Monday, January 7, 2008

Into the Wild and Kierkegaard

No doubt you have heard of Kierkegaard’s famous three stages of existence, the aesthetic the ethical, and the religious. The meaning of the stages may be a little different than what his suggested by the words. The word “aesthetic”, for example, may bring to mind wine-tasters, opera-lovers, poets and artists. The aesthete is someone who lives for the finer things in life but doesn’t take a lot of personal risk. The case of Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, the young man who tried to live on his own with only the bare essentials in the Alaskan wilderness and died of starvation, would not fall under this common understanding of the aesthetic life.

But Kierkegaard gives a different meaning to “aesthetic”, a meaning that would include the case of McCandless under the aesthetic life. For Kierkegaard, the aesthete is not necessarily someone who is risk-averse or is content to live his life in art galleries and wineries. In fact, in comparison to the ethical life, Kierkegaard’s aesthetic life may seem quite bold and daring. What distinguishes the aesthetic life from the ethical is that it is qualified by the outward rather than the inward aspects of experience. Thus the aesthetic man finds external circumstances decisive in the search for truth and meaning. Meaning can be found in the Alaskan wilderness, but not in the Washington suburbs; in the Arizona desert but not the Chicago inner-city; it can be found if you live on nuts and berries in the wild but not if you live on meat and potatoes cooked by your wife. The aesthete thinks that if he gets the external circumstances right, the inward apprehension of truth will follow. The external circumstances involved may include considerable personal risk, like living in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness or climbing a remote mountain or riding freight trains like a hobo. In fact, the aesthete generally supposes that the particular circumstances required to find transcendent meaning are rare and difficult to obtain. What makes such a life aesthetic in the Kierkegaardian sense is the decisive significance it gives to the particular, empirical circumstances of life, rather than the non-empirical, inward determination of the spirit that is independent of circumstances.

The connection between Kierkegaard’s meaning of aesthetic and our common meaning of the word is that the wine-taster and opera-lover also give decisive significance to empirical circumstances. A wine from a good year, chilled to just the right temperature, and served with the right food and atmosphere is not just good but sublime. The perfectly performed opera is not just an enjoyable experience but a window into transcendent meaning; in the experience of great opera the opera-lover believes he has a transcendent experience every bit as deep and authentic as Chris McCandless in his bus in Alaska. And just as the supertramp goes “on the road” looking for that one particular, radical experience through which he will break through to the other side, so the opera-lover searches for the one sublime opera through which he will find transcendent truth. Both the opera-lover and the supertramp believe the search for truth depends on the particulars of external circumstance; the one through the experience of dangerous adventures and the other through intellectual and sensory experience.

Next… the aesthetic life and the “herd” of humanity.

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