Kierkegaard on Ethics and Existence

William Hubben’s compact volume, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka, is a rare work of philosophy that is both intelligent and intelligible. It is also unusual for being critical of the nihilism of Nietzsche and Sartre which became so popular among modern intellectuals. For example, in the section on Søren Kierkegaard’s Christian existentialism Hubben discusses the three stages of the spiritual life: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The author remarks that

These stages have in our time assumed an added interest because of the claims of modern existentialism, which regards Kierkegaard as its progenitor. Yet there is little genuine spiritual relationship between Kierkegaard and the most conspicuous of the French existentialists, Sartre and Camus. Their thinking remains largely within the limits of the first of these stages, the aesthetic.

This may seem ironic, since Nietzsche and Sartre expended much energy denouncing societal norms and belittling the apparent hypocrisy of their contemporaries. Yet Nietzsche declared that he valued life only as an “aesthetic phenomenon.” According to Hubben

The aesthete constructs for himself a fictitious world of dreams, lives only in the immediate present, and finds himself ultimately rejected by life’s moral realities, as Nietzsche’s later tragedy illustrates. It is a dead-end route that leads to boredom and disgust and deprives life of all meaning. The aesthete possesses only the present moment; he is self-centered and despairing, searching for more pleasures to escape from this despair only to learn that his evasion of moral and religious reality leads him into nothingness.

As it turned out, Nietzche’s life ended in egomania and insanity (see Examined Lives by James Miller). Sartre, for his part, maintained that this sense of futility was actually a sign of intellectual maturity. His notion of fatalistic libertinism—man’s hopelessness justifying his anarchy—was summed up in the phrase: “Man is condemned to be free.” However, Hubben criticizes the “new humanism” of the post-Christian existentialist.

Such a use of the term “humanism” is arbitrary because humanism has never believed in an unbridled yielding to instincts and complete detachment from the laws of morality. It believes in the freedom of the individual for the sake of his own moral perfection and that of society.

Kierkegaard maintained that “to exist as a human means to exist ethically.” It is only by facing moral challenges, rather than seeking to opt out through philosophical apathy, that one matures as a person who accepts an eternal destiny with joy and humility as opposed to a futile creature that insists loudly on its importance before fading into nothingness. Hubben sums up Kierkegaard’s belief that “truth must rise from the existence of an individual instead of being merely equated with an intellectual insight.” It is a point that cogently separates the two major strains of existentialist thought.

For more on the subject, see my comments on E. L. Allen’s work, Existentialism from Within.

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