Philosophy, Videos

Søren Kierkegaard and the Value of Despair

The following is a transcript of this video.

“That one is in despair is not a rarity; no, it is rare, very rare, that one is…not in despair.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Is it possible to believe that we are leading a good life, but in actuality to be in a critical state of despair? Can conformity and the pursuit of social status be a strategy used to hide this despair, not just from others, but from ourselves? And what is an effective antidote to the despair that plagues so many in the modern world? In this video, drawing from the insights of the 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a self-proclaimed “physician of the soul”, we are going to explore these questions. 

“The common view, which assumes that everyone who does not think or feel he is in despair is not or that only he who says he is in despair is, is totally false.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Traditionally despair has been defined as the absence of hope, yet according to Kierkegaard a more encompassing definition of despair is that it is a developmental failure of the self. An individual is in despair when he or she is not moving in the direction of the person they potentially could be, or in Kierkegaard’s words, despair is the consequence of: “…not willing to be the self which one truly is.” The philosopher Stephen Evans in his book on Kierkegaard expands on this conception of despair: 

“Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche a half-century later, sees the human self not simply as a finished product, a kind of entity, but as a developing process. A self is not simply something I am but something I must become…To be a self is to embark on a process in which one becomes something…Essentially, a person is in despair if they fail to be fully a self. An awareness of the emptiness of self results in that feeling we normally call despair….”

Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard

To become the self one truly is entails the actualization of all our latent potentials and the full realization of all the elements of our personality that exist in embryonic form. In the brevity of a human life we can only ever approach this ideal of full selfhood but according to Kierkegaard to move towards such a state is the greatest and most rewarding of tasks, or as Rollo May explained: 

“To will to be himself is man’s true vocation…blockages in self-awareness [occur] because the individual [is] unable to move through accumulations of anxiety at various points in his growth. Kierkegaard makes it clear that selfhood depends upon the individual’s capacity to confront anxiety and move ahead despite it.” 

Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety

Some people make great strides in the direction of full selfhood. These are the individuals of great character and a radiant personality. Most people, however, become stunted in their development and instead of progressing toward the ideal of the “self which one truly is” they regress away from it. Bad influences, bad luck, or just plain laziness and fear are the most common culprits of this failure. Of those who are stunted in their development some are conscious of their predicament and so aware of their despair which according to Kierkegaard is a prognostically positive sign. For the more we feel our despair, the more we will be motivated to search for ways to overcome it, or as the philosopher Michael Watts writes: 

“…it would be accurate to say that despair is the most precious sickness known to man, and so there is no reason to despair…if you are suffering from ‘existential despair’, since this is potentially your ‘ticket’ to freedom.” 

Michael Watts, Kierkegaard

But not all whose way of life is inhibiting the cultivation of a true self are aware of the pit of despair into which they are descending. Some individuals, for whom full consciousness of their situation would flood them with despair, actually believe the life path they are on is right and proper and will lead to fulfillment. But according to Kierkegaard these unfortunate souls are like the consumptive, or the man or woman who is afflicted with an as-yet undetected degenerative disease, or as he wrote: 

“…the [unconscious] despairer is in the same situation as the consumptive; he feels best, considers himself to be healthiest, can appear to others to be in the pink of condition, just when the illness is at its most critical.” 

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Two forces are pushing many in our day to this critical state: the corrupted state of a modern conformist lifestyle and the human proclivity toward self-deception. Conformity is neither good nor bad, rather its value is dependent on the way of life it promotes. If it promotes the healthy functioning of body and mind, conformity is good, if it stunts an individual’s development then conformity is bad. In the modern world conformity is more likely to cause us to regress from the ideal of full selfhood than to promote its flowering and this is due to the excessive focus that our society places on external values. Wealth, social status, popularity, good looks, and power over others are the dominant values for the modern conformist and this is creating psychologically crippled individuals. For the world within must be mastered just as surely as the world outside of us and this means that to experience the cultivation of full selfhood we must also focus on inner values such as emotional intelligence, psychological resilience, courage, integrity, tolerance and the ability to think for ourselves. The modern conformist with his outward focus neglects these inner values and so struggles to move in the direction of full selfhood and thus finds himself in despair, or as Kierkegaard wrote: 

“By seeing the multitude of people around, by being busied with all sorts of worldly affairs, by being wise to the ways of the world, such a person forgets himself…dares not believe in himself, finds being himself too risky, finds it much easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, a mass-man. Now this form of despair goes practically unnoticed in the world. Precisely by losing himself in this way, such a person gains all that is required for a flawless performance in everyday life, yes, for making a great success out of life.…Far from anyone thinking him to be in despair, he is just what a human being ought to be. Naturally the world has generally no understanding of what is truly horrifying. The despair that not only does not cause any inconvenience in life, but makes life convenient and comfortable, is naturally enough in no way regarded as despair.” 

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Conformity, however, both promotes despair and offers a way for a man or woman to deny his or her despair through self-deception. “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself,” wrote Wittgenstein and one of the forms of deception used by the conformist is to claim that there is nothing wrong with his way of life, rather there is merely something wrong with the external conditions of it. “I have not climbed enough rungs on the ladder of social-success and attained enough wealth and status,” the conformist claims. Or the conformist blames friends or family members for his unhappiness and as a result of these rationalizations and the belief that the good life is a product of attaining certain external values he doubles down on his commitment to conformity and in the process moves ever further away from recognizing that his despair is rooted in his one-sided preoccupation with externals. If these self-deceptions fail to push his feelings of despair outside the periphery of awareness then the conformist turns to alcohol, drugs, or the distracting pull of screens to help him remain oblivious as to the true nature and depths of his despair.   

“At one moment it has almost become clear to him that he is in despair; but then at another moment it appears to him after all as though his indisposition might have another ground…something outside of himself, and if this were to be changed, he would not be in despair. Or perhaps, by diversions, or in other ways, e.g., by work and busy occupations as means of distraction, he seeks by his own effort to preserve an obscurity about his condition.” 

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

To avoid the dangerous state of the conformist, Kierkegaard urged we develop the courage to accept that there may be errors in our ways and to realize that feelings of despair should be embraced and examined rather than denied: 

“The despairing man who is unconscious of being in despair is, in comparison with him who is conscious of it, merely a negative step further from the truth and from salvation.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

But becoming conscious of despair is only the first step as action must also be taken if change is to be realized. Kierkegaard, therefore, recommends choosing a personalized ideal to shape the course of our life, one that promotes inner development and mastery of the outer world, as both are necessary to move towards full selfhood. We need, in other words, something to aim at that forces us to realize our potentials and this is best provided by discovering a purpose or what Kierkegaard calls a passion.  

“…existing cannot be done without passion.”, wrote Kierkegaard.  

Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

A passion is an idea, goal, or a way of life that is meaningful, enduring, and which by using it to structure our life produces an authentic expression of who we really are. With a passion our life has direction; without a passion we are but a passive drifter and thus susceptible to mindless conformity and the stunted development that lies at the root of despair. Concerning the importance of discovering a passion, Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal: 

“To be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself…the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”  

Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard 1834–1854

The passion, or idea, which holds the flux of our self together and helps us grow towards full selfhood can be a value or set of values; we may live and die for adventure, love, creativity, beauty, freedom, or truth. It can be something we cherish such as family, personal and spiritual growth, or a vocation. Or it can be lofty and meaningful goals that form our life’s purpose and which we are determined to achieve at all costs, for as Kierkegaard’s philosophical brother in arms Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in an unpublished note: 

“For what purpose humanity is there should not even concern us: why you are there, that you should ask yourself: and if you have no ready answer, then set for yourself goals, high and noble goals, and perish in pursuit of them! I know of no better life purpose than to perish in attempting the great and the impossible.”  

Nietzsche, Unpublished Note from 1873

Many individuals today are more concerned with keeping up with the latest fashion and technology, looking good on social media, attaining wealth and social status and in general conforming to whatever is deemed socially desirable, than they are with the state of their soul and the value of their life. And so, Kierkegaard’s insights serve a much-needed antidote to the hollowness of our age. His philosophy is a reminder of the need to reflect on who we are and why we are doing what we are doing. His sharp acumen helps pierce the lies we tell ourselves and grasp the motivations that can deceptively lie behind our decisions and behavior. And his psychological analysis of the mass-man hammers home the importance of periodically reflecting on whether the life we are leading is one that we will be truly be proud of as the end nears or whether we are succumbing to self-deception and denying our despair and setting ourselves up for profound regret.  

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the world, but loses his soul?” 

Book of Matthew

Or as John Mullen wrote: 

“Søren Kierkegaard was a philosopher of the human spirit. To come to understand what he is saying is to be challenged as a person, the challenge is in the form of an interrogation, the topic of which is very simple: you are an existing person, a human being; do you treat this fact with the seriousness and respect it demands? Or would you rather avoid the question?” 

John Mullen, Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Vincent van Gogh - Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette - Google Art Project
James Tissot - The Circle of the Rue Royale - Google Art Project
Johann Heinrich Füssli - Silence - WGA08336
Mednyánszky, László - Tramp with Cigar (ca 1900)
Ernest Slingeneyer - Woman in a bathtub
Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Self Portrait - Google Art Project
John Philip Kemble Hamlet 1802
Ernst Platz, Kaltwasserkarspitze im Karwendel
Untitled Painting (03) By Hossein Behzad
Gustave Courbet - Portrait of Paul Ansout - WGA05479
The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel (Louis Daguerre), 1824 (Google Art Project)
Friedrich C.D. Wiedengebüsch@Goethe-Museum Frankfurt a.M.20170819
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884
James Tissot - La Partie carrée
Hodler Le grütli moderne 1887
Agnolo Bronzino - The adoration of the bronze snake - Google Art Project (27462065)
Pietro Longhi - De speelbank (Il ridotto)
Egon Schiele - Der Maler Max Oppenheimer - 1910
Anonymous - Sage Floating on Lotus Leaf - 13.220.99j - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Agastya drinks the ocean
Slot Moller Picnic
Paul Mathey - Portrait of Löys-Henri Delteil
Raffaelli Jean Francois The Absinthe Drinkers
Marianne von Werefkin - At the Café
'Melancholy' by W. Bagg Wellcome L0022594
Béraud - Au café, dit l'Absinthe, Vers 1909
Lesser Ury Im Cafe Bauer 1898
Provando o Vinho (século XIX, escola inglesa)
Jean Béraud, 1908-09c - Backgammon at the Café
Léon Bonnat - Autoportrait
Ernst Platz, Chrast Agüzza
Examining an Arrow by Okada Saburōsuke (Saga Prefectural Museum)
Maerten van Heemskerck - Self-portrait, with the Colosseum (Fitzwilliam Museum)
Jean Béraud Au Bistro
Johansen viggo-self portrait with palette in hand and wife martha
Jean-leon gerome 1848-1849 la republique
Johansen Viggo - Radosne Boże Narodzenie
Ernst Platz - Memento mori, c. 1894
Josef Müller by Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
Hans Thoma - Hervorbrechende Sonne (1910)
Hans Thoma 11
Angst by Alfred Kubin