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Fr. 585

December 17, 2014

In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard immediately works to differentiate the aim of his work from that of Hegel’s project. Less than a page into the preface, Kierkegaard seeks to distance himself from the speculative, community-focused Christianity posited by Hegel and Hegelianism through discussing his conception of Christian heroism:

“It is Christian heroism…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; but it is not Christian heroism to be taken by the idea of man in the abstract…” (Kierkegaard 5).

This focus of this discussion on the individual “alone before God” presages the particular of the critique which unfolds within the pages of the work. Kierkegaard quickly follows his account of “Christian heroism” by stating that “spirit is self” (Kierkegaard 13), the self being “the relation to oneself” (Kierkegaard 17), whereas Hegel’s “spirit” derives from the community, constituted by the way in which the community thinks of the world and relates itself to that world. The discussion of “Christian heroism” in tandem with the shift in the referent of “spirit,” from the community to the individual, heralds the hyperprominence of the individual within Kierkegaard’s treatment; the social world or community is largely withheld from the account except for a rather scathing account of Christendom and the religious establishment within Denmark.

“Despair” arises from within the individual; its origins are in no way attributable to a greater alienation with the community. “Every moment he is in despair he is bringing it upon himself,” as “despair is not attributable to the misrelation but to the relation that relates itself to itself” or, in other words, the self. Despair, therefore, does not arise from a condition within the community or an inability to relate to society; its source is self. The importance of any project concerning social reconciliation (Hegel’s social philosophy) becomes greatly diminished.

Kierkegaard further depicts the community or abstraction of humanity as irrelevant by positing the universality of despair. Despair exists within everyone, shedding the particularities and constraints of community and culture, for “no human being ever lived and no one lives outside of Christendom who has not despaired, and on one in Christendom if he is not a true Christian, and insofar as he is not wholly that, he still is to some extent in despair” (Kierkegaard 22). Every individual, regardless of culture or creed, has been in despair within their lives. Environmental conditioning factors little into the outcome; the individual despairs whatever their background. This position subordinates the importance of the community to that of the individual in assessing despair.

Likewise, the categories of the individual and the individual before God comprise the criteria by which Kierkegaard assesses despair and, later, sin. Kierkegaard’s account of despair frames itself solely in reference to the individual; when discussing the manifestations of the “sickness,” he discusses the particularities within an individual. With the accretion of consciousness, Kierkegaard then frames his discussion in terms of the “self,” identifying the two resultant categories as those in which “the despairing individual does not will to be himself” (weakness) and “in despair he wills to be himself” (defiance) (Kierkegaard 67). The individual human self functions as both framework and criterion for the evaluation of the early states of despair.

Perhaps most importantly, Kierkegaard’s “category of sin is the category of individuality” (Kierkegaard 119). This becomes evident as the categories of “weakness” and “defiance” are invoked once more, although the individual now exhibits these forms “before God.” Elements invoked in the description of “Christian heroism” now receive full treatment, as Kierkegaard’s account sets itself up in opposition with the speculative Christianity of Hegelianism. Kierkegaard contends that “Christianity begins…with the teaching about sin and thereby with the single individual” (Kierkegaard 120). He further strengthens this position by deriding that of contemporary Hegelians, indicating that “the teaching about the sin of the race has often been misused, because it has not been realized that sin, however common it is to all, does not gather men together in a common idea, into an association, into a partnership” (Kierkegaard 120). Above all, Kierkegaard endeavors to define Christianity and the path to resting transparently in God in terms of sin, which itself is constituted by the prominence of the individual. Kierkegaard’s Christianity revolves about the “dialectic of sin” which “is diametrically opposed to that of speculation” (Kierkegaard 120). As Bruce H. Kirmmse notes of Kierkegaard’s position, “for God, every individual exists in his or her full individuality, and God has no trouble keeping track of it all” (Kirmmse 3731). Simply, the presence of the mob or herd mentality can in no way save or justify the continuity of sin within individuals. Acting as does the crowd does not abjure one from the future judgment at the hands of God. In making this statement, however, it seems that Kierkegaard has begun to move away from merely critiquing the individual and community as Hegel conceived them, towards an active engagement of Hegel’s legacy in popular movements and the political Hegelianism of Kierkegaard’s day.

Here, in Part II, Kierkegaard most fully enters into the realm of political philosophy. This shift begs the question of who just whom is the target of Kierkegaard’s critiques concerning the mob. While contemporaneous popular movements and prevalent political Hegelianism seem most likely, as expressed by the aforementioned Stewart2, Kierkegaard moreover diverts his attention towards Hans Lassen Martensen, a Danish Hegelian and speculative theologian. Various derisive comments with a personal tinge involving Martensen’s own hackneyed turns of phrase and favored expressions indicate that Kierkegaard’s object is more likely Martensen and his speculative account of despair. Stewart notes of the topical relation between Martensen and Kierkegaard:

What is at issue is the proper understanding of sin. Speculative thought is alluded to in this context as an example of how abstract thinking fails to grasp the notion of sin. Thus, the distinction between the realm of ideality and that of actuality is crucial. Speculative thought cannot appreciate the gap between knowing and action, which are identical at the level of abstract thought. It fails to take into account the manifold ways in which the will can ignore or distort knowing in order to pursue its own ends, which may well be inconsistent with what is actually known. Speculative theology thus has an inadequate account of moral psychology since it operates at the abstract level of thought alone, independent of all empirical or existential influences” (Stewart 559).

Essentially, the individual is that for which the speculative fails to account; it deals in larger concepts rather than in particularities. Kierkegaard’s contention is that “speculative philosophy operates with abstract ideas, but these must necessarily leave out the individual” (Stewart 569). Given that “the notion of sin is essentially individual since it is always the particular person who has committed a particular sin” (Stewart 569), Martensen’s treatment of sin achieves nothing but superficiality in scope.

The way in which Martensen’s corpus employs those abstract concepts in the discussion of sin as the sin of race fails to address the real issue of sin, individuality. According to Stewart, Martensen’s account of the sin of the race unifies individuals into a larger polity, granting power to the masses, unifying them into such a mass of such impunity as to challenge the authority of God and close the gap between man and God, through the appropriation, rationalization, and misuse of the image of Godman through the abstract. At that point, the paradox or offense of Christianity becomes explained away, and this becomes embodied in the teachings of the interrelated Danish political and religious institutions.

Thus, it is in reaction to this application of abstract concepts to the individual and the translation of the group mentality into the social sphere that Kierkegaard protests so vehemently. Kierkegaard’s individual and sin cannot be subsumed under a broad category or abstraction. As Kierkegaard himself writes:

By means of the teaching about sin and particular sins, God and Christ, quite unlike any kings, have protected themselves once and for all against the nations, the people, the crowd, the public, etc. and also against every demand for a more independent constitution. All those abstractions simply do not exist for God: for God in Christ there live only single individuals (sinners)” (Kierkegaard 121).

The subject is not a representative specimen, which, therefore, cannot be placed under a concept of species or captured under a broader role. All efforts to understand humans abstractly never fails to capture the full individual and its actuality as both spirit and sinner. Kierkegaard’s treatment of “the doctrine of sin not only splits the mass into individuals but also strengthens the qualitative difference between God and humanity” (Kirmmse 373). Kierkegaard takes aim at Martensen’s speculative theology (rather than Hegel’s social philosophy) through the reassertion and reintroduction of the individual into the category of sin, emphasizing the role of the individual in sin, offense, and judgment.


1 Kirmmse, Bruce H. Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark. Indiana University Press Edition. 1990. Indiana University Press.

2 For a wonderfully in-depth account of Martensen’s presence within The Sickness unto Death, see pp 552-564 of Stewart’s work.

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