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Sickness Unto Death

Soren Kierkegaard

Part II.A., Chapter 2

Part II.A., Chapter 1

Part II.A., Chapter 3 and Appendix

Summary

This section explores the definition of sin put forward by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who (according to Kierkegaard) argued that sin is ignorance. This definition is inferior to the Christian understanding of sin. Socrates' definition appears to leave many questions unanswered. For instance, it suggests that it is impossible for someone to know what they should do and yet willfully do something else.

Many people in modern times put great effort into understanding moral and religious ideas and yet fail to act on them. The modern age could use a philosopher like Socrates to expose these hypocrites with probing questions.

Though Socrates is laudable, Christianity has improved on his thinking in that Christianity recognizes that there is a difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Socrates presumed that if someone commits a wrong, they must not have known what was right. Christianity recognizes that people can do what is wrong even though they know what is right. Further, it recognizes that they can willfully refuse even to try to know what is right. Christ's teachings have revealed to people what is right; yet people may refuse to follow Christ's teaching.

This point brings us back to an idea developed in the first chapter: Christianity is offensive to non-Christians. It is an insult to tell someone that they do not know right from wrong. Yet Christ teaches us that we do not know what sin is until Christ has taught it to us.

Commentary

Kierkegaard's writings frequently mention Socrates in approving terms. Indeed, Kierkegaard seems to have fancied himself something of a modern-day Socrates. Some experts on Kierkegaard argue that there are fundamental similarities between his writing and the Socratic method.

In Plato's dialogues (Plato was one of Socrates' students), Socrates pursues philosophical questions by posing difficult questions to his Athenian contemporaries--questions they often would rather not answer. Socrates' contemporaries eventually grew frustrated with him and sentenced him to death for corrupting the Athenian youth.

Kierkegaard was similarly unappreciated by his contemporaries. Like Socrates, he challenged the prevailing ideas of his contemporaries (in particular, their ideas about religion). Furthermore, just as Socrates posed questions without claiming to know the answers, so does Kierkegaard urge his readers to think about religious issues on their own.

Much of the material in this chapter should be familiar by now. Kierkegaard pokes fun at those who pursue scientific understanding. He argues that factual knowledge is not useful for the task of personal salvation. He associates sin with despair and he argues (as he did in Chapter 1) that it is a sin not to accept Christ's teachings--even though Christ's teachings are absurd.

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