The Sin of Despair

Kierkegaard3Part Two of The Sickness Unto Death

In the last post I discussed the first part of Søren Kierkegaard’s work, The Sickness Unto Death. In it I discussed the the nature of what Kierkegaard describes as despair. It was shown that he believed that despair was the wanting to be other than ones self or the wanting to be ones self in despair. Despair in this sense is used to describe the fleeing of ones despair into ignorant despair or wanting to be a ill perceived version of the self which brought despair. Continuing on to the second part, Kierkegaard sets out to describe how and why despair can be sin and what makes it so. In his own words,he summarizes that:

“Sin is: Before God or with the conception of God, in despair not wanting to be ones self, or wanting in despair to be one’s self”— The Sickness Unto Death (1894)

Kierkegaard is very careful to point out the meaning of these two forms; firstly not wanting to be one’s self before god; secondly, wanting in despair to be one’s self. It is important to note that while the word “sin” and “despair” are two separate ideas, they are linked in a special way— a similar way to the soul and self — their relation being tied to one’s conception of God; which will be explained further.

The sin of not wanting, in despair, to be one’s self before God carries with it a specific requirement. The requirement for this to occur is “the conception of God”. Kierkegaard specifies this when he speaks of the “pagan” or the man who man know of a Christian God, yet, may be ignorant of his spiritual conception as a Christian would. This is not to say that a pagan cannot sin by Christian standards, rather— alluding to the increase of despair with the consciousness of it in the first part— Kierkegaard states that an individuals conception of God increases his despair and therefore his sin. The way that this despair is achieved is through not simply sinning but wishing to be one who is able to sin without the burden of despair. The wishing of being one who has less conception of God so as to not feel the despair of remorse for performing a sin. There is also the converse side of this in which one is wanting in despair to be one’s self.

Want in despair to be one’s self is, simply put, recognizing one’s sinful nature described in Christian dogma, acknowledging it and yet not wishing to change it. In this form, Kierkegaard argues, the recognition of ones sinful nature almost becomes a form of perverted repentance. As if by recognizing one’s sins, one becomes cleansed regardless of ones lack of remorse. It is noted that this is not truly repentance as the man who is recognizing this is not wishing to become himself spiritually but rather attempting to reconcile his sins with his belief without changing his self. In essence he is trapped in his “possibility”— the “possibility” of repentance yet never reaching the “necessity” of living a good life according to Christian definition. Kierkegaard describes this type of behavior as that of the “God-man”.

The “God-man”— according to Kierkegaard —is a man who blames God for his sinful nature while conceptualizing him. In this idea, he performs the sins he is aware of in his dogma whilst not blaming his self for it. Rather he is like a man in a damaged life boat who instead of emptying his vessel of the water weighing him down, pails more into his boat and sinks further down all the while blaming the boats maker. In this fragile analogy, the boat can be described as the man’s link of self and soul; the water around him sin and despair and the boat maker God. At a distance he curses the boat maker for making it in such a form that he sinks when it takes on water rather that attempting to swim to shore for the boat maker to repair his self into its true form, he sinks deeper and deeper in to despair through sin.  Because of this, the sin of the “God-man” can only be performed by the Christian, as he is aware of his maker, it becomes as Kierkegaard describes, an affirmative.

“…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.” — The Sickness Unto Death (1894)

Again, coming to the the conclusion of this post there is much for the secular to ponder. True as it may be that Kierkegaard’s focus of sin was more directed toward a Christian perspective one can’t help but recognize a strange form of ethical absolutism. In the first part of his definition of sin, Kierkegaard speaks of how ones consciousness of God increases the effect of mans despair in sin— considering that one considers Christian dogma as it is, a moral structure — an nonbeliever such as myself could experience a similar issue. If it is assumed that every individual has a concept of right or wrong, by breaking these personal structures of ethics one enters a very personal form of this despair. Despair need not be a Christian concept, it simply needs a moral authority or form of laws which, to an existentialist like Sartre, would be the individual; as the person precedes essence and essence is formed through experience. (See also Sartre and Existentialism) If this self deterministic view of moral structure is to be subscribed to than it is conceivable that Kierkegaard’s description of despair is plausible in a secular sense. Should one go against their personal moral code, and, in addition continue to go against it, they would find themselves lost to the person they once were their essence— as they say — would change and the good they once understood would not be the same good they became. Although what remains of this is in deference to despair of ones past self, not of an absolute moral authority. At this point it is up to the individual to seek out what their despair means and whether it is in service of transcendence of self or rather the furthering of “inwardness”. Ultimately, if aesthetic existentialists are to be believed, that is up to the individual, not a spiritual divinity.

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