Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard
“Generally people are of the opinion that what faith produces is not a work of art, that it is coarse and common work, only for the more clumsy natures; but in fact this is far from the truth. The dialectic of faith is the finest and most remarkable of all; it possesses an elevation, of which indeed I can form a conception, but nothing more. I am able to make from the springboard the great leap whereby I pass into infinity, my back is like that of a tight-rope dancer, having been twisted in my childhood, hence I find this easy; with a one-two-three! I can walk about existence on my head; but the next thing I cannot do, for I cannot perform the miraculous, but can only be astonished by it.”
—Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a nineteenth-century Danish philosopher. He is often called the “father of existentialism” for his exploration of anxiety and absurdity. Based in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard wrote prolifically in an effort to revive the Christian faith among Europeans and also explored aesthetics, ethics, and social criticism. Kierkegaard regularly wrote under pseudonyms, and Fear and Trembling is no exception. As in the passage quoted above, the narrator Johannes de Silentio speaks directly to us.
Kierkegaard published Fear and Trembling in 1843. He hoped to problematize what he felt were overly simplistic and uncritical interpretations of Christianity. In order to do so, Kierkegaard centers his existential exploration of Christianity on the figure of Abraham, who is called by God in Genesis 22 to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Kierkegaard rejects abstracted narratives of Abraham’s sacrifice (such as interpreting the ordeal as a parable of faith) and guides the reader to reckon with Abraham’s anxiety. While Kierkegaard does highlight Abraham’s faith, this faith is quite unlike more popularly accepted understandings of the term. Rather than a genteel piety within a culture of Christendom, Kierkegaard understands Abraham’s faith as highly isolating, anxiety-ridden, and rationally absurd. Ultimately, Kierkegaard articulates a highly existential understanding of the self and of Christianity, presenting a vision where the individual may transcend society and universal moral law.
This Launchpad uses the freely available Walter Lowrie translation of Fear and Trembling from Religion Online. All readings will be cited from this source. Please consult this list of essential terms so that students may better understand the text and questions.
By way of an introduction
- Have you ever done something that you cannot explain? Why were you unable to explain it? Do you think you did the right thing?
- Have you ever been required to give up something important to you? Why did you need to give it up? How did you handle the situation? How did you feel?
- Do you ever find yourself in a serious situation with no clear right answer? How did you feel?
- Do you consider yourself a person of faith (of any sort)? Why?
Abraham and the Binding of Isaac
If you are not familiar with the biblical story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, it is recommended that you read Genesis 22 available through the King James Version on Project Guttenberg. The story of Abraham begin at Genesis 12 and continues to Genesis 25.
Excerpt 1 from Fear and Trembling
In this excerpt, our narrator Johannes de Silentio attempts to address misconceptions about the story of Abraham in order to properly redefine faith. He claims that the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God, found in Genesis 22, has long been exalted as a story that epitomizes faith. Johannes assents that it does exemplify faith but contends that the true meaning of faith has been lost on Christian readers. Christians misunderstand the tale in one of two ways. Either it is seen merely as a story of Abraham’s great love, which overlooks the absurdity and anxiety of Abraham’s actions, or Abraham is simply understood as exceptional and beyond us. In this excerpt Kierkegaard offers us a more thorough and robust concept of faith as he presents Johannes’ awe of Abraham.
Note: The excerpt begins in Chapter 2: Preliminary Expectoration, the 13th paragraph, which begins with “But really is everyone in my generation capable of making the movements of faith,” and ends with “despise … to Philistinism.”
- Review the story of Abraham in Genesis 22. Then consider the following questions. What are your initial impressions of this story? Does your understanding of Abraham differ from Kierkegaard’s? How so?
- How is Kierkegaard’s understanding of Abraham different from other common understandings, according to Johannes?
- Johannes compares his hypothetical response to God to Abraham’s. What seems to be the primary difference between his and Abraham’s response to God?
- What is infinite resignation and how does it differ from faith?
- Johannes mentions the infinite and the finite. What seems to be the relationship between them? How does this help us understand faith?
- Johannes says of Abraham that, “He believed by virtue of the absurd.” What does Johannes mean by that? What seems to be the relationship between faith and absurdity?
- Faith is described as a series of “movements.” What are these two movements and what are the implications of using the language of “movements” to describe faith? What does Kierkegaard gain by employing such language?
- Why is faith so amazing and rare, according to Kierkegaard?
- How does this notion of faith differ from others notions you have encountered? What might be some problems with this understanding of faith?
- Do you consider yourself a person of faith (of any sort)? Do you feel satisfied by Kierkegaard’s definition of it? Why or why not?
- Based on what you have read, develop three questions you would like to ask Kierkegaard.
Excerpt 2 from Fear and Trembling
After establishing Abraham as a lens to investigate an existentialist philosophy, Kierkegaard raises questions intended to provoke further thought on the concepts of anxiety, absurdity, and individualism. Through these questions, Kierkegaard continues to guide the reader into a more immediate apprehension of the anxiety of Abraham. Ultimately, Kierkegaard attempts to problematize a Hegelian ethic of universalism—wherein the individual must act in accordance with universally established ethical codes—through his meditation on absurd faith in Abraham. According to universal ethical norms, Kierkegaard writes, “Abraham is a murderer,” and “Abraham is lost.” However, Kierkegaard attempts to establish an ethical plane superior to the universal, by which Abraham is saved as a Knight of Faith.
Kierkegaard’s first question, “Problema I: Is There a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?” directly explores this problem. Kierkegaard defines faith as “paradox” by which “the particular is higher than the universal.” This paradox leads Abraham, by virtue of the absurd, to the plane of faith. Rejecting Hegel’s universalism, Kierkegaard posits the existence of a religious plane that surpasses universal ethics. This religious plane is only accessible to those with faith, who can, if called by God, reject universal ethics and achieve a direct relationship with God.
Because Abraham enters a plane of faith beyond universal ethics, he is unable to justify his actions to others. Centrally, Abraham does not speak to his wife, Sarah, or to his son, Isaac, during the ordeal. To speak would be to justify his actions through recourse to a universal ethic, whereas Abraham is a Knight of Faith and necessarily exists outside of an ethical plane.
“Abraham cannot be mediated, and the same thing can be expressed also by saying that he cannot talk. So soon as I talk I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me. Therefore if Abraham would express himself in terms of the universal, he must say that his situation is a temptation (Anfechtung), for he has no higher expression for that universal which stands above the universal which he transgresses.”
This question of communication and justification highlights the difference between Abraham and Agamemnon, who, like Abraham, was called to sacrifice his child. The central distinction between Abraham and Agamemnon lies in their anxiety surrounding the sacrifice and their justification of the act, both to themselves and to others. Early in the Trojan Wars, Agamemnon, a Greek king, must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods for safe passage to Troy. For Agamemnon, the sacrifice of Iphigenia is a question of competing notions of right and responsibility. Kierkegaard identifies these competing ethical codes (between family and state, for example,) as a spiritual trial, and identifies Agamemnon as a tragic hero. Agamemnon’s role as king supersedes his role as father. Agamemnon, despite his sorrow, can justify the sacrifice as necessary for the well-being of his nation.
Abraham, on the other hand, has no recourse to ethics, and is unable to justify the sacrifice of Isaac through any ethical argument. Kierkegaard calls this test of faith and lack of ethical recourse an ordeal.
“The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is clearly evident. The tragic hero still remains within the ethical. He lets one expression of the ethical find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; the ethical relation between father and son, or daughter and father, he reduces to a sentiment which has its dialectic in the idea of morality. Here there can be no question of a teleological suspension of the ethical.”
- Why does Abraham’s situation require faith? What does Kierkegaard mean by faith?
- How is Abraham’s situation different from Agamemnon’s?
- What does it mean that Abraham is an individual?
- What does the phrase “teleological suspension of the ethical” mean?
- Is Kierkegaard correct in suggesting that Abraham is not a murderer? Why or why not?
- What does Kierkegaard mean when he claims that he “cannot weep for Abraham”?
- How necessary is God for Kierkegaard’s philosophy? Can his philosophy be useful from an atheistic perspective?
- Is it fair or just to hold everyone to the same universal ethical norms?
- What are potential problems with Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical?
- Believing something that is absurd technically means believing two contradictory ideas at the same time. For Abraham this meant that believing that God would make him a leader of a chosen people and that God was asking him to kill his only descendent. In this respect the man of faith might also seem crazy and unreasonable to us. Usually we try to avoid believing things that seem absurd. Yet, Kierkegaard glorifies the belief in the absurd as a sign of faith. What might be some benefits to embracing the absurd? What might be a problem with this approach?
- Kierkegaard is critical of contemporary understandings of Christianity, and in doing so he follows a two-hundred-year lineage of dissent within Protestant churches. Yet, the reception of Kierkegaard’s criticisms did not possess the same historic weight as the founders of the Reformation such as Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Why might that be the case? Research Kierkegaard’s reception and impact on Christianity in Copenhagen. How does this compare to that of Luther or Calvin? What does your research teach you about how philosophic discourse does and doesn’t create change in society?
- How might one reconcile Kierkegaard’s conception of individual faith with the needs of society? Are the two concepts at odds with each other? What other examples, including from literature, can you think of where this split between the individual and society might manifest itself? What might Kierkegaard’s philosophy suggest about that struggle?
- The story of Abraham and Isaac has caught the attention of some of the greatest visual artists of the 17th century, such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Examine Caravaggio’s painting, Sacrifice of Isaac (Uffizi) or Rembrandt’s print pictured above. What do you notice? On what do Caravaggio or Rembrandt seem to focus? In what ways does either work reinforce Kierkegaard’s analysis of the event? In what ways might they challenge Kierkegaard’s analysis?
It is important when reading the work of a philosopher such as Kierkegaard to understand how he uses certain words. The following terms represent key concepts in his argument.
- Infinite resignation: The capacity and willingness to give up what one holds dearest and to be reconciled to that loss
- Faith: Confidence or trust in God or the Divine despite empirical evidence to the contrary
- Finite and infinite: Limited and unlimited measurements
- Absurd: That which cannot be explained, or made intelligible, by reason or science
- Movements: There are two stages in the development of faith; first of all, infinite resignation followed by the leap of faith.
- Knight of faith: An individual who makes the leap of faith
- Ethics: A widely accepted code of moral behavior and conduct
- Ordeal: The experience of being tested by God
- Individual: A particular unique person or thing
* Lauren Links and Wilson Taylor, the authors of this Launchpad, were 2014 NEH Summer Scholars in the Existentialism Seminar for Schoolteachers directed by Thomas Wartenberg.