Søren Kierkegaard gave The Sickness unto Death the subtitle “A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening,” and he used the pseudonym Anti-Climacus when the book appeared. Walter Lowrie, in an introduction to his translation of this work, calls The Sickness unto Death “one of the most important productions of that most productive period” of Kierkegaard’s life. The subtitle and the pseudonym reflect not the wit and eccentricity of a pedant but the conscience and intellect of a modest, though self-assured, philosopher in the service of God. The “sickness unto death” that Kierkegaard reveals in his psychological exposition—in so forceful a manner that the work has affected the course of modern philosophic thought—is the sickness of a self that wills to tear itself away from the Power that constituted it.
According to Kierkegaard, human beings are in despair, which they may not recognize, because they are always critically “sick unto death.” For a spirit in such a condition, death is no escape; the sickness is “unto death” precisely because it is a despairing longing for death—not for extinction alone but for the experience of not being the self that one is. It is as if human beings were longing for the experience of death—an impossible experience because death, as death, is the end of all experience. Because the self is not content to be itself, because it is not content to relate itself to God, and because it cannot be satisfied with extinction, the result, in Kierkegaard’s view, is “the sickness unto death.”
Another way of understanding Kierkegaard’s account of this dreadful malady of the spirit is through a consideration of what he means by health. Kierkegaard maintains that “to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession made to human beings, but at the same time it is eternity’s demand upon them.” Yet the self is a relation between the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal, freedom and necessity—and as a relation, a synthesis, the self cannot exist before the synthesis is achieved. For that reason, there is some sense in which, as Kierkegaard claims at the outset, “human beings are not yet self”: They have not achieved a synthesis with God, with the Power that constituted them. Sickness is this alienation; health is the elimination of despair, achieved when the self, recognizing its dependence on the Power that constituted it, wills itself to be itself.
Using language other than Kierkegaard’s to explain the book’s central thesis, it is possible to say that Kierkegaard is arguing that human beings, considered not as animal but as spirit, can realize themselves only by admitting that they become something worthy of the name “self” when they accept the whole of their condition. This acceptance of limitations, of opposing powers, even of God’s eminence, is not resignation; it is a willingness to live “no matter what” and to be what human beings are in the world as it is.
It is tempting to make Kierkegaard’s thesis broader than it is, to argue that the great Danish philosopher has more sense than to suppose that significant acts are possible only by relating the self to God. The term “God” is, however, not a convenient symbol for power; for Kierkegaard God is the power that relates itself to every spirit and makes possible, through the self’s acknowledgment of that relation, the existence of every self.
Atheistic existentialists have found much that is helpful to them in Kierkegaard, but only by eliminating all references to God. Philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre are interested in arguing that in humans “existence precedes essence” and that only through action can human beings “make themselves” into some particular self. “Authentic” existence is not given to human beings, but...