Fear and Trembling

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

According to Kierkegaard, there are three stages of human existence. The most immature is the aesthetic, in which people are dominated by their physical, emotional, or intellectual desires. Gratification is fleeting, so the aesthete is never satisfied. The second stage is the ethical, in which people are dominated by a sense of right and wrong. Choices are often ambiguous, though, and sometimes people must choose between equally evil options, so those in the ethical stage remain as unfulfilled as those in the aesthetic stage.

The subject of Fear and Trembling is the third stage, the religious. But there are two types of religious persons: the Knight of Infinite Resignation, the person who has an awakened religious consciousness but who is bound by guilt; and the Knight of Faith, the person who lives in response to God, regardless of appearances.

Abraham is such a Knight of Faith. God had promised him that he would be the father of a multitude of nations, beginning with his son Isaac, who was born to Abraham and his wife Sarah, theretofore barren, in their old age. As a test, however, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. An ethical person or a Knight of Infinite Resignation would have disobeyed God, because the command was not only for murder but also for an act that would negate God’s promise. Abraham obeyed in what Kierkegaard calls a teleological suspension of the ethical--that is, obedience to a divine command which supersedes moral law.

In part, Fear and Trembling was Kierkegaard’s explanation for breaking his engagement to Regine Olsen, the love of his life. Kierkegaard had to sacrifice Regine, but he could not regain her because of his guilty conscience. He was still a Knight of Infinite Resignation.