Søren Kierkegaard

The Sickness Unto Death

Review by Nathan Bieniek, 2008

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Princeton University Press, 1980. xxiii+201 pages. $19.95.

The 20th and 21st century understanding of the concept of despair is likely, perhaps to the lay person, to be understood in the context of psychiatry, psychology and pharmaceutical remedies for unmanageable states of mind. While Søren Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening clearly deals with the psychological, it precludes medical preoccupations and explores the existential and spiritual roots of despair (“the sickness unto death”). Exploring the dialectical relationship between the polar aspects of existence (infinity and finitude, temporality and eternity, etc.), Kierkegaard states on the first page of this work that “a human being is...in short, a synthesis” (13) That is, a complex series of relations arising from the synthesis of the finite and the infinite. Despair is a symptom of a self, a human being, that is unbalanced in this synthesis. The beginning of the work (which is to say the first two incredibly compact pages) is given to a metaphysical explanation of the nature of this synthesis, while the rest of the book is an explication of how, where, and why a self can fall into despair. The book is separated into two parts in this pursuit. The first, “Despair Is The Sickness Unto Death ”, explains the nature of despair and the sickness. The second section, “Despair is Sin”, deals more explicitly with the Christian understanding of the self and the self in despair.

In the beginning of the first section Kierkegaard explains that the human self is a relation not simply of the infinite and the finite, but is the result of the self-relation of the unity of the finite and the infinite. In other words, the relation between infinity and finitude becomes a third entity, but this entity is a “negative unity” (13), not yet a self. The self is the reflexive relation of the negative unity to itself, which he calls a “positive unity” (13). This self, then, is related to God, which is the creator, because a self must either have caused itself, or been caused by another. So the self is comprised of a series of relations and is ultimately related to God, because Christianity holds that human beings do not create themselves.

Despair, or the sickness, occurs when a self is not based on the equal relation of the infinite and the finite. Because a self is dependent upon its creator, the imbalance is reflected in the relation to the creator. All despair, according to Kierkegaard, is derived from the action of the self, in despair, willing to be itself. That is, rather than resting in the power of God, the self mistakenly believes that it can control its own existence through force of will. This mistake is the root and cause of despair, because a self cannot even will itself out of existence, to die, so “the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die” (18).

The rest of the text, given over to an explication of the nature of despair full of theoretical examples, of the nature, permutations and consequences of despair, reinforces the description of a state without despair: “in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it” (14). Despite the dry metaphysical structure that under-girds Kierkegaard's definition of despair, his examples and explanations of the nature of despair include all of the psychological and emotional pain that any person would normally associate with the word “despair.” His effort in this work, however, is to show that there is a secret nature underneath the emotion and psychological affliction of despair. There is a spiritual and metaphysical cause that can be remedied only by faith in God, not willful human machinations.