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Free Will and Human Existence in Kierkegaard’s Philosophy

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Søren Kierkegaard was considered the father of philosophy, theology, and existentialism. His philosophical ideas conflicted with those of Hegel. Kierkegaard believed that reason with its clarity and objectivity could not be implemented in the concrete reality of humanity. “Whether Kierkegaard was influenced by the nineteenth-century notion of developmental change or felt the need for an expository device, he proposes three ‘stages on life’s way,’ three kinds of existence”. The three stages of existence are known as the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The religious mode is deemed one of the most important stages of life where it instructs one to take the leap of faith. The aesthetic mode of life is where choice is not taken seriously and where one satisfies his own needs. The ethical stage is the acknowledgment of the authority of virtue and duty. According to Kierkegaard, free will can be achieved through the three stages of existence.

Kierkegaard stresses the importance of how the three stages of existence influence one’s decisions thus determining his or her quality or character. The person we already are and the person we become is due to the choices we make. Kierkegaard states, “There are conditions of life in which it would be ludicrous or a kind of derangement to apply Either/Or, but there are also people whose souls are too dissolute to comprehend the implications of such a dilemma, whose personalities lack the energy to be able to say with pathos: Either/Or”. Every choice you make is important to your character because even if your choices are trivial, many meaningless choices will add up and obtain meaning. “It is important that he choose properly, test himself, so that eventually he does not have to begin a painful retreat to the point where he started and thank God if he has no more for which to upbraid himself than having wasted his time”. You should not worry about the bad decisions you make now because those decisions can help you make better ones in the future. 

Without the power of choice, there is no human existence. The power of choice is the decisions we make to create our own wills that develop our character. In section two, Kierkegaard believes that the sole purpose of human existence is due to the power of choice. He describes how the power of choice is made up of two choices: the ethical and aesthetic choices. Kierkegaard states that ethical choices are more strict than the aesthetic choices because aesthetic choices do not have a major impact on one’s life. For example, choosing what to wear to school or choosing what utensils to write with have no effect on your life. When making an aesthetic choice, you don’t have to consider the good or the bad. “The aesthetic choice is either altogether immediate, and thus no choice, or it loses itself in a great multiplicity”. For aesthetic choices to attain any worth it must be made in an instant because if you take your time it will only diminish its worth to the point it has no impact on your life. “Therefore, the ethical choice is in a certain sense much easier, much simpler, but in another sense it is infinitely more difficult”. Making ethical choices are simpler due to the greater duration of time to think about your decision but at the same time complex because you have to consider what is wrong and what is right during your time of deliberation. Kierkegaard then states that those who only follow the aesthetic choices will never reach transfiguration which is the highest dedication. Those who compose themselves of aesthetic choices will produce a weak aspiration thus leading them to a mindset where one thinks they are never wrong.

People who only make aesthetic choices are bound to settle for short-tempered pleasures therefore you will not be able to achieve the higher dedication that is needed to make ethical choices. “We encounter life-views that teach that we are to enjoy life, but the condition for it lies within the individual himself, yet in such a way that it is not posited by himself”. We need to understand when we must enjoy life through our pleasure and when to endure the pains to receive higher pleasures. You can either play video games to achieve short term pleasures or you can study to do well on an exam to achieve higher pleasure. The pain is studying but because you sacrificed the short pleasure you are able to achieve the high pleasures that will ultimately benefit your life. “But desire per se is a multiplicity, and thus it is easy to see that this life splits up into a boundless multiplicity except insofar as desire in a particular individual has from childhood been limited to one specific desire, which then might rather be called inclination”. A person may have the inclination to do something but their inner self may not desire it rather it is the exterior factors that force you to make a decision. The decision to become a doctor may not be a decision made by you, yourself, but it is a decision made by others telling you the benefits of the career. The ethical way of life is more than conforming to duty, it is the passion to help others. “The ethical is defined as duty, and duty in turn as a multiplicity of particular rules, but the individual and duty stand outside each other”. Choosing to live life ethically is to act in accordance with the law and doing right by others. The ethical choice includes more personality than the aesthetic choice, therefore in doing the right thing, one does not need to decide whether something is ethical or not because the duty inside oneself knows it is correct. “The ethical is the universal and thus the abstract. That is why in its perfect abstraction the ethical is always interdictory”. The ethical choice takes the form of law where one can differentiate right from wrong, therefore, making the ethical choice more meaningful than an aesthetic choice.

The religious stage is the final mode of life where rules do not apply. In section six, Kierkegaard explains that reason can not be applied to one’s decision when taking the leap of faith. “Faith is namely this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal — yet, please note in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that after having been in the universal he as the single individual isolates himself as higher than the universal”. Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham and his son Isaac to explain the leap of faith. When Abraham and his wife are not able to conceive a child, God grants them a child. With a life spent with his son Isaac, Abraham is dealt with a huge decision. God asks Abraham to kill his son to show that he is faithful. “He acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely the absurd that he as the single individual is higher than the universal”. Abraham’s decision making is beyond reason and he leaves it up to the religious choice. Abraham takes the leap of faith and kills his son to show the utmost faith to God. Therefore religious choice can not be related to the aesthetic choice or the ethical choice because it is beyond the universal law that is why it is considered the leap of faith. With the leap of faith, Abraham proves to God that he is truly a Christian. If you are ever in doubt, just believe in God because his faith will lead you in the right direction. Kierkegaard states, “Without risk there is no faith”. If you don’t take the leap of faith then there is no faith, and you can not be called a true Christian without faith.

Truth can only be found in your faith to God. The doubt of God being an entity and a man is the test of one’s faith. “When subjectivity, inwardness, is the truth, the truth becomes objectively a paradox; and the fact that the truth is objectively a paradox shows in its turn that subjectivity is the truth”. Having the passion to help others while applying your faith in the community will allow you to find the truth. The truth is different for everyone because not everyone looks for the same truths. Truth can only be found when you take the leap of faith that is why it can not be confined by the rules of the ethical choice. This is why faith is above reason. A believer can not rationalize the leap of faith because it is the process of leaving all your trust in the hands of God. Religious choice can not be applied to society because the leap of faith is irrational and goes against the ethical choice of life, hence why it is personalized and depends on one’s inner passions. “Christianity proposes to endow the individual with an eternal happiness, a good which is not distributed wholesale, but only to one individual at a time”. Everlasting happiness can not be granted to just anyone. One must rely on their faith and choices altogether in order to obtain eternal happiness and be deemed truly moral.

Søren Kierkegaard’s radical distinction between subjective and objective truths showed us how to achieve happiness. With his three kinds of existence, he was able to show us how to create our own free will to develop our character. Kierkegaard believes that with a strong belief in God we must give up all reason in order to take the leap of faith to be directed in the right way. It is only when we consider all these factors will we understand the truth of our purpose in this life. 

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Free Will And Human Existence In Kierkegaard’s Philosophy. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from
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