pondělí 26. února 2018

Reimagining Fear of Death in Kierkegaardian Terms

Death as ironic and infinitizing factor

Esej pro předmět "Søren Kierkegaard and the Challenge of Existence" na Kodaňské Univerzitě

Søren Kierkegaard

1. Introduction

Topic of this essay is very personal, yet universal. It came to me when I pondered how many times have I found myself lying in bed, waiting for sleep, suddenly struck by a thought about death. As limit of earthly existence, death haunts almost every human. This is inquiry into ways this haunting, specifically this fear of death manifests in human consciousness, what does it mean for man’s eternality and how it aligns with concept of selfhood developed by Søren Kierkegaard. In this essay, I argue that in Kierkegaardian terms, fear of death is despair, which can only be overcome by realizing inherently eternal nature of human soul. In following pages I will ground this realization in Soren Kierkegaard’s conceptions of self, despair and eternality as presented in his book Sickness Unto Death.

2. Basic forms of fear of death

Before explaining fear of death through Kierkegaard’s terms, basic forms of this fear need to be exposed. I argue, that there are two basic ones - fear of void and fear of unknown. As we shall see, both qualify as despair, although both are qualitatively different.

2.1. Fear of void

This fear shows itself as the unnerving sensation of being haunted by idea that there’s nothing after we die. This nothingness represents the rationalized concept of death present in countries and societies with declining religiosity - the idea that after death there is no afterlife, no salvation, no eternity. That life just stops, ends, in the most optimistic case the dying moment is prolonged forever as brain ceases to function. Yet, as I will argue later, pure fear of void is very rare.

2.2. Fear of unknown

Fear of death presents an inherent contradiction. Even though our deeply-seeded rationality tells us that afterlife, eternal, however we call it for ourselves, is just a superficiality, we cannot come in terms with this thought. The idea of pure end in a sense stated in the category above attacks our basic conceptions of humanity and cannot be all-in-all rationalized. We thus turn into the unknown. For non-Christians this unknown may manifest in many different forms, be it a vague idea of afterlife, reincarnation or just very basic hope that life doesn’t end after all. But unknown also brings uncertainty, because we lack any proofs (that is rational basics). We might find a fleeting solace in idea of unknown, but precisely because it is unknown, it doesn’t stop haunting us. We reach the point that exhibits both irrationality and rationality. We feel that is isn’t possible for life to end like it, yet we’re unable to rationally ground this feeling.

3. Fear of death as despair

In Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard presents the concept of despair, in his terms understood as a disrelation in the self, which is composed of two poles of existence - temporal and eternal one. Since death is something that deals directly with both of them (one the one hand is grounded firmly in the temporal, or rather is actualized temporality itself, and points toward the eternal), this despair is intrinsically bound to it. In following section I will present basic ways by which fear of death can be understood as despair in accordance with different ways of looking at despair Kierkegaard presents in Sickness Unto Death.

The basic reason why fear of death and in a strictest sense even some forms of overcoming it are despair is that it exhibits care for the next day. There are of course many gradations, even inside the fear of death itself, that can be distinguished, but fearing death always comes down to caring for the earthly, worldly, with gaze directed towards future where it is said that all existence ends. Yet this outlook forgets that man is not only soul and body, but spirit as well, a spirit that is, according to Kierkegaard, eternal. Human self is, as presented in Sickness Unto Death, a relation, self-actualizing relation of opposite parts of human existence, temporal and eternal, and only somebody aware of this very relation can be deemed as not despairing. From this it can be concluded, that whoever fears death is indeed in despair, because if he understood the nature of human, e. g. as a being that is at the same time temporal but also a spirit, he would have no reason to fear death, because eternal isn’t consumed by earthly death.

This basic situation can be broken down into lower categories. As fear of death is indeed despair, or rather signifies despair, goes hand in hand with despair, and if there are more forms of fear of death, then those forms should also correspond to different forms of despair. Kierkegaard himself offers number of distinctions. I want to focus on two of them which map onto forms of fear of death investigated at the beginning of this essay.

3.1. Fear of death as despair due to the lack of infinitude

“And yet, by not venturing, it is so dreadfully easy to lose that which it would be difficult to lose in even the most venturesome venture (...) one’s self,”1 says Kierkegaard in the second chapter in section A.a.2 of Sickness Unto Death. By venturing he means spiritual (now in the mundane sense of the word) journey, or introspection, becoming-a-consciousness by which we realize the however shady at least fragments of true nature of our selves (that is being spirits, composed of relation of two poles which relates to itself). A man who does not venture, a man who loses itself in the finite, that is, the worldly, has no conception of self, lost it, is grounded only in one limb of existence which nevertheless cannot exists in balance without the other. Kierkegaard calls such a man narrow-minded in the ethical sense (more on the question of ethicality briefly later). So it is with the fear of the void, or to be more precise with the conception of the void itself and these two can be aligned side to side. By conceptualizing death as a mere ceasing of living, as a black hole, ultimate end where there is nothing, a person who chooses to think about the death like that grounds himself in the finite. Lets go any, however inaccurate, notions of anything above earthly order, perhaps forgets to think about it. Yet fear of death is so hardly woven into existence, that even he, apart from extremely rare occurrences, cannot escape it. Fear of void is thus fear this person brings about himself by narrow-mindedly (meant in Kierkegaardian sense) unacknowledging any other possibilities, but in a deeper sense, unacknowledging the slightest hint of eternity in the self.

But it is precisely here we arrive at a tipping point between two forms of fear of death and as I will argue later, between another way of looking at fear of death in Kierkegaard’s terms. Let us return to the paradoxical situation presented in description of fear of unknown. In the face of however seemingly distant death we cannot bear the thought of pure void, so we make up conceptions of afterlife, or something beyond, of something that transcends the earthly. The death, or more precisely, the fear of death is thus infinitizing factor. Kierkegaard talks about different degrees of consciousness of being the self, and those degrees are in a large part bound to being able to introspect our selfhood. Death forces us to look inward, look for answers and however vague or misguided they may be, in the deepest sense realization described above, the inconceivability of man as purely finite being is precisely the point at which we arrive to understand that there is something eternal in man after all, in Kierkegaard’s terms, we arrive to acknowledge the one pole of relation that constitutes human self. Fear of void, the pure finiteness, is thus extremely rare occurrence and so it looks to me - to add to Kierkegaard - that for man to despair just because he wholly lacks infinity is almost impossible. Even to the most realist, the thought of death comes at times and the concept of pure, rational void is to such a degree irresolvable within human’s consciousness (at least for a reason that taken to extremity, if one were to truly believe it, all his endeavor would suddenly become totally meaningless), that even to the most realistic mind the shade of idea that there is eternity in man must in most cases view itself.

3.2. Fear of death as despair at not willing to be oneself

In another section of Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard talks about despair from the point of consciousness. He then explores the kind of despair that he calls “not willing to be oneself”, that is, not being willing to grasp the nature of human self. He then distinguishes between despair coming from outside (that is over something earthly) and despair coming from inside (despair about the eternal and over oneself), although he in the end conflates the two, but particularities for that are not that important for our inquiry here.

Fear of death is nevertheless in peculiar position here, almost a dialectical one. On one hand this fear is definitely brought up by outside influences (death), as it is something that “befalls” man, but at the same time comes from within and as such is incommunicable to other people, which is a factor that is important. Fear of death at the same time exhibits the properties of the earthly and of the eternal, because, as I’ve argued above, it actually is a meeting place for both spheres. A despair stemming from fear of death is thus dialectical, double in its nature and transgresses the categories set up by Kierkegaard. The matter is further complicated by the fact, that Kierkegaard considers introversion, as opposed to immediacy, as a constituting factor for starting to be aware of man being a spirit. As I tried to show, fear of death is such a factor which elicits introspection in most of cases.

In which sense one despairs over not willing to be oneself when one fears death? First of all, he could be not willing to be oneself because that would be for him a way how to deal with seemingly finite situation. He might be willing, dreaming, longing for not being finite, for not being mortal. But that is a great irony, because it is then precisely the way he seeks solace he is being pulled away from it. Because the infinite isn’t something that is outside, but something deeply woven into humanhood. A person longing for not being able to day thus introspects from a - as understood by my reading of Kierkegaard - misguided angle. This kind of despair is closer to immediacy as described by Kierkegaard.

If one would return to itself, Kierkegaard offers another kind of despair over not willing to be oneself and that is despair of weakness. A despair of a person who has a hint of something eternal but isn’t able to fully grasp the nature of human self as spirit. This person is further in realization of human self and in what despair truly is, but nevertheless is still in despair because it is still standing alone in the face of mortal situation.

Now, we need to diverge a little to put fear of death into perspective which shall put light onto this second kind of despair of not willing to be one self. Kierkegaard himself makes very clear that a person despairing with a partial knowledge of the self has a choice - to continue his endeavor of uncovering human nature or to succumb to sensational, earthly, worldly. He himself doesn’t say it, but it is more than apparent that such situation is a crossroad. Fear of death thus presents such a crossroad, which ultimately lets us choose between staying in the realm of more or less rational albeit still shady and misguided haunting or to try to immerse us, to put it in Kierkegaardian fashion, in passion over the nature of human and try to ultimately rest transparently in the power that conceived us. As Kierkegaard implicitly points out, this choice is a highly personal one, enabled by deep, incommunicable, lonely introversion. Fear of death more than sufficiently fulfills this criteria for human language or other means of communication will never be able to fully transfer the individual sensation or fearing death.

When facing the fear of death we are then presented a choice. To stay in despair or try to alleviate it a little, push it away and plunge into ourselves to resolve seemingly irresolvable paradox that death to us presents - that is, that even though it is unthinkable to think that human existence completely ends in death, our rationalized minds don’t provide any answers to what that “other” solution to mystery of death might be.

4. Conclusion

If we were to take literally words Kierkegaard utters in Sickness Unto Death, a fear of death, viewed as despair is also profoundly ironic. Kierkegaard very clearly states that “eternity asks of thee and of every individual (...) only one question, whether thou hast lived in despair or not (...) And if thou hast lived in despair, then for thee all is lost, eternity knows thee not, it never knew thee (...) it puts thee under arrest by thyself in despair.”2 By letting ourselves to stay in despair is thus actually pushing us further from salvation, although not understood in Christian terms. The road nevertheless isn’t to calm us with idea of heaven or god’s paradise. Rather than pointing gaze towards the future, Kierkegaard suggest we need to live in the moment, not caring about the next day, which, all in all, what fear of death precisely is.

The fear of death, a constituting factor of human existence, is thus surely despair. But, as I’ve tried to show, it also contains hope, because it is through fearing death that we might become aware of infinite in human self. And the sheer universality with which the death haunts us is thus also an advantage, for it is a chance for almost every human to introspect, plunge into himself in those moments of solitude and take the first step on the road to understanding himself as a spirit. Fear of death is not only ironic and unnecessary, but at the same time inherently hopeful.