The Great Conversation
An excellent chapter on Soren
Kierkegaard highlights Norman Melchert’s text. Melchert describes Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authors, showing the sorts of individuals we
make ourselves into, and what it means to be those individuals. Kierkegaard
wants us to see ourselves as we are, stripping away comfortable self-deceptions.
One of Kierkegaard's authors is “A.” "A" would be satisfied
just merely being, merely flowing through life with constant pleasure, without
anxiety, self-consciousness, and awareness of consequences. Thoughtlessly
chasing pleasure, unfortunately, often fails. Pleasure often takes thought and
anxiety to produce. Direct pursuit of pleasure leaves one bored and jaded, producing anxieties. His
solution: Viewing his own life merely as a work of art. Instant gratification
fades, but cultivating aesthetic pleasures provides lasting enjoyment.
For "A," boredom is the enemy. His life consists of two poles: Boring and interesting. He judges everything (implicitly or explicitly) boring or interesting.
One method, the “vulgar, inartistic
method,” of maximizing the interesting is called the rotation of
fields, Using this method, one keeps mindlessly changing channels,
The other way of maximizing the
interesting is the thoughtful, carefully chosen method--the rotation
of crops. This can be done while staying in the same environment. One chooses
to think a pleasant thought, one chooses to forget unpleasant thoughts. One chooses
to enjoy the worst show on television as if it were the most humorous show ever seen. Or one chooses to revel in a gob of spit resting on a speaker’s
Whatever the aesthetic method, commitments
must be avoided, so one is never forced to do anything, especially
anything boring. The appearance of control must be maintained.
One form of aesthete is the Don Juan, the
non-reflective stud who mindlessly struts and performs like an alpha elephant
seal flopping around a beach, crushing lives blundering into his
“A” describes another aesthete,
Johannes Climacus, the charmer who plans and carefully manipulates. He tricks
Cordelia into loving him merely to seduce her. Then using tricks--“It’s
not you, it’s me.”--he gets her to dump him (what he
wants). He uses her, and she does not know it. Not only does he
not care about what he does, he thinks he helps her because he
made her life more interesting. He taught her “the delights and terrors of
the possible.” The chase and his bird’s eye enjoyment of the chase were
all that mattered to him. “He is the playwright, actor and audience in his own
life.” The life of the aesthete becomes a multitude of lives, one following the other,
each life interested in something else.
Another character is The Judge.
The Judge recognizes that early love comes from infatuation and spontaneous romance.
But since this love arises from stuff happening, bad stuff
eventually happens. The end of love happens as spontaneously as the beginning.
Laziness, thoughtlessness, and cynicism about love end up producing serial relationships or evasions of relationships. Or sometimes marriages of convenience, marriages of mere habit or contract. Intuitive love does not lead to lasting
love. Lasting love requires will, choice, and reasoning.
Conjugal love escapes
art. Novels and movies are almost never about conjugal happiness. Art describes
overcoming opposition while falling in love. Art ends with “happily ever after,”
but in the real world the most incredible events should
begin. Married couples have “not fought with lions and ogres, but with the
most dangerous enemy—with time.” Marriage is worthless to art sellers and
creators, but to the married couple, it can offer greater delights, including ethical enjoyments.
The Judge recommends the ethical life. The ethical life demands taking choices seriously. Aesthetes have
choices, but it hardly matters which alternative they choose: Moose tracks ice
cream or mint chocolate chip ice cream? “[A]ny
choice might as well have been the opposite—and can be tomorrow.” Whatever one
does, new pleasure is not far away. And for goodness sake, says the aesthete, keep tinges of regret
away. Flush commitments down the drain, except the commitment to
But eventually the tomorrows end. One can captain a ship that plows into rocks
because one was indecisive for too long. One can plow into the rocks by
choosing trivial alternatives. And one can plow into the rocks by simply
choosing awful alternatives. If we do not act with ethical decisiveness, “we
will lose ourselves.” He writes: “Good versus evil” is on a different planet
from “interesting versus boring.”
Marriage is not the only ethical life,
but it symbolizes ethical living. For marriage to succeed, it
requires nurturance and commitment. Shuff happens is no philosophy for marriage.
Proper responses to the vagaries and ills of life matters. Simply being
is for the herd. Marriage and, by analogy, ethical living are matters of doing
Secrecy and nowism, immediacy and fragmentation infiltrate the aesthetic mind.
Permanent detachment and wallowing in blather mark the aesthetic world.
Reason, autonomy and the
requirement to do better than given circumstances
distinguish the ethical world.
Kierkegaard says we should become
a “self.” In doing so, we should resist habits urging us to drift. Or
impulses sending us in vile directions, including the “wish to be a god or an unthinking
brute.” We must face facts we can do something about and facts we can do
nothing about. Paradoxically, living an ethical life can often be more
enjoyable than the aesthetic life, though one was
not pursuing pleasure.
Kierkegaard then claims the
ethical life is not the ultimate, recommending instead a religious-ethical life. He
describes a “Knight of Infinite Resignation” who pursues a religion of
inner peace and detachment from the world. Avoid this life, he says.
Another knight, “The Knight of Faith” lives passionately in the world—the
ethical life—and also with a passion for religion.
The aesthete moves on when she loses
interest. The ethical and the Knight of faith are whole-heartedly committed to
becoming a self, even up until the moments before death. When
one fails to become a self, writes Kierkegaard, one is in “despair.” Apathy, nihilism, and indolence reek of despair. Mawkishness and self-destruction, self-loathing and other-loathing stink of despair. Fantasies and misplaced emotions wallow in despair. Destructive information delivers despair. Constantly exploring possibilities, without pursing them, oozes despair. Herd activities and low standards multiply despair. Being manipulated fills us with despair. Creating harms to please influential fools ratchets up despair.
No matter what life one chooses, one must choose without certainty. No permanent solutions exist, yet one should not merely be a hovering observer. The difficulties of involvements have their rewards.
A tiresome chapter on Martin Heidegger, who is either over my head or a yogi of fascism, who duped philosophers, finishes Melchert's book. I think the latter more probable. Worth browsing.
—Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009