If it were possible for someone to be privy to this reserve, and this person were to say to him, ‘This is pride, really you are proud of your self,’ the confession is hardly likely to be one he makes to another. When alone with himself he may well admit there was something to it, but the passion with which his self had grasped hold of this weakness will soon have him believe once more that it could not possibly be pride, since it is precisely his own weakness that he despairs over – as if it was not pride that put such immense emphasis on the weakness, though it wasn’t because he wanted to be proud of his own self that he found this consciousness of his own weakness unbearable. If one were to say to him, ‘Here’s a curious muddle, a curious sort of knot, for the whole sorry business is really due to how thought twists things; otherwise it is even quite normal. In fact this is just the path you should follow, you must go through with this despair of the self to get to the self. You are quite right about the weakness, but that is not what you are to despair over; the self must be broken down to become itself, just stop despairing over it’ – if one were to talk to him I this way, he would understand it in a dispassionate moment, but the passion would soon distort his vision again, and so he turns once more in the wrong direction, into despair.
As we stated, despair of this kind is a rather rare occurrence. If it does not come to a halt at this point, merely marking time, and on the other hand the despairer undergoes no great upset which puts him on the right road leading to faith, then either such a despairer will intensify itself to a higher form of despair and go on being reserve, or it will break through and destroy the outward disguise in which such a despairer has been living out his life incognito. In this latter case, a person despairing in this way will fling himself out into life, perhaps into the diversion of great enterprises; he will be a restless spirit whose life certainly leaves its mark, a restless spirit who wants to forget, and when the inner tumult is to much for him, strong remedies will be needed, though not of the kind Richard III uses to avoid having to listen to his mother’s curses. Or he will seek forgetfulness in sensuality, perhaps in dissolute indulgence; in this despair he wants to return to immediacy, but ever conscious of the self he does not want to be. In the former case, when the despair heightens, it becomes defiance; and now it becomes evident how much untruth there was in this business of weakness; it becomes evident how dialectically correct it is to stay that the initial expression of defiance is precisely despair over one’s weakness.
- Søren Kierkegaard Guest Series: The Sickness unto Death (1849)