The Sickness unto Death Summary
by Søren Kierkegaard

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title of this book is taken from a passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus responds to the news that Lazarus is sick: Jesus says, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”

Kierkegaard begins by noting a paradox: Lazarus did in fact die. It is true, he adds, that Christ then raised Lazarus from the dead--"for the glory of God"--but, after all, Lazarus ultimately had to die again. The real point of Christ’s statement, Kierkegaard says, is not that Lazarus was going to be raised from the dead but rather that for all Christians, even death itself is not “the sickness unto death.”

The fears that trouble the natural man should not trouble the Christian: The Christian, however, fears a threat of which the natural man is not even aware: a “sickness of the spirit” which Kierkegaard calls despair, using the word in a special, narrow sense. Despair is the sickness unto death.

Kierkegaard’s intention, then, is to analyze the psychology of despair, showing how it grows out of the conflict between man’s eternal soul and his earthly condition. Only when man begins to recognize the claims of the eternal is he subject to despair.

The antidote to despair is faith, the state of abandoning oneself to the mercy of God in full confidence that God forgives one’s failures. The leap of faith actualizes a person’s human potential. Only by choosing to abandon despair and self-reliance for trust in God can a person become fully human.

For Review

Benoit, Raymond. “Fault-lines in Kierkegaard and Hawthorne: The Sickness unto Death and Ethan Brand.” Thought 66, no. 261 (June, 1991): 196-206. An insightful interpretation of the two works based on Kierkegaard’s concept of despair and literary uses of religion.

Heiss, Robert. Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx. Translated by E. B. Garside. New York: Dell, 1975. Traces the development of dialectical thought and places Kierkegaard’s perspective in that context. Provides an insightful discussion of The Sickness unto Death in the light of the dialectical philosophy.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling” and “The Sickness unto Death.” Translated by Walter Lowrie. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954. An excellent starting point for the study of Kierkegaard’s work. The introduction provides historical context for the two works, which complement each other.

Malantschuk, Gregor. Kierkegaard’s Thought. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. Helpful in understanding Kierkegaard’s philosophical method, which is represented by The Sickness unto Death.

Sontag, Frederick. “Kierkegaard and the Search for a Self.” In Essays on Kierkegaard, edited by Jerry H. Gill. Minneapolis: Burgess, 1969. Traces the relationship between the self and existence. Sontag’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s concept of the self is particularly useful in understanding The Sickness unto Death.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A dense and difficult work, The Sickness unto Death is presented as having been written by a pseudonym, Anti-Climacus, a name that is related to Johannes Climacus, the putative author of Philosophical Fragments and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The prefix “Anti” denotes that Anti-Climacus comes before and has priority to Johannes Climacus, and that The Sickness unto Death deals with higher concerns than do the books written by Climacus. Religious faith is of greater significance than either philosophy or literature.

The Sickness unto Death begins with a definition of the human self. The self, says Kierkegaard, consists in the relations between its various parts, as well as in the relations between these relations. The self’s highest relation to itself constitutes spirit, and the self’s highest relation to an entity outside of itself is its relation to God. The relations within the self need to be in balance, and there are three such relations that have supreme significance....

(The entire section is 996 words.)