Kierkegaard wrote The Sickness Unto Death under the pseudonym “Anti-Climacus,” the same pseudonym under which he wrote his two most important religious works, The Sickness Unto Death and Practices in Christianity. The “sickness” in the title is despair: despair is the sickness that everyone has until they die. Anti-Climacus defines despair primarily as a sickness of the self. He also says that everyone, whether they know it or not, is in despair. The most basic form of despair stems from not knowing you are in despair. A slightly more advanced form comes from a desire not to exist, and the most complex form of despair manifests in an attempt to escape the despair of not wanting to exist. All of these varieties of despair are caused by a tension between the infinite and the finite: Anti-Climacus claims that, although you will die and are thus finite, you also have an eternal self, which is infinite. After defining despair, Anti-Climacus questions whether it is a good or a bad thing. He comes to the conclusion that it is both. Despair is a type of suffering, so it must be bad. However, despair is a direct result of self-awareness, and increased self-awareness actually makes the self stronger. The stronger one’s self, the closer one is to God. Anti-Climacus claims that only a “true Christian” can manage to live without despair. A true Christian is someone who places total faith in his or her relationship with God.
Anti-Climacus says that despair is sin, and the only way to escape sin is to put complete faith in God. However, putting faith in God involves an increase of self-awareness and thus an increase in despair. We are thus faced with the prospect that the closer to God one grows, the greater one’s despair and the greater one’s sin. Only by growing infinitely close to God can despair finally be defeated. The concrete sins, such as murder and stealing, arise from the sin of despair. However, to despair is the worst sin of all. This sounds like a tautology—a circular line of reasoning—but it is not. Anti-Climacus does not think of sin as something you do but rather as something you are. All the bad things a sinner does (stealing, killing, cheating) are not sins themselves: they are the results of being in sin. To despair over being in sin—in other words, to despair over being in despair—merely intensifies one’s sin. The worst sin of all is to refuse forgiveness for one’s sin: the only way to escape sin is to approach God with faith that forgiveness will be offered. Of course, approaching God in the first place intensifies sin. This is part of the paradox of faith.
Much of The Sickness Unto Death hangs on Kierkegaard’s definition of “a self.” Kierkegaard doesn’t use the term the way you or I might in an everyday conversation. Kierkegaard’s self is not just synonymous with person. A self is, for Kierkegaard, a set of relations. On the simplest level, a self is a set of relations between a person and the world around him or her. A body and a brain constitute a person, but more is required for a self. The self is defined by external and internal relations. While the idea of relating to oneself may sound contradictory, it isn’t really. “A self relating to oneself” is just another way of describing self-awareness. Think of a person trying to decide whether to go running or watch TV. This is an internal conflict, and a conflict is, in essence, a relation. Different aspects of your personality are conflicting, but the conflict itself is part of what makes up the self. The will is synonymous with the self. The will binds together all of one’s different aspects into a coherent whole. However, for Kierkegaard, the inability to make a choice is as much a part of one’s self as the ability to make a choice. The self is the will—or, possibly, the lack of will. The highest and most important level of relation is not between the self and others, or the self and itself, but between the self and God.
Everyone has a self, whether they realize it or not, and having a self causes despair. Kierkegaard’s notion of despair is not synonymous with unhappiness. One can be in despair and not even know it. Despair doesn’t affect a person, it affects a self. Kierkegaard’s self is similar to the common concept of the soul. Depression and unhappiness affect a person, but despair affects the self because despair is a spiritual sickness. Nonspiritual people—that is, people who don’t know they have a self—suffer this sickness even though they aren’t aware of it, because being unaware of one’s self is the most basic form of despair. People who despair at not having a self are more aware of their spiritual aspect—as they at least recognize the possibility of having a self—but because they incorrectly believe they don’t possess a self, they too suffer despair. Despairing at not having a self is like worrying that one doesn’t have a coherent identity. The third kind of despair, despair at being a self, exists in someone who realizes that his or her identity is no greater than his or her relations, specifically his or her relationship to God. The closer one comes to realizing that one’s self is actually just one’s relation to God, the closer one comes to escaping despair.