Fear and Trembling: The Religious and the Ethical – Kierkegaard

Fear and Trembling is a thrilling and enthralling book as well as a great introduction to Kierkegaard, it is also relatively short at around 200 pages (Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way are around 800 pages long!)

To recap the previous posts on Kierkegaard, we know that he presents three stages on life’s way: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.

His first book Either/Or focuses on the aesthetic and the ethical, while Stages On Life’s Way is a continuation of Either/Or where he introduces the religious stage.

In Fear and Trembling he focuses on the clash between the religious and the ethical stages through the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham who is childless after 80 years, prays to God for a son. He is granted his wish, and 30 years later, God orders him to kill his son, but at the last second God spares Isaac.

Abraham and Isaac, Guns and God | Leah D. Schade
Abraham and Isaac

He presents this story in four different viewpoints:

1. In one Abraham kills his son in accordance to God’s will, telling his son that he is doing it by his own will, not by God’s. This is a lie, but he would rather have Isaac lose faith in him than lose faith in God.

2. In the second version, Abraham decides not to kill his son, and his faith is shaken.

3. In the third version, Abraham decides not to kill his son and prays to God to forgive him for having thought of sacrificing him.

4. And in the final version, Abraham cannot kill his son, and Isaac begins to question his own faith due to Abraham’s refusal to do what God commanded.

Kierkegaard essentially claims that the killing of Isaac is ethically wrong but religiously right. The tension between ethics and religion causes Abraham anxiety.

The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

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For Kierkegaard, Abraham performs what he calls a teleological suspension of the ethical. In other words, he suspends his ethical standards when he decides to kill Isaac, however he has faith in the righteousness of the end that God will bring about. He puts his religious concerns over ethical concerns, thus proving his faith in God.

The book details the relationship between the ethical and the religious in much the same way that Either/Or details the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical.

Knights of Infinite Resignation and Knights of Faith

In the book, Kierkegaard distinguishes between knights of infinite resignation and knights of faith.

The knights of infinite resignation allow themselves to resign from the nature of the world. Reconciling oneself to loss. Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is deeply in love with her.

The knight of infinite resignation gives up their being together in this world. It would amount to the expression of an eternal love, which would assume a religious character, an eternal form that no one can take away from him, this allows the pain caused by his unsatisfied desire to reconcile him spiritually.

On the other hand, the knight of faith does exactly the same as the other knight did, but he takes it one step further: he places complete faith in himself and in God, and since with God all things are possible, even if it is humanly impossible to be together, he still believes that in this world, they will be together, through divine possibility.

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Greatest Philosophers In History | Soren Kierkegaard

His concept of anxiety or angst is one of the most profound pre-Freudian works of psychology. His most popular work includes the leap of faith, the concept of angst, the three stages on life (aesthetic, ethical, religious) and the absurd, among others.

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2 thoughts on “Fear and Trembling: The Religious and the Ethical – Kierkegaard

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