The Sickness of Despair

Kierkegaard3Part One of The Sickness Unto Death

For many who are of a secular mind, life is an experience that ends with death. It is a fundamental understanding of life that it does not go on forever. Because of this, life and all its eccentricities and its trivialities will cease to be of concern to the secular. For a man of devout faith, this is not the case in fact death is not an end—it is a second beginning. For a man like Søren Kierkegaard life was not finite it was the antecedent to a divine infinitude. To say Kierkegaard was a man of faith is accurate, in fact he cemented his work The Sickness Unto Death in the belief that for God “anything is possible.” Yet, for Kierkegaard there was still a troubling thought that stuck to his mind—man was sick. This sickness what not a physical ailment to be treated by a physician, man’s sickness was a spiritual one. Man’s sickness was in his soul; his soul was being crushed by despair.

When Kierkegaard speaks of despair in this manner, it does not take the typical form. Kierkegaard’s view of despair is as a form of dialectical longing of the self to be actualized— to become itself. Kierkegaard’s understanding of despair is that it lurks underneath everything especially that which we find to be good. Most often it is found by man when his self is not realized. When a man wishes to become greater and fails begins to loathe himself for what he is wishing for what he could have been; what he believed his self was. What that man does not realize is that that despair would have been lingering inside irregardless of his conception of self actualization. Kierkegaard postulates that due to man’s soul being eternal, his despair is also eternal due to the soul’s attachment to self. In this way man’s self is fettered to its need to be actualized and therefore trapped with despair creating the internal dialectic. The only solution Kierkegaard purports is that man must seek his actualization through God or e doomed.

“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.”The Sickness Unto Death (1849)

Self-actualization—”necessity” as Kierkegaard describes— cannot be gained without “possibility”; these two terms are common themes throughout his work to describe the means of the self realizing itself. “Necessity”—as Kierkegaard uses it—can almost be used to describe a man’s purpose or destiny; his “necessity’ for living, if you will. And the use of “possibility” as the infinite amount of means a man can gain that “necessity” For Kierkegaard, these two means must work in harmony for the self to be realized and to not do so results in despair.

A man who loses himself in “possibility”—as Kierkegaard notes— cannot progress to his “necessity” and is therefore lost in the infinite progress to be made towards his self. In this case the self’s despair is “possibility” The despair is caused by the never ending process of acting toward a “possibility” only to move to another never finding self actualization. There is also the polar side to this pairing in which Kierkegaard attacks the deterministic individual— a person for who every action has meaning and therefore is surrounded not by “possibility”, but, by “necessity” In this case the source of despair lies in “necessity” and the lack of “possibility” Kierkegaard describes such a person as King Midas, the man who starved because everything he touched turned to gold. Should a man lack one aspect he will lack the other and therefore— as Kierkegaard puts it —lose the self.

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”—The Sickness Unto Death (1849)

The man most guilty of this loss of self according to Kierkegaard it is the “immediate man” The “immediate man” is one who suffers from the despair caused by a willing lack of consciousness that comes from not pursuing the self. The immediacy stems from the inherent desire of the man to be not one’s self, to be one’s self ignorant of despair, or to be another self. In this form Kierkegaard set to lay out the way consciousness increase’s man’s despair. The “immediate man” is not the man of maximum consciousness of despair, rather, he is in some degree aware of his despair yet every time he is faced with it he hides from it so as to decrease his awareness of it. However, despite the level of consciousness the “immediate man” holds that despair remains as it is felt through the desire to either be other than the self or hidden from the state of the self. Due to the dialectic nature of the self—its chaining of the soul—and its eternity one cannot escape his own despair in this manner. Kierkegaard defines this as the weakness man has in him and the ironic nature of despair and self; that one cannot hide from what he is chained to despite his will. As Kierkegaard points out, the only means the “immediate man”— or any man for that matter — has to be relieved of his despair is to become fully conscious of its true nature and therefore aware of his own spiritual self.

Despair as Kierkegaard defines it, is one that can be understood regardless of a God. The message that is put forth in the first part of this work is an existential one. What Kierkegaard is doing when he says that when one has lived in despair one has lost everything, he is not simply speaking of the spiritual loss of self nor was he referring to a living a life of conflict or struggle. What Kierkegaard was referring to was the despair of the person who did not know struggle or the realize relief of finding ones self. Returning to the topics of “possibility” and “necessity”; consider these two ideas in the frame of the existentialist. In Sartre and Existentialism I spoke of what defines existentialism which is the idea that purpose can only be given by the individual to the individual and that all things are permissive in the moral perspective. If we take this and apply it to Kierkegaard’s work in The Sickness Unto Death what comes to light is the fact that despair is a voluntary action, a choice. When the “immediate man” flees from the consciousness of his despair into the ignorance that is also despair it is because he determined himself to be so. Would that the “immediate man” face the consciousness of his despair he could realize his self in himself and reach what Sartre described as transcendence. Transcendence in this sense would be the recognition of the man of his weakness of “immediacy” and taking upon himself the responsibility for his purpose and seek the means to bring his essence, his self, his soul into realization—thus he creates unity between the “possibility” and the “necessity”


Part Two of The Sickness Unto Death will be posted shortly…

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