to learn. If I’m a genius, people will expect me to know everything.”

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