Explain Kierkegaard's theory of the spheres of existence.

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Kierkegaard identifies three separate stages, or spheres, of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Each sphere can be seen as involving a fundamental life project, a mode of being in the world that has its own criteria of success.

It's a common misconception that Kierkegaard's...

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Kierkegaard identifies three separate stages, or spheres, of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Each sphere can be seen as involving a fundamental life project, a mode of being in the world that has its own criteria of success.

It's a common misconception that Kierkegaard's three stages follow each other in temporal sequence; that everyone starts off in the aesthetic stage and then goes through the ethical stage until, finally, they reach the religious stage.

But that's not the case. The reverse, though incredibly rare, is nonetheless possible, as is moving back and forth between the respective spheres at any given time. It all depends on the individual and the circumstances in which he or she lives.

The aesthetic sphere is defined by its hedonism—that is to say the pursuit of pleasure. This is the sphere in which most people live their lives at some point. As the ultimate goal of such a life is pleasure, questions of right and wrong don't enter into the equation. A classic example of a life lived in the aesthetic sphere would be that of Don Juan, the great lover who devoted his life to seducing women without heed to the consequences.

The ethical sphere, as the name suggests, makes good on the moral deficiencies of the aesthetic stage. The aesthete, according to Judge William in Either/Or recognizes that a life devoted to pleasure is ultimately unsatisfying as it prevents the formation of a coherent self. In the aesthetic sphere, man is little more than a bundle of fleeting sensations without any stable identity. Realizing what his life so patently lacks, the aesthete enters the ethical stage of life, where he subscribes to society's dominant social values.

For most people, this is as far it goes. Even many of those who think themselves religious are really only acting in accordance with what society expects of them. Kierkegaard was positively scathing about many of his fellow Danish Christians, whom he thought were just going through the motions in their religious life, attending church on Sundays just to look respectable and paying lip-service to Christ's teachings because society expected it of them. In other words, they were still at the ethical, not the religious, stage of existence.

In a truly religious existence, according to Kierkegaard, man must, like Abraham, answer directly to the call of God. Not to the bundle of fleeting impressions that constitutes life in the aesthetic stage, nor society's rules and moral norms as in the ethical stage, but the voice of God itself. The religious sphere is thus the most exalted stage of man's existence. It is also, not coincidentally, the most difficult, as Kierkegaard never tired of arguing.

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