Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122
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...
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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 ordinary human life. In telling something about the mystery in the ordinary, the story is relating the extraordinary.
Kierkegaard next presents a panegyric, or speech, in praise of Abraham. He is praised for his greatness in following God without doubt and for the difficulty of doing so. Kierkegaard exclaims that if there were no eternal consciousness in the human mind, and if everything were just a bottomless void of change, then life would be nothing more than say, leaves in a forest, growing and falling; life would be empty and without comfort. Heroes, such as Abraham, exist to refute this emptiness.
Kierkegaard moves his discussion to the problems posed by the story of Abraham and Isaac. The author begins by considering the ethical problem of Abraham as the intended murderer of his son. Abraham is characterized not by his infinite resignation—his acceptance of the command to kill his son—but by his faith: Abraham believes that by following God’s order to sacrifice, he will sacrifice nothing. According to Kierkegaard, this makes Abraham a knight of faith, in contrast to a knight of infinite resignation.
Next, Kierkegaard addresses three specific problems posed by the biblical story. The first problem is whether there is such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical, a problem that goes beyond the question of whether the end justifies the means. The ethical is the universal, that which applies to everyone. Sin or unethical behavior consists in asserting one’s particularity against the universal. Abraham acts against the universal obligation not to commit murder, but he does this on the grounds of the absolute, God. In faith, the particular or individual becomes higher than the universal. Faith moves beyond ethics to the ultimate end, or teleology.
The second problem is whether there is such a thing as an absolute duty toward God, that is, whether God is beyond the universal realm of the ethical. Kierkegaard maintains that in faith, the individual must transcend the universal and stand in an absolute relation to the absolute.
The third problem is whether Abraham can be ethically defended for hiding his intention to kill Isaac from his mother, Sarah, and from Isaac himself. This dilemma leads Kierkegaard to consider two things: the idea of concealment and the question of which ethical considerations require concealment. Again, the requirement to reveal one’s intentions derives from the universal nature of ethical behavior; when a person conceals, that person is in sin. Concealment can be understood only within individual circumstances. Abraham’s conduct would be indefensible if his case were not considered unique, as a situation in which the individual is higher than the universal and in direct relation to the absolute.
Kierkegaard is not an easy author to read or understand. As a philosopher, he does not present arguments in the form of a series of propositions. Instead, he approaches his concerns through examples, anecdotes, and sometimes unresolvable contradictions. This is because he does not see the most important matters of human life as logical puzzles that can be solved through reason. Human beings, in his view, live through faith and faith is ultimately paradoxical; it resides in the absurd. The goal of Fear and Trembling, and many of Kierkegaard’s other works, is to illuminate the paradoxes and to thereby lead readers into an appreciation of the irreducible nature of faith and life.
Readers might note that Kierkegaard does not solve any of the problems he discusses. He does not answer the question of whether a person who acts as Abraham had acted would be considered ethical. Abraham apparently was acting ethically because he stood in a unique and particular relation to God and was, therefore, above the universal commandments of ethics. This rationale would not serve as a good guide for ethical decision making, for anyone could claim to be beyond the ethical. Providing a guide to behavior, however, is not Kierkegaard’s aim. His goal is to awaken readers to the irreducible and illogical basis of religious existence.