Volume 2 of Either/Or is composed of two long, often tedious [the first letter, “Aesthetic Validity of Marriage” can be particularly slow, repetitious, dull], meandering, letters from Judge Vilhelm to man of volume 1 (which includes the famous Diary of a Seducer). A primary aspect of this volume is to convince the seducer of the primacy of marriage (over a life of well… seduction). He argues that one should choose to be ethical.
There is an aspect of irony in all this, because Kierkegaard is arguing to Regina Olson (as has been noted by many) about marriage after he had broken off his engagement to the young lady.
He argues that marriage is no duty — because it is a duty of love, which is something thus done willingly (and then as he makes this argument, he seems to almost contradict himself). Thus, the ethical choice is one of freedom. By way of contrast, the one who lives merely for pleasure has no freedom, because he has made no choice — he has no ability to even reflect upon anything.
I have received second-hand or so some ideas of Kierkegaard and existential choice: an act whereby one chooses in some manner and thus secures some sort of meaning in life. Now, I am not an expert in the history of existential philosophy, nor have I traced all the movements in the area from Kierkegaard through Sartre and Jasper. But what I have seen — and this is perhaps the fountainhead of the concept is this section from Equilibrium in volume two of Either/Or:
That which is prominent in my either/or is the ethical. It is therefore not yet a question of the choice of something in particular, it is not a question of the reality of the thing chosen, but of the reality of the act of choice….As an heir, even though he were heir to the treasure of all the world, nevertheless does not posses his property before he had come of age [an allusion to Galatians 4:1-2], so even the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself, and on the other hand even what one might call the poorest personality is everything when has chosen himself; for the great thing is not to be this or that but to be oneself, and this everyone can be if he wills it.
He then goes on to explain that the aesthetic man is one not merely lives for pleasure, but one who lives immediately, without an act of choice, “the aesthetically in a man is that by which he is immediately what he is; the ethical is that whereby he becomes what he becomes.”
But because the aesthetically man is merely what he is — not having chosen something else — is “enmeshed”. He has “no time to tear [him]self loose.” This is in contrast to the ethical man (the writer of volume 2), “I am not enmeshed, either by my judgment of the aesthetical or by my judgment of the ethical; for in the ethical I am raised above the instant — I am in freedom — but it is a contradiction that one might be enmeshed by being in freedom.”
The act of choosing, ‘imparts to man’s nature a solemnity, a quiet dignity, which is never entirely lost.”
The man who merely wants to enjoy life finds himself at the mercy of “a condition which either lies outside the individual or is in the individual in such a way that it is not posited by the individual himself.” For in the inside, he gives the example of a young girl “who for a brief time prides herself upon her beauty, but soon it deceives her.”
For the man who lives constantly for some pleasure outside himself, he gives Nero as the example — nothing is able to sate him, “all the world’s cleverness must devise for him new pleasures, for only in the instant of pleasure does he find response, and when that is past he gasps with faintness.” [His discussion of Nero is particularly interesting.]
But something still troubles Nero, he cannot “break through.” He has a place which terrifies anyone who sees it – he cannot bear for anyone to look into his eyes. “He does not possess himself; only when the world trembles before him is he tranquilized, for then there is no one who ventures to lay hold on him. Hence this dread of men which Nero shares with everyone personality of this sort.”
This seems to match the diary of the seducer, who works out the desire for the woman — but cannot permit her to actually be with him — he cannot make the ethical move to marry (marriage is the constant background of volume 2).
“At least we can both learn that a man’s unhappiness is never due to the fact that he has not the outward conditions in his power this being the very thing which would make him unhappy.” — This leads to melancholy: “But melancholy is sin, really it is a sin instar omnium, for not to will deeply and sincerely is sin, and this is the mother of all sins.”
(It continues on through many twists in turns on the nature of despair for the aesthetic man. Later, in Equilibrium, he writes, “For no intoxication is so beautiful as despair, so becoming, so attractive, especially in a maiden’s eyes (that you know full well), and especially if one possess the skill to repress the wildest outbursts, to let despair be vaguely sensed like a distant conflagration, while only a glimpse of it is visible outwardly.”)
On the other hand is the ethical choice which willing embraces duty: it is here that marriage as the basis of the argument makes sense. He is not merely telling the young man to stop being a cad, grow up and get married — he is explaining that choosing a duty to love another is not a burden but an act of love. To choose to love is an imposed duty, but it is not burden because love is the expression and obtaining of desire: “If I attach my closely in friendship to another person, love is everything in this case, I recognize no duty; if love it is at an end, then friendship is over. It is reserved for marriage alone to base itself upon such an absurdity.” [Here is an example of the maddening paradox of this essay — it is long, twisting and the author never seems to be completely clear even to himself. He makes a point and then argues out another way.]
A historical irony lies here: if this is indeed the basis for the idea of the existential choice of which I heard and read in 20th century philosophers (and their cheaper imitators), then that choice was originally a choice offered by a moralizing older man (a judge no less), to a younger, carefree man to get married!