By Soren Kierkegaard.
Translated by Walter Lowrie.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974
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Comments and notes by Bob Corbett
These comments and note are quite different from what I do most of the time. Here I re-read a book I've read many times before in response to a specific question from a former student and I have first stated his question, then my reply, then appended detailed notes I took along the way as I worked to prepare my reply to him. All this is done within the context of a different discussion I have currently going on in my e-mail discussion forum I run with former students, a discussion of Charles Taylor's book, THE ETHICS OF AUTHENTICITY.
Special thanks to former philosophy major Jason Bollinger from whom I had not heard in years who recently wrote the note below about what sense to make of the biblical story of Abraham, and more particularly, what sense to make of the Existentialist reply of the Danish philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard in his book FEAR AND TREMBLING.
Below I have excerpted Jason’s statement of the problem. Below that I give a rather brief reply intended to take a stand, but not exhaust the matter. At the same time Jason’s question sent me back to reread FEAR AND TREMBLING with much greater care than any of my previous half-dozen readings. I have posted the notes from this new reading and they detail much more in reply to Jason’s question about Abraham.
This exchange, which I invite you all to join, is DEEPLY related to the discussion of subjectivity which we are discussing with the Taylor book. At any rate, here is the essence of Jason’s e-mail to me and my brief reply:
I reread "Fear and Trembling." I thought this would be a bit of a chore, and then I found myself finishing it off in one sitting, remembering my love for Kierkegaard, and for that matter philosophy in general. I found the work to be quite a different experience at age 26 than it was at 19, and I expect it will continue to age well. I was struck this time at how audacious Kierkegaard is--not only bold of concept and words but flaunting and repeating his arguments in the bluntest language possible. In a time dominated by the work of Hegel and Kant, it's easy to see how he died a pariah.
Anyway, I'm writing because I have a question re: "Fear and Trembling" that I remember striking me back in my college days, but I don't remember how or if it was resolved for me. As I read it, the first line Kierkegaard draws between the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith is by insisting that Abraham went to Moriah expecting not that Isaac would be a sacrificial example of his faith to God (as a knight of infinite resignation might have believed) but rather, in his faith, Abraham trusted that God would not allow him to go through with killing Isaac at all: "He climbed the mountain, even in that moment the knife gleamed he believed--that God would not demand Isaac." (page 65 of the Penguin edition)
I've always taken a more mature understanding of the knight of faith; not that he believes God could never REALLY mean him to do evil, but rather that he is totally resigned to the belief in the final goodness and ultimate morality of the celestial plan. Kierkegaard seems to come around to this a bit later, but he never to my satisfaction deals with the difference between Abraham raising the knife because he believes he will be stopped and Abraham raising the knife because he believes that whatever happens next is God's will and therefore righteous.
I think this is a case of the writer simply figuring his readers can fill in some blanks on their own, seeing as how it is a simple enough question. But if you think about it, there are a few ways one can interpret this tension. Kierkegaard dances around it quite a bit...his discussion of the knight of faith as simple and naive in his beliefs is a bit helpful, as is his argument that the individual acting on faith surmounts the universal morality. There are some promising leads, but he stops short of answering my question directly.
Anyway, I would very much welcome your thoughts and research on this subject.
Jason, you seem to ask three questions:
I am going to briefly address #s 1 and 3 and evade # 2, I just wasn’t willing to do the work to reply to that one.
However, like you, I ended up having to go back and carefully reread the whole book, Fear and Trembling. Unlike you, that took me the better part of an entire week and I did make lots of notes. Those may be found at the bottom of this first set of responses to your questions.
A. The problematic and your question:
What are we to make of Abraham? In the Hebrew scriptures he is in the line of David. It is to the house of David that God will eventually send a “savior” who will make the Jews God’s chosen people and through whom the world will be saved. As we know, now in the 21st century the Jews are still waiting for the house of David to produce this savior and the Christians believe that God already did this with Jesus Christ and that he was from the house of David and was the savior.
But Abraham seemed to about to end the possibility. He was aged and had no son. His wife Sarah had no children. Finally very late in life, long after the years of normal child birth Sarah gives birth to a child, Isaac, who is to carry on this line that will eventually lead to the savior.
Astonishingly, after this wait and this necessary move for God to carry out his own promise, he then tells Abraham to take this child to Mount Moriah and to sacrifice him to prove his faith in God.
That’s the situation, and the problematic is: What in the world kind of man is this Abraham? He is a father; seemingly a loving father. Yet this voice in a bush tells him to take a knife and go kill his son and here we find him running off to the mount to do in his child. Is he mad? Is he pure evil? It is hard to imagine what sense to make of him, but in any case very difficult to make any positive sense of Abraham.
Thus the first question is: In this book Fear and Trembling which Kierkegaard devotes exclusively to the question of Abraham, what sense does Kierkegaard make of him and what sense of what God’s expectation is and what God’s plan is does Kierkegaard think Abraham had?
Kierkegaard believes Abraham is the father of the notion of religious faith, the very first historical case of a man of pure faith, a knight of faith. Kierkegaard is in awe of Abraham, wishes he himself could have such faith, but doesn’t and is terrified of it. Yet he thinks he understands Abraham even if doesn’t have the courage to imitate him.
On Kierkegaard’s view we operate on three levels in regard to life and morality:
Abraham, on Kierkegaard’s view, makes this leap into faith and thus his willingness to kill Isaac must be understood in terms of this realm of faith. When one moves into faith one is NOT any longer operating within the ethical level of the rational universal, thus our doubts about Abraham’s sanity or goodness are misplaced since they are questions about someone who is operating at the ethical level.
Kierkegaard’s first important argument is about just that. Faith is moving into a realm in which one ceases to be in the universal and rational, in which one acts as a lone individual in an absurd (that is, non-rational) leap of faith out of the world of our typical everyday finitude and into God’s world of infinity and transcendental wisdom. Thus if we are to judge or understand Abraham we must understand what it is to be a knight of faith.
First – and this is at the RATIONAL level – we must arrive at infinite resignation. What is this? The rational can reveal to us the world in its universality. The world is what it is and not something else. To accept the world as it is, that is to resign ourselves to the given. When this given is fully universal, then it is infinite. To accept the is that is to have infinite resignation.
But, to have that infinite resignation on the basis of an individual and person relationship with God, and not on the basis of philosophy, science or theology, well, that is something other, it is the PARADOX of faith.
Why is this a paradox? Because we have left the universal and rational and we have exposed ourselves to the tremendous dangers of being deceived and of self-deception – that is, we have entered a world of complete and absolute radical subjectivity and we have given up the objective certainties of reason.
Abraham does this in a leap of infinite faith toward God. But, given the tremendous dangers of error (either being deceived or self-deceiving) this act can only be done in fear and trembling, in awesome dread and terror of error, only in an infinite leap of faith in God.
Abraham makes the leap and is thus, for Kierkegaard a great hero and the first historical figure of faith. However, Kierkegaard himself doubts he will EVER have such faith and he is in awe of Abraham.
More specifically to your question what is it that Abraham understands? I think he simply cannot (on Kierkegaard’s view) believe either of your options. You suggest he must believe:
1. Abraham went to Moriah expecting not that Isaac would be a sacrificial example of his faith to God (as a knight of infinite resignation might have believed) but rather, in his faith, Abraham trusted that God would not allow him to go through with killing Isaac at all:
or (where you seem to really lean)
2. (Abraham) believes God could never REALLY mean him to do evil, but rather that he is totally resigned to the belief in the final goodness and ultimate morality of the celestial plan.
I suggest that neither of those will do. Both are too specific. There is a passage very late in the book in which Kierkegaard puts these words into Abraham’s mouth:
“This is his comfort, for he says: ‘But yet this will not come to pass, or, if it does come to pass, then the Lord will give me a new Isaac, by virtue viz. of the absurd.’” (p. 124)
I think the ambiguity here is precisely what Kierkegaard holds. Abraham just has no idea. Either Isaac will be spared, or if not in some utterly incomprehensible manner (the absurd), God will find a way to simply carry out his prophecy – that is, have Abraham continue on the line toward the savior, and continue the promise to make the Jews the chosen people of God. But nothing more specific is on Abraham’s mind.
That’s my reading of Kierkegaard.
2. Corbett’s view of Abraham (and even Kierkegaard’s Abraham) is much broader.
While Kierkegaard concentrates on Abraham as a man of faith, I am deeply moved by Kierkegaard’s analysis of what happens in this moment of radical individualism when one suspends the universal and ethical and determines value on one’s own. This is the essence. Kierkegaard is for me blinded by one and only one answer: faith in God. Most existentialists take a route much more like the one which Charles Taylor says in the issue today in our world – ours in the time of this radical subjectivity. What are we to make of it? I think Kierkegaard got it right: When it comes to value we must leave the universal (it fails us) and we must become the LONE individual who in faith – but I think in faith to one’s self – must determine value and truth. And Kierkegaard is 100% right that this is no light act. Any serious person does it with fear and trembling, with dread and humility at the awesome responsibility one takes upon one’s shoulder’s when one does this. It is not the light and trivial play that Jason Chester complained of in his early post on Charles Taylor’s analysis of modern day subjectivism, when one just evades it all by trivially saying: it’s all relative. Values must be created by the “I choose” and “I shall now act.” But such choices are the most awesome responsibility one has in life. They are, just as Kierkegaard says of his notion of faith in the epilogue – the higher meaning of life.
As Kierkegaard says: one may stay in the ethical, the universal and have a meaningful and satisfying life. Or one may go farther and embrace in fear and trembling and in dread and awe the faith in one’s own choices, facing the terrifying possibilities of being deceived and of deceiving oneself. One makes these choices – Kierkegaard’s faith and my lone human choices – in fear and trembling, in dread, awe and humility, and then takes full responsibility for those choices and the life that follows from them.
On my view, Kierkegaard just analyzes one possible way to act when one suspends the ethical and universal and enters into the world of the individual subjectivity.
Let’s talk more,
A PANEGYRIC UPON ABRAHAM pp. 30-37
The opening argument says that if life itself is objectively meaningless then “…how empty then and comfortless life would be.”
This is precisely the argument that Friederich Nietzsche sought to combat in his entire corpus. Unlike Kierkegaard, Nietzsche argues that this nihilism of Kierkegaard (how empty and comfortless life would be) does not follow from the objective fact of meaninglessness. Rather, on Nietzsche’s view meaning is a subjective fact of the individual and even of entire cultures.
To understand Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac we must understand Abraham in relation to the problem of meaninglessness and nihilism. Abraham avoids nihilism by faith. His faith costs him 70 years in waiting for God promised him the Savior and his own son would be in the genealogical line leading toward the Savior. Then when Sarah gives birth in miraculous fashion in her 90s, God commands Abraham to sacrifice the child. It is the absolute test of Abraham’s faith.
PROBLEMATA: PRELIMINARY EXPECTORATIONpp. 38-64.
Every heard of an expectoration before?
In ethical expression: Abraham would simply be a murderer of Isaac. In religious expression: He would sacrifice Isaac.
This contradiction is the source of Abraham’s dread and Kierkegaard’s astonishment.
Kierkegaard can tolerable well understand Hegel and when he can’t, then he thinks that maybe Hegel is unclear. But Abraham stumps him. Well, he says that, but it turns out he’s not intellectually stumped as he tells us soon, but he can’t bring himself to act in this notion of faith. So Kierkegaard has sort of an existential block with faith.
One can’t just write Abraham off. He is a very good man and he deeply loves Isaac. Something quite extraordinary is going on here. Despite these positive facts of Abraham, he repels Kierkegaard.
Faith is the puzzle: “For me the love of God is, both in a direct and in an inverse sense, incommensurable with the whole of reality. (p. 45)
P. 48. The infinite resignation seems beyond any question of outcome.
“He really goes further, and reaches faith; for all these caricatures of faith, the miserable lukewarm indolence which thinks, ‘There sure is no instant need, it is not worth while sorrowing before the time,’ the pitiful hope which says, ‘One cannot know what is going to happen…it might possibly be after all’ – these caricatures of faith are part and parcel of life’s wretchedness, and the infinite resignation has already consigned them to infinite contempt.”
pp. 48-49. Kierkegaard knows all about faith, he just can’t act it. This is why Abraham is such a hero for him.
Kierkegaard’s imaginary knight of infinite resignation seems quite ordinary but:
(p. 51) “…with infinite resignation he has drained the cup of life’s profound sadness, he knows the bliss of the infinite, he senses the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest things he possesses in the world and yet finiteness tastes to him just as good as to one who never knew anything higher, for his continuance in the finite did not bear a trace of the cowed and fearful spirit produced by the process of training…”
(p, 51) “He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd.”
He embraced meaninglessness and gave it meaning. But, did this in faith.
p. 52-54 and more: the love story analogy. Love sort of sidetracks Kierkegaard in his obsession with his own failed love affair.
p. 56. “In the infinite resignation there is peace and rest; every man who wills it, who has not abased himself by scorning himself (which is still more dreadful than being proud), can train himself to make this movement which in its pain reconciles one with existence.”
This all smacks of escapism to me. It seems a version of stoicism or Marx’s claimed opiate of the people, escaping the dread of failed human existence into this vague world of the perfection of the future and God in faith. In the process I fear one may lose the passion for the NOW.
p. 57. Infinite resignation is prior to faith, and a precondition to it.
His position on this faith, expressed in this case concerning the lover’s conviction that he will eventually get the beloved:
“I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.”
Note: Nietzschean meaninglessness can have a knight of infinite resignation, but resignation without faith, just acceptance of the meaninglessness itself.
p. 59. Kierkegaard recognizes what I suggest in the comment above: that resignation can be purely philosophical and without faith.
p.61. The knight of faith is quite different and more advanced that the knight of infinite resignation.
p. 63. An answer, or beginning of an answer to Jason’s question:
Abraham cannot view the call of God to sacrifice Isaac as a “trial.” If so Abraham has no faith. “The whole of life is a trial.” Faith must be over that whole of life, not some particular moment.
PROBLEM I: IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A TELEOLOGICAL SUSPENSION OF THE ETHICAL? Pp. 64-77.
Kierkegaard raises the question if faith can be the justification for overriding reasoned philosophical morality (the ethical). He wants desperately to say YES in the case of Abraham, but he is deeply troubled by this notion, especially the radical subjectivism it suggests.
He thus claims he will try to give criteria for when such a “suspension” of the ethical is justified – but he actually does little to bolster the idea. He gives no general criteria and even in Abraham’s case rests his case solely on Abraham’s good character and his deep love for Isaac. Yet this latter is seriously called into question by Abraham’s apparent willingness to kill Isaac.
In general Kierkegaard is simply astonished by Abraham. He WANTS faith like Abraham’s to be rationally justified but the essence of his message and title of the book are that it isn’t so. Such faith is an absurd leap into a non-rational infinite region and one may only do it in fear and trembling.
Put differently: What Abraham does make no rational sense, but in the face of faith the non-rationality of it doesn’t matter.
Notes along the way:
The ethical – reason – teaches us the universality of ethics. But, in faith one becomes not the universal, but the individual – one thus suspends the ethical.
There is a danger that one may confuse faith and a simple temptation to violate the universality of the ethical.
Thus there must be certain criteria:
Abraham is no tragic hero who can appeal to a higher universal to overcome a lower universal. He is either a murderer or a believer.
The tragic hero (Agamemnon, Jephtha, Brutus) must sacrifice a child for a higher purpose of the state and community.
All honor them and weep for them
p. 69 “If on the other hand, these three men at the decisive moment were to adjoin to their heroic conduct this little word: ‘But for all that it will not come to pass,’ who then would understand them better? For who would not easily understand that it was absurd, but who would understand that one could then believe it”?
The tragic hero remains in the ethical.
Kierkegaard assumes Abraham did this just to prove his faith. However, just as for the other 3, the entire future of God’s plan for Israel is at stake. This is certainly indirect and God may well have done it differently, but Kierkegaard’s analysis is not fully obvious to me that Abraham wasn’t in the ethical in a similar sense as the other three tragic heroes.
One way to just such profession of faith (is it temptation or teleological suspension of the ethical) is by result. Kierkegaard scorns this since the criterion is the well-ordered state.
Kierkegaard ask the right question, but doesn’t really reply. How does one tell faith from temptation?
PROBLEM II: IS THERE SUCH A THING AS AN ABSOLUTE DUTY TOWARD GOD? 78-91
If duty is duty toward the universal (the rational) then one actually has no duty to God per se. This goes back to the old question from Plato:
Is something good BECAUSE God wills it so, or does God will it BECAUSE it is good?
Could God, for example, have made what we call murder good? In effect that is precisely Kierkegaard’s question.
If God’s will and the rational are identical, then one way say one has no direct and immediate duty to God. But for Kierkegaard, since at the ethical level Abraham’s act is murder, for him to be justified there must be some specific duty toward God which is not itself rational.
(Note: Kierkegaard constantly attacks Hegel’s attack on Abraham. Where is this attack. The footnotes seem to suggest it is in Hegel’s Logic.)
Faith rests (for Kierkegaard) on inwardness (subjectivity) – “feeling, mood etc.” while the ethical is objective. “The paradox of faith is this, that there is an inwardness which is commensurable for the outward, an inwardness, be it observed, which is not identical with the first but is a new inwardness.” (p. 79)
Important quote: p. 80 “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal, that the individual (to recall a dogmatic distinction now rather seldom heard) determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the universal. The paradox can also be expressed by saying that there is an absolute duty toward God; for in this relationship of duty the individual as an individual stands related absolutely to the absolute. So when in this connection it is said that it is a duty to love God, something different is said for that in the foregoing; for if this duty is absolute, the ethical is reduced to a position of relativity. From this, however, it does not follow that the ethical is to be abolished, but it acquires an entirely different expression, the paradoxical expression – that, for example, love to God may cause the knight of faith to give his love to his neighbor the opposite expression to that which, ethically speaking, is required by duty.”
One become a knight of faith by assuming the paradox, otherwise not.
Pp. 82-85 is the analysis of the passage in Luke:
“If any man cometh unto me and hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
Kierkegaard points out this text:
Kierkegaard is not so frightful of the occasional individual going crazy with this doctrine since he believes too many fear the responsibility of this level of individualism.
p. 86 ff. “Let us consider a little more clearly the distress and dread in the paradox of faith.”
Once again Kierkegaard attempts some criteria to separate genuine faith from mere temptation:
PROBLEM III: WAS ABRAHAM ETHICALL DEFENSIVLE IN KEEPING SILENT ABOUT THE PURPOSE BEFORE SARAH, ELEAZAR, BEFORE ISAAC? pp. 91-129
General argument: This is again a problem of the ethical. Kierkegaard points out that the knight of the aesthetic (intuitive universal) is one who may sacrifice him or herself, but not others. The tragic hero (one knight of the ethical) can sacrifice him or herself or others for the universal, but not otherwise. Yet Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac and remain silent to those who seem to have an ethical right to know. What are we to make of this?
His treatment is quite curious. There is a long section in which he raises, again, the question of subjectivity and the dangers of believing what is truth faith is really self-deception. He cites several literary cases of such self-deception.
However, when he gets down to the final answer it has nothing to do with this question of possible self-deception, but the claim that Abraham couldn’t “say” anything to them since to “say” is to speak in the universal otherwise no one can comprehend us. But, when one speaks in faith one speaks of the absolutely individual experience and no one can really understand it. Thus, in effect, there is noting INTELLIGIBLE Abraham could say.
More particularly along the way he argues:
Ethics requires revelation. Aesthetics allows silence. This silence, however, is the subjective paradox again since:
In the ethical the individual is in absolute relation to the universal.
But in aesthetics and faith the individual is in absolute relation to the absolute.
Only religion can solve the paradox between the aesthetic and the ethical
Kierkegaard demonstrates this via Greek tragedy where the pronouncements of the augerers is absolute, fate itself. In his modern world the tragic hero’s information is aesthetic, individual and non-universal.
He uses the story of merman and Agnes to illustrate the demonical (mistakes) in the paradox of the individual versus the universal in which the actor is deceived.
This is further demonstrated in the stories of Tobias and Sarah and Faust. I must admit I simply didn’t understand the Faust passage from pp. 116-121. I’ve have to go back to that another time and work more intensely on it.
Abraham’s silence toward Sarah, Eleazar and Isaac is because they simply can’t understand what he has to say. “Either the individual as the individual is able to stand in the absolute relation to the absolute (and then the ethical is not the highest) / or Abraham is lost – he is neither a tragic hero nor an aesthetic hero.” (p. 122).
Abraham cannot speak for to really speak is to enter into the universal. What Abraham can “say” is unintelligible except in faith. It is a divine language, a speaking in tongues.
Abraham makes two movements:
Note: “This is his comfort, for he says: ‘But yet this will not come to pass, or, if it does come to pass, then the Lord will give me a new Isaac, by virtue viz. of the absurd.’” (p. 124)
Abraham’s reply to Isaac’s question, where the lamb? is: “…God will provide Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” This answer is INSIDE the paradox and thus those words he speaks truly. Of course, Isaac doesn’t understand.
The highest act of human is faith.
One may well have a meaningful full life without faith. But faith is still higher form of being than any other.
Kierkegaard himself is quite fearful that he may never really achieve faith, yet perhaps this very analysis of Abraham itself, the very thoughts and claims he presents, are an example of faith.
One must always keep in mind that in the paradox of faith, the paradox of radical subjectivity, the paradox of choosing when one might actually be deceived or even self-deceiving, is done is fear and trembling and not something the serious person takes lightly.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org