Either/or 1843



If the whole of Christianity hangs on this, on its having to be believed, not comprehended, on its either having to be believed or one’s having to be offended by it, is it then so commendable to wasn’t to comprehend? Is it commendable, or isn’t it rather either impudence or thoughtlessness to want to grasp what doesn’t want to be grasped. The Sickness unto death, by Anti-Climacus, Edited by Soren Kierkegaard 1849 P. 131 Hannay 1989

Despair is exactly a consumption of the self, but an impotent self-consumption not capable of doing what it wants. But what it wants is to consume itself, which it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consumption, but in which despair is once again incapable of doing what it wants, to consume itself. With despair a fire takes hold in something that cannot burn, or cannot be burned up – the self. The Sickness unto death, by Anti-Climacus, Edited by Soren Kierkegaard 1849 P. 48-49 Hannay 1989

Soren Kierkegaard published Either/or Feb 20 1843 under the pseudonym Victor Eremita. The reading public loved the book and an editor of the Corsair sent an invitation to Victor for lunch but never received a reply. The book was huge and Kierkegaard had to publish it in two volumes. The first volume was made up of a number of disconnected essays exploring the thoughts of a melancholy aesthetic man, the music of Mozart and plays of Goethe, ancient and modern tragedy, first love, and a diary of a seducer. The second volume was an essay in favor of the married life and a long essay by a Judge about developing a balanced life view.  

I think of the two volumes of Either/or as talking about one big Man. Much like William Blake’s Albion and his four fold man. The whole goal of the book was to make that peace Christ spoke of, “And when he drew nigh, he saw the city and wept over it, saying: If thou hadst known in this thy day, even thou, the things that belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.” Luke 19:41 (Either/or Part 2 p. 343 Lowrie tr.) The aesthete gets help from the ethicist and then the preacher comes along at the end. This peace comes to that one Kierkegaard loves – the single individual. The aesthetic and ethical sides of Kierkegaard’s creature were religious in nature and were meant to walk together without one trying to throw the other overboard.

The actors in Part 1of the book are Victor Erimeta, A, and Johannes Climacus (the author, an esthete, and a seducer, and a preacher). Victor’s mania for collecting set up the story. Victor had to make a choice about purchasing a writing table and he described it in his Preface to the book.

This is how Victor discussed his choice in the Preface to the book.

“Some seven years ago I caught sight of a writing-table at a second-hand dealer’s which immediately took my fancy. It was not in the modern style and rather worse for wear, but it interested me. It is impossible to describe the emotion I passed through, but I suppose most people have had similar experiences. My daily routine led me past the writing-table at the dealer’s, and I never failed to look at it lovingly in passing.

In due course this interest in the writing-table became an event in my life; it became a necessity of my existence to see it, and I would even make a detour on its account.

The more often I saw it, the stronger grew my desire to possess it. I knew well enough that this was an extravagant wish, as I had no use for it, and had to confess that it would be sheer waste of money to purchase it. But it is notorious that a craving will find itself some excuse.

One day I stepped into the dealer’s, and, after asking about various other things, I was on the point of going when I casually made a very low offer for the writing-table. I thought it possible that the dealer might close with the offer and then it would have been through a lucky chance that the desk became mine. It was certainly not a question of money that suggested this point of view, but the desire to ease my conscience. But the attempt failed; the dealer was unusually determined. For a while I continued to pass by daily and to cast enamoured glances at the writing-table.

I must decide one way or the other, I thought to myself, for, once the writing-table is gone, it will be too late. And even if I were to succeed in tracing it again, I should no longer get the same satisfaction out of it. My heart thumped as I entered the shop again, and bought and paid for the table.

This shall be the last time I will be guilty of such extravagance, I thought; it is really lucky that I have bought it, for now every time I look at it, it will remind me of my extravagance. This writing-table shall start a new era in my life.

Depraved desire is so plausible, and the way to hell is paved with good resolutions. The writing table was placed in my room, and, as in the first days of my passion I found my joy in regarding it from the street, I now paced up and down before it at home. By-and-by I got to know its interior, the countless drawers, pigeon-holes, and shelves, and was in every way delighted with my writing table.”

William Stekel 1868-1940, Disguises of Love; Psycho-analytical Sketches p. 53ff 1922 Translated by Rosalie Gabler

The writing table was something external to Victor that he thought he could use to get a new start in life. He didn’t realize that he could get a new start any time he wanted because the new start lies within him not on the outside. Kierkegaard says, “These papers have afforded me an insight into the lives of two men, which has confirmed my hunch that the external is not the internal.” (P. 14 Volume 1, Swenson)

The story continued with Victor finding a hidden drawer in the writing table containing the papers of A (the aesthete), B (the ethicist, a Judge), and Johannes Climacus (the seducer). The rest of the book is those papers. It was Kierkegaard’s imaginary construction of a chapter for his use in his first pseudonymous work. Kierkegaard was interested in the art of choosing. He makes some interesting psychological observations about the elusive thing called the object of desire.

The object of desire hovers over the desire, sinks down in it, still without this movement happening through desire’s own power to attract or because desire is operative. The object of desire does not fade away, nor does it elude desire’s embrace, for then indeed desire would awaken; but it is, without being desired, present to desire, which just because of this becomes melancholy because it cannot come to the point of desiring. As soon as desire awakens, or rather in and with its awakening, desire and its object are separated; now desire breathes freely and soundly, where earlier it could not live and breathe for the desired. When desire is not awake, its object charms and inveigles it, aye, almost frightens it. Desire must have air, it must burst forth; thereby it happens that they part company. The object of desire flees shyly, modest as a woman, and they are separated; the object of desire vanishes et apparet sublimis (and appear to be floating in the air) or in any case outside of desire. Either/or part 1 p. 74

What happens if the object of desire is in the past locked up in memory or in the future locked up in hope? The unhappy person is described in part one of Either/or and the Judge in part two tries to convince the unhappy person of his error. He tells the aesthete, A, that he is living a poet’s existence as the ambassador in the kingdom of sighs.

“What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. A poet existence as such is an unhappy existence; it is higher than the finite and yet is not the infinite. My life is still a poet’s existence. What could be more unhappy? An unhappy person wanders about, unable to find rest; he ascends the stairs, his footsteps echoing in the stillness of the night. Memory is emphatically the real element of the unhappy. The unhappy man of hope could not find himself present in his hope, just as the unhappy man of memory could not find himself present in his memory. For there he stands, the ambassador from the kingdom of sighs, the chosen favorite of the realm of suffering, the apostle of grief, the silent friend of pain, the unhappy lover of memory, in his memories confounded by the light of hope, in his hope deceived by the shadows of memory. I hail thee with thy title of honor: The Unhappiest Man!” (Either/or Part 2 Hong; p. 19, p. 210 Either/or 1 Swenson p. 35, 172, 221, 227)

What kind of thoughts does this unhappiest man have? Kierkegaard had his aesthete describe them in his first volume of Either/or. “Alas, the doors of fortune do not open inward, so that by storming them one can force them open; but they open outward, and therefore nothing can be done.” …. Either/or dealt with the development of the personality. The first part of the book is about a depressed young man and his view of life. He says things like; “My view of life is utterly meaningless. …. Life has become a bitter drink to me …. When I get up in the morning, I go straight back to bed. …. What am I good for? …. One ought to be a mystery, not only to others but also to one’s self. … Life is so empty and meaningless. My life is absolutely meaningless. …What is the significance of life? … I am not the master of my life …. I have but one friend, Echo” Either/or Part 1, 23-24, 25, 26, 28, 30, 33 Swenson tr

He can’t move forward in life because he’s frozen in place. He can’t have a relationship with someone else because his philosophy is; “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry you with regret both; whether you marry or do not marry, you will regret both.” He can’t kill himself either because he can’t make a concrete decision. “Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will also regret that; hang yourself or do not hang yourself, and you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both.” 35

He wants to die but can’t because his sickness is not unto death. He flirts with the idea and would have another do what he is unable to do. “Why did I not die in infancy? Never have I been happy … This is my misfortune: at my side there always walks an angel of death … “37, 39

“What portends? What will the future bring? I do not know, I have no presentiment. When a spider hurls itself down from some fixed point, consistently with its nature, it always sees before it only an empty space wherein it can find no foothold however much it sprawls. And so it is with me: always before me an empty space; what drives me forward is a consistency which lies behind me. This life is topsy-turvy and terrible, not to be endured.” Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or I p.24 Swenson

Kierkegaard wrote a section entitled The Rotation of Crops in the first part of Either/or Read it here

Kierkegaard makes the movement from the depressed aesthete to the ethical judge in the transition from the papers of A to those of B. B is writing letters to A and he says, “My Friend, What I have so often said to you I say now once again, or rather I shout it: Either/or, aut/aut. ….. Yes, I perceive perfectly that there are two possibilities, one can either do this or do that. My sincere opinion and my friendly counsel is as follows: “Do it/or don’t do it – you will regret both.” …. “I say merely either/or.”” 161

Kierkegaard liked the either/or analogy: “when I drink coffee, my indisposition comes from drinking coffee, and when I do not drink coffee, then my indisposition comes from not drinking coffee. So it is with us men.” Kierkegaard’s Journals VI A 98

He wants A to become open to himself and make good decisions. I like the way he wrote about the masks of life:

“Life is a masquerade, you explain, and for you this is inexhaustible material for amusement; and so far, no one has succeeded in knowing you; for every revelation you make is always an illusion, it is only in this way you are able to breathe and prevent people from pressing importunately upon you and obstructing you respiration. Your occupation consists in preserving you hiding-place, and that you succeed in doing, for your mask is the most enigmatical of all. In fact, you are nothing; you are merely a relation to others, and what you are you are by virtue of this relation. You yourself are nothing, an enigmatical figure on whose brow is inscribed Either/or – “For this,” you say “is my motto”, and these words are not, as the grammarians believe, disjunctive conjunctions; no, they belong inseparably together and therefore ought to be written as one word, inasmuch as in their union they constitute an interjection which I shout at mankind.”

“Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? Or are you not terrified by it?”

“In every man there is something which to a certain degree prevents him from becoming perfectly transparent to himself; and this may be the case in so high a degree, he may become inexplicably woven into relationships of life which extend far beyond himself that he almost cannot reveal himself. But he who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all.”

He reminds him that he should show his true face because it will be good for him. It is easier to keep that mask on until that midnight hour and hide somewhere in the dark. Kierkegaard alluded to this in his 1844 book The Concept of Anxiety. “The individual is in the evil and is in anxiety about the good. Disclosure is the good. (transparency)” p. 118, 127

Despair is the imbalance in a relation of synthesis, in a relation which relates to itself. But the synthesis is not the imbalance, the synthesis is just the possibility; or, the possibility of the imbalance lies in the synthesis. If the synthesis were itself the imbalance, there would be no despair; it would be something that lay in human nature itself, that is, it would not be despair; it would be something that happened to the person, something he suffered, like a sickness he succumbs to, or like death, which is the fate of everyone. no, despair lies in the person himself. But if he were not a synthesis there would be no question of his despairing; nor could he despair unless the synthesis were originally in the right relationship from the hand of God. Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 1849, Hannay 1989 p. 46

He’s trying to get the aesthete to choose himself. He doesn’t want him to live in egotistical depression which has a secret horror of any contact with life because there is nothing he can depend on. He’s basically afraid of change. Sympathetic depression has the same fears. The aesthete wants to find something to give meaning to his life. Kierkegaard had asked himself about the meaning of life in his journals. “Of what use would it be to me to discover a so-called objective truth, to work through the philosophical systems so that I could, if asked, make critical judgments about them, could point out the fallacies in each system? Of what use would it be to me to be able to develop a theory of the state, getting details from various sources and combining them into a whole, and constructing a world I did not live in but merely held up for others to see? Of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points — if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life?” Kierkegaard’s Journal 1A 75 1835  The Judge says, “The choice itself is crucial for the content of the personality through the choice the personality submerges itself in that which is being chosen, and when it does not choose, it withers away in atrophy.” Either/Or II p. 163 Hong

He is trying to get A to adopt a life view. He wants him to “learn that a person’s unhappiness never lies in his lack of control over external conditions, since this would only make him completely unhappy.” Either/Or II p. 188 Hong

The ethicist in Either/or views choice as a very serious business because the power of choice can be taken from you in an instant because you’ve lived past the time of choosing and now someone else has chosen for you or the conditions no longer exist. Life gets in the way and a new either/or comes along while you were still lost in reflection. Judge William (the ethicist) has been trying to get his esthetic nature to make better choices. He wants to “rouse him not into an activity of thought but to earnestness of spirit.” He wants to get him to “stand at the crossroads in such a position that there is no recourse but to choose.” It’s not about the reality of the thing that’s chosen but the reality of the act of choosing.” (Either/or Part 2 Lowrie p. 171-172, 180)

Kierkegaard wants to know what is within a person’s power. From this point on the Judge takes the aesthete through a variety of views of life. The life view that teaches that health is the most precious good. The poet would say, beauty is the highest good. Then there are views of life where “wealth, glory, high station, etc., are accounted life’s task and its content.” Then there is the life view that the personality is determined and satisfied by talent, “a mercantile talent, a practical talent, a mechanical talent, a mathematical talent, a poetical talent, an artistic talent, a philosophical talent.” Next he talks about the view of living for your pleasure. Talent was a multiplicity and pleasure is just as much a multiplicity as talent was. Now the pleasure can be “lust for fishing or hunting or keeping horses. He says it is split up and therefore “lies in the sphere of finite reflection.” Most of these views of life require a “multiplicity of outward conditions that aren’t always allotted to man”. (Either/or Hong p. 188)

Kierkegaard stresses the multiplicity of choices we can make and the intensity of our own action in the choice. He wants the aesthete to choose himself ethically. “But the person who chooses himself ethically chooses himself concretely as this specific individual, and he achieves this concretion because this choice is identical with the repentance, which ratifies the choice. The individual with these capacities, these inclinations, these drives, these passions, influenced by this specific social milieu, as this specific product of a specific environment. But as he becomes aware of all this, he takes upon himself responsibility for all of it. He does not hesitate over whether he will take this particular thing or not, for he knows that if he does not do it something much more important will be lost.” (Either/or Part 2 Hong p. 251)

Now the individual is developing an “inner history” and can “choose himself according to his freedom” (Either/Or II 134-135, 247-249) He’s no longer “the unhappy person who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself.” (Either/Or part 1 p. 221 Swenson) He keeps going back to: posits a condition which either lies outside the individual or is in the individual in such a way that it is not posited by the individual himself. “But he who says that he wants to enjoy life always posits a condition which either lies outside the individual or is in the individual in such a way that it is not posited by the individual himself.” (Either/or part 2 Hong p. 184-185)

Just as a physician might say there isn’t a single human being who enjoys perfect health, so someone with a proper knowledge of man might say there is not a single human being who does not despair at least a little, in whose innermost being there does not dwell an uneasiness, an unquiet, a discordance, an anxiety about a possibility in life or an anxiety about himself, so that as a physician speaks of one’s going about with an illness in the body, he goes about with a sickness, goes about weighed down with a sickness of the spirit, which only now and then reveals its presence within, in glimpses, and with what is for him an inexplicable anxiety. The Sickness unto death, by Anti-Climacus, Edited by Soren Kierkegaard 1849 Hannay 1989 p. 52

Kierkegaard leaves the aesthete and ethicist and moves on to the preacher in his discourse at the end of the book. This section is also in the form of a letter written and Victor Eremita (the compiler of Either/or) decided to publish it.

Kierkegaard writes about something people hate to admit; that they are in the wrong. Wouldn’t we rather be in the right. People are sometimes in the wrong and sometimes in the right. He writes about how often it occurs; “If once it occurred in the world that man’s lot was essentially different from what it ordinarily is, what assurance is there that this would not recur, what assurance that this is not the true thing, and what ordinarily occurs is the untrue? Or is the true proved to be such by the fact that it most often occurs? And does not that really often occur which those ages witnessed? Is it not what we all of us in so many ways have experienced, that what occurs on a great scale is experienced also in a minor degree?” …. “Being in the wrong — can any feeling be thought of more painful than this? And do we not see that men would rather suffer anything than admit that they are in the wrong? …. There is something edifying in being in the wrong, for when we admit it, we build ourselves up with the prospects of it occurring more and more rarely.” ….

When I am in the wrong and tell my neighbor that I am wrong it does bring about healing and what Kierkegaard liked to talk about “edification”. Hard hardheartedness disappears with the disclosure. Can we learn to like being in the wrong and possibly become peace makers?

“So it is painful to be in the wrong, and the more painful the more frequently it occurs; it is edifying to be in the wrong, and the more edifying the more frequently it occurs! …. “

Kierkegaard says we can argue with God as much as we want as long as we admit we are in the wrong. Because; “it is an edifying thought that against God we are always in the wrong. …. This thought then checks doubt and calms distress, it encourages and inspires to action. ….”

He takes us from that depressed individual who got up in the morning and went straight back to bed again. And brings hope in the form of the ethical and salvation in the form of the religious. “Do not check your soul’s flight, do not grieve the better promptings within you, do not dull your spirit with half wishes and half thoughts. Ask yourself and continue to ask until you find the answer. ….. for only the truth which edifies is truth for you.”

There is this chess piece he wrote of in book one of Either/or – A said he felt like a chess piece that cannot be moved. It’s just like the “philosopher who said to a man who had insulted him by pulling off his hat and throwing it on the floor, “If you pick it up, you’ll get a thrashing; if you don’t pick it up you’ll also get a thrashing; now you can choose.” (Either/or 2 Lowrie p. 162)

Soren Kierkegaard, Either/or Part 2, Lowrie 1944, 1974 p. 345, 348, 350, 352, 355-356

Now we leave Either/or (February 20, 1843) and take up Soren Kierkegaard’s companion piece to the book published under his own name. Two Upbuilding Discourses was published May 16, 1843 with a new life view for our consideration. He writes of The Expectancy of Faith.

Talent doesn’t come to everyone, neither does beauty or unlimited pleasures. “Just as those who are expecting something have always been the majority in the world, so in turn their expectancy can be of so many kinds that it is very difficult to discuss them all. But all who are expecting do have one thing in common, that they are expecting something in the future, because expectancy and the future are inseparable ideas.” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses Hong p. 16)

Expectancy gives us something to struggle for. We struggle so our head isn’t bowed to the earth or our soul captive to the service of the moment and this struggle is “a sign of the nobility of human beings because he who battles with the future is battling with himself.”

How, then, shall we face the future? When the sailor is out on the ocean, when everything is changing all around him, when the waves are born and die, he does not stare down into the waves, because they are changing. He looks up at the stars. Why? Because they are faithful; they have the same location now that they had for our ancestors and will have for generations to come. By what means does he conquer the changeable? By the eternal, one can conquer the future, because the eternal is the ground of the future, and therefore through it the future can be fathomed. What, then, is the eternal power in a human being? It is faith. What is the expectancy of faith? Victory-or, as Scripture so earnestly and so movingly teaches us, that all things must serve for good those who love God. (19)

Faith is the good that Kiekegaard thinks is better than talent, pleasure, beauty, wealth, power, or high station because it is an inner good that is available to everyone. And he makes the struggle for this good one that can life one up to victory or make you aware.

Every time I catch my soul not expecting victory, I know I do not have faith. When I know that, I also know what I must do, because although it is no easy matter to have faith, the first condition for my arriving at faith is that I become aware of whether I have it or not. (27) Faith is posited by the individual himself. Faith is a good gift from God.

His next discourse is based on James 1:17-22

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of variation. According to his own counsel, he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a first fruit of his creation. Therefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, because man’s anger does no work what is righteous before God. Therefore, put away all filthiness and all remnants of wickedness and receive with meekness the word that is implanted in you and that is powerful for making your souls blessed.

Ah! so much is spoken about human need and misery; I try to understand it, have even been closely acquainted with not a little of it. So much is spoken about wasting one’s life. The only life wasted is the life of one who so lived it, deceived by life’s pleasures or its sorrows, that he never became decisively, eternally, conscious of himself as spirit, as self, or, what is the same, he never became aware-and gained in the deepest sense the impression-that there is a God there and that ‘he’, himself, his self, exists before this God, which infinite gain is never come by except through despair. Alas! also this is misery, that so many live their  lives in this way, defrauded by this most blessed of all thoughts; this misery that occupies oneself, or, in one’s relation to the mass of mankind, occupies, them, with everything else, and uses them to provide the living energy for the play on life’s stage, yet never reminds them of this blessedness; this misery that one heaps them together and defrauds them instead of separating them from one another so that each individual may gain the highest, the only thing worth living for, and enough to live for an eternity. The Sickness unto death, by Anti-Climacus, Edited by Soren Kierkegaard 1849 Hanney 1989 p. 57



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