The human spirit as mediation

Spirits harassing a sleeping fellow

I recently dove into the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard afterreading an edited version of his diaries. Introspective as he was, the Danish philosopher kept detailed and insightful notes about his culture, his mindset, and his ongoing work as an author. Besides some Wikipedia articles here and there, it was my first proper introduction to his thought.

This article will be an attempt to make sense of a vexing portion of one of his most influential books, The Sickness Unto Death, which sets out defining the human spirit. It was the first of his published works that I endeavored to read, and needless to say, I was pretty disappointed that the section in question was at first glance essentially incomprehensible. But having spent some time with it now, I hope to make it at least somewhat clearer, both to the reader and myself.

The Christian existentialist

What interested me most about Kierkegaard after reading his diaries was his perspective on religion. For him, religion is first and foremost a personal matter. He spent his life rallying against the Church, drawing a sharp distinction between Christianity proper and ‘Christandom’: the political, social, and organizational manifestations of the faith.

Kierkegaard explains that Christianity had a tremendous influence on him growing up. His father, who was apparently a miserable follow, imparted on the young boy a strict sense of God’s presence and of original sin. So severe was this early theological education that in many places Kierkegaard questions whether teaching Christianity to children doesn’t amount to some kind of abuse.

It was clear that this upbringing fed directly into Kierkegaard’s view that Christianity is essentially a demand placed on the individual. As such, he never really tried to prosletyze, but rather challenged individuals to take on the immense responsibility of Christianity for themselves. This relates to his overall goals as a thinker, which were to ‘indirectly communicate’ his philosophy using such tools as irony and pseudonymous perspectives in order to evoke a response from his audience. He takes this strategy from Socrates, the ‘gadfly of Athens’, who Kierkegaard notes was only involved in eliciting thought and introspection among his fellow citizens.

So then, for Kierkegaard, Christianity is something like a personal project upon which a person must willingly endeavor in order to perfect their soul and deal with the conditions of life. As such, religion is less of a doctrine to subscribe to and more of an idea to grapple with on the road to personal development. That is why Kierkegaard is often given the epithet the ‘Christian existentialist’. He explores existential themes such as the meaning of life, ethical conduct, and authenticity using Christian concepts.

This is nicely summarized in his own words:

It is Christian heroism — a rarity, to be sure — to venture wholly to become oneself, an individual human being, this specific individual human being, alone before God, alone in this prodigious strenuousness and this prodigious responsibility.

Despair as sin

The Sickness Unto Death is one of Kierkegaard’s primary Christian existentialist works, and argues that despair is a form of sin. Despair was a topic that greatly stirred Kierkegaard, and he was a man who clearly dealt with it his whole life.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to notice this. Take this short entry from his diary, for example:

I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; witty banter flowed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me — but I came away, indeed that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit — — — — — — — — — — wanting to shoot myself.

Elsewhere Kierkegaard grapples with his unrelenting melancholy, what he calls the ‘thorn in his heart’, and seems convinced that fate ordained for him to remain in this state his whole life.

In light of that, we can understand The Sickness Unto Death as a statement that only the ideal Christian, who has entrusted himself in complete and self-effacing faith in God, can be free from despair, and that Kierkegaard’s suffering was only due to his not being perfect in faith. This is supported by the fact that Kierkegaard published the book with a pseudonym, Anti-Climacus (who he elsewhere described as an exemplary Christian), and only listed himself as the book’s editor.

In this way, The Sickness Unto Death is an excellent encapsulation of Kierkegaard’s views on Christianity and life project more generally. It documents his attempt to understand a deeply personal aspect of his life — namely, his own suffering — using a Christian framework, and encourages the reader to do the same.

A perplexing notion of the self

The first part of the first section of The Sickness Unto Death is so obscure and utterly confusing that some scholars have taken it as an elaborate parody of Hegelian philosophy, which is known for its impenetrability. But I tried to take Kierkegaard at first value, so I spent a good week or so hyperfocused on literally the first page of his book.

He begins like this:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered this way, a human being is still not a self.

What I understood from this passage is that the self is a relation, but a special kind of relation: one that relates itself to itself. For that reason, it’s improper to conceive of the self as simply a synthesis, such as a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal, for example. No, the self is something like a second order relation, possessing some reflexive properties.

He goes on:

In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

More remarks on what makes the self a special relation. In a normal relation, the relation can be described in terms of the two related concepts: for example, the relation between the mental and the physical is something mental (namely, an idea). But for the self, the relation cannot be described in this way, and exists as something in itself (“the positive third”). This, he says, makes the self not just a relation (as in the mental and the physical), but a relation’s relating.

In order to understand what Kierkegaard means by the self as a relation’s relating, let’s try to work with more concrete ideas. Take, for example, the idea that you are nothing more than a mediation between being and reflecting. At every point in time, you are going back and forth between these two poles, a point that I’d like to briefly illustrate.

Imagine yourself immersed in a highly engaging task, like knitting or drawing. For a while you can lose all sense of yourself, of time, and of space, remaining completely engrossed in the activity. Only when something takes you ‘out of it’ can you reflect on yourself, finding that during the preceding time of unreflecting, you were in a state of pure being.

Now the opposite. Imagine yourself thinking to your full capacity, such as when attempting to solve a difficult problem or when anxiously ruminating over something. You might think so strenuously that you lose the most basic sense of how you feel — which, in cases of furious and frenzied thought, is often unpleasant. Only after winding down your reflecting and letting yourself ‘sit’ in that feeling, simply being for a while, does it pass, and you find that during your time of intense reflection some state of being was being precluded.

In the first example, a person passes from a state of being to a state of reflecting. In the second example, a person passes from a state of reflecting to a state of being. Between these two extremes we find a person constantly passing through states of reflection and states of being, mediating between the two.

It’s this sense, I think, that Kierkegaard means to invoke when he calls the self a ‘relation’s relating’: the key word here is the gerund relating. The self is an active process of mediation between two concepts (temporal and eternal, necessity and freedom, and so on). It isn’t a synthesis of those two in the same way that a centaur is a synthesis of a horse and a man; rather, it is a synthesis that mediates between two extremes, and by so doing, has some degree of reflexivity with itself.

That was as much clarity as I could derive from the preceding passages. Who knows, maybe those other critics were right, and Kierkegaard’s having a good laugh in heaven.

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Farid Alsabeh

Farid Alsabeh

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