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  • Dependence and its Discontents:Kierkegaard on being Sustained by Another
  • Edward F. Mooney

To ears attuned to autonomy and independence, mention of deference or dependence spells trouble. To many it seems incontestable that to be deeply dependent on another forfeits dignity, maturity, and self-respect. Yet if this is so, we're on a collision course with Kierkegaard, at least with his picture of a full self in The Sickness Unto Death. There, quite without apology, his pseudonym Anti-Climacus tells us that the self is sustained and grounded in another—in God, or in an absolute, sustaining power.1 The objection is evident. Dependence on God seems to continue the condition of childhood. Maturity is freedom from such dependence. And so we bristle at the idea of valuing dependence, or needing it. But dependence needn't be reverting to childish subservience. Acknowledging Kierkegaardian dependence, in fact, is an achievement of reflective maturity. A self that is rich in independence will be rich in an array of decent dependencies.

I start my elaboration with a quick outline of what I'll call junctures of dependence that I find implicit in a certain reading of the formula found in The Sickness Unto Death. This quick outline—only the bare bones of a reading—needs to be given some flesh and blood. Following my outline, I provide this flesh and blood by presenting Socrates as more than an exemplary Athenian. I discover him to be an exemplary Kierkegaardian self, a self relating to itself and grounded in another. [End Page 1038] We can take Socrates to be a dramatic, theatrical realization of the abstract formula from Sickness Unto Death, the formula fully clothed in that concrete, familiar, and admirable life. Following my portrait of Socrates, I take up for consideration elements of the quick outline at a much slower pace.

In the long trunk of my paper I explore what it means to be an ensemble of relations relating to itself. I emphasize the ensemble's incorporation of relations to constitutive goods, and emphasize its concern with monitoring its unfolding and with testing its authenticity. The ensemble also relates 'to another' or 'to an absolute.' I take up this relation as answering several needs. The self needs a relation to God insofar as a vulnerable self needs backing or a bulwark when morale threatens to break, or insofar as a self needs a critic and forgiver beyond those available in one's social milieu. A relation to God emerges as an aspect of acknowledging the vast and uncharted territory that Wittgenstein calls "this complicated form of life."2

I round off this adventure in tracing modes of dependence by dilating my focus to ask a very broad question. I ask why a dependence on God—central to Kierkegaard's formulation—needs to be understood, as it so often is, as an affirmation of belief in some kind of mysterious 'thing' on which everything else about the self and about the cosmos must rest. I suggest that understanding 'the religious' or 'God' in Kierkegaard begins by refusing to frame God as a frozen transcendental 'something' to which we owe unstinting devotion. It is far more helpful to understand a self's dependence on God as a kind of allusive shorthand for a powerful field of multiple dependencies constituting a religious sensibility. A 'dependence on God' evokes the sustaining powers of local ceremonies of gratitude, forgiveness, self-examination, and trust. These ceremonies or practices animate and constitute a broad attunement to the world and others—a religious sensibility. God is a soft-focus for the animating and shifting narrative center that stabilizes this sensibility.

1. Schema for a Relational Self

The author of Sickness Unto Death has no use for a picture of 'the self' as a thing or as a natural kind, or as a pinpoint of consciousness, or as a site of decision and will. In that famously cryptic formula, "the [End Page 1039] self is a relation that relates to itself, and in relating to itself, relates to another."3 A three-tiered structure can model this formula.

Picture the first floor as an ensemble of parts, a gathering of opposed...


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