Sunday, 26 July 2015

Despair is the sickness unto death


I first read Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ (AKA ‘The Possessed’) in English and didn’t much like it. If I had not later learned Russian, I probably would never have read it again. It would have remained one of those books I vaguely remembered as having been a tough read, hard to finish, but which ultimately had not been worth it. I later read it in Russian and found it the equal of anything else that Dostoevsky wrote and very deep, indeed. Was it simply the re-reading of a book that I had earlier not fully understood that led to the change in experience? Was there something that couldn’t be translated? I don’t think so. The change must have been in me. I had become older. As someone once said “You don’t learn, you just get older, and you know.”

When I first read the novel, I focussed on the plot. It’s a story of a group of revolutionaries in tsarist Russia. Perhaps, this was my problem. I just wasn’t that interested in these precursors to the revolutionaries of 1917. But when I read a second time and focussed not so much on plot as on character, I found the story to be quite different. Most importantly, I found one character who has an extraordinary perspective on existence. He is called Kirillov.

Kirillov’s role in the novel is not important for the purposes here. He has been involved with the revolutionaries and has a role in their plans. But what is most interesting is his attitude to life.

He is asked (D p. 236) if he loves life, and replies that he does. But there is something apparently contradictory in this for Kirillov intends to shoot himself. His reasoning is as follows. He sees life as separate from death “Life is, and death is not at all” (D p. 236). On being asked whether he believes in a future eternal life, he replies “No, not future eternal, but here eternal. There are moments, you reach moments, and time suddenly stops, and will be eternal” (D p. 236). He hopes to reach such a moment. He is very happy and loves life but intends to shoot himself in order to touch eternity.

Much later we discover some more about how Kirillov touches eternity. He says “There are seconds, they come only five or six at a time, and you suddenly feel the presence of eternal harmony, fully achieved …If it were longer than five seconds—the soul couldn’t endure it and would vanish. In those five seconds I live my life through, and for them I would give my whole life, because it’s worth it. To endure ten seconds one would have to change physically.” (D p. 590).

What’s remarkable about these passages is that Kirillov’s experience can be compared to that of Saint Paul with his thorn in the flesh, with Saint Francis hearing the music of eternity played by an angel and feeling that if it lasted a few seconds further, he would die; or Saint Teresa of Ávila’s agony and ecstasy when an angel drives a lance through her heart. How then should we react to someone like Kirillov who is happy and loves life, but for the sake of such brief moments of ecstatic union with the eternal is willing to kill himself with a revolver?

The difference between Kirillov and the saints is ably described by Søren Kierkegaard in his book ‘The Sickness unto Death’. Kierkegaard writes of “defiance, which is really despair through the aid of the eternal, the despairing misuse of the eternal within the self to will in despair to be oneself” (SUD p. 67).

How can we describe someone like Kirillov who is happy and loves life as also being in despair? The reason for this is that Kierkegaard recognises that despair is an objective quality, not a subjective one. There is a “Despair that is ignorant of being despair, or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self” (SUD p. 42).
Despair for Kierkegaard is a function of the self’s relationship to itself and to God. To get these relationships wrong is to be in despair, whether the person is happy or not. He explains this in the following way:

“Every human being is a psychical-physical synthesis intended to be spirit; this is the building, but he prefers to live in the basement, that is, in sensate categories. Moreover, he not only prefers to live in the basement—no, he loves it so much that he is indignant if anyone suggests that he move to the superb upper floor that stands vacant and at his disposal, for he is, after all, living in his own house” (SUD p. 43)

Despair is to live in this basement without being aware that there is a spiritual life. Despair is not a subjective quality of happiness or unhappiness. It is the relationship to God. To deny God is still to be in despair, for God is, whether the self is aware of this fact or not. On this basis then, the atheist is in despair, even if he thinks of himself as perfectly happy. For Kierkegaard truth is objective. “Veritas est index suit et falsi” [Truth is the criterion of itself and of the false” (SUD p. 42). It is the falsity of the despairing self that means it is in despair. The denial of God does not make God cease to exist, but rather makes the self cease to exist.

So the fact that Kirillov is happy is beside the point. His intention to commit suicide is defiance. He is misusing the eternal and attempting to touch eternity by means of his own actions rather than God’s. In this sense he is attempting to become God. He admits as much “Yes, I will become God” (D p. 615). It is, indeed, in order that he should become God that he wishes to kill himself. But his attempt, of course, is doomed to fail. He is not God. He admits as much himself in the end, “If there is no God, then I am God” (D p. 617). It is only because he thinks that there is no God that Kirillov can become God if only for a moment. But this God that he wishes to create in the moment of death is only momentary and therefore lacks the quality of eternity even if it touches it. What Kirillov really wants to do is to express his ultimate ability to choose. He says “If there is God, then the will is all his, and I cannot get out of his will. If not, the will is all mine, and it is my duty to proclaim self-will” (D p. 617). He thinks that if God exists, then everything is necessary, but if God does not exist, then there is radical freedom of choice. The most decisive way in which this can be expressed is for a happy man to choose to kill himself without reason. He will kill himself  “For reasons. But without any reason, simply for self-will—only I” (D p. 617). He would thus, of course, become an uncaused cause, which looks rather Godlike. But Kirillov must know that his Godlike status will not last beyond the moment of the bullet travelling through his brain. His becoming “God” depends on there being no God. But then clearly in Kierkegaardian terms if there indeed is an objective God, Kirillov is in despair. His happiness is irrelevant even if it is not self-deception.

Kierkegaard writes further “Just because it is despair through the aid of the eternal, in a certain sense it is very close to the truth; and just because it lies very close to the truth, it is infinitely far away” (SUD p. 67). Kirillov touches the eternal in a way that is similar to that of a saint. His experience is almost identical to theirs, but he is misusing the eternal that can be found in the self, he is not touching the eternal by means of his relationship to God. He has no relationship to God. It is for this reason that he is infinitely far away.

The problem is that Kirillov’s self that touches the eternal is created by Kirillov himself. He is “severing the self from any relation to the power that has established it, or severing it from the idea that there is such a power” (SUD p. 68). The act of shooting himself is an act of rebellion, far greater than that against any earthly authorities. Thus “The self in despair wants to be master of itself or to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be, to determine what he will have or will not have in his concrete self” (SUD p. 68). Kirillov thinks that by his act of shooting himself he will touch eternity. But the problem is that he is doing it through his act alone. But this is to forget that we are not the masters of ourselves and that it is not possible to create the self by ourselves. Kirillov may indeed have his moment of ecstasy. He may indeed touch eternity. But he will not touch eternity eternally. His moment of eternity will pass in that moment. If Kierkegaard is right, the self is both the self’s relationship to itself and its relationship to God, and therefore Kirillov is in despair because he has lost his relationship to God. He has also, of course, lost his self and lost it eternally. To only have a relationship with oneself is to have failed to arrive at the condition for true selfhood. Only in an eternity that lasts beyond the moment can a self find itself.

Suicide only makes sense morally in a world where there is no God. In a world where there is a creator and a prohibition against murder, self-murder is self-defeating for it is liable to make any problem here on earth a problem in eternity. If God, the Creator, can see inside men’s hearts and can judge their intentions, then the sense in which suicide is a flight away from a person’s problems is immediately annulled. There is no escape. Rebellion against God is far more futile than rebellion against the tsar, because there is no possibility of rebellion against God succeeding.

But even in a world where we have lost all sense of there being a God and eternity, what would be our present day reaction to someone like Kirillov, who claims to love children, love life, but who although completely happy, wants to shoot himself in the head? How would we react to such a case?

Until relatively recently suicide was a taboo. People who committed suicide were liable to be buried outside the churchyard. People who attempted suicide were liable to be punished by the law. Nearly everyone one hundred years ago if asked, would have said that suicide was wrong. The reason for this is that there was widespread belief in God and traditional Christian teaching has always been that it is a sin to take your life. It is this that led to the prohibition on suicide. The taboo was so strong, that many suicides were not classified as such. Many priests or coroners would go to great lengths to find an explanation other than suicide.

But look how times have changed. With belief in God on the decline, suicide has become something many people want reclassified. The ability to decide when to end your life is now being campaigned for as a right. In the space of less than one hundred years one of the worst sins has become something we campaign for.

How do we react to the news of suicide today? If we hear the news that someone has killed themselves, is that person ever criticised as doing something sinful? I cannot think of an occasion in recent times when that has happened. There is sometimes great sadness when someone commits suicide. There is a sense of loss and a sense of pity, but there is never the sense that the person did something wrong. In instances when the person was suffering from a painful illness, far from there being a sense that the suicide did something wrong, there is the sense that he was exercising a human right. There is even a certain joy that this person was able to choose when to die.

The difficulty though is this. How from this perspective am I to persuade Kirillov not to commit suicide for the sake of his glimpse of eternity? Kierkegaard’s argument is that Kirillov is rebelling against God, and therefore what Kirillov is doing is morally the equivalent of murder. But the idea of self-murder depends crucially on the idea of a self that survives that could be punished. Why talk of murder of the self at all if both the perpetrator and the victim of the crime cease to exist? Why indeed talk of crime at all? But this is our problem. Without the idea of the self continuing to exist after death the idea of suicide in any sense being wrong becomes difficult. Why even discourage it? Whose business is it other than my own if I take my life?

This I think is where we are now. No-one thinks that suicide is wrong. Anyway, whose business is it other than the person concerned? We can pity or be sad about the person who commits suicide or alternatively we can feel joy and admiration depending on the circumstances. But if it is right to avoid the pain of terminal illness, it could equally well be right to avoid any other pain or discomfort. It may not be pragmatic to kill yourself because your boyfriend leaves you, after all, the pain may well cease, but who can say it is wrong? No-one will condemn, though we all may feel pity. Does it anyway matter in the great scheme of things if a girl of seventeen dies by her own hand or if she dies sixty years later? What really has she lost other than some transient moments that may or may not have been happy? What has she lost that would have lasted, or at least lasted into eternity? So should we even regret?

But once we have arrived at the position that suicide is a human right and something that can in no way be condemned, we are liable to reach a stage where many of the barriers to this action have been removed. Previously a person struggling with life might reflect that they might be condemned by God, or be buried outside the church yard or condemned by all their friends and family. In this way they might be discouraged from taking such a step. But now even when a young celebrity commits suicide, we are usually told on the news about how wonderful they were, how their friends loved them and how tragic the whole thing is. There is not one word of condemnation, so today when someone reflects on suicide, there is far less to discourage them. There may be practical advice about life getting better, but there is no moral advice, for this really is a human right and in that sense it is a free choice. In Kirillov’s terms it is a matter of “self-will” and in today’s world the criterion is always what I want to do. In this sense by getting rid of God we have all become little gods and goddesses.

What advice could I give to Kirillov given that I don’t believe in God? I could try to persuade him about what he is throwing away, but if he maintains his position that the second of touching eternity would be worth giving up his whole life, what can I say to counter this? Likewise, if the person in despair says they cannot endure another day of despair and cannot bear to wait for the good times to come again, do I actually have an answer? No. I have already accepted that it is justified to take one’s own life in order to avoid the pain of a terminal illness. Why then should it not be justified to avoid any other psychical pain, even one that may be transient?  This is the difficulty of giving up traditional morality. The taboo on suicide was useful in keeping down the rate. Now that it is a right and certainly not a wrong, isn’t it likely that there will be more suicides?

The only objection that can be made to Kirillov is that he is objectively in despair. That he is trying to storm the gates of heaven and touch eternity by himself. It is the fact that he acts by himself without reference to an objective, transcendent God that makes his case different from those of the saints.  The only objection is that God actually does exist and His existence is such that it does not depend on your doubt. God exists whatever the doubter may think. 

Kirillov thinks he is happy, but in fact is in despair. If I can point out this objective position to him, he may change his course of action. Of course, he can simply reject the existence of God, as he indeed does, but given his ability to touch eternity, he is actually quite close to faith, though, of course, infinitely far away. With a leap he could move from despair to faith. It may be that I am unable to persuade him but my only chance of doing so is theological.

The collapse of faith in the modern world has meant that we have thrown out the old taboos and the old morality. Our new faith is that whatever I want to do, even if it should be suicide, I should be allowed to do if I feel like it. If it is my right to do it, I need not even take into account others. But what other sins, which once were forbidden, will soon be permitted if we continue down this route? If I can kill myself with impunity, what else will I soon be allowed to do?

If God is dead, everything is permitted is one of Dostoevsky’s aphorisms. It’s a little more complex, but more or less true. But what if we follow the logic of everything being permitted, but God, in fact, is alive and well? The trouble with maintaining that man is the measure of all things is if it turns out, he is not. If there is a standard of morality outside what I want to do, it would make my doing everything only with reference to myself look rather reckless. It would make it look rather like despair.


Demons / Dostoevsky, Vintage, 2006.

The Sickness unto Death / Kierkegaard, Princeton University Press, c1980.




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