The ‘Despairing Self’

As mentioned before, The Sickness unto Death is organized around the issue of the “sickness unto death,” which Anti-Climacus tells us is “despair.” We’ve already discussed how despair results in disequilibrium of the self’s relation – including the  absence or minimal involvement of Spirit in which no synthesis takes place at all towards the development of the self. However, Anti-Climacus provides a detailed and thorough accounting for despair. To be clear, “despair” in this context must be differentiated from the common, everyday meaning of that word, which is often referred to as “psychological despair.”  Phenomenologically speaking, the difference arises on account of the fact that psychological despair is derivative of our potentiality for being-in-despair (existentially). When we find ourselves in psychological despair, it is always on account of a definitive life-situation, where we find our specific horizons prematurely cut-off, arbitrarily delimited, or some other event that obstructs us. Moreover, we are able to relate to such feelings with respect to the specific phenomena under which they arise. For example, the root causes for our feelings of psychological despair are generally identifiable and readily articulated; we have a sense of the “why” we feel the hopeless shadow of despair. We can think psychological despair in purely ontic terminology, insofar as there are identifiable “causes” and “explanations” for our despair. Further, we are able to navigate such instances of psychological despair, either by re-orienting ourselves in regards to our situation, or accepting (that is, on rationalistic terms) whatever the circumstances which led to our despair. For example, when I was applying to graduate school, and was rejected by my top choice, I certainly felt the pangs of psychological despair – the hopelessness and sense of resignation and doom overtook me; but, it was only a matter of time before which I recognized that it was possible to accept the situation, and either accept an offer from another school or simply go back and work on my application materials and try again next time around.

Existential despair, is fundamentally different in almost every respect.  To begin with, the type of despair for which Anti-Climacus speaks is something deeper; darker; and exists outside the confines of rational discourse. It refers to an interior darkness and futility within the structures of the self. But it is not a recognition of futility in the manner of arising out of specific conditions encountered in the world, but rather, is constituted in the dis-closure of the futility of existence as-such. In this manner, existential despair cannot be “overcome,” or “worked around” in the way as psychological despair because there is no specific cause. Causal language itself is inadequate, for existential despair affects not merely one dimension of our horizon, but rather the entirety of our whole horizontal understanding – once one becomes aware of one’s own despair, there is no  way around our confrontations with the absurdity of the flux, of the inter-play of our ownmost becoming.

Similar to other moods, despair is never grounded in something outside ourselves; but rather, always emanates from within, and in turn may be projected from within to the outside. Thus, we may draw the inappropriate conclusion that what we despair over is something external to us, out there in the world, when in reality we despair over ourselves.

What is “essential” about existential despair is that there is no human being for whom his soul is not in some way, shape, or form confronted with despair – even if he is unaware of it. Anti-Climacus uses this as the starting point, beginning with the first phase of despair – to not be conscious of one’s own despair.  This “lowest” form of despair is the most problematic, for one can only take the necessary steps to coming-to-terms with despair, and eventually superseding despair, by virtue of owning up to our despair, which paves the way for faith (which is itself the only solution, according to Anti-Climacus, to existential despair).  What makes unconscious despair so problematic is that the individual may not be aware that he is in despair. On the contrary, for all intents and purposes, he may indeed feel as though life is “good.” This speaks to the “universality” of despair – which, for Anti-Climacus, goes to show that despair is a (for lack of a better word) default possibility by which human beings already find themselves regardless of their consciousness [of their despair].

In Chapter 3, Anti-Climacus tells us that the various forms of “this sickness” must be “discoverable abstractly by reflecting upon the factors which compose the self as a synthesis. He continues:

“The self is composed of infinity and finiteness. But the synthesis is a relationship, and it is a relationship which, though it is derived, relates itself to itself, which means freedom. But freedom is the dialectical element in the terms possibility and necessity.”

Anti-Climacus stipulates that “consciousness is the decisive criterion of the self,” and thus “despair must be viewed under the category of consciousness.”

Anti-Climacus identifies three distinct categories or ways in which despair can become manifest – which at the same time reflects the three aspects of the relation.  Put another way, despair is a “break” in the relationship between the horizontal, reflective, and vertical transcendent which constitute the self. : (1) ignorance of having an eternal self; this form of despair applies to the aesthete, who is not reflective, and thus unaware of having a self; he therefore exists as mis-relation, but at the same time is unaware of it. (2) “in despair not to will to be oneself,” wishing to be another self (weakness); if understood in congruence with the stages on life’s way, this could be said to be the despair of the ethical individual. This is a person who suffers from despair,  but is also conscious of his being in despair. The ethical individual relates, but when he relates to himself, he is in despair so long as he is not willing to be in such a relation to himself. If we recall that the ethical stands before the universal,  his despair is constituted in his failing to ever live up to the universal or eternal law by which he stands before. Such an ethical individual then is always wanting to be better than who he is at the reminder of his ever-present shortcomings. Thus, insofar as he wills to be better than the self for which he already is, he is unwilling to be himself. Finally, (3) asserting the self without relation to God (defiance); this is the despair of the individual in religiousness A, who strives to become himself, wills to be himself, however, every effort to be a pure self is caught up in his despair over his finite, temporal being.

Despair, as an existential possibility, is both positive and negative. Insofar as it is positive (that is, with respect to its ability to enable the self to become itself), it is what teaches us to become ourselves – reminding us that we exist as possible on account of the recognition that for “God everything is possible.” But despair is also at the same time a sickness; albeit, a sickness that pushes us towards becoming our own self.

Yet when we despair – no matter what it is that we believe ourselves to despair over, it is always something beyond the merely immediate; but rather, something eternal. This applies even to the aesthetic individual.  Despair propels us to movement – which itself is the very basis of becoming. Yet, the highest self for which we may become on our own is inherently limited; for, in order to make the move from infinite resignation (Religiousness A) to Faith (religiousness B), we need the help of God. Faith is not a one-way street.  Despair cannot be overcome by living in merely the eternal or the temporal, nor the infinite nor the finite; but rather – all of the above simultaneously; a movement possible only by relation to God – for whom all is possible.  This is the nature of the “paradox” – which, insofar as it applies to The Sickness Unto Death, represents the existentiell contradiction of stepping in both the eternal and temporal through Faith.

In the text itself, Anti-Climacus creates a detailed inventory of despair which encapsulates the above-referenced “polarities” of finitude/infinitude; necessity/possibility; and consciousness/unconsciousness. Structurally speaking, the analysis of the differing forms of despair looks like this:

  1. Despair Regarded in Such a Way That One Does Not Reflect Whether It is Conscious or Not, So That One Reflects Only upon the Factors of the Synthesis.
    1. Despair viewed under the aspects of Finitude/Infinitude

i.      Despair of Infinitude is Due to Lack of Finitude

ii.      Despair of Finitude is Due to Lack of Infinitude

  1. Despair Viewed Under the Aspects of Possibility/Necessity

i.      Despair of Possibility is Due to Lack of Necessity

ii.      Despair of Necessity is Due to Lack of Possibility

  1. Despair Viewed Under the Aspect of Consciousness
    1. Despair which is Unconscious that it is Despair, or the Despairing Unconsciousness of having a Self and an Eternal Self
    2. The Despair which is Conscious of being Despair, as also it is Conscious of being a Self wherein there is after all something Eternal, and then is either in despair at not willing to be itself (weakness), or in despair at willing to be itself.

i.      Despair at not Willing to be Oneself, the Despair of Weakness

  1. (i)Despair Over the Earthly or Over Something Earthly
  2. (ii) Despair about the eternal or over oneself

ii.      The despair of willing despairingly to be oneself — defiance

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