Søren Kierkegaard ­- From Fear and Trembling (2016)

Module: Existentialism (Nanyang Technological University)

Book: Marino, G. (2004). Basic Writings of Existentialism. USA: Modern Library.

Chapter: Søren Kierkegaard ­- “From Fear and Trembling”

This essay attempts to analyse Kierkegaard’s definition of faith by firstly, explaining specific concepts of the ethical, universal, and the problem of faith, followed by an analysis of the strength and weaknesses. Ultimately, showing that while he capably distinguishes faith from everything else, it has inherent issues, thus, he is not right.

The ethical in Kierkegaard’s view is the rational, and rationality is the guide humans use in making judgments. The ethical should be pursued for itself and is itself the end (telos). Being ethical then becomes the standard, and because it applies to everyone, all the time, it is the universal (p.7). “It is (one’s) ethical task continually to express (oneself) in this, to annul (one’s) singularity in order to become the universal” (p.8). This is exemplified by the tragic hero, Agamemnon, in his expression of the universal by selflessly sacrificing his daughter to save everyone. However, one reaches a quandary in determining the position of faith and one’s relation to the absolute (God) in this system.

In Abraham’s test from God, he had to sacrifice Isaac, and ethically speaking, he is a murderer, but, faithfully speaking, he is the father of faith. Abraham teleologically suspended the ethical, that is, his telos was no longer the ethical and universal. In fact, “he transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher telos outside it” (p.14), thereby, becoming the single individual, whom as the single individual, Abraham is higher than the universal.

“Faith is either the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but as superior yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute” (p. 10).

Kierkegaard’s argument of faith lies in perceiving Abraham as the knight of faith. He compares Abraham to tragic heroes, and the key distinguishing factor lie in that “the tragic hero is still within the ethical” (p.14). Thus the faith Kierkegaard prescribes, is clearly one that must go against the ethical, and by extension, the universal. He will not get understanding from the universal and so, is completely alone (p.29). It is moreover, a “purely private endeavour,” which makes him great not “because of a moral virtue” like the tragic hero, but “because of a purely personal virtue” (p.14)­ – i.e. for God because He asked, and, for him to prove his faithfulness/love (p.15).

Faith is doing whatever God says, even when it is irrational or unethical and so there is an absolute duty to God.

“There is an absolute duty to God, for in this relationship of duty, the individual relates himself as the single individual absolutely to the absolute…for if this duty is absolute, then the ethical is reduced to the relative” (p.27).

Thus the “distress and anxiety in the paradox of faith” (p.33) faced by the knight of faith distinguishes him from the tragic hero who is able to seek comfort in the universal. The tragic hero faces his struggle once, whereas the knight of faith is “constantly being tested” “and at every moment there is the possibility of his returning penitently to the universal” (p.36). He walks a demanding and laboured path for God, which makes him better than the ‘inferior’ single individual (before entering the universal). This ‘superior’ single individual lives a strict life and is able to keep himself in check without the universal.

“But a person will demonstrate that he does not belong to them precisely by showing that he knows how to speak in fear and trembling, and speak he must out of respect for greatness, so that it is not forgotten out of fear of harm, which certainly will not come if he speaks out of knowledge of greatness, a knowledge of its terrors, and if one does not know the terrors, one does not know the greatness, either” (p.33).

Strengths of Kierkegaard’s Position

Kierkegaard successfully presents an intuitive definition of faith -­ it is seemingly more than mere everyday feelings. It is more than a “ commonplace company of feelings, moods, idiosyncrasies, vapeurs, etc” (p.27). It is higher by the fact that faith cannot be justified rationally. Additionally, the faith presented, does not shortchange God. This is the highest or ‘purest’ form of faith and nothing less than what God demands; absolute love. This conception of faith relates more to ‘true faith’ or ‘true love’ to God. (“The absolute duty can lead one to do what ethics would forbid, but it can never lead the knight of faith to stop loving” (p.31).) “A person can become a tragic hero through his own strength­ but not the knight of faith” (p.22). If faith were easy to attain, then everyone would because it means eternal salvation, but, ‘true faith’ has to be more than an easy act. Sacrificing your only son has to mean more than volunteering at the soup kitchen every Christmas. Kierkegaard attests that a knight of faith leads the most difficult life. “He feels the pain of being unable to make himself understandable to others…the pain is his assurance” (p.38).

Although faith is now given its worth, it also is seemingly impossible for ‘commoners’ to attain. What salvation can they get, or are they simply damned by God for their inability to meet His demand? Just as “within its own confines the ethical has various gradations” (p.11), it is also intuitive to suppose that it is the same for faith, but Kierkegaard presents it to be ­either one has faith, and faith to be taken as no less than absolute love, or one does not. Given the conditions of what makes a knight of faith, it would make some supposedly faithful acts, ordinary. A sacrifice of a life is worth more than money, but does it really discount one’s faithful monthly tithing to be less than what faith is, because it is not the ultimate sacrifice? Kierkegaard could say that it boils down to the question if one would make the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps this hypothetical question is appropriate, but not in determining if each individual acts themselves are considered faithful, or in attributing appropriate value. Even so, Kierkegaard has the strength of clarity in distinguishing faith nonetheless, especially in God’s demand of absolute love.

Weaknesses of Kierkegaard’s Position

Firstly, one requires faith to overcome uncertainties as found in Abraham, and contrary to Kierkegaard’s view, we can also find it in Agamemnon. Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter to save everyone. Doubtlessly, his action would be accepted by the universal. However, there is this ‘X ’ feeling that pushed him to act even with the uncertainty that everyone would actually be saved – “Although the result may give joy the the entire world, it cannot help the hero, for he would not know the result until the whole thing was over” (p.19). His stake was high and he would lose what he loves most for nothing if it turned out that his daughter was not the solution. Will God keep his promise and save everyone? There was no concrete evidence, contract, or coercive force to ensure certainty. Agamemnon had to have a ‘X’ feeling that would overcome his other doubtful feelings ­and this we call faith ­- faith in God to keep his word, and or, faith that everyone would be saved. This goes against Kierkegaard’s view of faith. Thus it seems that although he is able to divide faith from other feelings, he is not able to account for this ‘X’ feeling we seemingly call faith too. To use Kierkegaard’s own words, if we do not use the term ‘faith,’ “here the necessity of a new category for the understanding…becomes apparent” (p.15).

Secondly, Kierkegaard declares that faith must be outside the ethical and universal ­- what about in a case of Agamemnon-Abraham? Assume King George, he sacrifices his daughter (A) for God because he asks of it, (B) for himself to prove his love to God, and (C) to save everyone. Conditions (A) and (B) would make one a knight of faith, and (C) would make a tragic hero. According to Kierkegaard, because King George is within the ethical, he would therefore, only be a tragic hero, even though (A) and (B) are present. He is not able to state otherwise having defined them so clearly as we saw earlier. (“The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is very obvious. The tragic hero is still within the ethical” (p.14).) It is absurd­ and nothing related to faith being the virtue of absurd (“He acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely the absurd that he as the single individual is higher than the universal” (p.11).)­ that by the addition of (C), an act worthy to be a knight of faith should be discounted. What about someone who meets (B) only ­although God does not asks of him directly, he abandons all his worldly possessions and sacrifices his children to proof his love to God. Is he the ultimate knight of faith? Thus, Kierkegaard does not give a comprehensive account of the knight of faith.

Thirdly, there seems to be a contradiction in God’s command, and how does one absolve this? God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and what this mean is nothing more plain than, murder. On the flip side, God gave the ten commandments (Exodus 20:2-17), and one of it clearly states, “you shall not murder.” Albeit receiving the commandments after Abraham’s test, it should not negate previous actions and be considered irrelevant, and if one insists, then one should consider this situation in the future. This essentially places God’s command in opposition. Aside to the inability of rational justification which Kierkegaard has repeatedly emphasised, the single individual in such a circumstance will not be able to ‘faithfully-­justify’ themselves. Abraham had a ‘faith-­justification’ for his act. One that others cannot understand, but is sufficient for him to carry out his duty. In this instance, no such ‘faith­-justification’ can be found since they are both equally God’s commands, and now, because of the contradiction, both commands become questionable.

Given these issues, Kierkegaard is definitely right in crediting faith with its appropriate honour, but not in claiming the ethical and rational. (I) If it is as he said, that “the single individual is higher than the universal” (p.27), and (II) God exists, then surely he must agree that everyone should as best as they can, aim to be the single individual, and give God the absolute love He demands. This would redefine the ethical and rational to obey God’s demand regardless. Indeed Kierkegaard lists the great difficulties in the attempt, however, if God exists, then obeying Him would be rational, lest you lose your eternal salvation and be damned. Therefore, assuming (I) and (II), faith is now the universal everyone should follow at all times. Just as how the ethical works, “in circumstance X, one rationally ought to do Y,” a different rational standard would/should be in place. “In circumstance X, one faithfully ought to do Y.” To exist as the single individual would be, to not act in faith and obey God.

If one were to assume Kierkegaard’s beliefs, then one would reach a different conclusion from him of the ethical, rational, and universal. This, in addition to the weaknesses presented above, and the major assumption of God’s existence, makes Kierkegaard’s definition of faith questionable, although he is specifically right in giving faith the credit and honour in meeting God’s demand of absolute love.


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