Sin has its roots in willing, not in knowing

Socrates actually gives no explanation at all of the distinction: not being able to understand and not willing to understand; on the other hand, he is the grand master of all ironists in operating by means of the distinction between understanding and understanding. Socrates explains that he who does not do what is right has not understood it, either; but Christianity goes a little further back and says that it is because he is unwilling to understand it, and this again because he does not will what is right. And in the next place it teaches that a person does what is wrong (essentially defiance) even though he understands what is right, or he refrains from doing what is right even though he understands it; in short, the Christian teaching about sin is nothing but offensiveness toward man, charge upon charge; it is the suit that the divine as the prosecutor ventures to bring against humankind.
But can any human being comprehend this Christian teaching? By no means, for it is indeed Christianity and therefore involves offense. It must be believed.To comprehend is the range of man’s relation to the human, but to believe is man’s relation to the divine. How then does Christianity explain this incomprehensibility? Very consistently, in a way just as incomprehensible: by revealing it.
Therefore, interpreted Christianly, sin has its roots in willing, not in knowing, and this corruption of willing affects the individual’s consciousness. This is entirely consistent, for otherwise the question of the origin of sin would have to be posed in regard to each individual.

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death


6 thoughts on “Sin has its roots in willing, not in knowing

  1. Not knowing would seem to invalidate sin entirely, as we would all be operating under incorrect assumptions. Suppose I shot someone in self defense because they were pointing a gun at me, and only found out later that the gun was plastic. Could I really be charged with murder?

    People take “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” to mean that man is eternally ignorant and unaccountable. It is more likely man knows in his heart he rejects goodness but shrugs off the inevitable consequences of his actions, sometimes remaining defiant right up until the point of death.

    • The disadvantage of quoting, is that it doesn’t put the quoted text entirely in the context. In this chapter, Kierkegaard is discussing the Socratic view that the opposite of sin is virtue, with his own Christian view that the opposite of sin is faith in God.
      The doctrine of the fallen state of man plays an important part in the distinction that Kierkegaard is trying to make. We’re malfunctioning creatures who in their natural state (the one the Creator meant for us) live in all moments with Divine Grace. Since the Fall, our moral capacities, as well as quite a lot of our faculties, aren’t capable of functioning properly, because we lack Grace which most of us don’t desire very strongly. We need faith and communion with God in order to be able to reach the summum bonum.
      On the other hand, eudaimonia as conceived by Socrates, the Stoics and Modern philosophers and humanists, is the summum bonum and something that we’re capable to achieve with enough effort. The opposite of sin is virtue, according to them, and living in virtue is a matter of learning what is virtue and how to practice it.
      The disadvantage of not having a doctrine of the Fall is that we’re likely to think that with enough effort and knowledge we’ll become mostly good in what we are and do.

      (A bit off-topic: The disadvantage of not having a *proper* doctrine of the Fall, as Gnostic esotericists lack one, is that they believe essentially the same thing except for the materialistic presuppositions, replacing humanistic enlightenment with esoteric enlightenment.
      This is why Christianity is the true philosophy, and both scientific Rationalism and esoteric syncretism are incomplete and radically defective.)

      Because of the Fall, aren’t people blind to the evil of their own deeds and deaf to the warnings of their conscience? Especially those who live in extremely evil ages like ours, where many are educated and conditioned to approve and desire sin.

      And I agree with your second paragraph.

      • Interesting. This is indeed a tricky subject.

        Is virtue the opposite of sin? One of the criteria for determining an antonym, an opposite, is which state must something be in to necessarily negate the originally posited state.


        Hot is the antonym of cold, because something cannot be both hot and cold at the same time.

        But what about virtue, faith in God, and sin? It seems that faith in God cannot be the opposite of sin because one can both have faith in God, and be a sinner, as every Christian will attest that they are sinners but they have faith in God.

        However, I understand what Kierkegaard is saying, because if we expect the result of sin to be damnation, then we should expect the result of virtue to be salvation… but we know that no man achieves salvation through his works. Salvation for human beings cannot be earned, it is a gift given through grace.

        My query would be whether this was intrinsically true or contingently true (contingent on the Fall). From what I understand, one may enter the Kingdom of God by being morally perfect, committing no sin. This path is open, but no man can walk it because all men sin, and so the only option one has is to throw themselves upon God’s mercy and accept salvation through grace.
        I did a little research, using Liberty University as a resource and it would appear that angels must take this path to salvation, as no grace is open to them. They will be judged.

        (1Corinthians 6:1 – 4)

        What would separate the fallen third of the heavenly host from the rest would be their sin for which they are devoted to destruction, while the others would be morally perfect. Has Michael committed any sin? I would not suppose so.

        It seems that the intrinsically, sin is the opposite of virtue, but for human beings contingent upon the Fall, sin is indeed the opposite of faith in God.

      • What you say makes sense, although I have to admit that on the case of the angels I am not well informed.

        The state of Grace presupposes faith, because it was through lack of faith (we believed the serpent instead of God) and through disobedience that we fell from that same state. But being virtuous is also a part of being in the state of Grace, and not being in the state of Grace prevents us from being virtuous in the absolute sense.

        In the context of Kierkegaard’s writings, faith and sin are both, in their ultimate sense, acts of the will. The former an act of humble submission and trust, the latter – an act of defiance. In this context they are antonyms, though we should not forget that in his philosophy Kierkegaard treats existential questions without fully adhering to traditional Christian spirituality.

        We can easily say that the opposite of sin may be saintliness, the opposite of virtue – vice, and the opposite of faith – either unfaithfulness or disbelief (depending on the chosen meaning). Saintliness contains both, since the saints of the Church often advise to both have faith in God, to have humility before him and to practice the virtues. Ultimately, the only state in which we will not be sinners is the state of theosis.

    • I’ve been exploring the divisions of the psyche according to Plato, and have found interesting borrowings from this by the Church Fathers – especially in reading Evagrius Ponticus and Dumitru Staniloae.

      In the Phaedrus and in the Republic, Plato talks about Nous (“intellect”), Thumos (“passion”), and Epithumia (“appetite”).

      The Nous is supposed to be the cognitive faculty, the one with which we reason both discursively and intuitively. In the Church Fathers, Dianoia is the discursive reason, i.e. the one thought in language, while Nous proper is the faculty of pure intuitive apprehension (highest among which is the experience of the divine energies). It is the rational faculty that is dysfunctional after the Fall – because we no longer live in a state of Grace.

      The Thumos is the volitional faculty. It is, in patristics, the heart, with which we guide both the Nous, called by Plato the “obedient horse”, and the Epithumia, the “insubordinate horse”. The purification of the heart (or of the will) through prayer, asceticism, the sacraments – in short, through synergy with God’s Grace – seems to be the way with which we are healed from the tyranny of (the unnatural state of) the Epithumia and thus permitting the Nous to know God.

      The Epithumia is the faculty of the passions. They are natural to us but, according to the Fathers, it is their natural place to be subordinate to the Thumos/will, which they are not since the Fall.

      Following the logic of surrendering our Thumos in synergy with God in order to heal our souls and have proper balance between Nous and Epithumia, Kierkegaard seems much less wrong than I thought. It is with the will that we make our decisions, including the decision to let ourselves be enslaved to the passions and the decision not to pursue noetic knowledge of the Good. (Though I am not sure to what extent was the Danish philosopher aware of the need for spiritual exercises in order to free our pursuit of the Good from the distractions of evil thoughts (logismoi).)

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