Kierkegaard: The Dynamics of Despair

The following excerpt from Soren Kierkegaard’s  book “The Sickness Unto Death” (1849) shows different ways in which we try to choose our existence, and how we end up in despair.  Kierkegaard defines the human being as a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal, and of freedom and necessity. We cannot come to terms with our own paradoxical nature, and the only way to resolve these paradoxes is through the relationship with a living God. If we try to find our own answers apart from faith, we will always end up in despair.


The quotes are from the following source:  Provocations. Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore. P. 37ff

“The human being is essentially spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is to be a self. But what is the self? In short, the self is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. The self is the conscious unity of these factors, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself. This, of course, can only be done in relationship to God, who holds the synthesis together.

When is despair completely eradicated? It occurs when the self, in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, is grounded nakedly in the power that established it. In other words, when it is related openly to and dependently on God. To transcend despair is neither to become finite nor to become infinite but to become an individual in their synthesis, which God alone holds together. In so far as the self does not become itself in this way, it is not itself. And not to be oneself, as God created you, is despair.

Finitude’s Despair

Despair comes in different guises. To lack infinitude is a despairing confinement. It consists in ascribing infinite value to the trivial and temporal. Here the self is lost by being altogether reduced to the finite. Finitude’s despair allows itself to be, so to speak, cheated of its self by “the others.”

By seeing the multitude of people and things around it, by being busied with all sorts of worldly affairs, by being wise in the ways of the world, a person forgets himself, forgets his own name, dares not believe in himself, finds being himself too risky, finds it much easier and safer to be like all the others, to become a repetition, a number along with the crowd.

Now this form of despair goes virtually unnoticed in the world. Precisely by losing oneself in this way, a person gains all that is required for a flawless performance in everyday life, yes, for making a great success out of life. One is ground as smooth as a pebble. Far from anyone thinking of such a person as being in despair, he is just what a human being ought to be. He is praised by others; honored, esteemed, and occupied with all the goals of temporal life.

Yes, what we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world. They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out enterprises, make prudent calculations, and the like, and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not authentic selves. They are copies. In a spiritual sense they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self for God, however self-consumed they are otherwise.

The Despair of Weakness

The despair of weakness is the despair of not wanting to be oneself. This kind of despair amounts to a passivity of the self. Its frame of reference is the pleasant and the unpleasant; its concepts are good fortune, misfortune, and fate. What is immediate is all that matters. The determining factor is what happens or does not happen to oneself.

To despair is to lose the eternal, but of this loss the one who despairs in weakness says nothing, it doesn’t even occur to him. He is too preoccupied with securing his earthly existence against unnecessary deprivation. To lose the earthly, however, is not in itself to despair, yet that is precisely what this person speaks of and calls despair. What he says is in a sense true, only not in the way he understands it. He is turned around and what he says must be understood backwards. In other words, he stands there pointing to something that is not despair (e.g. a loss of some kind), explaining that he is in despair, and yes, sure enough, the despair is going on behind him but unawares. Therefore, if everything suddenly changes, once his external circumstances change and his wishes are fulfilled, then happiness returns to him, he begins life afresh. When help comes from outside, happiness is restored to him, and he begins where he left off. Yet he neither was nor becomes a self. He is a cipher and simply carries on living merely on the level of what is immediate and of what is happening around him.

This form of despair consists of not wanting to be a self, really. Actually, it consists of wanting desperately to be someone else. Such a self refuses to take responsibility. Life is but a game of chance. Hence, in the moment of despair, when no help comes, such a person wants desperately to become someone else. And yet a despairer of this kind, whose only wish is this craziest of all crazy transformations – to be someone else – is in love with the fancy that the change can be made as easily as one puts on another coat. Or to put it differently, he only knows himself by his coat. He simply doesn’t know himself. He knows what it is to have a self only in externals. There could hardly be a more absurd confusion, for a self differs precisely, no, infinitely, from those externals.

And what if such a person was able to become somebody else, could put on a new self?

There is the story of a peasant who had come barefoot to town but who made enough money to buy himself a pair of stockings and shoes and still have enough left over to get himself drunk. On his way home in his drunken state he lay down in the middle of the road and fell asleep. A carriage came along, and the coachman shouted to him to move aside or else he would drive over his legs. The drunken peasant woke up, looked down at his legs and, not recognizing them because of the stockings and shoes, said: “Go ahead, they aren’t my legs.” So it is with the immediate person who despairs in weakness of being a true self. It is impossible to draw a picture of him that is not comic.

The Despair of Defiance

Unlike the despair of weakness, the despair of defiance is the despair of wanting in desperation to be oneself. Here despair is conscious of itself as an activity. The self ‘s identity comes not from “outside” but directly from the self. It is rooted in the consciousness of an infinitude, of being related to the infinite, and it is this self the despairer wants to be. In other words, such a self severs itself from any relationship to the power that has established it.

It wants desperately to rule over itself, create itself, make this self what it wants it to be, and determine what it will have and what it will not have. The one who lives in defiance does not truly put on a self, nor does he see his task in his given self. No, by virtue of his own “infinitude” he constructs his own self by himself and for himself.

The defiant self recognizes no power other than its own. It is content with taking notice only of itself, which it does by means of bestowing infinite interest and significance on all its enterprises. In the process of its wish to be its own master, however, it works its way into the exact opposite; it really becomes no self, and thus despairs. As it acts, there is nothing eternally firm on which it stands. Yes, the defiant self is its own master, absolutely (as one says) its own master, and yet exactly this is despair.

Upon closer examination it is easy to see that this absolute ruler is a king without a country. He really rules over nothing. His position, his kingdom, his sovereignty, is subject to the dictates of rebellion at any moment. This is because such a self is forever building castles in the air, and just when it seems on the point of having the building finished, at a whim it can – and often does – dissolve the whole thing into nothing.

When confronted with earthly need, a temporal cross, a thorn in the flesh that grows too deep to be removed, the defiant self is offended. It uses the suffering as an excuse to take offense at all existence. Such a person wants to be himself in spite of suffering, but not in “spite of it” in the sense of being without it. No, he now wants to spite or defy all existence and be himself with it, taking it along in steely resignation with him, almost flying in the face of his agony. Does he have hope in the possibility of help? No! Does he recognize that for God everything is possible? No! Will he ask help of any other? No! That for the entire world he will not do. If it came to that, he would rather be himself with all the torments of hell than ask for help. Ah! Indeed, there is much, even prolonged and agonizing suffering that the defiant self fundamentally prefers so long as it retains the right to be itself.

Ah, demonic madness! Such a self wants to be itself in hatred towards existence, to be itself according to its own misery. It does not even want so much as to sever itself defiantly from the power that established it but in sheer spite to push itself on that power, importune it, hold on to it out of malice. In rebelling against existence, the defiant self will hear nothing about the comfort eternity offers. This comfort would be to his undoing, an objection to the whole of his existence. It is, to describe it figuratively, as if a writer were to make a slip of the pen and the error became conscious of itself as such and then wanted to rebel against the author. Out of hatred for him, the error forbids the author to correct it and in manic defiance says to him: “No, I will not be changed, I will stand as a witness against you, a witness to the fact that you are a second-rate author.”

Yes, this is the despair of defiance, and what despair it is!

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