Either/Or is Kierkegaard's first major work and remains one of his most widely read. He wrote the book under a series of false names, or pseudonyms. The first of the work's two parts first deals with the aesthetic, a word that Kierkegaard uses to denote personal, sensory experiences. The second part deals with ethics. In this part Kierkegaard discusses the merits of a social and morally proper life. Kierkegaard wrote the first section under the pseudonym “A,” although he wrote the last section of Part I, “The Diary of the Seducer,” under the pseudonym “Johannes Climacus.” Kierkegaard wrote Part II under the interchangeable pseudonyms “B” and “the Judge.” “A” claims that the aesthetic finds its highest expression in music, the theatre, and love. However, the source of love and the arts’ aesthetic power lies in their ability to inspire the imagination. “A” considers the imagination to be the most useful tool in obtaining aesthetic pleasure. “B” argues that living an ethical life is preferable to the aesthetic life.

Music and drama create different kinds of aesthetic experiences. The aesthetic pleasure offered by music is the most direct. The very best music affects the imagination immediately. The pleasures to be found in drama—which is too concrete and intellectual to directly fire the imagination—lie in the viewer’s opportunity to pretend to be someone else. The pairing of music and drama can be a particularly transcendent aesthetic experience.

The extreme difficulty of achieving true aesthetic pleasure leads “A” to claim that boredom is the most common, and unpleasant, human state. “A” goes so far as to claim that it is the root of all evil and makes a number of proposals for how it ought to be dealt with. One such plan is for Denmark to borrow a large sum of money and devote it explicitly to the entertainment of the masses. There are also more personal measures one can take to avoid boredom.

“The Seducer’s Diary” is the most famous section of Either/Or. It further explores how to maximize aesthetic pleasure. “The Seducer’s Diary” is Johannes Climacus’s detailed, firsthand account of his wooing a young woman named Cordelia. For the majority of the diary, Johannes plots the seduction very slowly and deliberately. Once he makes his move, things happen very quickly, and he’s soon engaged to Cordelia. He isn’t satisfied with the success of his seduction, however, until he has deliberately driven Cordelia to break the engagement and then, later, to come back to him. At this point he is finished with her and goes to find a new woman to seduce. Once Johannes Climacus has exhausted all the imaginative and exciting possibilities with Cordelia, continuing his relationship with her would lead him to boredom. (Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or soon after receiving his doctorate and breaking his engagement with fiancé Regine Olsen.)

The second part of Either/Or takes the form of a letter written by “the Judge” to “A” in response to Part I . In it, “the Judge” attempts to persuade “A” that the ethical life is better than the purely aesthetic life. He attempts to defend marriage, claiming that the ethical life of being married is better than the aesthetic life of the seducer. He makes this claim on an aesthetic basis, saying that there is actually more aesthetic pleasure to be found in a consistent marriage than in a bachelor life. “The Judge” argues that romantic love can exist in marriage and goes so far as to say that marriage is the highest form of romantic love. The ethical courage to submit to repetition is rewarded by the consistent, reliable aesthetic pleasure found in a loving marriage.

“The Judge” then claims that “A”’s devotion to the aesthetic prevents him from making any significant choices. Although he has a far wider range of options than “the Judge.” “the Judge” argues that since hischoices are limited by ethics—by a consideration of other people—his choices are much weightier and mean much more to him than “A”’s aesthetic choices mean to “A.” The aesthetic has its place, the Judge agrees, but the place of the aesthetic is beneath the ethical. The Judge’s actual loving relationship with his wife is far better, he argues, than the largely imaginary relationship between Johannes Climacus and Cordelia. The Judge experiences his pleasure with another person, while a seducer’s pleasure is completely in his or her imagination.

Part II of Either/Or ends with a sermon that the Judge has received from a friend. The sermon is entitled “The Edification Which Lies in the Fact that in Relation to God we Are Always in the Wrong.” The sermon’s key point is that humans, whether their choices are aesthetically or ethically motivated, are never in the right. Only by accepting that God is always right, and by trying to do God’s will, can a person escape unhappiness.

Writing under the pseudonym of “Johannes de Silentio,” Kierkegaard opens Fear and Trembling with the story from the Bible, Genesis 22:1-18, of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. For this deed, Abraham is normally acknowledged as the father of faith, but in this day and age, Johannes remarks, no one is content with faith. Everyone thinks that they can begin with faith and go further.

In the “Exordium” and “Eulogy on Abraham,” Kierkegaard suggests how incomprehensible Abraham’s faith is. Abraham didn’t question God, didn’t complain or weep, he didn’t explain himself to anyone, he simply obeyed God’s orders. The Exordium presents us with four alternative paths that Abraham could have taken, all of which might have rendered Abraham more understandable, but would make him something less than the father of faith. The eulogy asserts that there is no way we can understand Abraham, or what he did.

Kierkegaard distinguishes between the tragic hero, who expresses the ethical, and the knight of faith, who expresses the religious. The tragic hero gives up everything in the movement of infinite resignation, and in so doing expresses the universal. The knight of faith also makes the movement of infinite resignation, but he makes another movement as well, the leap of faith, where he gets everything back by virtue of the absurd. While the tragic hero is universally admired and wept for, no one can understand the knight of faith. Kierkegaard sets up three “problemata” to draw out this distinction.

The first problema begins with the Hegelian assertion that the ethical is the universal, and that it is the telos for everything outside itself. According to the ethical, what Abraham attempted was murder: his sacrifice cannot be understood in terms of the universal. Thus, he suggests, there must be a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham suspended his obligation to the universal to fulfill his higher duty to God.

The second problema suggests that, contrary to Kantian ethics, there is an absolute duty to God. Abraham by-passed all his ethical obligations to perform what God asked of him directly. As a result, he was constantly tempted by the ethical, but held fast.

The third problema provides hints as to why Abraham did not disclose his undertaking to anyone. Disclosure is associated with the universal and hiddenness with the single individual. Abraham acted as a single individual, isolated from the universal, and as such his actions could not be explained or disclosed.

Kierkegaard concludes by pointing out that faith requires passion, and passion is not something we can learn. We have to experience it ourselves, or else we do not understand it at all.

Some people, Kierkegaard tells us in the Preface of The Sickness Unto Death, might expect books on religious matters to be serious and scholarly. Religious books should instead strive to engage the reader on a personal level. Religious writing, the Introduction explains, should adopt the manner of a physician at a sickbed. It should help people cure themselves of the "sickness unto death"the fear that our lives will amount to a spiritual void rather than the eternal life that Christ promised.

Part I explains that "despair" is the "sickness unto death." Human beings are a "synthesis" of spiritual and physical elements, and despair is a misrelation between these elements. The solution to despair is a condition in which the individual has established a relationship with the "power that established it" (in other words, with God). People may appear to despair over facts of the world, but despair is in fact always an internal problem for which the individual is personally responsible.

Despair is universal. People may be in despair and not know it. People may despair through excessive imagination or through excessive concern about their material circumstances, through a sense of vast possibilities or a sense of lack of options. There is a hierarchy of forms of despair running from a weak desire not to be what one is to a "defiant" desire to be entirely self-sufficient.

Part II explains that, in Christian terms, despair is sin. Christ has revealed to us that faith is the solution to despair. Once we have received this revelation, it is a sin to neglect it and choose to remain in despair. Just as there is a hierarchy of forms of despair, so is there a hierarchy of forms of sin, ranging from indifference to a defiant refusal to accept religious truth. Sin may be intensified in complex psychological forms, such as despairing over sin (focusing obsessively on one's sinfulness), despairing over the forgiveness of sins (feeling that such forgiveness is not possible for one's sins), or, worst of all, despairing over Christ's teachings (dismissing Christianity as untruth).


Popular pages: Selected Works of Søren Kierkegaard