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.
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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 […]