willing ignorance

by Andrea Elizabeth

In Chapter 2 of Part 2 in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard gives an interesting critique of the Socratic definition of sin, which is that sin is ignorance. In doing so, he shows his deep respect for Socrates, but labels him a pagan and not a Christian. His criticism for modern (early to mid 1800’s) philosophy is harsher:

Thus it is evident that modern philosophy is neither more nor less than paganism. But this is not the worst possible situation – to be in kinship with Socrates is not too bad. But the totally un-Socratic aspect of modern philosophy is that it wants to delude us into believing that this is Christianity. (p.93)

This passage contains a summary of his critique of Socrates’ definition, though it is worked out more fully in context:

This means that the Greek mind does not have the courage to declare that a person knowingly does wrong, knows what is right and does the wrong; so it manages by saying: If a person does what is wrong, he has not understood what is right.

Absolutely right. And no human being can come further than that; no man of himself and by himself can declare what sin is, precisely because he is in sin; all his talk about sin is basically a glossing over of sin, an excuse, a sinful watering down. That is why Christianity begins in another way: man has to learn what sin is by a revelation from God; sin is not a matter of a person’s not having understood what is right but of his being unwilling to understand it, of his not willing what is right. (p. 94, 95)