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Aesthete, Tragic Hero, Knight of Faith: Kierkegaard on the Universal Versus the Subjective

“For the objective approach makes one into an observer, so objective that he becomes almost a ghost. Matters such as Christianity and ethics, however, require a decision, and a decision is a matter of subjectivity” (Truth or Consequences: The Promise & Perils of Postmodernism)

Constantin Hansen – (1804 – 1880) – (Public Domain

Søren Kierkegaard’s denunciation of Hegelianism in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846), one of his major works, culminated in his declaration that “subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity”.  This presents a direct contradiction to Friedrich Hegel’s claim that Reason and Reality are essentially identical, that the truth is universal and that it can only be deduced through logic and reason.

This affirmation of the deeply personal, inward experience of each individual, as opposed to a rational or detached perspective of one’s relationship with the world is one of the distinctive characteristics of Kierkegaard’s philosophical views. This is particularly true in relation to his view of the Christian faith. In fact, Kierkegaard believed that “[a]n objective acceptance of Christianity . . . is paganism or thoughtlessness” (Postscript)

His preoccupation with the importance of the subjective experience is expressed in the distinction he creates between three possible stages of human life, which also represent “different types of subjectivity” (Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed). These are the Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious stages.

The Aesthetic and the Ethical

“In the world of the spirit, the different stages are not like cities on a journey, about which it is quite all right for the traveler to say directly, for example: We left Peking and came to Canton and were in Canton on the fourteenth. A traveler like that changes places, not himself; and thus it is alright for him to mention and to recount the change in a direct, unchanged form. But in the world of the spirit to change place is to be changed oneself, and there all direct assurance of having arrived here” (Postscript)

Kierkegaard first introduces the three stages of life in Either/Or (1843), which was written under the pseudonym Victor Eremita (Latin for victorious hermit).

The aesthetic mode of life is one where the individual is solely concerned with personal satisfaction. It is not bound by any sense of communal or ethic duty, and therefore the aesthetic is also a deeply subjective form of existence. The aesthete is someone who thrives on a constant renewal of activities, on sensual experiences and pleasures, whether that is derived from the appreciation of a piece of music, a painting, the natural world, other people’s physical beauty or intellectual subjects (Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed).kierkegaard-either-or

A constant stimulation of the imagination is essential for the aesthete, and the seducer’s diary, which is included in Part 1 of Either/Or, expresses the significance of this aspect. The seducer, a figure like Don Juan, flourishes under the effect of the idea of possibility, not reality. He shifts successively from one woman to another, never committing to any of them and staying within the bounds of a superficial infatuation because it allows him the freedom to “vary the object of his affections in order to sustain the novelty that his pleasure requires” (Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed).

Kierkegaard does not condemn the enjoyment of the aesthetic pleasures of life, but criticizes those who make pleasure their ultimate purpose. The aesthete is in danger of eventually finding themselves under the grip of despair or existential angst:

“The aesthete in Either/Or suffers from boredom, melancholy, and a sense of emptiness; his writings show that his way of life is ultimately nihilistic, and tends to lead to despair since pleasure is so transient . . . Although the aesthetic form of subjectivity is self-interested, it is actually based on a very weak sense of self, since all action is motivated by momentary moods, desires and inclinations. . . And although the aesthete refuses to accept limitations, she actually lacks freedom – for Kierkegaard defines freedom as a person’s power or capacity to act, to become something, and to give direction to her life” (Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed)

The aesthete’s reaction to this sense of dread and futility is to ascend to the next stage, the Ethical.

In the ethical realm, there is a greater focus on objective reality and the society in which one exists. The individual now chooses to interact more fully with the outside world, and actions are made with the purpose of benefiting others, not the self. Civic responsibility and societal duties gain more significance. Aesthetic appreciation is not completely rejected but becomes contained in the bounds of the ethical sphere. Hegel thought of this as the highest possible form of life.

The Tragic Hero falls under the ethical sphere and Kierkegaard relates the tragedy of Agamemnon as an example of a tragic hero. During the course of the Trojan War, Agamemnon incurred the anger of the gods. Consequently, the winds were stopped and the Greek fleet became paralyzed, unable to set sail to Troy. In order to appease the gods, Agamemnon must offer his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice. He becomes torn between the greater good of his country and his love for his daughter, his civic duty and personal attachments. Here, the aesthetic sphere becomes a force of temptation to Agamemnon and he must resist the pull of his individual desires. In the end, he complies with the will of the gods and sacrifices Iphigenia, therefore rising from the aesthetic stage where the focus is on purely subjective motives to the ethical stage where it is necessary to surrender any sense of self-centeredness and even forgo his own individuality. Kierkegaard calls this type of hero a Knight of Infinite Resignation, because he resigns himself to the sacrifice he must make for the universal ethical standard.

Knight of Infinite Resignation and Knight of Faith

According to Kierkegaard, the knight of faith is an individual who embodies the religious stage of life, which very few people ever reach.  Kierkegaard expresses his perception of the nature of the knight of faith in Fear and Trembling, published under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. He examines another story where an individual is forced to sacrifice his child, recounting the story from Genesis where God orders Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him. Abraham, although lamenting his fate, resigns himself to this request and takes Isaac to Mount Moriah kierkegaard-fear-and-tremblingas he was ordered to do, fully intending to follow God’s command. He builds an altar, carries the knife and prepares to sacrifice his son but is then stopped by an angel who reveals to him that his faith was being tested by God.

Kierkegaard attacked Hegel for simultaneously believing in the existence of a universal ethical law that can be accessed through reasoning, a law from which no individual is exempt under any circumstances, and not condemning Abraham’s intention to sacrifice his son as unethical. He refutes Hegel’s argument that the ethical is equal to the spiritual. How is it possible for an individual who was willing to murder his son to become regarded as the father of faith? According to moral law, Abraham’s act would have been murder.But was Abraham acting under the rules of the universal ethic?

Kierkegaard argues that Abraham had suspended the ethical and transcended it for the sake of an even higher purpose or “telos”. His intended act was not un-ethical but non-ethical, completely unbound by the universal definitions of right and wrong. He calls this a “teleological suspension of the ethical”:

“Abraham’s act is different. By his act he transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher telos outside it, in relation to which he suspended it…. It is not to save a nation, not to uphold the idea of a state that Abraham does it; it is not to appease the angry gods…. Therefore, while the tragic hero is great because of his moral virtue, Abraham is great because of a purely personal virtue” (Fear and Trembling)

In the ethical stage, one must renounce individuality to become part of the collective, but the religious stage is built wholly on subjectivity, which is why Kierkegaard elevates it above the two other stages of existence.Abraham is an actualization of the “paradox” of faith: “that the particular is higher than the universal” (Fear and Trembling). One of the fundamental differences between the tragic hero and the knight of faith is that the tragic hero’s actions win him the admiration of the society around him. The knight of faith, on the other hand, can never truly be understood. His experience is so personal and subjective that it cannot adequately be communicated, much less grasped. Abraham never divulged his intentions to his wife, son or servant, the nature of his mission made it impossible and meaningless for him to do so. The knight of faith is isolated from society because he does not conform to the universal law but acts outside of it. This sense of remoteness is reflected in the title of Kierkegaard’s book, which is taken from a passage from Philippians:

“[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

The knight of faith must constantly experience “fear and trembling” so long as he resists the temptation of the ethical sphere. While the tragic hero makes sacrifices for values which he believes are right, a knight of faith chooses willingly to act against his very sense of morality and reason in order to fulfill a higher purpose, which places him in a more difficult position than the tragic hero. To Kierkegaard, the “leap of faith” (Fear and Trembling) which the knight of faith must make in order to believe in the “virtue of the absurd”(Fear and Trembling) is the pinnacle of human passion: “[f]aith is the highest passion in a person” (Fear and Trembling).  Passion is a sentiment which he found completely lacking in modern-day life, and he expressed his dissatisfaction with such an excessively rational mindset in his Two Ages: A Literary Review:

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose . . . Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself out of desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought  . . . He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation”

Kierkegaard sets up an opposition between the objective, universal code of ethics which connects the individual to the community around him and a profoundly subjective state of being. The inwardness of the knight of faith is elevated above the universal because it requires a degree of passion which isolates him from all but his own self.