Fear and Trembling

If I had read Kierkegaard while still even hesitatingly identifying as Catholic – say, Kierkegaard instead of Anselm in Philo 101 at Notre Dame – I might still be trapped in the ecclesiastical and passionate confines of religious faith.*

If you’re new to Kierkegaard (as I am!), I highly recommend reading this Wikipedia article on the love of his life, which gave me a much deeper perspective on Fear and Trembling.

I’ll try to note some things that weren’t totally clear to me when beginning this work. Kierkegaard distinguishes three spheres (of existence, judgment, and ?): the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Abraham lived in the religious sphere and is a hero of faith, but as Kierkegaard notes, when we judge him in the ethical sphere, he is a murderer; for the ethical relationship Abraham has to Isaac is a father who loves his son. The ethical sphere is an important one, but Kierkegaard believes the highest passion for humans is faith, and this requires leaving reason aside to ascend to the religious sphere, by accepting the strength of the absurd. One cannot require reason to prove the existence of God; this is the paradox of faith. God is beyond our rational understanding of an ethical life; this is the paradox of faith. The choice to act in faith lies in each individual (each particular above the universal).

The Biblical story of Abraham is an interesting one, and it is what Fear and Trembling confronts. If we look at the story quite fundamentally – like a fable with a moral – which is, I believe, how most Biblical stories are meant to be read by the faithful (with any truth claims regarding these stories aside) the tale is not only slightly disturbing. This Kierkegaard fully acknowledges from the first; he remarks that Abraham is either a murderer or a hero of faith. I assume the ‘moral of Abraham’s story’ is that faith is above all else, and one ought to have faith in God no matter how difficult a trial He puts you through. That’s an obscure moral, though, since most of us don’t hear the voice of God or even his messengers for that matter. Are we to assume every hardship we encounter is a trial sanctioned by God? Are all these trials to prove our faith? But my more burning question is whether Abraham was really asked to make a sacrifice. Abraham received messengers from God himself, not to mention the ‘miraculous’ birth of Isaac – he certainly had reason to believe in God, or at least less ‘reason’ to doubt than most of us. Is it not a truer sacrifice for those who bear such heavy burdens without having heard from God? Perhaps I’m reading too literally. But this question remains relevant: Is it really a sacrifice if you believe (or know) that God is there and will ultimately take care of you? Kierkegaard writes (and remember Regine in reading this): “When God asks for Isaac, Abraham must if possible love him even more, and only then can he sacrifice him; for it is indeed this love of Isaac that in its paradoxical opposition to his love of God makes his act a sacrifice.”

Kierkegaard is clearly aware of this obvious question regarding what is truly a sacrifice. It seems we must uncover the answer through our own efforts by sorting through the complexity that is ‘paradoxical Abraham’, and the necessarily paradoxical nature of faith. In order to do this, we must stop thinking, for “..faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.”

What is the use of saving the passions from reason or science if the passion you exalt above all others (faith, for Kierkegaard) does not bring happiness? (I am, quite without foundation, assuming that happiness is something to strive for, if not the thing to strive for. Is faith itself the ultimate goal?) Fear and Trembling reads almost as Stoically to me as existentially…**  although, that is in contemplating the historical Kierkegaard in relation to his works, rather than solely considering his ‘particular above the universal’ concept as presented in the text; regardless, he wants to save the passions but exalts only those passions when they are known through faith (that is, the passions of the knight of faith, rather than the passions of the heathen).

Abraham’s faith far exceeded what Kierkegaard was ever able to achieve, it appears, and rightly so if the former is properly known as ‘the father of faith’. We can hold the story of Kierkegaard and Regine up against the story of Abraham: Abraham, in order to prove his faith, was commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at Moriah. Abraham never faltered, and did exactly as God commanded – believing in the ‘strength of the absurd’ and moving in faith. God sent a messenger to stop Abraham at the last moment, and provided a ram to use in Isaac’s stead. Abraham received Isaac with even more joy than at his miraculous birth. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, received no messenger from God, no direct command to sacrifice Regine(although perhaps he understands such messengers to be metaphorical).

Regardless of the lack of command, Kierkegaard offers up Regine as Abraham did Isaac – leaving the love of his life, a woman who for the rest of his days he could not expel from his thought – in order to show his faith and devotion to God. But God does not deliver Regine back to Kierkegaard, as he does Isaac to Abraham. Isaac’s descendants, as God promised, were as numerous as the stars; Abraham’s faith was rewarded mightily. Kierkegaard remained a celibate bachelor for the rest of his life. Perhaps this is due to his own weaknesses in faith; he writes in Fear and Trembling (as John the Silent) that he can take up to the last step to faith – “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith” -but cannot reach the ultimate end of faith like Abraham’s – elevating the particular above the universal; he does not surrender to the strength of the absurd. He can resign Regine, but he can never do so as Abraham did Isaac. He is not as he describes a ‘knight of faith’, nor even, it seems, a tragic hero.

If I had to describe something like what I understand to be ‘Kierkegaardian Existentialism’, I would say: Through faith, knowing the movements of the infinite, the strength of the absurd, though belonging entirely to the finite and rejoicing in it, being present and absorbed in earthly matters as a person of ‘worldly’ soul. (Kierkegaard writes of the man of complete faith: “He drains in infinite resignation the deep sorrow of existence, he knows the bliss of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, whatever is most precious in the world, and yet to him finitude tastes just as good as to one who has never known anything higher…”) We do not weep for Abraham (unless our souls are so confused), but does Kierkegaard’s story (his sacrifice of love) deserve our tears?

The question remains: if Kierkegaard is aware that his pursuit of faith will always stall at the penultimate step, leaving him in the infinite but relying not on the strength of the absurd, is it right for him to pursue anyway? Or ought he live within the finite, imitating the moves of the faithful as much as possible? If Kierkegaard lived with movement of the infinite, but had reached faith itself, would he still resign Regine, knowing she would not be delivered to him by God again, as Isaac was to Abraham? Pure and simple: would Kierkegaard have been happier if he had resigned the infinite that took all his energy to achieve (rather than resigning all the finite – including Regine – for the infinite)?

Kierkegaard seems to understand this problem, and seems to stress that one ought to live in the ethical realm (perhaps as a rational atheist) or in the religious realm, completely in faith. Since the crux of this whole exploration has been about the individual rising above the universal, I understand that Kierkegaard is, ultimately, at a greater place in his resignation of Regine than he would be otherwise; his individual choice to sacrifice her for his introspective Christian life and the freedom it afforded him brings him closer to embracing the strength of the absurd than he would had he committed himself to her and the existences such a married life would demand.

To address the importance of Regine in Kierkegaard’s work:

First, I quote a friend, “Kierkegaard was obviously completely insane.” Indeed. He will remark as much regarding the knight of faith: “Humanly speaking [faith’s knight] is insane and cannot make himself understood to anyone. And yet ‘insane’ is the mildest expression for him. If he isn’t viewed thus, he is a hypocrite and the higher up the path he climbs, the more dreadful a hypocrite he becomes.” To be known as insane by rational atheists (in the ethical sphere) and heathens (in the aesthetic sphere) is requisite.

There are several passages which when revisiting, after reading the history of Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, are clearly borne of this personal struggle:

“Who would have guessed? The young bride least of all. A moment earlier she was sitting in her room in all her beauty, and the sweet young maids had adorned her with such care that they would be prepared to justify their handiwork before the whole world, that it gave them more happiness, it even made them envious – yes, even happy that they couldn’t be more envious, since she could not have been more beautiful. Sitting there alone in her room she was then transfigured from one beauty to another; for all that a woman’s art could accomplish had been turned virtuously to the embellishment of virtue… She saw the door close after him, and she became even more calm and blissful, for she knew that he now belonged to her more than ever.” (emphasis mine, quietly weeping)

“If he gives in to this demonic possibility, he may make one more attempt to save Agnete, in the way one can in a sense save someone by resort to evil. He knows Agnete loves him. If he can only tear this love away from her she will in a way be saved. But how to do that? The merman has too much sense to reckon that a candid confession will arouse her disgust. Then perhaps he will try to arouse all dark passions in her, scorn her, mock her, hold her love up to ridicule, if possible stir up her pride. He will spare himself no torment, for this is the deep contradiction in the demonic and in a sense there dwells infinitely more good in a demonic than in a superficial person. The more selfish Agnete is, the more easily she will be deceived (only those with very little experience think it easy to deceive innocence, life is very profound and it is the astute who find it easiest to trick one another), but all the more terribly the merman will suffer. The more ingeniously contrived his deception the less will Agnete bashfully hide her own pain from him; she will use every means, not without effect, not, that is, to shake him loose but to torment him.”

Again, I have passed over many important things in this work. Instead I focused on particular questions and things that grabbed my interest (that I could write about somewhat coherently), and even these I did not develop fully. Kierkegaard has a depth that I did not discover in Marcus Aurelius. I plan to continue in this fashion when dealing with (blogging) the works I’m reading; as I currently continue on through the TTP, a work that could not be covered in a single post – or in a volume of books, for that matter – I will develop certain areas of interest (one of which will probably be Spinoza’s Jesus: the prophetic philosopher…). I would remind anyone reading this that I do not purport to be ‘doing philosophy’ in these posts.


*I’ve been doing a pretty bad job of writing about the philosophical texts I’ve been going through. Marcus Aurelius was a particular shame to me, and it was brought to my attention by a friend that I was dismissive of his work and didn’t do him justice. Please understand, I’m just going out on my own and reading texts that seem important or have caught my interest for one reason or another, and I try to remain relatively uninfluenced by secondary work (e.g. I don’t generally read the SEP articles on a given topic or philosopher). I’m not in a course or getting any instruction or guidance, nor am I that intelligent that I can have some (even marginal) insight for every text (in fact, I’m not intelligent at all and completely devoid of insight, as many would be eager to attest). I am also realizing that doing/reading philosophy is very much affected by one’s situation and surroundings – allowing for new and different understandings and meanings. My experience of philosophy as a student at a liberal arts college was significantly different from my experience of philosophy at a big university, and both of these radically different from my experience of philosophy as I travel solo through Kazakhstan and India – clearly I mean for reasons beyond just the most obvious (e.g. reading the TTP while witnessing the dramatic public change the religious festival of Ganesh has brought to Mumbai sheds a certain light on Spinoza’s confrontation of the sociopolitical place/use of religion). I am committed to doing these works justice so I’ll try to structure these blog posts better/more coherently, and try to say something useful in them… I think my second post on Leibniz (the Monadology) was successful in this way. Perhaps no others yet. (sorry I’m too lazy to figure out how to make proper endnotes)

**”Stoically AND existentially?! Impossible!” you say. Besides urging you to believe in the strength of the absurd, I will here quote dear Kierkegaard: “…faith finds its proper expression in him whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought.” It’s the most paradoxical conceivable AND so paradoxical it simply cannot be conceived! (I am wondering if this is intentional on K’s part, or just a poor choice on the part of the translator… I suspect the former) My point is: paradoxes! embrace them!


2 thoughts on “Fear and Trembling

  1. Pingback: Tractatus Theologico-Politicus « Watson Weltanschauung

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