Gordon Marino in Philosophy Now:
In his powerful discourse ‘At a Graveside’ (1845), Kierkegaard emphasizes the existential importance of coming to a first-person understanding of our mortality. It might seem anachronistic but, to listen to Kierkegaard, earnestness (alvorlighed) as opposed to happiness ought to be the ultimate aim in life. He writes, “Earnestness is that you think of death, and that you are thinking it as your lot.” He then explains a number of ways in which people go wrong in trying to walk over their own grave, for example, by thinking of death as a ‘rest’, or as a ‘great equalizer’, or by putting yourself outside of death with rote memorized phrases such as, “Where I am death is not, and where death is I am not”. However, when we achieve the bone-deep understanding that it is certain that at some uncertain time it will be over for us, that understanding will give a force to life and help us avoid the temptation to procrastinate. The individual for whom the day receives high worth as being limited is not going to be inclined to procrastinate, to put off decisions with palliatives such as “I’ll sleep on it.” As Kierkegaard writes:
“Indeed, time (Tid) also is a good. If a person were able to produce a scarcity (Drytid) in the external world, yes, then he would be busy. The merchant is correct in saying that the commodity certainly has its price, but the price still depends very much on the advantageous circumstances at the time – and when there is a scarcity, the merchant profits … with the thought of death the earnest person is able to create a scarcity [of time] so that the year and the day receive infinite worth.”
Regarding our predilection for pulling the wool over our own eyes, Kierkegaard pronounces this dire verdict: “This is how the majority of men live; they work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension, which would lead them into decisions that their lower nature does not much care for.” And after we have given in and taken the road most travelled once, twice, thrice, maybe we lose confidence in our capacity to stand up for what is right.
The author of The Sickness unpacks despair in terms of ignoring your God-relation. Nevertheless, this austere and otherwise dogmatic text retains purchase even for adherents of the ‘God is dead’ gospel. After all, those who have put the question of religious belief to bed need only to read Kierkegaard’s anatomy of despair as referring to the process of losing faith in one’s agency – in one’s moral capacities – and thereby running up the white flag towards one’s moral aspirations.
Kierkegaard is often misunderstood as believing that we ought to act on feeling or impulse. But in his analysis of procrastination he is implying that we ought to act as soon as we know what’s right. This knowledge may require reflection. But we should be wary of reflecting our way out of tough decisions.
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Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College