Soren Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death

For Kierkegaard, “the self is not the relation (which relates to itself) but the relation’s relating to itself.” From the start, he shifts from a Cartesian or essentialist view of the self to an existentialist one. Whereas for Descartes “self” is a common noun, for Kierkegaard, it is a gerund. And the embedded verb, to relate, points to the dynamics of the self. In this case, relating to itself.

The first despair is that “which is ignorant of being in despair, or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self.” Similar to the “unexamined life” of Socrates, this is the unexamined self. And for Kierkegaard, this is the most common despair, though the individuals involved aren’t aware of it. In the Christian worldview, “a human being is a synthesis of the infinite and finite,” and therefore the tension between these poles becomes the source of next two types of despair: “wanting in despair to be oneself” and “not wanting in despair to be oneself.”

For Kierkegaard, despair is the sickness unto death, one different from an ordinary sickness that leads to physical death. Within the Christian framework, physical death may be a path toward eternal life and a dying person may hope for the life after. But despair, as the sickness unto death, is when one hopes for death as a resolution, but the person cannot die. Hence, the despair. Such despair presupposes life after death. For the atheistic existentialist, such as Sartre or Camus, death is the ultimate end and creates the despair by nullifying hope and achievement and life.

Faith, the interacting with the “power which established it,” is for Kierkegaard the only way the self can overcome despair.

Kierkegaard contributes to Christianity by reformulating faith as the dynamics between the believer and the “power that established it,” in overcoming the ignorance of a self, and in reintegrating the self with this power so as to resolve the tension between the two. Not longer is faith accepting a set of doctrines and carrying out the rites and rituals of the Church.

And he contributes to our understanding of human beings by modeling the self as the relating to itself and others, rather than as static stuffs: bodies, minds, souls and spirits, etc. So the focus shifts from being to becoming.

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