D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Second Period: Indirect Communication (1843-46)

The Concept Of Anxiety

  • The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin
  • Begrebet Angest. En simpel psychologisk-paapegende Overveielse i Retning af det dogmatiske Problem om Arvesynden
  • Vigilius Haufniensis
  • 1844
  • SKS4, SV4

Vigilius Haufniensis means Watchman of Copenhagen. Since this work is not only psychological in nature, but concerns Christian dogma, perhaps Kierkegaard thought a new (non-philosophical) author was required. As a "watchman" it would seem that Kierkegaard is aware of his own importance to the well-being of his city. He would more profoundly fulfill that role in 1854 when he attacked the church. The companion piece, The Sickness Unto Death, is taken over by the pseudonym Anti-Climacus because Kierkegaard had ceased to use all other previous pseudonyms after 1848, when he began his period of direct communication.

It is largely through this work and The Sickness Unto Death that Kierkegaard has been called the father of modern psychology. In this work he posits anxiety as a necessary state preceding the qualitative leap of faith into Christianity. Kierkegaard focuses his examination on the Christian doctrine of original sin. The subtitle of the work illuminates the study. It is certainly not a simple work in the sense of easy. In fact, it is one of Kierkegaard's most difficult works. It is simple, that is, singular of purpose. He tells us in his introduction that dogmatics will prevail over philosophy, but dogmatics understood in its psychological effects.

The present work has set as its task the psychological treatment of the concept of "anxiety," but in such a way that it constantly keeps in mente [in mind] and before its eye the dogma of hereditary sin. Sin, however, is no subject for psychological concern, and only by submitting to the service of a misplaced brilliance could it be dealt with psychologically.... Thus when sin is brought into esthetics, the mood becomes either light-minded or melancholy, for the category in which sin lies is contradiction, and this is either comic or tragic.... If sin is dealt with in metaphysics, the mood becomes that of dialectical uniformity and disinterestedness, which ponder sin as something that cannot withstand the scrutiny of thought.... If sin is dealt with in psychology, the mood becomes that of persistent observation.... Sin does not properly belong in any science, but it is the subject of a sermon, in which the single individual speaks as the single individual to the single individual (p. 14).

Kierkegaard would not tolerate psychology outside of dogmatics, that is, psychology that seeks to explain away the dogmatic aspects of sin and freedom. But he wished to understand the dogmatic and its psychological effects on man.

Kierkegaard asserts that anxiety preceded Adam's sin. Anxiety is not itself sin, but is the natural reaction of the soul when faced with the yawning abyss of freedom. When God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the terms "good" and "evil", so says Kierkegaard, would have had no significance for him. His ignorance was indeed bliss. But the awful predicament of freedom, before and apart from sin, yielded anxiety. There is also an anxiety that is a manifestation of sinfulness, and Kierkegaard addresses that later. But first his concern is that all individual persons are born with the same freedom and anxiety as a result of that freedom that Adam possessed, and thus we sin not because we are sinners, but we become sinners because of our qualitative leap out of freedom into sin, and hence sinfulness. It is then that the expression of anxiety is sin.

Through the first sin, sin came into the world. Precisely in the same way is it true of every subsequent man's first sin, that through it sin came into the world.... If every subsequent man's first sin were thus brought about by sinfulness, his first sin would only in a nonessential way be qualified as the first, and be essentially qualified—if this is thinkable—by its serial number in the universal sinking fund of the race.... The Genesis story presents the only dialectically consistent view. Its whole content is really concentrated in one statement: Sin came into the world by a sin. Were this not so, sin would have come into the world as something accidental.... Thus sin comes into the world as the sudden, i. e., by a leap; but this leap also posits the quality and is presupposed by the quality and the quality by the leap.... To express this precisely and accurately, one must say that by the first sin, sinfulness came into Adam (p. 31ff.).

Kierkegaard tells the reader in the introduction that psychological concerns will serve dogmatics. His main object is to understand the dogma and explain its coherence logically and psychologically. For this Kierkegaard makes several points. First, notwithstanding the doctrine of original sin, Kierkegaard wishes to emphasize that man was free not to sin as well as to sin. The fall was not necessitated by creation, by mere existence. Second, freedom itself causes anxiety, but this anxiety, once again, does not necessarily lead to sin, nor indeed is it itself sin. Third, Kierkegaard wants to ground each individual's sin in his own sinfulness. Just as Adam sinned which brought about sinfulness in him, so does each individual sin while in a state of freedom and sinlessness, and only then is sinfulness posited. Fourth, sin itself brings about anxiety, a compounding of the anxiety of freedom. This anxiety can lead the sinner back to the One who made him and gave him freedom, and thus anxiety can be saving through faith. Fifth, the first sin for Adam and for the individual is a qualitative leap. It is a leap out of freedom into sinfulness. It is not necessitated by existence (much less freedom) and so can only be explained by a leap. So too is the soul's return to the One who created it—a leap back to God through faith.

When sin is posited in the particular individual by the qualitative leap, the difference between good and evil is also posited. We have nowhere been guilty of the foolishness that holds that man must sin; on the contrary, we have always protested against all merely imaginatively constructed knowledge. We have said what we again repeat, that sin presupposes itself, just as freedom presupposes itself, and sin cannot be explained by anything antecedent to it, anymore than can freedom. To maintain that freedom begins as liberum arbitrium [free will]...that can choose good just as well as evil inevitably makes every explanation impossible. To speak of good and evil as the objects of freedom finitizes both freedom and the concepts of good and evil. Freedom is infinite and arises out of nothing. Therefore, to want to say that man sins by necessity makes the circle of the leap into a straight line (p. 112).

Kierkegaard does not wish to convey the idea that freedom or sin is arbitrary. Sin is not posited by necessity in the act of creation. It could not be a tendency of man, since man was created in sinlessness and in freedom. However, freedom is not arbitrary. Though Adam had a choice between good and evil, it was never a dispassionate choice, nor did deity present two equally viable alternatives to him. One path led to further freedom, and one to loss of freedom—by a leap. Hence Kierkegaard says, "To speak of good and evil as the objects of freedom finitizes both freedom and the concepts of good and evil." Good and evil cannot be equal objects of choice, since they are radically different, and lead to radically different situations. Freedom is also finitized by this viewpoint since it is misconstrued as free will. Our will is capable of deciding, but it is not free, that is, we cannot weigh two diametrically opposed alternatives without passion or concern for the outcome. For Kierkegaard, freedom is never arbitrary; nevertheless, it is a state in which the cognitive-volitive faculty does exist.

All existence make me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable to me, I myself most of all; to me all existence is infected, I myself most of all.... The most terrible punishment for sin is the new sin. This does not mean that the hardened, confident sinner will understand it this way. But if a man shudders at the thought of his sin, if he would gladly endure anything in order to avoid falling into the old sin in the future, then the new sin is the most terrible punishment for sin (Journals, II A 420).

This entry from the journal, as it pertains to The Concept of Anxiety, underscores the psychological aspect of the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin. Sinfulness brings about a loss of freedom. The anxiety of freedom becomes translated into the anxiety over sin. This anxiety increases as the sinful individual contemplates his entrapment in sinfulness. The cycle of sin is a sort of hell for the individual sinner. In The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard returns to the psychological aspects of sin and anxiety in which he addresses despair. Despair is anxiety in the face of the eternal.