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The Conceptions of Self and Despair According to Kierkegaard

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This analysis will examine Kierkegaard’s Despair is the Sickness unto Death, and briefly, Stages on Life’s Way, to explore conceptions of the self and despair. Kierkegaard often uses pseudonyms in his texts to explore a particular viewpoint or to better relate to his readership. 

Despair is the Sickness unto Death is written using the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, which is a reference to the early medieval monk Johannes Climacus who wrote Scale Paradisi. Kierkegaard disagrees with Johannes’ idea that one can ascend to heaven through their own efforts, which is why this pseudonym is Anti-Climacus. Kierkegaard and Anti-Climacus share similar views, however, Anti-Climacus is a more perfected version of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was aware that he fell short of the Christian ideal, thus creating a perfect Christian pseudonym was necessary to bring his ideas to life. Stages on Life’s way is written under the pseudonym, who happens to stumble upon three letters in his dresser. Ermita is used to explore three different stages of life. The most pertinent is Judge William, who represents the ethical view and was created so that Kierkegaard could better relate to his readership. 

Distinguishing Kierkegaard from his pseudonyms is important because though he creates them, they do not always share his beliefs. In Anti-Climacus’ Despair is the Sickness unto Death, the ‘self’ is defined as “a relation that relates itself to itself…”. A relation of ideas is an argument of individual opposites. In the case of human beings, this refers to the finite and the infinite. Thus, the self is this relation which is then related to the self. Anti-Climacus then clarifies that the human being is not born with a self, though all humans have the potential to become a self. The human being is the synthesis of the finite and infinite, however something is missing. There is an implication that it is not enough to simply possess these relata, one must also actively relate these relata to become a self. Considering that human beings are stuck between two orders, the finite and the infinite, they struggle between necessity and possibility. This is in part what causes despair. Some aspects of human life, like mortality, are impassable. Such limitations need to be recognized and embraced in order to live authentically. Contrastingly, some aspects of human beings are open to change. 

The self is not only the syntheses of these two halves of existence, but the continued achievement of new syntheses throughout one’s life, evident in every choice one makes. Anti-Climacus’ use of the word ‘relation’ to define the self implies a degree of interdependence in selfhood. The authentic self not only relates to itself and others, but it must relate to itself and others to be a self. Anti-Climacus states that the formula which describes the un-despairing self is: “in relating to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” What is meant by this is not only does the self relate to itself and others, it also relates to the absolute, or God. The first sentence in Despair is the Sickness unto Death, is: “a human being is spirit”, which makes clear the mandatory connection between God and human choice. The relation between the self and God is the ultimate relation, and the ground of the self’s being. The self only has the ability to transform because of God. The knowledge that God is possibility is what helps the individual overcome their despair and allows for the transformation of the self. The purpose of selfhood is to become a certain type of self, as guided by the eternal. 

One form of despair that Kierkegaard describes across a variety of works is despair as a result of inauthentic faith in God. He believes that practicing Christendom, the corrupt version of Christianity, will lead to despair. Authentic Christianity requires the individual to struggle toward self-transformation and ego death, as one is not born a Christian. An authentic Christian must be true to the radical model of Christ, who sticks up for what he truly believes and dies with dignity. On the other hand, the individual who falls into Christendom finds comfort in the institution, conformity, and power. Kierkegaard argues that this individual betrays Christ’s challenge to become an authentic self by failing to stand out from the crowd and stand up for what they truly believe. Failing to accept Christ’s challenge is one way in which individuals can find themselves in despair. Anti-Climacus defines other forms of despair by creating an analogy between the doctor and the patient. He states that just as a doctor would say a perfectly healthy human does not exist, anyone can see that there is no human who does not experience some degree of despair. Anti-Climacus states that despair is the misrelation in the relation of the self, meaning that an individual fails to relate to either the finite or the infinite. It is precisely because human beings possess this synthesis that they despair. 

The first form of despair Anti-Climacus details is the absent or lost self. This individual is in a state of unconscious despair and utilizes various coping mechanisms to conceal it, like distracting themselves. However, when they experience a great loss, these coping mechanisms fail. In these instances, the individual will blame their despair on the external situation, failing to realize that they are actually despairing over themselves. The second form of despair is the despair of weakness. This individual is unable to respond to the call to become the self that existence calls them to take on. Anti-Climacus states that this individual is in conscious despair, but has no will. The third form of despair is the despair of defiance. This individual is trying to become a self on their own terms and fails to realize that the ground of their being is the absolute. In defying the call, this individual usurps the position of God, and cannot see that the self is not something they own exclusively, as selfhood implies interdependence. Seeing that the human condition produces despair and anxiety, the tendency is to ‘escape’ these states. The first way individuals try to escape is what Anti-Climacus terms the despair of infinitude. This individual has an idealistic personality, and cannot see the limitations of their existence. Since they are constantly beholden to their imagination, they constantly dream about what they may do without actually accomplishing much. Conversely, there is the despair of finitude, which results from the idea that there is no greater purpose to life. This individual is focused on material existence and settles for what is handed down to them by society. Anti-Climacus’ problems with the conventional view of despair are it assumes that every person knows whether they are in despair or not, it views despair as an uncommon condition, and it does not understand what ‘spirit,’ ‘sickness’ or ‘health’ really are. An individual is considered healthy by the public if that individual says they are not sick, however, physicians have a different view of sickness because they have a fully developed conception of what ‘healthy’ is. Doctors know there is a possibility for imagined illness, and generally, does not take an individual’s statement about their health at face value. Individuals who claim to be in despair may not actually be in despair, and vice versa. 

Furthermore, the common view overlooks that despair is different from other illnesses because it is a sickness of the spirit. When a doctor has made sure someone is well, and that person later becomes sick, then the doctor may say that this individual was once healthy but is now sick. This is not the case for despair. As soon as it becomes apparent that an individual is in despair, it is clear that the individual was in despair all along. Despair is not temporary like a rash or a cold; despair is a “qualification of the spirit”, which is eternal, therefore despair is eternal. The symptoms of despair present differently from other illnesses because they can oppose each other. For example, not to be in despair can signal being in despair, however, never feeling despair is also to be in despair (Marino 68). The first step to ‘curing’ despair is the recognition that one is in despair. Curing despair also requires that human beings acknowledge both their finite and infinite existence. Many people live without acknowledging their infinite potential, which is why they feel so-called security. Some individuals live only in the realm of infinite potential, and cannot acknowledge their finitude. Though the recognition of both halves of this synthesis is no easy feat, one cannot become an authentic self without doing so (Marino 84-87). Despair is simultaneously our worst misfortune and our saving grace. It signals that something is wrong and yet helps individuals to realize their authentic self. The wasted life is one where the individual never realizes their infinite potential because they are so wrapped up in earthly life. Even more of a loss is the individual who never gains the impression that there is a God which they exist before. Thus another solution to despair is faith. 

Though Anti-Climacus specifically means Christian faith, it is possible to conceive of faith as a sort of trust in this context. With this trust in the ground of one’s being, and trust in ‘the call,’ the individual can become the self they are meant to be without despairing during the process. Though it is important to bear in mind that the individual must remain conscious of their relation to and dependence on God for this transformation. In Stages on Life’s Way, Judge Williams posits that the aesthetic individual is more prone to despair because they seek continual pleasure, however, pleasure has limitations like pain. Anti-Climacus confirms this view, stating that “this self… would have been in seventh heaven (a state, incidentally, that is another sense is just as despairing”. Furthermore, the aesthetic individual is akin to a hedonist; they live life according to their impulses and emotions. Therefore, not only are they at the mercy of their whims, but they also have a very limited view of their existence. This type of individual may be in danger of succumbing to the despair of finitude. Additionally, as Anti-Climacus points out, despair can thrive in happiness. Even the person who seems to be un-despairing is in despair, they may simply be unaware of this fact. Since the general public believes that people are healthy when they say they are, the despair within this individual may never be addressed, and they may never live a fully authentic life. The recognition that this worldview leads to a vicious cycle, which leads to despair, is what prompts Judge Williams to pose the either/or question to the aesthetic individual in Stages on Life’s Way. This individual may either remain stuck in this cycle, or they may decide to live more meaningfully. 

In our current age, despair is fostered by the increased use of and reliance on technology, particularly cellular devices. Cellphones present a major roadblock on the way to becoming an authentic self for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, they have the potential to provide individuals with endless distraction. The majority of the population owns a cell phone, and most of these individuals normally have their phone on their person or in their immediate vicinity. Because of this, many people become reliant on their phone’s capacity for distraction due to a near infinite amount of applications and websites that can be accessed at the press of a few buttons. Constant access to endless distraction could lead to the widespread development of the form of despair termed the absent or lost self. Currently, many individuals turn to their phones for entertainment. But what if individuals began turning to their phones to escape their despair? The individual in absent despair uses coping mechanisms, like distraction, to conceal their despair. Therefore, the use of cellular devices in this way could potentially stifle individuals from confronting their despair. Confronting despair is required for an individual to know there is something that needs to be addressed within then, and necessary to allow for the individual to become an authentic self. 

The second reason cellular devices foster despair is the abundance of knowledge they contain and relay to users. In “Kierkegaard’s World, Part 1: What Does it Mean to Exist?”, Carlisle highlights Kierkegaard’s belief that human beings are forgetting what it means to exist. He feels that this forgetfulness results from the increased abundance of knowledge. While Kierkegaard recognizes the benefits of knowledge, he maintains that the pursuit of knowledge can be a distraction from existential issues. Since cell phones provide individuals with an endless stream of information, they may mistakenly believe that they have all the answers to every possible question at their fingertips. Not only does this resemble the attitude of the individual who suffers from the despair of defiance, but it also fails to account for the type of knowledge that cannot be found in material existence. Cellular devices cannot tell an individual their purpose in life, or provide them “with guidance about how to live faithfully to others, and also to themselves.” Heeding the call of the absolute is a personal thing, and the road to authenticity must be travelled alone. 

The final way cellular devices foster despair is the loss of ‘proper’ interdependence. Because individuals use their devices as a form of escape, the habit of turning away from the world for solace is formed. This presents a major problem as the self is defined as a relation that relates to itself, others and the absolute. If true interdependence is replaced with the fictitious relation to and dependence on technology, individuals may lose their potential for becoming a self. Additionally, the substitution of real-life conversation and interaction with texting may lead to the elimination of true relations. Furthermore, the technological experience is catered to the individual. Usually, an individual will only see what they have searched out for themselves. Thus the individual is not only engaging in a fictitious relation with their device, but they are also only relating to a reflection of themselves. 

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