Fear and Trembling

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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Carlisle, Clare. Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, 2006. This helpful book discusses Kierkegaard as one of the founders of the philosophy of existentialism and lays out his thinking on ethics, religion, and other topics.

Ferreira, M. Jamie. Kierkegaard. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Part of the Blackwell Great Minds series, this book offers a comprehensive introduction to all of Kierkegaard’s work and helps make this difficult writer more approachable. Chapter 3 includes a discussion of Fear and Trembling.

Hannay, Alistair. Kierkegaard: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. One of the best modern biographies of Kierkegaard. This book sets the philosopher’s work in the context of his life.

Lippitt, John. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kierkegaard and “Fear and Trembling.” New York: Routledge, 2003. A good reference for those new to Fear and Trembling. Lippitt looks at Kierkegaard’s life and the background to the text, outlining its main ideas.

Pons, Jolita. Stealing a Gift: Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms and the Bible. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004. Studies the use of biblical quotations in Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works and argues that Kierkegaard was acting as a kind of sacred “plagiarist,” stealing divine words to give them to his readers.

Walsh, Sylvia. Kierkegaard: Thinking Christianly in an Existential Mode. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Walsh looks at Kierkegaard as a Christian thinker and discusses his presentation of Christianity as a way of existence, rather than as an abstract doctrine.