Kierkegaard tells us that the Socratic tradition understood sin as ignorance. The problem that Kierkegaard finds with such notion is its partial definition, which “leaves unclear how ignorance is to be more precisely understood, the question of its origin, etc” (p. 120). In Socrates’ view, if someone sins, such sinful action happens because one does it involuntarily and out of ignorance. Consequently, sinful actions are not rooted elsewhere but in knowledge itself. In this respect Socrates’s definition of sin has a serious issue: “If sin is ignorance, then sin does not really exist for sin is precisely consciousness” (p. 121).
When dealing with of how Socrates ended with his definition, one must take into account that a) Socrates himself is not a religious ethicist; b) Unlike Christianity, his discussion of sin is basic; and c) Socrates did not get what Christianity knows as sin (p.120-21).
In Kierkegaard’s view, the Socratic definition covers itself as follows:
When a person does not do the right thing, then neither has he understood it; his understanding is an illusion; his protestation of understanding is a misleading message, his repeated protestations that he’ll be damned if he doesn’t understand, a huge, huge distance away on the greatest possible detour. But then the definition is indeed correct. If a person does the right thing, then he surely doesn’t sin; and if he doesn’t do the right thing, then he hasn’t understood it either. If he had truly understood it, that would soon have moved him to do it; it would soon have made him a sound-image of his understanding; ergo, sin is ignorance (125).
As Kierkegaard notes, Socrates’ definition of sin has some gaps. One of those gaps is the situation where a person may know what is morally wrong or right and does the opposite of what she knows. Another issue with Socrates’ notion of sin is that if someone does wrong out of ignorance, then this person would not be responsible for her actions. Therefore, Socrates’ concept of sin is not only partial as Kierkegaard suggests, but also it is problematic because it runs against common experience.
Christianity offers a better approach to sin because it pays attention to the actual difference between knowing what is morally good vs. doing it, or knowing what is morally evil vs. not doing it. In other words, Christianity recognizes that people’s actions to do something morally right or wrong are not based merely on knowledge itself. It is in this respect that Kierkegaard uses the Socratic notion of sin to start his proposal but does not stop there. He completes it by adding what Christianity has to say. What Christianity provides is that “[it] assumes that neither paganism nor the natural man know what sin is; yes, it assumes there must be a revelation from God to reveal what sin is.” (p. 122) Because Christianity believes that God has revealed us what sin is through Scripture—that is, we do not know what sin is simply by human moral awareness—sin has, in some degree, an intentional dimension.
Although Kierkegaard seems to read Socrates with sympathy. However, he recognizes that the Socratic definition of sin misses a significant element: the notion of defiance. Let’s unpack this. While Socrates assumes that if a person does something which is not right it is because she does not know, Kierkegaard operates on a deeper level—he discusses the will of a person following the Augustinian tradition which departs from the pagan notion of sin and highlights the role of will in creating more ignorance. In this respect, Kierkegaard asserts that human being intelligence has been darkened because of the lower desires, and in such situation, the will and the intelligence act accordingly because the latter follows the former (p. 127). Under such circumstances, no human being by itself can give the correct definition of sin because such being has been corrupted by sin (p. 128). Thus, Christianity locates sin not in knowledge itself, or human nature, but in the will of the person. Our will has been corrupted and this makes us depend on God for illumination (awareness) on what it is sin, who we offend when we commit sin (God), and the deep consequences of sin in our life. “The possibility of offence lies in there having to be a revelation from God for man to learn what sin is and how deep it goes,” Kierkegaard rightly writes (p. 128).
Based on the discussion above, Kierkegaard concludes that the notion of sin he initially offered must be expanded to the following form: “Sin is: having been taught by a revelation from God what sin is, before God in despair not to want to be oneself, or in despair to want to be oneself.”(p. 128)
Notes & References
All citations are taken from Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death. Penguin Classics, 1989.