“The Sickness Unto Death” by Søren Kierkegaard

The Sickness Unto Death

What is Despair?

“Just as a physician might say there isn’t a single human being who enjoys perfect health, so someone with a proper knowledge of man might say there is not a single human being who does not despair at least a little, in whose innermost being there does not dwell an uneasiness, an unquiet, a discordance, an anxiety in the face of an unknown something, or a something he doesn’t even dare strike up acquaintance with, an anxiety about a possibility in life or an anxiety about himself.”

According to Kierkegaard, there is not a human being who is not in despair. If you’ve never despaired, it’s because you’ve never hoped, and that itself is precisely despair. Despair is the sickness unto death, not of the body but of the spirit.

This is a brilliant treatise on psychology, philosophy and theology. Part I provides insights into 1) the nature of self, which is a synthesis of infinitude and finitude, possibility and necessity; 2) the nature and cause of despair, which is an imbalance between infinitude and finitude, and an unsettling relation to self. Part II expounds the Christian concept of original sin, as despair is sin, the intensification of despair and the resulting torment, “dying you shall die”.

The Self as Spirit

Just as we determine the meaning of a word in the context of the book, so we find the meaning of an individual in the context of the society in which he lives. An individual experiences despair when the fabric of his existence is disrupted or destroyed, e.g., the loss of a loved one, a vocation, or any other object of his pursuit on which his happiness depends.

Kierkegaard uses the example of being deserted by a loved one. Some psychologist might say the despair in that case is limited only to the person’s love life. But Kierkegaard argues that despair is actually and always over oneself, e.g., not wanting to be oneself without the loved one. Seen from that perspective, despair is a pervasive and inherent state.

He goes further and states that an individual is not only a social being, but spirit. The social context is like a garment, and the true self underneath is revealed once the garment is removed. Even when he is securely grounded in society, he is in despair with regard to his relation to spirit, the eternal self, though he may not be conscious of being in despair.

In a sense, there is a deeper, more inherent and consistent context for the individual than society, it is God. An individual is always related to God and accountable before God, who is also the Standard by which the meaning and value of an individual is determined.

Despair or Hope, The Choice is Yours

Would you recommend your friend to see a doctor if he doesn’t look quite right? Of course. But, what if you suspect that your friend has a terminal disease, and all the doctor can do is to give the proper diagnosis without providing any cure?

According to Kierkegaard, despair is a disease that is incurable, though not in the usual sense of the word. There is no cure for it, because the cure comes not from outside but from the individual himself. Paradoxically or ironically, if the individual has the cure, he wouldn’t be or remain in despair in the first place.

Since God, Who is the Hope of mankind and with Whom all things are possible, is always present with the individual, the individual always has a choice to either open to Him in faith and thereby have hope in Him, or reject Him and remain in despair in himself.

Half way through the book, Kierkegaard revealed that he himself was also subject to despair. Yet, for him and for all Christians, there is hope. They may turn to the Physician who can heal all their diseases. The opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith, and God is “the author and finisher of our faith”. “The self in being itself and in wanting to be itself is transparently grounded in God”.

The Christian Hope

In the Scriptures, the question of despair, indeed, the despair of all mankind, is raised in the Old Testament, and answered in the New Testament:

“How long, LORD?
Will You hide Yourself forever?
Will Your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is;
For what futility have You created all the children of men?
What man can live and not see death?
Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave?”
Psalm 89:46-48

” For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly,
but because of Him who subjected it in hope;
because the creation itself also will be delivered
from the bondage of corruption
into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Romans 8:20-21

God has committed them all to despair, that He might be their Hope. For where despair abounded, grace abounded much more.

The Love and Sorrow of God

“He can humble Himself, take the form of a servant, suffer and die for man, invite all to come unto Him, sacrifice every day of His life and every hour of the day, and sacrifice His life —but the possibility of the offense he cannot take away. Oh, unique work of love! Oh, unfathomable sorrow of love! that God Himself cannot, as in another sense He does not will, cannot will it, but, even if He would, He could not make it impossible that this work of love might not turn out to be for a person exactly the opposite, to be the extremist misery! For the greatest possible human misery, greater even than sin, is to be offended in Christ and remain offended. And Christ cannot, “Love” cannot render this impossible.”

Quotes:

“Ah! and when the hour-glass has run out, the hour-glass of temporality, when the worldly tumult is silenced and the restless or unavailing urgency comes to an end, when all about you is still as it is in eternity — whether you are man or woman, rich or poor, dependent or free, happy or unhappy; whether you bore in your elevation the splendour of the crown or in humble obscurity only the toil and heat of the day; whether your name will be remembered for as long as the world lasts, and so will have been remembered as long as it lasted, or you are without a name and run namelessly with the numberless multitude; whether the glory that surrounded you surpassed all human description, or the severest and most ignominious human judgment was passed on you — eternity asks you and every one of these millions of millions, just one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not, whether so in despair that you did not know that you were in despair, or in such a way that you bore this sickness concealed deep inside you as your gnawing secret, under your heart like the fruit of a sinful love, or in such a way that, a terror to others, you raged in despair. If then, if you have lived in despair, then whatever else you won or lost, for you everything is lost, eternity does not acknowledge you, it never knew you, or, still more dreadful, it knows you as you are known, it manacles you to yourself in despair!”

References:

  • Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening. Trans. Alastair Hannay. London: Penguin Books, 1989.
  • “The Sickness Unto Death” Online Book
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20 thoughts on ““The Sickness Unto Death” by Søren Kierkegaard

  1. This is a great review, Nemo. The reference to Romans 8:20-21 is perfect.
    Do you think what he says is true? “To defend anything is always to discredit it.”. He also says that whoever has defended Christianity has never believed it.

    1. It is true in a sense, though certainly not in the sense the Apostles and Church Fathers have defended Christianity through the ages. Come to think of it, Kierkegaard was also defending Christianity, in his own way.

      1. So you think K was kind of implicitly defending Christianity? Do you think universal despair is a kind of proof that God exists?

        His language is kind of intense on the subject of defense and reason. He says, “how extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of men this betrays, and how truly, even though it be unconsciously, it is working in collusion with the enemy, by making of Christianity a miserable something or another which in the end has to be rescued by a defense.” I’m not exactly sure how it makes Christianity a “miserable something or another”?

        Later he says, ” The fact that something surpasses all understanding is proved by three….reasons, which, whatever else they may be good for, surely do not surpass the understanding, but precisely on the contrary make it evident to the understanding that this bliss does not surpass the understanding; for, after all, reasons certainly lie within the compass of the understanding.” What I get from this is that he is thinking of Christianity as incomprehensible, but to engage in defending it is to attempt to make it comprehensible. Is that what he is getting at? And also to do so belies faith?

        His following analogy of the lover feeling no need to put up a defense for his love fell kind of flat to me. A man may not need to defend his love because no one doubts the existence et al of his beloved. But maybe I am starting to mix things up here.

        Anyway, how do you think it is true in a sense?

      2. We know from experience that it takes the strong to defend the weak. To defend something, in the sense Kierkegaard uses it, is to supply something more robust, more trustworthy, more understandable, than the thing being defended. In so doing, acknowledging implicitly that the thing being defended is less robust or trustworthy.

        To defend or prove the existence of God using reason, is to confine God, who is infinite, within the limitations of human understanding, which is finite. It also implicitly concedes that something else in our understanding is more robust and trustworthy than our knowledge of God.

      3. We know from experience that it takes the strong to defend the weak. To defend something, in the sense Kierkegaard uses it, is to supply something more robust, more trustworthy, more understandable, than the thing being defended. In so doing, acknowledging implicitly that the thing being defended is less robust or trustworthy.

        Thanks for this example. It makes a lot of sense. So you don’t see the Apostles and Church Fathers doing this?

        To defend or prove the existence of God using reason, is to confine God, who is infinite, within the limitations of human understanding, which is finite. It also implicitly concedes that something else in our understanding is more robust and trustworthy than our knowledge of God.

        Is it bad to confine God within the limitations of human understanding in some instances? I mean, In any of our relations with Him, they are limited in scope because we are human. And if, as K says, our “self” is a synthesis of body and spirit, then why is it wrong to use the body (or mind, which is of the body?) in relating to God? It does seem to imply that something in our understanding is more trustworthy than a “spiritual” knowledge of God, but maybe this is only true in some instances??

  2. PS- I have no idea what kind of music you like, but I discovered yesterday that Samuel Barber wrote a piece called “The Prayers of Kierkegaard”, if that interests you. 🙂

    1. The kind of music I like at any given time depends on the situation and mood I’m in. Generally speaking, I like classical music. You play the piano, right?

  3. I suppose I’m thinking of pride. When you say “It also implicitly concedes that something else in our understanding is more robust and trustworthy than our knowledge of God.”, this makes me think of a prideful trust in knowledge and a consequent ignoring of the spirit-man. But if the two are collaborating in relating ourselves to God, then it isn’t a bad thing?

      1. And I’m not sure what YOU mean. lol When you say something is more robust and trustworthy than our knowledge of God, what I hear is someone who is relying solely on knowledge, perhaps in the same way that an atheist relies on scientific knowledge. And when you say “knowledge of God”, I hear the knowledge that we have from the Spirit’s witness in our spirit-man. Is that what you mean? If so, I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, but rather working together to relate ourself to God. hope that makes sense.

      2. Yes, we’re in agreement on this point.

        I think what Kierkegaard means by Christianity becoming a “miserable something” is the result of what you perceive as pride, and he is warning people against it.

  4. re: My Repertoire: I play a lot of Bach and Mozart these days because they are (in some sense) easier to play with two crazy boys running around. 🙂 But I can play pretty much anything in piano literature. If it’s a piece I have learned before but haven’t played in years, then it comes back quickly. If it is a piece I have never played, then it just depends on the difficulty of the piece for how long it would take to learn it.

      1. Maybe. You have not yet asked how well I play them. And yes, I began playing when I was five. I remember jumping up and down on the bed begging my mom until she called the local piano teacher.

      2. Well, I think you have to be technically competent to even play some of the pieces by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

        jumping up and down on the bed

        I can see whom the boys get their “crazy” genes from. 🙂

  5. Yes, we’re in agreement on this point.

    I think what Kierkegaard means by Christianity becoming a “miserable something” is the result of what you perceive as pride, and he is warning people against it.

    Ok. Otherwise, I would be in despair. lol I certainly don’t qualify as a faith-only sort of person. :O Thanks for talking it out with me, Nemo.

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