Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 11/16/2014

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard focused on Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. The New Testament apostles repeatedly argued that Abraham's act was an admirable display of faith. To the eyes of a non-believer, however, it must necessarily have appeared to be an unjustifiable attempted murder, perhaps the fruit of an insane delusion. Kierkegaard used this example to focus attention on the problem of faith in general. For Kierkegaard, faith is incomprehensible, in the sense that it demands a willingness to venture beyond the realm of reason, but it is not unreasonable or irrational. It is an act of will. A leap of Faith. No matter how rigorous your logical system, there will always be gaps of uncertainty, they can only be bridged by a leap of faith. It is not until we undermine our trust in the power of reason and use our passion, that we can come to worship God in the proper way, by opening ourselves up to revelation.
Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that which unites all human life is passion, and faith is a passion.
Passion is necessary. Every movement of infinity comes about by passion, and no reflection can bring a movement about.
He ultimately affirmed that to believe in the incarnation of Christ, in God made flesh, was to believe in the "absolute paradox", since it implies that an eternal, perfect being would become a simple human. Reason cannot possibly comprehend such a phenomenon; therefore, one can only believe in it by taking a "leap of faith".
During the time before the result, either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stand before a paradox that is higher than all mediation. The story of Abraham contains, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical. As the single individual he became higher than the universal. This is the paradox, which cannot be mediated. How he entered into it is just as inexplicable as how he remains in it.
The sickness unto death is what Kierkegaard calls despair. According to Kierkegaard, an individual is "in despair" if he does not align himself with God or God's plan for the self. While humans are inherently reflective and self-conscious beings, to become a true self one must not only be conscious of the self but also be conscious of being aligned with a higher purpose, with God's plan for the Self and to have reconciled the finite with the infinite, to exist in awareness of one's own self and of God. Kierkegaard defines the opposite of despair as faith.

Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is madly in love with her, but circumstances are that the man will never be able to realize this love in this world.
  1. The aesthetic is primarily concerned with individual experience. There are many degrees of this aesthetic existence, at bottom, one might see the purely unreflective lifestyle. At the top, we might find those lives which are lived in a reflective, independent, critical and socially apathetic way. But many interpreters of Kierkegaard believe that most people live in the least reflective sort of aesthetic stage, their lives and activities guided by everyday tasks and concerns. Fewer aesthetically guided people are the reflective sort. Whether such people know it or not, their lives will inevitably lead to complete despair. A person who is in the aesthetic stage would abandon this love, crying out for example, "Such a love is foolishness. The rich brewer's widow is a match fully as good and respectable". 
  2. The ethical is the expression of the universal, where all actions are done publicly and for the common good. One acts for the betterment of others rather than for oneself. The tragic hero or the knight of infinity gives himself over completely to the universal, and is willing to make the movement of infinite resignation, giving up what he values most, for the sake of the universal. A person who is in the ethical stage would not give up on this love, but would be resigned to the fact that they will never be together in this world. 
  3. The knight of faith feels what the knight of infinity feels, but with exception that the knight of faith believes that in this world; in this life, they may be together. The knight of faith would say "I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible." This double movement (infinite resignation, a leap of faith into the absurd using faith in God) is paradoxical because on the one hand it is humanly impossible that they would be together, but on the other hand the knight of faith is willing to believe that they will be together through divine possibility. The religious finds the single individual in an absolute relation to the absolute. That is, the single individual exists in a private relationship with God above everything else.
Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith. 
It is great when the poet, presenting his tragic hero before the admiration of men, dares to say, "Weep for him, for he deserves it." For it is great to deserve the tears of those who are worthy to shed tears. It is great that the poet dares to hold the crowd in check, dares to castigate men, requiring that every man examine himself whether he be worthy to weep for the hero. For the waste-water of blubberers is a degradation of the holy. – But greater than all this it is that the knight of faith dares to say even to the noble man who would weep for him, "Weep not for me, but weep for thyself."  
A dozen sectarians go arm in arm with one another; they are totally ignorant of the solitary spiritual trials that are in store for the knight of faith and that he dares not flee precisely because it would be still more dreadful if he presumptuously forced his way forward. The sectarians deafen one another with their noise and clamor, keep anxiety away with screeching. A hooting carnival crowd like that thinks it is assaulting heaven, believes it is going along the same path as the knight of faith, who in the loneliness for the universe never hears another human voice but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility. 
Anyone who believes that it is fairly easy to be the single individual can always be sure that he is not a knight of faith, for fly-by-nights and itinerant geniuses are not men of faith. on the contrary, this knight knows that it is glorious to belong to the universal. He knows that it is beautiful and beneficial to be the single individual who translates himself into the universal, the one who, so to speak, personally produces a trim, clean, and, as far as possible, faultless edition of himself, readable by all. He knows that is it refreshing to become understandable to himself in the universal in such a way that he understands it, and every single individual who understands him in turn understands the universal in him, and both rejoice in the security of the universal.
The idea is that because the religious is absurd and cannot be approached rationally. There is no way we can think matters through and convince ourselves that it is the right step to make. Instead, we must put our faith in God and make the leap. The use of "leap" suggests that Kierkegaard believes that faith in God is a matter of personal choice that each person must make or not make. This goes against earlier rationalist philosophers such as Descartes, who thought they could prove the existence of God by means of reason.

On the ethical level, Abraham is a murderer who almost kills his only beloved son. The paradox then lies in explaining why it is that this murderer should be praised as the father of faith. Once Abraham became conscious of his eternal validity he arrived at the door of faith and acted according to his faith. In this action he became a knight of faith. In other words, one must give up all his or her earthly possessions in infinite resignation and must also be willing to give up whatever it is that he or she loves more than God. Abraham was wrong as far as ethics is concerned but right as far the Absolute is concerned. What was the most Abraham could do in his relationship with God? Remain faithful to his commitment to God. He accomplished that by actually lifting the knife with the intention of carrying out his mission. In short, he acted. Here the intention was more important than the result. He had faith and had to go no further to please God.

From Kierkegaard’s point of view the Koran story is significantly different from the version because Ibrahim tells his son of a vision of the sacrifice, and the son is willing to be sacrificed, so the trial is just as much of the son as the father. Kierkegaard emphasizes that Abraham no telling Isaac, as part of the emphasis on the silence appropriate to the absurd dialectic, the paradox of faith. The tragic hero may explain the problem, but not the Knight of faith.
How did Abraham exist? He had faith. This is the paradox by which he remains at the apex, the paradox that he cannot explain to anyone else, for the paradox is that he as the single individual places himself in an absolute relation to the absolute.
Several authorities consider the work autobiographical. It can be explained as Kierkegaard's way of working himself through the loss of his fiancee, Regine Olsen. Abraham becomes Kierkegaard and Isaac becomes Regine in this interpretation. Kierkegaard wrote in his diary that if he had enough faith, he would have stayed with Regine. So it seems here that Kierkegaard himself was a knight of resignation.

Hans Martensen, a contemporary of Kierkegaard's, said:
Kierkegaard's deepest passion is not merely the ethical, not merely the ethical-religious, but the ethical-religious paradox; it is Christianity itself, — such as this exhibits itself to his apprehension. Christianity is to him the divinely absurd (Credo quia absurdum), not merely the relative paradox, — namely, in relation to the natural man, ensnared in sin and worldliness, which has been the doctrine of Scripture and of the Church from the beginning, — but the absolute paradox, which must be believed in defiance of all reason, because every ideal, every thought of wisdom, is excluded there from, and in every case is absolutely inaccessible to man. Faith is to him the highest actual passion, which, thrilled by the consciousness of sin and guilt, appropriates to itself the paradox in defiance of the understanding, and from which all comprehension, all contemplation are excluded, as it is of a purely practical nature, a mere act of the will.
In 1923 Lee Hollander wrote the following in his introduction to Fear and Trembling:
Abraham chooses to be "the exception" and set aside the general law, as well as does the aesthetic individual; but, note well: "in fear and trembling," and at the express command of God! He is a "knight of faith." But because this direct relation to the divinity necessarily can be certain only to Abraham's self, his action is altogether incomprehensible to others. Reason recoils before the absolute paradox of the individual who chooses to rise superior to the general law.

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