The Aesthetic as the First Stage on Life’s Way

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.

Popular pages: Selected Works of Søren Kierkegaard