Either-Or – By Soren Kierkegaard – A Book Review and Summary of the Existentialist Book

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Either/Or is a highly influential book that contrasts two different ways of living your life: the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthetic life is one of passion, desire and whim, whilst the ethical one is more inclined to discipline and order. It was written by Soren Kierkegaard, one of the brilliant philosophers of the 19th century. His work was originally unregarded and obscure, not least to it being shunned by the Danish Church, yet it became increasingly popular at the turn of the century, and has significantly influenced a number of preeminent philosophers ever since. It is cited as a founding work in the discipline of Existentialism, which is a broad category of works that emphasize the concepts of free-will and subjectivity; it is basically a treatise tackling the question: ‘How should we live our lives?’.

“What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music”

The first half of the book is the writings of ‘A’, a man who lives his life in the aesthetic phase. He is a highly impulsive, capricious and fanciful person who bemoans the bored, prosaic nature of life; and his answer to this is to lead a highly inconsistent, spontaneous life to combat the unhappy effects of boredom. The main aim of this man is to pursue sensory pleasures for himself, and thus his actions are highly selfish, not factoring in the concerns and interests of those around him. The structure of this section is written to reflect the nature of the authors mind: it is highly poetic and idyllic, or, for lack of a better word, aesthetic. This section contains the famous ‘Seducers Diary’, which chronicles the story of a man who toys with the love life of a young lady purely for fun. The second section is written by a ‘Judge Wilhelm’ and contains Kierkegaards idea of an ethical phase of life. This section makes the assertion that a consistent and stable existence is much more inducive to happiness, as the polarized emotional existence of the aesthetic phase is too uncertain, and will eventually lead to emotional ruin. He contrasts the benefits between the life of a married man and of a seducer: the married man always has something to look forward to, whilst the seducer is always looking back, recollecting on past conquests, and constantly searching for new ones.

How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech.

However, what we see at the end is that the two stages of life are inextricably linked, and that it is impossible to live your life solely according to one phase. This is evident by the very fact that Judge Wilhelm advocates the ethical life as it is more inducive to aesthetic pleasures, and the very fact that A is trying to instruct the reader shows he has ethical concerns. What is posited as a separate sphere of life is the religious phase of life, which is treated with a lot more detail in Kierkegaards other works, but still touched upon substantially here. Either/Or is an extremely deep read – the sort of book where you must read and re-read sections to gather the full meaning of them.

I feel as if I were a piece in a game of chess, when my opponent says of it: That piece cannot be moved.