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Sickness Unto Death

Soren Kierkegaard

Overall Analysis and Themes

Summary

Preface

As you try to make sense of "The Sickness Unto Death," it may be helpful to think back over the book using the final paragraph as a key. The final paragraph links together the concepts of despair, sin, and faith, noting that faith is the opposite of sin as well as the solution to despair.

Recall that Part I offered multiple definitions and examples of despair. All of the forms of despair involved a failure to be a human being in the fullest possible sense. Kierkegaard described despair as a sort of default condition in which people find themselves--whether they are aware of it or not--unless they take decisive action to eliminate all traces of despair.

As early as Part I.A.a., Kierkegaard indicated that the solution to despair would involve establishing a relationship with the "power" that established the individual human being--in other words, with God. By connecting us with the source of everything in the universe, such a relationship would presumably enable us to maximize our human potential.

It becomes clear in Part II that Kierkegaard understands Christianity to be the one religion that teaches us that we may have an individual relationship with God. The essence of Christianity is therefore to teach us the solution to despair.

Once this solution has been revealed to us, remaining in despair is not just a misfortune, it is a sin--a violation of God's command. Sin, Kierkegaard explains, is an intensification of despair, because it is a form of despair committed with the knowledge that solutions to despair exist.

Presumably, the point of The Sickness Unto Death is to encourage us to pursue faith. Yet you may feel that Kierkegaard has left us with more questions than answers. As Kierkegaard repeatedly stresses, his vision of Christian faith defies rational understanding. What does it mean to have an individual relationship with God? How would we know if we have such a relationship? Kierkegaard cannot answer these questions. He can only urge us to pursue them on our own through introspective reflection.

For many readers, Kierkegaard's message has been an inspiration to pursue deeper faith. Kierkegaard's works offer some of the most influential reflections on the role of religion in a modern world. Kierkegaard shows that the power of science as a tool for understanding and controlling our world does not necessarily eliminate the need for religion. Science can help us understand the world of things and facts, but it cannot provide guidance for matters of private conscience; it cannot tell us which moral or religious views are correct. This message has been a major inspiration and influence for twentieth- century theology.

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard tells us that we are in despair, whether we know it or not. He tells us that we are failing to live up to our full human potential. He tells us that it is a sin to remain in this condition once we have heard Christ's teachings. But what if we don't feel that we are in despair? What if we don't feel that our lives are bad or sinful? If we are Christians, we may prefer some other interpretation of our religion over Kierkegaard's. If we are not Christians, we may feel that Kierkegaard's concepts of sin and despair are irrelevant to our world view. We may be happy with our lives as they are and feel no need to pursue Kierkegaardian faith.

Some atheist fans of Kierkegaard have responded to his work by trying to separate his philosophical message from his religious views. The twentieth- century "existentialist" philosophers Sartre and Camus are probably the most famous proponents of this view of Kierkegaard.

According to this non-religious interpretation, Kierkegaard's main message is that we cannot rely on other people or on the facts of the world to provide us with answers to the most basic moral and philosophical questions. We are the ones who will have to live with our personal decisions. We are the ones who will be accountable to our conscience for our moral choices. We should therefore act according to our own personal convictions; we should do what makes sense to us. Kierkegaard describes this sort of moral self-reliance in terms of pursuing an individual relationship with God. Yet it's difficult to see how such a relationship with God would differ in practice from a commitment to private conscience. Couldn't we just stand by the moral principles that make sense to us and leave God out of it?

As you can see, Kierkegaard's lively, unusual writing has provoked a wide range of responses and been summoned in support of widely divergent viewpoints. Hopefully, you too will find his writings a source of worthwhile reflections, whatever interpretation you choose to follow.

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