82. Plato on the Immortality of the Soul in Republic Book X, Part 4: Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death
In the last three posts I have considered Plato’s argument for the immortality of the soul in book X of his dialogue the Republic. I would like to finish this series with a look at one attempt to present a similar argument in a different context, namely, Soren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) argument for an eternal self from despair in his book The Sickness Unto Death.
A note of caution: Kierkegaard wrote many books under pseudonyms. These books, so he claimed in his Concluding Scientific Postscript (Princeton: 1992), do not represent his view; indeed, he went so far as to say that “in the pseudonymous books there is not a single word by me. I have no opinion about them except as a third party, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them, since it is impossible to have that to a doubly reflected communication” (626). In what follows, I note the various pseudonymous authors associated with his texts. It is important to realize that these authors have very different perspectives on the world and we should be wary in our efforts to compare and contrast them the way we would when dealing with a thinker who writes under her name. That said, I think we can gain a lot from Kierkegaard as a philosopher if we engage in an effort to isolate and evaluate various claims from various books. Just know that it is unclear the results can be attributed to Kierkegaard himself. Obviously, this note of caution is similar to the note of caution we saw in relation to Plato’s writings.
Here are some preliminary terms and definitions that will help us approach the argument which, unlike Plato’s, tries to make sense of the indestructibility of the soul by working within the confines of Christian concepts.
In the opening lines of his book The Sickness Unto Death (Princeton: 2013), Kierkegaard (under his pseudonymous persona Anti-Climacus) claims that the “self is a relation which relates itself to its own self” (269). This means that the dynamic process of selfhood will unfold in accordance with some sort of relation and will be conscious of being and developing that relation—it will “relate itself to its own self”. But what kind of self-conscious relation are we talking about? A dynamic relation between necessity and possibility. Let’s look at these terms:
- Necessity represents all those facts we need to face about ourselves: where we were born, our color, our gender, our race, acts committed, etc. In general, necessity is our past. It is the finite or limited aspect of who we are.
- Possibility represents our ability to give new direction and meaning to past events. We can, as conscious beings haunted by possibilities, see ourselves differently and choose new courses of action not determined by the past. So possibility is future-oriented and appears to us in the form of fantasies, hopes, imaginings, and dreams. It is the infinite or unlimited aspect of who we are.
For Kierkegaard, the development towards more and more integrated selfhood is marked by a self-conscious, responsible, and continuous integration of necessity and possibility over time. Such constant, self-conscious integration is what he calls freedom; and freedom is lost any time this mode of integration ceases. Freedom is not abstract and indifferent; it is always freedom from some necessities to the realization of certain possibilities. Once certain possibilities are realized then they become necessities that must be faced and from which new possibilities can be considered.
In The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard also asserts that “despair is precisely self-consuming, but it is an impotent self-consumption which is not able to do what it wills; and this impotence is a new form of self-consumption, in which, again, the despairer is not able to do what he wills, namely, to consume himself” (278). Kierkegaard notes that we typically think of someone despairing over something external to the self (e.g., love, money, responsibility, death, etc.). But, when we really think about it, we will see that despair is a function of a self despairing over the anxiety and responsibility of its own freedom. It is a self that doesn’t want to be itself, wants to be rid of itself as a conscious relation between necessity and possibility capable of freedom. But why is it the case that the despairer cannot consume himself as a free being? This leads directly to the eternal.
For Kierkegaard, the eternal is a way to refer to God who, in accordance with his Christian theology, is the “power” that constantly sustains the relation that the self is. It does this by providing the conditions for freedom, namely, possibilities and an open future. In his book Concept of Anxiety (Princeton: 1980) Kierkegaard (under his pseudonymous persona Vigilius Haufniensis) writes:
“[T]he future in a certain sense signifies more than the present and the past, because in a certain sense the future is the whole of which the past is a part, and the future can in a certain sense signify the whole. This is because the eternal first signifies the future or because the future is the incognito in which the eternal, even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves an association with time” (89). And he also goes on to claim that “the possible corresponds exactly to the future” (91). So the eternal is that which, in having a paradoxical “association” with time, allows for future possibilities and thus freedom.
But if this is the case then we can see how one in despair, that is, one who wants to be rid of himself as a relation between necessity and possibility, cannot accomplish his task. After all, the eternal, in allowing for a future and its possibilities, is grounding the self and its freedom. And the eternal cannot be destroyed: “If one might die of despair as one dies of sickness, then the eternal in him, the self, must be capable of dying in the same sense that the body dies of sickness. But this is an impossibility; the dying of despair transforms itself constantly into a living. The despairing man cannot die; no more than “the dagger can slay thoughts” can despair consume the eternal thing, the self, which is the ground of despair, whose worm dieth not, and whose fire is not quenched” (SUD 277-278).
Now that we have the meaning, however cryptic, of some basic terms, let me provide an extended quotation from The Sickness Unto Death which will give us the argument that Kierkegaard links to Plato’s argument for the immortality of the soul from indestructibility. After we have the argument clear I will provide a brief set of criticisms. Kierkegaard writes:
“Socrates proved the immortality of the soul from the fact that the sickness of the soul (sin) does not consume it as sickness of the body consumes the body. So also we can demonstrate the eternal in man from the fact that despair cannot consume his self, that this precisely is the torment of contradiction in despair. If there were nothing eternal in man, he could not despair; but if despair could consume the self, there would still be no despair. Thus it is that despair, this sickness in the self, is the sickness unto death. The despairing man is mortally ill. In an entirely different sense than can appropriately be said of any disease, we say that the sickness has attacked the noblest part; and yet the man cannot die. Death is not the last phase of the sickness, but death is continually the last. To be delivered from this sickness by death is an impossibility, for the sickness and its torment…and death consist in not being able to die. This is the situation in despair. And however thoroughly it eludes the attention of the despairer, and however thoroughly the despairer may succeed, (as is the case of that kind of despair which is characterized by unawareness of being in despair) in losing himself entirely, and losing himself in such a way that it is not noticed in the least – eternity nevertheless will make it manifest that his situation was despair, and it will so nail him to himself that the torment nevertheless remains that he cannot get rid of himself, and it becomes manifest that he was deluded in thinking that he succeeded. And thus it is eternity must act, because to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession made to man, but at the same time it is eternity’s demand upon him.” (282-283)
I have formalized the argument with some paraphrases:
Premise 1: If there were nothing eternal in man then he wouldn’t be able to despair, that is, man wouldn’t be in the position of having a free self “whose fire is not quenched”.
Premise 2: But man can indeed despair as all the human evasions, delusions, and rationalizations of our failed escapes from freedom show.
Conclusion: Thus there is something eternal in man.
Now, if we presume that an eternal self can be an immortal self, then we can present another argument:
Premise 1: If a man’s self is eternal then that self is immortal.
Premise 2: The self is, as Kierkegaard says, “the eternal in him”.
Conclusion: Therefore the self is immortal.
These are interesting arguments that draw much of their power from introspection, the actual feeling of despair, and the futile experience of trying to escape our human condition as free agents. Kierkegaard’s books The Sickness Unto Death and The Concept of Anxiety spend a lot of time carefully describing the phenomenology of this escape to make it as convincing as possible. And I think this is where Kierkegaard’s strength lies: in providing rich descriptions and probing, personal questions that help us recognize to what extent we existentially experience the notions he introduces. For example, we can experience guilt, despair, resignation, humor, and irony; we can suffer, act, promise, deceive, confess, repent, and have remorse. It is through these experiences and many others that the self and its successes and failures can be ascertained; it is through these that the paradoxical nature of our selfhood can be understood. Arguments are part of the picture, but the lived experience to which the arguments point is everything in Kierkegaard. In Concluding Scientific Postscript Kierkegaard (under his pseudonymous persona Johannes Climacus) writes a few pages that echo the analysis given in the last post, namely, that arguments into the immortality of the soul, insofar as they are objective and general, don’t capture what immortality means for the individual subject. We saw how Plato uses the myth of Er to supplement his argument in ways that helps us recognize ourselves in the discussion. But Kierkegaard clearly thinks Socrates’ life takes this a step further:
“Let us consider Socrates. These days everyone is dabbling in a few proofs or demonstrations. – one has many, another fewer. But Socrates! He poses the question objectively, problematically: if there is immortality. So, compared with one of the modern thinkers with the three demonstrations, was he a doubter? Not at all. He stakes his whole life on this “if”; he dares to die, and with the passion of the infinite he has so ordered his whole life that it might be acceptable – if there is an immortality. Is there any better demonstration for the immortality of the soul? But those who have the three demonstrations do not order their lives accordingly….is there any better counterdemonstration to the three demonstrations?” (201).
He also addresses the issue of proofs being general and thus ultimately irrelevant to the existing individual:
“In all simplicity, then, the existing subject asks not about immortality in general, because a phantom such as that does not exist at all, but about his immortality” (174).
Kierkegaard’s points are well taken. But I don’t think objective logical demonstrations and, say, subjective mythical expositions and/or life decisions are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think Plato included both as a means to help us embrace a thesis he is trying to convey. And surely Socrates’ passionate commitment to his views was due in part to the arguments he had and the conclusions he provisionally held. And why, if Kierkegaard thinks arguments for immortality don’t matter at all, would he then go on to present such an interesting one in The Sickness Unto Death? Perhaps here we must be sensitive to the pseudonymous persona and how and why they differ from one another.
Whatever the case may be, if one thinks arguments matter then they have to be evaluated. And many will find Kierkegaard’s arguments unsound insofar as they include an eternal yet personal power that, paradoxically, is interacting with time and opening up the space of the free self. Does God exist? Does a personal God exist? Does freedom exist? Does the self exist? Convincing justifications in defense of affirmative answers to these questions are not easy to come by. And can we make sense of eternity’s paradoxical interaction to time if, as he says, it is “incommensurable” with it? To be sure, Kierkegaard doesn’t think this paradoxical aspect is a drawback: “The Socratic ignorance was thus an expression, firmly maintained with all the passion of inwardness, of the relation of the eternal truth to an existing person, and therefore must remain for him a paradox as long as he exists” (202). But most thinkers committed to logic as means to the truth will not find this celebration of paradox as a means to inward passion persuasive.
Moreover, it should be noted that faith quickly comes in as we ponder Kierkegaard’s prescription for escaping despair. For Kierkegaard, the ideal state of affairs would be one in which the self is fully willing to be itself and recognize that it is “grounded transparently in the Power that established it” (271). This formula, Kierkegaard says, is the “definition of faith” (468). So despair can be eradicated only by accepting that the self is sustained by God, the Power, who provides an infinite measure against which the self can be judged: “But what an infinite accent falls upon the self by getting God as a measure!” (379). The self before God is “no longer the merely human self” but a self that acquires an “infinite reality” (379) insofar as it sees itself in a state of sin and recognizes only God can save it. But this faith-based prescription will be unconvincing to those unsympathetic to faith-based solutions. And, of course, the presumed connection between eternity and immortality remains unclear from the above and would need to be fully elucidated.
Nonetheless, those who share the basics of Kierkegaard’s theological commitments may find these arguments intriguing and perhaps even convincing on some level. And I hope anyone interested in the issues of this post series will find fruitful ways to compare and contrast Kierkegaard and Plato on the issue of the immortality of the soul.
For my for an overview of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, go here.
For my overview of Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil, go here.