Kierkegaard’s Three Lives

During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is not to take the risk. – Kierkegaard

According to the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, there are three types of lives which a person can lead: the aesthetic life, the ethical life, and the religious life. The person who leads the aesthetic life aims solely at the satisfaction of his desires. If, for example, heroin is what he desires, then he will do whatever it takes to get hold of heroin. In circumstances in which heroin is cheap and legal, this need not include any immoral behaviour. However, in circumstances in which heroin is expensive or illegal, this is likely to include lying, stealing, and much worse. As the aesthete adapts his behaviour to the circumstances in which he finds himself, he does not have a consistent, coherent self.

In marked contrast to the aesthete, the person who leads the ethical life behaves according to universal moral principles such as ‘do not lie’ and ‘do not steal’, regardless of the circumstances in which he finds himself. As the person has a consistent, coherent self, he leads a higher type of life than that of the aesthete.

Despite this, the highest type of life is not the ethical life but the religious life, which shares similarities with both the aesthetic and the ethical lives. Like the aesthetic life, the religious life prioritises individual circumstances and leaves open the possibility of immoral behaviour. However, like the ethical life, the religious life acknowledges the existence and authority of universal, determinate moral principles, as embodied in and promulgated by social norms and conventions. By acknowledging moral principles and yet prioritising individual circumstances, the religious life opens the door for moral indeterminacy. For this reason, the religious life is a life of constant ambiguity and constant uncertainty, and hence of constant anxiety. Anxiety, says Kierkegaard, is the dizziness of freedom.

For Kierkegaard, a paradigm of the religious life is that of the biblical patriarch Abraham, as epitomised by the episode of the Sacrifice of Isaac. According to Genesis 22, God said to Abraham,

Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Unlike the aesthete, Abraham clearly recognises the existence and authority of moral principles. However, unlike the moralist, he prioritises individual circumstances over moral principles, and thus obeys God’s command to kill Isaac. As Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel appears and calls out to him,

Abraham, Abraham … Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

At that moment, a ram appears in a thicket, and Abraham spares Isaac and sacrifices the ram is his stead. Abraham then names the place of the sacrifice Jehovahjireh, which translates from the Hebrew as, ‘The Lord will provide’. The teaching of the Sacrifice of Isaac is that the conquest of doubt and anxiety, and hence the exercise of freedom, requires nothing less than a leap of faith. It is by making such a leap of faith, not only once but over and over again, that a person, in the words of Kierkegaard, ‘relates himself to himself’ and becomes a true self. Although choice is made in the instant, the consequences of making a choice are irredeemable and everlasting, and this risk and responsibility give rise to intense anxiety.

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide


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  1. While I like Kierkegaard’s musings on the subjectively-objective nature of truth (and so, by extension, generally like the ordering of aesthetic, ethical and religious states, even if I think they’re rather misnamed, at least in English), the example of Abraham’s Faith being the highest state of thinking has always rubbed me up the wrong way.

    The reason for my feeling this is that Abraham shows not the slightest trace of suffering in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God.

    Kierkegaard’s religious state – the acceptance that suffering is a crucial component to free decision-making, as subjective decisions ultimately require balancing extrinsic and instrinsic states – is not actually present in the Bibical story of Abraham/Isaac. The KJV simply has God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Beyond God fleetingly acknowledging that Abraham loves Isaac, there isn’t any indication that Abraham suffered at all in obeying God. In fact, there isn’t even a line in the Bible to say that Abraham weighed up whether to obey God or not. He just did it.

    Paul, in one of his Letters (can’t remember which, off the top of my head) indulges in some merry revisionism of what’s actually in Genesis, admittedly, but the original story lacks any of this.

    For a devout man like Abraham, the highest possible universal moral code would be the Word of God, as it has hierarchical precedence of other moral codes (especially since viewed from his perspective, those other moral codes also ultimately emanate from the same divine source). For Abraham, Word of God thus has absolute universal moral authority regardless of the actual content of the Word. That’s why he’s willing to sacrifice Isaac.

    So yes, he may overcome his understandable (aesthetic/instrinsic/subjective) desire not to sacrifice Isaac, but he does so to obey God and NOT because he’s weighed up God’s moral command versus other moral codes. Surely that’s a prime example of an absolutist ethical life rather than a religious life, within Kierkegaard’s definitions? The Bible doesn’t show Abraham as a man wracked with guilt over his choice, it doesn’t even show him thinking about it! He obeys blindly and without insight.

    In the Bible, the story is used as an example of Man giving way to God’s will, and that God will then provide. It’s a story not of individual choice to have faith, but of giving up choice before even getting to that juncture. That strikes me as cutting directly across the concept of a religious state as Kierkegaard would have it, which requires an element of actively choosing to have faith after acknowledging the failure of both the aesthetic and ethical models to deal with all of life’s situations adequately/with truth.

    A better Bibical example would surely be David, especially the part with Bathsheba, where he makes an error, suffers, reflects, weighs up his actions against both God’s word and the real world, and then chooses to have Faith.

  2. I agree with you, although, for Kierkegaard, the episode of the sacrifice of Isaac is a paradigm of the religious life because Abraham had to * have faith * that God, whose command was against natural law, was indeed God, and not, for instance, the devil or a hallucination. In short, to have faith is easy – once you can do it.