A major part of Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy was that people live in one of three 'stages' or ways of living at any one time, though they may move from one to the other in different parts of their life. These three stages were termed the aesthetic stage, the ethical stage and the religious stage.

Aesthetic stage

According to Kierkegaard, many people1 spend most or all of their lives in this mode. In the aesthetic stage, the person lives as a slave to their senses - they do, eat etc. only what their senses tell them they like. They define 'good' as that which brings them pleasure, and all their decisions are made based upon this criterion.

During this stage it is likely that the person may develop feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness - our modern definition of angst. In fact, this is where the word originates from. Kierkegaard regarded Angst as a positive thing; it is an opening that can lead into a better, more meaningful way of living. The purpose of life in the aesthetic stage is to satisfy boredom, and when the person can no longer do this they will begin to feel Angst.

Ethical stage

In this stage, the person develops their own personal system of morals, and lives consistently adhering to these morals. Reason and duty take priority over emotion and beauty. Their definition of 'good' is no longer that which they find aesthetically pleasing, but rather that which they consider to be ethically correct. People living in this stage may also begin to feel bored and fed up of living so strictly, and may relapse into the aesthetic way of life.

(N.B. Immanuel Kant's 'Ethics of Duty' system includes ideas very similar to those of the ethical stage.)

Religious stage

Faith is the key word for this stage. A person in the religious stage has transcended the aesthetic and moral standards, and has learnt to accept faith over reason. They have accepted that their own truth must be supported by faith, and not necessarily logic, to be absolute. This is what Kierkegaard took to be Christianity. His life was completely devoted to Christian ideals, as he thought that utter devotion was essential in order to hold faith.

"If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith."   - Kierkegaard
Though this is obviously applicable to Christians, people of all other beliefs have taken ideas from Kierkegaard's stages of existence theory. The main idea was that people should spend their entire lives striving to fulfil their duty or purpose and preserve their faith by and with commitment and seriousness. His 'subjective truth' idea also gave rise to the existentialist school of thought.

1It should be noted that only those who have consciously chosen to live by particular rules - whether hedonistic or puritanical - may be classified in any of these stages. People who live without chosen purpose Kierkegaard labels the spidsborgere2 and largely ignores.

2 Thanks must be heaped on skongshoj for this tidbit.

This information has been gleaned from my own reading, so if anyone with a philosophy degree (or simply more knowledge) sees a mistake, feel free to /msg & correct me.

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