Despair As A Sickness Of The Human Spirit

If anxiety is the psychological precursor and consequent of freedom or spirit in a human being, despair is the psychological expression of the disparity or misrelation (misforhold) in a human being's relation to itself as spirit. Recognizing as early as 1836 that 'the present age is the age of despair', Kierkegaard analyses despair as a universal sickness of the human spirit in The Sickness unto Death, published in 1849 under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus and subtitled 'A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening' (JP i. 737). Like Vigilius Haufniensis, Anti-Climacus engages in psychological analysis, but whereas the Watchman of Copenhagen does not claim to be anything more than a psychologist whose analysis of anxiety is only preliminary to dogmatics, Anti-Climacus is not only a psychological diagnostician but also a Christian. In fact, Anti-Climacus is a Christian 'on an extraordinarily high level', which qualifies him, unlike his alter ego Kierkegaard, to write about Christian concepts with authority (JP vi. 6439). But Anti-Climacus does not engage in theological reflection at 'a scholarly distance from life' as is commonly done in the discipline of theology; rather, what he writes is intended for the reader's personal upbuilding, to which, in his view, everything ought to serve or else is unchristian (SUD 5). Moreover, he claims that 'Everything essentially Christian must have in its presentation a resemblance to the way a physician speaks at the sickbed' (5). Anti-Climacus thus speaks as a Christian psychologist and bedside physician who diagnoses despair as a

sickness of the human spirit that can be cured only by faith or a proper relation to God.46

The title of Anti-Climacus's Christian psychological exposition is taken from John 11: 1-6, which recounts the raising of Lazarus from the dead by Christ. The moral of this story is that physical death is not the end or sickness unto death but only a transition to eternal life, which is made possible by the coming of Christ. Anti-Climacus claims that 'Christianity has in turn discovered a miserable condition that the human being as such does not know exists', and it is this condition, namely despair, that constitutes the sickness unto death (SUD 8, 13, translation modified). Although despair is widely recognized as a psychological malady that afflicts many people, according to Anti-Climacus despair is not what we customarily think it is. Many people are in despair who are not aware of being in despair, and those who are aware of being in despair generally have a very superficial understanding of what despair truly is. They think they are despairing over some external disappointment or loss, whereas they are really despairing over themselves. For as Anti-Climacus sees it, despair is a sickness of the human spirit or self, which he defines a la Hegel as 'a relation that relates itself to itself' (13).47

In defining the self in relational terms, Hegel departed from the classical understanding of the self as a static, unchanging substance that underlies the changing accidents or attributes of the self. He envisioned the self as a dynamic subject engaged in purposive activity or a process of becoming in which the self unfolds or realizes itself through reflection or a mediation of what it is in itself as an immediate being with what it is for itself as a fully actualized being in self-conscious freedom. While Hegel has God or Absolute Spirit in mind as constituting the self, his definition also applies to human beings as rational beings or exemplifications of subjective spirit, which has its ground and telos in objective spirit or the social order and ultimately in absolute spirit as the mediation of subjective and objective spirit. As we saw in the previous chapter, however, Kierkegaard does not subscribe to the Hegelian concept of the divine, which he regards as pantheistic. Anti-Climacus's definition of the self thus applies only to the human self, which in his view is constituted by consciously relating itselfto itselfas a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, possibility and necessity in a continual process of becoming. Strictly speaking, as Anti-Climacus sees it, the self 'does not actually exist' but 'is simply that which ought to come into existence', and insofar as it 'does not become itself, it is not itself; but not to be itself is precisely despair' (SUD 30).

46 See also Evans (1990); Cappel0rn and Deuser (1996); Perkins (1987); Nordentoft (1978).

47 Cf. Hegel (1977: 83-4); see also Taylor (1975: 94-108).

Despair, then, is the failure of the self to become itself, which is due to a disparity in relating to itself as a synthesis of the factors that make up the self. Before examining the precise nature of this disparity, however, we must note that for Anti-Climacus the self is not only a relation that relates itself to itself but also a relation that relates itself to God or that power which establishes it (SUD 13-14). This means that one can become oneself only through a relation to God, who defines what it means to be a human self and makes it possible for one to become that self (30). On this point, non-theistic existentialists who are otherwise deeply indebted to Kierkegaard's analysis of the human situation part company with him in the affirmation of the autonomous freedom of the human self to define and become itself. As Anti-Climacus sees it, however, despair signifies not only a disparity in one's relation to oneself but also in one's relation to God; in fact, all despair ultimately can be traced back to and resolved in the latter disparity (14). An understanding of despair in a theological context is thus central, not merely peripheral or non-essential, to Anti-Climacus's analysis. This is made immediately clear in his initial characterization of despair, which manifests itself in two basic forms: despairingly not to will to be oneself and despairingly to will to be oneself (14). Of the two, the first form of despair constitutes the formula for all despair inasmuch as the second form can be traced back to it; yet all despair ultimately can be resolved into the second form of despair, which is the expression for the disparity in the self's relation to God, namely its unwillingness to admit its 'complete dependence' upon God and its inability 'to arrive at or to be in equilibrium and rest by itself' (14, 20). These two forms of despair thus presuppose and implicate one another, so that both have to do ultimately with the self's relation to the divine as well as to itself. Moreover, as Anti-Climacus sees it, despair is completely rooted out only when 'in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it', which is God, not the autonomous self or the social order (14).

While the possibility of despair marks the superiority of human beings over animals in that it indicates they are essentially spirit and not just physical and psychical beings, despair is dialectically 'the most dangerous of illnesses' to have inasmuch as the object of despair is not really over something, as is commonly believed, but rather over oneself, or more precisely, over the possibility of the eternal in oneself, which cannot be destroyed (SUD 19, 26). Thus the sickness unto death that constitutes despair is not a fatal sickness in the sense that one actually dies from it but rather in the converse sense of being unable to die: 'If a person were to die of despair as one dies of a sickness, then the eternal in him, the self, must be able to die in the same sense as the body dies of sickness. But this is impossible; the dying of despair continually converts itself into a living' in which one is unable to die or to destroy one's eternal self (18). Moreover, just as no living human being is likely to be diagnosed by a physician as being completely healthy Anti-Climacus maintains that 'there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony an anxiety... about himself' (22). Despair is thus a universal sickness or condition which every human being experiences and must contend with in one form or another, whether one is aware of it or not.

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