For my freshman-year Existential Sociology class, just the name of which gives me an academic hard-on. This is a brief reaction paper to Kierkegaard's Three Stages on Life's Way, wherein he breaks down the human condition into three rungs on an ascending ladder: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. I have no idea anymore what his point was, but my paper is oddly fluent and well constructed for this period in my life. I seem to have absorbed not only the point that Kierkegaard was trying to make, but also what his point means to non-philosophers, just regular people trying to live our lives as best we can.
I've come close to bridging the gap between academic philosophy and the kind of philosophy than can make your life better. Really, I'm making a Back to Work point: you can't engineer yourself to achieve greatness through a leap of faith, but when the chance arises, you'd better take it.
Kierkegaard’s analysis of the legend of Abraham as the quintessential example of faith is both artistically refined and philosophically brilliant. The concept of the beginning of faith is unexpected, though, because we think of faith as an indelible part of relations between people and unseen powers. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard’s system of stages that stands without Hegel’s reductionism convinces the reader of the writer’s intelligence and dedication to a new method of considering Life.
The most striking element of Kierkegaard’s Three Stages on Life’s Way is his final stage, the Suspension of the Ethical. The first two stages that deal with sensuous self dispersal moving to responsibility are familiar to students of sociology, as they are intuitive stepping stones of social evolution and civilization. But most theorists leave humanity at this point.
Kierkegaard believes that a very limited number of people are able to transcend the ethical stage, sometimes by shear determination, but mostly by chance and circumstance. He claims that in a moment of passion, when we are forced to reject the ethical system in which we live, we are taking a leap of faith, acting not within societal constraints, but for a greater good. In his example of Abraham and Isaac, the greater purpose involves God’s mercy and benevolence, but we must guard against seeing stage three as dealing only with God. Kierkegaard’s point was that we have internal needs and drives that will sometimes outweigh the needs of our social group. We classify such people as lunatics and separate them from society, but Kierkegaard forbids the judging of an internal freedom.
This radical existentialism was created in protest to organized religion which is supposed to be about faith and passion, but has instead dissolved into one of the most stolid ethical structures in our society. Kierkegaard sees no leaps of faith in religion today like he sees in the Bible and other religious histories. He felt a need to justify existence beyond the social and give reign to free thinkers and actors in an attempt to reinstate a feeling of passion, which he felt had been replaced by a calculating social reason. The ‘against all odds’ nature of the leap demonstrates the Knight of Faith’s rebellion against not only the rules of society but also its method of consideration.
The leap of faith is no doubt a real phenomenon. However, we must wonder at Kierkegaard’s reasons for placing it on such a prominent rung of the Being ladder. It has been demonstrated that actions once considered leaps of faith, over time, become ethical structures. Perhaps the function of the leap of faith is to be a constantly rejuvenating force for the perpetuation of the ethical stage. But how does this stage occur in life? Leaps such as Abraham’s or Moses’ cannot be found in ordinary lives.
Perhaps the leap is a loose metaphor for being aware of momentous decisions when they present themselves, and not being bound by convention when it comes to believing in what you do. Possibly, the leap of faith is present in all lives, but in varying degrees, and this constant transcending of the ethical, albeit on small scales, keeps humanity from cycling endlessly in an abyss of being-in-itself.
The problem is that Kierkegaard has demonstrated the rarity of these occasions, but has not given us a way to strive for them. We can try to live an authentic existence with passion instead of social reason, but that does not mean that we are Knights of Faith; leapers are made so by happenstance, it seems, or by God’s will, neither of which can be lusted for or predicted.
Both Kierkegaard’s third stage and Hegel’s fifth stage represent an ideal form of existence, but Hegel leads us to believe that we might possibly attain his ideal if we work to maintain good faith and authenticity. Kierkegaard leaves us no clear path to the summit. But perhaps that is his point: the ideal must simply happen, and while we need to live passionately and authentically, the leap of faith is a fortune awarded to few. We should recognize and congratulate those few for their efforts and for the opportunity for the subjective redemption that has been awarded to them.