A companion piece to The Concept of Anxiety, this work continues Søren Kierkegaard's radical and comprehensive analysis of human nature in a spectrum of possibilities of existence. Present here is a remarkable combination of the insight of the poet and the contemplation of the philosopher.
In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard moves beyond anxiety on the mental-emotional level to the spiritual level, where--in contact with the eternal--anxiety becomes despair. Both anxiety and despair reflect the misrelation that arises in the self when the elements of the synthesis--the infinite and the finite--do not come into proper relation to each other. Despair is a deeper expression for anxiety and is a mark of the eternal, which is intended to penetrate temporal existence.
Reviews for Kierkegaard's Writings, XIX: Sickness Unto Death: A Chris...
"To despair over one's own sin is the expression of sin's having become or being about to become internally consistent...it wants to listen only to itself, to have to do only with itself, be shut in with itself, yes, place itself inside one enclosure more and by despairing over sin protect itself agains every assault or aspiration of the good."read more
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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, 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".