Dr. Bob Zunjic
FEAR AND TREMBLING
Fear and Trembling was published under
pseudonym (alias) Johannes de Silentio in 1843. It deals with
the biblical story of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice, upon God's
request, the son he waited so long to have (Gen., 22,
1-2). Kierkegaard was both fascinated and appalled with this unreserved
obedience to God which could not have been wavered even by sincere
father's love. The resoluteness of Abraham's devotion underpins
the strong concept of faith which Kierkegaard formulates both
in general terms and with special regard to his own predicament.
Fear and Trembling appears namely to be not only a principled
analysis of Abraham's sacrificial act but also a literary transposition
of Kierkegaard's own sacrifice of Regina Olsen, his fiancée, with
whom he abruptly broke engagement in 1841. The implicit message
of the book is that Kierkegaard (or any other person for that
matter) could have retained his already renounced "object
of desire" had he kept, with "fear and trembling",
the paradoxical faith that relinquishing something worldly secures
it for eternity. The excerpt outlined here is taken from the "philosophical
part" of Fear and Trembling. It discusses the opposite
demands of ethics and faith in respect to the divinely ordered
sacrifice of other persons.
I STATING THE PROBLEM
Fear and Trembling
The book title echoes a phrase from the New Testament:
"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."
(Philippians 2,12) In alluding to these words of St. Paul,
Kierkegaard indicates that religion in general and Christianity
in particular are not a couch potato state of mind (convenient
and comfortable relation toward the contents of faith). We need
to ground ourselves in the uncertain and infinite transcendence.
Already this gives rise to fear and trembling. But there is more
to that. Since faith requires a total and constant engagement
of individual's selfhood with regard to God's existence, this
means that we believe truly only when we do not shun acts that
understandably generate fear and trembling both as to their nature
To be sure, "fear and trembling" are not the source
of faith, but they are its indispensable catalysts ("the
oscillating balance wheel" as Kierkegaard puts it in his
|Is There a Teleological Suspension
of the Ethical?
Would it be possible to put the ethical on hold purposefully
(for the sake of something else)? In order to answer this question
we need first to explain what is the ethical?
"The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal
it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it
applies at all times. It rests immanent in itself, has nothing
outside itself that is its telos but is itself the telos
for everything outside itself."
In short, the ethical is the realm of universal substantial morality.
Universal morality entails the existence of universal standards
of human conduct. The ethical thus includes both the normative
aspects of morality (how people should ideally behave) and its
reality (what people actually do if they rise to the level of
"ethical life"). In that sense our modern "ethic"
(not ethics) would be a possible terminological alternative for
"the ethical" in Kierkegaard's sense.
The sphere of human interaction is normatively
regulated by means of universal moral laws that as such require
unconditional obedience no matter whether complience is personally
beneficial or not; we have to behave morally because it is right
to act that way, not because some other non-ethical purpose may
be involved as well; thus, morality represents its own purpose,
not a means for something else ("it goes not further",
but "rests immanent in itself").
As it does not serve any other external purpose
it is its own justification.
Features of Ethical Claims:
- 1. Universally formulated
- 2. Universally binding
- 3. Perpetually valid
- 4. Intrinsically valid (self-purposive)
1: This is not Kierkegaard's own definition of the
ethical. In describing the ethical in this manner Kierkegaard
was drawing particularly on two great German philosophers: Kant
and Hegel who both insisted on the universal character of morality.
The only difference between the two was that Kant derived the
universality and the immanent self-purposefulness of the ethical
from the notion of rationally universalizable principles, while
Hegel found the universality of ethical life already embodied
in the social morality and institutions as they go beyond subjective
wilfulness. Where Kant formulates the supreme moral principle
as grounding the system of universal moral duties Hegel points
to the real ethical life of the community as the true objectification
of ethical universality.
these are not Kierkegaard's own ideas about the ethical it does
not follow that he is rejecting them. They truly capture the essence
of the ethical in the sense of objective and universal morality
and that is the morality of modern society. John Lippitt, however,
argues that Kierkegaard wants to show the inadequacy of the ethical
notion which cannot accomodate the exception as well ("Routledge
Philosophy Guidebook to Kierkegaard and Fear and Trembling",
p. p.81-82). But this is the problem for Abraham and faith rather
than for the ethical, which by definition does not allow aberations
and breaches of the universal rule. What else the ethical could
be but universal? The ethic of divine commandments? Even these
commandments are universally formulated. Of course, special divine
orders (commands) stand apart, but they cannot be regarded as
an ethic for everyone. Kierkegaard was aware of the precariousness
of Abraham's position (or any other exception) precisely because
he realized that the nature of the ethical is its universality.
What is the relationship between an individual and the ethical?
According to Kant and Hegel, it is the relation between something
conditioned (immediate) and something unconditional (end
in itself) though not visible and present. The former is less
valuable the latter is valuable as such. Therefore, the "natural"
individuals, "sensately and psychically qualified in immediacy",
have to "mediate" their immediacy with regard to the
universal, which means, the individuals need to subject themselves
to the universal so that their singularity is surmounted even
to the extent of selfdenial ("annulled").
Since "the individual has his telos in the universal"
he has to express himself in conformity with the universal. A
reluctance or hesitation to do this is an indication of an imminent
moral deficiency. "Every time the single individual, after
having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself
as the single individual, he is in a spiritual trial…" The
impulse to follow personal drives or needs against the universal
represents a spiritual trial in the sense that it tests
the firmness of one's beliefs in moral principles and the allegiance
to them in regard to certain non-ethical alternatives. Any inclination
to fall short of ethical universality means that the individual
is running a risk of stepping outside of the ethical order or
becoming morally faulty.
||A typical reason for failure to comply
with the universal is the insistence on individual own will and
"placing what is peculiar to particularity" over "the
universalioty". This is what Hegel calls "evil" (Philosophy
of Right, # 139). A refusal to depart from the position of individuality
appears therefore to be a sin in a moral sense. If that sin is committed,
the only way to work it out (meaning to reconcile with the universal)
is (a) to acknowledge the mistake, and (b) to "repentantly"
surrender as the single individual in the universal.
If "this" (= the moral life) is the ultimate truth
about human existence, i.e. if the highest human destiny is the
fulfillment of moral obligations at the ethical stage, then
the ethical is of the same nature as a person's eternal salvation.
Why? Because it then acquires the status of the final purpose
along with the future life. And that's the problem for Kierkegaard.
He goes by the slogan: "Everything for salvation, salvation
for nothing". He is convinced that eternal salvation is the
ultimate human end the way happiness was the highest telos
for ancient Greeks. But now the ethical raises the same aspirations
for itself. When Kant says that we should be worthy of happiness
and salvation, not neccesarilly happy and saved, he is actually
saying that the ethical should be that for the sake of which everything
else (including salvation) has to be done.
The ranking of the ultimate human end explains Kierkegaard's
further contention that "it would be a contradiction for
this to be capable of being surrendered (that is, teleologically
suspended)". Why it is so?
If the ethical is the supreme telos (purpose), then, by
definition, it could not be instrumentalized or suspended
for the sake of something supposedly higher. If we suspend it
(surrender), it would automatically cease to be what it is - "the
highest" end - which contradicts the initial supposition
that it is the ultimate "for the sake of which" everything
else should be done.
Only what is not the highest telos could be suspended.
This does not mean that it gets lost and totally abandoned. Those
things that can be suspended are not totally relinquished but
as it were "preserved" in the ends for the sake of which
they are "surrendered" as means. However they do not
possess the ultimate value and the status of the supreme objective.
||If the ethical is
the ultimate human end (universal, intrinsic and the highest value),
then: there is no teleological suspension of the ethical.
the Greek telos = end, purpose, and logos = rational
principle; the study of purposes, of ends and everything that
exhibits design, order and purposeful structure or development.
The Ethical, from
the Greek ethos = character, custom, mores; the sphere
of morality (particularly social), ethical order, ethical life.
In Hegel, it is the concrete universality of social order as embodied
in the nation, the state, the laws, the people. Kierkegaard uses
the word as an appelative both for social morality and the realm
of universal moral obligations.
the Latin immanere = to reside in, to remain in; being
within or inside, indwelling, being actually present in something,
as opposed to the transcendent = being beyond.
The Single Individual,
English rendering of the Danish Enkelte = the individual;
a person endowed with reflective subjectivity (Selfhood),
the exceptional individual, not a sheer numerical or physical
unit within a social whole or human species (Kierkegaard terminologically
denotes the latter with the neutral word Individet).
concept borrowed by Kierkegaard, designates the process of relating
particulars to the whole or lower instances to higher concepts
by means of which the contradiction between various levels is
supposed to be resolved.
Dialectic, in Hegel,
the universal structure of all thought and reality consisting
of three developmental stages: thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
From this scheme Kierkegaard retains only the idea that all object
and events are defined by their relationship of opposition to
their "otherness" which must be incorporated in the
process of arriving at a new stage.
Annulled, a rendering
of the Danish ophaevet which should be understood in the
sense of the Hegelian overcoming = Aufhebung (the negation
that does not annihilate but preserves). The Danish word means
also "to make fuss about nothing", which may indicate
Kierkegaard's ironical view of Aufhebung.
Spiritual Trial, a
rendering of the Danish Anfaegtelse = the situation when
our personal allegiance to certain principles is challenged by
means of some lower gains. Throughout Fear and Trembling
Kierkegaard distinguishes (or conflates) the concepts of "spiritual
trial" (Anfaegtelse) and "temptation" (Fristelse).
While the former refers to the moral or religious hesitations
and doubts regarding our principles, the latter points to certain
human inducements or physical enticements that may avert from
doing what the ethical or religious existence requires.
II THE ETHICAL AS
||If a teleological suspension of the ethical is not
possible as long as it is placed on a par with the eternal salvation,
there are two possibilities: either the ethical is harmonious with
the eternal salvation (future life) or the ethical clashes with
the religious. In most cases there is no conflict between the two
(religions preach moral values), but not always. When somebody faces
up a collision between these two ultimates the question emerges
which one is higher, that is to say which is the ultimate end deserving
to be given precedence. If in the conflict we give palm to the ethical,
we have to recognize certain problems both in philosophy and religion.
Implications for Philosophy:
|If the ethical is the ultimate intrinsic purpose of
human actions, then the philosophers of the ethical (notably Hegel)
should be expected to be right on all accounts. However, Kierkegaard
claims that they are only partly right in their understanding
of the ethical and faith respectively. Their rights and wrongs could
be summarized in this way:
It is rather consequent when Hegel in The Philosophy of Right
(section entitled "The Good and Conscience") contemptuously
writes about private particularity, which, based on "the
sheer inwardness of the will", wants to elevate itself above
the universality of the ethical. This tendency to mind only personal
interest or to look solely into ourselves and not into the universal
when determining what should be done, deprives objective "valid
duties" of their binding force. This is the reason why Hegel
regards subjective consciousness as potentially evil. Striving
to be only an individual is a "moral form of evil" because
it places the subjective particularity of one person over the
objective morality of the common good. (##139-140) If the moral
good is embodied in the universality of the ethical, its contrary
could only be something morally evil. Hence Hegel demands that
"the individual" be overcome in the "teleology
of the moral" which means, the individual needs to recognize
the universal as his telos and adjust his life accordingly.
Note: For Hegel,
the ethical not only supercedes the vagueness of subjective consciousness
but secures its good substance as well.
||However, if Hegel's own assumption that
the ethical represents the ultimate human purpose is correct, he
is mistaken or at least inconsistent on three points:
(a) Instead of praising faith as a form of the absolute truth
and "the most sublime of dispositions" he should have
criticized faith as a threat to the ethical - in fact he should
have labeled it as the root of the aforementioned (moral) evil,
for it is essentially a provocation for the ethical.
(b) In particular, Hegel should have protested against "Abraham's
enjoying honor and glory as a father of faith" and should have
lambasted his disregard for the ethical (the universal).
(c) In order to conceptualize human existence Hegel should have
used only the categories from Greek philosophy (man, citizen,
the good, the whole, virtue, happiness). No other concepts are
needed "if there is in a person no residual incommensurability
in some way that this incommensurability is not evil" (= the
incommensurability with the universal). Greek philosophical concept
suffice to expound and explain the idea of "ethical life",
everything else is just an unnecessary decoration (even if it is
disguised as Christian).
Note 1: It
is striking that Kierkegaard underplays the import of Hegel's
critical observations on religious fervor, which, if not kept
in check, leads to "folly", "abomination"
and the "demolition of the ethical (and social ) order"
(Philosophy of Right, # 270). Kierkegaard is obviously
not a very fair interpreter of Hegel. One exculpatory circumstance
accounts partially for some of his interpretive omissions: Kierkegard
did not know that Hegel had in fact condemned Abraham as an "ugly
man", "disgusting person", "the most strange"
and "the most private individual" (these remarks became
known only after Hegel's death). But the points (a) and (c) remain
valid insofar as Hegel has indeed subjected Christian faith to
the ethical and as long as he was making use of non-pagan (Christian)
categories (incarnation, history, temporality, the absolute, authority)
in his account of human existence. Kierkegaard
was convinced that these categories make sense only if Christian
faith is exempt from te standards of social ethic. For Hegel,
there was no contradiction between the two, apparently because
he accepted the Mosaic law as a formulation of universal ethic,
not as its religious transgression. The ethical is more substantial
than the idea of personal salvation because the ethical procures
the validity of religious purposes. It is, therefore, futile to
seek for a true religion outside the ethical.
The Greeks strongly believed that the good of the
individual and the good of the community were absolutely commensurate
because the latter both included and grounded the former (Aristotle,
EN, 1094b 10). However, the aboslute subordination of an individual's
good to the good of the community is not the way how Christianity
understands human condition and defining concepts of human existence
(sin, temptation, redemption, moment, conscience, person).
order to be consequent philosophy should:
= admit that faith is abomination
||= recognize that Abraham is a murderer
use only Greek concepts
= regard private individuality
||What you cannot do is to praise faith and Abraham
while at the same time condemning religious zeal, blind obedience
and moral egotism stemming from it. Conversely, if you see that
faith is the foundation of human existence then you need to appreciate
its personal, temporal and subjective character. A good start toward
that objective is to understand the real accomplishment of Abraham.
But you cannot do that by means of the concepts derived from Greek
Philosophy that extall the idea of "ethical life". Abraham
is not a sociopath, a criminal or a madman.
If the ethical is the ultimate court of appeal for human actions,
(a) "Abraham is lost"; "he ought to be sent to
a lower court and shown up as a murderer". If the "teleology
of the moral" applies unexceptionally, Abraham is only a
not-yet-convicted felon. He cannot be excused in virtue of the
final happy-end of his undertaking, for he could not have known
in advance that God would save Isaac. His intent was clearly to
kill and we justifiably bring to court people with such intentions
even if they fail in their contrivances.
(b) "Faith has never existed in the world, precisely because
it has always existed." This is not a contradiction, only
an equivocal formulation: True faith (faith 1) has never existed
in the world because faith (neutral faith) has always existed
in the form of adapted faith (faith 2). If the ethical order is
imposed on the individual to the extent that their faith becomes
entirely dissolved in their socialization, then faith ceases to
exist simply because it has always existed in the form of socially
acceptable conduct. In other words, if faith exists only as a
routine, ritual and cultural religiousness, or if it is institutionalized
as an official creed devoid of any risk or personal daring, then
we are dealing with faith only nominally (not really), which explains
the above paradoxical statement.
personal risk, exception, subjectivity,
socially acceptable conduct, conformism,
III FAITH AS A PARADOX
|If we regard Abraham's act as criminal or insane,
then faith is not possible. If we, however, deny that Abraham was
insane or a murderer, then faith represents an exception which
cannot be embraced or measured by ethical standards. This point
has been constantly overlooked. Even Christians do not understand
what Christian faith actually is nor how does it relate to paganism.
|"It is quite right to say that paganism did not
have faith…" Pagan religion was not particularly religious.
It did not envision any afterlife (transcendence) nor did
it possess the idea of a personal God. Paganism reveres ancestors
and tradition rather than a godhead that providentially determines
our human destiny based on our actions. When pagans sometimes ask
something from the gods their wishes refer to this life. But they
mostly invoke the gods negatively, to avoid their rage and vengeance.
Pagan religion, therefore, lacks a real link between the mythical
past and the present, between the present and the future. In accord
with this, the notion of personal responsibility and conscience
is also unknown in paganism, because the only measure for our personal
excellence in Antiquity is the good of the community and its standards.
is an allusion to Hegel and his domesticated concept of faith. In
his attempt to establish ethical laws as the secular basis of individual
spirit Hegel states that "it is one thing to be a pagan, a
different thing to believe in pagan religion" (#147). The pagans
did not really believe in their myths. Pagan existence derived its
content from pagan morality, not from the excessiveness of pagan
religion. To be able to found the identity of social individuals
upon the ethical order Hegel wanted to preserve the same distinction
within the realm of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, however, this
is an unbearable discrepancy: to be a Christian (by birth and culture)
and not to believe seriously and sincerely in the Bible or
not to meet the implicit demand to emulate biblical acts with "fear
and trembling". Hence, he intimates that Hegel's morality
is in fact pagan, that it rests on the classical Greek notion of
community which does not have any room for personal relationship
It is easy to explain all existence if we ignore faith. However,
once we realize the power of faith everything becomes much more
problematic. The story of Abraham should give us a clue as to
the nature of faith in its initial and exemplary form.
Why is the name of Abraham necessarily associated with faith
in the first place? Why is he honored as the "father of faith"?
(1) Because he has believed against any logic that he would be
given a son in his advanced age, and
(2) because, once he had gotten a son, he followed God's command
to sacrifice him against any ethic.
In Kierkegaard's eyes, Abraham stands emblematically for the
position of faith both in its conflict with the ethical and its
elevation above everything else. Abraham is the first person
recorded for having faith in a strong sense (and possibly the
last, because other analogies do not hold). Hence he is recognized
as the originator of faith in all three great monotheistic religions
(Judaism, Christianity, Islam).
On the other hand, one needs to have the right conception of
what faith really is. Pagan and secular notions of faith are weak
(contingent upon an ethical order or based upon mental agreement
with reasons to believe). They either identify religion with the
ethical or whitewash their discrepancies. This is the basis for
the common form of faith (faith 2). However, if we stay by the
common notion of faith, Kierkegaard contends, we do not have faith,
and we are not Christians in the full sense. This is the reason
why he endorses a much stronger concept of faith (faith
1). His thesis is that only by means of such a faith it would
be possible both to affirm our irreducible individuality and to
save Abraham (for faith and faith itself). To possess true faith
means to assume the position of individual supremacy over ethics
or reason and to deny that religious deviation from the universal
is something "evil" and morally reprehensible.
Despite a strenuous critique of philosophical paganism Kierkegaard
rejects every cheap feeling of superiority over the pagan world,
especially if it comes from the point of view of Christian clishes
("a light shines over the Christian world whereas a darkness
enshrouds paganism"). He recognizes the "eternal youth"
of the Greek non-historical view of the world.
"Faith is precisely the paradox that a single individual
as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified
before it, not as inferior to it but as superior…" Faith
is paradoxical because it posits the individual (an exception
like Abraham) as something higher than the universal, although
the universal is by definition higher, more valuable and thus
an obligatory point of reference for the individual. What is essential
is the impossibility of mediation or surmounting of this paradox.
A logical inclination to eliminate this paradox is namely tantamount
to the elimination of faith itself.
This is again a polemical passage attacking the Hegelian notion
of mediation. Hegel claimed that despite the immediacy of religious
attitudes the contents of faith cannot be but mediated (Jesus himself
is a mediator between the Absolute and the finite). Absolute immediacy
is as impossible as pure mediation.
The absence of mediation is crucial for Kierkegaard's strong
concept of faith. "This paradox cannot be mediated, for as
soon as Abraham begins to do so, he has to confess that he was
in a spiritual trial, and if that is the case, he will never sacrifice
Isaac, or if he did sacrifice Isaac, then in repentance he must
come back to the universal."
Mediation negates the demands of faith by establishing a higher
point of reference: therefore within mediation Abraham forbears
the sacrifice or repents afterwards. Thus, while preserving the
"teleology of the ethical/moral" we in both cases lose
the substance of faith and thereby Abraham as the father of faith.
Hence to have faith means to stay above the universal and not
to succumb to the teleology of moral demands or the pressures
of moral contrition. Also not to present faith as something easy
and conforming to the ethical so that people are not repulsed
by its harsh demands.
||From the angle of faith, the ethical itself
appears to be an ordeal, temptation, because it threatens
to divert the believer from his ultimate telos - salvation.
Spiritual trial is here exactly the opposite to what it is in the
sphere of the ethical. That for the sake of which Abraham is doing
something so seemingly deprived of any sense and justification represents
a higher telos - religious obligation, and it implies and
requires a teleological suspension of the ethical. Suspension is
not the same as sheer dismisal or disregard. Abraham "had a
higher telos outside (the ethical), in relation to which
he suspended it" and this telos is religious. Otherwise
his act would be not only dis-teleological (purposeless)
but simply criminal and irrational.
The single individual is higher than the universal in a way that
(a) "the movement repeats itself" and (b) that it is
performed "by means of the universal". These caveats
are necessary if we want to distinguish faith from simple lunacy
or sheer moral anomy. First, "the single individual"
needs to recognize the norm and to "subordinate" himself/herself
to the universal. Second, only after having been in the universal
and "after being subordinated" can he/she become "superior"
to the universal, now by using the ethical instrumentally. In
other words, only the individual who has reached the universal
and fully understands the meaning of universal ethical laws can
sensibly and justifiably "repeat the movement" in a
way that allows him to "isolate(s) him(self) as higher"
and so to elevate himself beyond the universal. The ethical is
the not simply forfeited, but suspended, meaning it is preserved
although not as the ultimate value, but overcome (Hegel is here
being used against Hegel). The acts of faith are not pre-ethical
(Abraham is not insane and he loves Isaac), but trans-ethical.
This is what he believes to be the case.
||But the position of Abraham as the father
of faith remains "impervious to thought": his behavior
could not be understood and rationally explained. From a rational
standpoint of view, Abraham's action is simply an absurdity. "Abraham
acts by virtue of the absurd." It is absurd to sacrifice the
son one has hoped for so long, but that is precisely what Abraham
was up to. It is not possible to understand how one can retain something
by renouncing it. But "he gets Isaac back again by virtue of
absurd". This hope against all hope is exactly the peculiarity
of faith which must be distinguished from simple resignation. The
power of faith consists in the firm conviction that goes against
all odds and reasonable expectations. But we cannot understand Abraham
if apply only human logic.
maxim is not Credo quia intelligibile est = I believe because
it is comprehensible, but its very opposite: Credo quia absurdum
est = I believe because it is absurd. In fact, believing makes
sense only if its content is something entirely unbelievable (not
obvious, expected, reasonable, ordinary). Faith is not a rational
product of an armchair reflection; rather it is a passion.
It is a passion because it reflects only our personal point of view
that compensates the lack of rationality.
Kierkegaard defines faith as the "absolute relation to the
Prior to Kierkegaard, Hegel has defined the situation of faith
as a relation to the Absolute. But he would have rejected any
idea that this relation could be itself absolute simply because
he could not exempt man from the universe which is the absolute.
Since man cannot approach the divine without an intermediary and
since the Absolute cannot be captured by the finite the relation
toward the divine necessarily takes the form of feeling, intuition
and remains completely subjective.
Kierkegaard agrees that the relation to the Absolute (which is
God) must be subjective, but does not regard this as its defect.
On the contrary, he qualifies the relation itself as absolute,
meaning not amenable to mediation of any kind, entirely released
from all external concerns, all social and ethical ties, not subordinated
to any objectivity nor accountable by any rational concepts. For
him this is the essence of faith. Despite all these unbound ties
the subjectivity of faith ("interior certainty of uncertainty")
is the truth that surpasses any objectivity including the objectivity
of the ethical.
||Teleological suspension of the ethical
is possible because happiness, moral duties and social obligations
are not our ultimate ends. "The story of Abraham contains just
such a teleological suspension of the ethical."
Admittedly, it is very difficult to attain this type of faith
as "manifested normatively" in Abraham.
Due to the paucity of similar acts, it is much easier to "confuse
this paradox with spiritual trial", that is to say, to perceive
its teleological suspension of the ethical as a mere temptation
not to fulfill the ethical duty, whereas the ethical itself works
in fact as a temptation to fail religiously. To behave ethically
appears here as a spiritual trial from the standpoint of religion
because here the firmness of faith is being tested, not our morality.
On the other hand, those who have faith should not represent
it as non-distinguishable from a spiritual trial. They should
not deny the paradoxical nature of faith and they should "set
up certain criteria" so that one does not mistake the paradoxical
nature of faith for some other more or less similar acts. This
is why Kierkegaard makes every effort to carefully distinguish
the acts of faith from the tragic or insane actions committed
by parents over their own children. The former have a surfeit
of rationality, the latter are deprived of any reason.
In fact, Kierkegaard believes that the story of Abraham is both
exemplary and exceptional. He rejects those interpretations according
to which it was just a temptation/test like many others ("everything
is the same"). For him, there is "only one later analogy
to Abraham". It is not possible to be certain whom
Kierkegaard had in mind here. One guess is the Virgin Mary whom
he mentions few passages later. Another candidate could
be the king from Grimm's tale "The Faithful Johannes",
who was also off to sacrifice his two sons, but the analogy is
not perfect because that action was not demanded by God; it was
rather a kind of moral payback undertaken in order to resurrect
a deserved servant who had previously sacrificed himself for the
king. A closer analogy (probably unknown to Kierkegaard) could
be found in an early American novel: Wieland or Transformation
by C. B. Brown (1793). However, the supposed divine order
to murder own children was in Wielend's case only a product of
his deranged mind. This example suggests that invoking the voice
of a higher Being while murdering own children does not in our
or Kierkegaard's eyes make the murderer a new Abraham any more
than the absence of apparent purpose in a crime exempts the perpetrator
from moral and legal responsibility (cf. the case of Andrea Yates
who was convicted based on the fact that she was able to distinguish
right from wrong despite strong urges to follow God's request
to "save" her children from the devil). Parallels like
these are over-hastily rejected under the pretext that Abraham
has not killed Isaac after all. But the fact remains that Abraham
could not have been absolutely sure that it was God who was talking
to him any better than Andrea Yates. We do not condemn him though
and do not even allege that he was insane ("crazy",
"sick"), but we bring to court all others who follow
IV THE KNIGHT OF FAITH VS.
As Abraham in his unreserved obedience to God clearly violates
the parental duty toward his son, one can ask whether he is disregarding
this duty for the sake of a higher ethical duty. In order to exclude
this possibility which really occurs in tragic situations Kierkegaard
undertakes a comparison between Abraham's case and some other
instances in which parents show similar readiness to take the
life of their children. He explicates the specific nature of tragic
heroic deeds insofar as they are different from the sacrifice
of Isaac by adducing the following three legendary or historic
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia: Agamemnon,
the king and the military commander of the Achaeans, learns from
soothsayer Calchas, who was assisted by Menelaus and Odysseus,
(they are those "three persons" in the nation who "know
his agony"), that the Greek fleet would never sail for Troy
unless the goddess Artemis is given a young girl as an appeasement
for a previous offense. Agamemnon decides to bring to sacrifice
his daughter Iphigenia. (In the version of Euripides, Iphigenia
was saved in the last moment by the gods who have provided a deer
The Pledge of Jephthah: Jephthah,
the judge and the military leader of Israel, vows to God to sacrifice
the first living being coming from his home on his way back from
the decisive battle if God gave victory to Israel. His daughter
happens to be that person and Jephthah makes decision to keep
his pledge. (Some scholars interpret the outcome figuratively,
as pledging the daughter to eternal virginity.)
The Decree of Brutus: The sons of Lucius Junius Brutus,
a first consul of the republican Rome, are caught in a conspiracy
to overthrow the Republic and reestablish Monarchy. For this crime
law mandates death penalty. Brutus is called to reach the verdict
in the capacity of the incumbent consul; he makes decision to
go by the law.
All these stories have two characteristics in common:
The parents feel responsible for their children, moreover, they
love them dearly and strongly, but
they all "conceal their agony" and sacrifice their
children in a critical moment for something "higher"
(their community, a pledge to God, the value of laws).
Tragic = Ethical
Although these stories display the same interplay of parental
attachment and disengagement as is presumed in the story of Abraham,
none of them amounts to a teleological suspension of the ethical.
Tragic heroes disregard one ethical duty (parental obligation),
but they do not act immorally and anti-socially. On the contrary,
by sacrificing their most beloved ones they accomplish the tasks
and the duties stemming from their social positions (king, military
leader, consul). In doing this they show their care for the well
being of other people. Since in all three cases a whole nation
is at stake, by paying a very high personal price, these heroes
achieve something even more moral. To be sure, sacrificing somebody
else without that person's consent is morally reprehensible (an
"infamous" teleology) , but at the same time it is morally
redeemed (in the sense of social morality) as far as that action
had to be taken to save a wider community (nation, state). We
can, therefore, say that the tragic hero sacrifices one moral
good for the sake of a higher good or a higher ethical purpose
("the welfare of all", "the fate of the nation").
In view of all this, Kierkegaard claims that "the tragic
hero is still within the ethical", that is to say, he is
still faithful to the universal. "He allows an expression
of the ethical to have its telos in a higher expression
of the ethical; he scales down the ethical relation between father
and son or daughter and father to a feeling that has its dialectic
in its relation to the idea of moral conduct." Even if we
disagreed with their decisions we would be able to understand
them because their tragic choices remain within the realm of the
ethical. For a tragic hero the ethical is the divine (ultimate
purpose), and thus "the paradox therein can be mediated into
The action of a tragic hero neither entails nor allows for a
teleological suspension of the ethical. "Here there can be
no question of a teleological suspension of the ethical."
That what a tragic hero has to do is by all means excruciatingly
painful because of a huge personal loss. But he knows that it
saves/brings a much bigger good: "The tragic hero gives up
the certain for the even more certain." And he knows that
everyone will understand his resolve, even those who do not approve
his choice. People realize that the tragic hero ponders between
a lesser and a bigger loss and that he himself sustains personal
damage. In fact, he sacrifices his private good to/for a more
universal good. This is why the tragic hero deserves and gains
|The tragic hero does
not invoke his relationship with the deity as the justification
for the act. "The tragic hero does not enter into any private
relationship with the deity". Had he sacrificed his beloved
ones to obey a Godhead without any higher ethical purpose, no one
would understand him and no one would admire him.
Abraham stands in no relation to the universal, which
justifies the tragic hero. Abraham does not follow his positional
(ethical) duties, but pays heed to some exceptional circumstances
and motives. Consequently, the ethical as the highest telos
of our actions is in his case "entirely beside the point".
If we look at the story from an ethical point of view, Abraham
should not "violate the ethical obligation to the son",
or if he had done that, he should be legally and morally punished
for the crime. "By his act he transgressed the ethical altogether…"
In no sense was his act morally acceptable, let alone commendable.
It does not establish a link with any ethical values. Therefore,
"Abraham does not have the middle term that saves the tragic
hero." (I am sacrificing my son, This sacrifice is necessary
for this ethical good, Hence, it is morally acceptable.) In other
words, his action cannot be mediated so that it fits universal
morality. The sacrifice of Isaac cannot be reconciled with the
existing ethical order.
||"Why, then, does Abraham do it?"
Abraham does not know why God wants that sacrifice. Strictly speaking
he does not know exactly why he himself is following the order.
But he knows what for: "For God's sake and - the two
are wholly identical - for his own sake."
||Religious people accept obedience to God
as an obligation and duty. If there is a conflict
with other duties this one should be given precedence - in this
sense it is the absolute duty. For what are duties in general,
and especially in a theonomous ethic, but "the expression for
God's will". Consequently while attempting to sacrifice Isaac
Abraham recognizes precisely this as "the expression for God's
will". But that duty is not a moral duty and sacrificing
a son most assuredly is no duty at all.
Fidelity to God is not ethically higher than responsibility to the
son. Thus, Abraham cannot be ethically justified in neglecting the
latter. Kierkegaard asks "whether this story contains any higher
expression for the ethical that can ethically justify his suspending
of the ethical obligation to the son without moving beyond the teleology
of the ethical", but the answer is unequivocally - no. The
obligation in question is higher only religiously.
||How we should then qualify the person
"who gives up the universal in order to grasp something even
higher"? He is the knight of faith. "Here the necessity
of a new category for the understanding of Abraham becomes apparent."
That new category is the position of faith emerging from
a personal absolute relationship with God. "Abraham is at no
time a tragic hero but is something entirely different, either a
murderer or a man of faith." His being "higher" than
the universal is the basis for a paradoxical teleological suspension.
In a person who believes and obeys God's commands there must
be something which remains incommensurable with the universal,
but "is not evil". The act of Abraham is incommensurable
with the ethical the way the diagonal and the side of a square
are mutually incommensurable. If they were commensurable, one
could say in terms of Kierkegaard's simile, that an even number
is equal to an odd number. But this is not true - their relationship
is rather one of irrationality.
More Perfect or More Sinnful?
An exceptional individual exists as an individual who has faith
("Abraham had faith"), meaning he lives in paradox,
or better to say, he lives "the paradox by which he remains
at the apex" but also in "sin". By acting
as a man of faith Abraham has raised himself beyond the ethical,
because the single individual is "more perfect" than
the universal. However, if he exists as an individual he sins
in the sense of departing from the idea of the ethical. Only an
infant could objectively live in sin and still not be sinnful.
The question is now whether the same situation is possible for
an adult like Abraham. The answer is that he could be exempt from
sin only as a man of faith.
V THE EXISTENCE OF
The knight of faith does not have the whole nation behind him.
His act is not even public. In fact, it is strictly between him
and God. That what he is doing is a choice between his own selfhood
(individual salvation) and personal dread (eternal damnation).
This is what the action of Abraham is all about: "a purely
private endeavor" in search for his own existential meaning.
He disregards both the right of another parent and the right of
his own child. His detachment from emotional ties is at the same
time magnificent and monstrous. Hence, he cannot hope for understanding
and compassion. "One cannot weep over Abraham. One approaches
him with a horror religious, as Israel approached Mount
horror is inevitable outcome of the encounter with the Absolute
as well as of the aspiration to act on behalf of it. (Israel is
here meant as the religious community witnessing a theophany,
the horrifying revelation of God.)
||"Do not weep for me, but weep over yourself instead!"
How does the single individual in whom the ethical is suspended
He exists as lonesome and estranged individual. (Cf. for this
state of mind "The Seventh Seal", by Ingmar Bergman,
although exemplified by an agnostic.) He relies solely
on his ab-solute relation to God and derives everything from supposedly
directly conveyed divine orders.
||In keeping with the character of his choice the knight
of faith cannot boast any certainty comparable to the unshakeable
confidence of the tragic hero. He could have misunderstood the message,
he could have mistaken a nightmare for God's message, he could have
been deceived by the devil, he could have been simply wrong.
|Ways of Understanding:
||(1) One can sacrifice himself for others
- this is a rare but still understandable act of heroism. (2)
One can sacrifice some (few) to save many more - this is an understandable
act too, though tragic. (3) One can sacrifice somebody "to
grasp something" which is allegedly higher but not higher ethically
and socially - "what does he do?" Kierkegaard believes
that such a person might be teleologically suspending the ethical.
(A Kantian rejoinder would be that such person ignores the dignity
and integrity of human autonomy. We cannot know whether the voice
that speaks to us is God's or not. But we can be sure that it is
not if it commands something contrary to the moral law.)
||The paradoxical position of being an individual beyond
the universal is symbolically illustrated by virtue of a comparison
attributed to the Pythagoreans to the effect that "the odd
number is more perfect than the even". In other words, the
knight of faith, as an individual, stands in the same relation to
the universal as the odd number stands to the even number. To be
an odd number (say, one) means to be self-sufficient but desperately
Abraham does not speak. He cannot speak because he cannot speak
in a way intelligible to others. Intelligibility requires the
universality of rules and some reference points. Abraham lacks
that universal framework. Hence he cannot explain his exceptional
situation to anyone else. The outcome: "No one understands
him." No one can explain his act to other people. The reasons
for Abraham's action could not be made sensible, which comes down
to their non-existence. Not even Shakespeare was ever able to
"articulate this torment". "I can understand the
tragic hero, but I cannot understand Abraham."
Kierkegaard rejects the usual theological interpretations, suggested
by "assistant professors" (lecturers), who claim that
Abraham, after all, has not really infringed upon the ethical
because God had not taken the sacrifice, providing instead a ram.
Since the result was eventually a happy-end, so goes this line
of defense, Abraham should be fully exonerated from all ethical
objections. Simply, there was no breach of morality nor violation
of a duty and Abraham remains a regular believer. The problem
with this interpretation is that it judges Abraham "by result",
thus diverting the focus from his existence to something external
in regard to his existential anxiety. In approaching the case
of Abraham in this way, the well-minded assistant professors "level
all existence to the idea of state or the idea of society".
However, the value of existence does not lie in its effects or
usefulness for something else.
infinite value of individual existence is the main reason why
Kierkegaard shuns from any overly conformist picture of Abraham.
He strongly opposes any attempt to take the edge from Abraham's
act and therefore repudiates these (consequentialist
and utilitarian) justifications because they do precisely that.
They are being given to avoid potential turbulences ("the
earthquakes of existence") in "a well organized
would the police and the
newspaper say"). Since our legal system does not recognize
the category of sacrifice, especially not based on supernatural
orders, the austere story of Abraham is presented as a one time
the greatness of personal readiness
to put everything on line, these interpretations make light of Abraham's
act manifesting at the same time a mix of arrogance and wretchedness:
"arrogance because they feel called to pass judgment, wretchedness
because their lives are
in no way allied with the lives
of the great". But individual greatness cannot be measured
according to the result and even if it could that would not change
anything in this case: "If Abraham actually had sacrificed
Isaac, would he therefore have been less justified?" If the
answer is "No", as it should be for the faithful, then
interpretations miss the point. And the point
is the paradox, the anxiety, the uncertainty, in brief, everything
what we encounter before the result comes (these are the only criteria
of greatness Kierkegaard gives). What matters in the story is precisely
the beginning, the resolve, the absurd, the cruelty, not potentially
agreeable or beneficial effects.
As the only comparable biblical figure
with regard to that absolute separation from the public world Kierkegaard
singles out the Virgin Mary. Though a Protesant, he highly values
the circumstance that she had to stand the scandal of pregnancy
all by herself, while at the same time remaining un-shattered in
her firm conviction. God did not help her in any way to carry the
burden. As Kierkegaard points out, the angel came only to her, did
not tell anything to other maidens to ease her position or to make
it more believable.
these criteria are not discriminative enough for they do not exclude
crimes committed out of anxiety or distress. Second, a direct, personal
relation with God is not verifiable and consequently it cannot be
given absolute authority when it generates the wish of God against
His written Commandments. Third, Abraham assumes that Isaac is only
his although he is equally Sarah's and his own. His act establishes
a long line of parental abuse which probably outweighs the violence
derived from the complex of Oedipus (cf. Dylan's and Cohen's protest
against forcing children to fight old men's battles).
|Faith is a
With regard to faith Kierkegaard's rejoinder is twofold: First,
"faith is a marvel" although no one is excluded from
it. Second, "faith is a passion" like every participation
and engagement. This statement about passion (also a recognizable
existentialist topic) should be understood in the semantic duplicity
of the word "passion". On the one hand, it denotes the
unavoidable passivity of suffering, the state of being struck
by certain emotions or conditions. On the
it denotes the enthusiasm and longing resulting from certain feelings,
enduring emotions or even obsessions. Faith is suffering because
it requires a very painful transformation of life
(renouncing many earthly attachments and mundane pleasures) and
a hard persistence in the exposure to God. But it is also an activity
of attaining a relationship with God, the momentary union of the
temporal Self with the eternal. Passion is essential for faith
and active life
because passionate attachment to
the object of passion provides the
goal and the guidance
for individual practice. This is why Kierkegaard emphasizes that
greatness does not emerge accidentally: "It is not what happens
to me that makes me great but what I do."
this is the reason why he, as well as all existentialists, regards
passion (not reason) as the most fundamental and universal human
feature. The presence of passion reveals that one is not indifferent,
that he/she cares for existence. Faith is the most exquisite passion
in the sense that it is the most
passionate and the
highest passion. All people participate in some
of passion but not all deeply care for the highest. Faith is both
the highest passion and the passion for the highest.
The Absurd, from
the Latin ab-surdus = out of that which cannot be voiced
or heard, therefore something which is deprived of reasons and
opposed to reason.
The Absolute, from
the Latin absolutus = free, loosen, free from limitations
and restrictions, hence the ultimate being or principle which
does not depend on anything else.
Duty, that which
one is expected to do as required by a norm, no matter whether
the demand coincides with the person's inclination or not.
absence of common measure for both the individual and the universal;
this incongruency points to something un-expressible or un-measurable
in that comparison.
The Knight of Faith,
Kierkegaard's term for the individual who has renounced the finite
world in an act of sincere resignation, but has obtained it in
the very same moment in an act of faith by virtue of the absurd.
The Middle Term,
in the original, Kierkegaard speaks about the "mediating
term", which refers either to the middle premise in a syllogistic
inference, or to the law of the excluded middle. The absence of
a middle term means that Abraham's action cannot be characterized
as a case of a moral duty, which would allow a mediation of his
singularity with the respective universal principle, thus leading
to a justifying conclusion. With regard to the law of the excluded
middle Abraham is either a knight of faith or a murderer, there
is no third possibility.
Teleology of the Moral/Ethical,
English rendering of the German Teleologie des Sittlichen;
this is an allusion to the Philosophy of Right where Hegel
conceives morality as the ultimate realization (unity) of the
good itself and the subjective conscience.
in general, the position in ethics that determines the moral value
of human actions in virtue of the goodness or badness of their
the Greek deon + logos (duty + the study), related to the
concept of duty, obligation, responsibility, or commitment. In
agreement with Kant, Kierkegaard rejects to evaluate human actions
according to their results.
- Do we ought to obey all commands of God?
- Can we regard other people instrumentally
for the sake of eternal salvation? Does faith entitle anyone
to take other people's lives as means and not as ends in themselves?
- Does the story of Abraham mean that "great"
people cannot be measured by the same standards that apply to
- How can we trust the contents of faith when
they are not communicable and cannot be made inter-subjective?
Can we unreservedly follow orders that spring solely from our
- Assuming that Andrea Yates has really heard
the voice of God, urging her to "save her children"
by drowning them, should she have obeyed? If she was insane,
should she have been convicted?
- How can we exclude the possibility of grave
errors? "What if (the knight of faith) himself is distraught,
what if he had made a mistake…what if he is a sleep-walker"?
From: D. Palmer, Kierkegaard
for Beginners, 1996.