Skip over navigation

Sickness Unto Death

Soren Kierkegaard

Part I.A.

Introduction

Part I.B.

Summary

A human being is "a self which relates itself to itself" and which has been "established by another." Two forms of despair are possible for such selves: despair not to will to be oneself, and despair to will to be oneself. The final paragraph of Part I.A.a. defines the condition of a self that is not in despair as a condition in which the self "in relating to itself and in willing to be itself" develops a "transparent" relationship with "the power that established it."

Part I.A.b. shows that despair is at once a distinction and a curse. Despair is a distinction because it is possible only for spiritual beings. It is not possible for animals (which do not have free spirits), nor for the non- Christians of the distant past (who were not aware of themselves as free spirits that could attain eternal life). Nevertheless, despair is a condition of awful unhappiness and frustration.

It is immensely difficult to overcome despair. Whereas physical sicknesses are caught at a discrete time and then endured, despair is a spiritual condition that one is continually catching unless one is continually rooting it out.

Part I.A.c. elaborates on the torments and complexities of despair. For Christian people, who are aware of eternal life, physical illness is not the "sickness unto death." The sickness unto death for them is worse. If Christian people do not attain eternal life, the alternative is a condition of eternal death--a condition in which one continues to exist even though one is dying or wants to die.

Part I.A.c. also offers two down-to-earth examples of despair. The first example is a person who wants to be Caesar but fails to accomplish this goal. This person appears to be despairing over something (over not being Caesar). In fact, however, he is despairing over himself: he wishes that he were something that he is not (Caesar), and he wishes that he were not himself (since he is not Caesar). The second example makes the same point. A girl whose lover has died or has betrayed her may appear to be despairing over the lover, but in fact she despairs over herself; she wishes that she were still her lover's beloved.

The final three paragraphs return to the point that despair is an eternal condition. Whereas physical illness ends in physical death, the spiritual sickness of despair torments the spirit without killing it.

Commentary

Kierkegaard's writing in this section may seem confusing and unclear. He never offers a straightforward definition of his key term, "despair." Instead, he provides a series of different comments and examples and leaves it up to the reader to make sense of what he is saying.

If you were to write something like this your professor would probably fail your paper. Experts on Kierkegaard, however, see this style as an integral part of Kierkegaard's philosophical message and have gone to great lengths to explain what it contributes to his philosophy.

The most common explanation of what Kierkegaard is up to is that, unlike the scientists and scholars he criticizes, Kierkegaard is not trying to communicate straightforward facts, but rather to provoke a new state of awareness in his readers. He therefore writes in an circuitous manner that is meant more to provoke reflection than to communicate clear ideas.

Some Kierkegaard experts have argued that the format of The Sickness Unto Death--its complex structure of parts and sections and subsections, its many definitions and categories--is meant to be an elaborate parody of Hegel and other philosophers who think that philosophy can use precise terms and concepts to develop a complete picture of the world. According to this interpretation, Kierkegaard's writing is meant to show us that rational analysis and interpretation can't always provide clear answers. Just as we can't develop a precise interpretation of what Kierkegaard is saying, so perhaps can we not develop a precise understanding of spiritual issues.

As you read, you should keep these interpretations in mind. Always pay attention to Kierkegaard's style and think about what it communicates to you. Does Kierkegaard seem to want to provoke reflection? Or does he have something specific to say? Is he poking fun at people who make intricate arguments? Or is he actually making an intricate argument?

To the extent that Kierkegaard does have something specific to say, Part I.A. appears to offer an account of what it means to be a human being, followed by an account of what he means by "despair."

In the first paragraph of Part I.A., Kierkegaard writes that human beings are a synthesis of the "infinite and finite," "temporal and eternal," and "freedom and necessity." Kierkegaard is arguing that human beings are both physical and spiritual. We live in a world of material things and physical forces, a world of causes and effects. Yet we also have a spiritual identity and feel as though we can make free choices. Thus we are both a physical body and a spiritual identity--and we are also the complex relationship between these two things. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, we are a relation (the relation of spirit and body) that relates itself (spirit/body) to itself (spirit/body).

Kierkegaard's account of despair is based on this account of what a human being is. He argues that despair is a sort of imbalance or "misrelation" in the spirit/body relationship. He also suggests that despair is a sort of defiance in which a human being either doesn't want to be what it is, or wants to be something it is not. These two definitions may seem different, but they are related. According to Kierkegaard, a human being is a combination of spirit and body. Thus, if a human being doesn't want to be what it is, then it must want to neglect some aspect of its spirit/body relationship.

Parts I.A.b. and I.A.c. provide clarification of Kierkegaard's understanding of despair. (Further clarification will be provided in Part I.B. and I.C.) The discussion of the differences between physical sickness and despair in Part I.A.b. has two main points. First, human beings are responsible for their spiritual condition. They therefore have themselves to blame if they are in despair. Second, despair is immensely difficult to overcome, because it is a sort of default condition. Human beings are in despair unless they are constantly rooting out any hint of despair.

Part I.A.c. offers specific examples of what Kierkegaard means when he says that despair is an internal problem for which individuals themselves are responsible. Though the girl and the man who wants to be Caesar appear to be frustrated by the circumstances of their lives, they are in fact frustrated with themselves. The same can be said of the despairing Christians who were described in the Preface and Introduction. Their despair over the possibility of an eternal death is really a frustration with themselves--a frustration with their failure to attain eternal life.

Note the implication of these examples. Since despair, in all these cases, is an internal, personal problem, it is also something that individuals can correct. The girl cannot bring back her lover, but she can overcome her frustration with herself. Likewise, Christians cannot escape physical death, but they can avoid eternal death by having faith in Christ. Thus, as Kierkegaard argued in Part I.A.b., despair is ultimately a condition for which individuals have only themselves to blame.

To sum up what Kierkegaard has told us so far, despair is an internal, personal problem that involves neglecting some aspect of our physical or spiritual life. Individuals are themselves responsible if they are suffering from despair. Individuals can overcome despair, but doing so requires tremendous effort and commitment.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us