Stages on Life's Way
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Stages on Life's Way (Danish: Stadier På Livets Vej) is a philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard written in 1845. The book was written as a continuation of Kierkegaard's masterpiece Either/Or. While Either/Or is about the aesthetic and ethical realms, Stages continues onward to the consideration of the religious realms.
The book is divided rather sharply into sections, the first of which details in somewhat flowery terms a dinner party, whose attendees are shown to be representative of various types of aesthete. Some of the attendees, additionally, are or may be identified with previous pseudonyms under which Kierkegaard has published, leading many to propose more complicated interpretations. In a conscious reference to Plato's Symposium, it is determined that each participant must give a speech, and that their topic shall be love. Tellingly for the reader, however, each account given is ultimately disheartening. The inexperienced young man, for example, considers it to be simply disturbingly puzzling. To the seducer, it is a game to be won, while the foppish fashion designer considers it to be simply a style, empty of real meaning, which he can control like any other style.
The second section of the book begins with the party's interruption by the nearby passing, and stopping, of a carriage containing one Judge William and his wife. The diners observe a conversation between the two, and shortly after they have left one of them succeeds in stealing a manuscript left in sight by the Judge. It proves to be an ode to marriage, conceived by the Judge to fill the lack left by the unpoetic nature of marriage. He describes the reasons he sees as underlying this lack, and explains how a marriage can fail for too much romantic and erotic feeling as easily as for too little. Here, the reader is led to believe, we have a picture of the ethical stage of life.
The third section of the book stands more nearly apart from the first two, being bracketed by a description, by a previously unintroduced narrator, of the discovery of a manuscript under curious circumstances. The manuscript proves to be the diary of a young man who has been engaged and rather suddenly broken off the engagement; entries alternate between recording his thoughts at the time of the engagement, and his thoughts one year later. Similarities to Kierkegaard's own experiences are frequently noted, but it is not clear how nearly we are to identify the young man with Kierkegaard himself. In any case, this section seems to depart somewhat from the earlier two in that it is clear, for most of the diary if not its entirety, that the young man has not so much achieved the religious stage of life but is rather seeking after it. His misgivings with regard to his engagement center about his fears that his fiancée cannot accompany him to that stage, though his own past and the depression it has left him suffering from at times frequently impinge upon his consideration of her future happiness as his wife. In the end, the engagement is broken off, and the young man is left to relive its major events on their anniversaries. Puzzlingly enough, the narrator of the frame story to the diary, Frater Taciturnus, concludes with a disavowal of its purported discovery and a thematic description of it as a fictional work, expanding upon the theme it develops in comparison with such works as Hamlet, which he sees as sharing the psychological examination of the shift toward the religious phase. As his afterword progresses, the writer begins to distance himself from his own identity, subtly shifting to third person descriptions of, and eventually warnings against, "the author," despite being self-avowedly the sole source of the manuscript.
Ultimately, the reader is left with the obscure warning that the author can only be trusted if not taken seriously, whereupon the book ends. Ultimately, this progressive distancing of the author, already distinguished from Kierkegaard himself, and the doubt which this casts upon the examinations presented within the third part of the book suggest Kierkegaard's recurring theme of the subjectivity of faith. Whatever the religious phase is, however it is presented in "Stages on Life's Way", the author cannot be depended upon to explain it to the reader in any meaningful sense.