Boredom, anxiety, and despair are the human psyche’s major problems, and Kierkegaard spends most of his writing diagnosing these three ills. People are bored when they are not being stimulated, either physically or mentally. Relief from boredom can only be fleeting. Passion, a good play, Bach, or a stimulating conversation might provide momentary relief from boredom, but the relief doesn’t last. Boredom is not merely a nuisance: a psychologically healthy human must find some way to avert boredom. Conflicts between one’s ethical duty and one’s religious duty cause anxiety. Social systems of ethics often lead one to make choices that are detrimental to one’s spiritual health, and vice versa. The tension between these conflicting duties causes anxiety, and like boredom, anxiety must be escaped for a person to be happy. Finally, despair is a result of the tension between the finite and the infinite. Humans are frightened of dying, but they are also frightened of existing forever. Kierkegaard believed that everyone would die but also that everyone had an immortal self, or soul, that would go on forever. Boredom and anxiety can be alleviated in various ways, but the only way to escape despair is to have total faith in God. Having total faith in God, however, was more than simply attending church regularly and behaving obediently. Faith required intense personal commitment and a dedication to unending self-analysis. Kierkegaard thought that having total faith in God, and thus escaping despair, was extremely difficult as well as extremely important.
Kierkegaard proposed that the individual passed through three stages on the way to becoming a true self: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Each of these “stages on life’s way” represents competing views on life and as such potentially conflicts with one another. Kierkegaard takes the unusual step of having each stage of life described and represented by a different pseudonymous character. Thus, it becomes too difficult to ascertain which propositions Kierkegaard himself upholds. This fits with Kierkegaard’s characteristic tendency to avoid dictating answers. He preferred that readers reach their own conclusions.
The aesthetic is the realm of sensory experience and pleasures. The aesthetic life is defined by pleasures, and to live the aesthetic life to the fullest one must seek to maximize those pleasures. Increasing one’s aesthetic pleasures is one way to combat boredom, and Kierkegaard described many methods of doing so. He proposes that the anticipation of an event often exceeds the pleasure of the event itself, and so he suggests ways of drawing out anticipation. One suggestion is to leave all of your mail for three days before opening it. Unplanned events can, at times, lead to pleasures as great as anticipation, but the pleasure of planned events is almost entirely in the anticipation.
The importance of the aesthetic is acknowledged, but it is also presented as an immature stage. The aesthete is only concerned with his or her personal enjoyment, and because aesthetic pleasure is so fleeting, an aesthete has no solid framework from which to make coherent, consistent choices. Eventually, the pleasures of the aesthetic wear thin, and one must begin seeking the ethical pleasures instead. The ethical life actually offers certain pleasures the aesthetic life cannot. An aesthete can never do something solely for the good of someone else, but we all know that doing things for others without personal motives can actually be incredibly enjoyable.
Ethics are the social rules that govern how a person ought to act. Ethics are not always in opposition to aesthetics, but they must take precedence when the two conflict. The aesthetic life must be subordinated to the ethical life, as the ethical life is based on a consistent, coherent set of rules established for the good of society. A person can still experience pleasure while living the ethical life. The ethical life serves the purpose of allowing diverse people to coexist in harmony and causes individuals to act for the good of society. The ethical person considers the effect his or her actions will have on others and gives more weight to promoting social welfare than to achieving personal gain. The ethical life also affords pleasures that the aesthetic does not. Aesthetics steers one away from consistency, since repetition can lead to boredom. An ethical person doesn’t simply enjoy things because they’re novel but makes ethical choices because those choices evoke a higher set of principles. Kierkegaard uses marriage as an example of an ethical life choice. In marriage, the excitement of passion can quickly fade, leading to boredom and a diminishing of aesthetic pleasure. However, by consistently acting for the good of one’s spouse, one learns that there are enjoyments beyond excitement. Still, the ethical life does little to nurture one’s spiritual self. The ethical life diverts one from self-exploration since it requires an individual to follow a set of socially accepted norms and regulations. According to Kierkegaard, self-exploration is necessary for faith, the key requirement for a properly religious life.
Kierkegaard considers the religious life to be the highest plane of existence. He also believes that almost no one lives a truly religious life. He is concerned with how to be “a Christian in Christendom”—in other words, how to lead an authentically religious life while surrounded by people who are falsely religious. For Kierkegaard, the relationship with God is exclusively personal, and he believed the large-scale religion of the church (i.e., Christendom) distracts people from that personal relationship. Kierkegaard passionately criticized the Christian Church for what he saw as its interference in the personal spiritual quest each true Christian must undertake.
In the aesthetic life, one is ruled by passion. In the ethical life, one is ruled by societal regulations. In the religious life, one is ruled by total faith in God. One can never be truly free, and this causes boredom, anxiety, and despair. True faith doesn’t lead to freedom, but it relieves the psychological effects of human existence. Kierkegaard claims that the only way to make life worthwhile is to embrace faith in God, and that faith necessarily involves embracing the absurd. One has faith in God, but one cannot believe in God. We believe in things that we can prove, but we can only have faith in things that are beyond our understanding. For example, we believe in gravity: we feel its effects constantly, which we recognize as proof of gravity’s existence. It makes no sense, though, to say we have faith in gravity, since that would require the possibility that, someday, gravity would fail to materialize. Faith requires uncertainty, and thus we can have faith in God because God is beyond logic, beyond proof, and beyond reason. There’s no rational evidence for God, but this is exactly what allows people to have faith in him.
Repetition and recollection are two contrasting ways of trying to maximize enjoyment. Repetition serves multiple purposes for Kierkegaard. First, it has an important aesthetic function. People want to repeat particularly enjoyable experiences, but the original pleasure is often lost in the repeating. This is due to the expectation that things will be just the same the second time as the first time. The pleasure of expectation clouds the fact that the original experience wasn’t undertaken with a specific idea of the joy it would cause. Repetition can produce powerful feelings but usually only when the experience occurs unplanned. In this case, the pleasure might even be magnified at the sudden resurgence of happy memories—in other words, the recollection. There is pleasure in planned repetition, but it is a comfortable pleasure, not an exciting one. While repetition offers the joy of anticipation—joy that seldom materializes in the actual event—recollection offers the joy of remembering a particularly happy event. Recollection can be cultivated along with the imagination to increase one’s day-to-day aesthetic pleasure. Often, recalling a pleasant occurrence is more enjoyable than repeating the same event: remembering the Christmases of your childhood is often more pleasant than Christmas is in adulthood. Indeed, much of the pleasure of Christmas, for an older person, can come from nostalgia. The pleasures of recollection, which are best enjoyed alone, are well suited to the aesthetic life. Unplanned repetition is a truly aesthetic pleasure as well, while planned repletion, such as that represented by marriage, affords more ethical pleasures than aesthetic ones.