Søren Kierkegaard wrote one of the most remarkable theistic existentialist works of the 19th century, The Sickness unto Death is famed for the depth and acuity of its psychological insights.
Writing under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard explores the concept of ‘despair’. Despair is a deeper expression for anxiety which is a not-wanting-to-be-oneself. It is a misrelation that arises in the self when once cannot balance the eternal (God).
Although Kierkegaard was Christian, he was a heavy critic of the Danish Established Church. He was solely focused on the individual relationship with God.
The full title of the book is The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening.
One of the key things one has to get used to when reading Kierkegaard is his use of irony (his hero was Socrates). Throughout the book, Kierkegaard uses double meaning in a comedic way. The Sickness Unto Death is actually considered to be a self-help book, a genre that was unusual back in the day, as it was frowned upon by scholars.
The book is centred in being oneself, an individual. Kierkegaard wants us to be who we are.
In the introduction he explains the meaning behind “the sickness unto death”, comparing it to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
For the natural man or the atheist, the “sickness” which he refers to as “unto death” is resistance to the belief in God. It is the inclination to accept that death is indeed the end, which can bring a sense of meaninglessness.
For the Christian, there is no sickness unto death in the atheistic sense, as he has something eternal – earthly suffering is a temporary inconvenience on the way to eternal life. However, they experience the true “sickness unto death”, which is the fear that their faith is not sufficient to bring them eternal life, giving way to despair.
The book is a psychological exposition with Christianity as its background and as intended for “edification and awakening”.
In the widest sense a sickness is a disturbance in what would otherwise be a state of general well-being. The sickness which is the topic of Kierkegaard’s work is mental, he describes it as a “sickness of the spirit”.
His notion of mental disturbance as “sickness unto death” comes from one’s personal choice, one is responsible for “catching” the illness. The sickness comes to a crisis in the form of a choice between well-being through salvation and a fully conscious rejection of Christianity.
The book presents a step-by-step progression towards this crisis from a state in which the sufferer is not even aware of this sickness. The principal focus is the raising of the level of a person’s awareness of the urgency of the choice.
Part I. The Sickness unto Death is Despair
“The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. In short a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two terms. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.”
So, if you were to read this as a sample of what to expect of the book, it is quite likely that you’d put the book back on the shelf in no time.
But don’t get too far ahead – they simply function as a table of contents for the book. His point is to prove that man really isn’t a self.
For Kierkegaard, the self is not an abstract idea, but rather best understood in the concept of relationship, specifically with man and God. It is not a relationship of the self – for that would mean us being independent from God. Man must be in a relationship with God, such that he must stand before him in truth, only then can one achieve the infinite self. This is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s thinking. The notion of God is paradoxical and too absurd to be defended with rational arguments, it is a matter of faith – and it is the highest form of human life, that frees us from despair.
It is not our goal to become aware of the self, but rather to stand before God “transparently”, as he puts it. With the only self that exists being God’s self, the self that overwhelms our self.
The closer to God one is, the more of a Self. However, you can have the conception of God and have your backed turned to God, butthe conception of God is an extraordinarily strong requirement of selfhood.
The more we try to become a self the more independent we become of God. Kierkegaard’s idea of trying to define a self is another one of his ironies, as it goes against his general thesis. It is likely intended as to produce frustration in one who believes he can figure out his self alone.
A central feature of Kierkegaard’s account of despair is the inability of a person to manufacture his own identity, something essential is missing, something that would prevent you from simply demolishing the ideal and beginning all over again with a new ideal, such a person lacks something “eternally firm”.
The message of the book of its account of despair is that we are all more or less in despair, we just don’t realise it or we deny it at our peril.
By man trying to become his own self he becomes an imitation. Even if he succeeded in becoming a new self, he’d fail to become his true self and he despairs, he’d be like a “king without a country”. And if he remains his own self, he also despairs, because he wants to become a new self and cannot.
There are three kinds of despair:
Being unconscious in despair of having a self, this is an inauthentic despair because it is born out of ignorance. One is unaware that one has a self separate from its finite reality.
Then we have two authentic kinds of despair: not wanting in despair to be oneself (a state of awareness of the self but which is only in finite or immediate terms) and wanting in despair to be oneself (a type of demonic despair, the most heightened form of it, in which one accepts the eternal but refuses to accept the self that one in reality is, the self that one is in love).
Kierkegaard’s notion of despair has two principal components.
1. First component of despair: The Polarities
The first is a set of polarities: “infinite and finite”, “freedom and necessity”, “eternal and temporal”. The book starts off by saying that the human being is a “synthesis” of these factors and must remain in balance.
The life of a person who gets lost in the infinite without a counterbalance in the finite is given over to imagination; while a person who has nothing of the infinite lives a totally unimaginative everyday life. Imagination must be applied to something specific – or everyday life must become the workplace of the imagination.
Similarly, to have a freedom (or possibility) not counterbalanced by necessity is to treat all projects as though they were accomplished at the start; while to have nothing of the possible is to see oneself bound to a chain of ongoing events that leaves no place for personal initiative. A healthy balance being one in which time and trouble are duly taken in the realisation of possibilities.
The third polarity “eternal and temporal” has to be treated apart. To become aware of one’s self is to become aware of “something eternal”. The eternal represents a goal of human endeavour, a fundamental goal to achieving selfhood.
To not be in despair is to have reconciled these factors, existing in awareness of one’s own self.
2. Second component of despair: “Self” or “Spirit”
But what is the Self? This is the second main component of despair. The idea of the “self”, not as something one becomes, but as a “relation which “relates to itself”. This self-relating synthesis is what Kierkegaard calls “spirit”.
The eternal and the temporal allows us to see how we become progressively conscious of the imbalance of this relation, and more particularly, with the imbalance of the first two polarities.
The more aware a person is of having an “eternal” aspect, the closer the goal of “true selfhood”, turning an imbalanced self into a balanced self.
This despair, however, is not something that should be rooted out. From the point of spiritual development, there is actually something healthy about it. Spiritual development is bound to progress through a state of sickness. The only way out of escaping despair, therefore, seems to be to go through with it.
Part II. Despair is Sin
While in the first part Kierkegaard describes despair and its factors to help the reader understand why it’s a problem, in this second part he talks about despair in religious terms: that it is sin.
His concept of sin is to be in despair before God or with the conception of God. Sin is a condition that may be overcome only by pursuing faith. He stresses that faith, not virtue, is the opposite of sin, this is crucial.
He links the concepts of sin, faith, and despair together, noting that faith is the solution to both sin and despair.
Sin can range from a general indifference to religious matters to an outright rebellion against Christianity.
Since the final paragraph provides the closest thing to an overall summary of the book, it may be helpful to think back over the book using the final paragraph as a key.
“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing: every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.”
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