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