Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on Commitment and the Constant Self

One of the main concerns for any existential thinker is to answer the question “How am I to lead a fulfilling life?” In this paper, I will compare answers to this question given by Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard. I will focus on their views on having a constant self. A constant self is maintained by a foundational belief or pursuit that gives continuity and unity to one’s life. Kierkegaard believes that without something to guarantee a constant self, one will necessarily come to despair. Nietzsche on the other hand, believes that the desire for constancy is a sign of weakness, and that freedom from enduring commitments leads to the most joyous life. Despite their disagreement on the importance of a constant self, I think Nietzsche and Kierkegaard actually agree on many points. Specifically, both thinkers value discipline, risk, uncertainty, and self-constraint as helps toward a fulfilling life. Every individual must answer the question “How shall I live?” And there is no reason to suppose that any one answer should apply to everyone. Thus, after comparing these two existential thinkers, I will explain why I believe that in the conditions in which I live, it takes more strength of will to maintain a constant self.

Kierkegaard believes that it only the strongest will “have the strength to concentrate the whole of his life’s content and the meaning of reality in a single wish” (F&T, 72)[1]. I will call the action of concentrating the whole content of one’s life an ‘unconditional commitment.’ Kierkegaard describes the experience: “he is not afraid to let his love steal upon his most secret, most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in countless coils around every ligament of his consciousness” (71). Kierkegaard thinks that unconditional commitments give one an identity, and thereby, a fulfilling purpose in life. A true unconditional commitment will last for the entirety of one’s life, whether the wish turns out to be attainable or not. For example, one might have an unconditional commitment to a romantic partner. In such a case, one will love the partner forever, even if the partner leaves or dies. “If the love becomes unhappy, he will never be able to wrench himself out of it” (71). To change one’s mind on a commitment is to change one’s identity. Kierkegaard recognizes the great amount of risk involved in making an unconditional commitment, and it is precisely the risk that keeps “lower natures”—as he calls them—from making such a commitment. In order to make an unconditional commitment, one needs to focus her entire being on to one thing. Those without unconditional commitments, according to Kierkegaard, lack an identity and are thus not fully human and will necessarily come to despair; not a fulfilling life to say the least.

Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche glorifies strength of will and believes that only by exercising a strong will can one live the best kind of life. However, Nietzsche believes strength is manifested in the exact opposite way as Kierkegaard. He thinks that desires for constancy, steadiness, or certainty are signs of weakness. “The demand that one wants by all means that something should be firm … is still the demand for support, a prop, in short that instinct of weakness” (GS, §347)[2]. Instead, he believes that the strong are continually outgrowing beliefs, desires, commitments, and anything else that might lean on for stability. Nietzsche’s pattern for the best life can be called ‘brief habits.’ “I love brief habits” (§295). A brief habit is a temporary commitment. Nietzsche describes the experience: “I always believe that here is something that will give me lasting satisfaction … [it] spreads a deep contentment all around itself and deep into me so that I desire nothing else” (§295). So far it sounds very similar to the committing experience Kierkegaard described. However, for a brief habit, “one day its time is up” (§295). When the time of a brief habit is up, one must move on the next brief habit. Anything that lasts too long is to be avoided. For Nietzsche, a constant self has no appeal, and he just flat out denies that lack of a constant self will lead to despair. In the aphorism entitled “The meaning of our cheerfulness” (§343) Nietzsche explains that the ability one has to be free of any long-lasting commitment is the greatest source of happiness for the strong. The strong, Nietzsche thinks, are continually growing and changing and cannot enjoy constancy even if they were to desire it.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche disagree on the importance of having a constant self, but they agree on more than one might think. Nietzsche thinks that faith is always a desire for certainty and stability. Kierkegaard may have thought that the common understanding of faith was just that, but he certainly did not think that a true understanding of faith amounted to a desire for certainty. For Kierkegaard, one’s commitment will sometimes require him to do very unusual things, and he will “never be assured” (F&T, 99) that what he is doing is right. The committed individual maintains her commitment despite “every moment [seeing] the sword hanging over the loved one’s head” (79). The committed individual is far from clinging to faith as a kind of life-support. For both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the strong must leave certainty behind.

At first, it might seem that Kierkegaard would criticize the ‘brief habits’ lifestyle for lacking risk and discipline. The ‘brief habits’ lifestyle seems like what Kierkegaard would call “immediacy,” which is a life devoid of thinking, in which one merely seeks to satisfy his immediate desires. Nietzsche’s brief habits seem like immediacy because one goes through life entertaining a habit only until a better one comes along. For Kierkegaard, it is a sign of strength to stay with a commitment even after it is no longer satisfying or easy. However, Nietzsche is no stranger to risk. He writes: “the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fulfillment and the greatest enjoyment is—to live dangerously!” (GS, §283). Nietzsche agrees that risk-taking is a sign of strength and a source of joy, but for him, the risk comes from the kinds of habits with which one engages rather than from the possibility of an unsatisfactory commitment. Nietzsche also values discipline. He thinks that each habit can teach us many things. But, after having learned whatever the habit has to offer, one must not become reliant upon it or unable to give it up. Those who are strong “will use religion [or any other habit] for his disciplining and educating work” (BG&E, §61)[3] but the weak “NEED its discipline for moralizing and humanizing” (§252). Once again, discipline comes from the content of the habit rather than a commitment to a particular habit. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard agree that discipline, constraint, and risk are necessary for the most fulfilling kind of life, but the disagree on how they are manifested.

For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the content of a fulfilling life is not simply handed down from some outside source. Rather, it must be actively taken up. Nietzsche explains that one must create a fulfilling life and then he writes: “It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy their finest gaiety in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own” (GS, §290). Kierkegaard’s story is less active—one must “let [his commitment] twine in countless coils…” (F&T, 71, emphasis added)—but it is still conditional upon his choice. A fulfilling life must be chosen and created. Self-constraint is a mark of strength for both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Despite these similarities, we are still left to decide whether a life of unconditional commitment or of brief habits is the best way to fulfillment. It seems one can be involved with risk, discipline, and the growth that come with them in either lifestyle. I think it is best to look at our current social situation in answering this question. In our current capitalistic and individualistic culture, one is enticed on all sides by advertisements for the ‘new best thing.’ We are constantly told we deserve a change or something better. Capitalism and the internet make any desire we may have available any time we want. Kierkegaard compared those unable to make unconditional commitments to capitalists, moving around from one pursuit to another basing decisions solely on what will grant the most immediate gratification. Nietzsche recognizes that “every action is unknowable” (GS, §335), that is, the motivation behind every action is unknowable. It is difficult to know whether our desire to leave a habit is motivated by boredom and distraction, or by growth. The same can be said about commitments. One might stay with a decision because of discipline and determination, or out of dependence and weakness. However, I believe that our current society is organized toward shallow ‘hyper-brief habits’. And I think Nietzsche would agree: a habit needs to last longer than most are willing to stick with their decisions. He writes “Most intolerable… [is] a life entirely devoid of habits” (§295). Many commitments these days do not last long enough to be called habits. Thus, I think it is more important in our society to emphasize lasting commitment than it is to speak of outgrowing our decisions.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche disagree on the importance of a constant self in living a fulfilling life. However, they agree on more than a few points along the way. Specifically, they both value strength, discipline, risk, and self-imposed constraints. They agree that a desire for certainty can hold one back from living a fulfilling life. The insights of both thinkers are much needed in modern society. But, I believe it is more important to emphasize commitment given the shallow tendencies of our society. It may be true that one can only learn so much from any one lifestyle, but in the current American society, lifestyle changes are more likely to be motivated by boredom and laziness than a need to continue growing.

[1] Fear and Trembling, translated by Allastair Hannay. London, England: Penguin Classics 1985.

[2] The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufman, New York: Vintage Books 1974.

[3] Beyond Good & Evil. Translated by Helen Zimmern.

This entry was posted in Papers, Phil 7: Existentialism. Bookmark the permalink.

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