Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Fear and Trembling is Søren Kierkegaard’s meditation on the meaning of one father’s sacrifice of his own son, a story told in the book of Genesis. Specifically, Kierkegaard examines how Abraham, patriarch of the Israelites and generally regarded as the spiritual ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, could sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the passages of the biblical story, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, and Abraham immediately accepts God’s command. He takes Isaac to the mountain and binds the boy to an altar. As he is about to kill his son, he is stopped by an angel. A ram appears, and Abraham follows God’s commandment to substitute the animal for his son.
From a modern moral perspective, the narrative of Abraham and Isaac poses difficult problems. God, the source of all ethical and moral values, has ordered his servant, Abraham, to kill an innocent boy, Isaac. Abraham accepts the command to commit murder. Kierkegaard does not attempt to solve this problem; he does, however, look at the story from several angles to demonstrate the fundamentally irrational and experiential nature of faith.
Kierkegaard, who published many of his works under pseudonyms, published Fear and Trembling as Johannes de Silentio, or John of Silence. As de Silentio, he begins the book with a preface that offers a criticism of the philosophy of his own time. He compares events in the world of ideas to a clearance sale, where everything is to be had at a cut rate. Thoughts, he suggests, have gathered into a market of answers to questions that fail to consider the mystery of faith. Kierkegaard is especially critical of the systematic philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his followers, who had attempted to bring all questions into a comprehensive order of reasoning. At the same time, Kierkegaard’s preface is critical of the Cartesian process of doubting and questioning everything; this system—developed by René Descartes—in a sense puts all thoughts and ideas up for sale. Faith, Kierkegaard argues, happens outside the system and outside doubt.
In a prelude, Kierkegaard gives four accounts of Abraham’s departing in the morning with Isaac, leaving his home without his wife, and Isaac’s mother, Sarah. In each of these accounts, Kierkegaard emphasizes the humanity of Abraham’s family members, their relations with each other, and the thoughts that might have gone through their minds during this day. Nevertheless, the prelude ends with a proclamation of the greatness and incomprehensibility of Abraham. By beginning his meditation in this way, Kierkegaard seems to be reminding the reader that there are different ways of seeing this biblical story, that this story is about...
(The entire section is 1122 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In his two-part work Either/Or Kierkegaard had examined the aesthetic and the ethical approaches to living, concluding that the ethical stage should be given priority over the aesthetic. In Fear and Trembling he inquires into the relationship between the ethical and the religious.
Kierkegaard chose as his example of religiously motivated behavior an extreme case, the biblical narrative of Abraham’s abortive sacrifice of his son Isaac. In the biblical story, Isaac is a son promised Abraham through which all the families of the earth would be blessed as Abraham’s descendants would be spread throughout the earth, bringing with them a message of true faith. The blessing of a legal heir had been denied Abraham and his wife Sarah until they were both advanced far beyond the normal childbearing years, but Isaac was finally born. When God spoke to Abraham and commanded him to offer his son as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, Abraham had to choose between obedience and disobedience to God.
When viewed from an ethical perspective, there is never any justification for shedding innocent blood. Kierkegaard points out that to the ethical mind Abraham is about to become a murderer, and his intended deed is that much worse because he is about to kill his son. Clearly, faith must be of a completely different order than reason if Abraham’s actions are to be considered justified. It is true that Abraham’s hand was stayed at the very moment when he was about to plunge the sacrificial knife into Isaac, but his intentions were, ethically speaking, those of a murderer.
Kierkegaard asks what readers of the biblical story—and of Fear and Trembling—can learn about faith from the account of Abraham and Isaac. The most important lesson is that faith is beyond reason and that faith has such explosive power that it cannot be domesticated. Faith will always be paradoxical.