DOI: 10.3390/rel14121492 ISSN: 2077-1444

Kierkegaard on “Sobriety”: Christian Virtues, the Ethical, and Triadic Dyads

John J. Davenport
  • Religious studies

In her recent book, Kierkegaard and Religion: Personality, Character, and Virtue, Sylvia Walsh argues that Kierkegaard is not a virtue ethicist in the most common senses associated with eudaimonism, which he understands as enlightened self-interest. However, recent disputes about whether the aspects of “character” that Kierkegaard praises are virtues rely partly on whether the “ethical stage” in Kierkegaard’s moral psychology remains important within Christian faith, even when most strictly conceived in his late works. This in turn depends on how we understand the difficult works–grace relation in Kierkegaard’s conception of Christian faith. In this essay, I argue that the ethical existence sphere remains important even though, in works like Practice in Christianity and Judge for Yourself!, Kierkegaard argues that Christian faith is not a mere outgrowth or natural “development” of ethical earnestness or care—hardening the break with immanence that he introduced in earlier works. While he emphasizes a total transformation, a break from natural moral consciousness, and describes Christian qualities as a reversal of ordinary human expectations, there remains an underlying continuity with the attitudes and stances constitutive of the ethical and religiousness A (as existence spheres). This becomes visible when we identify three aspects found across the aesthetic, ethical, and Christian religious versions of major concepts in Kierkegaard’s work, including positive character terms. I use “sobriety” as discussed in Judge for Yourself! as my main example. This analysis confirms several important points advanced by Lee Barrett on the works–grace relation. The paradoxical standoff between ethical effort and grace is bridged to some extent by the continuing significance of the ethical “sphere” as a part of the “religious”, even in Kierkegaard’s late works and journal entries.