D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

The Sickness Unto Death

  • The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening
  • Sygdommen til Døden. En christelig psychologisk Udvikling til Opbyggelse og Opvækkelse
  • Anti-Climacus
  • 1849
  • KW19, SKS11, SV11

In this work Kierkegaard introduces a new pseudonym, Anti-Climacus. In 1846, with the publication of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he had decided to make an end of writing, and revealed all of his pseudonyms in a written declaration appended to the work. Although he returns to the use of pseudonyms here, different purposes are being served. Here the pseudonym is not meant to deceive or to qualify the work esthetically. On the contrary, this work evokes an idealized Christianity, and Kierkegaard did not wish to convey that he was himself such an ideal Christian. Originally he had planned to use his own name on the title page so as to publish the work "directly", but he retained his own name as editor, so as to still claim responsibility for the work. Anti-Climacus is also the author of Practice in Christianity. He might be considered the author of Kierkegaard's greatest religious works, just as Johannes Climacus is the author of the great pseudonymous (esthetic) works. H. Hong remarks, "The prefix (Anti-) does not mean 'against.' An old form of 'ante' (before), as in 'anticipate,' the prefix denotes a relation of rank, as in 'before me' in the First Commandment". In his journals Kierkegaard said, "Climacus is lower, denies he is a Christian. Anti-Climacus is higher, a Christian on an extraordinarily high level". Kierkegaard considered this work and Practice in Christianity to be among his most important.

The Sickness Unto Death is a companion piece to the Concept of Anxiety, which is also a "psychological" work, and moves beyond the earlier preliminary psychological considerations of anxiety in the face of freedom or anxiety derived from and leading to sin. Like its companion, this work is short but very dense. Here Kierkegaard considers the spiritual aspects of despair. As anxiety is related to the ethical, despair is related to the religious, that is, to the eternal.

I will use the chapter and section headings that Kierkegaard uses because his categories are complex and idiosyncratic.

Part One: The Sickness Unto Death Is Despair

A: Despair is the Sickness unto Death
A: Despair is the Sickness unto Death: 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

At the beginning of part one, Kierkegaard begins with a cryptic and dense passage, that may contain an element of humor. I will quote it and then offer my commentary.

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 relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self (p. 13).

Though this reading is quite baffling at first, it is not impenetrable. The self is the relation's relating, that is, the mediating activity that resides within opposites, such as the infinite and the finite, necessity and freedom, and so on. The self is not the relation or synthesis created by the thesis and antithesis—no, that would be the Hegelianism that he rejected because it destroys the law of contradiction—, the self is found in the activity of the relation, what Kierkegaard calls the relation's relating. It operates in and through the tensions created by the opposites. Kierkegaard stresses that the relation proper is a "third as a negative unity"; the positive third, on the other hand, is the "relation's relating". That is, it is not a static mediation but an active one that constitutes the true mediation, which is self. It is as if Kierkegaard uses the word "self" as a verb rather than as a noun. At any rate, seen in this light, memory falls into a category in opposition to forgetting. It is an extreme. Platonic recollection, for example, to use Kierkegaardian language, is the product of the relation's relating itself within the self. It is an act of spirit since it is a term lying between the psychical and the physical. The physical records the senses of the event and the psychical is the identifying and the interpretative element that processes the memory. But since Kierkegaard is concerned with the relation's relating, it is the entire process of retrieving a recollection within the self that is important. Kierkegaard's synthesis may be an elaboration on Plato's middle term introduced by Diotima through Socrates (Symposium 202a). At any rate, recollection in Kierkegaard must be seen as a psychical happening.

Kierkegaard says that the self's quality, which is what I would call kinetic, is evidence of its origin from God, though he is not engaging in apologetics. "Such a relation that relates itself to itself, a self, must either have established itself or have been established by another". While the principle of "establishing itself" is an existential concept, in that it implies self-determination, Kierkegaard would, I think, say that the self gets its determination from God. He does not labor the point. His concern is to define the nature of despair.

If the relation that relates itself to itself has been established by another, then the relation is indeed the third, but this relation, the third, is yet again a relation and relates itself to that which established the entire relation (p. 13).

This kinetic aspect of the self (spirit), if created by God, also possesses the elasticity to relate itself back to God. Kierkegaard seems to be saying that if we possessed a singular (static) essence, we would not be able to perform an inner dialogue, much less relate to God. Thus, the pluralistic nature of the self is essential to Kierkegaard's psychology.

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another. This is why there can be two forms of despair in the strict sense. If a human self had itself established itself, then there could only be one form: not to will to be oneself, to will to do away with oneself, but there could not be the form: in despair to will to be oneself (p. 13f.).

Since Kierkegaard has not yet defined what willing (or not willing) to be oneself entails, the reader is so far unsure what he means. However, he does say that all despair is ultimately traced to the despair not to will to be oneself. On the other hand, the self's attempts to leap out of despair, by the despair of willing to be oneself, fail.

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 oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it (p.14).

B: The Possibility and Actuality of Despair

Is despair an excellence or a defect? Purely dialectically, it is both. If only the abstract idea of despair is considered, without the thought of someone in despair, it must be regarded as a surpassing excellence.... Consequently, to be able to despair is an infinite advantage [over the beasts], and yet to be in despair is not only the worst misfortune and misery—no, it is ruination (p. 14f.).

The beasts, which have no kinetic self, do not have despair. Thus despair is an indication of a superior existence—and yet is our misfortune. Kierkegaard points out that despair is not a necessary part of human nature. In The Concept of Anxiety he maintained that man was not in the person of Adam, nor is now, compelled to commit his first sin which leads to the state of sinfulness. But sin may result from succumbing to the anxiety which comes from the yawning abyss of freedom. Likewise, in The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard emphasizes that despair is not necessary, that is, it was not imparted to us by God.

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. If the synthesis were the misrelation, then despair would not exist at all, then despair would be something that lies in human nature as such. That is, it would not be despair: it would be something that happens to a man, something he suffers, like a disease to which he succumbs, or like death, which is everyone's fate. No, no, despairing lies in man himself. If he were not a synthesis, he could not despair at all; nor could he despair if the synthesis in its original state from the hand of God were not in the proper relationship (p. 15f.).

C: Despair is "The Sickness unto Death"

This is why Kierkegaard can call despair a sickness: It was not inherent in original man. That man has a kinetic and relating self, whose components form a synthesis, that relates or transacts itself with itself, does not alone explain despair. It is the misrelation of the synthesis that posits despair. Just as actual sin leads to the state of sinfulness (see The Concept of Anxiety), the actuality of despair leads to a state of being in despair. This is why Kierkegaard can call it a sickness. This does not mean, however, that we are caught unawares or are not responsible. He calls it a despair unto death because it brings ruination in the self—not that it actually kills us. "On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die".

An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to get rid of himself. For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is "Either Caesar or nothing" does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it. But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar.... Consequently, to despair over something is still not despair proper.... To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself—this is the formula for all despair (p. 19f.).

By striving for a different state of the self—which is a different self—a person is rejecting his self.

B: The Universality of This Sickness (Despair)

Kierkegaard states that everyone experiences despair except for the true Christian. To appreciate this the reader needs to recall two things: First, Kierkegaard stated above that "in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it". The self ultimately can rest only in the One who made it. Second, the pseudonym Anti-Climacus is religious in the extreme, and thus Kierkegaard writes from this viewpoint.

C: The Forms of this Sickness (Despair)

Having defined the self, if we may call it a definition, Kierkegaard considers the nature of despair and how it exists in the self. Although he again uses the term "synthesis" and posits the relationship between opposites like freedom and necessity, Kierkegaard's synthesis is not a Hegelian synthesis, where the synthesis (unity) becomes a new thesis. Kierkegaard is not concerned to, so to speak, stabilize his definition of spirit in those terms. He does not dwell on the unity of the individual but on the "relation's relating", that is, the function of the various aspects of spirit as it functions in relation to itself and to deity.

The self is composed of infinitude and finitude. However, this synthesis is a relation, and a relation that, even though it is derived, relates itself to itself, which is freedom. The self is freedom. But freedom is the dialectical aspect of the categories of possibility and necessity (p. 29).

Kierkegaard is content to posit polar opposites to encourage our appreciation of the tensions that reside between them. Hegel synthesized (unified). Kierkegaard emphasized the dialectical, and often paradoxical tension.

A: Despair Considered Without Regard to its Being Conscious or not, Consequently only with Regard to the Constituents of the Synthesis

Under several sub-sections Kierkegaard further defines the conditions under which the self relates itself to itself, namely, finitude versus infinitude and necessity versus possibility. In short, there needs to be a balance (tension) between these opposites. He elucidates these ideas under the following headings: Infinitude's despair is to lack finitude, finitude's despair is to lack infinitude, possibility's despair is to lack necessity, and necessity's despair is to lack possibility.

When feeling or knowing or willing has become fantastic, the entire self can become that, whether in the most active form of plunging headlong into fantasy or in the more passive form of being carried away.... The self, then, leads a fantasized existence in abstract infinitizing or in abstract isolation, continually lacking its self, from which it moves further and further away.... To lack infinitude is despairing reductionism, narrowness.... But whereas one kind of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, another kind of despair seems to permit itself to be tricked out of its self by "the others." Surrounded by hordes of men, absorbed in all sorts of secular matters, more and more shrewd about the ways of the world—such a person forgets himself, forgets his name divinely understood, does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too hazardous to be himself, and far easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, a mass man.... When a self becomes lost in possibility...it is not merely because of a lack of energy.... What is missing is essentially the power to obey, to submit to the necessity in one's life, to what may be called one's limitations. Therefore, the tragedy is not that such a self did not amount to something in the world; no, the tragedy is that he did not become aware of himself, aware that the self he is a very definite something and thus the necessary.... The determinist, the fatalist, is in despair and as one in despair has lost his self, because for him everything has become necessary (p. 32ff.).

B: Despair as Defined by Consciousness

The ever increasing intensity of despair depends upon the degree of consciousness or is proportionate to this increase: the greater the degree of consciousness, the more intensive the despair. This is everywhere apparent, most clearly in despair at its maximum and minimum. The devil's despair is the most intensive despair, for the devil is sheer spirit and hence unqualified consciousness and transparency; there is no obscurity in the devil that could serve as a mitigating excuse. Therefore, his despair is the most absolute defiance (p. 42).

Kierkegaard defined despair without reference to consciousness. Now he expounds two broad types of despair with reference to consciousness.

a: The Despair that is Ignorant of Being Despair, or the Despairing Ignorance of Having a Self and an Eternal Self

Compared with the person who is conscious of his despair, the despairing individual who is ignorant of his despair is simply a negativity further away from the truth and deliverance.... Yet ignorance is so far from breaking the despair or changing despair to nondespairing that it can in fact be the most dangerous form of despair.... An individual is furthest from being conscious of himself as spirit when he is ignorant of being in despair. But precisely this—not to be conscious of oneself as spirit—is despair, which is spiritlessness... (p. 44f.).

b: The Despair that is Conscious of Being Despair and Therefore is Conscious of Having a Self in Which There is Something Eternal and Then either in Despair Does Not Will to Be Itself or in Despair Wills to Be Itself
i: In despair not to will to be oneself: despair in weakness

No despair is entirely free of defiance; indeed, the very phrase "not to will to be" implies defiance. On the other had, even despair's most extreme defiance is never really free of weakness. So the distinction is only relative.... This form of despair is: in despair not to will to be oneself. Or even lower: in despair not to will to be a self. Or lowest of all: in despair to will to be someone else, to wish for a new self (p. 49, 52f.).

Kierkegaard further divides this section into two parts: "Despair over the earthly or over something earthly" and "Despair of the eternal or over oneself". In the former case, the despairing person despairs over things external to himself, in the latter, he despairs over the spirit.

So he despairs [over the earthly].... But to despair is to lose the eternal—and of this loss he does not speak at all, he has no inkling of it.... [In despair over the eternal] comes the consciousness of the self, for to despair of the eternal is impossible without having a conception of the self, that there is something eternal in it, or that it has had something eternal in it (p. 51, 62).

ii: In despair to will to be oneself: Defiance

First comes despair over the earthly or over something earthly, then despair of the eternal, over oneself. Then comes defiance, which is really despair through the aid of the eternal, the despairing misuse of the eternal within the self to will in despair to be oneself.... In this form of despair, there is a rise in the consciousness of the self, and therefore a greater consciousness of what despair is and that one's state is despair. Here the despair is conscious of itself as an act.... In order to despair to will to be oneself, there must be consciousness of an infinite self. This infinite self, however, is really only the most abstract form, the most abstract possibility of the self. And this is the self that a person in despair wills to be, severing the self from any relation to a power that has established it, or severing it from the idea that there is such a power (p. 67f.).

It should be quite clear that Kierkegaard believes that God accords the individual with the highest importance. Kierkegaard never mentions the self's merging into God, nor any belief that borders on pantheism. God is ultimately so interested in our selves that he sent his Son to die for individual men and women. It is man (society) that seeks to herd men. It is God who calls each man individually. Despairing sin denies or sinfully asserts the self. God establishes the true self.

Part Two: Despair Is Sin

A: Despair Is Sin

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiously what lawyers call "aggravated" despair (p. 67).

Kierkegaard emphasizes that despair is before God. The poet, even a poet of the religious, is nevertheless not in despair unless he is before God. "His relation to the religious is that of an unhappy lover, not in the strictest sense that of a believer". As we said above, just as anxiety in the face of freedom yields more anxiety, which may then lead to sin, Kierkegaardian despair is conventional despair in relation to the Absolute. Thus, the image of the suffering poet, though esthetically legitimate, is not before God, and therefore is not true despair.

Chapter 1: the Gradations in the Consciousness of the Self (the Qualification: "Before God")

Kierkegaard informs the reader that the study must now take a new course. First, he analyzed despair in the individual, unknown to that individual, then he analyzed despair known to the individual, which in turn leads either to willing or to not willing to be oneself. Now he considers despair in the individual before God.

...this self takes on a new quality and qualification by being a self directly before God. This self is no longer the merely human self but is what I, hoping not to be misinterpreted, would call the theological self, the self directly before God. And what infinite reality the self gains by being conscious of existing before God, by becoming a human self whose criterion is God!... Despair is intensified in relation to the consciousness of the self, but the self is intensified in relation to the criterion for the self, infinitely when God is the criterion.... Not until a self as this specific single individual is conscious of existing before God, not until then is it the infinite self, and this self sins before God (p. 79f.).

In case the reader thinks that Kierkegaard is spiritualizing the concept of sin to exclude murder, stealing, and the like, he says that these acts are self-willfulness interposed against God. His point is that an individual can be in sin, rather than merely sin. In other words, the state of sinfulness leads to acts of sin. He is not spiritualizing sin, but examining the deeper cause. In the Concept of Anxiety, as we have said more than once, a sinful deed leads to sinfulness; even so, in the state of despair in relation to God, despair itself, which is sin, leads to sinful deeds.

Kierkegaard makes a slight digression at the end of this chapter entitled: "Appendix. That the Definition of Sin Includes the Possibility of Offense, a General Observation about Offense." He introduces a theme that will be taken up again in detail in his next work, Practice In Christianity, namely, the nature of religious offense and how the paradox of Christianity leads either to offense or to belief.

The antithesis sin/faith is the Christian one that Christianly reshapes all ethical concepts and gives them one additional range. At the root of the antithesis lies the crucial Christian qualification: before God, a qualification that in turn has Christianity's crucial criterion: the absurd, the paradox, the possibility of offense. That this is demonstrated by every determination of what is Christianity is extremely important, because offense is Christianity's weapon against all speculation. In what, then, lies the possibility of offense here? It lies in this, that a human being should have this reality: That as an individual human being a person is directly before God and consequently, as a corollary, that a person's sin should be of concern to God (p. 83).

Kierkegaard maintains that focusing on individual sins misses the point. It is sinfulness before God that puts sin in a proper light. He suggests a loftier view, but one that does not spiritualize, that is, explain away sin.

There is so much talk about being offended by Christianity because it is so dark and gloomy, offended because it is so rigorous, etc., but it would be best of all to explain for once that the real reason that men are offended by Christianity is that it is too high, because its goal is not man's goal, because it wants to make man into something so extraordinary that he cannot grasp the thought (p. 83).

Chapter 2: the Socratic Definition of Sin

Kierkegaard next addresses the Socratic definition of sin, which is ignorance. While this view has merit, that people sin out of ignorance (or stupidity), this Greek concept is inadequate because it cannot explain persistence in sin, only the first sin of its type. The very fact that one repeats a sinful act is proof that sinfulness transcends cognition. Moreover, as Kierkegaard asserts, the concept of sin really would have no meaning for the Greeks. In any case, sin is more a matter of volition, though this never occurred to Socrates (Plato). Knowingly doing injustice was inconceivable. "...sin is rooted in willing and arrives at the concept of defiance..".. Kierkegaard faults modern philosophy with continuing in a Socratic definition of sin. Descartes' Cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am], roots existence in cognition. According to Kierkegaard, philosophy should know better.

Therefore, interpreted Christianly, sin has its roots in willing, not in knowing, and this corruption of willing affects the individual's consciousness (p. 95).

Chapter 3: Sin is not a Negation but a Position

Kierkegaard briefly counters the notion that sin is negation, mere absence of the good. But he warns against a too rigorous, intellectualizing dogmatics that claims to understand the position. It is "a paradox that must be believed". Seeing that Christianity seeks to ground all human existence so firmly in sin, so much that it is beyond human comprehension, it is not right for dogmatics to claim to grasp the magnitude of sin. If it claims to do that, Kierkegaard reasons, it turns sin into a negation. The magnitude of sin maintains the offense and brings about the paradox of faith, which is essential to Christianity.

In an appendix to this chapter, entitled, "But then in a certain sense, does not sin become a great rarity? The Moral", Kierkegaard addresses a caveat. Since he said in Part One that intense despair becomes rarer in the world, and since he posited sin as despair in Part Two, one could allege that sin is not universal, or indeed rare, since so many are not cognizant of their place "before God". He maintains that whatever degree of sin (despair) an individual has is nevertheless sin.

B: The Continuance of Sin

Every state of sin is a new sin, or, to express it more precisely...the state of sin is the new sin, is the sin. The sinner may consider this an overstatement; at most he acknowledges that each actual new sin is a new sin. But eternity, which keeps his account, must register the state of sin as new sin. It has only two rubrics, and "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin"; every unrepented sin is a new sin and every moment that it remains unrepented is also new sin (p. 105).

As in The Concept of Anxiety Kierkegaard is intent on adhering to the Christian doctrine of sin as a state. Secularists try to explain wrongdoing in terms of society or human psychology; Kierkegaard posits the psychological situation in the doctrine of sin as a state. Not only is a sinful act a sin, but so is remaining in unrepentant sin, that is, the volitive act of remaining in sin. "The state of sin is a worse sin than the particular sins; it is sin". This leads to his next chapter where he discusses the state of sin.

A: The Sin of Despairing over One's Sin

The state of sin, so says Kierkegaard, is intent on remaining in sin. Despair can be a means of perpetuating continuance in sin. Despair that does not lead to repentance merely entrenches the sinner in sin.

To despair over one's sins indicates that sin has become or wants to be internally consistent. It wants nothing to do with the good, does not want to be so weak as to listen occasionally to other talk. No, it insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin (p. 109).

Sometimes, Kierkegaard says, we may admire the despairing soul, who suffers or suffers over sin. But in reality it is a dangerous sin. No doubt to some sensitive soul, the beginnings of despair can quicken the soul to repentance, but continuance in despair is sin.

B: The Sin of Despairing of the Forgiveness of Sins (Offense)

Kierkegaard established earlier that conscious despair is either in weakness or in defiance. Here he says that when we posit the individual before God as a sinner, weakness and defiance exchange roles. The weakness of not willing to be oneself, becomes defiance, since the sinner refuses to admit what he is—a sinner. Conversely, defiant despair, willing to be oneself, that is, willing to be and remain a sinner, is weakness, in that there is no forgiveness. Despairing sin, when it refuses forgiveness, is the most intense sin of all. Kierkegaard seems to be saying that both types of conscious despair are at work in the person who is presented forgiveness, but consciously refuses: He refuses to acknowledge that he is a sinner, and also refuses forgiveness. Kierkegaard is not contradicting himself, since he said earlier that "No despair is entirely free of defiance; indeed, the very phrase 'not to will to be' implies defiance". This explains how weakness and defiance can appear to change roles. All despair shares the same underlying function. Kierkegaard again returns to the theme of the individual before God and the offense.

[Christianity] begins with the teaching about sin. The category of sin is the category of individuality. Sin cannot be thought speculatively at all.... Christianity begins here—with the teaching about sin, and thereby with the single individual.... Thus offense is related to the single individual (p. 119f., 122).

C: The Sin of Dismissing Christianity modo ponendo [positively], of Declaring it to be Untruth

As Kierkegaard likened despairing over forgiveness to a retreat into oneself, he likens rejection of Christianity as declaring war. This sin of despair he equates with blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which is the one sin mentioned in the New Testament that cannot be forgiven. Again, Kierkegaard returns to the theme of offense.

The lowest form of offense, the most innocent form, humanly speaking, is to leave the whole issue of Christ undecided.... The next form of offense is negative but in the form of being acted upon, of suffering. It definitely feels that it cannot ignore Christ, is not capable of leaving Christ in abeyance and then otherwise leading a busy life. But neither can it believe.... The last form of offense...the positive form...declares Christianity to be untrue, a lie; it denies Christ (that he has existed and that he is the one he said he was).... This form of offense is sin against the Holy Spirit.... This offense is the highest intensification of sin, something that is usually overlooked because the opposites are not construed Christianly as being sin/faith (p. 129ff.).

As stated earlier, the theme of offense will be resumed in Practice In Christianity. But Kierkegaard's final point is that sin and faith are opposites. Since a person is an individual "before God", either he dwells in despair (sin) or he approaches God through faith to receive the forgiveness of sins. Faith is the positive reaction to the paradox of the offense.