Kierkegaard's Styles: The Sickness Unto Death

Edmund Hardy


Doubt is a doubling. A human being is a relation between two, "the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis." (XI 127)

The activity of relating the self to the self, "self" becoming verb.

When the synthesis fails, a misrelation between the sides can be called despair: in such a state, the self tries to will itself away, or it tries to will itself to be itself.

The self cannot rest.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this:

"in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it" (XI 128).

The rested transparency is rested from an attachment to infinititude, and from an attachment to the finite, because the self does not attach, it relates to others as it relates itself to itself.


Despair figured as dialectical, the form of The Sickness Unto Death is also so: compacted paragraphs, clear blocks with which to show an "upbuilding" for the reader. So as the argument blazes itself in clarity, and burns itself towards the unifying negative third, becoming spirit that is becoming self, so we are to be "awoken" as Lazarus was to the cry, "Lazarus, come out" (John 11:43), and the voice must speak from a great height, if it is to dare say this to us.

This is a Christian style, that of speaking to us from a position and in a relation which can only place us on a sickbed, or a death-bed; the urgency which compacts the prose of The Sickness Unto Death is intended to convey our situation of danger.


The preface contains a remark usually thought to be a side-swipe at Hegel: "it is not Christian heroism to be taken in by the idea of man in the abstract or to play the wonder game with world history." The wonder-game (or "wonder stool") is when one person is blindfolded and sits on a stool. Then others all write down what they wonder about that person who, unblindfolded, must then match up person to what they wondered.

The self is always in trouble when it is given a chair; far from being rested, it is now enthroned. For Sartre, opposing Kierkegaard to Hegel in 'The Existence of Others' chapter of Being and Nothingness, is keen to point out that consciousness is "selfness and not the seat of an opaque, useless Ego." For Sartre, consciousness is the Ego's "decompression", another form of rested transparency (in a transcendental field).


Kierkegaard's style is to write this formal text, and sign it, Anti-Climacus. This is one of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms who writes from a "high" position. As Kierkegaard noted in his journal, "one seems to be able to detect in Anti-Climacus that he considers himself to be a Christian on an extraordinarily high level", whereas the earlier author, to whom Anti-Climacus has a special relation, Johannes Climacus, had been a low pseudonym (1), so low that he had ended Concluding Unscientific Postscript by declaring the book to be superfluous, a position of retraction entirely alien to Anti-Climacus. Kierkegaard considered himself to be somewhere between the two levels.


What follows is an anthropology of despair. The self shut behind a door. The self willing not to be itself before God. The despair of immediacy caught in a dialectic of pleasant, unpleasant. The self shut in front of a door: The man of immediacy has reduced a mirror to a miniscule, "In a deeper sense, the whole question of the self becomes a kind of false door with nothing behind it in the background of his soul." (XI 168)

The forms of despair are "qualifications of the spirit". Despairing is to place the kinetic self into a field of power which is not the highest power. "O Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! Yes, we may well call your name three times; it would not be too much to call it ten times, if it would be of any help." (Xi 203) The style lifts up with the appearance of Socrates who arrives with the idea of sin as ignorance. "Philosophy still thinks this, and it should know better!"

Macbeth is the man who despairs at his own sin, despair closing in as a series of fixed points. Kierkegaard quotes the Schlegel Tieck translation of Shakespeare, where, having killed the king, Macbeth says, "Von jetzt giebt es nicht Ernstes mehr im Leben; Alles ist Tand, gestorben Ruhm und Gnade." (Translated back into English: "For, from this instant, there's nothing serious in mortality; All is but toys, renown and grace is dead."

Kierkegaard admires the "double turn" in the last words, Ruhm und Gnade, renown and grace, and comments: "by despairing over his sin, he has lost all relation to grace – and also to himself." Macbeth loses all rest in any higher power (or force-field of many selves, Sartre's concept extended), he's caught on this bank or "shoal". In the references to Shakespeare, it becomes clear how certain areas of the upbuilding could be laicised, as Hume laicised belief.

The spiral of the discourse comes round, and out from despair in the last sentence, where the formula for lack of despair is seen to be also the "definition of faith." Up through this spiral, it is as if the author has been judging himself, pushing through the forms of his own despair.

Let not the heart in sorrow sin       so
      you abandon love


(1) The other low pseudonyms are Victor Eremita, Mr A., Judge William, Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Vigilius Haufniensis, Nicolaus Notabene, Hilarius Bookbinder, Frater Taciturnus and Inter et Inter.

[Quotations from The Sickness Unto Death are from the edition edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, 1980]

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