[Editor’s note: If you’ve listened to the Kierkegaard episode, then you’ve heard plenty of felicitous exposition and argumentation by Mr. Daniel Horne, whom we’ve consequently invited to post some follow-up thoughts and resources over the next weeks:
Yes, we know Kierkegaard thought of despair as sin, but is despair “a” sin? Is it “sin” writ large? Despair is prohibited by no Biblical commandment, so what was Kierkegaard getting at? In The Book of Dead Philosophers,Simon Critchley asserts that Kierkegaard understood despair to be “consciousness of sin.” I think this is not quite right, or in any event, unnecessarily confuses the issue. After all, Kierkegaard felt most people suffering from despair had no consciousness of sin.
Kierkegaard scholar Gordon Marino gave a similarly opaque description of despair with his unsatisfying New York Times op-ed. Marino correctly describes several different aspects of despair presented by The Sickness Unto Death. But not only did Marino avoid summarizing Kierkegaard’s concept of despair, he ignored Kierkegaard’s proffered cure, which would have gone a long way toward explaining the sickness. The resulting confusion to NYT readers was clear in the comments following his editorial. In response, Marino conceded that Kierkegaard’s proposition was fundamentally religious, and not merely psychological. Marino also belatedly provided a useful insight: Despair is best classified as one of the seven deadly sins, that of acedia, a kind of spiritual sloth.
Syracuse University professor Edward F. Mooney proffers compelling evidence on this view:
We know from Kierkegaard’s journals that he was familiar with acedia and deliberated on its implications. In Journal EE:17, dated July 20, 1839, he writes: “What in a certain sense is called ‘spleen’ and what the mystics know by the designation ‘the arid moments,’ the Middle Ages knew as acedia (akedia, aridity).” And he adds, “The ancient moralists show a deep insight into human nature in regarding tristitia [sloth, dejection, morosness] among the septum vitia principalia[seven deadly sins].” Here, however, Kierkegaard uses the term “spleen,” nottungsind, tying it to the medieval concept acedia. And in a purely biographical marginal note, he connects it to the expression, “a quiet despair.”
What Kierkegaard meant by despair, then, seems simpler and more poignant than either Marino or Critchley were willing to admit. Despair—in all its aspects—is nothing more or less than one’s lack of faith, resulting from either doubt, skepticism or a sheer failure to consider the matter. For all of Anti-Climacus’ apparent certainty in a patriarchal, authoritarian God, the reality is that Kierkegaard struggled with doubt his entire life. Just look at the book he wrote on the subject, Johannes Climacus, or A Life of Doubt.(And note the connection between “Johannes Climacus” and “Anti-Climacus,” Kierkegaard’s pseudonym for The Sickness Unto Death.)
Little wonder, then, that Kierkegaard found Christianity such a crushingly difficult project. His view of the Bible, evident in The Sickness Unto Death but particularly Fear and Trembling, was that it is fundamentally nuts. Both Old and New Testaments require adherents to adopt notions that are not merely arational, but irrational. And it’s hard work to believe something irrational. Accepting paradox takes constant dedication and endless repetition. Kierkegaard scorned anyone who presumed to reach religion through rational principles. He instead saw religious belief as possible only through pure force of will. But of course, that meant any slippage in effort risked a collapse in belief, and a return to despair. Hence, acedia. Kierkegaard’s journals, quoted at D. Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard, clearly documented his issues with faith:
My doubt is terrible.—Nothing can stop me—it is a hunger of damnation—I can devour every argument, every consolation, and reassurance—I rush past every obstacle at a speed of 50,000 miles a second.
Kierkegaard was still trying to overcome doubt until the very end, judging by one of his deathbed quotes (provided by Critchley): “I pray to be free of despair at the time of my death.” I think The Sickness Unto Death is more easily understood, and perhaps more rewarding, if the reader bears this in mind.