Søren Kierkegaard’s view on the aesthetic life

A while back, I heard a good podcast from BBC’s In Our Time, on Søren Kierkegaard’s view on the aesthetic life leading ultimately to despair. I spent a little time googling up some information as I know very little about Kierkegaard. This seemed interesting:

In the aesthetic life, one is ruled by passion. In the ethical life, one is ruled by societal regulations. In the religious life, one is ruled by total faith in God. One can never be truly free, and this causes boredom, anxiety, and despair. True faith doesn’t lead to freedom, but it relieves the psychological effects of human existence. Kierkegaard claims that the only way to make life worthwhile is to embrace faith in God, and that faith necessarily involves embracing the absurd. One has faith in God, but one cannot believe in God. We believe in things that we can prove, but we can only have faith in things that are beyond our understanding. For example, we believe in gravity: we feel its effects constantly, which we recognize as proof of gravity’s existence. It makes no sense, though, to say we have faith in gravity, since that would require the possibility that, someday, gravity would fail to materialize. Faith requires uncertainty, and thus we can have faith in God because God is beyond logic, beyond proof, and beyond reason. There’s no rational evidence for God, but this is exactly what allows people to have faith in him.

As an agnostic, this is the problem I have with staunch atheists. To deny even the possibility of a God is to make a leap of faith. Just like to believe in God requires a leap of faith. In this sense, both atheists and theists lack a healthy sense of doubt, even though we’re dealing with ideas that are beyond proof. The existence of God is essentially unknowable as he presumably stands outside natural law and physical reality. In my experience, both extreme theists and atheists have more in common with each other than they do agnostics. They seem to be reacting to some bad experience by moving toward one pole or the other, in search of certainty.


  1. I’m in the middle of The God Delusion by Dawkins and it’s worth noting how he talks about this. He has a chapter titled ‘Why There Is Almost Certainly No God’ … note the ‘almost’ in there. And then he puts himself on a scale from 1-10 … with 1 being there is definitely a God no matter what, and 10 being there is definitely NOT a God no matter what. He puts himself as a 9 because, as a scientist, he must concede to uncertainty. I think I heard in a later interview that he put himself at 9.99, or something like that.

    The point is, that most strong atheists, especially those that actively conduct science, cannot with 100% certainty say there’s no God. This is in stark contrast to those on the other side of continuum who say they know with 100% certainty that God exists.

    For any atheists who do claim they know for sure (w/ 100% certainty) that there is no God, then I would agree with your assessment of putting them in the same bucket as extreme theists.

  2. I guess it seems presumptuous to me that we expect the universe / reality to be inherently comprehensible in its every aspect. This is the frustrating dimension to staunch atheists. We attempt to shed a light onto every phenomenon, yet we’re still left with a bottomless well of why why why.

  3. If we think that some component of the universe is incomprehensible no matter what we do to try and understand it, then it’s a science-stopper … what would be the point of continuing to do work?

    What if we had stopped doing science X years ago when we thought we couldn’t comprehend the nature of universe?

  4. Definitely not saying to stop trying to find explanations for observable reality.

  5. You damn well know who

    you can’t be an ‘extreme atheist’ any more than you can be an ‘extreme’ disbeliever in elves.

    Furthermore if the concept is introduced as incoherent, unknowable, off limits, etc., then one who ignores it totally is an “atheist”, by definition, one who doesn’t use the word or concept.

    If you can’t articulate what is your ‘possibility of god’ is, then it’s safe to reject it.

  6. 1. Extreme disbelief in elves is not equivalent to extreme disbelief in God. The presumption of a Creator is not ridiculous or illogical, though it still be a presumption. The idea of a Creator-less universe is also a presumption. Let’s all acknowledge this.

    2. Nay-saying is not equivalent to unknowing. While a-theist, is without God. The commonly accepted meaning of atheism is “no God”. In my thinking, I think mostly of the proselytizing “your belief in God is ridiculous” atheist.

    3. Some things are beyond articulation or knowing. I may not build my life around such unknowable concepts, but it would be premature to reject them as this is precisely the type of certitude that requires knowledge.

  7. Good post. I knew of Soren K but I forgot how profound he was in his works. I too am an agnostic so I would tend to agree with you on that. The only thing I have noticed within my interactions with believers and non believers alike is when pressed no one is 100% sure, regardless of what they say before being pressed. I just think when one leans towards one side or the other the projection appears that they believe this with out one shred of doubt, but I have found that is not the case. I do find it annoying though when Santa Clause, Elves, and the easter bunny get put in the same basket as God. However I also do not like when Theists seemingly lay out all of God’s attributes as if they were best buddies and they know everything about God. I did learn something interesting about the big bang that I never truly thought about, correct me of I am wrong, but if the point of singularity lead to the birth of space and time and the laws of physics, then essentially this point of singularity was outside of time, space, and the laws of physics so then it is also reasonable to except a higher being outside of this realm as well. Anyway Good blog, I hope to have many more conversations. [email protected].

  8. That’s a fascinating point, Brandon. It does seem rather counter-intuitive that there was no physics before the big bang.

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