Kierkegaard’s Existential Despair and Western Dialectics
January 24, 2012 6 Comments
In The Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard works within the scope of an Augustinian tripartite view of man, arguing that man’s existential dilemma is one of despair. Augustine is relevant, since he also underwent his own existential crisis in the famed “tolle lege” incident, in which his world of licentious pleasures came tumbling down as he realized the finitude and emptiness of his own being. Ever since, the West has been in a dialectical battle with itself, as philosophy works out this same tension present within each man
A man confronts himself, as Kierkegaard says, the essential self is the transcendence of the self as related to itself. This self is spirit, and it’s important to notice the correction Kierkegaard thinks he is rendering to Hegel. For Hegel., the universal is the real, and the ideal alone is real. Where Kant erected a boundary between the individual mind and the noumenal realm, Hegel sought to tear down that divide by making the ideal and the ideal alone, real. This rationalist project is rejected by Kierkegaard, and turned on its head.
The actual universal confronted by man is death, and man’s confrontation with death demonstrates to the individual his own finitude. Finitude and the infinite eternality of death or the next life, is thus a dialectical struggle for man. In The Sickness, the self is spirit, and appears to be modelled after the Augustinian conception of the trinitarian analogue of man’s being, which is based on the relational definition of the divine persons. In that Augustinian and Thomistic scheme, Person is relation, but for Kierkegaard, the true self is that which transcends the dialectic of self in relation to itself, which is held captive by the determination of despair, occasioned by an outside force being allowed to determine the self.
This will clearly lay the ground for Sartre’s distinction between being in itself and being for itself, where the individual is condemned to be free, and must not hide behind various collectivist masks and facade identities, exteriorly determined. Despair is the means by which one reaches this conversion, if you will. Part of the difficulty here is the desire for man to escape from a philosophy in which he is determined, and his own being is conceived of as inherently evil. This notion derives from Manichaeanism, and characterizes the belief system of the younger Augustine, prior to his conversion to Catholicism.
Manichaeanism posits an inherently evil created physical existence, and an ideal, disembodied good existence, the kingdom of light, that is thought. Here, there is a matter/spirit dualism that is retained in Luther’s own psychological issues and determinism, but also in the rest of Western man’s angst. The determinism/free will debate comes into dialectical opposition as much as does the spirit/matter and self/other dualities. The Hegelian approach was to seek a rationalist synthesis where the Universal Mind worked itself out in a grand historical process, while Kierkegaard rejects this as rationalist folly, as mentioned. From a theological perspective, it is interesting to note that these are many of the same issues raised to the fore by Eastern Orthodox critics of the Western tradition, as made evident in Dr. Joseph Farrell’s God, History and Dialectic.
For Luther as much as for these thinkers, man is a determined creature, entirely determined by divine predestination, as Luther argues at length in Bondage of the Will, in response to Erasmus. What retains the primacy in Luther, as it eventually emerged in his master Augustine, is the primacy of volition over reason. For Augustine, the heart was what mattered in the long run, and this prepared the way for Luther’s introspective mental act of “sola fide.” This is the milieu in which Kierkegaard, a Danish Lutheran, proposes the idea of self transcending self versus itself duality, and freedom as an action against an Augustinian and Lutheran determinism, as well as rejecting the spirit/matter dualism.
What is retained, however, is the self reaching self-consciousness by the act of willing itself, and not by being determined. However, what this all demonstrates is the absurd frustration that western man created for himself by adopting a bizarre philosophy in which dialectics are sought to be overcome by adopting a philosophy of Christianity, where God becomes man, and man becomes God, and the meaning of happiness and blessedness is despair and misery. No wonder Kierkegaard despaired, and no wonder Nietzsche would reject this religion.