Loving just one is too little; loving all is being superficial; knowing yourself and loving as many as possible, letting your soul hide all the powers of love in itself, so that each gets its particular nourishment while consciousness nevertheless embraces it all – that is enjoyment, that is living.
Søren Kierkegaard, Either Or
Kierkegaard presents life as an Either/Or proposition between the aesthetic and ethical. The aesthetic life optimizes the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance pain, and service to appearances. The ethical life, by contrast, optimizes the pursuit of The Good, the avoidance of causing harm, and service to these means-as-ends.
One way of framing this argument is to say that the aesthetic life focuses on what one gets, and the ethical life focuses on how one lives. From the outset, it should be obvious that the former is destined to failure and the latter the only certainty of success. For I control how I act, how I live. But what I get is beyond my control. Whether I acquire the matter or provoke the human exchanges that yield pleasure to my senses, or my ego, is in part up to the cooperation of other people and the laws of physics.
Acting according to principle, by contrast, is the only province of which I am the Supreme Governor. Not only can nobody else do it for me, I can do it for nobody else. The subconscious may be more horrified by this fact of the ethical life than all its other demands: it is a one-lane, unpaved highway with no maps and no road signs.
In the words of Taylor Swift,
You’re on your own, kid.
You always have been.
The message of a solitary road less traveled scares most people away from it, and they run toward whatever the senses and the ego have dictated will bring them satisfaction, instead.
“Let us leave off from this pointless suffering and fill ourselves,” they say to the lonely spirit, and the spirit, in its brokenness, acquiesces instance after instance, day after day. In this manner do we ‘choose’ the aesthetic life — not by conscious, rational decision, but by the unrelenting surrender to seemingly harmless wants one at a time.
The only real difference between what we contemporary people call “addiction” and what I have just described is the specificity of the object. The aesthete prefers the scenic route to misery, turning from one aimless road to another where the addict finds the highway and drives well above the speed limit. Their destination, however, is the same:
“A heap of broken images” to borrow T.S. Eliot’s phrase.
What makes them so broken?
What makes this outcome inevitable?
Why can they not be both pursued at the same time, in harmony with one another?
In order to understand this, we must examine the categorically different modes of approach between the aesthetic and the ethical, which rest fundamentally on the subject-object distinction.
As one who perceives, I am a subject. In grammar, “I” is the subject pronoun referencing the self.
I think, I am, I do.
As one who is perceived, I am an object. In grammar, “me” is the object pronoun referencing the self.
They see me. What will happen to me? They rejected me.
The subject I acts, perceives, experiences.
The object me reacts and is acted upon, perceived, experienced by the other.
The word agency, as used in philosophy and psychology, refers to the conscious capacity to think and act for oneself. Indeed, the word is derived from the Proto Indo European verb that means “to drive”.
Agency, or being an agent in the world, means that your mind is in the driver’s seat of your life. It means when you do something, it is because you consciously chose to do it, were aware that you chose to do it, considered the consequences of doing it, and then actually did it.
The person who reactively pursues the satisfaction of the senses has no agency. Their bodies make them do things they have not fully considered, and they acquiesce, perhaps without even pondering that there might be consequence.
No less agent, however, is the individual who reactively avoids action. The person who remains cloistered behind their screen scrolling endlessly through Instagram or watching TikTok for hours and fails to take any action, refuses to break the inertia of consuming has no more control over themselves than the debauched hedonist.
Of course, a person can be both of these — and in our time, frequently are. They do nothing but fill their mind with images, until it is over-full and that chaotic must be spilt out into something, and so it is — processed food, alcohol, stimulants, opioids, hookups. And so the generations of our time bounce between mental and physical hedonism.
All of this evidences the absence of agency. All compulsion, all sense of helplessness in the face of physical or emotional urges, shines a light on the areas of the psyche still under the reign of the aesthetic optimization pattern.
We must observe that the senses are not the problem.
Pleasure is not the problem.
Pain avoidance is not the problem.
Rather, the problem is that there is a battle between the conscious and unconscious elements of our psyches, and the unconscious always has the edge. Thus, to see when pleasure really is in our best interest, we must look beyond the immediate data provided by the sensors pressing us to be pleased. To see when pain really ought to be avoided, we must pause our animalistic fight-flight reaction pattern in the face of fear in which the ego seeks to preserve itself at all costs, and truly analyze whether the fear is founded or not.
What we find, without too much engagement of this self-critical voice, is that most of the pleasures we are inclined to pursue by impulse or compulsion, are not really in our holistic, long-term best interests. Likewise with fear, we discover that what we are fleeing in life are not venomous snakes or prowling lions that threaten our lives, but rather mere injuries to our egoic pride and emotional discomforts.
In our unconscious pursuits of the aesthetic, we try to match means to ends. We hypothesize and predict, execute a plan of action, and assess whether it worked out well for us in the end, or not. If it didn’t work, we try to analyze what went wrong, and perhaps try again with some change of strategy. If it does work, we keep going with the same strategy until it fails. While this approach may make us better at strategy, it will never force us to grow inside.
In other words, as long as we engage at the object-level, the actual experiencing self, the conscious subject doing everything, will remain static and lifeless. The more we pursue objects, the more of an object we will become.
You’ve met such people — experts and specialists who are so extremely good at one thing, either in their knowledge or their ability, or both, that they can hardly perceive anything else in the world. All else becomes eventually forced through the single lens of the object at-hand.
To the athlete, the practice and rules of their sport. To the academic, the jargon of their discipline. To the entrepreneur, their industry or business model.
Such people are profoundly boring, however ‘admirable’ their worldly (read: object-level) accomplishments. Yet, how many such persons appear profoundly content with life in general?
A telling way to discover a successful person’s general contentment in this embodied existence is to pose a simple question: take away all of your successes, and your ability to pursue them again, and how do you feel now?
How might Tom Brady respond: take away all of your Super Bowl rings and MVP trophies, erase all of your records as a player, erase all of your memories playing football at all, now how do you feel about life?
I wouldn’t venture to guess the answer for Brady or any other particular individual. Each person lives his own life inside, as a subject, which is always inaccessible to the outside observer. There are undoubtedly cases of people who are great-at-something who are content with life in general. But it does not seem much of a stretch to contend that they are the minority within their class, and not the standard.
Here we find a deeper understanding of the saying of Jesus,
“What good does it do you, if you should get everything you want, but lose your mind and humanity in the process?”
Object-level, aesthetic pursuits all end there in that heap of broken images, disintegrity of mind, inhumanity in spirit, obsessed about some particular at the expense of literally everything else, always chasing something, always risking everything for it — and usually not even getting it at the end.
By contrast, the ethical life, the pursuit of life as a conscious subject, not reacting to bodily dictates or a wounded ego, pursues what does always prevail: the continuation and extension of life itself, and the better fitness to meet its demands, face its challenges, and solve its problems.
The pursuit of the ethical life assumes that doing good universally will result in particular good for the self, but does not attend to the details of it, just focusing on doing the good without hesitation or restraint.
I believe this notion of the universal good, which is to say, the sustaining, thriving, and freedom of Life, and the mind which fixes on this notion, is what Jesus and Paul mean by the phrase “the kingdom of God.”
So when Paul says “seek first the kingdom of God…” and then all the rest will be added, what he means is that when we focus ourselves on the universal good, we need not be concerned about our particular good — it will necessarily follow. It is inherent to the concept of universality, in fact.
If something is universally good, and I am in the universe, then I am benefited by all universal goodness. The trouble is that this is frequently unseen. We do not see how we are benefited by gravity, but by conscious understanding, we see that gravity is necessary to our lives, and we would never have evolved in the absence of gravity.
We are constantly the beneficiaries of forces we do not originate or control, and the idea of living in this “kingdom of God” is to embrace that reality freely, with the fullness of our being, abandoning concern and the constant calculation required for every action to benefit ourselves and our object-level pursuits. The ethical life means rejecting outright the lie that if I do not watch out for myself and my interests, nobody will.
The ethical life is indeed founded on the inverse assumption, and liberates me to be fully content with my growth as a conscious subject, and my experiences of adding goodness to the world, which cannot possibly fail, as it is always completely within my own grasp and capacity.
When I leave from attending to objects, and myself as an object, and instead focus exclusively on honing and tuning my attention and intentions toward affirming and understanding relationships, service to others and the wider world, there is no lack, and no possibility of failure.
Even if the good I want to do does not manifest, I am still better off for having tried, and those around me will be inspired by the effort, and maybe their own does manifest, and the world will have been benefited even from my failure.
As for my own wants and needs, the ethical life offers all the good of the aesthetic life, and more. But it all comes at what is often perceived to be too steep of a cost: namely that I do not get to control when and how my wants and needs are met. It has another cost, namely the sacrifice of the comfort of knowing (or the comfort of the pretense of knowing, to be more precise). I do not get to know in advance how anything will work out. I only get to know how I will act.
This is why we cannot pursue both the ethical and aesthetic ends of life at the same time, but we can have both the ends (eventually). If we pursue the aesthetic, we will become blinded to the requirements of the ethical. We will think “there’s an easier, more obvious way”, which is always a way that avoids the friction that results in personal growth & spiritual development, the supreme gifts of the ethical life that enable us to enjoy all of the other gifts.
But if we pursue the ethical, if we say “I don’t care if this doesn’t work out in all the ways I would like,” we will open ourselves to the constant possibility of joyful surprise, as we discover all the ways things could work out that we had never considered.