C.G. Fewston's Reviews > Stages on Life's Way

Stages on Life's Way by Søren Kierkegaard
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it was amazing

In his “Letter to the Reader” (pgs 398-494), Kierkegaard provides some insightful comments and analysis on the differences between the “tragic” and the “comic” in literature (or what he calls the “imaginary construction”), which is useful for any serious writer. One of the first and major distinctions between the tragic and the comic is how the tragic needs the historical far more than the comic does.

“It is by far the common practice to utilize the historical and with considerable reservation to understand the Aristotelian dictum that the poet is a greater philosopher than the historian because he shows how it ought to be, not how it is. The comic poet, however, does not need a historical foothold such as this. He may give his characters whatever he wants it, if only the comic ideality is there so there is sure to be laughter” (p 437).

To further illustrate his point, Kierkegaard uses the two lovers in “Guilty?”/“Not Guilty?” as an example to explain more about the tragic and the comic in his imaginary construction.

“Now to my imaginary construction. I have placed together two heterogeneous individualities, one male and one female. Him I have kept in the power of spirit in the direction of the religious; her I have kept in esthetic categories. As soon as I posit a point of unity there can be plenty of misunderstanding. This point of unity is that they are united in loving each other… The conjunction in this misunderstanding is that they love each other, but in their heterogeneity this passion must express itself in essentially different ways, and thus the misunderstanding must not come between them from outside but develops in the relationship itself that exists between them. The tragic is that two lovers do not understand each other; the comic is that two who do not understand each other love each other” (pgs 420-421).

“This is how I have designed the imaginary construction—simultaneously comic and tragic” (p 430).

Also in “Letter to the Reader,” Kierkegaard discusses various aspects of the “esthetic hero,” which is still applicable and visible in contemporary literature almost two hundred years later.

“The esthetic hero, excelling by his quantitative difference, must possess within himself the conditions for being victorious, must be healthy, strong, etc.; then the difficulties come from the outside” (p 458).

In simple speak: “The esthetic hero must have his opposition outside himself, not in himself” (p 407).

Elaborating on the idea of the esthetic hero overcoming his/her external challenges, Kierkegaard defines for the writer-reader what is meant by an “esthetic outcome” for the esthetic hero and how that compares to a “religious outcome.”

“The esthetic outcome is in the external, and the external is the guarantee that the outcome is there; we see that the hero has triumphed, has conquered the country, and now we are finished. The religious outcome, indifferent toward the external, is assured only in the internal, that is, in faith. Indifferent toward the externality, which the esthetic needs (there must be great men, great subject matter, great events; so it becomes comic if there are small folk or petty cash), the religious is commensurate with the greatest man who has ever lived and with the most wretched, and equally commensurate, commensurate with the prosperity of nations and with a farthing, and equally commensurate. The religious is simply and solely qualitatively dialectic and disdains quantity, in which esthetic has its task” (pgs 442-443).

In further plain speak: “The esthetic hero is great by conquering, the religious hero by suffering” (p 454).

On “the ethical,” Kierkegaard further explores a deeper question in his imaginary construction “Guilty?”/“Not Guilty?” and how the ethical can be connected to the religious.

“The ethical asks only about guilty or not guilty, is itself man enough to be a match for men, has no need for anything external and visible, to say nothing of something as ambiguously dialectical as fate and chance or the tangibility of some verdict document. The ethical is proud and declares: When I have judged, then nothing more is needed. This means that the ethical wants to be separated from the esthetic and the externality that is the latter’s imperfection; it desires to enter into a more glorious alliance, and this is with the religious” (p 442).

Not stopping with the religious connections to the ethical or to the esthetic hero, Kierkegaard makes strong arguments on how the object of faith can still be relevant today by explaining the act of belief. What one must also keep in mind is Kierkegaard’s understanding and use of the terms “actuality” and “ideality” (see page 426 for more details), which makes for an enlightening duplexity.

“There is nothing, therefore, more foolish in the religious sphere than to hear the commonsensical question that asks when something is being taught: Now, did it actually happen this way, for if it did one would believe it. Whether it actually happened this way, whether it is as ideal as it is represented, can be tested only by ideality, but one cannot have it historically bottled.

“I have been made aware of this by producing the story of suffering I have carried out as an imaginary construction. Alas, if I were a famous author, then a reading public that is energetic about believing, indefatigably energetic, would be distressed, for it would worry about the book and ask: But did it actually happen—for if so we will surely believe it. What is it the reading public wants to believe? That it actually happened. Well, one does not get anywhere along that road” (pgs 439-440).

Taking these concepts of actuality and ideality and moving away from literature and closer to human spirituality, Kierkegaard continues to explain the duality:

“It is spirit to ask about two things: (1) Is what is being said possible? (2) Am I able to do it?

“But it is lack of spirit to ask about two things: (1) Did it actually happen? (2) Has my neighbor Christophersen done it; has he actually done it?

“And faith is the ideality that resolves an esse in its posse and then conversely draws the conclusion in passion. If the object of faith is the absurd, then it still is not the historical that is believed, but faith is the ideality that resolves an esse in a non posse and now wills to believe it” (p 440).

“If someone were to declare that swimming is lying on dry land and threshing around, everyone presumably would consider him mad. But believing is just like swimming, and instead of helping one ashore the speaker should help one out into the deep” (p 443).
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Reading Progress

October 17, 2015 – Started Reading
August 9, 2017 – Shelved
August 15, 2017 –
page 88
October 7, 2017 –
page 101
October 28, 2017 –
page 188
November 3, 2017 –
page 222
June 12, 2019 –
page 250
September 9, 2019 –
page 454
September 9, 2019 –
page 465
September 9, 2019 –
page 469
September 12, 2019 –
page 505
September 19, 2019 –
page 523
September 22, 2019 –
page 570
September 25, 2019 –
page 604
September 27, 2019 – Finished Reading
September 29, 2019 –
page 780

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