Three Philosophical Stages of Life - A Brief Look at Soren Kierkegaard - Ch. 16 from "Philosophy" by Fieser and Stumpf
The Three Stages
Kierkegaard's philosophy can rightly be regarded as a type of reaction to the overreach of Hegelian philosophy. Hegel put an emphasis on the development of the collective mind through history. This collective mind rationalizes the world and purifies these ideas through the dialectical of history. Kierkegaard, rather, goes in the opposite direction. Instead of a focus on the collective, his philosophy is a philosophy of the individual. And instead of a philosophy solely of the rational, Kierkegaard turns to a philosophy of the will. It is the acts of the will that is responsible for the dialectical growth within the individual. Kierkegaard identifies three stages of the dialectic of the will, the "aesthetic stage," the "ethical stage," and the "religious stage."
The Aesthetic Stage
The first stage of the aesthetic is how we begin our lives. We live according to what appears to be pleasing and tasteful to our senses, our impulses, and our emotions. "My chief motivation is a desire to enjoy the widest variety of pleasures of the senses. My life has no principle of limitation except my own taste; I resent anything that would limit my vast freedom of choice. At this stage I can exist inasmuch as I deliberately choose to be an aesthetic person. But even though I can achieve some existence at this level, it is a rather poor quality of existence." 1
Like a farmer has to rotate his crops so that he doesn't deplete the soil, so the aesthete must rotate is pleasures so that he doesn't become tired of any of them by consuming too much at a time. It's a constant struggle and movement to keep one's life exciting at this stage. Ultimately one knows that this is not the highest way of life. When one realizes that there is a higher form of existence, the spiritual life, coupled with the fleeting happiness of the aesthetical stage, the dialectic is triggered and one must make a choice. Does one choose to transcend this stage of life, or remain there? I am faced with an important "either/or" decision, and it is not something that I can think myself through. Rather, I must make a commitment of the will to myself to change or remain.
The Ethical Stage
When I have made a commitment to myself to seek higher obligations in life than my pleasure, I begin to realize that there is a moral law which I should conduct myself by. This moral law is transcends my desires, and gives a form to my life. I ought to act in this way. Likewise it also gives consistency to my actions. I do not need to keep "rotating" between pleasures, as the moral law brings more long term satisfaction.
And yet, this stage too leaves me incomplete. Even the person that knows and strives for the moral law sometimes fails. Maybe he didn't know enough, or maybe there was some weakness to his will. Everyone falls short of living up to the ethical norms which he holds. This awareness acts as the second phase of the dialectic of life. The "thesis" began as the pursuit of pleasure as the aim for living. Now, the "anti-thesis," is that I must follow the moral law. Finally, this showing its incompleteness, I am faced with another either/or decision to reach the "synthesis" phase of life. I must begin to realize that I need God's help to fulfill the moral law.
"I ultimately come to realize that I am in fact incapable of fulfilling the moral law, and I even deliberately violate that law. I thus become conscious of my guilt and sin. Guilt, Kierkegaard says, becomes a dialectic that places before me a new either-or. Now I must either remain at the ethical level and try to fulfill the moral law or respond to my new awareness. This specifically involves an awareness of my own finitude and estrangement from God to whom I belong and from whom I must derive my strength. Again, my movement from the ethical to the next stage can be achieved not by thinking alone but by an act of commitment - that is, by a leap of faith." 2
The Religious Stage
This final leap of faith, though, is greater than the commitments of the previous stages because this final stage is a commitment of oneself to God, not just the moral law. Reason is able to access the moral law, and so it more logical and rational to give oneself to it. However, in response to Hegel's system of history and the "absolute spirit," Kierkegaard rejects the notion that God can be so easily captured by reason. Rather, God is person. God is subject, not just abstract historical process. (Here Kierkegaard's budding existentialism is coming through with this emphasis of our personal relation to God as subject.) Our knowledge of God has to be found within in the relationship we have with him. Inasmuch as Hegel claims to know God through the development of reason, Kierkegaard claims that we come to know God through will. It is this personal leap of faith by which we personally encounter God for ourselves.
"There is no way, prior to the actual relationship, to get any knowledge about it. Any attempt to get objective knowledge about it is entirely an approximation process. Only an act of faith can assure me of my personal relation to God. As I discover the inadequacy of my existence at the aesthetic and ethical levels, self-fulfillment in God becomes clear to me." It is faith that transcends the chasm between God and us. In faith we commit the will in the face of the unknown and come to trust and know.
In so many words, all humans must transverse these three stages within their own humanity. Only in the will's transformation towards God can we find fulfillment. This is authenticity. "This essential self is fixed by the very fact that human beings must inescapably become related to God. To be sure, we can exist at any one of the three stages along life's way. But the experience of despair and guilt creates in us an awareness of qualitative differences in various types of existence. We also become aware that some types of human existence are more authentic than others." 3
1 - Fieser, James and Samuel Enoch Stumpf. Philosophy: A Historical Survey With Essential readings. (New York. McGraw Hill, 2020). Pg. 380.
2 - 381
3 - 382