Note: The page numbers in brackets refer to Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, translated and abridged by Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1992).
My friend and colleague Nathaniel Gray Sutanto recently wrote an entry on Kierkegaard, a figure much misunderstood in evangelical Reformed circles. I am delighted that Sutanto recognises that “some striking things” Kierkegaard says about faith and hope are at one accord with Sutanto’s own reading of James 1:6-8.
One reason why Kierkegaard is so easily misunderstood has to do with his use of pseudonymity in most of his writings. Many Reformed Christians, for example, accuse Kierkegaard of fideism, not least because of his famous imagery of faith as a leap in the dark. Kierkegaard scholars have already dealt with that misunderstanding, so I do not intend to take it up here (those who are interested can read this book by my doctoral supervisor at Oxford, Professor Joel Rasmussen).
Since my very first academic publication just happens to be on Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, I thought I would discuss the literary form of this early opus by the Danish spy (that’s what he considered himself–God’s spy disguised as a philosopher) as a demonstration of how to read Kierkegaard. First, I will discuss the question of pseudonymity in relation to the purpose of this work. Second, I will focus on the various styles used in the work, with particular attention on Volume 1 (Either). Third, I will look at the arrangement of this work in two volumes and four distinct parts—the preface, the writings of the aesthete, the letters by Judge William, and the sermon appended at the end. In this line of discussion I will argue that the literary form of Either/Or is set up in such a way as to encourage the reader to exercise freedom and choose between the life-views presented by the pseudonymous authors. However, I also hope to show that there is an intentionality in the literary form of Either/Or aimed at leading the reader to recognise the contradictions and absurdity in the aesthetic lifestyle, the insufficiency of the ethical life-view, and the true existential freedom of the religious life.
Pseudonyms in Either/Or
The pseudonymous form that Either/Or assumes is not unprecedented, thus it is obvious that the form itself is not Kierkegaard’s “new idea,” so to say, the way the unusual form of Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto is, in one sense, itself the musical idea or content that Liszt wants to present. The question of Kierkegaard’s pseudonimity thus has to do with a philosophical content and purpose that are distinct from but united and consistent with the form.
To address this question, then, one has to appeal to the general concerns of Kierkegaard’s thought. It is known that one of Kierkegaard’s chief concerns is the question of what it means to be an existing human individual. For Kierkegaard, to truly exist is to be free, and this freedom is not to “do as one wishes,” as it were, but the freedom of self-choice. The title Either/Or hints at those cross roads of life (as it hints at many other things) in which one must make a choice for oneself and live in accordance with this choice. Only in this way does an individual truly become his/her authentic self. In this vein, Kierkegaard sees the attempts of philosophy to discover and describe truth in an abstract and objective way as vain and dishonest, because these attempts are based on the assumption that one can be detached from one’s subjective existence and look at the world as if one were God. Such accounts of truth fail to address the human condition that every human being experiences from his/her own subjective perspective.
Kierkegaard’s famous notion of subjectivity is not to be taken as a relativist view of truth—he does not deny orthodox Christian beliefs in the existence of God, creation and fall as historical events, etc., which belong to the category of “objective knowledge.” However, Kierkegaards wishes to underscore the existential nature of truth, that is, truth as we each experience it as human individuals from our own subjective angles. As such, truth cannot be portrayed objectively—only God can do that—but rather it must be told from a variety of perspectives as it is encountered and experienced by subjective human individuals.
For this reason, Kierkegaard does not compose a philosophical system of objective truths like Kant or Hegel. Rather, he invents personae that assume various pseudonyms and tells their stories from their own walks of life. This multiplicity of subjective perspectives is to be taken seriously when one tries to understand the pseudonyms in Either/Or: One would miss the point if one simplistically thinks of the aesthete, the pseudonymous author of the first volume of the work who represents a Romantic and somewhat Bohemian life-view, as a dummy that Kierkegaard sets up in order to be defeated by Judge William and his preacher-friend.
There is no question that Kierkegaard’s own life-view is much closer to that of the preacher and very far from that of the aesthete, but this is not to say that the aesthete has no truth to tell from his subjective experience. On the other hand, the aesthetic, ethical and religious life-views should not be understood with a Hegelian logic of mediation either, for the choice between the aesthetic and the ethical is that of an either/or, between which there is no middle ground. What the pseudonymous authors represent, then, cannot be understood as objective truth or non-truth, but rather as choices—real life-choices that one must make to become one’s true self, that is, “to come out with what really dwells within you,” as Judge William urges the aesthete (479).
Kierkegaard’s first concern is thus not to encourage the reader to choose good over evil like most moral philosophers before him, but to choose between choosing and non-choosing, existing and non-existing, freedom and bondage: “My either/or does not denote in the first instance the choice between good and evil, it denotes the choice whereby one chooses good and evil or excludes them” (486).
Therefore, Kierkegaard does not present his thought in the form of systematically formulated propositions, but in the form of life-choices presented by the pseudonymous authors. Instead of imposing his own life-view on the reader, Kierkegaard wants the reader to exercise freedom and make choices for themselves, for their own self-becoming.
Literary Styles of the Pseudonymous Authors
For this reason, when Kierkegaard presents the aesthetic option of life through the aesthete, he does not use a style to make the aesthete seem utterly stupid or unconvincing. Of course, in “Crop Rotation” the aesthete may seem ridiculous with his far-fetched ideas, and reading this essay with a consciousness of Kierkegaard’s authorial presence makes the aesthete’s proposals seem like outrageous dark humour on Kierkegaard’s part aimed at satirising the aesthetic life-view. Even then, throughout “Crop Rotation,” the reader may still pick up a grain of wisdom here and there. The aesthete’s opinion that “the root of evil is boredom” may resonate with many readers’ experiences (230). His argument that hard work does not eliminate this root of evil because boredom and idleness are not identical can be quite a sound and even brilliant argument to some readers (232).
The aesthete’s literary talent is far from dull, and this is immediately evident in “Diapsalmata,” the first paper in the first volume, in which he writes in a poetically convincing style that betrays a witty and attractive persona. He makes intelligent observations of the things going on around him, so much so that maybe even Kierkegaard himself would agree enthusiastically with some of the aesthete’s remarks, such as: “What the philosophers say about reality is often as deceptive as when you see a sign in a second-hand store that reads: Pressings Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed you would be fooled: the sign is for sale” (50).
Additionally, in “The Musical Erotic” the aesthete presents a characteristically Romantic view of music in the Lisztian-Wagnerian school, but also hints at more or less of a Brahmsian understanding of absolute music that would come later in the nineteenth century to stand in sharp opposition to Liszt and Wagner. With a serious literary style, in this essay the aesthete is not only clever and knowledgeable as in his other writings, but also exhibits profound reflections on music. Again, one may or may not agree with his musical aesthetics and his reasons for the preference of Don Giovanni over The Magic Flute. However, his position, although debated, was one that many musicians and music critics in the nineteenth century had adopted. Therefore, this essay may help to win the support of many readers for the aesthete.
It is thus evident that the aesthete is not merely a dummy set up only to be defeated. He represents a life-choice that many readers are ready to make, even though at times Kierkegaard’s literary presentation of the aesthete’s nihilistic attitude would seem outrageous even to those who share his aesthetic life-view. On this note, I have no question that in a sense the aesthete is set up in such a way as to unveil the inner contradictions of the aesthetic life. However, that does not stop the aesthete from being convincing, and it does not mean that the aesthete ceases to be a real life-choice that the reader could make without feeling ashamed.
On that note, while Judge William, the author of the second volume who insists upon living life ethically, also represents a real life-choice—a much more convincing one than the aesthete as portrayed by Kierkegaard—he is not set up in such a way that no reader would disagree with him or dislike him. If that were the case, then he would not have been a real choice to begin with. Judge William represents a real choice in virtue of his possibility of not being chosen by certain readers. As Judge William himself proclaims: “So it is freedom I am fighting for” (490).
It thus comes as no surprise that some readers may be put off by a sense of hegemony in Judge William’s authoritarian figure. The fact that Judge William is not set up as a character widely acknowledged as authoritative on philosophy or issues of life, but merely as a minor assessor of moderate social status, creates a contrast between his status and the way he speaks, making his authoritarian style even more unconvincing despite his sincere passion and sound argumentation.
Again, I do not mean to say that this makes Judge William a less convincing choice than the aesthete at all. In fact, for the most part, Judge William seems much more convincing than the aesthete. As I have already argued, Kierkegaard does not set up the two choices to make either one absolutely convincing and the other absolutely worthless. Through the styles of both pseudonymous authors, Kierkegaard gives his reader real freedom to choose between the aesthetic and the ethical life-views, as well as, for that matter, the religious.
Editorial Arrangement in Either/Or
To say that each pseudonymous author represents a real choice, however, is not to say that these choices are presented as equally valid. This is already suggested in the discussions above on the styles of the work: parts of the aesthete’s writings are presented in such styles that seem to intentionally unveil the inward “contradictions,” as Judge William puts it (482), in an exaggerated way.
Clearly, Kierkegaard’s intention is to urge his reader to choose choice over non-choice. Since non-choice is the life-choice of the aesthete, it would be difficult to sustain the argument that Kierkegaard presents the aesthete and Judge William as equally valid choices. In order to show that the ethical life-view is higher than the aesthetic, and that the religious life-view is the truest form of human existence, Kierkegaard arranges the writings representing each life-view in consecutive order.
Victor Eremita, the pseudonymous editor of Either/Or, suggests that the papers of A (the aesthete) and B (Judge William) “could yield a new aspect if regarded as the work of one man… It would have been someone who had lived through both kinds of experience, or had deliberated both” (37). This seems to suggest that A’s lifestyle is one that is more self-contradictory, one that a mature person cannot adopt, and B’s attitude of life is a better one such that a wise and mature person, having experienced A’s lifestyle, would opt for.
Furthermore, if the reader is to read Judge William before the aesthete, it might be quite easy for the reader to pick up the position of the aesthete from Judge William’s criticism (it has been said that Volume 2 of Either/Or sell many times more copies than Volume 1 in most bookstores, that is, many readers find it unnecessary to read the aesthete before reading Judge William), but the contrast between the two authors in terms of content and style would be lost. Without reading the provoking and frivolous styles in the aesthete’s papers, one would perhaps find Judge William’s authoritarian style even more repulsive and fail to completely grasp his serious passion.
If one reads the opus in the order as it is presented, however, the frivolous style of the aesthete may serve to make Judge William more convincing despite his hegemonic approach—one almost feels that the aesthete is in need of such an authoritarian reproach. Many readers may feel relieved to finally encounter an author who is serious about life. In short, when presented in the order by which the papers are arranged, the element of contrast between the styles of Judge William and the aesthete may well serve to make Judge William more convincing than the aesthete.
In terms of content, the aesthete comes across as nihilistic in “Diapsalmata,” frivolous in “Crop Rotation,” and simply immoral in “The Seducer’s Diary,” which, although written under a different pseudonym, is most likely the aesthete’s own work. If these contents create unease for many contemporary readers, it would have also been the case for Kierkegaard’s nineteenth-century readers, and probably much more so.
This tension and sense of inward contradiction created by the contents of the aesthetic papers find their resolution in the ethical letters. This sense of resolution may not be so immediately evident if one were to skip over Volume 1 and read the ethical sections directly. There is thus a clear editorial purpose in presenting Judge William’s letters as responses to the aesthete’s writings, as Victor Eremita himself acknowledges in the preface (Ibid.): Kierkegaard wants to present the ethical life-view as a more valid option (in the sense that it is truer to the existential self) than the aesthetic.
Conclusion: Sermon on the Religious Life-View
If my argument that the papers are intentionally arranged in an order of increasing validity stands, then the one that comes at the end of the book, namely, the sermon, would represent a life-view that Kierkegaard deems to be the truest form of human existence. This becomes clear in light of Kierkgaard’s other writings, especially Fear and Trembling (1843), which was published after Either/Or in the same year.
Although, as discussed above, Victor Eremita comments that A and B may be understood as different life-stages of the same person, this is not to be taken to mean that the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious are three dialectical stages in a Hegelian way (Kierkegaard’s understanding of Hegel is flawed–but I won’t get into that here). Of course, the aesthetic and the ethical stand in mutual contradiction, but by no means is the religious their mediation. “In this world there rules an absolute either/or” (489). Between the two poles of this either/or, there is only an excluded middle. For Kierkegaard, the logic of mediation applies only to history, to the past: “If I imagine an elderly man looking back on an eventful life, he can get a mediation out of it for thought since his history was woven into that of the time. But deep inside he gets no mediation; an either/or is still constantly separating what was separated when he made his choice” (490).
By contrast, taking the absolute either/or seriously without mediation renders freedom in that one may make life-choices for oneself, and with this freedom one looks to the future instead of the past: “So it is freedom I am fighting for…, for the future, for either/or” (490). This can be achieved only when one renounces the aesthetic life-view and choose the ethical life-view, and the higher religious life-view cannot possibly be a mediation principle between these two mutually exclusive life-views.
As Kierkegaard does not expound on the religious life-view in detail in Either/Or but only delineates it briefly in an appendix, so I will give it only a short summary as well, before I conclude this article. For Kierkegaard, the religious life is the truest form of human existence, as it entails living before God in the most authentic way.
Even when confronted with the most bewildering reality of suffering in a life full of contradictions, the true believer does not try to rationalise the problem of evil. It is true that God is always right, but that is objective knowledge about God and it is not edifying, nor does it constitute authentic existence before God: “…When you recognize that God is always in the right, you are standing outside God, and similarly when in consequence you recognize that you are always in the wrong” (605).
On this note, even an objective recognition of our always being in the wrong does not make us true to God. For Kierkegaard, the starting point of true existence before God must be faith, but this faith is not merely a set of propositional beliefs (note: Kierkegaard does not deny the necessity of intellectual assent to doctrinal truths) or blind trust (note: Kierkegaard does not buy into blind fideism).
Rather, for Kierkegaard, the essence of faith is love (this is really the point on which a Reformed Christian should quarrel with Kierkegaard–even a Reformed Barthian like George Hunsinger would be put off by this notion reminiscent of fides caritate formata). One must not be compelled to believe in God out of intellectual duty, as the deontological notion of “justified true belief” suggests, because such a belief would be out of duty and thus not a free choice: “So it was not through the trials of thought that you came to this recognition, you were not compelled, for when you are in love you are in freedom” (604). Faith in God is a choice out of love, and when one is in love, one “always wants to be in the wrong” (Ibid.). That is, if I love God, then when my wishes contradict God’s doings, when I am confronted with evil and suffering and thus question God, I would want to know that I am in the wrong and that “God’s love is always greater than our love” (607).
Although this religious life-view is presented in a short appendix at the end of the work, it is arguably the most powerful piece in the two volumes. Both the content and the style of this sermon are simple. Perhaps Kierkegaard wants to tell us that in comparison to the aesthetic and ethical life-views, faith is simple. (Of course, faith is paradoxically both simple and complex, but Kierkegaard does not expound on the complexity until Fear and Trembling and later works, and, as Professor Rasmussen would tell us, Fear and Trembling is not about Christian faith). Unlike the aesthete and Judge William, the preacher offers no justification for the religious life-view, because faith needs and admits no justification. In this short and simple sermon, Kierkegaard uses the homiletic technique of repetition to underscore his central message that defies the aesthetic life-view and sanctifies the ethical: “Against God we are always in the wrong; this thought then stays the doubt and alleviates its anxiety, it puts one in heart and inspires one to action” (608).
 For example, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “Vertrauten Briefe über Friedrich Schlegels Lucinde.”
 Here I am not referring to musical forms in the technical sense as in, for example, sonata form. By “form” I am referring to the unusual arrangement of the concerto into six sections in one single movement, the orchestration and interaction between the orchestra and the piano, the bold phrasing and harmony, etc., which come together to epitomize Romantic musical ideas such as “the allure of the fragmentary”, as Alfred Brendel puts it. Musical Thoughts and After Thoughts, quoted by Ramon Satyendra, “Liszt’s Open Structure and the Romantic Fragment” in Music Theory Spectrum 19:2 (1997), 184.