Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments is the central work in a series of books marked by a consistent theme, a most unusual manner of presentation, pervasive irony, and a single-minded effort to present Christianity in a fashion that requires the reader to reach some sort of decision about it. The irony of Kierkegaard is evident even in the title of the book: Philosophical Fragments. Very few philosophers would entitle their main work a “fragment” or try to present the core of their position in fewer than one hundred pages.
The Three Stages
To read Kierkegaard with some degree of understanding, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the general plan of his literary work. One of the essential features of his philosophical position is the doctrine of the “stages.” Kierkegaard believed that people can be separated into three groups, depending on the values they hold as fundamental. He calls these three groups “aesthetes,” “ethicists,” and “religionists.”
Aesthetes are people who live for the interesting; they want entertainment and variety in their lives and seek to avoid boredom, which they regard as the worst evil that can overtake them. They live to find immediate satisfaction and avoid making any long-term commitments. All people have the aesthetic as the basic material of their lives; many remain in the aesthetic stage throughout life. However, some people move into another sphere, the ethical.
Ethicists live for the sake of doing their duty; they replace struggles over the interesting versus the boring with those involving the good versus the bad. The kind of person German philosopher Immanuel Kant had in mind when he urged people to do their duty rather than follow their inclinations is the kind of person Kierkegaard called the ethical person. Ethicists’ lives are successful if they take on as many obligations to other people as possible and do their best to discharge these obligations.
Kierkegaard contrasted the ethical person with the aesthete in his first book, Enten-Eller (1843; Either/Or, 1944), by posing the question of love and marriage. Aesthetes fall in love, live for a multitude of engagements (but no marriages), and want romance in the Hollywood sense. Ethicists do not fall in love but rather choose to love, want a short engagement so that they may enter the state of being married (and thereby become duty-bound to another person for the remainder of their days), and find their romance in daily routine rather than in secret, passionate moments.
A great many people with this kind of ethical concern base the ethical rules that govern their lives in God’s will. For such persons, there is no difference between being ethical and being religious. However, Kierkegaard felt that the Christian religion demanded a different orientation from that which characterizes the ethical person. Kierkegaard did not believe that the Christian concept of sin could be explained by saying that to sin is to break an ethical rule. Sin is not violation of rule but violation of the person of God. Kierkegaard contrasted the ethical person’s orientation with the religionist’s orientation in Frygt og Bven (1843; Fear and Trembling, 1939), in which he considered the problems arising out of biblical figure Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son, Isaac. As Kierkegaard saw it, Abraham had to choose between the ethical demand to avoid murder and the religious command from God that he sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard raised the question whether it might not be the case that religious commitment sometimes requires a person to suspend his ethical concern. The religious person may at times face the temptation to be good rather than holy.
Another feature of Kierkegaard’s writing is the technique Kierkegaard called “indirect communication.” This technique implied that the doctrine of the stages should not be stated directly. The representatives of the various stages should not be described from the point of view of an external observer but...
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