The knight of faith is one of Kierkegaard’s most important concepts, which he discusses in Fear and Trembling in the “Preamble from the Heart”, written under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio.
There are three spheres of existence in Kierkegaard’s philosophy: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. In Fear and Trembling he analyses the contradictions between the ethical and religious spheres of existence. They are spheres of existence because they fill the entirety of your life. While they may overlap, you’ll always be in one of these spheres.
Kierkegaard considered himself religious, but Johannes admits that he lacks faith, for he cannot make the leap.
Johannes recounts the biblical story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The ethical expression for what Abraham plans to do is that he is willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he is willing to sacrifice Isaac, in this contradiction lies the very anxiety and stress that can make one sleepless.
Abraham is not to be understood as someone who could decide not to believe that God existed; his choice concerns rather what one is to hope for or expect given that God does exist, to prove his faith to God, he is after all the “father of faith”.
Abraham is entirely alone and he cannot justify his actions to anyone. He renounces that which he most loves in the world and thus becomes a knight of infinite resignation, the first step one must take to become a knight of faith.
As Abraham is about to sacrifice his son – God sends an angel which points him to a ram that he is to sacrifice in Isaac’s place, and Isaac is ultimately saved. Abraham makes the movement of faith when he regains him once again, he comes back to his original position and receives Isaac more joyfully than the first time. By renouncing everything, he receives everything. Abraham becomes the knight of faith. This is the true hero of Fear and Trembling.
The story of Abraham and Isaac not need to be taken as a literal description of what a person must be prepared to do if he is to be said to have faith. It can be read as an allegory in which Abraham’s actions symbolise some general feature of a religious consciousness.
Johannes contrasts the knight of faith with the tragic hero. He uses a story from Greek Mythology, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of King Agamemnon. The king accidently kills an animal of the Greek goddess of the hunt and she punishes him by preventing his troops from engaging in the Trojan War unless he sacrifices his daughter. He makes the sacrifice for the good of the state, fulfilling his ethical duty. The society admires his courage. However, the knight of faith cannot communicate his mission, for he is utterly alone.
Abraham is great not because of his willingness to obey God, but rather because of what he suffers in the trial. Furthermore, his suffering and greatness seem to isolate him in a very radical way from society. The book focuses on the nature of the suffering involved in the story.
Johannes uses the story of Abraham to show how monstrous a paradox faith is, a paradox capable of making a murder into a holy act well pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham. He conveys us the hard fact that faith has no place in a system of thought, that:
“Faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.”
Faith exiles one from the realm of human discourse. If we are to talk of faith at all it is of something we cannot explain in any language that suffices for people to describe and justify their actions and attitudes to one another.
In Kierkegaard’s time, faith was thought to be where one begins in life, not where one aims to end. That faith is the beginning and not the end conveys the general message of the book: that the notion of faith is so far cheapened that what is talked about is not properly called faith at all. Therefore, people mustn’t suppose that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter, when in fact it is the greatest and most difficult of all.
Since Isaac is ultimately saved, there must be some higher stage than that of the ethical one – this is the “teleological suspension of the ethical”, the ethical becomes secondary as a whole to some other end or telos, the religious stage.
“Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal”
The universal is expressed by the ethical life where the individual’s actions lack a moral aspect unless they are linked to the well-being of society as a whole. If the State requires you to execute your son for whatever reason, you must do it. The religious stage is higher than the ethical because it finds the individual as the particular in an absolute relation to God, expressing individuality and inwardness, which is independent from society and which is at the core of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.
Johannes notes, however, that he has never found any knight of faith, though he would not deny on that ground that they exist. He writes:
“If I knew where such a knight of faith lived I would journey to him on foot… I would not let him slip one instant, but watch every minute how he makes the movements… As I said, I haven’t found such a one; still, I can very well imagine him… The moment I first set eyes on him I thrust him away, jump back, clasp my hands together and say half aloud: ‘Good God! Is this the person, is it really him? He looks just like a tax-collector.’ Yet it is indeed him. I come a little closer, watch the least movement in case some small, incongruous optical telegraphic message from the infinite should appear, a glance, expression, gesture, a sadness, a smile betraying the infinite by its incongruity with the finite…No! he is solid through and through. His stance? Vigorous, it belongs altogether to finitude… One detects nothing of the strangeness and superiority that mark the knight of the infinite.”
This is quite a different knight of faith as that of Abraham. He looks just like any person, he is not any religious priest, monk or ascetic, but rather participates in worldly affairs just like everyone else and yet he has made and is at every moment making the movement of infinity, which cannot be seen. He indulges in finitude which is viewed as important for the trusting character of faith in God, this is, however, not to be confused with the aesthetic way of life, since faith requires resignation.
Johannes understands how one can make the infinite movement of resignation with strength, energy and freedom of spirit – but he cannot understand the movement of faith where one receives everything back in full by virtue of the absurd, where one renounces everything and regains everything.
Johannes can only remain a knight of infinite resignation. He has great trouble hurling himself trustingly in the absurd and calls it an impossible task, a marvel which he can only be amazed by.
“Alas, this movement is one I cannot make! As soon as I want to begin it everything turns around and I flee back to the pain of resignation. I can swim in life, but for this mysterious floating I am too heavy. To exist in such a way that my opposition to existence expresses itself every instant as the most beautiful and safest harmony, that I cannot.”
He compares both knights to a ballet dancer. It is said that the dancer’s hardest task is to leap straight into a definite position without vacillating and standing there in the leap itself.
The knight of infinite resignation is a dancer and he too has elevation. But while he makes the upward movement and lands, he wavers an instant, showing that he is nevertheless a stranger in the world, his leap of faith cannot be grounded in reality, he is lacking the movement of faith.
The knight of faith, however, can make a leap and land on the ground perfectly. And this movement is represented in his every step. He delights in everything finite even while knowing the bliss of infinity. In other words, he moves from finitude to infinity and back again to finitude. His movement of infinity is grounded in reality.
Johannes illustrates these two movements by giving the example of a young man in love with a princess. There may in fact be three movements, one which is not explicitly counted as a separate movement is the concentration of desire on a single finite object, which allows for the movement of infinite resignation.
The knight of infinite resignation has an intensification of desire in which he puts the content of his whole life in this love, and yet the relationship is one that cannot possibly be brought to fruition, be translated from ideality to reality.
While he performs the movement of infinite resignation by renouncing to their love in finitude, which causes him great pain – his love for the princess would take the expression of an eternal love, which would assume a religious character, directing his love at God.
Having acquired an eternal consciousness which no one can take away from him, he obtains peace and rest, allowing the pain caused by his unsatisfied desire to reconcile him spiritually. He no longer needs to know about the finite existence of the princess. He has grasped the deep secret that even in loving another one should be sufficient unto himself.
If one’s interests are numerous and as replaceable as the hydra’s heads, then it seems that in cutting them off one by one by separate acts of resignation, one will never reach a comprehensive or infinite resignation. If religious devotion is to define itself by resignation, the desire for the finite presents itself concentrated in one head that can be severed by a single stroke of resignation, so to speak.
The knight of faith does exactly the same as the other knight, but he makes one more movement, he says:
“I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely by virtue of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.”
The knight of faith redirects the love to the princess through divine possibility. As such, he is the happiest person, the heir to the finite, while the other knight is a stranger and an outsider.
All of this reflects Kierkegaard’s own personal experience. He fall deeply and passionately in love with Regine Olsen, but ended up breaking off his engagement to her, sacrificing that which he loved with his whole soul.
Kierkegaard rarely entertained the idea that his works would become “classics”. However, concerning Fear and Trembling, he wrote in his journals that he predicted that with its “frightful pathos” it would suffice “to immortalise my name as an author” and “to be translated into other languages.”
“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”
KIERKEGAARD: The Knight of Faith
The knight of faith is one of Kierkegaard’s most important concepts, which he discusses in Fear and Trembling under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio. He begins explaining the knight of faith through the story of Abraham and Isaac.