Abraham is getting ready to sacrifice Isaac in the picture above
Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fear and Trembling

Before I get to far into this post I should begin by saying that I used the Lowrie translation of Fear and Trembling, and that I don’t recommend the translation. The Lowrie is the yellow one over there on the right, and F&T is paired with The Sickness Unto Death for some reason. I don’t speak Danish, so I’m not qualified to judge the translation as a translation. I won’t even attempt to assess its literary merits. What I do find very poor is that the book in the process of migrating from Princeton University Press, its first publisher, to Anchor/Doubleday, its second, did not pick up better explanatory apparatus. PUP is a scholarly press, and its audience is other scholars, or students, all of whom presumably have access to large university libraries. Anchor is or was the religious publishing arm of Doubleday, and targeted the general reader. Unfortunately when Kierkegaard references a character named Daub we get a footnote that says “See Rosenkranz, Erinnerungen an Karl Daub (Berlin 1837), p. 2. Cf Journal IV A 92.” This is not exactly enlightening. It is not likely that the reader of 1950s or 1960s would have access to an 1837 German publication, so a more informative footnote would have been in order. In other instances we get citations to Hegel’s Logik, and such books. I haven’t read this particular work in the more recent Hong translation, shown in red and black over on the right, but I do have several of the Hongs’ translations (The Concept of Irony, The Concept of Dread, Practice in Christianity, Philosophical Fragments, The Concluding Unscientific Fragment, among others), which are Princeton University Press’s more recent versions of Kierkegaard. These are generally very good, although in some cases a bit pricey, and are recommended.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, lets turn to what Kierkegaard actually has to say in the book. I should begin by pointing out that Soren K. wrote this book under a pseudonym, so that while I may say Kierkegaard, it is usually to be taken as referring to Johannes de Silentio (John the Silent) rather than SK himself.

The book begins as a reflection upon the sacrifice of Isaac. Kierkegaard considers God’s command to Abraham, and visualized Abraham’s responses to it. He then launches into a panegyric upon Abraham, who is described as having infinite resignation and as being a “knight of faith.”

Following the panegyric he considers three problems. The first is whether there is such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical. What this means, if I understand it correctly, is whether a telos, a goal, an end, is sufficient for suspending ethical judgements. If Abraham sacrifices Isaac in response to God’s command, is he a knight of faith or a murderer? The response of modern skeptics would be to label him deluded, and probably a psychotic murderer, because God does not exist. Kierkegaard does not admit that as a possibility, so the question is within the belief systems of Judaism and Christianity is he a murderer? Kierkegaard also does not consider the question of how validates the command. How does one determine that such a command, that involves violation of one of the primary laws of human society, is from God? How does one test the spirit, and ensure that it is God? He leaves these questions unasked.

Kierkegaard concludes that Abraham as an individual was higher than the universal, and that there was a teleological suspension of the ethical.

The second problem is whether there is an absolute duty to God. Kierkegaard postulates either there is an absolute duty towards God, which yields a paradox in that the “individual as individual is higher than the universal and as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute/or else faith never existed, because it has always existed&hellip.”

The third question is whether Abraham was ethically defensible in keeping silent about his purpose. His conclusion is that the purpose God had revealed to him was so terrifying that Abraham was justified in concealing it.

I haven’t really done full justice to the book. It is worth reading in a better version than the one Lowrie provided. The current editions through Princeton are expensive, particularly for paperbacks, but if your appetite for Kierkegaard is whetted by this discussion, those are probably the ones to get.

Next up, I’ll be taking another break, and will be talking about a science fiction dystopian novel by Thomas Kratman, Caliphate.