Passion or Telos? Kierkegaard, Plato, and Decision‑Making

Jacob Stephens

Professor James Taylor


17 December 2014

Passion or Telos?:

Kierkegaard, Plato, and Decision-Making

Ancients and moderns have thought about decision-making. The question, “What should I decide?” has existed throughout human history. Identifying free choice as extant exists in postmodern and ancient thought. Further, postmoderns and ancients have expressed what constitutes a good decision. Sources older than Christ do not discourse on the influence of Christian theology on decision-making. There are nuanced differences in these suggested ways of decision making though. The theme of this essay is choice. Plato and Kierkegaard both describe choice as existent and consequential, unlike. They differ in claims about what criteria hold the most weight when making a decision. Plato holds that the right decision is more important than making that choice with passion, while Kierkegaard’s attitude towards choice is that passionately choosing is more important than right decision.

Plato as well as Kierkegaard believed in the existence of choice. I’m transitioning into a section where I will draw out similarities in Kierkegaard and Plato’s existence of choice as well as their belief in its consequences. The purpose of this section is to provide background information. This information will help us realize that Kierkegaard and Plato not only contrast in their understanding of choice, but they also have strong similarities.

In Plato’s Republic, he illustrates only characters who believe in choice; this is the major premise. Hacker and Sommers define deductive reasoning in A Writer’s Reference; here I will use the logic described there in order to draw the conclusion that Plato himself believes in choice (96). From the major premise we can draw a deductive conclusion stating that Plato himself believes in choice. As Pojman and Vaughn summarize, the second chapter of Republic narrates Glaucon and Adeimantus demanding from Socrates a justification of doing morality for its own sake (Plato 131). Glaucon provides a specific case of one of Plato’s characters who believes in choice. This case can serve as a minor premise we can apply to the major premise. Looking a bit into the first portion of the text, Glaucon explains the “origin … of morality” (133). One of the details in his description is about people who made the first laws, and it reads as follows, “they decide that the most profitable course is for them to enter a contract with one another” (133). Glaucon’s acknowledgement of these persons’ decision to make laws is an acknowledgement of people’s freedom to make choices. There is no deterministic or fatalistic attitude here.

Kierkegaard illustrates choice’s existence. “Concerning Unscientific Postscript” provides a case illustrating a scenario which involves choice. At the beginning of the excerpt included in Classics, Kierkegaard, as paints a scene where Johannes Climacus, “born in this city” inquires, “how may I establish a proper relationship to Christianity?” (944). His interest is on the verge of acting in response to whatever action he takes, and in his attitude, I interpret a choice of his to establish this relationship. University of Rhode Island professor Bob Zunjic interprets the meaning of part of the title, “Concluding”, to be that Kierkegaard was “announc[ing] the end of his activity as a literary author.” This is significant because it signals that this work was a major writing of his, and as such, he likely wrote into Johannes Climacus major attitudes that reflected perspectives he found true including one we are examining. That choice exists.

Kierkegaard and Plato argued from an understanding of choice as something which has consequences, and as a result, the importance of making good decisions increases.

Plato conveys that choice is consequential, as seen in Phaedo. As Pojman and Vaughn point out, Socrates attempts to convince Phaedo of afterlife (69). In the course of their dialogue, Socrates says things which evidence that he believed choices in this life affect our state in afterlife. He goes on to discuss with Simmias and Crito about how the soul is all that will extend on into the afterlife, and that intellectual activity has the capacity to improve peoples’ situations (71). If they are discussing what makes for a better life, they are implying the availability of the capacity to choose in such a way that life following those choices is different.

Kierkegaard conveys that choice is consequential, as seen in Sickness Unto Death. At the beginning of chapter 1, he posits that “[m]an is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self. … If on the contrary the relation relates itself to its own self, the relation is then the positive third term, and this is the self.” Here we can see that there is the potential for man to not be a self, but on a particular condition– “the relation relat[ing] itself to its own self … this is the self” then the subject becomes a self. But a choice must be made by that subject in order to relate itself to its own self, otherwise they will stay in the first state described by Kierkegaard, where “man is not yet a self.” The consequence of a “relation relat[ing] itself to its own self” is that it becomes a self. Based on this evidence, I make a probable, inductive truth claim that Kierkegaard, through the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, reveals the perspective of choice with consequence.

Although Kierkegaard and Plato have, in the broad strokes I have painted, similar beliefs about choice, they also have differing beliefs about choice. My central claim in this next section is that these two authors allude to different principles as that which ought to hold the highest priority in decision making. Kierkegaard holds to passion as a major characteristic of decisions that ought be most highly praised, and Plato holds to alignment with Telos as the most praiseworthy aspect of decisions.

When Plato has characters make decisions based on the good, he is advocating for people to make decisions based on good. Here is a generalization which will be followed by specific cases of it, and finally a deductive conclusion.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates accepts his punishment because it is good for his soul. The good is the highest goal here for Socrates. Even if Socrates felt more passionate about rejecting his punishment, his choice is better because of the fact that he decided something in pursuit of the good.

In Plato’s Crito, Socrates accepts his punishment because subverting the Law would harm his soul, and thus, whether or not he passionately decides or passively decides, the right decision is determined teleologically, with the goal of a pure soul.

Based on these premises, we deductively concluded that Plato himself advocates that people in general should make decisions based on what will move them towards the Good. We cannot reason inductively to this statement, because in no specific cases do we see Plato directly advocating for people to make decisions based on good, we only see him glorify a character who make decisions based on the good, so we need to establish a premise that allows us to jump from these specific cases to this deductive conclusion.

Next, I will present and respond to two counterarguments to the claim that Plato most praised decisions which moved towards Telos.

Although Ancients were concerned with having desire to act virtuously, even in order to make an act virtuous, as seen in “Nicomachean Ethics”, it does not follow from that observation that Socrates thought the same way about virtue.

Even if one does conclude that Socrates thought the same way as Aristotle about what comprised a virtuous act, as you presented in class this semester, one of the requiring aspects of a virtuous action is that the person doing it desires to do it. Even so, the action is more important than the desire, because in order to come to a state where our desires have been cultivated in such a way as to want to do what is excellent. The good action precedes the cultivation of the desire, and therefore the action itself is more important overall than the desire for good action.

Switching back to our postmodern author on dock, Kierkegaard says what matters more in a person’s decision is that they made it with vigor than that they made it according to truth. Making decisions according to truth is critical to Kierkegaard, but he gives preference the passionate decision to decision in line with truth.

In Either/Or II, there is claim of passionate decision being more important than right or wrong decision, than virtuous decision. The reason why is as follows, “if a man were to choose the wrong, he will nevertheless discover, precisely by reason of the energy with which he chose, that he had chosen the wrong” (Kierkegaard 944). Kierkegaard values the right, as we see at the end of this statement, but what he values more is when someone acts with great energy and personal investment, because then they will find out if they were wrong.

Our class discussed the example of the theologian who has all of his doctrines correct yet has not chosen to act on them. We also discussed this briefly in our meeting to go over my outline. This theologian who knows abundant truth, yet, as Steven Garber illustrates in The Fabric of Faithfulness, does not put legs to those ideas, ends up living a less, as Greg Carmer described in the Elijah Project final paper prompt, meaningful life, than the person who is gungho active about their truths, yet is wrong in many cases about the truths they believe. That person’s life ends up more meaningful than the theologian who knows much, but appropriates little. For a few of the SOC310 classes I missed over the last few weeks of the semester I chose with great passion not to go to them. I was very conscious that this was a choice I was making, and that I was exchanging going to that class for a tad more time to work on my final Elijah Project essay. Looking back, I’ve discovered that this was a poor choice. I acted on the conviction that it would be good to skip class, because we must sacrifice loyalty to some commitment in order to invest in another of our commitments with excellence. But I have, in wake of these skips, discovered the more true bit of wisdom that we mustn’t always sacrifice loyalty to some commitment in order to invest excellently in another one. If we first commit ourselves to fewer things, such that our workload is manageable, less skimps on commitments will be called for in pursuit of excellence in a particular station of life.

In James Flynn’s second chapter of A Very Brief Introduction to Existentialism, this expert in philosophy summarizes Kierkegaard’s three stages of becoming an individual. Princeton professor Walter Lowrie prefers to translate the stages as spheres. Moving from the aesthetic sphere of existence to the ethical sphere requires a choice. Because the choice precedes the movement into the ethical sphere, it is more important than which ethical sphere one chooses to occupy. Without choice, we could not enter the ethical sphere.

Kierkegaard takes this emphasis on passion because of being a Christian. His being a Christian caused him to put emphasis on the individual, as seen by Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. “For Christianity places enormous significance on my little self” (944). Furthermore, Climacus mentions that, “the only unpardonable sin against the majesty of Christianity is for an individual to take his relationship to it for granted”, which implies a sense of required ownership being advocated here. Climacus is saying that we ought not take our relationship to Christianity for granted, and what that requires is taking it as our own.

In conclusion, Kierkegaard finds personal investment in decision making more important than having a decision that most reflects truth, while Plato finds the opposite.

Works Cited

Carmer, Greg. “Final Integrative Paper Prompt.” Fall 2014. Print.


Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism: A Very Brief Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.


Garber, Steven. The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print.


Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. 7th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print


Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn. 945-955.


—. “Readings.” Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn. 942-944.


Lowrie, Walter. Preface. Stages on Life’s Way. Søren Kierkegaard. 2nd printing. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1945. Print. xii-xvi.


Plato. Apology. Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn. 36-57.


—. Crito. Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn. 58-68.


—. Phaedo. Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn. 69-100.


Pojman, Louis, and Lewis Vaughn, eds. Classics of Philosophy. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.


Taylor, James. “PHI118C Lectures.” Fall 2014.


—, et. al. Class discussions. Fall 2014.


—. Office hours. 11 December 2014.


Zunjic, Bob. “PHL 346: Existential Problems in Human Life.” University of Rhode Island. Soren Kiekegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Web.


Here is the syllabus from the course I wrote this paper for: The Examined Life.