There are some natural similarities between repetition and imitation. Imitation is, itself, a form of repetition, but of a more specialized sort. They both deal with freedom, primarily. All over we see Constantin and Kierkegaard referring to repetition as a “task for freedom,” and this is his criticism of Heiberg, as well, that he did not understand repetition as a matter of spiritual freedom but natural recurrence. Imitation, too, is a matter of freedom, though this relation is perhaps less obvious than repetition’s relation to freedom.
Freedom, for Kierkegaard, is not a matter of proliferating infinite possibilities, as many in our day would suggest. This is, in fact, a form of despair, a slavery, a deceptive imposter of true freedom. Instead, freedom is the ability to choose. In order to be free, one must decide to do something–and do it! Otherwise, one is lost in multiplicity, infinitely speculating about what might happen if one chooses one thing or another.
When one gets muddied with the sticky trap of infinite possibility, one is totally unfree and recedes to a point of despair from which there appears to be no way out. This is the reason for repetition. Repetition offers a way out–it offers a choice, the ability to act. Choices simultaneously open new vistas into which we may roam freely and close down other fields of possibility. This opening and closing is an action that must be repeated, which in turn grants one the ability to truly live because one has truly chosen. When one chooses, one receives one’s life back from the quicksand of multiplicity.
But repetition alone is insufficient. Repetition alone is easily confused for courage. Perhaps this is why Kierkegaard begins to say repetition will come to mean “atonement.” In atonement, when sin halts our freedom to act because of guilt and infinite possibility, atonement forgives us. makes the world to be a grassy road before our bare and wandering feet (Yeats). Having received atonement, we must then go one step further, we must begin our walk along the road set out for us–here enters imitation.
True imitation is the imitation of Christ, according to Anti-Climacus in Practice in Christianity. To imitate Christ is to imitate someone so particular, not a universal “God-Man” who is conceptually perfect yet finite, but a particular individual traveling the dusty roads of the earth. This imitation is an act of freedom–it sets before us a road that can be followed, it breaks a window of actualization through the dark cell of limitless possibility. Imitation is a limitation. It closes down anything that does not imitate Christ. In our imitation, we are freely limited–our limitation is indeed our freedom.
For this reason, Kierkegaard elsewhere suggests that the most free beings in the world are the birds of the air and lilies of the field, who have no option but to please God as they act in obedience to him.