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Kierkegaard writes about a faith that is not bounded by self-interest or good works. In Sickness Unto Death, the author, Anti- Climacus (another of Kierkegaard’s pennames) argues that the religious life is the only truly satisfactory life. From his perspective, the prospects and rewards of the other two ways of living appear bleak. Those who live for pleasure or duty are either too frivolous or too serious. A vague sense of anxiety, guilt, or dissatisfaction haunts them. They may not be aware of it, but they are in despair. The more thoughtful among them progress to an ever-growing consciousness of their despairing condition. Compare the aesthetic, ethical, and religious lives. The aesthetic life promises us a series of temporary reliefs from the consciousness of despair.
However, pleasures pale before the onslaught of experience. With repetition, they lose intensity and interest. The appeal of pleasure itself evaporates. The aesthete fears boredom as much as pain, and boredom slowly descends as memory and self-consciousness extend further into the past and anticipate an increasingly repetitive and limited future. The aesthete is incapable of commitment and thus never becomes a Self. In his terms, to become Oneself is to have a direct relation to God, to cease being double-minded or self-deceived. The important thing is not right or wrong, but the interesting or the boring. An aesthete cultivates distance and irony, and finally gets so far away from ordinary reality as to become, in Anti- Climacus” view, an imaginary self. One cannot think one’s way to Christian faith with ideas belonging to philosophy, because Christianity is paradoxical and embraces the absurd. Anti-Climacus believes that only a life lived in eternity is eternally worth living.
Eternal life is the reward of Christian faith. However, in order to attain this state, we have to believe the dogmas of the Christian religion without the backing of human reason. We must simply leap into the arms of God, a Being whose behaviour and thinking are eternally incomprehensible to us. Nothing prevents individuals from spending the greater part of their lives cultivating the“interesting” or the“ethical”. For example, with enough money, it is possible to spend years appreciating and collecting art, touring the world, and seeking aesthetic delights. This may be enough to sustain a person all the way to the grave. Only the imagination can produce the variety of effects necessary to maintain aesthetic interest. The body’s capacity for pleasure is soon exhausted, and must be augmented by thought to maintain variety. Others grow old under the moral law or die in its service. Such persons speak a language of good and evil, right and wrong.
The moral law is absolute. God, if He exists, simply supports it. Anti-Climacus approves of those who live in simple faith, supposedly in touch with something beyond pleasure, morality and all understanding. This is an absolutely transcendent being, a God who transcends even ethics. However, a person who lives within the limits of moral rules can never have faith in a God who calls to us from beyond good and evil. Religion appears to ethical consciousness as a superstition with, at best, a moral interpretation. When religion supports ethics, well and good, but when it goes against ethics, then we should discard it. The ethical person disapproves of stories like the one about God betting with the devil to test a man’s faith (Job), or commanding someone to sacrifice a child (Abraham). The ethical person takes the“terrible” out of God, and puts reason or nature in its place as the prime mover in ethics. For Anti-Climacus, this is not a satisfying outcome.
To live religiously, we“die to the world” and afterwards start to live in earnest. By“dying to the world” and giving up our lives to God, faith promises a miraculous return of life and possibility. However, we can ask whether the religious life is really any more satisfying than the aesthetic and the ethical lives. Kierkegaard himself appears ambivalent about religion. Do we lose the aesthetic and the ethical by living in the category of religion? What are they now? The rewards of an existential leap of faith? Or, when we get them back, are they so transfigured as to be unrecognizable? Anti-Climacus says that it is only when we first relate ourselves to God that we relate to ourselves correctly. Only then are the“interesting” and the“good” seen in proper perspective. If he is right, a leap of faith into the absurd beliefs of the Christian religion seems to be the only escape from despair. Indeed, the motive behind writing Sickness Unto Death is to make one increasingly conscious of what despair is, its commonness, its different forms, and how it intensifies to the point where a leap of faith begins to look inviting. Anti-Climacus” writing about despair is part of his Christian rhetoric, not an academic exercise. If we accept his terms, then we have to accept that despair is universal.
The fact that we are not always conscious of it only shows how deeply enmeshed in despair we are. However, this is not a wholly satisfactory answer. Anti-Climacus makes despair such a general phenomenon that it is in danger of completely losing its meaning. He fails to see that despair also has its episodic nature, when we directly experience it, and is not merely a structural feature of human existence. We understand ourselves by relating to ourselves, other people or other things. If you define yourself in relation to your own needs and interests alone, then you end up a selfish aesthete who lives for pleasure and interest. If you understand yourself only by relating to other people, then you will be as changeable as their opinions. At best, the self can attain an ethical stability. If you identify yourself with material possessions, then you will be a slave to fashion and reputation. Only by relating to God does the Self become itself, an Eternal being standing before its Creator and finding itself whole.
Anti-Climacus says that it is only when we first relate ourselves to God that we relate to ourselves correctly. Our question then becomes “Is it possible to escape despair without believing in an Eternal Self?” Christianly speaking, the answer must be an emphatic “no.” Humanly speaking, it may still be “yes.” The leap of faith is putting our lives and decisions in an omnipresent being that realistically we have no direct communication with. We choose what we think the higher being we wish to believe in would want based off of books written thousands of years ago. The leap of faith is blind, and ultimately it is a higher version of ourselves that we are listening to and calling God.
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