Either/or 1843

Soren Kierkegaard published Either/Or in 1843 under the pseudonym Victor Eremita. The reading public loved the book and an editor of the Corsair sent an invitation to lunch with Victor. He never recieved a reply. Victor Erimeta wrote the Preface to the book and related his passion for collecting things therein.

This is how Victor discussed his mania in his 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 quote above is from Either/Or Part 1. The actors in this part of the book are Victor Erimeta, A, and Johannes Climacus (the author, an esthete, and a seducer). Victor’s mania for collecting set up the story as it continued to his finding a hidden drawer in the writing table containing the papers of A, B (an ethicist), and Johannes Climacus. The rest of the book are those papers. It was Kierkegaard’s imaginary construction of a chapter for his use in his first pseudynmous work. Kierkegaard was interested in the art of choosing.

The esthete writes more about desire and choice in the first part of Either/Or. He makes some interesting psychological observations.

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

The unhappy person is one 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. He is always absent, never present to himself. But it is evident that it is possible to absent from one’s self either in the past or in the future. This, then, at once circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness. Either/Or part 1 p. 221

The ethicist wrote about choice much more than the esthete or the seducer did. The esthete was infinitely interested in a writing desk and displayed signs of desire out of control The ethicist (B) wants the choice to be made in freedom. Here are a few quotes from him. Hong translation.

Isaac presumably dared with a certain degree of assurance to expect that God would surely choose a wife for him who was young and beautiful and highly regarded by the people and lovable in every way, but nevertheless we lack the erotic, even if it was the case that he loved this one chosen of God with all the passion of youth. Freedom was lacking. Either/Or II 44 Hong

when it is a matter of inner history, every single little moment is of utmost importance. Inner history is the only true history, the true history struggles with that which is the life principle in history-with time-but when one struggles with time, the temporal and every single little moment thereby has its great reality. Either/Or II 134-135

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

If a man esthetically ponders a host of life tasks, then he … does not readily have one Either/Or but a great multiplicity, because the self-determining aspect of the choice has not been ethically stressed and because, if one does not choose absolutely, one chooses only for the moment and for that reason can choose something else the next moment. Either/Or II p. 167

The choice here makes two dialectical movements simultaneous-that which is chosen does not exist and comes into existence through the choice-and that which is chosen exists; otherwise it was not a choice. In other words, if what I chose did not exist but came into existence absolutely through the choice, then I did not choose-then I created. But I do not create myself-I choose myself. Therefore, whereas nature is created from nothing, whereas I myself as immediate personality am created from nothing, I as free spirit am born out of the principle of contradiction and am born through choosing myself. P. 216

But a person can choose himself according to his freedom only when he chooses himself ethically, but he can choose himself ethically only by repenting himself, and only by repenting himself does he become concrete, and only as a concrete individual is he a free individual. p. 247-249

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. p. 251

Kieregaard stresses the multiplicity of choices we can make and the intesity of our own action in the choice. This can lead to becoming a free individual or a slave to something external of ourself or of our own desires.


Life view

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? Kierkegaard’s Journal 1A 75 1835

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 Lowrie p. 171-172, 180)

Kierkegaard begins writing about choosing a “life view, a conception of life’s significance and of its purpose.” Everyone says, “one must enjoy life”; but how does one do that? This is the aesthete’s life view and the ethicist laughs at him because the “spirit is not determined as spirit but is immediately determined”.

“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.” (184-185)

He states it again this way: “He has perceived that it was in insult and consequently ugly to want to love a person according to vague forces in his being but not according to a clear conscience, to want to live in such a way that he could imagine it possible that his love could cease and he then would dare to say: I can do nothing about it; feelings are not within a person’s power.” Soren Kierkegaard Either/Or part II, Hong p. 301

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.”

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? Kierkegaard’s Journal 1A 75 1835

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”. (188)

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.

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.” (p. 16 Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses Hong)

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.

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

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.

What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. Kierkegaard’s Journal 1A 75 1835


Despair to Salvation

Philosophers like to joke about Soren Kierkegaard’s writings about depression but I like the way he wrote and I especially like that he ended things on a positive note in his books. I take up Either/or again, the last time was in my post Desire and Choice.

I think of the five parts of Either/or as comprising one big Man. Much like William Blake’s Albion and his four fold man. The whole goal of the book 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) 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.

Kierkegaard didn’t like the idea of whole nations grouping together to take the fortune or the kingdom of God. Even if a million people charged into the doors of fortune it would accomplish little because; “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.” …. p. 23 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” …. 24, 25, 26, 28, 30, 33

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

Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or Part 1 Swenson 1944, 1971

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

“Your own tactic is to train yourself in the art of being enigmatic to everybody. My young friend, suppose there was no one who troubled himself to guess your riddle — what joy, then, would you have in it?” Once you do take the chance and disclose yourself to another you can become known and your own salvation can come from that.

“But above all, for your own sake, for the sake of your salvation — for I am acquainted with no condition of soul which can better be described as perdition- stop this wild flight, this passion of annihilation which rages in you; for this is what you desire, you would annihilate everything, you would satiate the hunger of doubt at the expense of existence. To this end you cultivate yourself, to this end you harden your temper; for you are willing to admit that you are good for nothing, the only thing that gives you pleasure is to march seven times around existence and blow the trumpet, and thereupon let the whole thing collapse, that your soul may be tranquilized, yea, attuned to sadness, that you may summon Echo forth — Echo is heard only in emptiness.”

The Judge B – goes on in the book to discuss life views and marriage before Kierkegaard turns to the fourth part of the book. Diary of the seducer was the third part and the upbuilding discourse is the fourth.

Soren Kierkegaard, Either/or Part 2, Lowrie 1944, 1974 p. 163-165

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

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