The Sickness Unto Death
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Preface and Introduction
- "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).
- 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
- The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself.
- 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", does not become Caesar, he is in despair 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...
- Despair must be considered under the aspect of consciousness; it is whether 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 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
B. Despair is Sin
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- p. 132-133 Hannay