Either/Or: A Fragment of Life is a philosophical fiction written by Søren Kierkegaard, published in 1843. It presents two opposing views of the good life: the aesthetic and the ethical. This is often translated as a 'stage' of life, as in the title of Kierkegaard's book Stages on Life's Way, but this implies a neat and clear progression between stages, perhaps as one grows older and maturer. Instead, these are more like worldviews, modes of life or spheres of life.
The aesthetic stage is a view of life dominated by the idea that the chief evil to be avoided is boredom: and so one lives in such a way as to avoid boredom at all costs. The problem is that resolving one's boredom is always temporary: watching a television program may resolve one's boredom temporarily, but after the program has finished, one will lapse back into boredom. To avoid boredom for one's whole life is a lot of effort, and the choices become essentially arbitrary - the life of the aesthete is immature. The ethical stage offers differing pleasures. In Either/Or, the character 'B' defends the ethical life, and a clear difference is shown with reference to sex and romantic love. The aesthete in Either/Or - A - includes a notorious story titled "The Seducer's Diary", which tells the story of a man who seduces young women with promises of love and romance and takes advantage of their innocence, only to disappear. He is simply using the women as a means to his own selfish ends: namely, avoiding boredom. Today, people might say of him that he doesn't seek an honest relationship but is simply "playing games". Compare this to the character B in Either/Or who writes in a letter to A of the "Esthetic Validity of Marriage" of the difference between the nobility of love compared to lust: "it bears the stamp of the eternal" (II 20)
Kierkegaard's intention is to show indirectly that both stages are transcended by the religious stage. Kierkegaard considered publishing postscripts to Either/Or to point this out. Two of these exist: one lengthy, and the other short and contained in the Journals and Papers. This latter postscript contains Kierkegaard contemplating whether or not to retract Either/Or, imagining himself publishing the following:
I hereby retract this book. It was a necessary deception in order, if possible, to deceive men into the religius, which has continually been my task all along. Maieutically it certainly has had its influence.
But Kierkegaard concludes that he does not need to retract it:
Yet I do not need to retract it, for I have never claimed to be its author.
The religious stage is taken up further in Fear and Trembling and is a recurring theme in all of Kierkegaard's writings. The principle that separates the religious stage from the ethical stage is the idea of the teleological suspension of the ethical: that God can, as in the story of Abraham, command one to do what looks to those in the ethical stage like either a disregard for ethics or even sanity. The story of Abraham is illustrative: it is taken as one of the foundational stories for the monotheistic religions, and Abraham is considered the "father of faith" – but if one were to turn up and tell one's local Christian minister of a similar revelation from God, they would most likely doubt your story and call the police. But, if one is in the religious sphere, one has to take the possibility of this kind of suspension of the ethical (as in Abraham) or suspension of the reasonable (as in a purported religious experience, such as the one described in Kierkegaard's The Book on Adler) as possible. The religious stage, then, is really a living out of one's existing aesthetic or ethical stage, but with the possibility of this being upended at any time by one's faith in the divine.
Either/Or: A Fragment Of Life is edited by the Kierkegaardian pseudonym Victor Eremita. In the preface, the Eremita character describes the "unexpected good fortune that in a most curious manner put me in possession" (I vi) of the papers that go to make up the book. Eremita character describes how, by chance, he was walking along the street and spotted a writing desk in a secondhand shop. He grows stronger and stronger in his desire for the desk, even though it is quite expensive. Eventually Eremita purchases the desk and has it set up in his apartment. Then during "the summer of 1836, my duties allowed me to make a little journey to the country for a week". He wakes up and the coachman is outside to take him off on his journey. He opened the desk to take some money out but the drawers wouldn't open. He eventually grabs a hatchet and attacks the desk. He doesn't manage to get the drawer out, but he does manage to release a secret door in the desk. Inside he finds "a mass of papers". He collects the papers and takes them on his way. The story is one of pure fluke: a literary device used by Kierkegaard to separate himself from the writings.
The Eremita device is used to give some preliminary information about the 'authors' of the papers in Either/Or. Eremita describes how he cannot identify the author of the papers despite close inspection. He labels them 'A' and 'B', but notes that B is known as William (Wilhelm) and is a judge. A's papers were "on a kind of letter-vellum, in quarto, with a rather wide margin. The handwriting was legible, sometimes even a bit meticulous, in one place slovenly". The content of A's papers was a mixture of longer pieces and "written aphorisms, lyrical utterances and reflections". B's papers consist of letters written to A: his papers were organized, and his "handwriting was distinct, drawn out, uniform and even; it seemed to be that of a businessman." (I viii) A's aphorisms are organized by chance: "That the particular expressions often contradict one another, I found entirely appropriate, for this indeed belongs essentially to the mood" (I x). Eremita notes how he has left the papers untouched, but for changing the Greek quotations for German translations.
Eremita then discusses the infamous Seducer's Diary story. "A does not declare himself the author but only the editor", Eremita notes. Kierkegaard playfully states that "This is an old literary device to which I would not have much to object if it did not further complicate my own position, since one author becomes enclosed within the other like the boxes in a Chinese puzzle." (I x) (The modern Kierkegaard reader, of course, feels exactly the same!) Eremita notes how the Diary certainly fits thematically with the concerns of A: "The idea of the seducer is suggested in the piece on the immediate erotic as well as in "Silhouettes"–namely, that the counterpart to Don Giovanni must be a reflective seducer in the category of the interesting, where the issue therefore is not how many he seduces but how".
Eremita describes his uneasiness both with the content of The Seducer's Diary and with the matter of publishing it:
I, too, sometimes have felt quite strangely uneasy when I have been occupied with these papers in the stillness of the night. It seemed to me as if the seducrer himself paced my floor like a shadow, as if he glanced at the papers, as if he fixed his demonic eyes on me, and said, "Well, well, so you want to publish my papers! You know that it is irresponsible of you; you will indeed arouse anxiety in the darling girls. But, of course, in recompense you will make me and my kind innocuous. There you are mistaken, for I merely change the method, and so my situation is all the more advantageous. What a flock of young girls will run straight into a man's arms when they hear the seductive name: a seducer!" (I xi)
A's papers consist of a number of disconnected and fragmentary writings of a variety of different styles. These include the Diapsalmata, a collection of short papers, witticisms, observations and aphorisms: many of which have been credited to Kierkegaard ("How unreasonable people are! They never use the freedoms they have but demand those they do not have; they have freedom of thought–they demand freedom of speech!" - I, 4) even though they represent Kierkegaard about as much as Iago represents William Shakespeare. In the Diapsalmata, the following passage from (I 22-23), titled in the text as "Either/Or: An Ecstatic Discourse" is often used as illustrative of the general philosophical stance taken by A:
Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. Whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it.
A's papers also include the extensive and controversial Seducer's Diary: it tells the tale of Johannes, a seducer, and Cordelia, a young woman who Johannes seduces purely for intellectual amusement. It links back to the previous discussion in A's papers of the erotic in Mozart's Don Giovanni quoting lines from the fourth aria: "His predominant passion is the youthful beginner."
B / Judge William
B's papers consist in three long letters written to A. The first is titled "The Esthetic Validity of Marriage", the second "The Balance between the Esthetic and the Ethical in the Development of the Personality" and the third is "Ultimatum" ("A Final Word", "The Upbuilding That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We Are Always in the Wrong").
- Kierkegaard scholarship uses a margin reference system which refer to the pagination of the Princeton University Press editions edited by Hong and Hong. In this article, the books of Either/Or are referred to using this system - the first book is volume I, the second book is volume II of the Princeton editions. Other Kierkegaard volumes may be referred to with this system, but the full name will appear in a footnote.
- Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, VI 6374, and on pp. xvii of the first volume of Kierkegaard's Works (Either/Or I), Hong and Hong ed., Princeton University Press