I am currently reading a book called The Psychology Book ..the first chapters are talking about how psychology evolved from philosophy and they talked about Kierkegaard in a chapter called " Be that self which one truly is " which is based on Kierkegaard's book The Sickness Unto Death.

The Psychology Book says :

"Kierkegaard took the example of a man who wanted to become an emperor, and pointed out that ironically, even if this man did somehow achieve his aim, he would have effectively abandoned both his desire and accomplishment, he wants to “be rid of” his self. This disavowal of the self is painful: despair is overwhelming when a man wants to shun himself—when he “does not possess himself; he is not himself.” However, Kierkegaard did offer a solution. He concluded that a man can find peace and inner harmony by finding the courage to be his true self, rather than wanting to be someone else. “

What I got is that Kierkegaard sees want to change as an attempt to get rid of myself and be another self either if I win for eg and became an emperor or i failed both ways I would be abandoning my true self ..does this means that he sees any change i make ,any improvement to my personality as an attempt to be someone else ?is true self synonymous to no change at all ? I am sure I am missing something because How would people improve then ?

  • No, no, no. Becoming our true selves often requires a lot of changes. The hardest part is discovering who you really are, because we are all raised to submit to rules and to obey authority to some extent. Who you really are is that Self whom you are most able to love unconditionally. For example, if you obey a law or submit to a tradition that goes against your conscience, you lose self-respect (even if only subconsciously). If you become the person you think others want you to be, you are not in possession of yourself -- others are. So in such circumstances you can't be your authentic self.
    – Bread
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 19:06

3 Answers 3


This is a little tricky, philosophically speaking. Kierkegaard would be inclined to say that almost no one is their 'true self'. For instance, if we have a bricklayer who wants to be an emperor, then that desire to be an emperor — which I'll note derives from a value imposed externally — risks denying the fact that he actually is a bricklayer. But by that same token, the fact that he actually is a bricklayer is imposed externally, and might represent a denial of his true self. Maybe his true self aligns with poetry, or baseball, or baking; and maybe it aligns with being a bricklayer or an emperor.

The true self isn't identified with the status quo; the true self is something to be discovered, and discovering is the only way to avoid misery. The status quo has to be embraced because it is what actually is, and there's no sense denying it. but the status quo is not a limitation.


Interpreting Kierkegaard is made problematic by Kierkegaard's strategic use of a pseudonyms as a rhetorical strategy. The book under consideration here, The Sickness Unto Death, was written by Anti-Climacus. Unsurprisingly, Anti-Climacus can be contrasted with Johannes Climacus. Johannes Climacus's main work is Philosophical Fragments. So if we're reading Kierkegaard, we need to be poised to understand what the rhetorical position Kierkegaard is setting for himself is. Climacus is kind of a wild thinker, concerned only with the subjective appropriation of knowledge and convinced that the rational path of the philosophers through inference cannot obtain to the important matters. By contrast we see Anti-Climacus working things through like a good dialectical and properly metaphysical philosopher in the Sickness unto Death.

This brings us to the first real point: namely, what Kierkegaard means by "being a self" in Sickness Unto Death is attended by a strict metaphysical interpretation of the self. To simplify matters greatly, there are several different ways of "not being oneself", all of which with their own dialectical structure. These deficient modes of subjectivity arise from the nature of subjectivity itself to be tasked with synthesizing the metaphysical polarities that Kierkegaard prizes: infinite/finite; eternal/temporal; totality/partiality; universal/particular. To not be oneself means: to not have synthesized these opposites properly. You thus must avoid reading the word 'self' in Anti-Climacus's writings as having the ordinary meaning that we use it in everyday language or even in present-day psychology.

Finally, to speak directly to your question:

What I got is that Kierkegaard sees want to change as an attempt to get rid of myself and be another self either if I win for eg and became and an emperor or if i failed i would be abandoning my true self ..does this means that he sees any change i make ,any improvement to my personality as an attempt to be someone else ?is true self synonymous to no change at all ? I am sure I am missing something because How would people improve then ?

In short, you're making too light a matter of what it would be to "get rid of myself and be another self." Going from being a pauper to an emperor is not getting a new self, for Kierkegaard, since it hasn't anything to do with the synthesis of the eternal and the temporal. In my view, the book you're reading from is making pretty light and loose use of Kierkegaard here for the sake of some rhetorical goal. This is amplified by the defanged, sterilized, and secularized account of the solution Kierkegaard provides, which is a misrepresentation bordering on fraud. Kierkegaard pretty literally says you have to rest in a higher power in the final sections of Sickness Unto Death. Just as there are an uncountably infinite number of wrong answers to a math problem, and only one correct one, there many different ways to fail to be yourself; only one way to be yourself. Your authors fail to mention that the "courage to be oneself" means the courage to rest in God; it is like throwing oneself down a bottomless pit and resting in the eternal free-fall. This makes him way more radical than any of the other existentialists, in my opinion, most of whom would abhor the suggestion.

  • 2
    Actually the resting in a higher power (without calling it God at that point) occurs nearly on the next page in part 1 of SUD. C. Stephen Evans spends quite a bit of ink defending the claim that the first part is not even committed to identifying the power with God.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 23:48
  • Thanks, I take your point. I should have drafted the last paragraph more carefully to reflect interpretive difficulties. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 23:57

Interesting discussion. Thanks to transitionsynthesis for the thoughts on interpreting Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard said in Purity of Heart: "To will one thing is to will the great good"

This is obviously out of context with the spirit of his quote, but what if the Bricklayer's desire or will to be an Emperor was in fact his greatest possible good? What if he was made to become Emperor and destroy the tyranny of the empire setting his family and countrymen free in the process?

Let us modernize this idea to show another angle: In the US when a minority from a blue collar background aspires to be elected to the highest office in the country, despite the odds against them, this quest is encouraged, admired and praised. The question of their aspirational identity as a future President then becomes a matter of failure, success or something in between. Maybe the person goes to law school, spends 10 or 12 years in politics and ends up becoming a Senator. They then go back to doing law in the construction industry. No one would suggest that their journey or even their failure was inauthentic. To me identity becomes not a matter of truth to oneself, but rather a matter of risk vs reward in the greater trajectory of life.

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