Kierkegaard’s prose is sometimes so convoluted that Woody Allen merely had to quote a sentence for the joke to work. And Allen chose a sentence from Kierkegaard’s 1848 masterpiece The Sickness unto Death: “Such a relation which relates itself to its own self (that is to say, a self) must either have constituted itself or have been constituted by another.”
Despite the occasional sentence like that, written to mock Hegel by imitating his style, The Sickness unto Death rewards multiple readings. Some books are like windows that allow us to see a panorama; The Sickness unto Death is like a magnifying glass that enables the attentive reader to see something too often neglected but infinitely precious: the individual human being, one’s self. In any contemporary intellectual discussion the individual is rarely seen; what is seen is the nation, the class, the stakeholders, and worst of all because it implies only biology, the species. Kierkegaard offers an uncompromising book that focuses on the often overlooked—and therefore famished—soul and spirit of the individual human person.
This essay appears in the current edition of Quadrant.
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Every act in life is an exposition of a particular anthropology. For most people, most of the time, it is an unconsciously-held anthropology. Kierkegaard regarded any dilution of the consciousness of oneself as neglect and spiritlessness. He wanted the individual to understand the self and to be fully conscious of the decisions they make in relation to the self because that understanding and those choices had eternal consequences. It is precisely this emphasis on spirit, choice and eternity that makes Kierkegaard so refreshing and challenging, especially compared to the understanding of materialistic, pantheistic or deterministic anthropologies which deny either the spiritual life, or the possibility of individual immortality, or the reality of free-will.
One of the key conditions Kierkegaard used to define man—one of the distinguishing characteristics of man’s being that an individual had to recognise and embrace if he is to be truly himself—is that he is a creature “before God”. It is precisely this “before God” that is missing in much contemporary anthropology, and this absence is the reason why Kierkegaard’s anthropology seems so eccentric and even radical. It is such a foundational condition that Kierkegaard maintains that to exclude it means a healthy and balanced consciousness of self is lost. In fact, one could fail to be truly oneself and the absence would hardly be noticed. In Kierkegaard’s sense, it is a common experience. He wrote: “The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as if it were nothing; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.” If it was the case in the state-sanctioned Christendom of nineteenth-century Denmark, as Kierkegaard insisted it was, that few people really had an authentic, or balanced self because they didn’t understand themselves and didn’t want to be truly and fully themselves with “the self grounded transparently in the power that established it”, then it is obviously quite rare for a person to possess an authentically synthesised self in twenty-first-century Australia.
This is a stunning thought and, in a pluralistic culture, an offensive concept, but Kierkegaard was firm: an authentic, balanced self is only possible within a Christian worldview. Kierkegaard propounded the self as a synthesis: “A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” But because man is not a self-derived or a self-establishing being, “the self cannot by itself arrive or remain in equilibrium and rest, but only, in relating to itself, by relating to that which has established the whole relation”. This dependent relation to man’s creator is the relation which allows the self to find a balanced synthesis of spirit and matter, the temporal and eternal, and of freedom and necessity. And only Christianity keeps these various opposites in balance without denying one or the other.
Kierkegaard was unequivocal about the dangers of any denial of man’s free-will, whether that denial takes the form of fatalism or determinism. Both fatalism and determinism attack the very being of man because:
Personhood is a synthesis of necessity and possibility. Its manner of being is therefore like breathing (respiration) which is aspiration and expiration. The determinist’s self cannot breathe because it is impossible to breathe necessity alone, which on its own suffocates the human self.
Fatalism and determinism are a denial of possibility and therefore allow no significant change in man: man is stuck as he is: a monstrous mess and in despair. It is no surprise that determinists are routinely atheists. “For with God,” as Jesus taught, “all things are possible.” And possibility is precisely what determinists most ardently deny. Kierkegaard states that “God is the fact that everything is possible, or that everything is possible with God.” Because of God’s freedom to act, man may hope.
In the twentieth century, determinism’s main aggressors towards man were Marxism and Freudianism, both of them reinforced by Darwinism. Proponents of these philosophies waged war on man’s consciousness of himself as spiritually-related on such a massive scale and so mercilessly that a new word may be needed to describe the deliberate and systematic attempt to suffocate man’s spirit; my suggestion is pneumicide. The twentieth century could be described as a uniquely pneumicidal age.
Marxism and Freudianism have both suffered great diminishments, but Darwinism persists and is the basis for a new form of determinism which is likely to carry on the work of pneumicide into the twenty-first century: neuroscience. Neuroscience is based on the materialistic, monist belief that all psychical effects are the result of physical processes. Neuroscience recognises only biological necessity as the single determining factor in what previously were considered to be forms of social (Marxist) or psychological (Freudian) necessity. It uses new scanning technologies to explore the processes of the brain, and the exciting advances in disease treatment as a result of the increased understanding of neurological processes will no doubt appear to confirm its materialistic basis. The Church can welcome the alleviation of suffering that neuroscience will bring but it will also need to maintain—and it will be considered ridiculous because it will be seen as irrational—that man is a mysterious synthesis of matter and spirit.
Man’s spiritual relation cannot be destroyed, it can only be denied or ignored, and the result of that is despair. Kierkegaard defines despair as unconsciousness of being characterised as spirit. Man’s problem, which results in despair, is that he doesn’t want to be himself, or that, in despair, he wants to be himself—but without being grounded transparently in God. In effect, man denies his own nature, and by himself, cannot find a way back to himself. Hence a person’s persistent anguish, anxiety and frustration, which are among the negative payments his own neglected spirit extracts as it seeks the attention that is its due. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard makes this observation:
One can imagine that a debtor succeeds in slipping away from his creditor, and in holding him off with talk, but there’s one creditor who never comes off worst, and that is the spirit.
Despair is not rare. It is exceedingly common, but it varies in degree according to consciousness. “It is the rising level of consciousness, or the degree to which it rises, that is the continual intensification of despair: the more consciousness the more intense the despair.” Kierkegaard devotes dozens of pages to the analysis of the different levels of despair. But there are two broad levels of despair: in despair not wanting to be oneself (a low level of despair); and, in despair wanting to be oneself (an intense level of despair).
It seems outrageous to suggest that many people, in fact the majority of people, don’t want to be themselves. How does Kierkegaard define a healthy self, a self in equilibrium? “The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can only be done in the relationship with God.” A person unconscious of the need to become themselves—and this means embracing the spiritual and eternal relation—is in despair but remains ignorant of their despair. They embrace the physical and the pleasurable, they seek art and music, sex and beauty, romantic love and family—all good things until they become goals in themselves—as a means of keeping despair from surfacing; they exist in a spiritless sense of security which is a denial of their own spiritual and eternal being. Often their sense of self is defined by society—they have no other measure—but this definition ignores their ineradicable individuality. Frustrated with themselves and envious of others, they frequently seek to escape their own inadequate self by imitating other people: someone more stylish, more successful, and more celebrated; in short, someone more significant. But this is a false step.
The example of Thomas Merton is instructive. When Merton’s first novel was published to critical acclaim the path lay open before him to emulate the achievements of writers he admired. Well-meaning friends encouraged him to use his talent to imitate their success. But Merton was discerning enough to know that any emulation could easily mean the denial of his own individual path through life: envy of the success of other people should not and did determine his choices, especially in regard to his own spirit. Some years later, he became a Cistercian monk.
Few people are as wise as Thomas Merton in this matter. And honouring one’s own individuality, as God honours our individuality, is greatly confused by the entire apparatus of advertising which encourages the escalation of envy and imitation. But emulating others is a self-defeating project because the person in unconscious despair cannot be someone else and therefore finds no relief from themselves. Often, however, they are capable of keeping despair subterranean provided they enjoy good fortune and are able to assuage their restlessness and avoid reflection, solitude and silence.
Kierkegaard wished he could give one gift to the world: silence. He thought that silence allowed the person to become aware of themselves and of their despair, so that they might seek healing. Busyness, sport, writing essays for journals, e-mail, home theatre systems, pay-TV, texting, Xboxes and iPods, and the excitement of travel all too easily shout down the anguished whispers of the soul and ensure that consciousness of self and the requirement to become oneself remain neglected. We are saturated—we choose to saturate ourselves—with stimulation.
Chesterton, in his 1926 address “Culture and the Coming Peril” identified this type of saturation by undifferentiated stimulation as one of the great dangers that technology and commercial culture would bring upon man; it would lead to an indifference to reason, a lack of discernment, and an impatience with anything that demanded prolonged and intricate investigation. He also thought that a sense of wonder and mystery, the well-springs of poetry, philosophy and religion, would suffer under this barrage of noise, colour, movement, information and advertising.
The Sickness unto Death explores the role of such distractions in human life; Kierkegaard’s passages are reminiscent of Pascal’s profound observations on the role of diversion in human psychology. This example is from Pascal’s Pensees, but it is in full accord with Kierkegaard:
Misery.—The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.
When a person, dissatisfied with himself, seeks in unconscious despair to avoid being himself he makes two crucial denials: his own individuality and his own eternal spirit. But sometimes such people are hit hard by life, the facade shatters, and despair becomes conscious and therefore more intense. Here the individual does not want a mediated self, a self envious of others and therefore wanting to be another self; here the individual wants to be himself, and this is the perfect goal because it was for this that the individual self was created. However, what appears to be a step towards the spiritual and eternal goes astray because a defiant decision is made: the individual does not want to recognise the eternal but seeks to construct the self by himself. The Christian paradox is that he who would gain his life must lose it; we submit ourselves to God and discover that the process starts whereby we are healed and made whole. But the self-constructing self refuses this paradox:
The despair which is the corridor to faith is also due to the help of the eternal; through the eternal the self has the courage to lose itself in order to gain itself. But here it will not begin by losing itself; it wants, on the contrary, to be itself.
Self-creation is the aim—a futile goal because the self is not capable of creating or of establishing the necessary eternal and the spiritual relation: the self is dependent, not self-derived. Despite this, there is a growing literature available to those who seek self-establishment by themselves. The desire for self-improvement, self-consciousness and self-growth is one of the significant trends in our society; it is a form of religion that acknowledges the spiritual but which frequently locates it in human consciousness alone. Here reflection becomes self-reflection with no meaningful relation to externalities such as the eternal and the transcendent spiritual. The self becomes self-absorbed; it becomes its own goal, and spirituality becomes a sort of theme-park that the despairing self likes to play and hide in: “a world in which the despairing self is restlessly and tantalisingly employed about wanting to be itself”. In reflection, in meditation, in ritual and sometimes in austerities—in the ostensibly spiritual, in other words—the self attempting to be itself without acknowledging that it exists “before God” hides with its despair intact but cleverly hidden by spiritual practice and facades.
This is tragic enough, but more tragic and perverse, Kierkegaard says, is the self that cherishes its wounds and preserves its disappointments in order to be the evidence it needs against the spiritual and the eternal. “Look,” it says, “I’ve been hurt, I’ve seen disasters, and there was no immediate aid from heaven! So I will not seek my self in relation to the eternal and the spiritual!” Kierkegaard reports:
Once he would gladly have given anything to be rid of this agony, but he was kept waiting, and now all that’s past; he prefers to rage against everything and be the one whom the whole world, all existence, has wronged, the one for whom it is especially important that he has his agony on hand, so that no one will take it from him—for then he would not be able to convince others and himself that he is right.
Kierkegaard calls this form of despair “demonic madness”. It’s a madness prevalent today. It’s a madness that sees only the dramatically bad aspects of life that on occasion punctuate what is otherwise a long line of wonderful things in life. Its roots likely lie in bitterness born of a sentimental view of life.
So despair, in its various guises, is common, but importantly it’s also abnormal. Kierkegaard affirms the fallen status of man; humanity is not now what it was meant to be. “Despair lies in the person himself … nor could he despair unless the synthesis were originally in the right relationship from the hand of God.” This regal and immensely elevated relationship is broken—through man’s defiant refusal to acknowledge his own spiritual and eternal nature as derived from and in necessary relation to the one from whom it was derived. Kierkegaard calls this refusal sin, which he defines, not in terms of cruel or immoral acts, but in terms of man’s denial of his dependency and his spirituality. Sin is not merely the opposite of virtue, it is the opposite of faith. This determines his definitions of faith and the state of sin:
Faith is: that the self in being itself and in wanting to be itself is grounded transparently in God …
In the deepest sense, the being in sin is the sin, the particular sins are not the continuation of sin, they are expressions of its continuation. In the particular new sins the speed of sin merely becomes more apparent to the eye.
Kierkegaard begins and ends his analysis of man’s despairing condition by highlighting man’s unique status. The fact that man can despair is a result of man’s glorious elevation: we have free-will, we have spirit, we are eternal, and we are in a dependent relationship with God, a relationship which we can pursue or deny. It is this that differentiates us from any other creature:
The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterises him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of his being spirit.
Among philosophers in the last two hundred years, Kierkegaard is one of the few who understood the infinite value of every human being and the immense import of every person’s choices. He didn’t think of mankind as a nameless mass, as a mere abstraction, or as a species; he upheld each of us as individuals who are unique, eternal, loved by God, and responsible. He is a disturber of our peace. Wittgenstein read him and was disturbed. He said Kierkegaard was “by far the most profound thinker of the nineteenth century”.
Gary Furnell, who lives in rural New South Wales, is a frequent contributor of prose fiction and non-fiction. His most recent non-fiction contribution was on the children in Jane Austen’s novels, in the May issue.