Kierkegaard defined three stages of development, or modes of living, which he asserted all individuals must pass through in order to live a satisfying and rich life. The first is called the Aesthetic stage, the second the Ethical, and the third the Religious.
According to Kierkegaard, we all operate in one of these stages at some point in our lives.
Traditionally, the Aesthetic stage was associated with adolescence, the Ethical stage with adulthood, and the Religious with old age and maturity.
The Aesthetic stage, or the phase of the seducer, is a stage in which we focus on satisfying our base desires and impulses. This stage as Kierkegaard wrote, “begins in pain and ends in pain.” This is the lover who chases the highs of erotic love, pursuing lover after lover but never committing to one person for an extended period of time. A person in this stage of development continually runs from the clutches of boredom by pursuing endless distractions and stimulation.
The Ethical stage, or the stage of commitment and conformity, is where the individual commits themselves to the “universal” and adopts the norms and customs of society. However, to properly enter this stage one isn’t simply conforming out of a concession of some kind but rather because they begin to understand the importance of community and values. In this stage, the individual will often focus on their career or life’s calling and begin to live out of a set of shared values with those around them.
The final stage that Kierkegaard defined is the Religious stage or the phase of the higher self. During this stage, the individual begins to develop a relationship to the spiritual world and moves beyond the merely “universal” values and into self-defined beliefs of morality and spirituality. Kierkegaard explains this as the individual developing a relationship with God, but it can also be looked at from many other spiritual vantage points.
However, Kierkegaard explained that although the ideal development happens in this order, with the individual moving through adolescence, adulthood, and into old age respectively, many people can remain in one of these stages much longer than they might and many never even reach the Religious stage.
Particularly in Western society today, many people remain in the Aesthetic stage for a majority of their lives, and unfortunately, many of those people outwardly live their lives as if they were in the Ethical stage or Religious stage. Individuals will create outward appearances of faithful relationships while having affairs on the side. They might also cling to values that don’t promote the well being of the tribe, adopting habits that are ultimately destructive or self-defeating. We can see this with many large organizations today as well and the prevalence of greed taking a front seat to other problems like environmental destruction and global poverty.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with remaining in any of these stages longer than ordinary as an individual, the problem arises when our society encourages us to arrest our development by promoting the aesthetic stage over more mature ways of being.
For instance, if we look at advertisements, most of them appeal to the Aesthetic stage by promoting sex, excitement, and a “throwaway culture” more than almost anything else. Because of this, it’s no wonder that many people never grow up and remain stuck in the Aesthetic stage.
Unfortunately, Kierkegaard explained that the constant pursuit of one thing after the other to satisfy us ultimately always ends in pain. Erotic love never lasts forever, the pursuit of wealth never truly satisfies, nor do any of the endless distractions that people chase to avoid commitment and conformity.
Ultimately, understanding Kierkegaard’s three stages can help us to realize where we are in our own development and realize that we are okay, even if society tells us differently. In the end, everyone is on their own path and will find the next stage when they are ready to face it.