Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, theologian, and poet of the 1800s, is largely regaled as the first Existential Philosopher. His works of Either/Or, Sickness Unto Death, and Fear and Trembling are largely considered pivotal philosophical works that shaped the landscape irrecovably afterwards. Nietzche, Satre, and Camus were largely influenced by his work and expand on his ideas in their own later works. Existentialism, roughly speaking, is a philosophy focused on the inherent meaninglessness of life and our need to make meaning through our own power. Kierkegaard takes this concept and places it squarely within a philosophical text.
It was with this background that I started reading one of Kierkegaard’s most important and complex works, Sickness Unto Death.
Unlike the other Existentialists that came afterwards, what makes Kierkegaard so fascinating is his insistence on theism. Despite his depressive take on human nature, that we are all faced with insurmountable despair and oftentimes have no recourse to overcome it of our own will, he gives hope to those who abandon themselves to belief. Existentialists, such as Neitzche and Sartre, very strongly disavow the idea of God but Kierkegaard, a devout (though conflicted) Christian, insisted that in order to make any meaning in life we must take a “leap of faith” and jump into the absurd of belief.
In continuing Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, I was struck by how similar it was to some other theological/psychological works that I’ve read, particularly the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
Both writers were Spanish contemporaries during the Counter-Reformation.
Both were religious, in that St. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun and St. John of the Cross a Carmelite monk.
Both wrote about the mysterious “Dark Night of the Soul”.
This idea of the “Dark Night”, made famous in the writing of the Interior Castle (St. Teresa of Avila, 1577) and Ascent of Mount Carmel (St. John of the Cross, 1618), is incredibly reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s idea of despair found in Sickness Unto Death (1849). According to both St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul is a state of the soul where the soul is in absolute darkness and cannot find joy or comfort in the idea of God. Because the person feels separate from God’s love, he or she falls into a state of depression and refuses to do any more good. Additionally, at the point, the soul is in despair because it realizes how great God is, and how small they are.
It seems as if Kierkegaard takes this idea and runs with it. His understanding of “despair” is one where the majority of people live their lives unaware of the existential pain that they are in. They assuage their deep-seated pain through superficial activities, such as those focused on social status or power. These people are unaware of their own pain and therefore cannot do anything, other than serious introspection, to become aware of their status. As they continue in their spiritual work their “despair” increases until they are faced with their insignificance in comparison to the Glory of God. This stage would parallel the Carmelite’s idea of the “Dark Night”.
Whether Kierkegaard actually read the works of the Counter-Reformers in his lifetime is almost irrelevant. Whatever the case may be, the “Dark Night of the Soul” concept has made its mark in a variety of philosophical and literary works since it’s conception and appears to point out a deep philosophical truth; that faced with our own human limitations we tend towards an “existential crisis”.
As I continued reading Kierkegaard I found other parallels to previous ideas and writers.
The 3rd Century Christian “Desert Fathers”, monks and hermits living in the desert away from Roman persecution, spoke of “Acedia” or “Malaise”, a type of slothfulness that resulted in a despair towards the duties of life and desire to abandon the avowed life of the hermitage.
The Old Testament writing of Ecclesiastes and Job, explain the futility of life and our inability to comprehend the magnitude of our own existence.
Buddhism teaches the dictum that “Life is suffering” or “Desire is suffering”.
Especially in our postmodern/absurdist culture, we are rife with examples of this idea. From an anti-hero like Walter White or the nihilism of Rick and Morty, our culture has become enmeshed with the ideas of the Existential, for better or worse.
Wherever philosophical thought flourishes, the idea of despair is not far behind. This theme of despair is seen countlessly throughout human history and across cultures and times. You would be hardpressed to find any group of humans that did not attempt to face the dichotomy of life and death.
Through all of these iterations, whether you call it the “Dark Night of the Soul”, “despair”, acedia, depression, angst, or anything else, the truth is that this internal discontentment appears to be a part of the fabric of humanity.
We can not escape from the reality that we must face our being, our mortality,
and the question of meaning.
So, then our thoughts must turn to God.
- Do we believe that we recieve meaning from God?
- Do we even believe in God? Does it matter?
- How can the human being overcome the tendency towards despair if there is nothing to counter this instinct?
- Should we, as Kierkegaard suggests, make a “leap of faith towards” Faith, even if it counters our logical reasoning?
- Can Faith and reason be reconciled? And if so, how?
In asking these questions, I believe we can begin our path towards God and ultitmately to Christ. By facing the questions that plague all human beings we hopefully encounter the Truth.
As Pope Benedict XVI states in the introduction of the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Christianity is an encounter with a person “which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”, and fundamentally meaning to a life ridden with questions and impossibilities.