A philosophical work by Soren Kierkegaard (written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) which uses multiple tellings of the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) to refute the ideas of Hegel.

Hegelian philosophy stresses the importance of surrendering oneself to universal ethics (clearly assuming that such a thing as a universal ethic exists) and, by extension, subordinating one's own desires to the wishes of the group; the elimination of individuality. Hegel had a major influence on the development of fascism and bolshevism.

Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to present a challenge to the idea of universal ethics. To murder one's own son contradicts the universal ethic that such murder is wrong. But, theoretically, obeying God absolutely is definitively "good" (as God sets the standards of "good"). Abraham believes himself to be performing the greatest possible good by obeying his own conception of the highest source of ethics (i.e. God).

Kierkegaard lays bare the essential contradiction of Hegel's ideas: any one person's perception of a universal ethic could be (internally to that person) "higher" than the consensus universal ethic, and therefore that person's ethical actions would violate the universal ethic. Hence "universal ethic" is an oxymoron and individuality will always defeat conformity.

Also, Kierkegaard suggests the defeat of rationalism and logic (universal ethics) by the irrational, the illogical, the emotional, the spiritual (subjective perception and motivation); the overthrow of mechanism by essential humanity.

It should be noted that debate as to the "meaning" of Fear and Trembling continues to this day.


THE TEXT OF FEAR AND TREMBLING

Fear and Trembling: Preface
Fear and Trembling: Prelude
Fear and Trembling: A Panegyric Upon Abraham
Fear and Trembling: Problemata: Preliminary Expectoration

to be noded as I get around to it

Fear and Trembling: Problemata: Problem 1
Fear and Trembling: Problemata: Problem 2
Fear and Trembling: Problemata: Problem 3
Fear and Trembling: Epilogue

In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard discusses the notion of a 'suspension' of the ethical. He begins by arguing that the ethical 'as such' is universal. The point, it seems, is that a system of behavioral rules must have general applicability since by its very nature it must extend throughout the community of adherents. Taking the basic Kierkegaardian temporal unit to be the 'moment' we may understand why the ethical must apply at every moment. Its universality is not only 'spatial' (if we may use that term to describe the physical limits of the community) but temporal as well, for a suspension of the ethical—temporal or otherwise—would require an enabling rule that would itself be subordinate to the ethical system. There can be no external telos—which would be the result of a fragmented perception of the effective system—because the ethical would, in a broader view, subsume and assimilate it.

The individual is identified with the particular. The individual's dilemma is that his freedom to express his particularity conflicts with his ethical duty to submit to the universal. In effect, he is free only to 'sin'. This is the inevitable result of 'temptation', which Kierkegaard characterizes as one's 'urge to assert his particularity'. But Kierkegaard offers a contradiction in the guise of paradox, arguing that 'faith' (if it exists) provides an excuse for the individual, as the particular, to draw his telos from outside the universal and thus stand in 'absolute relation' to it—a relationship that cannot be mediated (that is, logically reconciled) because mediation itself exists 'only' within the universal (where the urge would be revealed as temptation, and the behavior as sin). Here is the purported teleological suspension of the ethical.

Kierkegaard offers the examples of Abraham and Agamemnon, each of whom was required to sacrifice his child. While Agamemnon can be seen as a tragic hero conforming to the ethical by overcoming paternal love and duty in the interest of a greater ethical responsibility to God and people, Abraham cannot even begin to justify himself, for his act—if a genuine suspension of the ethical—is one of unspeakable faith.

But how is faith to be differentiated from the mere temptation to assert one's particularity? There is no easy answer for Kierkegaard, least of all by making reference to the outcome of the individual's actions. Kierkegaard sees greatness in those who act on faith, to some extent because of the lonely 'fear and distress' in which their unjustifiable actions are tried; thus his provocative phrase: 'those whom God blesses he damns in the same breath'. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the individual acting on faith believes that his actions are justified, believes that he has been authorized to move beyond the confines of the merely ethical and into the divine. Whether he is a saint or a madman is not for us to decide: courts will evaluate the justice of his behavior in light of the law; God will evaluate the justice of his behavior in light of his conscience.

But is this still a philosophy? Or has Kierkegaard ventured into the realm of theology? Why, if God exists as an active force in the world, does Kierkegaard make no allowance for divine writ in his characterization of the ethical? Why must such a telos remain not only peripheral but external to the universal ethos? While incorporating it would do nothing to alleviate the problem of differentiating between sin and the very rare virtue of acting on the indemonstrable authority of God, it would at least save Kierkegaard from having to argue for the incomprehensible 'paradox' of extra-universality. Moreover, once faith is invoked on behalf of the unjustifiable, how are limits to be set? Can one not equally—indeed, more consistently— argue for the freedom to pursue one's own particularity as an article of faith? If we must appeal to dogma for guidance on these questions, then it is not merely the ethical that we have suspended, but the philosophical.

Replacing Abraham

In the "Preliminary Expectoration" of Fear and Trembling*, Kierkegaard posits the temperaments of Abraham in the course of his trial. In recognizing the “greatness” of Abraham’s faith, he ponders the prevalence of great people in contemporary times, by way of which he replaces Abraham’s character with his own. This exercise is meant to demonstrate the transcendental quality of “greatness” relative to the general disposition, and is concluded with an analysis of his character’s actions which justifies his sense of the mundane.

Kierkegaard’s exercise and analysis interplay with each the other, drawing attention to a single attitude and how it deserves to be treated. He narrates that, upon mounting his horse,

“…I would have said to myself: Now all is lost, God demands Isaac, I sacrifice him with all my joy – yet God is love and continues to be that for me, for in the world of time God and I cannot talk with each other, we have no language in common.” (p. 35)
Two parts of this passage require explication in this case, which in turn requires the exploration of Kierkegaard’s prior discussion. He understands Isaac as being bound to “all Abraham’s joy” based on his notion of expectancy, which holds that faith capacitates hope for the future in circumstances that seem to defeat it rationally. Before his covenant with God, Sarah had been barren; at the time of the covenant, Abraham was 99 years and Sarah, 90. The absurdity of their conception of Isaac was naturally absolute, but with the intervention of God it happened. That Abraham and Sarah may have been incredulous of God’s promise may be relevant, but what is more important is that Abraham had heard God before, and had faith in Him during the period of Sarah’s sterility. Therefore, not only was Isaac’s connection to his father’s happiness a matter of paternal love, but also of the affirmation of the divine; and with the loss of Isaac, he would also lose the lucre of his faithful patience.

“…yet God is love and continues to be that for me…” Kierkegaard claims that in his saying this, he would be replacing Abraham’s faith with his own lesser “resignation”. He writes that “…the movement of faith must continually be made by virtue of the absurd…” (p. 37), which appears to relegate Abraham, as an agent of faith, to a purely emotional existence. His actions all accord to the order of God, grounded in the irrational hope that He is merely scheming to test him – so his interior experience is all to which he is left. Kierkegaard, in contrast, imagines that with his soliloquy he would be foregoing faith. In proposing the words he does, Kierkegaard claims that he would “not be able to do more than make the infinite movement in order to find (him)self and again rest in (him)self” (p. 35), which abandons absurdity in favor of personal comfort. For the implication of this statement is that while Abraham desperately wanted not to kill his son at every moment of the sacrifice process, Kierkegaard would have been overwhelmed by the terror of God’s command to the extent that he would have merely divorced himself from the situation for his own sense of security (in God).

Until this point in his exercise and analysis, Kierkegaard’s reasoning is straight-forward and generally agreeable – but he may take his conclusion regarding Abraham’s love for Isaac to a rational extreme. He claims that should he have adopted the attitude that his soliloquy demonstrates, he could not have loved Isaac as Abraham did. His support is nearly nonsensical: “…I would not have loved as Abraham loved, for then I would have held back at the very last minute, without, however, arriving too late at Mount Moriah” (p. 35). While this behavior is plausible in the presence of a love like Abraham’s, it does not occur to me as any less likely in the presence of a lesser love, should true faith be absent in both cases. Indeed, should Abraham have done so, it might follow that Kierkegaard should insert his own cessation -- but simultaneously this would render his point valueless. Anyhow, brilliance pursues! He goes on to write that what would have been impossible for him was easy for Abraham -- the survival of his son. Abraham, he argues, was able to accept the survival of Isaac in stride thanks to his infinite resignation of the finite. With every moment mounting to the sacrifice, he hoped that God should rescind his demand of Isaac; and with the preservation of his son, Abraham’s expectancy was fulfilled, and he was able to return to feeling as he did without faulting himself for nearly committing filicide. For Kierkegaard the survival of Isaac would be tragic, because after the fact he would not be able to reconcile that, in the face of a test which amounted to nothing, he had almost rid himself of his greatest pleasure in life. In Kierkegaard’s words, “for he who with all the infinity of his soul, proprio motu et propriis auspiciis, has made the infinite movement and cannot do more, he keeps Isaac only with pain” (p. 35).

Kierkegaard attacks those who would regard his actions as being greater than Abraham’s, calling them “foolish” and “envious of the great” (p. 35). I am not sure that I condone these judgments. It may be that the fatal flaw in this amazing scenario is that, really, Kierkegaard’s resignation would be a form of faith that does not fit his “expectancy” model. It seems to me that in doing as he would, it actually would be to take that final step beyond infinite resignation into faith, and that it is possible for one to be faithful without re-adopting the finite – as only the Knight of Faith can. But that is another essay.


*My edition of Fear and Trembling is a paperback edited and translated by Howard and Edna Hong, and is printed with Repitition. The ISBN-10 is 0-691-02026-4.

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