The human condition presents us with unavoidable difficulties which, in turn, require us to make personal choices. The capacity to make a choice and its corresponding responsibilities render reflective thinking as constitutive of what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a Self. It is in this conscious activity of making a choice that the will makes itself manifest. In a sense, a choice is an expression of one’s will, of one’s subjectivity. For Kierkegaard (1999), this subjectivity constitutes the uniqueness of the individual’s existence.
Kierkegaard provides us with an idea of how to approach the problem of existence, that is, by focusing our attention to the concrete individual who makes personal choices and acts out on these choices. He breaks away from the ancient Greeks’ extreme emphasis on rationality and objectivity and its general problems. This is evident in his critical appraisal of the Greek tragedy. He claims, “The reason is of course to be found in the fact that in the ancient world subjectivity was not fully conscious and reflective” (Kierkegaard, 1992, p. 142).
He goes on to add, “Even though the individual moved freely, he still depended on substantial categories, on state, family, and destiny” (Kierkegaard, 1992, p. 142). This is another way of stating that even if the self can experience the state of freedom and in fact actualize this freedom by portraying its capacity to perform autonomous acts, the self continues to be affected by the factors in its immediate environment. Kierkegaard’s elaboration sheds light on the importance of authentic choice in terms of generating our conception of selfhood.
In the case of the tragic hero, the fatalistic mindset of the ancient Greeks can bring serious doubts on the question regarding the authenticity of the tragic hero’s choices. Given that the individual cannot really divorce himself away from substantial categories, how can we establish that it is the individual who defines himself and not the other way around? Choice is an integral aspect of Kierkegaard’s gradual development of the Self. It is important to note that the development of the Self is gradual as it goes through certain stages where the quality of one’s existence is improved via an act of choice.
This is to say that the individual and his conception of the Self ascend from one stage to another. Such ascension indicates that the individual is in the process of actualization. For Kierkegaard (1992), the aesthetic stage is a stage where one’s sense of the Self is governed by the sensual, impulses and emotions. This stage presents the individual with an illusion of freedom. In essence though, the aesthetic stage, although seemingly attractive, is in reality, destructive. He claims, “We said that every aesthetic life-view was despair; this was because it was built upon what may or may not be” (Kierkegaard, 1992, p. 525).
These are the reasons as to why the aesthetic stage cannot lead to a progressive actualization of the individual. Apparently, it is also the attractiveness and the emptiness of the kind of life in the aesthetic stage which leads the individual to transcend sensual existence and ascend to the ethical stage. From reading Kierkegaard, it seems to me that the substantial differentiation between the aesthetic and the ethical person/stage rests on the is-ought distinction. Kierkegaard claims, “The aesthetic factor in a person is that by which he is immediately what he is; the ethical factor is that by which he becomes what he becomes” (1992, p. 492).
The ethical person is, therefore, a person who subscribes to the demands of reason; and the ethical life is a life devoted to the pursuit of moral goodness. It is, however, important to note that Kierkegaard’s phrase “by which he becomes what he becomes” implies both commitment and choice on the part of the individual. The difference between Descartes and Kierkegaard is, at this point, very obvious. Descartes focuses on the grand problems of universal import, such as existence in its universal sense. Kierkegaard (1992), on the other hand, focuses on the concrete individual and his concrete existence.
In the end, it can be said that the conception of the Self is a product of the concrete choices of the individual as they present themselves in the course of the individual’s existence. The actualization of one’s Self requires something more than choice, that is, action. Aside from action, something more is required, that is, committing oneself to the choice that he makes and his actions as a product of one’s rational deliberation. Reference Kierkegaard, S. (1992). Either/or: a fragment of life. London: Penguin.