The Sickness Unto Death,, Paperback Book
4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


One of the most remarkable philosophical works of the nineteenth century, The Sickness Unto Death is also famed for the depth and acuity of its modern psychological insights.

Writing under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard explores the concept of 'despair', alerting readers to the diversity of ways in which they may be described as living in this state of bleak abandonment - including some that may seem just the opposite - and offering a much-discussed formula for the eradication of despair.

With its penetrating account of the self, this late work by Kierkegaard was hugely influential upon twentieth-century philosophers including Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

The Sickness unto Death can be regarded as one of the key works of theistic existentialist thought - a brilliant and revelatory answer to one man's struggle to fill the spiritual void.


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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".

Review by

In which I am again reminded of a friend's experience with a professor in a class on Kierkegaard: the students spent the first five weeks trying to convince the professor that you can probably only understand a quarter of Kierkegaard unless you read him in the context of Hegel; the professor rejects this and stresses instead Kierkegaard's Socraticism; at the end of the fifth week (i.e., less than halfway through the course) the professor admits defeat. If that doesn't sound remarkable, you haven't taken many courses with philosophy professors, whom you cannot convince of anything unless they already secretly believe it. The moral of the story is: most of Kierkegaard's writing is incomprehensible unless you've read Hegel. <br/><br/>That doesn't mean, as the cliche has it, that he's writing *against* Hegel. This book is a kind of depressing mini-phenomenology of spirit, in which, instead of ascending towards absolute knowledge, human kind simultaneously ascends towards (what Kierkegaard takes to be) absolute knowledge (i.e., God), and descends further into despair for any number of reasons and in any number of ways. For Hegel, there's always one destination--you might stop on the way to the truth, but your journey is always in that direction. For Kierkegaard, as for Marx, there are two destinations--the good (God/communism) and the horrific (despair/barbarism)--which are both in the same direction. For Marx, 'science' (in the Hegelian sense) will get you to communism, while ideology/capitalism etc will get you to barbarism. For Kierkegaard, science will lead you closer to God, by deepening your despair, but it *won't* get you to the good. Kierkegaard has very good criticisms to make of Hegel, but not the way that, say, Russell has criticisms of him. Kierkegaard, like Marx, remains on Hegel's side of the fence. <br/><br/>Anyway, SuD is a critique of the various idiocies human kind will perform in order to stay in despair. Unlike 20th century existentialists, to whom he's often compared, Kierkegaard insists that the way we are (both 'eternal' and mortal) does not, in itself, lead to despair--despair is the result of an "imbalance" in ourselves, a stressing of one or the other of these elements at the expense of the other. The human condition is not *intrinsically* one of despair; despair is something we do to ourselves. SuD goes through the many different ways in which we can be unbalanced: pretending we're other than we are, despairing of the way we are, and so on. The 'cure' is to recognize and live with our synthesis, not wish to be entirely eternal (a fantasy) nor believe ourselves to be entirely mortal (which, as a kind of determinism, cuts us off from the possibilities of human existence). <br/><br/>The quasi-Hegelian 'portraits' of various people in despair still read like a rogue's gallery of contemporary intellectuals: <br/><br/>"Have hope in the possibility of help, especially on the strength of the absurd, that for God everything is possible? No, that he will not. And ask help of any other? No, that for all the world he will not do; if it came to that, he would rather be himself with all the torments of hell than ask for help." (102)<br/><br/>Here are your militant atheists, 'scientific' determinists*, literary existentialists, and solipsistic nihilists of all stripes, wallowing in self-satisfaction, "he prefers to rage against everything and be the one whom the whole world, all existence, has wronged, the one for whom it is especially important to ensure that he has his agony on hand, so that no one will take it from him--for then he would not be able to convince others and himself that he is right." (103). <br/><br/>The second part, on despair as sin, is a much easier read, and not quite as interesting, although it does include the wonderful thought that "a self is what it has as its standard of measurement," (147). Kierkegaard's attack on 'Christendom' comes up here, and is as right as ever, but you'd have to be pretty convinced of the perfection of institutional Christianity to find it all that affecting, and I, dear reader, am not. <br/><br/>In short, there's a great lesson in here for 21st century types who like to harp on about humanity's existential loneliness and how evolution means we're destined to rape and pillage because there's no meaning anymore: if you think only a God can give us meaning, then leap into faith, or come to the somewhat easier realization that actually, we can give ourselves meaning. It's childish to think otherwise. <br/><br/><br/>*I've always found it odd that so many people who, quite rightly, hold firm to empiricism, take so seriously the idea of determinism (a reasonable assumption for experimental science, but not therefore a fact) despite the absence of evidence for it. Granted, there can be no evidence for it (despite those idiotic 'experiments' in which people's brains 'decide' something 'before' the people do). But determinism and God have that in common. That won't change anyone's mind on God or determinism, of course, because, as Kierkegaard puts it in a different context, "the despairer thinks that he himself is this evidence" (105).

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