In Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) work Either-Or (Da. Enten-Eller) from 1843, Kierkegaard introduces a personality-type that he calls the Aesthete. The Aesthete is characterised by living in the now and constantly seeking pleasure. The aesthetic approach to life is hedonistic, lust-based, founded on momentary desires, and hence, the life of the Aesthete lacks continuity and stability; it is built up around short glittery moments that are not linked together, like marbles in a box.
The Aesthete is governed by an extreme focus on pleasure, as he views boredom and triviality as the root to evil. This pleasure-seeking venture leads to a life directed by questions like: what do I want to experience, enjoy, eat, purchase next? However, even though the Aesthete might, on the surface, appear happy and fortunate, the aesthete is not an authentic person. The aesthete is, according to Kierkegaard, always absent to himself, never present, despite his constant hunt for momentary here-and-now experiences. He has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, and the essence of his being outside himself (Kierkegaard Samlede Værker 1994, Vol. 2: 204). He bases his happiness solely on external stimuli.
The Aesthete lives in despair and is governed by what Kierkegaard calls the unhappy consciousness (Da: Den ulykkelige bevidsthed). Despair, in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, involves having an inauthentic, malfunctioning relation to oneself – or being unaligned with oneself. Living in despair does not necessarily mean that one is unhappy; alike the Aesthete, one can appear happy, even though deep down despair is governing one’s life. Kierkegaard, in Sickness onto Death, describes the human self as a relation of opposing dialectic pairs: the eternal and the temporal, the finite and the infinite, opportunity and necessity (Kierkegaard Samlede Værker 1994, Vol. 15: 92-93). Becoming a self, and thereby overcoming despair, involves finding a balance between these opposing poles.
There are three different kinds of despair represented in Sickness onto Death; firstly, the unconscious (inauthentic) despair, secondly, despair of not wanting to be oneself, and finally, wanting in despair to be oneself. The development of human consciousness intensifies the despair; i.e. the more aware, the more intensive the despair — until conclusively (potentially, and only potentially, because it is by no means a given that the despair will ever be conquered), the balanced dialectical relation is actualised. Despair is, in other words, a necessary evil; it is a result of self-awareness, but self-awareness is necessary in order to develop into an authentic self. Man is destined to becoming himself, which means that even if a person desires to escape himself, this is impossible. Freedom involves choosing oneself. Only then, will one be an authentic being.
If governed by the idea that pleasure requires novelty, like the Aesthete, the enjoyment of consumption is per definition finite. The restlessness of modern society — in which innovation, changeability and disruption are buzzwords — resembles the restlessness of the aesthetician stage. The relief from boredom is only fleeting. The Aesthete is occupied with getting as many interesting, pleasurable experiences as possible: with feeling good or having a good time. If the Aesthete for example gives money to charity, it is because it makes him feel good. Hence, he is always controlled and steered by pleasure. What do I feel like doing? What will make me feel better? These questions are the steering wheel in the life of the Aesthete – but actually they are also very relevant contemporary societal steering wheels. We are actually often encouraged, by experience-focused self-help books and adverts, to live our lives like that! To spoil ourselves, and to indulge ourselves in comfort-providing spa-, travel, -dining-, consumer-experiences. To flee boredom. To live here and now and to spend money on whatever takes our fancy, without thinking about tomorrow. Our late-modern cultural assumptions on “the good life” sends us out into the world with a “if it feels good, it is good”-mantra.
On top of this, children are taught from an early age, due to the absurd number of daily hours they spend in front of tablets, computers and game consoles, that you don’t have to make an effort to learn anything, and that you never have to be bored. You very quickly excel in a computer game, and if you don’t, you can just delete it and find another one that matches your abilities better, and that gives you a more pleasurable “here and now” experience. Children are in other words taught to constantly seek pleasure: to build up their daily routine around a pleasure hunt of “shining” moments that is not unlike that of the Aesthete’s.
The aesthetician stage is characterised by lack over-individual standards: The Aesthete focuses solely on his own fulfilling experiences, pleasure, and well-being — not unlike the contemporary time-typical narcissistic need to exhibit every single step, one takes, and every (healthy, delicious) meal one consumes on social media. Actually, I am convinced that Kierkegaard would agree that the Aesthete loves social media; which better way to create a self-composed poetic distance to everything and everyone?
But, a pleasure hunting experience-based life is not an authentically fulfilling life, according to Kierkegaard. We need to make meaningful choices and to commit ourselves to something and someone in order to live authentically. However, in our post-factual, post-religious, post-common ground reality, in which neither authorities nor experts nor gods nor communities are providing us with valid guidelines or normative standards and values, we tend to be led by our need for entertaining or at least momentarily satisfying experiences — or by our need to fit in. The problem is, though, that our experience hunt is led by our easily changeable preferences, and our preferences are led by trends – and trends are volatile and unstable and constantly shifting. And hence, stability and continuity are lacking in this equation. We must find an alternative to the authorities and gods that we have killed. An alternative that makes us able to differentiate right from wrong, and that can create new stability in a disrupted, aesthetician world. I am not saying that the doctrine of religion or authoritarianism is the sole way of creating a standpoint, on which one can build an authentic life. But a standpoint is crucial in order to create a nourishing, stabile counterpoint to abrupt experience and pleasure-hunts.