Analysis

It is tempting, but incorrect, to read Either/Or as an explanation of how one can move from the aesthetic life into the ethical. True, the pleasures of the aesthetic are solipsistic, fleeting, and unreliable, while the pleasures of the ethical are empathetic, prolonged, and constant. However, both A and the Judge make good cases for their particular philosophies. A attempts to seduce the reader with his prose, just as Johannes Climacus attempts to seduce Cordelia, just as Don Juan seduces women, and just as music seduces the listener. A, through his attempted seduction of the reader, is trying to lead the reader toward an appreciation of the aesthetic life. Alternatively, the Judge attempts to convince the reader that the ethical life is better than the aesthetic life, and he uses reason, not seduction, to accomplish this. Each writer’s rhetorical strategy appropriately reflects his values. However, a closer examination reveals inconsistencies in the positions of both A and the Judge. A speaks eloquently about the value of focusing solely on personal pleasure, but in doing so he is actually instructing the reader in how the reader might experience more aesthetic pleasure. A’s apparent concern for the good of the reader is, though focused on the aesthetic, still an ethical concern, despite the fact that A makes it clear that the aesthete focuses on his or her own pleasure and not the pleasure of others. On the other hand, the Judge, in making the case for the ethical life, continually comes back to the point that the ethical life leads to even more aesthetic enjoyment than the purely aesthetic life.

In the end, A and the Judge are concerned with both aesthetic pleasures and ethical duties. Some think that Either/Or is about overcoming the aesthetic life for the ethical life. However, the Judge’s arguments don’t actually prove that the ethical life is wholly separate and better than the aesthetic life. There isn’t actually an either/or choice between the aesthetic and the ethical: both are necessary. The either/or choice hinted at by the title Either/Or is actually a choice between the aesthetic/ethical life and the religious life. Either you choose the aesthetic and the ethical life or you choose the religious life. Aesthetics and ethics can coexist, but both detract from the religious. This is why Either/Or ends with the sermon on how, in relation to God, people are always wrong. Both A and the Judge make cases for how people should act in accordance with aesthetic and ethical systems, but any system designed by a human is necessarily flawed. Kierkegaard does not explore the religious very deeply in Either/Or, saving that for his later works, but Either/Or demonstrates that neither the aesthetic life nor the ethical life is complete without religion. A’s groundless individuality and the Judge’s principled marriage both interfere with the intense, faith-based introspection that exemplifies the religious life.

The final sermon in Either/Or is partially an attack on Hegel, who believes that the divine is played out through the actions of society. Kierkegaard emphatically does not believe this to be the case. If the divine is played out through society, then the social, ethical life would be, as a manifestation of the divine, the best life. Kierkegaard argues that only God is in the right and to approach God requires introspective faith. There is no system, aesthetic or ethical, that can truly lead people in the right direction: people need religion, but they need it on a personal level, not a societal level. Kierkegaard feels that beliefs like Hegel’s, and institutions like the church, claim to provide answers to people’s troubles but in reality are simply providing excuses to avoid self-examination. Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms in Either/Or can be viewed as a concrete metaphor for Kierkegaard’s internal confusion. In other words, although Kierkegaard wrote all of Either/Or, he made up authors for different parts to represent different aspects of his own personality. The conflict between the aesthetic and the ethical exists, to a certain extent, in every human. There are many systems in place to help mediate this conflict, but Kierkegaard demonstrates in Either/Or that the only escape from this conflict is to take a personal approach to religion.

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