By Penny Theodorakopoulou,
In 1843, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard published his first work, Either/Or. In this work, as we will see below, the philosopher focuses on presenting the two, according to him, aspects of life: the aesthetic way of life and the ethical way of life, a matter I have discussed previously (further explanation here).
To put it simply and shortly, Kierkegaard’s aesthetic way of life revolves around love, passion, prosperity, music, dance, and seduction, topics we meet in the Romanticism movement. There are little to no responsibilities and worries — pretty much like life in one’s 20s, while they are still attending university. However, like everything else in life, once you do something on a daily basis, sooner or later you will get bored of it; and that is when a natural “leap” takes place, moving from the aesthetic way of life to the ethical one. On the latter, there, too are love and seduction, as well as joy overall, but there are ethical barriers that are set, either by each individual or by the norm.
But how do the above statements relate to Plato’s theory of Forms (or theory of Ideas)?
A great influence for Kierkegaard was Socrates, who did not leave behind any manuscript work, but his most faithful student, Plato, took it upon himself to write down his teacher’s beliefs. Plato, as we are all aware, was one of the greatest philosophers that ever lived. His contribution to the world of philosophy but also politics, education, etc. is huge. His works are a source of knowledge, which, even after so many thousands of years, is taught in schools, regardless of the country. It is true that Plato wrote in various — mainly — dialogues (Phaedrus, Timaeus, Phaedo, etc.) the sayings and teaching of Socrates. Nevertheless, there are many who strongly argue that one of the most important theories in the field of philosophy, the theory of Ideas, was not a theory that Socrates had spoken about, but Plato himself. They also claim that this theory was the starting point for the spread of Plato’s thinking and independence from his teacher.
The theory of Ideas makes its first appearance in Plato’s Republic (c. 375), a dialogue with political and philosophical content. Plato’s theory of Ideas is introduced for the first time in the 11th Section of the Republic in the following way: as we just mentioned, the content of the Republic is political philosophy, and specifically the question of what a utopian “Gallipolis” would be like and how proper governors should be. In the midst of all this, in order for Socrates’s interlocutor, Glaucon, to better understand the proper and ideal way of governors’ duty and job, he uses the Allegory of the Cave. According to that, there are people in a cave that are chained by their legs and necks, facing the wall. Behind them, there is a small wall, and behind that wall, there are the “ones who demonstrate the vessels” (παραφέροντες σκεύη), who, using the artificial fire behind them, present to the binders the vessels in front of them.
Having presented the Allegory of the Cave, Plato now introduces the Ideas. Ideas, according to Plato, are conceivable, eternal, immaterial, indestructible, immutable, self-existent, transcendental entities that concern the “being-in-fact” (ὄν ὄντως), the “being-of-the-world” (εἶναι τοῦ κόσμου), and are, so to speak, the exemplar of aesthetic objects (idols; Greek: εἴδωλα) which are temporally finite, perishable, changeable, etc. and concern the becoming (γίγνεσθαι) of the world. The highest Idea of all, the Idea of the Good, is considered the real cause of existence and enables the man that is on the path of knowledge to apprehend the intelligible beings. So, according to Platonic dualism, there are two worlds: the conceivable world, superior and “exemplar”, and the sensible world, inferior and a copy of the first. Each world of the two is again divided into two parts, upper and lower.
The conceivable world, for starters, is divided into two parts, the lower conceivable world, to which corresponds the mental forms that participate more in Ideas and less in sensible beings, and the higher conceivable world, which refers to Ideas in general and the highest one of all, the Idea of the Good. Plato concludes the Allegory of the Cave and refers to the condition of the captives in the cave (conceivable world: the world of glory) and the freed captive’s path to the exit (intelligible world: intellect). The captives, who are chained in the cave, have never seen the real world, the world of Ideas, and believe that the shadows they see on the wall in front of them are real. If a captive breaks free and comes into the light, at first their eyes hurt and they want to turn back. With the passage of time, however, they get used to and understand that what they see are the real beings, the supreme Idea of the Good, which leads to knowledge and truth. The path, therefore, of the freed captive is the man’s struggle to get out of ignorance, into the imaginary world, the world of Ideas.
Relating Either/Or to the Platonic Ideas: Similarities and Differences
We have analyzed the two parts of Either/Or, each of which is described in a different way. The first part, the “either”, presents the aesthetic side of life through the eyes of a young anonymous writer, who is an advocate of the aesthetic side of life. Being young, his confidence, optimism, and ambitions are at their maximum, which is why his way of writing, but also his outlook on life seem utopian, flawless, and full of poetry. In contrast, the second part, the “or”, is devoted to the personal view of Wilhelm, the second author of Either/Or, which is that we must live life in a moral — and only — way; there is no room for visions, fantasies, and romances. Reality is not in the apocalyptic microcosm that author A has created, but in the earthly world, which is filled with obligations, misery, pain, and pessimism.
At this point, we notice a great similarity with Platonic thought. Kierkegaard is influenced by Plato’s Republic, as we already mentioned previously, we notice that Kierkegaard keeps the element of Platonic Ideas. Plato’s Ideas have authentic existence, are apprehended by the intellect, are eternal, unborn and indestructible, immovable and unchanging. All moral values are Ideas: virtue, justice, valor, prudence, piety, and all others corresponding to them. Mathematical concepts and entities are also ideas: equality, unity, multiplicity, number, point, line, geometric figure, and solid. And natural things are Ideas: animals, plants, man, water, fire, gold, and so on. Therefore, there are many Platonic Ideas. “We usually admit that there is a definite Idea for every group of individual things of the same name” (Republic 596a). Plato divided the world into two parts, the conceivable and the sensible, the one is constantly changing, and therefore lies within the framework of subjectivity, and the other is considered, for Plato, the source of pure thought, since the conceivable world is essentially Ideas.
So, we notice, after making a small review in Either/Or, how important a role Plato played for Kierkegaard. The theory of Ideas ended up being the springboard for writing Either/Or. Both men present in their works two aspects of life, the aesthetic and the ethical. In the aesthetic aspect of life, everything is dreamlike and “otherworldly”, which shows another sense of reality. This reasoning can also be found in Plato, with the only difference that everything changes and nothing remains stable, an element which does not seem at first glance to refer to Either/Or. On the ethical aspect of life (in Plato’s “imaginary” world), a more grounded situation prevails, since both Plato and Wilhelm, the second author or Either/Or, argue that only the moral virtues (virtue, justice, etc.) are those that remain stable over time and do not change at all. The main difference, however, lies in the fact that Kierkegaard does not believe what Plato does, that the Ideas are the ones that will lead us to pure thinking. According to Kierkegaard, it is possible to think in logical terms, without depending on something higher called Ideas. We ourselves determine how we will live, which is why he wrote Either/Or.
From what we have just said, we conclude that the Platonic Ideas had a great influence on Kierkegaard and in writing from the beginning the work that we set for study and analysis in this article. However, we must not forget that the Ideas had an effect only as a theory and not in practice. The differences, therefore, between Plato and Kierkegaard, regarding Ideas, are far greater than the similarities.
- Dualism, plato.stanford.edu, Available here
- Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, edited by Alastair Hannay & Victor Eremita, published by Penguin, London, 1992.
- Either/Or: Kierkegaard on Transcending the Tyranny of Binary Choice and Double Regret, https://www.themarginalian.org, Available here
- Plato’s Dualism (Philosophy of Mind), youtube.com, Available for watching here
- Allegory of the cave, wikipedia.org, Available here