PHL 346
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic


Problem I
An Outline

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.


General Title:

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 and consequences.

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 Journals).


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.

Main Features of Ethical Claims:

- 1. Universally formulated

- 2. Universally binding
- 3. Perpetually valid
- 4. Intrinsically valid (self-purposive)


Note 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.

Note 2: Although 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").

Trial (Temptation):

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.

Evil (Sin) 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.






Possible Suspension:

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.

Conclusion: If the ethical is the ultimate human end (universal, intrinsic and the highest value),
then: there is no teleological suspension of the ethical.

Philosophical Lexicon

Teleology, from 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.

Immanent, from 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).

Mediation, Hegel's 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.


  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.

Wrong: 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.

Note 2: 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).  

In order to be consequent philosophy should:

criticize faith

= admit that faith is abomination
condemn Abraham = recognize that Abraham is a murderer
use only Greek concepts
= regard private individuality as evil
Inconsistency: 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.
Implications for Religion:

If the ethical is the ultimate court of appeal for human actions, then:

(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.

Faith is:


personal risk, exception, subjectivity, harshness, repulsiveness
socially acceptable conduct, conformism, spiritual trial


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.
Note: This 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 with God.   
The Father of Faith:

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.

  Note: 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.


  Note: 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.

Reversal: 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. 

Absurd: 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.
Note: Kierkegaard's 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 absolute".

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.

Thesis: 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.


Note: 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 his example.


Tragic Hero:

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 examples:

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 instead.)
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 universal."

No Suspension:

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 compassion.





No Mediation:

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.

Motive: "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."
Obligation: 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.
Suspension: 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.
Residual Incommensurability:

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.


Exception - 

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.



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 Sinai."
Note: Religious 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.)

Message: "Do not weep for me, but weep over yourself instead!"



How does the single individual in whom the ethical is suspended exist?
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. 


Mistaken? 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.) 
Pythagorean Formula: 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 isolated.


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.

"Deontological" Stance:




The 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 state" ("what 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 event. 

Greatness: Instead of recognizing 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 these 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.  
  Note: 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.
Doubts: However, 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 Passion

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 other hand, 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." And 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 forms of passion but not all deeply care for the highest. Faith is both the highest passion and the passion for the highest.

Philosophical Lexicon

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.

Incommensurability, the 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.

Utilitarianism, in general, the position in ethics that determines the moral value of human actions in virtue of the goodness or badness of their consequences.

Deontological, from 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 everybody else?
  • 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 religious visions?
  • 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.

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