picture of Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher. He kept journals of his ideas, and his journal entries in August 1848 seek to understand what causes obsessive "bad" thoughts.

It is quite a particular form of spiritual tribulation when a man sins against his will, in the full sense of the word, haunted by the dread of sin; for example, when sinful thoughts come to him which he would more than willingly escape and does everything to avoid.... [In those cases] a man can truthfully say, I know that I did not occasion those evil thoughts, I know that I do everything I can to fight against them: consequently it is always against his will....

But a half-educated priest comes running up and directs the sufferer to master those thoughts, then he simply does not know what he is talking about and would, if he were allowed to give advice, merely drive the sufferer mad; there is a whole dialectic to be traversed before he can understand....

The form of tribulation under discussion is agonisingly painful and moreover dialectically complicated to the point of madness; it is, if one could imagine it thus in order to define it theologically: an educational torture which, if nothing else, is calculated to extinguish all self-will.

...The sufferer, humanly speaking, suffers guiltlessly. Not, as in the case of sin, where he himself occasions those thoughts, but the very reverse, the thoughts pursue him. Full of dread, he flies from them in every possible way; he harnesses all his ingenuity, all his attention, to the point of despairing perhaps, in order to escape not only the thoughts but even the most distant connection with them. It is of no avail, the dread only increases. And so in this case the usual advice, to try to forget and to avoid them, does not help; for that is exactly what he does and it only brings dread nearer.

...Normally it is a help to be afraid of evil and to fly from it, but in casu [in this case] that is precisely what throws him into the power of those evil thoughts. The more he fears them the greater is their power over him.

...Among other things his suffering consists in his being considered guilty by everyone, qua third person, and in being told that he must try to avoid such thoughts -- which he has perhaps tried to escape with an almost insane ingenuity.... Once again he is on the borderline of madness. He does what he can to escape, he trembles at the very thought of anything however distantly associated with ideas which might occasion those thoughts -- and he is said to be guilty into the bargain. In his impatience it will seem as though not even children torturing a butterfly could inflict such pain.

From Alexander Dru, trans., The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1938), 265-7.


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