Stages on Life’s Way

In many ways Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous Stages is the easiest to summarize.  The book is framed as a collection of ‘found’ pieces published by Hilarius Bookbinder.  The pieces include ‘In vino veritas’, ‘Reflections on Marriage’ and ‘Guilty? / Not Guilty’.  These pieces all address particular relationships between man and woman, with man being the subject.  The first section is likened to a remaking of Plato’s Symposium.  Men gather around the banquet table drinking and making speeches about love.  This is a poetic account in which man, woman and love are abstracted and never engaged in particular.  The second second section is an ethical account of a man married to a woman.  It includes an exploration of love in terms or duties, natures and ideals.  Marriage is no abstraction.  It is the concrete and the temporal.  The third section explores a man’s internal processing of realizing that his engagement to a woman must be broken due to his internal movement or desire towards the religious.  He understands that the two of them do not fundamentally understand each other and to proceed with marriage would be of greater harm to the woman than to break off the engagement and so the man explores how best to break the engagement for the sake of the woman.  This section is framed as a series of journal entries.  There are morning and midnight entries.  The morning entries recollect events that occurred a year ago on that day while the midnight entries reflect on current circumstances.

All three sections have their moments in terms of literary expression or conceptual insight.  However, it is the ‘fourth’ section that really engages the movement of ‘stages’.  The final section is an account by the ‘author’ of the third section in which he reveals his intention in writing the piece which is to explore the phenomenon of the religious.  This is difficult because the movement of the religious cannot be secured externally.  In the case of his account there is nothing keeping the couple from having a happy marriage, no obstacle that is, except for an internal movement in the man.  The result of the inwardness is a qualitative misunderstanding that cannot allow for a happy marriage.  I would be curious to know more about the history of ‘understanding’ as it functioned in marriage relationships as it still crops up as reason to enough to end marriage (though Kierkegaard is careful to distinguish different sorts of ‘misunderstandings’).  Also, a clear critique could come in Kierkegaard giving a masculine priority to thinking about ‘important things’ rather than a feminine (esthetic) immediacy that he characterizes the woman as having.

At one point the author makes the comment, “The religious is simply and solely qualitative dialectic and disdains quantity” (443).  This abolishes the significance of the external (which is important for creating a level playing field) and demands an ongoing movement in which “the believer continually lies out on the deep, [and] has 70,000 fathoms of water beneath him” (444)

However long he lies out there, this still does not mean that he will gradually end up lying and relaxing onshore.  He can become more calm, more experienced, find a confidence that loves jest and a cheerful temperament – but until the very last he lies out on 70,000 fathoms of water (444).

The stages from esthetic to ethical to religious are not linear and final once ‘accomplished’.  The movement is always towards the qualitatively dialectic which is not determined by external conditions.  And as dialectic one can never ‘rest’ in having arrived at the religious.  There is such an emphatic emphasis on ‘inwardness’ that it is hard to not criticize it.  This emphasis is only amped up in the climax of his ‘first authorship’ Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  I continue to read Kierkegaard at his word that there is indeed a spiritual or religious subjectivity.  This subjectivity is then lived actually and this is what must continually be emphasized in Kierkegaard’s writing, namely that the whole push is for philosophical and religious thought to take existence into account.

Well I am pretty much at the mid-way point and staying on track!


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