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Sickness Unto Death Fears Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 5511 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Some people, Kierkegaard tells us in the Preface, might expect books on religious matters to be serious and scholarly. Religious books should instead strive to engage the reader on a personal level. Religious writing, the Introduction explains, should adopt the manner of a physician at a sickbed. It should help people cure themselves of the “sickness unto death”–the fear that our lives will amount to a spiritual void rather than the eternal life that Christ promised.

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Part I explains that “despair” is the “sickness unto death.” Human beings are a “synthesis” of spiritual and physical elements, and despair is a misrelation between these elements. The solution to despair is a condition in which the individual has established a relationship with the “power that established it” (in other words, with God). People may appear to despair over facts of the world, but despair is in fact always an internal problem for which the individual is personally responsible.

Despair is universal. People may be in despair and not know it. People may despair through excessive imagination or through excessive concern about their material circumstances, through a sense of vast possibilities or a sense of lack of options. There is a hierarchy of forms of despair running from a weak desire not to be what one is to a “defiant” desire to be entirely self-sufficient.

Part II explains that, in Christian terms, despair is sin. Christ has revealed to us that faith is the solution to despair. Once we have received this revelation, it is a sin to neglect it and choose to remain in despair. Just as there is a hierarchy of forms of despair, so is there a hierarchy of forms of sin, ranging from indifference to a defiant refusal to accept religious truth. Sin may be intensified in complex psychological forms, such as despairing over sin (focusing obsessively on one’s sinfulness), despairing over the forgiveness of sins (feeling that such forgiveness is not possible for one’s sins), or, worst of all, despairing over Christ’s teachings (dismissing Christianity as untruth).






Kierkegaard apologizes that some readers may find his book “strange,” since it appears to lack the seriousness one would presumably expect from a book on spiritual matters. However, it is in fact scholarly treatments that lack the appropriate manner. Whereas science and scholarship provide information about history and the world of objects and facts, “Christianity” is concerned with the spiritual well-being of individual human beings. Christian writing should therefore speak directly to the individual, even if this means adopting a less formal style.


Christian writing should adopt the manner of a “physician at a sickbed.” “Despair” is the sickness in question, and the “cure” for despair is “to die unto the world”–that is, to adopt a spiritual outlook.




The irony and sarcasm of the Preface is typical of Kierkegaard’s writing style. Rather than make straightforward arguments in support of his position, he often proceeds by ridiculing opposing views. His main target is science and historical scholarship. Scholarly and scientific writing pompously claims to offer unambiguous, “objective” facts. In Kierkegaard’s view, it misses the point, since the issues of greatest concern to living human beings are not facts about the external world; they are spiritual matters that people must deal with privately.


The Preface sets up the major theme of the book, “despair.” Despair is the “sickness unto death” referred to in the title. The point of The Sickness Unto Death is to demonstrate that “faith” is the way to overcome despair. Just what Kierkegaard means by despair–and by faith–will become more clear as the book advances.


Note: In some translations, the Preface refers to “upbuilding” as the purpose of Christian writing. While “upbuilding” offers a literal translation of the Danish word Kierkegaard uses, this word could also be translated as “edifying.” Kierkegaard’s point is that Christian writing should contribute to spiritual development.





In the Bible, Christ raises Lazarus from the dead. Christ teaches us that physical death is not the end of life. Whereas sickness, death, and earthly suffering may seem awful to non-Christians, to Christians they are but temporary inconveniences on the way to salvation and eternal life. Christians, however, must face a deeper fear than the fear of death: they may fear that their faith is not sufficient to bring them eternal life. This deeper fear is the true “sickness unto death.”


The Introduction expands on the themes of the Preface, offering some suggestion of what Kierkegaard means by “despair,” as well as some explanation of how Kierkegaard interprets Christ’s teaching of the resurrection. Christians are aware of the teaching of eternal life. According to Kierkegaard, this knowledge frees them from the earthly cares and concerns that afflict non-Christians. However, just as it makes them aware of the possibility of eternal happiness, so does it also create the possibility of a deeper unhappiness or despair: they may worry that their faith in God is not strong enough to bring them eternal life.


This relationship between Christianity and despair is a good example of dialectics. Kierkegaard implies that there is a dialectical balance between happiness and unhappiness. The pagan or non-Christian enjoys earthly pleasures that are balanced by the earthly fear of sickness and death. The Christian enjoys higher spiritual pleasures, including anticipation of eternal life. But these higher pleasures bring about a higher fear: the fear that one will suffer an eternal death and not enjoy eternal pleasures.

Part I.A.




A human being is “a self which relates itself to itself” and which has been “established by another.” Two forms of despair are possible for such selves: despair not to will to be oneself, and despair to will to be oneself. The final paragraph of Part I.A.a. defines the condition of a self that is not in despair as a condition in which the self “in relating to itself and in willing to be itself” develops a “transparent” relationship with “the power that established it.”


Part I.A.b. shows that despair is at once a distinction and a curse. Despair is a distinction because it is possible only for spiritual beings. It is not possible for animals (which do not have free spirits), nor for the non- Christians of the distant past (who were not aware of themselves as free spirits that could attain eternal life). Nevertheless, despair is a condition of awful unhappiness and frustration.


It is immensely difficult to overcome despair. Whereas physical sicknesses are caught at a discrete time and then endured, despair is a spiritual condition that one is continually catching unless one is continually rooting it out.


Part I.A.c. elaborates on the torments and complexities of despair. For Christian people, who are aware of eternal life, physical illness is not the “sickness unto death.” The sickness unto death for them is worse. If Christian people do not attain eternal life, the alternative is a condition of eternal death–a condition in which one continues to exist even though one is dying or wants to die.


Part I.A.c. also offers two down-to-earth examples of despair. The first example is a person who wants to be Caesar but fails to accomplish this goal. This person appears to be despairing over something (over not being Caesar). In fact, however, he is despairing over himself: he wishes that he were something that he is not (Caesar), and he wishes that he were not himself (since he is not Caesar). The second example makes the same point. A girl whose lover has died or has betrayed her may appear to be despairing over the lover, but in fact she despairs over herself; she wishes that she were still her lover’s beloved.


The final three paragraphs return to the point that despair is an eternal condition. Whereas physical illness ends in physical death, the spiritual sickness of despair torments the spirit without killing it.




Kierkegaard’s writing in this section may seem confusing and unclear. He never offers a straightforward definition of his key term, “despair.” Instead, he provides a series of different comments and examples and leaves it up to the reader to make sense of what he is saying.


If you were to write something like this your professor would probably fail your paper. Experts on Kierkegaard, however, see this style as an integral part of Kierkegaard’s philosophical message and have gone to great lengths to explain what it contributes to his philosophy.


The most common explanation of what Kierkegaard is up to is that, unlike the scientists and scholars he criticizes, Kierkegaard is not trying to communicate straightforward facts, but rather to provoke a new state of awareness in his readers. He therefore writes in an circuitous manner that is meant more to provoke reflection than to communicate clear ideas.


Some Kierkegaard experts have argued that the format of The Sickness Unto Death–its complex structure of parts and sections and subsections, its many definitions and categories–is meant to be an elaborate parody of Hegel and other philosophers who think that philosophy can use precise terms and concepts to develop a complete picture of the world. According to this interpretation, Kierkegaard’s writing is meant to show us that rational analysis and interpretation can’t always provide clear answers. Just as we can’t develop a precise interpretation of what Kierkegaard is saying, so perhaps can we not develop a precise understanding of spiritual issues.


As you read, you should keep these interpretations in mind. Always pay attention to Kierkegaard’s style and think about what it communicates to you. Does Kierkegaard seem to want to provoke reflection? Or does he have something specific to say? Is he poking fun at people who make intricate arguments? Or is he actually making an intricate argument?


To the extent that Kierkegaard does have something specific to say, Part I.A. appears to offer an account of what it means to be a human being, followed by an account of what he means by “despair.”


In the first paragraph of Part I.A., Kierkegaard writes that human beings are a synthesis of the “infinite and finite,” “temporal and eternal,” and “freedom and necessity.” Kierkegaard is arguing that human beings are both physical and spiritual. We live in a world of material things and physical forces, a world of causes and effects. Yet we also have a spiritual identity and feel as though we can make free choices. Thus we are both a physical body and a spiritual identity–and we are also the complex relationship between these two things. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, we are a relation (the relation of spirit and body) that relates itself (spirit/body) to itself (spirit/body).


Kierkegaard’s account of despair is based on this account of what a human being is. He argues that despair is a sort of imbalance or “misrelation” in the spirit/body relationship. He also suggests that despair is a sort of defiance in which a human being either doesn’t want to be what it is, or wants to be something it is not. These two definitions may seem different, but they are related. According to Kierkegaard, a human being is a combination of spirit and body. Thus, if a human being doesn’t want to be what it is, then it must want to neglect some aspect of its spirit/body relationship.


Parts I.A.b. and I.A.c. provide clarification of Kierkegaard’s understanding of despair. (Further clarification will be provided in Part I.B. and I.C.) The discussion of the differences between physical sickness and despair in Part I.A.b. has two main points. First, human beings are responsible for their spiritual condition. They therefore have themselves to blame if they are in despair. Second, despair is immensely difficult to overcome, because it is a sort of default condition. Human beings are in despair unless they are constantly rooting out any hint of despair.


Part I.A.c. offers specific examples of what Kierkegaard means when he says that despair is an internal problem for which individuals themselves are responsible. Though the girl and the man who wants to be Caesar appear to be frustrated by the circumstances of their lives, they are in fact frustrated with themselves. The same can be said of the despairing Christians who were described in the Preface and Introduction. Their despair over the possibility of an eternal death is really a frustration with themselves–a frustration with their failure to attain eternal life.


Note the implication of these examples. Since despair, in all these cases, is an internal, personal problem, it is also something that individuals can correct. The girl cannot bring back her lover, but she can overcome her frustration with herself. Likewise, Christians cannot escape physical death, but they can avoid eternal death by having faith in Christ. Thus, as Kierkegaard argued in Part I.A.b., despair is ultimately a condition for which individuals have only themselves to blame.


****To sum up what Kierkegaard has told us so far, despair is an internal, personal problem that involves neglecting some aspect of our physical or spiritual life. Individuals are themselves responsible if they are suffering from despair. Individuals can overcome despair, but doing so requires tremendous effort and commitment.

Part I.B.




All people are in despair unless they are “true Christians” (and true Christians are very rare). This is not a depressing thought. Rather, the universality of despair indicates that spirituality is a universal quality of human beings.


People may be in despair even if they are not aware that they are in despair. People may be ill but have symptoms only a physician would recognize; similarly, people may be in despair and not know it. Yet whereas a physician could presumably give a patient a clean bill of health, despair may always be lurking beneath appearances. Moreover, whereas physical illnesses can be cured once and for all, despair can always come back to plague a person despite past efforts to overcome it.


Most people go through life concerned only with petty physical and material cares. Yet whether or not one is in despair is the only question of “eternal” significance.




As its title suggests, the main point of Part I.B. (“The Universality of this Sickness”) is that despair is a universal condition, whether or not people are aware of it. The only people who are not in despair are those who are aware of despair and combat it with all their energy.


Part I.B. also makes clear that there is a strong link between despair and Christianity. Kierkegaard stresses that despair is the only concern of importance to “eternity.” This implies that rooting out despair is the qualification for the eternal life that Christ promised.

Part I.C.a.




Part I.C. categorizes the forms of despair. Despair may be analyzed abstractly by looking at the elements of the concept of despair. However, whether or not the individual is conscious of despair is the principle distinction between forms of despair.


Part I.C.a. is an abstract analysis of despair. (By contrast, Part I.C.b. will analyze despair in terms of consciousness.) Part I.C.a. is subdivided into two sections, (a) and (b), which are in turn each subdivided into subsections alpha and beta.


The beginning of section (a) notes that human beings are a synthesis of the infinite (spirit) and the finite (body). The human “self” overcomes despair by “becoming itself,” which means establishing the appropriate form of the synthesis of infinite and finite. This is possible only through God.


Section (a), subsection alpha describes the condition of despair in which the individual focuses on the infinite and neglects the finite. This form of despair occurs when the individual becomes absorbed in fantasies. Subsection beta describes the condition of despair in which the individual focuses on the finite and neglects the infinite. A person suffering this form of despair becomes overly absorbed in practical earthly matters, such as business and social life.


Section (b) recasts the finite/infinite distinction in terms of possibility and necessity. Subsection alpha describes how people may enter despair by becoming absorbed in reflection on fantastical possibilities and neglecting reality’s constraints. Conversely, subsection beta describes a form of despair in which people become weighed down by concerns and fail to imagine other possibilities.


A belief that “for God all things are possible” may enable people to avoid despair and hopelessness even when crushed by the most awful circumstances. Fatalism, by contrast, presumes that events in the world are predetermined as a result of physical forces and cause-effect relationships. Similarly, “philistine” or “bourgeois” people concern themselves exclusively with petty matters and accept turns of events in the world without emotion or resistance. Fatalism and philistinism cannot protect individuals from despair as faith can.

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The main value of this section is the clarification that it gives to Kierkegaard’s notion of despair. In Part I.A., Kierkegaard suggested that despair is a sort of imbalance in the body/spirit relationship. This section provides concrete examples of what he means by imbalance. People who live in worlds of fantasy neglect the real world around them. Overly practical people miss out on spirituality. For Kierkegaard, these people are in despair because they are missing out on some aspect of human experience and are therefore failing to be human beings in the fullest sense.


Section (b), subsection beta offers some important insight into why Kierkegaard thinks we can become full human beings only through faith in God. He suggests that only faith in God–the belief that “for God all things are possible”–can rescue people from the psychological burdens of disastrous life events. If someone’s worst nightmare came true, and escape seemed impossible, Kierkegaard argues, faith would enable that person to continue to believe in a better future, since God can make anything possible. For instance, if a loved one dies, faith could enable you to believe that you will see that person again.


Recall how Kierkegaard defined the absence of despair in Part I.A. He wrote that despair is eradicated when the self “rests transparently in the power that established it.” Presumably, that power is God. The discussion in this section can help us understand why Kierkegaard sees God as the solution to despair, at least in the case of despair arising from a negative turn of events in our lives. According to Kierkegaard’s ideas, God–a spiritual power who established the material world–provides a bridge between our minds and the world, between imagined possibilities and material facts. He helps us preserve a sense of hope amid hopeless circumstances.

Part I.C.b.




There is a hierarchy of forms of despair: the more conscious one is of one’s despair, the more intense the despair is. Section (a) of Part I.C.b. describes ignorant despair. Section (b) describes two forms of conscious despair: “weak” despair and “defiance.”


Ignorant despair is the despair of not knowing that one is in despair. This is the most common form of despair. It is the natural state of all pagans (non- Christians) and others who fail to concern themselves with spiritual matters. Such people are naturally defensive when they are told that they are in despair. Nevertheless, it may be easier for them to overcome despair than it is for people with a deeper awareness of their despair.


Section (b) explains that consciousness of despair varies according both to how aware one is of one’s own despair and to how aware one is of what it means to be in despair. Pagans, for instance, may feel that they are in despair, but they cannot be fully conscious of the depth of their despair, since they are not aware of Christian teachings of salvation.


Subsection alpha describes “despair in weakness,” alternatively defined as the despair of “not wanting to be oneself.” In this form of despair, individuals lose the desire to be who they are. These individuals fall into two categories. First, there are those who are focused on earthly events and circumstances and fall into despair because of some aspect of their earthly lives. These people don’t want to be themselves because they wish their lives had turned out differently. Second, there are those who are aware of spiritual possibilities but refuse to pursue them. These people are more conscious of themselves and of despair. They don’t wish to be themselves because they feel unwilling or unable to focus on spiritual matters, even though they know that it is weak to be focused on earthly events.


Subsection beta describes the despair of “defiance,” alternatively defined as the despair of “wanting to be oneself.” In this form of despair, the individual wishes to be the complete master of his or her destiny (which of course is impossible). This form of despair is “demonic.”




The distinctions Kierkegaard draws in this section are often confusing and unclear. If you feel as if Kierkegaard has completely lost you, it may be helpful to remember that some experts have interpreted The Sickness Unto Death as a parody of philosophical books that draw too many distinctions and categorizations. (See the commentary to Part I.A.).


As with Part I.C.a., it may be most useful to focus on the examples Part I.C.b. gives of what Kierkegaard means by “despair.” In this section, we learn that people automatically suffer despair when they are unaware of despair. We learn that despair becomes more intense when people are more aware of it. We are given examples of people falling into despair over negative events in their lives, of people living in despair because they lack the strength to lead spiritual lives, and lastly of demons and stoics who live in despair because they refuse to be dependent on anything, even God. We are told that these examples of despair form a hierarchy running from the least conscious (and therefore most innocent) to the most conscious and most intense.


Again as in Part I.C.a., the general point of all these examples is that despair involves a failure to be a human being in the fullest sense. People who focus too much on earthly concerns neglect their spiritual side. Defiant people exaggerate their capacity to control their destiny. All of the people Kierkegaard describes in this section have neglected some aspect of themselves.


Several passages Part I.C.b. merit particular attention. Take note of the second paragraph of section (a), which comments on thinkers who study “world history” and erect complex philosophical “systems.” Kierkegaard is often assumed to be talking about Hegel here, but his comments can be understood as a concise statement of his disagreements with those who practice “science” and “scholarly” writing. Such people go about their lives investigating the material world or studying history. They may have great insights, but they neglect the fact that knowledge about the world is irrelevant to personal salvation. Kierkegaard disapproves of this approach to life because he sees personal salvation as the fundamental task of all human beings.


Also noteworthy are Kierkegaard’s sarcastic comments about organized religion. In subsection alpha of section (b) he pokes fun at people who are Christian in the same sense that someone from Holland is Dutch. He also comments approvingly on people who don’t go to church because they think pastors don’t know much. Kierkegaard is famous for arguing that being a Christian involves an intense personal commitment. In this and other works, he frequently makes fun of people who adopt a more casual approach to religion–thinking, for instance, that attending church once a week is enough to make them Christian.


Lastly, note that Kierkegaard writes repeatedly of “dialectical” relationships between forms of despair. Also see the commentary to the Preface for explanation of this term.

Part II.A., Chapter 1




The first paragraph of Part II.A. explains that it is “sin” to be in despair before God or with the conception of God. The lengthy second paragraph explains that “poets” may be able to discuss religious matters even though they do not lead perfect religious lives.


Chapter 1 explains how being “before God” changes the types of despair described earlier in the book. Just as people experience more intense despair when they are aware of despair, so do people experience more intense despair when they measure their condition according to God’s standards rather than human standards. Likewise, just there is a hierarchy of forms of despair, so is there a hierarchy of sins, ranging from sins of the flesh to more spiritual forms of revolt against God. Nevertheless, the definition of sin as despair “before God” can account for all particular sins, since it captures sin’s fundamental form.


“Faith” is a state of being oneself and wanting to be oneself while maintaining a relationship with God. Thus the opposite of sin is faith, not virtue.


Chapter 1 is followed by an appendix, which explains that Christianity is founded on the “absurd” proposition that an individual human being can have a personal relationship with God. Christianity is not concerned with history or the human race; it is concerned with the individual human being. This proposition is as absurd as a mighty emperor asking a poor laborer to share his personal thoughts. Just as the laborer might assume the emperor was jesting and making fun of him, so does Christ’s teaching seem to insult the intelligence of the non-Christian. Christianity is too absurd to be defended with rational arguments; it is a matter of private belief, of faith.




In Part I, Kierkegaard described despair. He offered definitions, examples, and categorizations to help his readers understand what despair is and why it is a problem. In Part II, Kierkegaard casts the issue of despair in religious terms: despair is sin, and the solution to sin is faith.


As mentioned in the commentary section, the forms of despair described in Part I generally involve a failure to be a human being in the fullest sense. In the first chapter and appendix of Part II, Kierkegaard explains that Christianity defines this failure as sin. According to the appendix, Christianity teaches us that God takes interest in the well-being of every individual human being. It is therefore a sin to be in despair and fail to be the full human being that God wants each of us to be.


Pay special attention to the appendix. This short section offers a concise account of what Christianity is to Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, Christ’s teachings are absurd from any rational standpoint. Why would an almighty God take any interest in a puny human being? How can a puny human being have a relationship with God? Christianity defies rational understanding. Nevertheless, for Kierkegaard, Christianity is the greatest truth there is, and Christian faith is the highest form of human life, the only form that avoids despair. (Note that the definition of faith at the end of Chapter 1 is essentially identical to the definition of being free from despair that is given at the end of Part I.A.a.)


Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christianity creates something of a paradox for us in trying to understand his writings. The Sickness Unto Death seems to be arguing that all people are in despair unless they have faith. If this isn’t an argument in favor of Christian faith, then what is it? If Christianity defies understanding and explanation, then what is Kierkegaard up to in his books?


Kierkegaard clearly had strong views about what it means to be a Christian. Maybe he presumed that his Christian readers would be interested in his unique views on their religion. Maybe he was writing just in case there was someone out there who could be helped by his ideas about God. Maybe he didn’t really care what everyone else thought of his “absurd” ideas. Or maybe he was trying to show us that rational investigation cannot answer all questions. (See the Overall Analysis and the commentary to Part I.A. for more on this interpretation of Kierkegaard.)


Kierkegaard was an unusual philosopher and his works pose unusual challenges for the reader. There is no final word on how we should respond to his work. As you consider these questions, you may want to consider the long second paragraph of Part II.A. Kierkegaard may be referring to himself when he describes the “poet” who is able to describe religious truth even though he does not live the perfect religious life.


Part II.A., Chapter 2




This section explores the definition of sin put forward by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who (according to Kierkegaard) argued that sin is ignorance. This definition is inferior to the Christian understanding of sin. Socrates’ definition appears to leave many questions unanswered. For instance, it suggests that it is impossible for someone to know what they should do and yet willfully do something else.


Many people in modern times put great effort into understanding moral and religious ideas and yet fail to act on them. The modern age could use a philosopher like Socrates to expose these hypocrites with probing questions.


Though Socrates is laudable, Christianity has improved on his thinking in that Christianity recognizes that there is a difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Socrates presumed that if someone commits a wrong, they must not have known what was right. Christianity recognizes that people can do what is wrong even though they know what is right. Further, it recognizes that they can willfully refuse even to try to know what is right. Christ’s teachings have revealed to people what is right; yet people may refuse to follow Christ’s teaching.


This point brings us back to an idea developed in the first chapter: Christianity is offensive to non-Christians. It is an insult to tell someone that they do not know right from wrong. Yet Christ teaches us that we do not know what sin is until Christ has taught it to us.




Kierkegaard’s writings frequently men


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