Summary of Kierkegaard's The Sickness unto Death

Charles Bellinger, March, 2005


General Comments

The human situation is very complex. SK is attempting to offer a complex way of understanding a complex reality. This contrasts with attempts to understand the human situation that are simplistic.

What SK is writing can be described as "Christian psychology." This does not mean an attempt to understand the psychology of Christians, but rather an attempt to understand human psychology from a Christian perspective.

The Hong translation sometimes uses the phrase "the psychical and the physical." A more direct and accurate translation would simply be: "soul and body." The Danish word for doubt is Tvivl; the word for despair is Fortvivlelse. 'For' is an intensifying prefix; in other words, for a Danish reader, the concept of 'despair' means intensified doubt, super-doubt, mega-doubt. The 'tvi' is related to the English word 'two.' To doubt is to be of two minds. Despair is being split apart from God, which entails being split apart from oneself also.

SK often uses the word 'dialectic.' This word has a range of meanings: 1) It can describe a mode of conversation that focuses on asking questions; for example, Socrates asked questions that revealed that his conversation partners often had not examined the assumptions underlying their basic beliefs about reality. 2) It can refer to paired concepts that are considered in relation to each other: What is the relationship between the temporal and the eternal, freedom and necessity, consciousness and lack of consciousness, etc. How do these polar opposites, like the magnetic north and south poles, work together to shape the human situation? 3) It can refer to the idea that philosophical arguments often lead to the separation of human beings into camps: capitalists vs. socialists, secularists vs. religious believers, right vs. left, etc. If these positions are understood as representing a thesis and an antithesis, will there come a time in the future when elements of truth are found on both sides and these elements of truth are brought together into a higher synthesis?

SK is a trinitarian Christian theologian. This can be seen in his statements that sin is alienation from God (the Creator), it rejects Christ as the model of selfhood, and it has its highest form in the "sin against the Holy Spirit" (125). Thus despair can be seen as the opposite of faith (in God), the opposite of hope, and the opposite of love.

Christ was like a stone thrown into a pond that creates a wave radiating out into human history. The world was going along before Christ with its own sense of selfhood; but how has Christ disturbed things? How has Christ made possible a critique of human existence? This is the basic question SK is asking in this book.

Part One: The Sickness unto Death is Despair

The Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are sinners. SK translates that idea into the terminology of this book by saying that "despair is universal." In other words, even those who do not think they are in despair are actually in despair. SK is not just describing a few strange persons. He is describing the whole human race.

This first section of the book is analyzing the elements or components that make up the self, namely: finitude/infinitude, necessity/possibility, consciousness/lack of consciousness, self-assertiveness/lack of self-assertiveness, the temporal/the eternal. (What Eric Voegelin says about human consciousness taking place "in between" transcendence and immanence is very similar to this.)

The opening paragraph of the book talks about a "self that is a relation relating itself to itself." This means that the elements (such as necessity/possibility) are a relation, and the self is conscious of itself (is aware of itself, can talk to itself, etc.). In other words, the self is a soliloquy. The self is also related to other human beings, and to God its creator (whether it realizes this or not). So the self is "a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another." That's crystal clear, isn't it?

Could this language also be used to describe God (as a trinity)? Is not God a relation between the persons of the Trinity, which is related to itself and also to others (human beings, the creation)? This is another way of describing the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity.

Pages 29-42 describe forms of despair that relate to an imbalance in the elements of the self: finitude/infinitude, and necessity/possibility

a.a Infinitude's despair is to lack finitude

Infinitude's despair is the fantastic, the unlimited. Imagination makes possible the process of infinitizing. There can be fantastic feeling, knowing, and willing. The infinitized person can seem to be a "normal" person, blending into society. But the infinitized person lacks a grounded self.

a.b Finitude's despair is to lack infinitude

To lack infinitude is small-mindedness, narrowness. The finitized person simply does what 'the others' do; he or she is just one more ant in the anthill of human society. The finitized person finds this life without aspirations to be comfortable, cozy, safe. The finitized person has a 'self' which is completely determined by the world, which means it is not a self before God.

b.a Possibility's despair is to lack necessity

Necessity is related to being oneself; possibility is related to becoming oneself. If one lives entirely in possibility, one is always becoming something, but never arriving at any destination of having become something. If the self keeps changing itself forever and ever, then there is really no self to do any changing; the self evaporates or is swallowed up by possibility. What is missing is the ability to submit to necessity, to limitations.

b.b Necessity's despair is to lack possbility

To lack possibility means that everything has become necessary or trivial. When everything becomes necessary, the person is a determinist or fatalist. The determinist believes that human beings are simply animals living according to a script written by the laws of nature. There can be no real change in this situation. Or, everything has become trivial, probable, the way things usually happen. The bourgeois mentality thinks it can contain freedom/possibility within the trap of probability.

Pages 42-74 describe forms of despair that arise out of varying levels of self-consciousness, beginning with the lowest level

a. The Despair That Is Ignorant of Being Despair (42)

Some people live on the level of the sensate; they live in the basement and do not want to rise up to the higher levels of the psychical or the spiritual. In other words, some people are immature and want to stay that way. Despair itself is a negativity; ignorance of it, a new negativity (44). What Christianity calls 'the world' is despair, but it is ignorant that it is despair. Persons in this condition do not want to exist as selves before God, they prefer fitting into abstract entities such as a 'state' or 'culture.'(46) "The virtues of the pagans are glittering vices" (paraphrase of Augustine). In other words, a superficial sense of happiness or worldly success is covering over an underlying state of despair and sin. (Think of Enron before and after its collapse.) That suicide is a crime against God completely escapes the pagan (46).

a) In Despair Not to Will to Be Oneself: Despair in Weakness (49)

> despair over the earthly or over something earthly

This form of despair is: not to will to be oneself, or not to will to be a self, or to will to be someone else (52ff)

In this form of despair, despair tends to be triggered by external events, by "bad luck." In Christendom he is a Christian, just as in Holland he is a Hollander. He is a creature of his environment. Most people never advance beyond what they were in their childhood and youth.

> despair of the eternal or over oneself

The person in despair realizes that it is weakness to despair over earthly things, but instead of allowing himself to be opened up to the eternal, to salvation, he entrenches himself in despair and despairs over his weakness (61). SK introduces here the concept of "inclosing reserve" which I prefer to translate as "closed-upness." This form of despair has a deeper self-consciousness than the previous form. There is a danger here of suicide. And homicide. A tyrant in this state wants to speak with a confidant, but then must kill the confidant (67).

b) In Despair to Will to Be Oneself: Defiance

Defiance is despair through the aid of the eternal, that is the despairing misuse of the eternal to will to be oneself apart from God. This state has a higher level of self-consciousness. The self severs itself from God and wants to create itself according to its own wishes (68). What does SK mean by "the infinite form, the negative self"? (Perhaps being one's own creator; the positive self recognizes that it is a creature.)

The self is its own master, absolutely its own master, so-called; and precisely this is the despair, but also what it regards as its pleasure and delight (69).

This form of despair may be expressed as a rejection of hope, of healing, of salvation (70-71). To accept help from God is too humiliating.

This form of despair can intensify in consciousness and become demonic. The demoniac would rather rage against everything and be the wronged victim of the whole world than be saved by God (72). This section of the book describes very effectively the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the atheist who defiantly rejected God and Christian ethics, and who eventually went insane.

Question: What is the relationship between pages 29-42 and 42-74? Are they describing the same thing twice, from two different angles? Or are they describing different things? Perhaps persons at different levels of consciousness are faced with the temptation to become unbalanced by leaning toward the infinite or the finite, but what the unbalance looks like will vary with the level of consciousness.


Part Two: Despair Is Sin

A. Despair Is Sin

Sin is: before God not to will to be oneself or to will to be oneself (intensified weakness or defiance). Every poet-existence is trying to relate to the good and the true through the imagination instead of through one's life.(77)

Chapter 1. The gradations in the consciousness of the self

The self gains an infinite reality by being conscious of existing before God. Everything is qualitatively that by which it is measured, and that which is its qualitative criterion is ethically its goal.(79) To exist before God is an intensification of self, of despair, of sin. Paganism was immersed in sin, but it was sin rooted in ignorance of God (and therefore not truly sin).(81) Sin is not the turbulence of flesh and blood but the spirit's consent to it. The opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.(82)

Appendix. A general observation about offense

Some talk about being offended by Christianity because it is gloomy, etc., but the real reason for the offense is that it wants to dramatically transform people.(83) Christianity teaches that every individual human being exists before God and can speak with God. God comes to the world and implores each person to accept divine assistance.(85) The uncharitableness of the natural man cannot allow the extraordinary that God has intended for him, so he is offended.(86) Between people, there is the possibility of admiration or envy; before God it becomes adoration or offense. A person who seeks to defend Christianity is a Judas #2.(87)

Chapter 2. The Socratic definition of sin

Does sin originate in ignorance, or in willing to be ignorant? If sin is ignorance, then sin really does not exist.(89) The difference between paganism and Christianity starts with sin. The Greek mind lacked the concept of a defiant will, therefore it maintained that a person could not intentionally do what is known to be wrong.(90) How does the linkage between knowing and willing become broken? Perhaps the "lower nature" uses delaying tactics to allow knowing to become obscure.(94) Christianity asserts that people can only know what sin is through a revelation from God.(95) Thus sin becomes defiance of revelation. The Christian teaching about sin is nothing but offensiveness toward humans, charge upon charge. Sin is: after being taught by a revelation from God what sin is, before God in despair not to will to be oneself or in despair to will to be oneself.(96)

Chapter 3. Sin is not a negation but a position

Sin can be understood as something negative, as weakness, finitude, ignorance, etc. Over against this, Christian theology begins with the crucial concept of repentance, and asserts that sin is a position, not a negation. (96-97) Despair does not come from outside but from within.(99) Christianity has the strongest view of sin, but also the strongest view of how it is washed away in the Atonement.(100)

Appendix to A. Does not sin become a great rarity?

When sin is defined very rigorously, it becomes a rare thing, since most people are immersed in triviality and "aping others."(101) This mediocrity is characteristic of Christendom in general and its pastors.

B. The Continuance of Sin

Sin grows every moment that one does not take leave of it.(106) People have a tendency to talk about particular sins, but the underlying state of sin is more important. The demonic person has a strong desire to avoid being "tempted" by the Good to abandon his rebellion against God. The state of sin is what holds him together deep down.(108)

A. The sin of despairing over one's sin

To despair over one's sin indicates that sin has become or wants to be internally consistent. Sin closes itself up within itself. Sin is severance from the good, despair is the second severance. Despair must defend itself against the possibility of repentance.(109) To say "I will never forgive myself" for committing a sin is a form of pride.

B. The sin of despairing of the forgiveness of sins

The greater the conception of Christ, the more self. A self is what its criterion is. Only in Christ is it true that God is a person's goal and criterion.But the more self there is, the more intense is sin.(114) It is as if the person in despair walked up to God and said "There is no forgiveness of sins." But in order to do this a person has to move away from God. The sin of despairing of the forgiveness of sins is offense.(116) No teaching has ever brought God and humans together as closely as Christianity has.(117) Every human being is an individual and is to become conscious of being an individual. The category of sin is the category of individuality.(119) Earnestness is simply this: that you and I are sinners. God and Christ are not interested in nations, crowds, publics, etc.; they are only interested in individuals.(121) Judgment can only be applied to individuals, not groups.(123) If there is an individual [SK means Christ] who challenges our spiritual immaturity, then we must protect ourselves as a group by putting him to death. If many of us mutiny in this way, then there is no wrong.

C. The sin of dismissing Christianity, of declaring it to be untruth

The lower forms of sin are defensive, they are forms of evasion. But the most intensified form of sin tries to attack God by declaring Christianity to be untruth and a lie. This is sin against the Holy Spirit.(125) God and man are two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference. Christ can express God's saving love for human beings, but he cannot remove the possibility of offense, the possibility that human beings can reject God's love. From Christ we learn 'what it is to be a human being.' Christ is the paradigm, the model. Human beings are blessed when they do not take offense at Christ, miserable when they do.(128) To not have any opinion about Christ is also a form of offense. To realize that one must have an opinion about Christ and yet remain paralyzed is another form of offense. The highest form of offense is rejecting Christ and the forgiveness of sins. The definition of faith is: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.(131)