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Soren Kierkegaard on Ethical Life and Freedom

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Kierkegaard did not believe that God defined and created human morality, instead he believed that it was up to us as individuals to define our own morals, values, and ethics. Kierkegaard wanted man to ‘wake up’ and renounce the cosy, sentimental illusions of modern life. He defined this change as absorbing the lower form of aesthetic life to live an ethical life. Kierkegaard defined an ethical life as when one becomes conscious of themselves. Thus, it does not mean changing a person into someone else but rather changing into an individual. In this sense, ‘ethics’ represents the ‘universal’ and prevailing the social norms. These social norms are what are used to justify actions within communities. This is what carries the implications of freedom in an ethical life. This essay will explore how living an ethical life can better the society we live in and therefore supply more opportunities for freedom. This will be analysed by defining an ethical life, comparing this to an aesthetic life, and discussing how this relates to the idea of freedom.

The ethical life is to become conscious of yourself and to act accordingly. The ethical “does not want to make the individual into someone else but into the individual himself; it does not want to destroy the esthetic but to transfigure it” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.253). Thus, the ethical life absorbs the aesthetic life and develops it into a higher form of life, by no means does the ethical exclude the aesthetic. The ethical brings the personality into focus and the aesthetic is recontextualised as part of both man’s understanding of the world and of himself (Perkins, 2010, p. 345) This allows diverse people to coexist in harmony and for individuals to act in accordance with what is good for the society. Ordinarily, we view the ethical as abstract and separate from ourselves hence we avoid it as we do not understand what will come from it. This is similar to how many fear and avoid death as, “if a person fears transparency, he always avoids the ethical” (Kierkegaard,1987, p.254) This is what creates our secret horror and fear of it, as ethical demands transparency. You must become transparent with yourself so, your morality cannot be sourced from a religious book or a book of rules, it comes from within oneself. This empowerment terrifies most people as the responsibility and control now belongs to them. There is no ‘absolute’ to blame as that power lies within oneself. What ceases the ethical from being an abstract concept and what allows it to become fully actualised is when the individual accepts this realisation and embraces it. Kierkegaard defines this as “the person who views life ethically sees the universal, and the person who lives ethically expresses the universal in his life” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.256). Therefore, the person who lives an ethical life is working towards becoming a universal human being. The individual lives with the assurance that they are living a life which is ethically structured. They have no need to ponder over insecurities which would otherwise torment him and provide him with anxiety, such as the person living an aesthetic life.

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An aesthetic life appears to be much more appealing as it “places the meaning of life in living for the performance of one’s duties” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.254). This positions the person under the illusion that they have an ethical view of life, but their mistake is that they have placed an external relation to duty. Furthermore, they are unable to be both unique and universal. The ethical and aesthetic appear similar at face value, but it takes a true and deep understanding of oneself to be able to develop an aesthetic individual into an ethical person. Kierkegaard explains that “if the ethical life did not have a much deeper connection with the personality it would always be difficult to champion it against the aesthetic life” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.254). This statement suggests that the ethical has a deep connection with the nature of being human. Thus, if a person does not come to understand and live this way of life then they are lacking an essential humanness while also missing the great good (Mehl, 2010, p. 25). This insists that the ethical life is fundamental in society as it allows a person to assess the morality of their decisions. An aesthetic life is determined by duty or a series of particular rules, but duty and the individual are two separate things, according to Kierkegaard. He depicts the person living an aesthetic life as “an accidental human being; he believes he is the perfect human being by being the one and only human being” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.256). This life of duty is unromantic and boring; therefore, the person is unfulfilled. They live too narrowly with no understanding of the wider world occupied by other individuals. It is impossible to become the universal human being with this mindset. This limits the individual from understanding the society around them and how they make coincide with it, and others. When compared to an ethical life the primary difference between the two is that the ethical individual is transparent with himself. The ethical person “does not allow vague thoughts to rustle around inside him or let tempering possibilities distract him with their juggling” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.258). This is what holds the aesthetic individual back, so that they are unable to live a free life. They rely on other people to validate their thoughts and actions while the ethical person is certain enough of their own beliefs and of their own morals that they know the right thing to do, for themselves. The aesthetic person only has superficial motivations as they cannot understand any deeper meaning than that.

This understanding of an individual’s own morals and ethics opens up the possibilities of freedom for the person. Either/Or explains that by living an ethical life a person is freed from the constraints of others around them as they are no longer confined and compelled to “talk about duty every moment, to worry every moment whether he is performing it, every moment to seek the advice of others about what his duty is” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.255). The ethical encourages a person to analyse their own actions for themselves. They are unconstrained from the bindings of a book or the declarations of another individual which dictate what decisions they should make. The ethical individual is now unrestricted by the limitations of their external duties related to an aesthetic life. When man has immersed himself in living the ethical life “he will not run himself fragged performing his duties” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.254). The ethical frees the man as he is no longer a slave to the material and aesthetic duties of his life which are external to him. Hence, the truly ethical person gains a sense of serenity and security as he now obtains his duties from within himself. The ethical provides freedom as it demands that the person is both an individual and universal. Evidently, “the personality does not have the ethical outside itself but within itself and it bursts forth from this depth” (Kierkegaard, 1987, p.257). He wants people to realise that each individual has the power to decipher their own ways in life and should therefore not be reliant on any other power. Kierkegaard attacking our general sense that life has purpose and meaning gives the individual a sense of freedom. They are no longer confined to relying on an external source to inform them on what is just and moral. Although, the ethical cannot supply an individual with complete freedom as it does little to nurture one’s spiritual self. When living an ethical life, one is diverted from self-exploration as it necessitates the person to follow a set of socially accepted regulations of what is normal. This is why religion is the third stage and therefore the superior to the ethical life, as self-exploration is a key component for faith, and is necessary for a religious life. An ethical individual is not encouraged to develop or attempt to change society for the better, only to coincide with what society declares is good. Thus, the person is not completely free but merely aware of how to act freely within the limits of what is moral, according to society.

Thus, it is evident that Kierkegaard believed that it was necessary to progress from living an aesthetic live to living an ethical life in order to have any form of freedom. This message was delivered in stark truths which admitted that man must give up his sentimental illusions of modern life in order to reach the level of security which allows you to be free. This includes becoming conscious of oneself and becoming ultimately transparent with oneself, which is a terrifying realisation to have to make. This transparency is the defining difficulty that Kierkegaard describes. It is the primary reason most people have been unable to live freely. This essay examined how living an ethical leads to freedom by defining Kierkegaard’s idea of an ethical life, comparing this to an aesthetic life, and discussing how this all relates to the idea of freedom.

Works Cited

  • Mehl, P. J., 2010. Thinking through Kierkegaard: Existential Identity in a Pluralistic World. Printing ed. URBANA; CHICAGO: University of Illinois Press. Perkins, R. L., 2010. The Point of View. Reprint ed. Georgia, United States: Mercer University Press.
  • Søren Kierkegaard, extract from Either/Or (Part II), trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp.253-259.

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