The Sickness Unto Death, Part I.A.

This is the third post in a series on The Sickness Unto Death.  For other posts in the series, see here.


Part I: Despair Is the Sickness unto Death

  • Section A. Despair Is a Sickness of the Spirit, of the Self, and Accordingly Can Take Three Forms: In Despair Not to Be Conscious of Having a Self (Not Despair in the Strict Sense); In Despair Not to Will to Be Oneself; In Despair to Will to Be Oneself

Kierkegaard mentioned in the Preface that this book runs the risk of being too scholarly to be “upbuilding” and the very first section reveals that risk.  The subtitle alone is dizzying, it would fail every basic principle of outlining that I know.  If a student turned in an outline with that subtitle to me, I’d hand it right back to them and tell them to simplify.  Not only is the subtitle dizzying, but the content itself is enough to make you take two Tylenol.  Take, for example, Kierkegaard’s definition of the “self”:

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relations but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” (13)

Say what? Some scholars have posited that Kierkegaard is being ironic here, mocking the Hegelian logic fashionable during his time.  But we need not be experts in Hegel nor concern ourselves with the possible “irony” here to understand how Kierkegaard understands the human person.

The basic idea here is that the “self” is not yet fully formed.  That is, we are not yet fully “ourselves”.  Jean-Paul Sartre picked up this theme with his mantra, “Existence precedes essence.”  For Sartre, the fact that we are not fully defined before our creation (in the way an inventor has an idea of an invention prior to making it, hence, in that case, “essence precedes existence), we must define ourselves.  But such a solution is not what Kierkegaard has in mind.  While it is true that we are not fully what we are intended to be, it does not follow that this is no “way to be”.  That is, that there is no definition of what it means to be human.  It is this struggle between willing to be what we want to be instead of what we were created to be that will lead to despair.

Kierkegaard, as is quite typical, does not yet define “despair”.  He is not an analytic philosopher, setting down the definitions of his terms and then arguing from there. Instead, Kierkegaard will use a word and then circle back to it again and again, getting closer to the definition and involving the reader in the struggle to define it.  This has the advantage of pulling the reader in and forcing a participation.  Even when you know this is what Kierkegaard is doing, it does not diminish its effectiveness.  So, when people come to me confused about a part in Kierkegaard, my advice is always, just keep reading – and then reread and reread – you’ll come to it eventually.

What Kierkegaard does offer in this section is an introduction to the tensions persons have within them. A person, says Kierkegaard, is made up of seemingly conflicting parts: (a) the Possible and the Necessary; (b) the Infinite and the Finite. It is in attempting to “live in” one of these extremes more than another that a person will despair.  Doesn’t make sense?  Keep reading.

The main ideas that one needs to come out of this section with is the notion that we are not fully ourselves, that we despair when we try to be something other than what we were created to be, and the solution is in a “resting” in the Creator.

“The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” (14)

One cannot help but being reminded of Augustine’s famous description of humanity in the Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”


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