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”.