This is the fourth post in a series on The Sickness Unto Death. For other posts in the series, see here.
Part I.A: Despair Is the Sickness unto Death
- Section B. The Possibiilty and the Actuality of Despair
Kierkegaard begins this section by asking (more or less), “Is despair a good thing or a bad thing?” His answer is: both. It is good in that the possibility of despair shows man’s excellence, his superiority over animality, and that he is spirit. That is, only people can despair – animals cannot. It is bad in that despair is the worst possible sate for man to be in, it is “ruination”.
“The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s superiority over the natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian blessedness.” (15)
Normally things do not relate in this way. Normally the actuality of something is greater than the mere possibility. “To be” is greater that “to be able to be”. Unlike other sickness, to “not be in despair” means that there cannot be the possibility of despair, because of its inverse relation of possibility to actuality. One must constantly destroy the possibility of despair in order to not be in despair.
“Not to be in despair must signify the destroyed possibility of being able to be in despair; if a person is truly not to be in despair, he must at every moment destroy the possibility.” (15)
At this point, Kierkegaard gives us a first preliminary definition of “despair”:
“Despair is the misrelation in the relation of a synthesis that relates itself to itself. But the synthesis is not the misrelation; it is merely the possibility, or in the synthesis lies the possibility of the misrelation.” (15)
So, despair is the misrelation of the synthesis mentioned in the previous section (of the possible / necessary and of the infinite / finite). It is in the synthesis that lies the possibility for the misrelation. It is not the synthesis itself, otherwise it would be something that happens to man (nature). The responsibility for the synthesis is the self in relating itself to itself. In this sense, man is responsible for his despair. Unlike other sickness, every moment of despair, is traced back to the person, to the possibility. Every moment the individual is bringing it upon himself.
The basic idea here is that despair is the condition of misunderstanding (or misrelating) what you are to yourself. That is, of not willing to be what we were created to be, or of willing to be something other than what we were created to be.
Kierkegaard likens this condition to “dizziness”:
“Because the relation is spirit, is the self, upon it rests the responsibility for all despair at every moment of its existence, however much the despairing person speaks of his despair as a misfortune and however ingeniously he deceives himself and other, confusing it with that previously mentioned case of dizziness, with which despair, although qualitatively different, has much in common, since dizziness correctly, in the category of the psychical, to what despair is in the category of the spirit, and lends itself to numerous analogies to despair.” (16)
Feeling dizzy now? Doesn’t make sense? Keep reading!