What is Kierkegaard's view of the self in Fear and Trembling?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles
Many philosophers believe that Fear and Tremblingwritten in 1843—is Kierkegaard's most challenging work to interpret. In the book Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling: A Critical Guide edited by Daniel Conway, we are able to read a variety of essays from scholars regarding this famous work, none of whom seem...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Many philosophers believe that Fear and Tremblingwritten in 1843—is Kierkegaard's most challenging work to interpret. In the book Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling: A Critical Guide edited by Daniel Conway, we are able to read a variety of essays from scholars regarding this famous work, none of whom seem to be in agreement as to the meaning of the original text.
Kierkegaard famously discusses a bible passage in Genesis 22 where Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice Isaac, his son. Kierkegaard admits that God has put Abraham in an impossible position, one that causes separation and isolation from his peers. He does however, seem to believe that the individual—or self—is still capable of having a personal relationship with God.
Alastair Hanney, who translated Fear and Trembling into English in 1986, believes that Kierkegaard and his fiancé Regine Olsen's choice to end their engagement had some bearing on Kierkegaard's mood and view of self as the book was being written. Academic Vanessa Rumble informs us that Kierkegaard had suffered through the deaths of three sisters, two brothers, and his mother by the time he had turned 21. Kierkegaard had witnessed enough tragedy and sorrow in his life to understand that everyone is really alone in the world. However, Rumble believes that Kierkegaard's exhortation for us to embrace those who are suffering is actually a spiritual calling with the result that we all feel less alone.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this rather complex philosophical rumination on the story of Abraham and his son Isaac in the Book of Genesis, Kierkegaard presents humans as being creatures that intrinsically possess some form of understanding of the eternal within them. This is Kierkegaard's view of the self as expressed in this text through the example of Abraham and how he follows God so dedicatedly without question. The human self is therefore characterised by this sense of divine, and the consequences of thinking that this is not the case would be terrible:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?

Self, then is something that is defined by the understanding of a divine presence of "eternal consciousness." It is this that defines the human self for Kierkegaard, and it is this that he sees in the example of the hero of the faith, Abraham. Characters like Abraham, for Kierkegaard, are a living example of a refutation of nihilistic arguments that present the self as the absence of this sense of "eternal consciousness." This is something that Kierkegaard seems completely unwilling even to entertain as he finds the "despair" inherent in such a view terrifying.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team