The Seriousness of Making Choices

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)


My friend, I think of my early youth, when without clearly comprehending what it is to make a choice I listened with childish trust to the talk of my elders and the instant of choice was solemn and venerable, although in choosing I was only following the instructions of another person. I think of the occasions in my later life when I stood at the crossways, when my soul was matured in the hour of decision. I think of the many occasions in life less important but by no means indifferent to me, when it was a question of making a choice. For although there is only one situation in which either/or has absolute significance, namely, when truth, righteousness and holiness are lined up on one side, and lust and base propensities and obscure passions and perdition on the other; yet, it is always important to choose rightly, even as between things which one may innocently choose, it is important to test oneself, lest some day one might have to beat a retreat to the point from which one started, and might have reason to thank God if one had to reproach oneself for nothing worse than a waste of time. In common parlance I use these words [either / or] as others use them, and it would indeed be foolish to give up using them. And although my life now has to a certain degree its either/or behind it, yet 1 know well that it may still encounter many a situation where the either / or will have its full significance. 1 hope, however, that these words may find me in a worthy state of mind when they check me on my path, and I hope that I may be successful in choosing the right course; at all events, I shall endeavor to make the choice with real earnestness, and with that I venture, at least, to hope that I shall the sooner get out of the wrong path.

And now as for you - this phrase is only too often on your lips, it has almost become a byword with you. What significance has it for you? None at all. You, according to your own expression, regard it as a wink of the eye, a snap of the fingers, a coup de main, an abracadabra. At every opportunity you know how to introduce it, nor is it without effect; for it affects you as strong drink affects a neurasthenic, you become completely intoxicated by what you call the higher madness. . . . [You are like] that great thinker and true practical philosopher who said to a man who had insulted him by pulling off his hat and throwing it on the floor, "If you pick it up, you'll get a thrashing; if you don't pick it up, youíll also get a thrashing; now you can choose." You take great delight in "comforting" people when they have recourse to you in critical situations. You listen to their exposition of the case and then say, "Yes, I perceive perfectly that there are two possibilities, one can either do this or that. My sincere opinion and my friendly counsel is as follows: Do it/or donít do it - you will regret both." But he who mocks others mocks himself, and your rejoinder is not a mere nothing but a profound mockery of yourself, a sorry proof how limp your soul is, that your whole philosophy of life is concentrated in one single proposition, "I say merely either/or." In case this really were your serious meaning, there would be nothing one could do with you, one must simply put up with you as you are and deplore the fact that melancholy (literally, heavy-mindedness] or light-mindedness had enfeebled your spirit. Now on the contrary, since one knows very well that such is not the case, one is not tempted to pity you but rather to wish that some day the circumstances of your life may tighten upon you the screws in its rack and compel you to come out with what really dwells in you, may begin the sharper inquisition of the rack which cannot be beguiled by nonsense and witticisms. Life is a masquerade, you explain, and for you this is inexhaustible material for amusement; and so far, no one has succeeded in knowing you; for every revelation you make is always an illusion. Your occupation consists in preserving your hiding place, and that you succeed in doing, for your mask is the most enigmatical of all. In fact you are nothing. . . an enigmatic figure on whose brow is inscribed Either/or - "For this," you say, "is my motto. . ."

Now although nothing you say in that style has the slightest effect upon me, nevertheless, for your own sake I will reply to you. Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when every one has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? Or are you not terrified by it? I have seen men in real life who so long deceived others that at last their true nature could not reveal itself; I have seen men who played hide and seek so long that at last madness through them obtruded disgustingly upon others, their secret thoughts, which hitherto they had proudly concealed. Or can you think of anything more frightful than that you thus would have lost the inmost and holiest thing of all in a man, the unifying power of personality? Truly, you should not jest with that which is not only serious but dreadful. In every man there is something which to a certain degree prevents him from becoming perfectly transparent to himself; and this may be the case in so high a degree, he may be so inexplicably woven into relationships of life which extend far beyond himself that he almost cannot reveal himself. But he who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all.


* This passage from Either/Or was written by Kierkegaard in the form of a letter from "Judge William" to his "young friend" giving solme autobiographical references to Kierkegaard's character as a young university student.

From Soren Kierkegaard. Either/Or, Vol. II. translated by Walter Lowrie with revisions and a forward by Howard A. Johnson, Copyright 1944 & 1955 by Princeton Univ. Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton. 1944

Reprinted in Stumpf.


Comment: the social mask as a form of deception. Take a stand, make the decision, and (of course) make it on the right side, for K. knows which decision you should make, given that "truth, righteousness and holiness are lined up on one side, and lust and base propensities and obscure passions and perdition on the other." So we are not talking here of making a decision and then simply taking responsibility for it. We also have a morality here, a correct ethical choice.