The Sickness Unto Death

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The Sickness Unto Death (Danish Sygdommen til Døden) is a book written by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in 1849 under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus.


Preface and Introduction[edit]

  • "This sickness is not unto death" (John 11:4), and yet Lazarus died; for when the disciples misunderstood the words which Christ adjoined later, "Lazarus our friend is asleep, but I go to wake him out of his sleep" (11:11), He said plainly, "Lazarus is dead" (11:14).
  • An account of anything Christian must be like a physician’s lecture beside the sick-bed; even if only those skilled in the medical arts should understand it, it should never be forgotten where it is being given. It is just this relationship to life of whatever is Christian (contrasted with a scholarly remoteness), or this, the ethical side of Christianity, that edifies; and an account of this sort, whatever rigour it may process, is quite different, even in kind, from the ‘disinterested’ scientific approach whose superior heroism is so far from being heroism in a Christian sense that in a Christian sense it is a form of inhuman curiosity. Christian heroism, and indeed one perhaps sees little enough of that, is to risk unreservedly being oneself, an individual human being, this specific individual human being alone before God, alone in this enormous exertion and this enormous accountability.
    • Preface p. 35 Hannay 1989
  • It is because He exists; that is why this sickness is not unto death. For in human terms death is the last thing of all, and in human terms hope exists only so long as there is life; but to Christian eyes death is by no mean the last thing of all, just another minor event in that which is all, an eternal life.
    • p. 37-38 Hannay 1989

A. That Despair is the Sickness unto Death[edit]

  • Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self...
  • This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.
    • p. 43
  • Is despair an excellence or a defect? Regarded in a purely dialectical way it is both. ... If only the abstract idea of despair is considered, without any thought of someone in despair, it must be regarded as a surpassing excellence. The possibility of this sickness is man's superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.
  • alternate quotation The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.
    • p. 45 Hannay 1989
  • The self which, in his despair, he wants to be is a self he is not – to want to be the self he truly is, is the opposite of despair; but he wants to tear his self away from the power that established it.
    • p. 50 Hannay 1989
  • A despairing man is in despair over something. So it seems for an instant, but only for an instant; that same instant the true despair manifests itself, or despair manifests itself in its true character. For in the fact that he despaired of something, he really despaired of himself, and now would be rid of himself.
  • Thus when the ambitious man whose slogan was "Either Caesar or nothing", and he does not become Caesar, he is in despairs over it. But this signifies something else, namely, that precisely because he did not become Caesar he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he is not in despair over the fact that he did not become Caesar, but he is in despair over himself for the fact that he did not become Caesar.
  • Ah, so much is said about human want and misery — I seek to understand it, I have also had some acquaintance with it at close range; so much is said about wasted lives...
  • Ah! so much is spoken about human need and misery; I try to understand it, have even been closely acquainted with not a little of it. So much is spoken about wasting one's life. The only life wasted is the life of one who so lived it, deceived by life’s pleasures or its sorrows, that he never became decisively, eternally, conscious of himself as spirit, as self, or, what is the same, he never became aware-and gained in the deepest sense the impression-that there is a God there and that ‘he’, himself, his self, exists before this God, which infinite gain is never come by except through despair.
    • p. 57 Hannay 1989
  • Despair must be considered under the aspect of consciousness; it is where or not despair is conscious that qualitatively distinguishes one form of despair from another. (…) Consciousness is the decisive factor. The more consciousness the more will; the more will, the more self. Someone who has no will at all is no self. But the more will he has the more self consciousness he has too.
    • p. 59 Hannay 1989
  • The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude, which related to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can only be done in relation to God. To become oneself, however, is to become something concrete. But to become something concrete is neither to become finite not to become infinite, for that which is to become concrete is indeed a synthesis.
    • p. 59 Hannay
  • The greatest danger, that of losing one's own self, may pass off as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife etc., is sure to be noticed.
  • The determinist, the fatalist, is in despair and as one in despair has lost his self, because for him everything has become necessity.... The self of the determinist cannot breathe, for it is impossible to breathe necessity exclusively, because that would utterly suffocate a person's self.
  • For example, if a man is presumably happy... although considered in the light of truth he is unhappy, he is usually far from wanting to be wrenched out of his error. On the contrary, he becomes indignant, he regards anyone who does so as his worst enemy... Why? Because he is completely dominated by the sensate and the sensate-psychical, because he lives in sensate categories, the pleasant and the unpleasant, waves goodbye to spirit, truth, etc., because he is too sensate to have the courage to venture out and to endure being spirit.
  • With the help of this infinite form, the self in despair wants to be master of itself or to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be, to determine what he will have or not have in his concrete self.
  • Once he would gladly have given everything to be rid of this agony, but he was kept in waiting; now it is too late, now he would rather rage against everything and be the wronged victim of the whole world and of all life, and it is of particular significance to him to make sure that he has his torment on hand and that no one takes it away from him... What demonic madness — the thought that most infuriates him is that eternity could get the notion to deprive him of his misery.
  • Just as the physician might say that there lives perhaps not one single man who is in perfect health, so one might say perhaps that there lives not one single man who after all is not to some extent in despair, in whose inmost parts there does not dwell a disquietude, a perturbation, a discord, an anxious dread of an unknown something, or of a something he does not even dare to make acquaintance with, dread of a possibility of life, or dread of himself, so that, after all, as physicians speak of a man going about with a disease in him, this man is going about and carrying a sickness of the spirit, which only rarely and in glimpses, by and with a dread which to him is inexplicable, gives evidence of its presence within.
  • This view will doubtless seem to many a paradox, an exaggeration, and a gloomy and depressing view at that. Yet it is nothing of the sort. It is not gloomy; on the contrary, it seeks to throw light upon a subject which ordinarily is left in obscurity. It is not depressing; on the contrary it is uplifting, since it views every man in the aspect of the highest demand made upon him, that he be spirit.
  • Just as finitude is the confining factor in relation to infinitude, so necessity is the constraining factor in relation to possibility.
    • p. 65 Hannay 1989
  • For it is not the case, as the philosophers would explain it, that necessity is a unity of possibility and actuality; no actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity It is not lack of strength that makes a self lose itself in possibility. What is really missing is the strength to obey, to yield to the necessary in one’s self, what might be called one’s limits.
    • p. 66-67 Hannay 1989
  • The law for the development of the self in respect of understanding, so long as it remains true that the self is becoming itself, is that every increase in understanding corresponds to a greater degree of self-understanding, that the more it knows, the more it knows itself.
    • p. 61 Hannay 1989
  • The world really only interests itself in intellectual or aesthetic limitations, or in the indifferent, which is always what the world talks about most. For worldliness is to ascribe infinite value to the indifferent. The worldly point of view always clings closely to the difference between man and man, and has naturally no understanding (since to have it is spirituality) of the one thing needful, and therefore no understanding of that limitation and narrowness which is to have lost oneself, not by being volatized in the infinite, but by being altogether finitized, by instead of being a self, having become a cipher, one more person, one more repetition of this perpetual one-and-the-same. Despairing narrow-mindedness is to lack primitiveness, from a spiritual point of view to have emasculated oneself. For every human being is primitively organized as a self, characteristically determined to become himself; and although indeed every such self has sharp edges, that means only that it is to be worked smooth, not ground away, not through fear of man wholly abandon being itself, or even through fear of man simply not dare to be itself in that more essential contingency (which precisely is not to be ground away) in which a person is still himself for himself.
    • p. 63 Hannay 1989
  • Eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not, whether you have despaired in such a way that you did not realize that you were in despair, or in such a way that you covertly carried this sickness inside of you as your gnawing secret... or in such a way that you, a terror to others, raged in despair.
  • Full Quote Eternity asks you, and every one of these millions and millions, just one thing; whether you have lived in despair or not, whether so in despair that you did not know that your were in despair, or in such a way that you bore this sickness deep inside you as you gnawing secret, under your heart like the fruit of a sinful love, or in such a way that, a terror to others, you raged in despair. If then, if you have lived in despair, then whatever else you won or lost, for you everything is lost, eternity does not acknowledge you, it never knew you, or, still more dreadful, it knows you as you are known, it manacles you to your self in despair!
    • p. 68 Hannay

B. Despair is Sin[edit]

  • Sin is this: before God, or with the conception of God, to be in despair at not willing to be oneself, or in despair at willing to be oneself.
  • It was a very just thought to which the older dogmatic frequently recurred, whereas a later dogmatic so often censored it for lack of understanding and a proper sense of its meaning — it was a very just thought, although sometimes a wrong application was made of it: the thought that what makes sin so frightful is that it is before God. From this the theologians proved the eternity of hell-punishment. Subsequently they became shrewder and said, "Sin is sin; sin is not greater because it is against God or before God." Strange! For even the jurists talk about "qualified" crimes and extenuating circumstances, even the jurists make distinction with regard to a crime, inquiring, for example, whether it is committed against a public functionary or a private person, they prescribe a different punishment for the murder of a father and an ordinary murder.
  • Full quote: There was much truth in that idea to which an earlier dogmatic theology so often resorted, but which a later that failed to understand or have any feeling for it so often objected to – there was much truth in the idea, even though it has occasionally been misused, that what made sin so terrible was its being before God. From this people proved the eternity of hell’s punishment and then later became cleverer and said: ‘Sin is sin; it is none the worse for being against or before God.’ Strange! Even lawyers talk of aggravated crimes; even lawyers distinguish between crimes committed against public officials and private citizens, prescribe different punishments for parricide and ordinary murder. (...) The despair is intensified in proportion to the consciousness of the self. But the self is intensified in proportion to the standard by which the self measures itself, and infinitely so when God is the standard. The more conception of God, the more self; the more self, the more conception of God.
    • p. 112 Hannay
  • The sin/faith opposition is the Christian one which transforms all ethical concepts in a Christian way and distils one more decoction from them. At the root of the opposition lies the crucial Christian specification: before God; and that in turn has the crucial Christian characteristic: the absurd, the paradox, the possibility of offense. And it is of the utmost importance that this is demonstrated in every specification of the Christian, since offense is the Christian protection against all speculative philosophy. In what, then, do we find the possibility of offence here? In the fact that a person should have the reality of his being, as a particular human being, directly before God, and accordingly, again, by the same token, that man’s sin should be of concern to God. This notion of the single human being before God never occurs to speculative thought; it only universalizes particular humans phantastically in the human race. It was exactly for this reason that a disbelieving Christianity came up with the idea that sin is sin, that it is neither here nor there whether it is ‘before God’, and to that end invented a new wisdom, which nevertheless, curiously enough, was neither more nor less than what the higher wisdom generally is-the old paganism. One hears so much nowadays about people being offended by Christianity because it is so dark and dismal, being offended by its severity, etc. The best-advised course would be simply to tell them that the real reason why people are offended by Christianity is that it is too elevated, that its standard of measurement is not the human standard, that it wants to make man into something so extraordinary that he cannot grasp the thought of it. A quite elementary psychological account of the nature of offence will make this clear, and also show how infinitely silly is the behaviour of those who have defended Christianity by removing the offence; how stupidly or shamelessly people have ignored Christ’s own directions, which often and so anxiously warn us against offence, that is, which point out that its possibility is there and is meant to be there. For if it were not, then it would not be an eternally essential component in Christianity, which would mean it was human nonsense of Christ, instead of removing it, to go about anxiously warning us against it.
    • p. 115-116 Hannay
  • The natural man, the pagan, thinks like this: ‘Never mind, I admit I haven’t understood everything in heaven and on earth. If there is to be a revelation let it teach us about heavenly things. But that there should be revelation to explain what sin is, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard. I don’t pretend to be a perfect human being, far from it, but I know it, and I am willing to admit how far from perfect I am. You think I don’t know what sin is? But Christianity replies: ‘No, that is what you know least of all, how far from perfect you are and what sin is.” (…) Sin is: having been taught by a revelation from God what sin is, before God in despair not to want to be oneself or in despair to want to be oneself.
    • p. 128 Hannay
  • The account of despair in Part One pointed continually to an escalation. The expression of this escalation was partly a heightening in consciousness of the self, partly an arousal from passivity to conscious action. Together both expressions form, in turn, the expression of the fact that the despair comes not from the outside but from the inside. And it also becomes proportionally more and more affirmative. But according to the proposed definition of sin, the self infinitely heightened by the conception of God belongs to sin, and so in turn does the greatest possible consciousness of sin as an act. That is what is meant by saying that sin is affirmative. What is affirmative is precisely the fact that it is before God.
    • p. 132 Hannay
  • Furthermore, specifying sin as affirmative involves the possibility of offence in a quite different sense, namely as the paradox. For the paradox results from the doctrine of the atonement. Christianity proceeds first to set up sin so firmly as an affirmative position that human understanding can never comprehend it; and then the same doctrine undertakes to remove this affirmative position in a way that human understanding can never comprehend. Speculative philosophy, which talks itself out of the paradox, lops a little from both sides and has an easier time; it makes sin not quite so positive-and yet cannot swallow the idea that sin should be entirely forgotten. But here too Christianity, which is the first discoverer of the paradoxes, is as paradoxical as possible; it is as though it were working against its own ends by setting up sin so firmly as an affirmative position that now it seems perfectly impossible to remove it –and then this very Christianity wants with the atonement to remove it so completely that it is as though drowned in the ocean.
    • p. 132-133 Hannay

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