Saturday, November 19, 2011

Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death and the Fear and Trembling of Abraham

"Is despair an excellence or a defect? Purely dialectically, it is both.” 

-Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus that despair is the “sickness unto death.” Despair emerges from a “misrelation in that relation which is for itself also reflects itself infinitely in the relation to the power that established it”(43). Humans fear death because they misrelate the limitations of their finite existence with the infinite possibilities that exist before God. This misrelation without God leads an individual to either neglect or wrongfully focus attention on the existence of a self which they realize is either finite or infinite. This misrelation, while a defect that manifests itself as despair, also reveals the existence of a self, which can be turned into an excellence.
To Kierkegaard, consciousness of self means that “consequently to be able to despair is an infinite advantage and yet to be in despair is not only the worst misfortune and misery—no, it is ruination.” (43). While despair confirms our existence as spiritual beings, Kierkegaard outlines that despair is a “sickness of the spirit” that manifests itself in three forms: “despair not to be conscious of having a self, despair not to will to be oneself and despair to will to be oneself” (42).

“Despair not to be conscious of having a self” is ignorance of existence of the spirit. Kierkegaard considers this a misrelation of the finite to the finite. He says pagans and non-Christians enjoy earthly pleasures that are balanced by the earthly fear of sickness and death; their despair stems from an inability to see the world and themselves as infinite possibilities of the self. While Socrates argues that sin is ignorance, Christians believe that we do not know sins until we accept Christ and have faith in God. Even though in ignorance a person can be happy, Kierkegaard argues that they are still in despair because they have misrelated their existence and do not know the truth of the existence of a self (73).
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (1590-1610)
Oil on canvas made in 1603.
“Despair not to will to be oneself” is a misrelation between the self as it currently exists to the previous concept of lacking consciousness of an eternal self, desire for an idealized future self, or a wish to have a completely different self. An individual relates their seemingly “temporal” self to a comparison of their “eternal” concept of themselves, whether past, present, or future (81). The comparison never resolves the despair because they never consider their current self as worthy of the eternal self of which they are now conscious. “Despair not to will to be oneself” either concerns itself with finitude or “despair over the earthly,” where the self cannot understand the unknown concept of eternal beyond life on earth. “Despair over the earthly” would be why one fears death or any other problems with existence on earth (87). “Despair over the earthly” leads one to fear their concept of a finite self as a weakness, and believes itself therefore unworthy of the eternal or God. Conversely, one can also despair over the infinite existence of an eternal self wishing for finitude or at least, another self.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt (1606–1669) 
Oil on canvas made in 1635 
“Despair to will to be oneself” is to accept despair as a reality for the self but attempts to alleviate despair by acting upon the self. In despairing to will to be oneself, a self will “bestow infinite interest and significance upon his enterprises” despite the fact that their finitude makes them essentially “imaginary constructions” (100). The self pays attention to itself becoming its own “imaginatively constructed god.” However, even in the effort to strengthen the self through this process the self nevertheless is in despair. Kierkegaard outlines an even more intense form of this despair that becomes “demonic” as the self reflects upon itself in a way that rejects the nature of existence (103). The demonic self blames eternity for harming his quest to become the “infinite abstraction of the self” which he believes has now become so “concrete.” The self wills its despair to define its existence and in defiance rejects the God which offers him forgiveness (105).

Despair is a problem of either necessity eliminating a self’s ability to see possibility or possibility undermining a self’s conception of necessity. Understanding the synthesis between these concepts of self requires belief in God in Anti-Climacus’s religious opinion to understand that “actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity” (66).

However, this unity reveals the paradox in the human condition stemming from despair. Reflection upon the self reveals that despair is the result of misrelation to the synthesis of the self reflecting upon itself. The despair continues even when a self recognizes that it exists “before God.” Realization of self acknowledges the freedom given to the self but also leads us to reflect on the possibility of our misuse of this freedom, which without God will lead us to despair. However, just because despair reveals this synthesis does not mean that the synthesis itself is the cause of despair.

Kierkegaard implies that the “sickness unto death” is man’s creation. God only reveals to us that we are living in the sin of despair but he did not create the sickness. Kierkegaard acknowledges that despair is default for self-conscious beings but he argues that this consciousness makes them realize that it is a sin to be in despair before God. However, this realization and existence of sin is not an absence of virtue. To not acknowledge this sin would be a defect but Kierkegaard argues that with faith in God, Christians can overcome this sickness and make it an excellence. He argues that sin is not action but rather a state of mind that can be corrected. He argues that in order to do this we must reject the sin of despairing over sinfulness, we must reject the sin of refusing to believe in forgiveness and we must reject the sin of rejecting God’s teachings.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer (1936-present)
Handcolored etching made in 1997. 
Anti-Climacus's religious viewpoint is that being in despair over the self can only be resolved in embracing the absurdity of faith in infinite possibility through God. He says, “If only the abstract idea of despair is considered, without any thought of someone in despair, it must be regarded as a surpassing excellence. The possibility of this sickness is man's superiority over the animal and this superiority distinguishes in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit” (43).

Although viewpoints and ideas between Kierkegaard's pseudonyms differ, Johannes de Silentio's example of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac embodies Anti-Climacus's argument about how God helps us turn despair into an excellence. The infinite misrelation between the possibility of teleological suspension of the ethical and necessity of an absolute to god could have led Abraham to despair. He could choose to ignore his responsibility or despair over the consequences of defying the universal or despair over his despair to defy God for himself. Instead, Abraham embraces the absurdity of the task he has been asked to perform and acknowledges his actions as sin through his “fear and trembling.” He has faith in his absolute duty to God, becoming a knight of faith. Instead of despairing over actuality's absurd possibility and dreadful necessity, Abraham's acknowledgment of his sin combined with his faith in forgiveness of the self before God allows him to overcome the defect of despair through embracing the eternal excellence that will heal the “sickness unto death.”