In Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard seeks to elucidate the contrasts and interrelationships between what Kierkegaard called the aesthetical and the ethical modes of existence. Like most of Kierkegaard’s writings, Either/Or was not published under his own name but under one of several pseudonyms. The heterogeneous literary style employs lyrical aphorisms, orations, psychological analyses, drama reviews, and philosophical formulations.

In the first part of the work, the aestheticist, who expresses his views through these various literary forms, is designated as A. In the second part, the ethical thinker, who bears the pseudonym of Judge William, is designated as B. In one of his later works, Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (1846; Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1941), Kierkegaard explained the central theme of Either/Or by informing the reader that A is an existential possibility, superior in dialectics and highly gifted in the use of wit and poetic style, who nevertheless remains unable to commit himself in decisive action, and thus never exists at all in the true sense. B, on the other hand, represents the ethical person whose whole life is transformed into inwardness, passion, and commitment.

Judge William elucidates the content of the ethical in the form of a letter addressed to A. The communication of ethical truth demands a form or style that is commensurate with it. Ethical truth is existential and concrete, as contrasted with the theoretical and abstract, and consequently requires for its expression a form that has the personal quality of a dialogue or a letter. This constitutes the form of indirect communication. At the outset, Judge William reminds the aestheticist of the biblical story of the Prophet Nathan and David as a supreme example of this form of communication. King David listened attentively to the prophet’s parable but remained in a state of theoretical detachment. He intellectualized the parable as an objective story that applied only to the mythical stranger. Not until the Prophet Nathan made the application explicit in his statement “Thou, O King, art the man” did David apprehend the existential relevance of the parable. The Prophet Nathan used the form of indirect communication. This is also the form used by Judge William.

The Aesthetical Way

The aesthetical mode of existence has two primary expressions—romantic hedonism and abstract intellectualism. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni is depicted as the classical representative of the sensual or hedonistic view of life, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823) expresses the aesthetical personality of abstract intellectualism. Kierkegaard’s archenemy, the Hegelian rationalist, also falls victim to the latter expression. For both the sensualist and the intellectualist, inward existence and commitment are accidental and remain a matter of indifference. Neither is able to shoulder responsibility and commit the self to action. They lack the ethical pathos that characterizes B.

The view of life that characterizes the hedonist is portrayed by the young lover in the “Diary of a Seducer,” who carries through his seduction with a diabolical cunning. The young lover is a prototype of Mozart’s Don Giovanni character: He experiments with numerous possibilities but never commits himself to the responsibility of actualizing any particular one in earnestness and seriousness. He experiments with the techniques of seduction but never commits himself in a promise. He experiments with love but never commits himself in marriage. In his aesthetical experimentation, the young lover retains the proper abstractness and indifference. Every woman is, for him, a woman in general. Insofar as the young lover has a guiding principle, it is the hedonistic principle that enjoyment or pleasure constitutes the only end of life. The necessary internal conditions for the attainment of this life of pleasure are physical beauty and health; the necessary external conditions are wealth, glory, and high status. However, these conditions provide no ethical pathos for a committed life, and it...

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Boredom and Despair

The aesthetical mode or stage of existence leads to boredom and melancholy, and finally to despair. Either/Or and the writings of Kierkegaard as a whole contain graphic descriptions of the enveloping character of the moods of boredom, melancholy, and despair. Boredom is depicted as an aesthetical determinant that has plagued humankind from the very beginning.The gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created. Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased and the people were bored en masse.

The aesthetical life of pure pleasure, as well as that of pure thought, leads to an abyss of boredom and tedium. Now it is necessary to distinguish two forms of boredom. In one form, boredom is apprehended as an intentional mood that is directed toward a particular object, event, or person. One is bored with a book, a movie, or a boorish conversant. This form of boredom is merely a surface phenomenon that does not yet disclose humanity’s true situation. In the second and more genuine form of boredom, one is bored not with an intentionally specified object or person—one is bored with oneself. Humanity is confronted with a nameless emptiness that threatens life itself with a loss of meaning. This form of boredom brings one to a more intensified awareness of one’s predicament.

The enigmatic, nameless emptiness that characterizes genuine boredom is also an existential determinant of melancholy individuals. If melancholy individuals are asked what it is that weighs on them, they are prone to reply, “I know not, I cannot explain it.” Melancholy is a “spiritual ailment” or a “hysteria of the spirit” that confronts people with the abyss of emptiness and meaninglessness and reveals the disquietude and discontinuity of their existence. However, for the most part, the individuals who are subject to the disquieting moods of boredom and...

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The Ethical Way

The ethical stage is the stage of decision and resolute commitment. The act of choice is an intensification of the ethical. Even the richest personalities, writes the author, must be accounted as nothing before they have chosen themselves. On the other hand, the poorest personalities are everything for having chosen themselves. Choice liberates the self both from the immediacy of pleasure and from the immediacy of reflection or pure thought and makes possible the discovery of genuine selfhood. Through decision and commitment, the self becomes integrated and “centralized.” Aestheticists are always “eccentric” in that they seek the center of themselves in the periphery of hedonist or intellectualistic concerns—that means that they have lost their selves. Ethical people, by virtue of having shouldered their responsibility in decision, have their center within themselves. Their lives are centralized and unified. The unity of the ethical self is not a unity that is anchored in some residual ego or abiding substratum. The self is not an object that can be abstractly defined as having a permanent nature or a substantial fixity. Unity is achieved, not given. The self achieves or attains its unity and integrity through choice.

Choice thus becomes the central category for the ethical thinker. This is the category that lies closest to the heart and thought of Judge William. Not being a logician, he has no lengthy and impressive list of abstract...

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Romantic and Conjugal Love

In the person of Judge William is the concrete exemplification of the ethical mode of existence. He is a married man who has committed himself in conjugal love. As such, he is contrasted with the young lover of the “Diary of a Seducer,” who dissipates himself in his various experiments with romantic love. Romantic and conjugal love are thus understood as existential qualities that differentiate the aesthetical and the ethical. Romantic love is experimental and nonhistorical, lacking continuity. Conjugal love expresses an inner history that gives it constancy and stability.

The romantic hedonist lives in the present, which he experiences in abstraction from existence. The present becomes an instantaneous now, defined as the occasion for enjoyment. The past loses its existential significance, and the future is never really faced. The young lover seduces a girl, and after the moment of seduction passes, all is over. The moment then becomes part of an abstracted past that has significance only as an object for melancholy recollection. Romantic love knows no repetition. The romantic hedonist lives his life as though it were a discrete succession of instantaneous nows, each coming to be and passing away into a past that is bereft of existential importance. Everything is concentrated in the present, which is apprehended as embodying full reality. Conjugal love, on the other hand, strives for repetition. The ideal husband is one who is able to repeat his love...

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The phenomenon of time, which plays such an important role in ethical existence, is the focus of a profound analysis of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s teaching on the alienated or unhappy consciousness. Hegel had already taught that the alienated consciousness is the self that is never present to itself, being absent from itself either in the past or in the future. The author agrees that Hegel was right in thus defining the realm of the unhappy consciousness but argues that he was wrong in understanding it abstractly rather than existentially. Hegel “beheld the kingdom from afar off.” The author understands himself to be a native inhabitant of the realm. Consciousness is alienated from itself when it is...

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The Work

In the two volumes of Either/Or, Kierkegaard confronts readers with a sharp choice between two forms of existence, the aesthetic, which regards enjoyment and pleasure as the highest values, and the ethical, which views the world in terms of right and wrong. Rather than describing these two forms of existence, Kierkegaard brings them to life in the writings of two fictional characters. An unnamed sophisticated young man, designated “A,” is credited with the widely varied essays and aphorisms that make up volume 1; Judge William, a family man and minor court official, writes the two long letters to “A” that make up volume 2. A third fictional character, Victor Eremita, claims to have found...

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Allen, Diogenes. Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1983. The chapter on Kierkegaard examines his time period and its influence on his ideas. The author discusses how Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel influenced Søren Kierkegaard by breaking the hold of the eighteenth century Enlightenment on European philosophy. Also includes the influence of Socrates on Kierkegaard.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Soren Kierkegaard. Modern Critical Views series. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. A collection of essays discussing the importance of Kierkegaard and his philosophy. The editor’s introduction...

(The entire section is 593 words.)