Fear and Trembling is a book by Søren Kierkegaard written under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio. Kierkegaard is famous for having multiple pseudonyms. The purpose of this is not to confuse the reader, but rather to make him come up with his own conclusions.
The subtitle of the book is Dialectical Lyric. That is to say, the first part of the book takes a lyrical form, while the second and much more extensive part takes a dialectical one, where there is a back and forth discussion of ideas, in which a thesis and an opposing antithesis resolve themselves into a synthesis.
Through the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Kierkegaard, as a great explorer of human psychology, looks into the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham when God commanded him to offer his son as a human sacrifice. However, the book is not primarily concerned with this story; it uses the story to draw the reader’s attention to certain very fundamental questions.
Part I. Fear And Trembling – Preface
In the preface, Johannes suggests how incomprehensible Abraham’s faith is. Abraham didn’t question God, didn’t complain or weep, he simply obeyed God’s orders.
Part I. Fear And Trembling – Attunement
We are presented with four different scenarios of the Abraham and Isaac story. All of them in which just as Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, God stops Abraham and points him to a ram that he is to sacrifice in Isaac’s place.
This takes up the lyrical effort at conveying to us what Abraham actually went through.
In the first version, Abraham tells Isaac that it is not God that commanded to sacrifice him, but that he is doing it himself. He says that it is better that Isaac believe him to be a monster than that he loses faith in God. In the second version Abraham follows God’s command, but because he cannot understand God’s wish in ethical terms, he saw joy no more. In the third, Abraham understands God’s command as a test of his ethical view and begs to God for having been willing to sacrifice his son, and in the fourth Abraham follows God’s command, but he is filled with anxiety and is visibly trembling, this makes Abraham lose faith, as well as Isaac.
Part I. Fear And Trembling – Speech in Praise of Abraham
In the Speech in Praise of Abraham, Johannes establishes Abraham’s greatness on three counts: in respect of what he loved (God), of what he confidently expected (the impossible) and of what he strove with (not with the world or himself, but again God). He is considered as the father of faith.
Although the author can admire Abraham lyrically, there is still the question of whether he can understand him.
Part II. Problemata – Preamble from the Heart
The second part of Fear and Trembling is given over to the problemata, which are prefaced by a “Preamble from the Heart”, taking up the dialectical form.
Kierkegaard coined the term angst to refer to the dizzying awareness of one’s freedom of choice. It is the anxiety of freedom when considering infinite possibilities and the immense responsibility of being able to choose. This proved to be very influential in Existentialism.
Abraham feels anxiety as the result of the ethical obligation he had to his son. The ethical expression of his behaviour is that he tried to murder Isaac, while the religious expression is that he tried to sacrifice Isaac believing that God will give him back.
Abraham has faith “by virtue of the absurd”: there is no room for human calculation in Abraham’s faith or in God’s behaviour.
Kierkegaard believes that there are three stages on life’s way: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.
The aesthetic stage or the personal self is the lowest of the three and is primarily concerned with individual sensory experience, this is easily attainable and requires no sacrifice.
The ethical stage or the civic self is the expression of the universal. The individual resigns his actions for the well-being of society as a whole. This is represented by Hegel, who considered the ethical life as the highest manifestation of what he called Absolute Mind, the embodiment of the universal truth.
For Kierkegaard, however, the religious is the highest of all stages. One must go further than the ethical and make a leap of faith.
The religious stage finds the single individual in an absolute relation to the absolute. One exists in a private relationship with God, above the ethical represented by the universal.
Kierkegaard believes that “faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off”.
The general message of the book is that the notion of faith is so far cheapened that what is talked about is not properly called faith at all. Kierkegaard himself savagely criticised Christendom, represented by the Danish Established Church.
Johannes tells us that he himself is not a man of faith, and that though he can speak about Abraham, he could not emulate him. We assume that having faith is easy compared to doing philosophy, but Johannes remarks that he can understand Hegel, a notoriously difficult thinker, but not Abraham.
We are introduced to two important concepts: the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith.
The knight of infinite resignation allows himself to resign from the nature of the world. There is no faith without prior resignation, other than a cheap version of it. Resignation is renouncing one’s most cherished beliefs, reconciling oneself with this loss.
He gives the example of a young man falling in love with a princess. He knows they can never be together, and the idea of being together is absurd. This expresses itself into eternal love, which would assume a religious character, an eternal form that no one can take away from him, allowing the pain caused by his unsatisfied desire to reconcile him spiritually.
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.
By virtue of the absurd, the knight of faith regains everything he gave up in the movement of infinite resignation. These two movements combined make up the double movement of faith.
Abraham makes the movement of infinite resignation when he gives up Isaac and the movement of faith when he regains him once again, he comes back to his original position and therefore received Isaac more joyfully than the first time. Thus, Abraham becomes a knight of faith. By renouncing everything, he receives everything.
Johannes remarks that he has never seen a knight of faith in his life, but that one would detect nothing of the superiority of him, while he makes the movement of infinity at every step, one could simply not distinguish him from any ordinary person.
He compares the knight of infinite resignation to a ballet dancer, while he leaps beautifully, he lands awkwardly. Only the knight of faith can make a leap and land on the ground perfectly, this is represented in his every step. He delights in everything, he is over and beyond human powers, he is a marvel.
Part II. Problemata
The first of the problemata asks the question, “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?
Abraham is prepared to kill his own son even though in doing so he does nothing for the universal and is treated as murder by the ethical. However, since Isaac is ultimately saved – there must be some higher court of appeal than that of the ethical life. This is the “teleological suspension of the ethical”, the ethical becomes secondary as a whole to some other end or telos, the religious stage.
Fear and Trembling, in a nutshell, argues that the religious is higher than the ethical. However, this conclusion is up to the reader.
The second problema asks, “Is there an absolute duty to God? Johannes again defines the ethical as universal, which he in turn associates with the duty to God. Every duty is a duty to God insofar as God is the universal. However, there is no direct relation to God.
Kant and Hegel argue that there is no absolute duty to God. We cannot justify our actions by saying “God told me to”. All moral laws should be universal: for instance, it is never right to lie, regardless of the circumstances. In other words, the ethical is the universal, hence the outer realm is higher than the inner realm.
Johannes challenges this suggesting that there is an absolute duty to God, as in the case of Abraham. Faith is that paradox that the inner is higher than the outer.
There are three figures: the tragic hero, the aesthetic hero, and the knight of faith.
The tragic hero is open to everything as he surrenders to the universal, the aesthetic hero has the possibility of taking on the burden of secrecy, violating the demands of the ethical, and the knight of faith cannot speak because he cannot be understood, as he is isolated from the universal, he is in constant temptation and being put to test, hence “fear and trembling”. However, he is the only one to have intimate relation to God addressing him as “thou” instead of “He”.
The third problema asks if it was ethically defensible that Abraham did not disclose his undertaking to anyone. Disclosure is associated with the universal and hiddenness with the single individual. Abraham acted as a single individual, isolated from the universal, and as such his actions could not be explained or disclosed.
In the epilogue, Johannes suggests that life’s tasks are not to be solved by acquiring new forms of consciousness in which tasks virtually disappear, so that succeeding generations inherit the solutions without having to face any problems.
Faith requires passion, and passion is not something we can learn. We have to experience it ourselves. The highest passion of all is faith, and with regard to faith we all begin at the same place, and no one can go further than faith.
“He who loved himself became great in himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he who loved God became greater than all.”
Fear and Trembling in 10 Minutes | Kierkegaard
Fear and Trembling is a book by Søren Kierkegaard written under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio. Through the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Kierkegaard, as a great explorer of human psychology, looks into the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham when God commanded him to offer his son as a human sacrifice.
7 thoughts on “Book Review: Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard”
Funny. I just finished reading this. Am I thick, or just slow? I liked your explanation much more than Kirkegaard’s work. In my own review, I just put it as Kirkegaard is smarter than me, but I found it very difficult to digest. Thanks for your breakdown. Makes the book make more sense to me. Nice work.
Thank you. Timing! Yes it is a quite difficult read, some passages are incomprehensible to me. Kierkegaard really likes to make his readers work. I was entranced by his explanation of the knight faith & knight of infinite resignation though.
Fear and Trembling is a sort of continuation of Either/Or. Throughout his work, Kierkegaard focuses on three spheres of life: aesthetic, ethical, religious. His book: Either/Or exemplifies The Aesthetic and the Ethical, while Fear and Trembling focuses on the Ethical and the Religious.
The Aesthetic sphere is a sort of Don Juanism, life of “immediacy”, a life of self indulgency and self centered pleasure. The aesthete develops a rotation method which is an intensive cultivation of amusement rather than extensive (changing the crops instead of using more of the same crop fields). He finds pleasure not in listening to boring philosophical lectures, but in focusing on the lecturer’s beads of sweat.
There is a section titled Diary of the Seducer, a disturbing account of “spiritual rape”. It may reflect Kierkegaard’s break with Regina Olsen. But most importantly, it is a warning to aesthetes.
The Ethical is represented by Judge Williams: traditionalism, marriage, duty. He argues that the aesthete is bound to fall into despair, as he is constantly seeking enjoyment. The ethicist who does not focus on pleasure, but duty, actually receives more pleasure, beating the aesthete in his own game.
“Happiness is one of those things that we’re much more likely to find if we are not looking for it”.
Marriage is the ethicist’s response to love. One enjoys and loves even more than the aesthete. When one chooses, one chooses absolutely. For choosing one thing, you dismiss all the other possibilities.
However, Judge Williams mixes up the religious into the ethical stage. Kierkegaard opposes this. This he explains in Fear and Trembling, Abraham is considered a murder in the ethical stage. However, in the religious stage he is the father of faith and knight of faith by virtue of the absurd in believing the impossible, standing in an absolute relation to the absolute “God”. It is a critique of the ethical as it fills all of existence and even the religious sphere. It denies a relationship with God, and being ready to do anything he demands of you. One must choose absolutely to be in one concrete sphere (Aesthetic, Ethical, Religious).
There have been many readers shocked by the murder of Isaac calling it murder. Johannes de silentio “Kierkegaard” argues that a murderer is not Abraham. Only one who has faith can be approximate to Abraham. Abraham must not hate Isaac as that’d be murder (ethical stage) and not a sacrifice to God, since God wouldn’t consider it a sacrifice if he does not care about his son (religious stage). It only converts to sacrifice (not murder) when Abraham loves Isaac very much. It is the Paradox of one’s love of God and his son. The “teleological suspension of the ethical”
Thanks for reading & commenting!
You’re welcome and thanks for the further insight. The knight of faith versus resignation, I finally understood, but he’d been referencing them for quite some time, before I sunk in. It’s very abstract, but it does make sense. Like I say, I was kind of dizzy by the end. Glad I read it though. It’s making reading Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra) easier though. 😉
It sunk in, not I sunk in.
Your explanation was very helpful. I want to read Kiekegaard and understand his ideas in depth. Do you recommend reading his original book or you would suggest any commentary?
Thanks! I’d recommend purchasing the Penguin Classics edition of Fear and Trembling, it comes with an introduction to Kierkegaard as well as helpful commentary and footnotes throughout the book. After this book, I’d recommend The Sickness unto Death, and then Either/Or.
There is also a great book of Kierkegaard which is relatively more straightforward and easy to read called The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses.
Thank you very much for the recommendation.