Stages on Life's Way

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Stages on Life's Way (April 30, 1845) is a pseudonymous book by Søren Kierkegaard published under the name of Hilarius Bookbinder. The day before (April 29, 1845) Kierkegaard published his book Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions under his own name. The three discourses are On the Occasion of a Confession, On the Occasion of a Wedding, and At a Graveside. The first part of Stages is In Vino Veritas, the second Reflections on Marriage , and the third Guilty Not-Guilty. It would seem the two books should be read together. Howard Hong thought it should be read with both Either/Or and Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions. The book was translated in 1940 by Walter Lowrie and again in 1988 by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. These quotes are from the Hong translation.

His three divisions is well summed up in his Concluding Word.

  • Such works are mirrors: when an ape looks in, no apostle can look out. p. 8



  • What a splendid occupation to prepare a secret for oneself, how seductive to enjoy it, and yet at times how precarious to have enjoyed it, how easy for it to miscarry for one. In other words, if someone believes that a secret is transferable as a matter of course, that it belongs to the bearer, he is mistaken, for the [riddle] “Out of the eater comes something to eat” is valid here; but if anyone thinks that the only difficulty entailed in enjoying it is not to betray it, he is also mistaken, for one also takes on the responsibility of not forgetting it. Yet it is even more disgusting to recollect incompletely and to turn one’s soul into a transit warehouse for damaged goods. p. 9
  • When memory is refreshed again and again, it enriches the soul with a mass of details that distract recollection. p. 14

In Vino Veritas[edit]

  • When I now think of this, it seems almost absurd to me that five such people planned a banquet. Most likely nothing would have come of it had not Constantin Constantius been along. The subject had been broached one day in a coffee shop where they sometimes met in a side room, but it had been completely dropped when the question arose of who should organize it. The Young Man was declared unsuited for it; the Fashion Designer did not have the time. Victor Eremita, of course, did not excuse himself by saying that he had taken a wife or bought a yoke of oxen and had to examine them, but even if he would make an exception and come, he would decline the courtesy of being the organizer and “hereby spoke now.” Johannes considered this to be a good word in the proper place, for in his opinion there was only one who was able to arrange a banquet, and that was the tablecloth that spreads itself and sets everything out if one merely says: Spread yourself. P. 22-23
  • How rich is language in the service of desire in comparison with language when it describes actuality. p. 29-30
  • if love is ludicrous, it is just as ludicrous whether I find a princess or a servant girl p. 36
  • If a man, all of a sudden tipping his head to one side or shaking his head or kicking out his foot, answered me if I asked him why he did it: I really do not know, I just happened to do it that way; next time I’ll it differently, for it is involuntary-ah, then I would understand him very well. But if he said-as the lovers indeed say of those gesticulations-that all the bliss consists in this, how ludicrous I would find it, as I also found that first instance ludicrous p. 40
  • What a strange invention is marriage! Is it something pagan or something Christian, or something sacred or something secular, or something civil or a little of everything? p. 63
  • I shall speak in praise of woman. Just as the person who is supposed to talk about the divine must be inspired by the divine in order to be able to talk worthily and therefore is taught what he is to say by the divine himself, so it is also with speaking about woman. Woman, even less than the god, is a whim from a man’s brain, a daydream, something one hits upon all by oneself and argues about pro et contra. No, only from her herself does one learn to talk about her. p. 73
  • He jumped in through the window, and just as he was jumping out, the others, who had been looking at him, were standing nearby. Triumphantly holding some papers in his hands, he shouted, “A manuscript by His Honor the Judge. If I have published his others, it is no more than my duty to publish this also.” Who am I? I am not worth asking about, for I am the least of all, and people make me very bashful by asking this question. I am pure being and thus almost less than nothing. I am the pure being and thus almost less than nothing. I am the pure being that is everywhere present but not yet noticeable, for I am continually being annulled. I am like the line with the arithmetic problem above and the answer below-who cares about the line? By myself, I am capable of nothing at all, for even the idea of tricking Victor out of the manuscript was not my own notion, but the very notion according to which I borrowed the manuscript, as thieves put it, was in fact borrowed from Victor. Now in publishing the manuscript, I again am nothing at all, for the manuscript belongs to the Judge, and in my nothingness I as publisher am only like a nemesis upon Victor, who presumably thought he had the right to publish it. p. 85-86

Some Reflections on Marriage in Answer to Objections, by A Married Man[edit]

  • My dear reader, if you do not have the time and opportunity to take a dozen years of your life to travel around the world to see everything a world traveler is acquainted with, if you do not have the capability and qualifications from years of practice in a foreign language to penetrate to the differences in national characteristics as these become apparent to the research scholar, if you are not bent upon discovering a new astronomical system that will displace both the Copernican and the Ptolemaic-then marry; and if you have time for the first, the capability for the second, the idea for the last, then marry also. Even if you did not manage to see the whole globe or to speak in many tongues or to know all about the heavens, you will not regret it, for marriage is and remains the most important voyage of discovery a human being undertakes; compared with a married man’s knowledge of life, any other knowledge of it is superficial, for he and he alone has properly immersed himself in life. It is true, of course, that no poet will be able to say of you what the poet says of Ulysses-that he saw many cities of men and learned to know their mentality, but the question is whether he would not have learned just as much and things just as gratifying if he had stayed at home with Penelope. If no one else is of the opinion, my wife is, and if I am not very much in error, every wife agrees. Now that is a bit more than a simple majority, all the more so since he who has the wives on his side no doubt has the men, too. p. 89
  • Only the divine justice of marriage is able continually to give like for like. p. 93
  • A positive resolution has only one risk-not to be true to itself; a negative resolution always has a double danger: not to be true to itself, which resembles the danger in the positive resolution with the one difference that all this faithfulness is without reward, is a faded glory and as barren as a bachelor’s life; and then the second risk-whether all this faithfulness whereby one is true to oneself in one’s negative resolution is not a deviation that for all its faithfulness is eventually rewarded with repentance. Whereas the positive resolution cheerfully refreshes itself with rest, cheerfully rises up with the sun, cheerfully begins where it left off, cheerfully surveys everything thriving around it, and does the married man, cheerfully sees with each new day a new demonstration (for the positive is not a hypothesis that must be demonstrated), the person who has chosen the negative resolution sleeps uneasily at night, expects the nightmare that he chose wrongly will suddenly come upon him, wakes up exhausted to see the barren heath around him, and is never restored because he is continually in suspense. p. 109
  • Now for the objections. Even if a married man cannot sharpen them as a chicaner can, he knows very well where the trouble lies, knows how to include such things in stating the case for marriage, or at least has acquired ordinary competence in taking a hint. To elaborate the objections as such is only a waste of time, even if one had the talent for it. But this much is certain: anyone who raises an objection is always to be pitied. Either he has gone astray in desire and thereupon become callous or he is infatuated with the understanding. With regard to any objection based on the latter, the only reply, a la Hamann, is “Bah!” Let him go on talking as long as he wants to; then ask if he has finished, and then say that magic word. p. 119
  • In that little book [On the Nobility and Excellence of the Female Sex, and the Superiority of the Same over the Male Sex, by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, 1486–1535] it is adduced as proof that in Hebrew woman is called Eve (life), man is called Adam (earth) – ergo. Something like this is excellent as a jest in an exchange of words in which everything is absolutely decided and signed and sealed with both the notary public’s seal and God’s. So it is also when the author cites in another demonstration that when a woman falls into the water she floats on top whereas a man, if he falls into the water, sinks-ergo. This demonstration lends itself to other uses, which helps explain the fact that so many witches were burned in the Middle Ages. It is a few years since I read that little book, but it was highly amusing to me. The most comical things in the natural sciences and philology appear in the most naïve way. Stages on Life’s Way, Hong, p. 126-127
  • Is an author less rich in ideas because ordinary observation finds nothing, while the reader who has made him his sole study nevertheless discovers an ever-greater wealth? Is it a perfection in human works of art that they look best at a distance? Is it an imperfection in the meadow flower, as in all the works of God, that under microscopic scrutiny it becomes lovelier and lovelier, more and more exquisite, more and more delicate? Stages on Life’s Way, Hong, p. 141
  • Nowadays woman is continually characterized in the highest terms, in the most flattering phrases, up to, indeed, far beyond the fantastic. Everything that is great in life is ascribed to her; on this point poetry and gallantry agree. p. 146
  • By means of a half year and with the aid of a theory of perspective, the fact of falling in love has become a happening (this is both an impiety against erotic love and a fraud against the ethical, a satire upon oneself) from which it is now a bit of luck to have escaped. Everything becomes confused to me the moment I consider that such an existence is supposed to be a poetic life. p. 149-150
  • A resolution must be added to falling in love. But a resolution presupposes reflection, but reflection is immediacy’s angel of death. So it stands, and if it was right that reflection should attack falling in love, then there will never be a marriage. But that is precisely what it should not do-indeed, what is more, even prior to and simultaneously with this process, which through reflection comes to a resolution, there is the negative resolution that fends off any reflection of this nature as a spiritual temptation. While reflection’s destroying angel of death ordinarily goes about calling for death to the immediate, there is still one immediacy it allows to stand-the immediacy of falling in love, which is a wonder. p. 157
  • I do not say that marriage is the highest life; I know a life that is higher, but woe to the person who gratuitously wants to leap over it. It is in the narrow pass that I choose my checkpoint in order, if I may say so, to inspect in thought those who want to slip past. It is easy to see what direction that feigned outcome of life must take. It must take the direction of the religious, in the direction of spirit, in such a way that because of being spirit one wants to forget that one is also a human being and not pure spirit, as is God alone. p. 169
  • The religious abstraction desires to belong to God alone. p. 173
  • Importunity toward God is a kind of impertinent camaraderie, even if he himself does not understand it that way. He can even be truly humble, but in the very same way, humanly speaking, a subordinate can have the most loyal enthusiasm for his king and be far superior to those who are neither hot nor cold but are numbers and cattle, but yet when he seeks an audience with the king he can wish to be permitted to enter through a door different from the one assigned to all subjects. To me it seems that there must be something terrible about his being turned away and hearing those words: The other way, then we shall see what can be done. p. 174-175
  • He is a rebel against the earthly, and he has made an enemy of the sensate, which in well-disposed harmony with the spiritual is a supporting staff. Just as time is; therefore the sensate have become for him a serpent, and time had become the moment of the bad conscience. It is believed to be so easy to be victorious over the sensate; well, so it is, if one does not incite it by wanting to annihilate it. One does not speak of such things to lovers, for their love keeps them ignorant of the dangers that only the rebel discovers; love does not know why marriage was instituted, but an earnest discourse, nevertheless, knows that it was instituted for assistance, for propagation, for the avoidance of illicit sex, and experiences in monasteries could add terrible footnotes to this text. Here is the proper psychological source of the catastrophe of Faust, who precisely by willing to become sheer spirit finally succumbs to the wild revolt of sensuality. p. 179-180

“Guilty?”/”Not Guilty?” A story of Suffering An Imaginary Psychological Construction[edit]

  • What gives the lake an even more inclosed look is that the quagmire is thickly overgrown with reeds; indeed, there is nothing like it in Denmark, at least so says my friend the naturalist. Only in one place has a little waterway been opened up; here, there is a flat-bottomed boat, in which we two, he on behalf of science and I on behalf of friendship and curiosity, poled ourselves out. With effort we brought the boat out, for the channel has hardly a foot of water. The reed growth, however, is as dense and thick as a forest, probably eight feet high. Concealed by it, one seems as if eternally lost to the world, forgotten in the silence broken only by our struggling with the boat or when bittern, that secret voice in the solitude, repeats its cry three times, and then repeats it again. Strange bird, why do you wail and lament this way-after all, you indeed wish only to remain in solitude!p. 187-188
  • The naturalist sat totally absorbed in his work, asking just once if I had found anything, a question that did not seem to expect a reply since he quite appropriately did not regard my fishing as being on behalf of science. Well, I had not found what he was searching for, either, but something totally different. And so each of us sat in his end of the boat, each one occupied with his find, he for the sake of science, and I for the sake of friendship and curiosity. p. 189
  • People certainly want to have a little psychology, a little observation of so-called actual people, but when this science or art goes its own way, when it ignores the many inadequate manifestations of the psychical states that actuality offers, when it slips away by itself to create an individuality out of its own knowledge and to make this individuality the object of its observations, then many people get weary. That is, in actual life the case is that passions, psychical states, etc. are found only to a certain degree. This, too, delights the psychology, but it also has another kind of delight in seeing passion carried to its extreme limit. p. 191
  • My father was married, and he was the most depressed person I’ve known. p. 197
  • January 9 Morning: Why do I feel happier in the distance of possibility? p. 205
  • January 15 Morning: A year ago today. Is this how it is to be engaged? I knew what it is to be in love, that I knew-but this new thing, to be convinced that the object of love is secured, that she is mine, mine forever. Is this the way it is to be a mother? wailed Rachel when the twins’ struggle began in her womb, and many a person presumably has said this to himself when he obtained what he craved: Is this the way it is? And is it not as if there were two natures struggling within me: have I become ten years older or have I become ten years younger? p. 215-216
  • January 17, Morning: A year ago today. What is this? What does it mean? I am as agitated as the forest’s anxious quivering before the storm/ what kind of presentiment oppresses me? I do not recognize myself. Is this love? Oh, no! This much I certainly do realize-that it is not with her, it is not with Eros that I must struggle. It is religious crisis that are gathering over me. My life-view has become ambiguous-how, I cannot yet say. And my life belongs to her, but she suspects nothing. p. 215-216
  • Spiritually I shall always be able to be something for her. We shall then, both of us, grow older; there indeed comes a time when youth does not crave in the same way, and then in a distinctive sense our love will have the years ahead of it. Or is, then, the most enviable love that whose most beautiful was when the lovers could sweep out onto the floor in a waltz? She is reserved, quiet, entirely calm; when someone is present, she is as cheerful as ever. p. 226
  • The religious is my principle of equality, and my soul is not exactly suited to erotic bickering about which of us was somewhat extraordinary. For from asking any extravagant tenderness of amorous affection on her part, I merely want her to express herself a little more so I can see what is taking place within her. Despite all my endeavors, I really do believe that she regards me as a very sharp critic, and this stifles her freedom of expression. p. 235
  • When the Pharisee in the Gospel is portrayed as a hypocrite, this is true only insofar as he feels himself superior to other people, but the rest of what he says is comic as soon as one gives it any thought. Imagine an individual who is speaking with God in prayer and now it occurs to him to speak as follows; I fast three times a week, pay the tithe of mint and cumin. It is altogether comic, like the man who lay in the ditch and thought he was riding horseback. In other words, the Pharisee thinks he is speaking with God, whereas from what he says it is clear and distinct enough that that he is speaking with himself or with another … Can one human being, then, not understand the other; is there, then, no equality in the religious? Pharisee. p. 238-239
  • For what is it to have spirit but to have will, and what is it to have will but to have it beyond all measure, since the person who does not have it beyond all measure but only to a certain degree does not have it at all. p. 248
  • With a sword hanging over my head, in peril of my life, I discover the religious crisis with a primitivity such as if I had not known of them before, with such a primitivity that if they had not been I would have to discover them. p. 257
  • Suppose Scheherazade had had made up a new story more entertaining than any of the previous ones; suppose that she placed all her confidence in this story, that it might save her life and not merely postpone the death verdict if she could manage to tell it as grippingly as she could at this very moment, but she was not summoned at twelve o’clock, and one o’clock drew near and she was afraid and she had forgotten it or forgotten how to tell it! p. 290
  • It is comic that a mentally disordered man picks up any piece of granite and carries it around because he thinks it is money, and in the same way it is comic that Don Juan has 1,003 mistresses, for the number simply indicates that they have no value. Therefore, one should stay within one’s means in the use of the word “love.” p. 293
  • An old man has said that it is never good that something that is supposed to be sacred appears in ludicrous form. A young girl, to be sure, is not the sacred, but yet she was something like that to me. I truly did not plague her with demands that she behave as an ideal; I merely wished her to sit still while I concerned myself only much too earnestly with the relationship. p. 297
  • May 4. Morning: A year ago today. It has happened. In two days I have already managed to introduce that terrible word into the course of conversation. There is an enormous difference when a warship and a nutshell put out to sea, and the difference is externally visible. It is different with words. The same word can indicate an even greater difference, and yet the word is the same. The word has not come up between us in a pathos-filled way, but it comes up again and again, mixed in among various things in order to clarify the mood. p. 322
  • If, in accord with one of Plato’s views, one quite ingeniously takes Socrates to be the unity of the comic and the tragic, this is entirely right; but the question remains: in what does the unity consist? A new kind of literature and anything such as that is completely out of the question; no, the unity is in the earnestness. Thus Socrates was the most earnest man in Greece. His intellectuality was absolutely commensurate with the ethical in him (otherwise one can become earnest about trifles); his sense of the comic was just as great as his ethical pathos-therefore he was secured against becoming ridiculous in his pathos; his earnestness was concealed in jest-therefore he was free in it and needed no external support whatsoever in order to be earnest, which is always an indication of a lack of the specific worth of earnestness. p. 365-366
  • Implicit in the concept of the fear of God is the idea that one is to fear him; and if it is dangerous for a person’s soul to make God into a despot, then it is also dangerous for his piety to speculate God into a subordinate servant, and if it is troubling to a person’s soul if God were enclosed in eternal silence, then it is also dangerous to revise God’s accounts speculatively or to parade prophetically into world history. Indeed, why is it that there is more fear of God in the out-of-the-way places where there are two or three miles between each little cottage than in the noisy cities, that the sailor has more fear of God than the inhabitant of a market town, why, indeed, unless it is that these people experience something and experience it in such a way that there are no escapes. p. 378-379
  • Lessing was indeed wrong in saying that the swiftest thing of all, swifter than the sound and light, is the transition from good to evil, for even swifter is das Zugleich, the all-at-once. Indeed, transition itself is a time, that that which is all-at-once is swifter than any transition. Transition is still a qualification of time, but the speed with which that which once was and never is forgotten is present, although it was indeed present: that speed is the swiftest of all, for it is so swift that its being absent is, of course, but an illusion. p. 386
  • Here the diary ends for the time being. It deals with nothing, yet not in the sense of Louis XVI’s diary, the alternating contents of which are supposed to have been: on one day, went hunting; the second day, rein [nothing]; the third day, went hunting. It contains nothing, but if, as Cicero says, the easiest letters deal with nothing, then sometimes it is the hardest life that deals with nothing. p. 397

Letter to the Reader[edit]

  • My dear reader, if you in any way are of my profession, you will immediately perceive that the character conjured up here is a demoniac character in the direction of the religious-that is tending toward it. How honestly, how amply he does his part by talking so that you can see him (loguere ut videam) [speak so that I may see], (Socrates see p. 730) , no one knows better than I, who often exhausted, often wearied, have been tempted to abandon him and to give up patience, which amounts to the same thing, which is also why, by heeding the stars and reading coffee grounds by virtue of my scaldic vision and eagle eye, I pronounce the matchless prophecy that two-thirds of the books few readers will quit before they are halfway through, which can also be expressed in this way-out of boredom they will stop reading and throw the book away. p. 398
  • It is a contradiction to be willing to sacrifice one’s life for a finite goal, and in the eyes of poetry such behavior is comic, akin to dancing oneself to death or wanting to walk with spurs when one is bowlegged and falls down on them and is killed-rather than quit wearing spurs. Oh, what an enticing task for a comic poet, but without passion, no poet, no comic poet either. p. 410
  • Does it help one to believe in what is great by knowing it is historical? p. 438
  • For a finite being, and that, after all, is what human beings are as long as they live in temporality, the negative infinity is the higher, and the positive is a dubious reassurance. Spiritual existence, especially the religious, is not easy; the believer continually lies out on the deep, has 70,000 fathoms of water beneath him. However long he lies out there, this still does not mean that he will gradually end up lying and relaxing onshore. He can become calm, more experienced, find a confidence that loves jest and a cheerful temperament-but until the very last he lies out on 70,000 fathoms of water. If immediacy is supposed to go, which indeed everyone calls for, then this enters in. There will be difficulties enough in life for all. Let the poor feel the hard stress of poverty and the cares of making a living. The person who chooses spiritual existence by virtue of the religious will have the consolation, which I can understand he needs, that he, too, suffers in life and that before God there is no respect of person. For to become positive does not procure for one personal esteem in God’s eyes, even though that has become wisdom ever since the time when speculation took religion under its wing by taking away its life. p. 444
  • To Repent of Nothing Is the Highest Wisdom-the Forgiveness of Sin. Hand in hand with such negative principles as: Admire nothing, expect nothing, etc. is the negative principle: Repent of nothing or, to use other words that perhaps are not as ethically disturbing: Regret nothing. The real secret of this wisdom is that an esthetic principle has been embellished and given the appearance of an ethical principle. Understood esthetically from an ethical position this is entirely true, for the free spirit essentially ought not to esteem the whole range of the esthetic so highly that he regrets something. For example, if someone has become poor, then it is correct to say: To regret nothing is the highest wisdom-that is, act by virtue of the ethical. Then the principle means: continually to cut down the bridge of the past behind one in order continually to be able to act at the moment. p. 474
  • Statistical summaries are of no use to an imaginatively constructed psychologist, but then he does not need such an immense conflux of people, either. Once again, imaginatively constructing, I have laid out an issue for the religious: the forgiveness of sin. To place immediacy and the forgiveness of sins together in an immediate relationship can certainly occur to many people; probably they are also able to talk about it-why not? Indeed, probably they are able to induce others to believe that they themselves have experienced something similar and existed in this way; probably they were even able to induce many to want to do the same and to want to think they have done the same-why not? The only difficulty here is that it is an impossibility. But when it is a matter of the physiology of walking, one does not have so much free play, and if someone were to claim that he walked on one arm or even that everyone walked in this manner, he would soon be discovered to be a tattle carrier, but a cattle driver in the world o9f the spirit is more free and easy. An immediate relationship between immediacy and the forgiveness of sin means that sin is something particular, and this particular the forgiveness of sin takes away. But this is not the forgiveness of sin. Thus a child does not know what forgiveness of sin is, for the child, after all, considers himself to be basically a fine child. If only that thing had not happened yesterday, and forgiveness removes it and the child is a fine child. But if sin is supposed to be radical (a discovery owed to repentance, which always precedes the forgiveness), this means precisely that immediacy is regarded as something that is not valid, but if it is to be considered thus, then it must be presumed to have been canceled. p. 481-482
Concluding Word
  • Sophists can be grouped in three classes. (1) Those who from the esthetic reach an immediate relation to the religious. Here religion becomes poetry, history; the sophist himself is enthusiastic about the religious, but poetically enthusiastic; in his enthusiasm he will to make any sacrifice, even lose his life for it, but does not for that reason become a religious person. At the peak of his prestige, he becomes confused and let himself be confused with a prophet and an apostle. (2) Those who from the immediate ethical enter into an immediate relation to the religious. For them religion becomes positive doctrine of obligation, instead of repentance, being the supreme task of the ethical expressly negative. The sophist remains untested in infinite reflection, a paragon of the positive epitomizaton. Here is the sphere of his enthusiasm, and without guile he has joy in aspiring others to the same. (3) Those who place the metaphysical in an immediate relation to the religious. Here religion becomes history, which is finished; the sophist is finished with religion and at most becomes an inventor of the system. p. 486

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