Nietzsche and Kierkegaard: Ways of Life

Dernière mise à jour : 11 janv. 2021

(Royal Library, Denmark/Wikimedia, CC BY)

« What I really need is to get clear about what I must do. What matters is to find a purpose ; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. »

~ Sören Kierkegaard

« He who has a why to live can bear almost any how . »

~ Friedrich Nietzsche


Those who have read both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are often struck by the resemblance not only between many of their ideas, but also between their respective approaches to philosophical thinking. Considered separately, each of these men reveals himself to be an unusually unique and individual thinker. Yet, perhaps somewhat oddly, they also resemble each other in several fundamental ways. Each of these thinkers seems to have something quite valuable to say about contemporary ethics, understood both as an academic field and as an everyday practice, and what they say about ethics seems to converge at several interesting points.

What will concern me in this study is this question: what is the basic ethical project Kierkegaard and Nietzsche pursue ? I am interested in this question because I think it simultaneously addresses the two central concerns of any comparison of Kierkegaard

and Nietzsche: what is it that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most fundamentally have in common, and how exactly is this comparison valuable for contemporary thinking ? In what follows, I will show that what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most fundamentally share is an ethical project, a basic approach to doing ethics, and I will argue that it is this project itself that is, or can be, their most valuable contribution to contemporary ethics.




Of the different ways of life, the aesthetic is the broadest in scope, incorporating an abundant range of variations. It is defined most simply as the life lived for enjoyment. Yet there are different objects and methods of enjoyment, and within the aesthetic way of life there are numerous subspecies which are differentiated accordingly. In the second volume of Either/Or, the representative of the ethical life, Judge Wilhelm, gives a typology of seven different versions of the aesthetic life differentiated according to the object of one’s enjoyment:

(1) beauty or health,

2) money, honors or status,

(3) talent,

(4) the immediate fulfillment of desire,

(5) reflective enjoyment,

(6) cynical renunciation

(7) poetic expression of the “nothingness” and despair of life.

In the first volume of Either/Or, the pseudonymous representative of this life, known simply as A, proposes more than one typology for differentiating a type of life according to its primary object and method of enjoyment. Perhaps most helpfully, he suggests a fundamental distinction between those who seek enjoyment “immediately,” in actual experience, and those who seek enjoyment “reflectively,” in reflection on these experiences. By his own admission, A is a reflective aesthete, specifically one who lives a “poet existence”.

Yet A is the pseudonymous spokesman for the aesthetic life as a whole, and his collected writings contain a dialectical commentary on different attempts to live the life of enjoyment either immediately or reflectively. In ‘The Immediate Erotic Stages’, A establishes the figure of Don Juan as the ideal representative of the life of immediate enjoyment. For A, the figure of Don Juan represents a life successfully immersed in the enjoyment of immediate pleasure. What Don Juan desires most is sensual love, and this desire is repeatedly satisfied through his seduction of one woman after another. (...)

Don Juan represents the“incarnation” of sensuality itself, when “desire is absolutely genuine, victorious, triumphant, irresistible”. Moreover, what Don Juan desires is strictly speaking not this or that particular woman, but sensual love per se. Don Juan’s love may be all­-embracing (“every girl has what makes me happy, and therefore I take them all”), but it is also essentially “faithless” in that as soon as he has seduced one woman he moves on to another. Thus, while his desires are always immediately satisfied, they are satisfied only momentarily:

"He enjoys the satisfaction of desire; as soon as he has enjoyed it, he seeks a new object, and so it goes on indefinitely”.

Because Don Juan’s desires are always immediately satisfied without further effort on his part, the world appears to him as infinitely accommodating, an abundantly fertile playland for his enjoyment. He meets with no resistance or disappointment and so his various seductions are the repetition of the same satisfying event. His life therefore does not progress, it reposes in the continual repetition of the same experience. Don Juan’s life is lived completely “in the moment” and his life is the “sum of separate moments that have no coherence”.

As should be obvious, Don Juan’s relations with other people revolve around the satisfaction of his own desires. Toward the women the seduces he is non­judgmental but also essentially “faithless”: they are attracted to him, drawn into his existence for a moment, and then left for another woman. A contrasts this kind of sensual love with “psychical love,” in which the other individual’s self or soul is the object of affection. In seducing a woman, Don Juan does not relate to her as an individual, but simply as an occasion for sensual pleasure. Moreover, it is not only the women he seduces that Don Juan treats as a means to his satisfaction; all people with whom Don Juan has contact are enlisted into the swirling activity of his desire.

This elusive, incomplete existence may also be explained by the fact mentioned earlier, that Don Juan’s life is a series of disconnected ‘moments’, each of which is a repetition of the others. His entire character is manifested in this repeated gesture of seduction. Yet a momentary gesture, even if repeated indefinitely, does not constitute individual personhood, even by A’s standards. He concludes that “Don Juan is a picture that is continually coming into view but does not attain form and consistency”. In the actual world, the person living for enjoyment must continually strive to arrange enjoyable circumstances in order to fend off the boredom, displeasure and disappointment that life in the actual world inevitably brings with it. This effort is made ever increasingly more difficult by the fact that whatever entertains the aesthete one moment bores him the next.

As a result, the aesthete must continually scramble for new sources of enjoyment. In other words, the actual aesthete is plagued by that with which Don Juan was so blissfully unconcerned : acquiring the “means” of satisfaction. The aesthete may seek surcease of boredom in variety. Yet here the problem of means resurfaces since the aesthete still needs new sources of enjoyment, but he now needs ever more exciting sources of enjoyment as well. Thus, the problem of acquiring the means to satiate one’s ever growing appetite is intensified. If it reaches the breaking point at which the aesthete simply cannot afford to satiate his appetite, he is lost to disappointment and boredom. If the aesthete has nearly infinite means, he may continue to meet the demand for greater and greater expenditure in order to fend off boredom. Yet even then he is bored. (...)

Often the very means by which one seeks to banish boredom only serve to perpetuate and increase it. To illustrate this dilemma, both A and Judge Wilhelm use the legendary figure of Nero. Nero has the whole Roman world at the disposal of his aesthetic desires, and yet Nero’s all­consuming appetite is never satisfied.

“One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver ; weary of that, one eats on gold ; one burns down half of Rome in order to visualize the Trojan conflagration”.

Nero’s capacity to continue providing the means of immediate satisfaction are no match for the consuming power of his boredom. A concludes that this method of immediate enjoyment brings the aesthete no more (and probably far less) enjoyment than it does boredom: “This method cancels itself [...] What, after all, did Nero achieve ?”

As the greatest evil, boredom is also the source of an immense motivation for the aesthete, since what the reflective aesthete desires most is to escape it: “this effect is not of attraction but repulsion”. A claims that whoever has boredom “behind him must necessarily have infinite momentum for making discoveries” . Yet the danger, as always, is that fleeing from boredom through boring diversion only perpetuates boredom.


Friedrich Nietzsche, 17 years old in Naumburg (1862)

The free spirit is one who stands free of the “prejudices of morality” but this does not mean that the free spirit is a libertine without a conscience, or just ‘lets himself go.’ To the contrary, Nietzsche is clear that the free spirit is “hostile” not only toward the constraints of religion and morality (including the bad conscience), but also toward “pleasure-­seeking and lack of conscience”. The free spirits live as ‘men of conscience’:

“there is no doubt that a ‘thou shalt’ still speaks to us too, that we too still obey a stern law set over us”.

Nietzsche includes himself in this description, insisting: “in this if in anything we too are still men of conscience: namely, in that we do not want to return to that which we consider outlived and decayed”. This free spirit’s conscience is sometimes described as an “intellectual conscience", which directs him to pursue truth even when this entails opposition to the mores and morality of those around him. It directs him to refuse the way of life he finds “outlived and decayed,” namely the way of life lived according to traditional morality and mores. (...)

As we shall see, Nietzsche’s understanding of the goal and task of his ‘higher type’ evolves from obtaining an “entirely individual knowledge of the world” to obtaining an entirely individual way of living in the world. If the free spirit is to stand on his own, without the benefit of tradition and “in opposition to accepted ideas,” and yet still have the constraint necessary to live according to some values, he needs great strength. Obeying one’s own conscience requires the strength of self­-mastery, a strength Nietzsche attributes to the free spirits :

"You shall become master over yourself, master also over your virtues. Formerly they were your masters; but they must be only yourinstruments beside other instruments. You shall get control over your For and Against, and learn how to display one and then the other in accordance with your higher goal".

Self­-mastery allows a kind of self­-sufficiency in which one can rely on one’s own conscience, rather than a respect of traditional mores and morality, as the constraint by which one lives. This allows the "free spirit" to engage in what Nietzsche calls “experiments in living”: living according to one’s own values and plan for how to live rather than according to the values and plans given by society or a (supposedly) transcendent source.


Let us proceed to a discussion of how Nietzsche presents the figure of the "new philosophers" in Beyond Good and Evil. As explained above, these ‘new philosophers’ seem to be free spirits of a special kind. It is therefore not surprising that the independence of these ‘new philosophers’ is described in much the same way as it was for the ‘free spirits.’ Nietzsche states that “today, being noble, wanting to be by oneself, the ability to be different, independence and the need for self­responsibility pertains to the concept ‘greatness’." The new philosopher’s spirituality stands in contrast to the mediocrity and spiritual stagnancy that Nietzsche finds pervasive in the modern age.

Also in contrast to the mediocrity and smallness of modern men, the new philosophers are marked by a “readiness for great responsibilities”. They represent the “rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, creative fullness of power and mastery” to which the mediocrity and world-­renouncing ideals of the age are opposed. Nietzsche honors a breadth of responsibility as belonging to the very nature of ‘greatness.’


As with all experiments, there is a risk involved in the new philosopher’s experiments in living by his own values. Nietzsche says that the new philosopher

“bears the burden and duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life – he risks himself constantly, he plays the dangerous game.”

The new philosopher risks himself in venturing to go beyond traditional values and constraints since, as we have said, he has no assurance that he will succeed in living by his own values. If he fails, he will either face the nihilism of a world without any values, or he will face a guilty verdict according to his own values and according to the traditional values he has sought to replace. Due to this risk, the new philosopher will need great courage.

Courage is often listed by Nietzsche as a virtue, but here the specification that this courage is “instructed” may indicate that this courage is not some innate character trait, but rather something that the new philosophers have learned from their own experiences. There is also a connotation of sharpness, shrewdness, or wittiness in the term gewitzten. Perhaps by “courage,” Nietzsche has in mind the fearless wit of a critic like Voltaire rather than the stalwart courage of a Prussian military man.Moreover, the new philosophers may apply the same severity and hardness to others and theirvalues that they do to themselves.

As quoted above, Nietzsche thinks these new philosophers “will be harder (and perhaps not always only against themselves) than humane men might wish”. In particular, the new philosophers display hardness, cruelty and self­severity as they cut into the heart and values of their age: “they confess to taking a pleasure in negating and dissecting and to a certain self­-possessed cruelty which knows how to wield the knife with certainty and deftness even when the heart bleeds”. The image of a surgeon vivisecting a living body is one which Nietzsche often employs the describe the ethical task of the philosopher. He may be consciously borrowing this image from Socrates, and he certainly associates this task of vivisecting values with Socrates.

Nietzsche describes how Socrates, in order to counter the “wearied instincts” of “conservative ancient Athenians who let themselves go”, employed “that Socratic malicious certitude of the old physician and plebian who cut remorselessly into his own flesh as he did into the flesh and heart of the ‘noble’” . The result of the philosopher’s vivisection of values is twofold : to reveal the weakness, self­-indulgence and hypocrisy behind the values of one’s age, and to reveal a higher possibility for human values.


Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both hold that the best way of life is a distinctively individual life in several respects: a) in contrast to a life of conformity, b) in that the best life is a life of personal responsibility, and c) in that only in the best life does one attain a unity and integrity of the self. One important sense in which the life of faith and the life of creative sovereignty are both individual is in their contrast to a life of conformity. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are both stridently opposed to social conformity and to a life in which one demands of oneself nothing more than to conform to the expected norms of one’s society.

As we saw in the first two chapters, both condemn any life in which one’s values and self­understanding are simply based on the ‘common understanding’ of how life should be lived. Kierkegaard’s hero of faith and Nietzsche’s creative hero are both portrayed as standing beyond and sometimes even opposed to these norms. It should also be said that neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche place emphasis on the uniqueness, peculiarity, or eccentricity of

their ideal individuals. However much these thinkers were themselves eccentrics, they did not consider ‘standing out from the crowd’ as a valuable in itself. Rather, they expected that the excellence and strength of their ideal figures would itself distance them from the crowd.

This also gets to an underlying issue in their mutual opposition to conformity: both considered the inevitable result of such conformity to be mediocrity in contrast to personal excellence. In fact, both emphasize that the pressure to conform to societal norms is actually pressure to become mediocre. This is the phenomenon they each call “leveling.” What is individualistic about the hero of faith or creative sovereignty is not just that they stand out as different from other people, or even that they stand as paragons of what is normally accepted as excellence, but that they stand as paragons of an excellence that may well go against the grain of commonly accepted norms.

One of the things Kierkegaard and Nietzsche each seek to do is to illustrate this alternative notion of excellence through their respective portraits of the best way of life. As we have seen by reviewing these portraits in chapters 1 and 2, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both believe that such individuality is rare. They each maintain that individuality is not a simply a given; a person is not born an individual nor is this individuality an inevitable result of maturing to adulthood. As Kierkegaard explains, individual selfhood does not come as a natural development like growing one’s wisdom teeth, a beard, and that sort of thing. Individuality is attained only through difficult spiritual struggle and development, not as a natural part of ‘growing up.’ Nietzsche maintains that individuality is gained only through difficult spiritual struggle, both through history and within the individual. (...)

So for both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, individuality is something one must strive to attain. To simply live as an individual in this highest sense is itself an accomplishment, whatever other qualities are also demanded in the lives of such an individual.


The issue of openness and unity with the world brings us to our second broad area of comparison between Kierkegaard’s life of faith and Nietzsche’s life of creative sovereignty. Both of these ways of life involve a fundamentally joyful stance of life­ affirmation, including an affirmation of the natural world and of oneself. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both believe that the best life is one of deep and abiding joy, gratitude for existence, and a passionate love of life. Contrary to their reputations as gloomy or ‘dark’ thinkers, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche emphasize the ethical importance of joy, perhaps more than any other thinkers. For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the best life is centrally characterized by this fundamental stance of joyful affirmation since one’s values, goals, virtues, and beliefs emerge out of this stance.

It has been suggested that what we find in Kierkegaard is an ‘ethics of love’, and I believe the same could be said for Nietzsche. Of course, given how little either Kierkegaard or Nietzsche discuss active relations with other people, and given their own disastrous

personal histories with respect to romantic love, what this “love” consists in needs further explanation. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche would be wary of a diffuse, purely abstract ‘love of others’ in general.

The individual Kierkegaard and Nietzsche regard as ideal has an overflowing love of life that manifests itself in particular loving relations. In both Kierkegaard’s life of faith and Nietzsche’s life of creative sovereignty, this love of life manifests itself as a (sometimes “severe”) “benevolence” and “goodwill” toward others. I believe we find a peculiar, subtle but nonetheless robust love of humanity in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s own severe rebukes of their contemporaries.

For Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, one’s stance toward others is founded in a love of life in all its diversity and particularity, a welcoming, open posture that is eager to greet one and all as a dignified equal.For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, genuine love of other people can only grow out of a stance of love toward life as a whole and a love for ourselves as part of this whole. Having clarified the stance of joyful gratitude and life­affirmation urged by both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, I think we can understand at least one sense in which both of these thinkers can be said to propose an‘ethics of love.’

For different reasons, but with equal passion and devotion, Nietzsche’s best way of life also involves a joyful affirmation of oneself and the world. For Nietzsche this is a joy for ‘this life’ not as something hallowed by the presence of God but as something hallowed by its value and sanctity even in the absence of any such divinity. In Nietzsche’s best life, one accepts the natural world and the whole of one’s own naturalness with joyful affirmation.


The joy of Nietzsche ideal life also includes the joy of creation. Nietzsche’s highest type finds joy within the act of creating, of accomplishing what is difficult or challenging, of attaining personal excellence, and of pursuing the ‘joyful wisdom’ of philosophy. More broadly, it is a general ‘zest for life’: the joy one takes in being alive, the joy of growing, of becoming stronger, etc. More broadly still, this joy is also the Dionysian joy in which one finds one’s unity with the whole and affirms it all, despite (or rather because of) its tragedy and suffering.

As we have seen, one way this joy manifests itself is as a sovereign conscience in which one maintains a kind of self­-strengthening relationship between oneself in the world. This conscience includes a vigilance over oneself and a commitment to continually work to develop one’s “style” “through long practice and daily work at it”. Faith in oneself and self­ affirmation lead to ability to act resolutely, independently and with a unified self in order to achieve excellence in the world, and a recognition of this excellence in actuality further reinforces this faith in oneself and self­-affirmation. But the sovereign conscience also allows us to look upon our shortcomings as tasks to work on (either to remove them or make something out of them) rather than as excuses for attacking and condemning ourselves.


Nietzsche’s joy involves the feeling of pride and self­-satisfaction toward one’s own achievements and excellence. This is the joy of the ‘good conscience’; joy might be thought of as the affirmation of the self­-affirming conscience. For Kierkegaard and Nietzsche this joy should not be confused with pleasure or "happiness" as this is usually understood. In fact, for both, joy within the best life is most often a joy amidst great pain and tragedy. For Kierkegaard, the joy of the ‘second immediacy’ gained through faith is not the enjoyment of the ‘first immediacy’, the aesthetic life. Far from being a life devoted to seeking pleasure, Kierkegaard believes the life of faith brings with it an increase of suffering and persecution.

As I have argued elsewhere, to confuse the joy of faith with aesthetic pleasure is also to misunderstand the directionality of this joy: pleasure is taken in and from the world,whereas joy is received inwardly and then manifested outwardly as a way of being and living in the world. There may be a sense in which the joy of faith includes taking joy in the simple things of everyday life. But such moments are not the basis of one’s acceptance and affirmation of life in the world; life isnot affirmable because of its many little ‘simple joys.’ Rather, such moments are the result of an overall stance of joy; they require that we first approach the world with a joyful openness to its wealth of diverse and unforeseen particularities. Likewise, for Nietzsche saying ‘yes’ to eternal recurrence is not a matter of finding what recurs pleasant, painless, or comfortable.

Although Nietzsche spends less time than Kierkegaard detailing the internal collapse of the life of pleasure, Nietzsche does recognize the dangerous ‘letting oneself go’ of the hedonistic life. He also expresses disdain for those who seek happiness in the sense of mere comfort and pleasantness. In Nietzsche’s best life, one squarely faces the misery, pain and meaningless stupidity of much of human life.One nonetheless affirms life because one recognizes that what is important is not freedom from pain but the ability to persevere in the face of it and make something meaningful out of thetotality of one’s experiences.

Dionysian joy is a joy amidst suffering and pain that may even welcome pain and suffering in general as inevitable components of human life and as a necessary condition for one’s creativity, spirituality, or personal excellence. As Nietzsche points out, it is pain and strife, rather than comfort and the absence of pain, that is the “soil” in which human greatness tends to flourish. Just as ‘great health’ is the not absence of sickness but the ability to make something of this sickness, joy in life is not the absence of pain and suffering but the ability to affirm life not despite, or because of, this pain and suffering.



The ethical project Kierkegaard and Nietzsche share: illustrating, analyzing, and evaluating different ways of life, by Thomas Paul Miles

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The ethical project Kierkegaard and Niet
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