Thursday, January 12, 2006

Notes on Fear and Trembling

One of the most astounding things about Fear and trembling is that it was actually one of six works that Kierkegaard published in 1843: that year saw Either/Or (February), Two Edifying Discourses (May), Fear and Trembling, Three Edifying Discourses and Repitition (October), and Four Edifying Discourses (December). The white heat of the philosopher's production at this time would be shaming enough without the brilliance of much of what he actually wrote. In retrospect, Kierkegaard can be a bit uneven at times, but his best work is easily among the best in 19th century philosophy, or even of philosophy itself. At his peak, Kierkegaard inspires comparisons to Plato and Nietzsche; he's just that good.

The work itself is one of the great statements of modernity; a searching for faith in the face of reason; the existentialists who borrowed from Kierkegaard would find faith lacking and abandon it, but there is perhaps a greater wisdom in Kierkegaard's stance- he searches for faith and finds himself lacking.

The work is a joy to read because we get to see a great mind at work with a paradoxical problem- why does God require Abraham to kill his only son? The typical banalities about it being a test don't answer the question satisfactorily. Kierkegaard wants to know why this is a holy act, even while going against the ethical, which is universal. Why does Abraham do something that requires a "teleological suspension of the ethical", and what does this mean?

The story of Abraham is difficult. Kant felt that Abraham had been tricked by the Devil: that no just God could ever require his loyal servant to slaughter their own child. There's something cruel, and pagan, pre-rational even, about the act. Do we become pure by slaughtering something pure? Is this simply a borrowing from earlier nature worship?

Kierkegaard sees three levels of behavior: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The Knight of Infinite Resignation acts ethically, but within a framework. The ethical is the universal. For instance, lying is universally wrong. However, the absolute is beyond the universal, so an individual who acts in accordance with the absolute, or God, is above the universal. Paradoxically, the individual is above the universal within Christianity.

The ethical act simply requires will, but the religious act is absurd, and requires the sort of leap of faith that Kierkegaard is associated with. Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? Yes, Abraham committed such a suspension for a higher goal (or telos). Is there such a thing as an absolute duty towards God? Yes, and by fulfilling that duty, the Knight of Faith stands above the universal in an absolute relation to the absolute. This is why it requires the suspension of the ethical. Was Abraham ethically defensible in keeping quiet about his purpose before Sarah? Before Isaac? He is speaking no untruth by doing so because, by virtue of the absurd, God could ask otherwise. Also, there is nobody who could possibly believe or accept his duty, which is inward and individual by nature.

Finally, the paradox of Abraham, which we can only ever understand as a paradox, is as follows: Either the individual as individual stands absolutely in relation to the absolute/ or Abraham is lost. Kierkegaard believes that Abraham's actions are unimpeachable because they stand beyond rationality or ethics, and in doing so, he makes a powerful argument that we should aspire to Abraham's faith, but not necessarily his actions.

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