Critical Response to Fear and Trembling: Kierkegaard’s Conception of Abraham’s Dilemma

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes de Silencio– despite being quite the opposite of the meaning his Latin name gives), shares his rather lengthy take on the story of Abraham. Kierkegaard ultimately decides that Abraham is either lost and cannot be mediated or he is then a knight of faith. In Kierkegaard’s view, Abraham has stepped outside of the universal into the absurd, leaving any chance of him being understood completely demolished. To back this claim, he explains the paradox of faith and Abraham’s contrasting views that ultimately lead to his downfall. He also covers the opposing modes of existence while explaining the ethical vs. the aesthetic. To further prove his point, he cites several different examples of what disqualifies Abraham from being understood in the moral dilemma he faces; however, the entire book is built upon the foundation that there is a paradox of faith that renders Abraham “lost”. The paradox of faith involves “the single individual as the particular stand[ing] in an absolute relationship to the absolute”. Thus, Kierkegaard offers up two options: Abraham exemplifies the paradox of faith or Abraham is unable to be socially understood. He presents this as an either/or statement, leaving no room for any other possible accounts or counter arguments. This works for several reasons that Kierkegaard explains throughout his work. This claim by Kierkegaard is not a false dilemma because to section Abraham’s story as a deed of faith, one must take the situation as a teleological suspension of the ethical.

The first alternative to counter Kierkegaard’s either/or thesis is that Abraham could be considered a tragic hero; however, this is impossible by definition of a tragic hero. Abraham’s story begins with Abraham receiving a message from God that asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham sets off with his son to Mount Moriah where he plans to kill him. At the last minute, right before he murders his own son, an angel of the Lord comes to him and stops him claiming, “now I know you fear God”. There are many reasons drawn from this situation that disqualify Abraham from being dubbed a “tragic hero”. First, a tragic hero is a character who is faced with a moral dilemma. He must sacrifice one thing for the ultimate benefit of the greater good, although it ends in his own suffering. Abraham, of course, is called upon to make a decision with only two devastating options: kill his son, or defy God. Although he is faced with a moral dilemma, he is unable to be a tragic hero because his decision was not for the greater good. This leaves his action unjustified and it is what makes him a knight of faith. This is also when the paradox of faith plays in. Abraham believed that by sacrificing his son, at the same time his son would be restored. These are two opposing views that cannot be mediated. A true tragic hero’s actions can be justified or understood by the general public and even benefits them. In the case of tragic hero Brutus, he sacrifices his own two sons that were plotting against the state to save the Roman republic. When looking at Abraham’s story, had he killed his son, he would go home and whittle some wood (whatever they did back then) and life would have gone on completely normally, with no one benefiting from his evil deed. In Brutus’ story the entirety of his civilization benefitted while in Abraham’s story, not only did no one benefit, but it brought about much suffering. The two qualities that make up a tragic hero, benefitting the greater good and being able to be mediated, are lacking in Abraham and the whole almost-murdering-his-son sort of ordeal; therefore, Kierkegaard is right in giving the reader a dilemma. Abraham cannot be a tragic hero; he is either a knight of faith or lost.

Aside from the tragic hero argument, it is also popular to wrongly compare Abraham to an aesthetic hero. Kirkegaard in his work covers two different modes of existence: the ethical and the aesthetic. The ethical involves the outer. A person who resides in the ethical can be understood by all while the person living by the aesthetic will never be understood. As for the aesthetic mode, it’s all based on appearance and also lacks any real commitment. It is a superficial lifestyle that cannot be ethically justified. In regard to Abraham as a potential aesthetic hero, there are several problems. To begin, Abraham cannot be an aesthetic hero because he does not lack commitment. As shown by his willingness to sacrifice his son for the absolute, Abraham is full of commitment, which contradicts the aesthetic mode of existence completely. In addition, Abraham does not base his decisions upon how things appear. For an aesthetic hero, beauty is a deciding factor when he is pursuing something. This does not apply to Abraham because beauty and appearance take no part in his decision making process. Between Abraham and the tragic hero, the only thing they have in common is that they are not the ethical. Besides that, Abraham contradicts the very definition of an aesthetic hero. Since the tragic hero and the aesthetic hero are both easily ruled out by Abraham’s prominent characteristics, Kierkegaard is right in leaving only two options.

The last option offered up to counter Kierkegaard is perhaps the most of a stretch: the knight of infinite resignation. The knight of infinite resignation is best described by Kierkegaard’s example of the poor man and the princess. Clearly there are social restrictions and their union is impossible. As a knight of infinite resignation, the man gave up his world and dedicated his life to his love for the princess. The knight of infinite resignation would never give up on something that he dedicated to. The knight of infinite resignation is self-sufficient, and needs nothing outside himself in order to sustain him. At some point he also enters the eternal consciousness: he expresses spiritually what is impossible for him in the finite world. This often results in eternal sorrow. The entire premise of the knight of infinite resignation is that he is ready to give, while receiving nothing. Abraham, although he is ready to sacrifice, expects restoration in the end. Abraham’s belief in two opposing views is what makes him specifically a knight of faith. He cannot be a knight of infinite resignation because he only gives with intentions of getting whatever he sacrifices back. With the three options of tragic hero, aesthetic hero, and knight of infinite resignation rebutted, there are only two options left, which Kierkegaard noted: either Abraham is either a paradox of faith or he is lost.

In Abraham’s situation, there are only two possible conclusions to draw: he is a knight of faith or he will never be understood. By saying Abraham is “lost”, Kierkegaard means that his actions can never be justified; socially he cannot be understood. By saying if he isn’t lost he must be a knight of faith, that means he exemplifies the paradox of faith; he believes in two views that contrast each other (killing his son to restore him). These are the only two viable explanations for Abraham. The argument of his being a tragic hero is terribly wrong because he did not act for the greater good and his action was never justified. He cannot be called an aesthetic hero either, because while he’s not in the ethical, he does not act on appearance and he does have commitment. Lastly, he cannot be considered a knight of infinite resignation because although Abraham does make a sacrifice, he does so with expectations to get it back eventually, which is the opposite of what a knight of infinite resignation does. In turn Kierkegaard only leaves us with two options and rightfully so. Fear and Trembling lawfully defends the dilemma of Abraham and his actions. It calls for the reader to understand the paradox of faith and acknowledge the absurdity of religion not only applied to Abraham, but to the bigger picture.

Distinctions Between Johannes de Silentio’s Three Stages in Fear and Trembling

To read Johannes de Silentio’s account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Fear and Trembling is to understand the paradoxical nature of the single individual and how there are internal and external forces that define the individual in the particular and in relation to everything else around them. This account explores Abraham’s journey up the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because God called him to do so. During this ordeal, Abraham encounters a moral yet absurd expedition, and in the eyes of Johannes de Silentio, experiences a double movement of faith that defines the journey going up the mountain, at the moment when Abraham raises his knife in front of Isaac’s line of sight, and going down the mountain. This double movement, with the knight of infinite resignation being the first movement, and the knight of faith being the second, is the process of acquiring the status of knight of faith. The knight of infinite resignation is the concern with the ethical and and universal and how the knight of infinite resignation is bound by infinitude, while the knight of faith is the second movement and acquires the first movement of resignation, but comes with the greater understanding of the virtue of the absurd that Isaac will come back a second time. The difference is that by virtue of the absurd, the individual (knight of faith) as the particular will surpass the aesthetic and universal means to land back in the world of the finite, where Isaac is illustrated to be.

Abraham had to encounter three stages of the ways of life to acquire the status of “knight of faith” in the eyes of Johannes de Silentio. The first stage, the aesthetics, is the emphasis on privacy and silence. For this assumption purely, Abraham is already beyond this. The reason he was silent was “not at all to save Isaac, as in general the whole task of sacrificing Isaac for his own and God’s sake is an outrage aesthetically’ (136-137). The paradox and the distress therein lies in his accidental particularity and how the next stage of life’s way, the ethical, condemns him that he remain silent. It is not that he chooses not to speak, but it is that he cannot speak. Language is limiting and cannot capture the true sense of another’s understanding, therefore this is where the anguish prevails. Abraham believes that sacrificing Isaac was a trial, and that saying beautiful, eloquent statements is not what he has in mind. Because this cannot be understood, “no one can but misunderstand the former” (137). The meaning of “something that cannot be said” purely means in this context that it cannot be understood. A part of Abraham’s identity is that he cannot speak, so if he were to give into this, he would not be Abraham. His silence is above the universal, meaning the ethical, and for that, the temptation to speak would bring him back to that second stage of life’s way, where he would be back to the knight of infinite resignation. His silence passed the tenure of the aesthetic, as aesthetics would demand the “silence of the individual when by remaining silent he could save another” (136). His purpose to remain silent is beyond this, as it was concealing his intention to kill him. God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and by some belief in the absurdity that he will get Isaac back for a second time, he transcends the ethical stage but especially the aesthetic stage, for his silence is not a means of disclosure but a means of preserving language for the fact that the absurdity of this calling will prevail and transcend any form of language.

The second stage of the way of life, the ethical, is where the universality of the knight of infinite resignation lies. Picture a world, where under the boundaries of the world is a finite presence where Isaac resides. The first movement on the way to the knight of faith is this first movement of infinite resignation. Under this world, both the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith leap into the air into infinity leaving the world behind. The knight of faith returns to the world of finitude, while the knight of infinite resignation wavers back and forth between the world of finitude and the infinity. In faith, Abraham receives the world. He achieved relation to his child by returning back to the faith in the religious and not in the faith of the universal (Ross). The double movement of faith calls that the knight of faith also embodies the first movement of infinite resignation, for “if one imagines one can be moved to faith by considering the outcome of this story, one deceives oneself, and is out to cheat God of faith’s first movement…” (66). Going up the mountain, Abraham embodies the knight of infinite resignation and makes movements of infinitude, going closer to sacrificing Isaac and fulfilling God’s love for Abraham and the covenant. The knight of infinite resignation is immersed in the deep sorrow of existence and experiences sentiments of pain for renouncing everything, but also to him, “finitude tastes just as good to one who has never known anything higher…” (70). Because finitude is in relation to the knight of faith and the world of finitude is in relation to Isaac, Abraham (in Johannes de Silentio’s perspective) is considered a knight of faith. The distinct difference between the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith is the belief of the absurd, for Abraham believes infinitely, yet also believes that by some strength of the absurd that Isaac will return to him. He makes the movement of infinity, but with finitude as a product of accuracy, he moves so much so that it leads to the sentiments of the knight of faith.

The third and final stage of the way of life is the religious, which is in relation to the knight of faith. The religious stance is above the ethical and universal, which is what Abraham seemingly personifies on the way down from the mountain. The single individual comes to play here, and is in particular to the journey down the mountain, living for God. Abraham has already experienced the universal in relation to the infinity and now resorts back to the individual pursuit of God’s love. Abraham comes down the mountain with abundant joy because he has not only fulfilled the covenant of God, but believes that by some absurd strain, Isaac will be returned to him (Ross). Faith is something other than obedience to God. It extends beyond that, and “the single individual as the particular stands in relation to the absolute” (144). The single individual as the particular triumphs the aesthetics as well as the religious, with a distinction of the ethical participating in the universal in relation to everything else.

There is a moment when Abraham lifts his knife in Isaac’s line of sight, and that in itself alters the relationship between Isaac and Abraham. At this point, Abraham’s title as a father is altered, as he actually considers sacrificing his own son. Abraham is to conceal his intentions of the reasons for sacrificing Isaac, not for the reason of saving Isaac, but to remain a knight of faith. To speak would be a temptation from God to enter back into the ethical state and not maintain a knight of faith, and for that his silence is pertinent. The knight of faith cannot be understood because its existence is reliant on the righteousness of the absurd. By some illogical, irrational explanation, the knight of faith succeeds and fills the covenant of love beyond being more than obedient to God. Johannes de Silentio considers Abraham a knight of faith based on these judgements. Through the ethical and the religious, Abraham goes through a double movement of faith to fulfill God’s request, and through the pursuit of the single individual in the particular, the universal, and the religious, uses his silence and the absurd to be identified as a knight of faith rather than solely the knight of infinite resignation.