The Sickness unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard
I’ve been familiar with Kierkegaard for years, and I’ve always liked his ideas about anxiety and freedom, but never took the time to read him. Finally decided to give it a shot and start with this book. If you decide to read it, there are two crucial points you need to be aware of. The first one is that the book is hard to read. In fact, one of the hardest I have read. While it is not completely incomprehensible and I took a lot from it, there was a lot that I missed and feels like the type of book that one could study forever.
Secondly, it is incredibly religious. I knew Christianity was one of his themes, but nevertheless, I was expecting something similar to Satre’s or Camus’ existentialism. While there are connections, it is completely embedded into a religious narrative. At least in this book, Christianity isn’t a “theme”, it is THE theme. I don’t necessarily see this as a negative, but it will definitely put a lot of people off. Even if you’re not religious, a lot of it can be viewed in a secular lens, but only if you have learned to do so, which is difficult.
The book is all about despair and the individual. Despair is an essential feature of human existence. Everyone is in despair, even if they don’t know it. And the individual is the synthesis of infinite and finite, temporal and eternal, freedom and necessity. The finite quality is our materialistic aspects, such as our bodies. The infinite part in our minds and imagination — the spirit. The individual is the center that unfolds reality, between what is and what can be. Kierkegaard shines a light into our human condition and proposes its solution to our evitable despair.
The name of the book is from the story of Lazarus in the Bible, which is raised from the dead by Christ. It is the symbol of Christianity that claims that physical death is not the end of life. This means that death does not have to be feared as the end of our existence, but Kierkegaard says that only brings even deeper despair — being confronted with God, and being vulnerable when confronting the ultimate good versus our sinful existence. And unlike earthly despair which will inevitably end with physical death, this despair is eternal.
Dispair is created by an imbalance of the infinite/finite relationship. If we are overly focused on the infinite, we have a pathological imagination and we are full of fantasies — lost in possibility. And if we neglect the infinite, then we get stuck, overwhelmed by our constraints, and abandon our spiritual reality. When we are struck by despair, we either lose the desire to be our true selves by focusing too much on Earthly matters, often by wishing we were someone else. There is yet another form of despair. They don’t wish to be someone else, but they still refuse to be their true self. It is a refusal of self-actualization in a spiritual sense.
The worse despair is what he identifies as “defiance”, wanting to be itself but independent of everything and without any further change. It is despair against oneself, but yet “with the aid of the eternal”. According to Kierkegaard, this becomes demonic. The person becomes obsessed and self-identifies with nothing but their own despair. It is a rebellion against existence and a refusal to believe in goodness. While incredibly religious, I found this particular part fascinating and it seemed an incredibly accurate description of many people who end up committing atrocities such as mass shootings, as described by their own manifestos (although with secularized language).
The more conscious the despair, the more intense it is. Kierkegaard gives the example of pagans, who experience despair, but at a low level. This is because their standard is human. Christianity, however, because its standard is divine — “its goal is not man’s goal, because it wants to make man into something so extraordinary that he cannot grasp the thought”. This despair is always an internal and personal problem. We are the cause of our despair by our own actions, and similarly, the solution is always at our hands. The solution to despair is by the self to become itself. Re-establish the proper synthesis of freedom and necessity. This is done by faith. It is acceptance of being oneself (the current reality), and yet wanting to be oneself (the “true” spiritual self).
The Christian faith defies rational understanding. It is only achieved through introspective reflection. And only with faith can we be a human being in the fullest sense and manifest our divinity. Faith is the only path against despair because Christianity teaches that our sins can be forgiven. While we are forever short of our ideal, as long as we have faith and constantly fight upwards towards God — then we are assured that we are living the best way possible for a human being. Sin is not an action, but a condition. We don’t sin, but rather live in sin. The way out of such a state is to pursue faith and overcome it.
Another interesting part was Kierkegaard’s exploration of sin and knowledge. Socrates argued that sin comes from ignorance. We supposedly cannot know what we should do if we act in a way that isn’t coherent with it. However, that is not a Christian understanding of sin. Morality can be understood, but it doesn’t mean it will only be acted upon. This gap between knowledge and action is where Christianity lives. It is about moral action. Moral understanding is not sufficient — “sin has its roots in willing, not in knowing”.
I found his ideas on faith struck a chord with me, especially when I was younger and struggling with depression. What got me out of it was faith. Not in a religious mystical sense, but faith nevertheless — that things would get better, that change was possible. As Kierkegaard would say, I was stuck in the infinite and temporal. A prisoner of my own despair. But rationally speaking, nothing changed, and nothing could be changed from an external standpoint. But that small spark of hope, wherever that came from and however small, made a life-changing difference. And I had to endure not only the pain of my battle through it, but when I finally got out of it, I had to endure the pain of seeing some of my friends fighting the same battle. Exactly in the same place as I once were, and yet completely unable to help them. What they needed was faith, and that’s something I could never provide.
It is a very heavy and deep book. If any of those themes are something you’re interested in, there is a tremendous amount of value in it. The book is especially hard in the beginning — the very first sentence is almost impossible to decipher. But I found that it does get a bit better as you go. So if you find it a bit frustrating when you start, it’s worth keeping going. If you’re completely unfamiliar with Kierkegaard or existentialism in general, definitely look it beforehand. The YouTube channel “Academy of Ideas” has some good introductions to his thought.
Thanks for reading. If you like non-fiction book reviews, feel free to follow me on Medium or subscribe to my Substack.
I also have a philosophy podcast. If you want to check it out look for Anagoge Podcast.