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Fear-and-Trembling

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Fear and
Trembling
Study Guide by Course Hero
What's Inside
conformist bureaucracy without the inner passion of the early
Christian faith. Kierkegaard saw himself as on a mission to
"introduce Christianity into Christendom," and some might say
the book continues to serve that purpose today, but in a much
j Book Basics ................................................................................................. 1
a Main Ideas .................................................................................................... 1
d In Context .................................................................................................... 3
broader sense. Kierkegaard is also considered to be the
"father of existentialism," which can be broadly defined as a
philosophical position arguing that an individual in every
moment is free to choose what it means to be human. Fear and
Trembling is written from an existential standpoint. However, it
a Author Biography ..................................................................................... 6
h Key Figures ................................................................................................. 7
k Plot Summary ............................................................................................. 9
c Part Summaries ........................................................................................ 11
also brings to light that in every moment, people choose how
they will conduct their relationship with God or the absolute
and that it might be fruitful to do so more consciously.
ABOUT THE TITLE
The title of the book is taken from Philippians 2:12 of the Bible's
New Testament. In it Saint Paul addresses the Christian
g Quotes ........................................................................................................ 22
community at Philippi, admonishing them to continue to work
out their salvation with "fear and trembling." Fear in this
l Symbols ..................................................................................................... 24
m Glossary ..................................................................................................... 25
context is commonly interpreted as awe and respect for God's
majesty and dread for the loss of salvation. In Fear and
Trembling Kierkegaard refers to the fact that people who have
stepped outside the boundaries of conventional morality after
making a leap of faith will rarely turn into "unbridled beasts"
j Book Basics
and are more likely to be among those who know "how to
speak with fear and trembling." The title perhaps also refers to
the anxiety that people feel when they realize they have
AUTHOR
absolute responsibility for their own lives.
Soren Kierkegaard
YEAR PUBLISHED
1843
a Main Ideas
GENRE
Allegory, Philosophy, Religion
AT A GLANCE
Søren Kierkegaard wrote Fear and Trembling at least partially
to dispute the Danish reception of the beliefs of German
philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831).
Kierkegaard saw Danish Hegelianism as squeezing the life out
of true religion and turning the Danish State Church into a
The Highest Level of Existence
Is Absolute Relation to the
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Absolute
Main Ideas 2
that if people want to follow him, they must learn to hate their
loved ones and even their own lives. This is a terrible text, says
Johannes, which reiterates the extent of what God demands in
The main idea of Fear and Trembling is that the individual who
the way of absolute love. While the absolute duty to God can
is in absolute relation to the absolute is on a higher level than
lead a person to do what human ethics forbids, this duty does
the person who simply lives in the universal, that is, according
not make the knight of faith stop loving whom he loves, even if
to society's ethics. While Fear and Trembling works on many
he has to kill that person for God's sake, as in the case of
levels, on one level it is a polemic, or aggressive attack, against
Abraham.
the Danish Hegelians of Kierkegaard's time, who were also
prominent Christians. In Kierkegaard's view these Christian
Kierkegaard is often called the father of existentialism because
Hegelians had been seduced by Hegel's idea of an Absolute
he is the first to clearly articulate the idea that there is no right
Mind, which can be seen, from a religious perspective, as God
way to be human and that each individual person is responsible
and from a philosophical perspective, as reason. According to
for both defining the meaning of their lives and becoming
Hegel world history, which comprises the histories of individual
human on their own terms. The knowledge of this terrible
societies moves toward the Absolute Mind. Thus, outward
responsibility, which caused Kierkegaard anxiety, is what
manifestations of the universal—represented by the church
keeps people up at night. This absolute responsibility to life,
and the state—also move toward the Absolute Mind. This
which in a religious context may be called an absolute duty to
movement of the historical dialectic was relentless as well as
the absolute, is a higher calling than one's responsibility to the
inevitable. In Hegel's view the highest level to which a human
universal or societal ethics. Such a view can be dangerous and
being could aspire is the level of the universal and its ethics, as
be used to justify immoral behavior. But without this view of the
represented by social institutions. For example, prominent
absolute duty to the absolute, the world would lose the benefit
Hegelian H.L. Martensen, a theologian and later bishop of the
of its visionaries—for example, a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a
Lutheran Evangelical Church, also known as the Danish State
Mahatma Gandhi—who heeded a call to goodness higher than
Church, believed that individual subjectivity should ultimately
the status quo and changed society for the better as a result.
be replaced by the "objective reason" of the church and state,
an idea that Kierkegaard vehemently opposed. The premise of
Fear and Trembling is that an individual religious conscience
can, in particular instances, hold more moral authority than
established social ethics.
Kierkegaard uses Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, as
an example of someone who makes a leap of faith and puts
themselves above the universal, thus putting themselves in
absolute relationship to the absolute (i.e., God). In the story of
"The Binding of Isaac" in Chapter 22 of Genesis in the Hebrew
Bible, God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac to Mount
Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. God is testing
Abraham's faith. Abraham willingly follows God's command. In
Kierkegaard's view Abraham's actions are a "teleological
suspension of the ethical." In his absolute duty to love God,
Abraham supersedes the morals and mores of his time. Thus,
Faith Is a Paradox of Willingly
Embracing the Absurd
A parallel of the first main idea is that achieving absolute
relation to the absolute requires embracing the absurd.
Kierkegaard recognizes three spheres of existence: the
aesthetic, in which one lives on the level of the body; the
ethical, in which one lives on the level of the social contract;
and the religious, in which one forgoes a mediated life and
enters into direct relationship with the absolute. But to choose
the third option, as Abraham does, means accepting the
paradox of faith and having the willingness to embrace the
absurd.
he is not wrong to sacrifice Isaac as God has demanded. God
Faith does not follow the rules of logic, and in fact it cannot be
saves Isaac at the last minute, but in Kierkegaard's view
explained. When a person begins to attempt to explain faith,
Abraham would have been no less wrong if God had allowed
they immediately fall back into the universal. Thus Abraham
Isaac to die.
must remain silent about God's demand that he sacrifice his
Kierkegaard's narrator, Johannes, also mentions the
admonitions found in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus says
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son. If he were to tell Isaac or Sarah what he plans to do, two
things could happen: first, they might immediately try to stop
him by pointing out that he has a choice and need not sacrifice
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
In Context 3
Isaac. He can refuse to follow God's commandment. But to
The narrator's primary example of the knight of infinite
disobey God would mean to shirk his absolute duty to his
resignation is the young man who falls in love with a princess
beloved deity. The second thing that could happen is that
and desires to be with her, even though it is impossible. The
Abraham's loved ones would call him a hypocrite. Abraham
knight will risk everything for his desire. If he fails, he will not
might insist that he loves Isaac, but his actions in the realm of
forget what he wished for, keeping the pain of his thwarted
the universal would contradict such assertions. In summary,
desire alive in memory. While it may not be possible to have the
Abraham has no choice but to remain silent about what he
princess, it is possible to channel the love he has for her into a
intends to do.
higher ideal, remaking it as a spiritual "love for the eternal
being." He is thus "reconciled ... in the eternal consciousness of
Moreover, Abraham's absolute faith in God means that while he
his love's validity ... that no reality can take from him." Infinite
believes God requires him to sacrifice his son, he also believes
resignation brings peace to the knight, and the pain of
that God will not allow Isaac to die. These two beliefs are
resignation can be a consolation.
contradictory and paradoxical. Because of his faith in God,
Abraham must resign himself to what God has commanded. At
The tragic hero is somewhat like the knight of resignation, in
the same time, because of his faith in God, Abraham must
that they must make a sacrifice for the sake of the common
believe that God will keep his promise to raise a great nation
good and resign themselves to fate in the process. Johannes
through Isaac: either God will not take Isaac, or he will bring
provides a few examples, such as Agamemnon's sacrifice of
him back to life. Thus Abraham performs a double
his daughter Iphigenia. An angry god demands the sacrifice so
movement—first becoming a knight of infinite resignation and
that the Greeks may get a fair wind to take them to war against
then becoming a knight of faith. As a knight of faith he can
Troy. Agamemnon is the Greek general, and he is duty-bound
receive back from God the gift of Isaac and, because he knew
to fight the Trojans and get back Helen, who has been
all along that God would not fail him, be immediately healed of
abducted by Paris. While the idea of killing his daughter is
the pain of that possibility of separation. Such is the power of
monstrous, Agamemnon's need to carry out the sacrifice is
Abraham's leap of faith and his willingness to embrace the
understood by his society and even his daughter. Thus, the
absurd. This paradox reveals the limits of human reason in
deed is sanctioned, unlike Abraham's deed. Nonetheless, the
matters of faith.
tragic hero must resign himself to his duty, and his resignation
is heroic.
Infinite Resignation Is a Heroic
Response to Life
Another main idea emerging from Fear and Trembling is that
infinite resignation is a heroic response to the difficulty and
pain of life. Kierkegaard points out that becoming a knight of
infinite resignation is only a steppingstone to becoming a
d In Context
Kierkegaard and Danish
Christianity
knight of faith. Nevertheless, the author devotes considerable
time to examining the psyche of the knight of infinity or infinite
Søren Kierkegaard had more than a passing acquaintance with
resignation. Kierkegaard also indicates that to surrender to the
fraught relationships, and for a time he was estranged from
disappointment of life by surrendering to the higher will of the
both his father and his religion. In his early college years he
infinite is a heroic act. The narrator of Fear and Trembling also
became alienated from the Danish National Lutheran Church
seems to imply that the tragic hero is a knight of infinite
(his father's church) and state-supported Christianity. He
resignation. The hero's ability and willingness to sacrifice their
briefly took up a hedonistic, or pleasure-seeking, lifestyle but
own happiness for the good of the state or another is an
then reclaimed Christianity and even began preparations for
admirable act. And while not all knights of infinite resignation
becoming a pastor. In a further development he turned his
are tragic heroes, tragic heroes all must be tempered in the
back on the state church and took it upon himself to become a
crucible of disappointment.
defender of Christianity. He wrote in his journal that his mission
was to "introduce Christianity into Christendom," while claiming
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
in the last year of his life, "I dare not call myself a Christian."
In Context 4
faith.
Nonetheless, he saw himself as a defender of true Christianity,
and the latter statement shows that ultimately Kierkegaard
was extremely humble about his own ability to have faith as he
Kierkegaard and Hegel
understood it. This humility is also reflected in Kierkegaard's
changing cast of narrators in his treatises, who take pains to
Hegel himself comes in for some criticism in Fear and
inform the reader about their own ignorance or lack of faith.
Trembling. Hegel's philosophy is a comprehensive system of
Kierkegaard turned against the Danish church because he
believed it had become a haven for conformity and passionless
humanism. He found its message to be more secular than
sacred, locating the problem in the church hierarchy. He held
particular dislike for Hans Lassen Martensen (1808–84), one of
Kierkegaard's tutors from his university days, who later
became a Lutheran bishop. Martensen was part of a group of
Danish intellectuals who had embraced certain notions put
forward by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
(1770–1831). Hegel argued that philosophy was higher than
religion and that God was not a separate being but the fullest
reality emerging from a limited reality (the world and
dialectics, a form of philosophical argument presented by
contrasting two opposing concepts. In the course of the
argument, opposite ideas (called thesis and antithesis) are
resolved into a synthesis. Hegel claims that each new
synthesis is not a resolution or final truth, but just one
synthesis in a long, continuous process of thesis-antithesissyntheses, until a proposition is resolved in the ultimate
synthesis, or the "Absolute Idea." Thus, when Johannes
protests this system, he is making fun of both Hegel and the
Hegelians. Johannes claims not to be a philosopher. He does
not understand what he calls "the System" or whether the
system has been completed.
ourselves). Thus, there was no place in Hegel's philosophy for
Moreover, in Kierkegaard's view, even if faith could be
a private relationship with God. Following Hegel, Martensen
rendered in a conceptual form, that would not mean the
discounted religious subjectivity, or an individual's direct
philosopher had grasped faith. Nor could this conceptual
spiritual experience or apprehension of religious truth.
synthesis show how a person came to faith. Hegel claims that
Martensen wanted to replace religious subjectivity with
his own philosophy is Christian, but his views include the idea
Hegelian reasoning as understood and dictated by the church
of sittlichkeit, or the highest social ethic. Sittlichkeit operates in
and state. Kierkegaard believed this approach was very far
the realm of the universal. But, Kierkegaard argues, faith is a
from the meaning of original Christianity, and thus he launched
paradox that puts the individual in a higher place than the
a series of attacks on Christian Hegelianism in his various
universal. Furthermore, in Hegel's philosophy, religion—and by
books.
extension faith—ranks lower than philosophy. Thus, in
In Fear and Trembling it is sometimes hard to distinguish when
Kierkegaard—through his fictional narrator, Johannes—is
Kierkegaard's view, Hegel and Hegel's followers cannot
possibly be true Christians.
attacking Hegel's philosophy and when he is attacking
Even though Kierkegaard criticizes Hegel, he also admires him
Hegelian contemporaries whose philosophies are not identical
and builds aspects of his own philosophy using some of
with Hegel's. The distinction between Hegel and the Danish
Hegel's ideas. For example, Kierkegaard revises Hegel's notion
Hegelians becomes especially important to the reader when
of religious and aesthetic consciousness in order to place
Johannes accuses the Hegelians of wrongly calling Abraham
religion above philosophy. In Hegel's philosophy, two forms of
the father of faith. Instead, Johannes implies, the Hegelians
alternative consciousness are aesthetic experience, or the
have no use for faith but only for the ethics of the universal,
experience of art and beauty, and religious experience. These
that is, society's morals. In fact, Hegel never called Abraham
two are equally valid ways of knowing, but neither provides a
the father of faith. Rather, Hegel speaks about Abraham in
clear vision of truth, which Hegel calls the Absolute Mind. The
unflattering terms and sees Judaism as a steppingstone to
Absolute Mind, a perfectly rational mind, is the final resolution
Christianity, which he sees as a higher form of religion. But
or synthesis of all theses and anti-theses. In Hegelian
when Kierkegaard, through his narrator, says Hegel is wrong,
philosophy, the Absolute Mind is the mind of God, although
he is criticizing Christian theologians of his day who follow their
God is not a being separate from humans.
own version of Hegelian philosophy. Kierkegaard says they
contradict themselves in saying that Abraham is the father of
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The Absolute Mind may appear hazy in human consciousness.
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
In Context 5
Religion is a better medium for channeling the Absolute Mind
Kierkegaard both uses Hegel's philosophy and interrogates it,
than is aesthetics, says Hegel, and Christianity comes closest
showing where it falls short as a system for understanding
to approximating the Absolute Mind. In Hegel's view,
faith.
philosophy is the highest manifestation of the Absolute Mind,
and only through philosophy can art or religion reach their full
expression.
Kierkegaard uses Hegel's ideas to create his own stages of
human consciousness—the aesthetic, the ethical, and the
religious. In the aesthetic stage people are primarily concerned
with the erotic and with art. The aesthetic life is dedicated to
"immediacy," a word borrowed from Hegel, who uses it to mean
unreflective (unselfconscious) knowledge. Those who live in
Kierkegaard's aesthetic sphere primarily cultivate sensual
experience, and the criteria for living a good life are not
defined by right or wrong. The next stage or sphere in
Kierkegaard's hierarchy is the ethical, the stage of existence in
which a person follows the rules of society and develops a
moral compass. This stage is similar to Hegel's concept of
sittlichkeit, or behavior that contributes to a social group's
shared set of ethical norms. Last and highest for Kierkegaard
is the religious sphere, in which a person takes a leap of faith
that transcends commonplace ethics. This leap requires a
Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen
Some critics read aspects of Kierkegaard's biography into Fear
and Trembling, particularly his aborted relationship with Regine
Olson. Kierkegaard first met Regine when she was 14 or 15 and
became engaged to her when she was 17 or 18. But then he
broke the engagement the following year in 1841. Scholars can
only speculate on why Kierkegaard dissolved a relationship
with a woman he seemed to love. At one point he said an
engagement was as binding as a marriage, and he left Regine
all his possessions when he died even though she had been
married to someone else for years. On his deathbed
Kierkegaard expressed regret about never marrying, and he
said in his journals that if he had had faith for this life, he would
have stayed with Regine. On her part, she deliberately sought
out Kierkegaard in 1855 to say a brief goodbye to him before
leaving for the West Indies. This was also the year of his death.
passionate belief in something that a person cannot
There is more than enough evidence in the text to show that in
necessarily show or prove to others.
Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard is puzzling out what
Both Kierkegaard and Hegel use the terminology of the
"particular" to refer to what applies to one individual, while the
"universal" applies to the ethical sphere, or current social
norms. Moreover, Kierkegaard doesn't disagree with Hegel
about the importance of the universal—but Kierkegaard insists
that the individual as a "particular" steps outside of the
universal when the individual makes the leap of faith. He calls
such individuals "knights of faith." When a knight of faith such
as Abraham enters the religious realm, he is no longer bound
by Hegel's universal.
happened between himself and Regine. Kierkegaard broke
with Regine around the same time he decided to devote
himself to defending true Christianity. Since themes of faith
and sacrifice run through the Abraham story that Kierkegaard
examines in the text, the reader can draw parallels between
the story of Abraham and Kierkegaard's life. Translator and
Kierkegaard scholar Alastair Hannay holds that the
philosopher was sacrificing Regine, who wanted to marry him,
or perhaps he was sacrificing himself, since he wanted to
marry Regine. Or perhaps he was a victim of his father's
dysfunction—specifically, of his father's religious and
Thus, Kierkegaard uses Hegel's notions of levels of human
existential guilt—which made Kierkegaard feel as if he could
consciousness but differs from Hegel in asserting that religious
not accept the ordinary pleasures of family life and must
consciousness is superior to ethical consciousness, or to a
instead carry out a higher mission.
rational, philosophical perspective.
Another critic sees a parallel between the story of Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard also appropriates Hegel's concept of telos, or
and Regine and another tale Kierkegaard discusses in the text,
ultimate purpose. In Problema 1, the first of the three problems
that of the merman and Agnete. In this story a merman, a serial
he poses in Fear and Trembling, he says that there is a
seducer with human consciousness, is laid low by the perfect
"teleological suspension of the ethical" when a person takes a
trust and faith of the woman who loves him. He cannot seduce
leap of faith. That is, faith trumps ethics when an individual as a
her as a result and can only leave her or marry her. Religious
particular enters into a relationship with the absolute. Thus,
philosopher Ronald Green notes that Kierkegaard's tormented
struggle with sin and his doubts about marrying Regine are
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Author Biography 6
evident in his retelling of the folktale. The merman story may
both his father and Christianity. In 1837, at age 24, he met
be Kierkegaard's way of understanding why he gave up the
Regine Olsen, the teenage daughter of a dignitary. The
idea of marriage. An overwhelming sense of doom about his
following year he reconciled with both his father and
family heritage haunted Kierkegaard's life, with all of his
Christianity and subsequently committed to becoming a
siblings, as well as his mother, dying before he was 21. Both he
Christian, a task he viewed as a lifelong undertaking. In 1838
and his father suffered from depression, and Kierkegaard's
his father died, as did Kierkegaard's academic mentor.
father believed he was cursed. As Green points out, two of
three stories in Problema 3 are about people who are unable to
The young philosopher then took a break from school, living
marry because of a family curse or a foreboding about what
the life of a rich man about town, although his diaries show he
will happen.
was suffering from depression. Kierkegaard became engaged
to Regine in 1840, and in that same year, he entered the
Pastoral Seminary while also working on his doctorate. He
a Author Biography
defended his thesis On the Concept of Irony, with Constant
Reference to Socrates. But he also ended his engagement,
apparently because he felt he was not fit for civic or family life.
A Melancholy Start
Literary Output
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, whose last name is derived from the
Danish word for churchyard or graveyard, was born in
Beginning in 1843, Kierkegaard began rapidly publishing a
Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 5, 1813. Kierkegaard's name
number of books, including Either/Or, in two volumes, followed
originates in the fact that his father's family had for
by Repetition and Fear and Trembling; Philosophical Fragments
generations worked the land for the local priest in Jutland. The
and The Concept of Anxiety in 1844; Stages on Life's Way
philosopher's father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was
(1845); Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846); The Sickness
released from this familial obligation to the priest at age 21 and
unto Death (1849); and Training in Christianity (1850). He
moved to Copenhagen to take up the hosiery business. He
published other works as well and kept extensive journals.
later became a wealthy importer and left Kierkegaard, the
youngest of seven siblings, with a considerable amount of
money when he died.
A shadow hung over Kierkegaard's family. His melancholy,
guilt-ridden father brooded on the fact that he had once
cursed God as a child and had fathered a child out of wedlock
with his wife's maid. After his wife died, he married the maid,
Kierkegaard's mother. Although they ended up with a large
family, Kierkegaard lost a brother and sister before he was
nine, and his remaining sisters, a brother, and his mother
before he was 21. That left him with one brother, Peter, with
whom he had a fraught relationship.
Formative Years
Kierkegaard attended the School of Civic Virtue and enrolled in
the University of Copenhagen in 1830. His major was theology,
although he also studied liberal arts and the sciences. In his
college years Kierkegaard gradually became estranged from
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Quarrels
Kierkegaard provoked a feud with a satirical weekly, which
ended up mercilessly caricaturing his physical appearance.
This quarrel made him something of a laughingstock for a while
on the streets of Copenhagen, which was a small town. He also
started a feud with the Danish State Church and its prominent
leaders. Kierkegaard disliked the Hegelian Christianity being
promoted by the state church, and he eventually became
estranged from that organization.
Death
Søren Kierkegaard died November 11, 1855, at age 42, possibly
of a lung infection. He confessed on his deathbed to his
boyhood friend Emil Boesen, the only pastor he would see, that
his life had been "a great and to others unknown and
incomprehensible suffering." He had predicted that Fear and
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Trembling would "immortalize" him and even be translated into
foreign languages, although he could never have imagined that
Key Figures 7
Abraham
his works would become international classics. He variously
has been hailed as the father of 20th-century existentialism
Abraham is the main character in Fear and Trembling. He is an
and the most important Christian critic of early secular
exemplar of what Kierkegaard calls a knight of faith. Abraham
rationalism.
makes a leap of faith into the absurd: While he resigns himself
to God's command that he sacrifice his son and believes he will
commit this act, he also believes that God will care for Isaac
h Key Figures
Johannes
Johannes de silentio is the narrator of the text, one of many
narrators created by Kierkegaard, who quite specifically said
that when critics quoted him, they should attribute the quotes
to these personas. In creating pseudonyms for himself in
nonfiction texts, Kierkegaard engaged in "indirect
communication." According to scholar C. Stephen Evans,
Kierkegaard saw his moral and religious insights as having
direct bearing on the reader's personal self. He didn't want to
tell people how to think but, rather, sought to give them a
chance to encounter characters who embodied various views
from which they could draw their own conclusions. While "John
the Silent" is hardly that—silent—there are many places in the
text where he refrains from interpretation. And Johannes
insists, again and again, that he can never understand
Abraham and that he himself lacks faith. Thus Johannes takes
a Socratic stance in which he invites readers to arrive, through
deep thinking about the subject matter at hand, at their own
understanding.
God
God in Kierkegaard's text is also his vision of the Christian God
who calls upon human beings to develop a very personal
relationship with him—one that is not mediated through the
universal—that is, the social and ethical norms of the day. An
individual's relationship with God transcends both the
institutions of church and state and even the precepts of
Christian morality. A devout Christian owes a responsibility to
God over and above what they may owe church or state.
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and either save him or restore him. Abraham's faith is a
paradox that cannot be understood by the rational mind.
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Full Key Figure List
Key Figure
Johannes
God
Johannes de silentio is the narrator of the
text. As a created persona, it is unclear
whether Johannes represents
Kierkegaard's point of view.
The God of Kierkegaard's treatise is the
Old Testament God of Abraham who
tests Abraham's faith. God is also
synonymous with the absolute, which is
both a divinity as well as a representation
of any duty an individual has that is not
understood or sanctioned by the
universal (society).
Abraham
Agamemnon
Agamemnon is a tragic hero who must
sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to a
goddess to get a fair wind that will take
the Greek fleet to Troy. Killing his
daughter is a duty within the realm of the
universal, and his terrible deed is thus
understood and forgiven, unlike
Abraham's duty, which is personal and
must remain secret.
Aristotle
Descartes
Eliezer
Eliezer is Abraham's servant. He
accompanies Abraham and Isaac to
Mount Moriah.
Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
(1770–1831) was the most prominent of
the German idealist philosophers who
posited the idea of the Absolute Mind, the
end goal of human existence.
Kierkegaard objected to some of Hegel's
ideas, as well as to Danish Hegelians who
Kierkegaard felt diminished the idea of a
transcendent God and the possibility of
having a personal relationship with him.
Iphigenia
Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon.
She must be sacrificed so that her father
can get a wind that will take his ships to
war.
Isaac
Isaac was Abraham's legitimate son, born
of Sarah. He is one of the characters in
the famous story of "The Binding of
Isaac," in which he is prepared as a
sacrifice to God but saved by an angel
sent at the last minute.
Jephthah
Jephthah was a judge in ancient Israel
who vowed, should he win a battle for the
Israelites, to sacrifice the first thing he
sees when he gets home. The first thing
he sees is his daughter.
Mary
Mary is the virgin mother of Jesus.
Christians believe Jesus to be the
Second Person of God who was born as
a man.
Merman
The merman is a demonic seducer in a
Danish folktale who attempts to take the
beautiful maiden Agnete. But he is
overcome with guilt after he is subdued
by her innocence and trust.
Sarah
Sarah was the wife of Abraham who bore
him the child Isaac in his old age.
Socrates
Socrates (c. 470 BCE–399 BCE) was one
of the founders of Greek philosophy and
was Plato's teacher. Johannes mentions
Socrates as an example of an intellectual
tragic hero.
Description
Abraham (flourished early 2nd millennium
BCE) was the first patriarch of the
Hebrew nation. He is also known by
Christians as the father of faith because
of his willingness to sacrifice his son
Isaac on God's command.
Agnete
Key Figures 8
Agnete is the maiden in a Danish folktale
who falls in love with a merman and
subdues him through her innocence and
purity.
Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was one of the
greatest intellects of western history and
perhaps the most important Greek
philosopher along with Plato and
Socrates. Johannes mentions Aristotle in
his discussion of tragedy.
René Descartes (1596–1650) was the
first modern rationalist philosopher who
attempted to reconcile religion with
science. He famously attempted to arrive
at absolute certainty through the use of a
method of radical doubt, epitomized in his
realization, "I think, therefore I am."
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Saint Luke
Saint Luke the Evangelist (flourished 1
CE) was one of the authors of the
Gospels, biblical accounts of the life and
teachings of Jesus.
k Plot Summary
Plot Summary 9
continued to believe that God would allow him to keep his son
even though he also believed that he would have to sacrifice
Isaac. Johannes praises Abraham for not needing to go further
than faith in 130 years of life.
Preamble from the Heart
People read Abraham's story but do not think about it too
Epigraph and Preface
deeply. They don't think about the anguish he suffered. They
don't think about his duty to protect his son. If faith cannot
make it holy to murder a son, then Abraham is nothing but a
The narrator is referenced in the Epigraph as someone who
murderer. A contradiction exists between the ethics of
does not have full access to the meaning of the text. The
murdering a son and the religious expression of sacrificing him.
narrator introduces himself in the Preface by signing it as
The narrator would have sacrificed his son if God so ordered,
Johannes de silentio, which roughly means "John the silent."
Johannes admits, resigning himself to God's will, but he would
Readers should not consider the narrator to be the same as
have fallen into despair. Abraham, however, has accomplished
Kierkegaard. The tone of the preface is quite sarcastic, and
a double movement. He resigns himself to God's will but then
Johannes reveals he is disgusted with the armchair
makes a leap of faith, knowing that God will not take his son
philosophers of his day who speak as if they already have faith,
away from him.
as if faith were something easy to come by. He is annoyed by
their desire to go beyond faith, when in former, more serious
days, faith was a task enough for a lifetime.
Attunement
Is There a Teleological
Suspension of the Ethical?
An individual is expected to give up their personal telos
The central story Johannes will discuss is the biblical tale
(purpose, ultimate goal) to the universal telos (that of society;
generally called "The Binding of Isaac," in which God tests
the "common good") in the realm of ethics. According to the
Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, by asking him to
Hegelian view, this is the highest a human being can rise.
sacrifice his son Isaac, who was born when Abraham was 100
Those who assert their particularity and hold their personal
years old after a long struggle with infertility, as a burnt
telos above the universal telos in the realm of ethics are either
offering. Johannes posits a hypothetical reader who has been
in a state of temptation or sin. But if this is the case, then
fascinated by this story since childhood. He then presents four
Abraham is no better than a murderer, and there can be no
alternative scenarios, filling in the bare bones of the story and
such thing as faith as acted out by Abraham. Johannes the
thereby altering its meaning, in the hopes of better
narrator concludes that in the realm of the universal it is
understanding Abraham. His efforts simply prove to himself,
possible to commit what looks like an immoral act if it is
however, that he cannot understand Abraham.
disclosed as something necessary for the greater good. But
Abraham's act to kill Isaac cannot be explained nor shared with
others, and from the point of view of the universal, his act is not
Speech in Praise of Abraham
justified. Nonetheless, Abraham, as a single individual with
qualities and characteristics uniquely Abraham's, rose higher
The poet is a culture's spirit of remembrance for its heroes.
than the universal in his act of proving his faith to God. His act
The hero is great, but so is everyone—in proportion to what
is a paradox that cannot be mediated in the realm of the
they love, and the one who loves God is the greatest of all.
universal. Therefore, in such cases, a teleological suspension
Abraham was such a person, and his strength came from his
of the ethical takes place as Abraham takes a leap of faith.
powerlessness before God. Abraham was great because he
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Plot Summary 10
Is There an Absolute Duty to
Epilogue
God?
Every generation learns anew what it means to be human and
what it means to love. But no generation goes beyond love.
If Hegel is right that everything in a human being can be
The highest passion is faith, and every generation begins and
measured, then Abraham is not the father of faith, and faith
ends in that regard in the same place. Finally, the task of faith
does not exist. For Hegel, the exterior, such as the social
is enough for any human lifetime, and no one can go further
system or the state, is superior to the interior. For Kierkegaard,
than faith.
the paradox of faith is that it contains an interiority that is
incapable of being compared with the exterior. Abraham fulfills
an absolute duty to the absolute, which is God. Before faith,
there is a "movement of infinity," beyond logic, and faith enters
in afterward, unexpectedly. Kierkegaard says faith enters in
"on the strength of the absurd"—that is, only after a person
releases their individuality to the infinite, or God, can they
reach the point where faith emerges, and faith leads them back
to true individuality. Thus, Johannes concludes there is an
absolute duty to God, and the individual, as a particular, is
higher than the universal and thus is in absolute relation to God
when they make a leap of faith.
Was It Ethically Defensible of
Abraham to Conceal His
Purpose from Sarah, from
Eleazar, from Isaac?
Abraham had no choice but to conceal his plans: the universal
can be disclosed or shared with others, but once a person
rises above the universal and is in relation with the absolute,
that person cannot speak and be understood, and therefore
they must remain quiet. Had Abraham told his loved ones he
planned to kill Isaac, they would have tried to dissuade him by
saying he had a choice to disobey. Or they would have called
him a hypocrite if he protested that he had to carry out God's
orders despite his love for his son. In either case, Abraham
would have fallen back into the universal and not have
exhibited perfect faith.
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c Part Summaries
Part Summaries 11
Johannes may hold his own opinions on the subject matter.
The tone of the preface is quite sarcastic. Johannes uses
verbal irony throughout these introductory remarks: for
example, he notes that philosophy, like commerce,
Epigraph
nowadays is in the business of holding "clearance sales" on
ideas.
Philosophers have easily and with little effort learned how to
Summary
doubt everything and have even gone beyond doubting.
René Descartes, the first modern philosopher, also doubted
but said, "What God has revealed to us is incomparably
The epigraph is a quote by J.G. Hamann: "What Tarquin the
Proud said in his garden with the poppy blooms was
understood by the son but not by the messenger."
This quote references an instance in which Tarquin, an early
Roman king, was fighting a war and had his son flee to the
enemy country, pretending to be a traitor running from an
abusive father.
The enemy had made Tarquin's son a leader. When the son
sent a messenger to his father, the father answered him in
code, so that the messenger would not understand.
By striking off the heads of the tallest poppies in his garden
(this action was performed by Tarquin), Tarquin's son
understood that his father wanted him to kill or banish all
the leading men of the enemy country.
Readers of Fear and Trembling should understand this story
to be a message to them: they should pay attention to the
true message of the text, which is not known to the narrator
Johannes de silentio.
The message from Kierkegaard is that Johannes's treatise
is in the realm of the first sphere of existence, as
conceptualized by the philosopher. The text is in the sphere
of aesthetics. It is a thing of beauty perhaps, which can be
immediately enjoyed but nothing more.
The reader must use the text to enter the third sphere of
existence as conceptualized by Kierkegaard: the sphere of
the religious. In that sphere the reader can take a leap of
faith. In that realm the reader can act.
more certain than anything else." Descartes said human
beings should submit to God, whose authority he ranked
higher than human judgment and reason.
Johannes says, "Descartes was a quiet and lonely thinker,
not a bellowing street watch." He studied long and hard
enough to enter the ranks of the learned and only then
changed his opinion, thinking his method was full of errors
and that his self-instruction had led to "the increasing
discovery" of his own ignorance.
Likewise, the Greek philosophers labored for a lifetime,
"keeping the balance of doubt in the face of all
inveiglements, fearlessly rejecting the certainties of sense
and thought." Nonetheless, nowadays the journeyman
philosopher begins with doubt.
Nowadays nobody stops at faith; they want to go further,
although "it would perhaps be rash to inquire where to."
Johannes is too polite not to assume that everyone
nowadays has faith; otherwise, there would be no reason to
go beyond faith.
In the old days, however, faith was a task of a lifetime not a
skill acquired in weeks. For such people, even at the end of
their lives they retained enough faith "not to have forgotten
the fear and trembling" of their youth. No one outgrows
such faith, unless they go further, as today's philosophers
claim to do.
Johannes claims not to be a philosopher. He does not
understand "the System" (a concept of prominent German
philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) or whether the
Preface
system has been completed. Moreover, in his view, even if
faith could be rendered completely in a conceptual form,
that would not mean the philosopher had grasped faith, or
Summary
could tell how a person came to faith.
Nowadays "passion has been done away with for the sake
of science," and any author who wishes to be successful
The preface states that the narrator and "author" of the text
must write something that can be leafed through and
is Johannes de silentio, a fictional character who should not
understood out of sequence by the casual reader. Johannes
be construed as the real author, Søren Kierkegaard. In fact,
fears his writing will be either ignored or sliced and diced to
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Part Summaries 12
be digested in easy sound bites. He protests that his writing
premise of Fear and Trembling—that an individual religious
is not a system, and it does not easily lend itself to any
conscience can in particular instances hold more moral
"systematic bag-searcher." Thus, he implies that the reader
authority than established social ethics—is already a
must pay careful attention to the text in its entirety.
polemic, or attack, on Martensen's insistence on the
The preface introduces some of the targets of Fear and
supremacy of the church and state.
Trembling. Johannes is making fun of modern philosophy
Hegel's philosophy is a comprehensive system of dialectics
and modern European culture. Everyone in the modern
in which opposites (thesis and antithesis) are resolved into a
world seems to doubt everything, and all claim to possess
synthesis. Hegel goes beyond Aristotle (384–22 BCE), the
genuine religious faith. In comparing the Europeans
Greek philosopher who first talked about the dialectic,
unfavorably to the Greeks, Johannes notes that the Greeks
however. Hegel claims that each new synthesis is not a
took a lifetime to become proficient in doubt, while
resolution nor final truth, but just one synthesis in a long,
Europeans begin their philosophical and religious
continuous process of syntheses, until a proposition is
speculation with doubt.
resolved in the ultimate synthesis, or the Absolute Idea.
Similarly, in days past faith was a lifelong endeavor, which
Thus, when Johannes protests "the System," he is making
modern people arrive at too easily and then insist they must
fun of both Hegel and the Hegelians.
go further. Johannes is referring here to contemporary
Danish theologians who borrowed heavily from Hegel, the
most widely read and most influential of the German
Attunement
idealists.
Hegel gave faith a place of importance in his philosophy, but
he believed that religion at its best (Christianity, he claimed)
is still a flawed medium for channeling the Absolute Mind.
For Hegel, the highest manifestation of the Absolute Mind is
philosophy.
Through the persona of Johannes, Kierkegaard pokes fun at
the notion of going further than faith. Johannes satirically
echoes H.L. Martensen, a theologian and right-leaning
Hegelian whose philosophy Kierkegaard opposed.
Martensen claimed a thinking person should move beyond
the methodological doubt of Descartes—who came by his
doubt honestly, in Johannes's view—to Hegel and beyond.
Hegel famously constructed a system through which the
principle of the dialectic (the union of opposites) moved
everything forward toward the telos (goal or purpose) of the
Absolute Mind. Hegel believed religion was a stopping place
on the way to philosophy, an idea that Kierkegaard
vigorously opposes, and the limits of which he exposes in
Fear and Trembling. At the end of the text, nothing is
resolved and no absolute is revealed.
Hegel's ideas were first introduced to Danish intellectuals
by J.L. Heiberg, a poet and playwright. Martensen and
others applied Hegel's ideas to theology. In his writings
Kierkegaard criticized the ideas of both of these Danish
Hegelians. Martensen believed that individual subjectivity
should ultimately be replaced by the "objective reason" of
the church and state, an idea that Kierkegaard openly and
vehemently opposed toward the end of his career. But the
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Summary
The central story Johannes will deconstruct for the purpose
of delving into faith, doubt, and resignation is the biblical tale
generally referred to as "The Binding of Isaac," from
Genesis 22 of the Hebrew Bible.
It was common for the Israelites to use animals as burnt
offerings, first killing the animal and then lighting a fire that
would consume this offering for God. In the Genesis story
God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, who was born when
Abraham was 100 years old, as a burnt offering, and
Abraham complies. But God stays his hand at the last
moment. Because Abraham shows he is a "God-fearing
man" who will not withhold his son, God promises he will
have innumerable descendants.
Johannes would have expected his audience to be well
versed in this story, although he himself tells and retells the
tale as Fear and Trembling unfolds.
At the outset of "Attunement" Johannes presents a
hypothetical man who learned as a child "that beautiful tale
of how God tried Abraham." When the boy grows to be a
man, the story continues to haunt him. He pictures various
tableaus in the life of Abraham, but he has only one longing:
to accompany Abraham and his son on that momentous
journey and to see, hear, and experience what Abraham
saw, heard, and experienced. He cannot, so he pictures a
variety of scenarios in which he fills in the blanks in the
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
story.
First the man pictures Abraham riding with his son in silence
for three days, leaving the servants behind when they
reached their destination, and going up to the mountain with
Isaac on the fourth day. He imagines Abraham gentle and
encouraging while Isaac pleads for his life. When Isaac
continues to not understand, Abraham pretends to be an
idolater—telling Isaac that the sacrifice is his idea, not God's.
Abraham does not wish Isaac to lose his faith in God, which
is why he lies.
Johannes likens Abraham's lie to how women blacken their
breasts while they are weaning a child so the child will not
recognize the mother's breast.
Next, the man imagines Abraham after the moment when
God stays his hand. In the days and years that follow,
Abraham cannot forget what God has demanded, and so he
loses his joy.
Next, the man imagines Abraham returning to Mount Moriah
alone, after God tests him. Abraham begs God's forgiveness
for having been willing to sacrifice his son. He feels guilty
because it is his duty to protect his son. Moreover, he loves
Isaac immensely, so how could he be forgiven for this
sin—his willingness to kill his beloved son?
Next, the man imagines that Isaac sees his father's hand
clenched in anguish when he draws the knife. They return
home, but Isaac has lost his faith because of his father's
doubt.
No one was as great as Abraham, the man thinks, after each
imagining. He wonders if anyone can understand him.
It may be easy to assume, based on the title of this chapter,
that Johannes wants to help readers understand Abraham,
by "attuning" them to his thought or feeling processes; in
fact, he does the opposite, presenting four possible
scenarios, none of which match the Abraham in the barebones of the story. Moreover, all Johannes's "fill in the
blanks" seem antithetical to the meaning of Abraham as the
so-called father of faith. Johannes's main purpose is to point
out what Abraham is not and to underscore the idea that
others cannot possibly understand him.
Part Summaries 13
Summary
If man has no eternal consciousness, what then? Johannes
asks, "If an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid
beneath everything, what then would life be but despair?"
Humans need not despair, for they have a sacred bond
uniting them with others. People are not like the leaves of
the forest. God created man and woman as well as the hero
and the poet.
The poet is "the spirit of remembrance" who can admire
what the hero has done. Because of the poet, no one who is
great will be forgotten.
But everyone is great in their own way, in proportion to what
they loved, and the one who loves God is the greatest of all.
"He who strove with God became greater than all,"
conquering God with his powerlessness. The one who relied
on himself and gained all is great but not as great as the one
who believed God. Abraham's strength came from his
powerlessness before God. His wisdom was based in folly,
while his hope appeared as insanity.
Abraham's faith drew him from his homeland and into the
promised land: it was the reason he accepted the promise
that his seed would flourish in all nations on earth.
Abraham was never sorrowful nor worried that Sarah will be
unable to bear a child. According to the Bible, Sarah is 90
years old when she finally gives birth to Isaac, and Abraham
is 100. While Sarah doubted God's word, Abraham never
did.
Johannes notes, "It is great to give up one's desire, but
greater to stick to it after having given it up." Abraham is
"the father of faith" because he continues to hope and
believe he will be given a son, and God fulfills his promise.
But God "tempted" Abraham again when he ordered him to
sacrifice his son. It appeared as if "the glorious memory of
the human race, the promise in Abraham's seed ... was only
a whim." As the reader will learn further on, Johannes uses
the word "tempt" because Abraham is tempted to do what is
ethical—to not kill his son.
Abraham's faith is absurd, and if he had lacked faith, he
might have done something great—for example, killing
Speech in Praise of Abraham
himself in Isaac's place. Thus he would have been admired
by the world and never forgotten. But it is one thing to be a
hero and another to be a "guiding star that saves the
anguished."
Abraham says nothing to Sarah or his servant Eliezer about
God's call, since his test "by its very nature exacted an oath
of silence." Abraham neither felt anguish nor called to
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Part Summaries 14
heaven with his prayers, knowing "no sacrifice was too hard
Some claim that philosophy, such as that of Hegel, is
when God demanded it." Had he doubted God for a
difficult to understand, while faith as illustrated in the life of
moment, he would have borne witness neither to his faith
Abraham is easy to understand. "To go beyond Hegel, that
nor to God's mercy.
is a miracle," the narrator sarcastically says, "but to go
As a result of his faith, Abraham was able to keep Isaac.
beyond Abraham is simplest of all." Johannes has, after
Johannes calls Abraham second father to the human race, a
careful study, understood much of Hegel's philosophy, but
man who struggled with God and experienced "supreme
when he thinks about Abraham, he is "virtually annihilated,"
passion, the sacred, pure, and humble expression of divine
as he contemplates the "monstrous paradox that is the
madness which the pagans admired." Johannes praises
content of Abraham's life."
Abraham for getting no further than faith in 130 years of life.
Kierkegaard, through the narrator, is criticizing Hegelians
who breezily assert that one must go beyond faith to a
Preamble from the Heart
higher understanding of the absolute. In Hegel's philosophy,
religion (and by extension faith) ranks lower than
philosophy, which is closer to the Absolute Idea. The Danish
Hegelians say that individual subjectivity is best subsumed
Summary
In the mundane world events happen randomly, and life
seems at times unfair and arbitrary. In the world of the spirit,
however, divine order prevails in which the righteous and
the faithful are rewarded.
Conventional wisdom dictates that knowledge of larger
truths is all that is necessary, but the narrator disagrees. For
example, "countless generations" knew Abraham's story,
but it did not make them "sleepless." Thus, according to the
narrator, most people do not grasp the depth of meaning in
the story.
The reader of the story tends to bypass Abraham's anguish:
he had a sacred duty to protect his son, and yet he agreed
to kill him. People praise Abraham as a great man, but
should they follow his example?
For his part, Johannes has no intention of mindlessly
praising Abraham. If faith cannot make it holy to murder
one's son, then Abraham is no better than a murderer.
There is a contradiction in the ethics of murdering one's son
and the religious expression of sacrificing him; this
contradiction should cause insomnia in anyone seriously
contemplating the story.
"Can one speak unreservedly of Abraham, then, without
risking that someone will go off the rails and do likewise?"
the narrator asks. Johannes determines that he can speak
about faith in its entirety without inciting murder, since the
wholeness of faith would not make a person a murderer but,
rather, like Abraham.
At the same time, the narrator will not pretend to have
Abraham's faith, and therefore he will not presume to ride
on his coattails, as some might be tempted to do.
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in the objectivity of church and state. So here, too, an
individual expression of faith must be rejected out of hand,
since it is outside the realm of society's ethics and/or
religious values. Johannes does not reject Abraham's faith,
but he also admits that he doesn't understand the
monstrous paradox that Abraham had to contend with in
loving both God and Isaac.
The narrator does not think faith is better or worse than
philosophy, but he objects when philosophers attempt to
explain away faith, as if it were nothing.
Johannes has faced down dread, but his courage is not faith
and cannot be compared with faith. He cannot hurl himself
into the absurdity of faith, but he doesn't pride himself on
that account.
For the narrator, God is love, and this thought makes him
"unspeakably happy." Still, he has not the courage of faith.
God's love is for him "incommensurable" with the whole of
reality. To feel faith, however, would be something "far
higher" and would inspire a higher form of happiness.
Johannes does not trouble God with his everyday
problems—unlike the faithful, who are convinced God
concerns himself with the smallest details of their lives.
Kierkegaard uses the terms incommensurable and
incommensurability frequently in the text, and he doesn't
always mean the same thing. First, incommensurability
refers to the impossibility of applying a common measure to
two things: they can be compared, but they cannot be
measured. However, in some contexts Kierkegaard does
use the word to mean two things that are not strictly
comparable. In this context Johannes means that his
concept of God and his concept of the reality created by
God cannot be measured against one another—or, more
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Part Summaries 15
simply, that one cannot be understood in terms of the other.
must go further—"to worldly wisdom, petty calculation," or
The narrator can't help but wonder whether his
other things that call man's divine origin into question.
contemporaries exaggerate in saying they are "capable of
Rather, it would be better to stand on faith and not fall. "The
making the movement of faith," meaning they identify
movement of faith must be made continually on the strength
themselves with Abraham. Johannes imagines himself in
of the absurd," and in this movement finitude must not be
Abraham's place and asserts that he would have taken the
lost.
journey to Mount Moriah, the place of sacrifice, but he
"The knights of infinite resignation are readily recognizable,"
would have done so in despair and resignation, believing
although those who "wear the jewel of faith" may look
everything was lost to him.
ordinary—sometimes like a "bourgeois philistine"—or they
Some might think his resignation "more idealistic and poetic
may be hard to spot.
than Abraham's narrow-mindedness," but in fact, resignation
Kierkegaard makes a distinction between two types of
would be a poor substitute for faith. Additionally, the
heroes: the knight of infinite resignation (sometimes call the
narrator's love for Isaac would have been less than
knight of infinity) and the knight of faith. An additional third
Abraham's, since he would go through with Isaac's murder
category of people are the "slaves of misery," who live
on the strength of his resignation and not on the strength of
purely in the material realm and never strive for anything
faith.
beyond what is easily obtainable. These three types also
Further, he'd have a hard time rejoicing in his son when he
roughly correspond to Kierkegaard's spheres or stages of
had been given back by God. "What Abraham found the
existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.
easiest of all would for me be hard," for after having made
The knight of resignation never gives up the love of his ideal,
that "infinite movement" of resignation, he could only keep
although he resigns himself to the fact that he will not obtain
Isaac with pain. Johannes means that once he had fallen
it. He will channel his love into a higher ideal and thus obtain
into despair, he could not have returned to the same type of
peace. The knight of faith, however, goes beyond
relationship with God, pre-sacrifice, since his faith would not
resignation, never giving up on his belief that he will obtain
have been perfect faith, and he would have lost his faith as a
his ideal in this life.
result of his despair.
The knight of faith delights in the things of the world yet is
On the other hand, Abraham was not resigned and believed
always "making the movements of infinity." Such people
God would not demand Isaac of him, even as he was willing
empty the sorrow of existence in "infinite resignation" yet
to offer him as he had been commanded. Abraham is
experience the "bliss of infinity." They have felt the pain of
comfortable in the realm of the absurd, in which God both
renouncing the world but at the same time feel happy and
demands and withdraws his demand. Abraham is surprised
secure in finitude. They resign everything and then take it
by the outcome, nevertheless. By means of a "double
back "on the strength of the absurd."
movement," he returns to his original position and receives
Ordinary people are disheartened by sorrow and joy and in
his son back with joy.
some sense withdraw from life. The knights of infinity (or
Abraham's faith is such that he would find happiness in this
infinite resignation) fly upward and then fall, hesitating
world, not in the hereafter.
before attempting again to fly. The knights of faith, however,
The dialectic of faith is remarkable, and the narrator can
never hesitate after they fall. They immediately begin again.
only form a conception of its elevation and no more. While
To illustrate the difference between the knight of infinite
the narrator can make the journey into "infinitude" (resigning
resignation and the knight of faith, Johannes provides a
himself to God's will), he cannot, like Abraham, then return
hypothetical scenario in which a young man falls in love with
to finitude and the joy of this life. Johannes sums up his
an unobtainable princess.
point by saying, "He who loves God without faith reflects on
The knight of infinite resignation will risk everything on one
himself, while the person who loves God in faith reflects on
single wish or desire. If the knight fails, he will not forget
God." Thus, Abraham moves beyond infinite resignation to
what he wished for and attempt to become someone or
faith.
something else. He is not like the butterfly who has
Anyone who believes they can be moved to faith simply by
forgotten it was once a caterpillar. Although pain
reflecting on Abraham's story is deceiving themselves.
accompanies memory, the knight who is infinitely resigned
Moreover, modern people cannot even stop at faith but
reconciles himself to existence.
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Part Summaries 16
In Johannes's scenario the immediate object—the
Faith, however, is another matter, and no one should
princess—is unobtainable. But in the spiritual realm the
suppose that faith is "something inferior or that it is an easy
impossible becomes possible as a spiritual love that
matter": it is the most difficult.
transcends the particularity of the princess. The knight's
Toward the end of this section, the narrator returns to
longing becomes entirely inward, and his love for the
Abraham and how people focus on God's mercy rather than
princess takes on a religious character, becoming "love for
on Abraham's faith, even though they praise Abraham.
the eternal being." He is thus "reconciled ... in the eternal
Rather, it would be better to forget about Abraham if the
consciousness of his love's validity ... that no reality can take
hearer of the story cannot "learn how to be horrified at the
from him."
monstrous paradox which is the significance of his life."
This knight "grasped ... that even in loving another [person,]
Modern people ought not to make Abraham insignificant by
one should be sufficient unto oneself."
blinding themselves to the suffering of his trial. The narrator
Infinite resignation brings peace, and the pain of resignation
objects to the marketing of "a cut-price version of Abraham"
can be a consolation. "Infinite resignation is the last stage
by those who would, at the same time, warn others not to
before faith," since only then does a person's "eternal
follow in his footsteps by doing what he did.
validity" become apparent to them, and only then can they
Johannes notes that the next sections will discuss how a
grasp "existence on the strength of faith." What Johannes
paradox can turn a murder into a holy act that is pleasing to
means is that faith is only possible after a person has first
God. Such a thing cannot be grasped by the mind, since
reached the state of infinite resignation.
"faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off."
Similarly, the knight of faith "renounces the claim to the love
which is the content of his life" but then commits to
believing he will get what he desires (in this case the love of
Problema 1
the princess) because all things are possible with God.
The knight grasps the absurd through faith, admitting the
impossibility while believing in the absurd.
Faith is therefore higher than an aesthetic emotion—not "the
immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of
existence."
The movement toward resignation requires "strength and
energy and freedom of spirit." But the next step, the
movement toward faith—to believe one will get what one
desires, is "a marvel."
Resignation is a philosophical movement, in which one wins
"eternal consciousness." The knight of resignation serves as
his own censor by renouncing life for the love of "eternal
being." Through faith, however, a person receives everything
back.
It takes courage to renounce temporality for eternity, but it
takes a special "humble courage" to grasp "the whole of
temporality on the strength of the absurd." Such is the
nature of faith.
The knight can use his own strength to give up the princess
but not to get her back. He can get her back only "on the
strength of the absurd."
Johannes continues to express skepticism toward those of
his generation who claim to have gone beyond faith. In his
view, anyone can "perform the infinite movement of
resignation," although to do so takes a great act of courage.
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Summary
What is ethical is universal—it applies to everyone—and
ethics has no telos (end purpose) outside of itself. An
individual, however, is a particular, and each person has
their own telos. Still, an individual must express their telos
within the universal and in the realm of ethics must give up
their individuality to universality.
To willfully express one's particularity against the universal
is, by definition, to sin. Temptation is the urge to assert
one's particularity with regard to ethics. This state of
temptation (and any actions that may result from it) can be
transcended only by surrendering to the universal in an act
of repentance and reconciliation.
If surrendering to the universal is the highest act that a
human being can perform, then a person's "eternal
blessedness" or salvation hinges on their subsuming their
personal telos in the universal. Then Hegel is right in saying
a human being is a "moral form of evil," which can be
"annulled in the teleology of the ethical life." The person who
does not embrace this teleology is either in the state of sin
or temptation. But if this is the case, then Hegel is wrong in
not condemning Abraham as a murderer.
Abraham's case expresses the paradox of faith, in that the
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Part Summaries 17
single individual becomes higher than the universal. The
nation—to fight a war—above his personal feelings about his
individual starts in the universal but then sets himself apart
daughter.
as a particular above the universal.
Johannes also mentions a biblical story in which Jephthah
If the ethical is the highest and nothing "incommensurable"
asks God for victory in battle in exchange for the sacrifice
remains in a human being except the evil identified by Hegel
of the first living creature he sees coming out of his house
(i.e. a person's individuality apart from the universal), then
when he returns home. The first thing he sees is his
philosophers should not go beyond the categories created
daughter.
by the Greek philosophers.
In both cases Johannes deems the sacrifices ethical, since
Faith is a paradox that allows an individual to transcend the
they are within the universal, ethical bounds of the cultures
universal. If this were not the case, then Abraham is "done
of Agamemnon and Jephthah.
for" and "faith has never existed in the world just because it
On the other hand, Abraham oversteps the ethical. He is not
has always existed." This last sentence is repeated in one
saving a nation nor appeasing an angry god. His action is an
form or another many times in the text, and it is difficult to
entirely private undertaking, "an act of purely personal
understand exactly what Kierkegaard means by it. The first
virtue." He will sacrifice Isaac to please God because God
part is easy enough to understand: if faith does not allow a
demands the proof of his faith. For Abraham, the temptation
person to step outside conventional ethics, then Abraham is
is not a deed that falls outside the universal; rather, it is the
"done for" or damned because he becomes nothing less
ethical or universal itself, "which would keep him from doing
than a murderer.
God's will."
The second part of the sentence, according to Kierkegaard
Since Abraham cannot be mediated by the universal (the
scholar C. Stephen Evans, is the philosopher's way of saying
ethical telos), he cannot speak. The hero sacrifices himself
that what passes for faith in the ordinary world is not true
and "gives up the finite [in exchange for] the infinite ... and
faith, and faith such as Abraham's cannot exist within the
the eye of the beholder rests confidently upon him." But the
Hegelian paradigm if that paradigm is correct.
one who gives up the universal for something even higher
According to Evans, faith is "a rare and admirable quality for
cannot be understood by the beholder.
which Abraham serves as a notable exemplar." When
What the narrator means is that heroes sacrifice
Johannes says faith does not exist because it always
themselves for some greater purpose, which is clearly seen
existed, he means faith has been "identified with the
and recognized by society. On the other hand, when the
commonplace quality of conforming to the norms of one's
knight of faith steps outside the universal, their actions are
own society." So Kierkegaard means that the exemplary
not understood by society, and the knight cannot explain or
faith of Abraham is not recognized as faith by the ordinary
justify those actions.
person and cannot be understood through traditional
"When the ethical is ... teleologically suspended," the
thought.
individual exists "in opposition to the universal." Abraham's
The important takeaway here is that real faith remains
faith is a paradox that puts him "in an absolute relation to
paradoxical and cannot be explained by the mind and that
the absolute." The justification of his actions lies not in the
most people have no real idea of the meaning of faith.
universal but in the particular. But the question still remains:
Those with true faith must be ready to offer criteria for
how can a single individual know that they are justified?
distinguishing this paradox from a temptation to put oneself
Is Abraham justified because he got Isaac back? Had he
above the law. Abraham's story is an example of the
actually sacrificed Isaac, would he have been less justified?
"teleological suspension of the ethical," and "Abraham
Johannes notes that people are concerned with the
represents faith." In acting on the absurd, Abraham
outcome or conclusion of the story and want nothing of the
becomes higher than the universal. He is no tragic hero;
"fear, the distress, the paradox." People become great not
rather, he is "either a murderer or a man of faith."
because of what happens to them but because of what they
A tragic hero is understandable; Abraham is not. Johannes
do.
briefly alludes to the Greek tragedy in which Agamemnon
Johannes digresses with another example of a knight of
sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to raise a wind that will
faith: the Virgin Mary. Christians call her great and blessed
take his ships to Troy. This sacrifice is demanded by an
among women. Mary gave birth miraculously to the son of
offended god, and the king must put the needs of his
God, but she too suffered dread, distress, and paradox. The
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Part Summaries 18
angel visited Mary only and did not explain the situation to
vanishing point, and his power can be seen only in the
her family and friends.
ethical.
Mary is mortified, from the perspective of her society, by the
If it is not possible to love God more directly—if it is true that
pregnancy she cannot explain. The narrator notes, "Isn't it
"nothing [is] incommensurable [here Kierkegaard means
true here too that those whom God blesses he damns in the
unmeasurable or incalculable] in a human life," then Hegel is
same breath?"
right. The Hegelian viewpoint allows nothing higher than
When Mary says, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," she is
ethics as a universal that applies at all times and in all
great, and it becomes clear why she was chosen to be the
places. According to Hegel, one can have a relationship with
mother of God. She needs no external admiration, any more
God only through the ethical. If this is the case, God
than "Abraham needs our tears." Neither Mary nor Abraham
disappears into the ethical, which becomes divinized and
was a hero, but both became greater than heroes because
even synonymous with God.
of the agony they suffered and the paradox they endured.
But if Hegel is right that there is nothing beyond the
Returning to Abraham, Johannes says that "in the time
measurable man, then he is wrong in calling Abraham the
before the outcome [of the binding of Isaac,] either
father of faith, says Johannes, for in doing so "he has
Abraham was a murderer every minute," or he is part of a
passed sentence on both Abraham and on faith."
paradox. Abraham cannot be mediated (meaning justified,
In point of fact, Hegel never calls Abraham the father of
explained, or understood) by virtue of the universal. Thus
faith. On the contrary, he speaks about Abraham in
"Abraham's story contains a teleological suspension of the
unflattering terms. Moreover, Hegel sees Judaism as a
ethical."
steppingstone to Christianity, which he views as a higher
The purpose (telos) of ethics is to merge with the universal
form of religion. But when Kierkegaard, through the
(society), in Hegel's view. But knights of faith have a higher
narrator, says Hegel is wrong, he means Christian
purpose, in Kierkegaard's view. Abraham is such a one, and
theologians of his day who ascribe to Hegelian philosophy
he is justified by faith in bypassing what is ethical.
contradict themselves in saying that Abraham is the father
As a single individual, as a particularity, Abraham rose higher
of faith.
than the universal. This is the paradox that cannot be
In Hegel's philosophy the outer (the social system, the state)
mediated.
is higher than the inner. But in faith interiority is higher than
A tragic hero can fulfill his destiny through his own strength.
exteriority. The paradox of faith is that it contains an
Nonetheless, many can advise him as he walks his difficult
interiority that is incapable of being compared with the
path. The knight of faith, however, walks a narrow path with
exterior.
no advisors and no one to understand him. Yet "faith is a
Before faith there is "a movement of infinity," and faith
marvel," accessible to all because all life is united in passion,
enters in after, unexpectedly, "on the strength of the
and "faith is a passion."
absurd." Only after a person empties themselves in the
infinite can they reach the point where faith emerges.
Problema 2
The single individual paradoxically rises higher than the
universal, determining "his relation to the universal through
his relation to the absolute," and not vice versa. When the
individual has an absolute duty to love God, the ethical
Summary
Duty is duty to God only when it is referred to God, yet one
does not come into relation with God by performing one's
duty.
"It is a duty to love God" is a tautology (a circular statement
or argument), since God in the abstract is the divine, the
universal, or duty itself. Human existence in this paradigm is
"self-enclosed," and "the ethical is at once the limit and
completion." An abstract notion of God becomes a
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becomes relative. While the individual cannot simply put the
ethical by the wayside, the love of God can paradoxically
cause a person to express their love as its opposite from an
ethical point of view. Were this not true, then faith would
have no place in existence, and Abraham would be "done
for." This last sentence underscores the narrator's belief
that faith does have a place, and Abraham is a knight of
faith.
Abraham finds himself in a paradox. As a father he must
love his son, but this ethical relationship becomes relative
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Part Summaries 19
next to the absolute duty to love God. Abraham is faced
knight of faith takes the higher path, lonely and solitary and
with a trial and a temptation, both for God's sake and his
narrow and steep. They accept their solitude and the
own. The paradox of faith loses "the intermediate term, i.e.
misunderstanding of others, which is their lot.
the universal." Abraham's deed appears to be extremely
Abraham's first trial is to wait 70 years to have his son Isaac
egotistical, but on the other hand it shows his absolute
in old age. Then he must sacrifice him. Clearly, the tragic
devotion to God.
hero has an easier path than the knight of faith.
Johannes references a passage from the Gospel of Luke on
Nonetheless, the knight of faith has achieved glory in
the absolute duty to God. It says that if a person doesn't
becoming God's friend, addressing him as "Thou," while the
hate their dear ones and even their own life, that person
tragic hero can speak to God only in the third person.
lacks what is necessary to become Jesus's disciple. The
While a tragic hero like Agamemnon violates an ethical
saying is hard to hear. The words are terrible, but the
precept, he can fall back on the universal to justify his
narrator believes they can be understood, even if hearers
choice. Agamemnon has a reason, grounded in the
do not have the courage to obey them. But someone who
universal, for sacrificing his daughter. He must appease a
cannot live by those words should not pass off their lack of
god so he can sail off to war. The knight of faith, however,
courage as humility. In fact, "the courage of faith is the only
faces the terror of only having himself to rely on and no way
humble courage."
to justify his actions.
God demands absolute love. While any human being
The knight of faith "is a witness, never a teacher, and in this
demanding absolute fealty is considered egotistical or
lies [his] deep humanity," worth more than superficial
stupid, a deity making the same demand is regarded in a
expressions of compassion for others, which at the root is
different light. While the absolute duty to God can lead a
nothing but vanity. Neither does the knight think himself
person to doing what ethics forbids, this duty does not
better than others, since he knows that "whatever truly is
make the knight of faith stop loving whom he loves, even if
great is available equally to all."
he has to kill that person for God's sake.
Johannes concludes (a) there is an absolute duty to God,
"When God asks for Isaac," Kierkegaard says, "Abraham
and (b) the individual as a particular is higher than the
must if possible love him even more, and only then can he
universal and is in absolute relation to God. The alternative
sacrifice him." The paradoxical opposite of Abraham's
is (a) faith "never existed because it has always existed,"
extreme love for both Isaac and God is what makes his act
and (b) "Abraham is done for." Johannes's view is that the
a sacrifice. But in the realm of humanity Abraham cannot
first statement is true, not the second.
make himself understood. In the realm of the universal, "he
is and remains a murderer."
A text like Luke's is seldom recited for fear of "letting people
Problema 3
loose"; something terrible may happen when an individual
acts as an individual. While most people think that living as
an individual is easy, Johannes thinks the opposite.
Moreover, anyone "who has learned that to exist as the
individual is the most terrifying thing of all" will also say it is
the greatest.
Someone who "lives under [their] own supervision" while
respecting themselves and their immortal soul lives in
austerity and seclusion. While some might become
unbridled beasts if given free rein, the one who "knows how
to speak with fear and trembling" is not among them.
The tragic hero expresses the universal by renouncing his
ego, but the knight of faith renounces the universal to be a
particular. The knight of faith knows how glorious it is to
translate oneself into the universal, as the tragic hero does,
making oneself as pristine as possible. Nonetheless, the
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Summary
The full text for the problem Kierkegaard poses is: "Was it
ethically defensible of Abraham to conceal his purpose from
Sarah, from Eleazar, from Isaac?"
The ethical is universal, and the universal is disclosed,
meaning that it is shared with others. On the other hand, the
immediate psychic being of an individual is concealed. The
individual must "unwrap himself from his concealment and
become disclosed in the universal." Moreover, deliberately
remaining concealed is a state of sin or temptation, from
which a person can emerge only by showing themselves.
The universal always serves as the mediated space, so
when an individual in their particularity rises above the
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Part Summaries 20
universal, they necessarily create a paradox. Hegelians
Both are equally valuable, albeit distorted, routes to
propose that concealment can never be justified, so their
knowledge. An undistorted vision of reality can be found in
view on the necessity of disclosure is consistent with the
the Absolute Mind, which is the rational mind.
latter. However, "it isn't quite fair and square" for them to
The Absolute Mind is glimpsed in human consciousness
insist in the same breath that Abraham is the father of faith.
opaquely, in aesthetic and sensory experience. Religion is a
While Hegel himself did not call Abraham the father of faith,
slightly less opaque experience, with Christianity being the
Christian philosopher-theologians in Denmark admired
best approximation of the vision of the Absolute Mind.
Hegel and adapted aspects of his philosophy. In criticizing
Only philosophy can provide an adequate, rational
Hegelians, Kierkegaard is criticizing those theologians. He
expression of the Absolute Mind. Thus, it is necessary to go
objects to their materialistic view of Christianity, which
further than religion to grasp reality, in Hegel's view.
equates faith with conformity to the Danish church and
Kierkegaard takes strong exception to this view and makes
state.
fun of the Hegelians of his day who wish to go "further,"
The narrator Johannes is pointing out the contradiction
since in his view faith (the religious sphere) is the highest
inherent in asserting, on the one hand, that Abraham is the
form of consciousness, and striving for it takes up a whole
father of faith but, on the other, that he is no better than a
lifetime.
murderer from the perspective of a Hegelian. In the
Johannes repeats several times in Fear and Trembling some
Hegelian view anyone who steps outside of the universal is
version of the assertion that if the Hegelian view is
either in temptation or in sin. Therefore, from that
correct—that there is nothing higher than the universal, or
perspective Abraham can hardly be the father of faith.
ethical, sphere—"then faith has never existed just because it
Faith is not the first immediacy but a later one. Johannes
has existed always." This statement is difficult to penetrate.
says, "The first immediacy is the aesthetic, and here the
But according to Kierkegaard scholar C. Stephen Evans,
Hegelian philosophy may well be right." He continues: If faith
what Kierkegaard means is that in his time there is no such
is the aesthetic, which he doubts, "then faith has never
thing as the type of faith Abraham had "because faith has
existed just because it has existed always."
been identified with the commonplace quality of conforming
What Kierkegaard means by aesthetic is not only the
to the norms of one's own society."
apprehension or appreciation of beauty. More generally, the
Johannes then digresses from his focus on Abraham.
aesthetic is the first of three "spheres" in Kierkegaard's
Johannes turns to what Abraham is not in an attempt to
stages of existence. Those who live in the aesthetic sphere
understand Abraham's paradoxical faith. Johannes gives
primarily cultivate sensual experience, and the criteria for
many examples of literary and mythical figures to shed light
living a good life are not defined by right or wrong.
on Abraham's concealment, or inability to disclose to those
The next sphere is the ethical. A person in this stage of
closest to him his purpose in traveling to Mount Moriah.
existence follows the ethical rules and laws of their society
Johannes asserts that while aesthetics calls for
and has developed a strong sense of right and wrong.
concealment and rewards it, ethics calls for disclosure and
The last sphere, the religious, is the highest, in which a
punishes concealment. This dialectic is often seen at work
person takes a leap of faith that transcends commonplace
in various literary or mythical tales.
ethics. This leap can be in a deity, as is the case of
For example, in a tale such as Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis,
Abraham, but should be understood to mean more generally
the tragic hero Agamemnon, who must sacrifice his
a passionate belief in something that a person cannot
daughter for the sake of the state, conceals the demand of
necessarily show or prove to others.
the god because "it would be unworthy of the hero to seek
Johannes is agreeing with Hegel when he says the first
another's consolation." Yet the hero's dilemma comes to
immediacy is the aesthetic. As translator and critic Alastair
light when an old servant tells Agamemnon's wife
Hannay explains, the aesthetic life is dedicated to
Clytemnestra the reason for her husband's cruel behavior.
immediacy, or unreflective knowledge. The difference is that
Thus, Agamemnon's actions are shown to be justified within
Hegel includes faith in the aesthetic, while Kierkegaard does
the ethical parameters of the Greek tragedy.
not.
The most important story Johannes relates in this section of
For Hegel two forms of consciousness are the experience
the text is the tale of Agnete and the Merman, which
of art and beauty (aesthetics) and religious experience.
demonstrates parallels between a demonic hero and a
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Part Summaries 21
knight of faith such as Abraham.
Evans, while most human beings are not demonic, all are
The merman is a mythical creature who seduces women. In
anguished, and sin is a universal human condition. Since
Johannes's version, Agnete is an innocent who has fallen
Johannes says that sin puts people outside the universal, no
thoroughly in love with the merman. When he realizes she
human being can become an authentic self merely by
has absolute faith in him, he is broken, unable to resist the
conforming to established ethical norms.
power of her innocence. Thus, he cannot seduce Agnete as
In that sense "Abraham may provide a guiding star," says
he has done the rest of the women. As a result, he takes her
Evans, in that "the highest good for every individual is a
home and returns in rage and despair to his own ocean
relation to God." This is made possible by faith, "which in
home. The merman is not human, so he cannot take Agnete
turn makes possible a healing transformation of the person
as a wife.
of faith." Evans notes that Johannes does not present
Johannes further alters the tale, turning the merman into a
himself as a person of faith, but it is possible that
creature with human consciousness, so that he has the
Kierkegaard means readers to see themselves as being like
choice of being saved by Agnete. He has the choice of
the merman. All people need healing, made possible by faith,
repenting alone or with Agnete. If he repents alone, he
in which they enter into "an absolute relationship to the
saves her by returning her home, concealing his original evil
absolute."
intentions. His concealment will make both Agnete and
Johannes finally returns to Abraham toward the end of
himself unhappy, since he bears the guilt of what he has
Problema 3, reminding the reader that his digressions serve
done.
not to make Abraham "more intelligible" but rather to show
The merman may choose to "arouse all dark passions" in
"his unintelligibility ... more in the round." Once again, he
Agnete, by mocking her and ridiculing her love to stir her
protests that he cannot understand Abraham but only
pride against him. Johannes maintains, "There dwells
admire and contemplate him.
infinitely more good in a demonic than a superficial person."
Abraham did not speak to Sarah, Eleazar, or Isaac. His
Thus, by means of the demonic, the merman, like Abraham,
silence was not in the realm of aesthetics, since it did not
aspires to be a particular individual who is higher than the
serve the purpose of saving him, and indeed, his sacrifice
universal. "The demonic has that same property as the
"for his own and God's sake is an outrage aesthetically."
divine," and the individual enters into an absolute
Abraham's silence is condemned by ethics, since ethics
relationship with the demonic. But unlike Abraham, the
demands "an infinite movement which requires disclosure."
merman can speak and thus can become a tragic hero.
The aesthetic hero can speak but chooses not to, while the
Indeed, he becomes a tragic hero if he saves Agnete but not
genuine tragic hero sacrifices himself for the universal but is
himself.
disclosed and thus becomes "the beloved son of ethics."
The merman's second choice is to marry Agnete and save
Such is not the case for Abraham, who does nothing for the
himself through her. In this second choice he will have
universal and remains concealed.
disclosed himself. Through his guilt over attempting to
"We are now at the paradox," Johannes says. Either the
seduce Agnete, he comes out of the universal. In sin the
individual (Abraham) as "the particular" stands alone "in an
demonic one is higher than the universal. In repentance the
absolute relation to the absolute, and then the ethical is not
demonic one returns to the universal—or more aptly,
the highest," or once again Abraham is "done for" and is
"realizes" or "accomplishes" the universal.
"neither a tragic nor an aesthetic hero."
"If he ... lets himself be saved through Agnete, then he is the
While the paradox may seem easy and convenient, in fact
greatest human being I can imagine," Johannes says. The
Abraham's lot can be nothing but "distress and anguish"
girl is not the hero, but rather the merman is, after he makes
because he cannot speak, since if he did speak, he could
the "infinite movement of repentance" and then a second
not make himself understood.
movement, not on his own strength but "on the strength of
Should he have unburdened himself to his loved ones, they
the absurd," in believing he can be saved. Thus the merman
would have told him that he should refrain from killing Isaac
becomes a knight of faith if he puts his trust in Agnete.
or, worse, have called him a hypocrite for attempting to
The meaning of the merman story juxtaposed with
show his love before carrying out the dreaded deed.
Abraham's trial has been interpreted by scholars of
In summary, Abraham makes two movements: the first is an
Kierkegaard in various ways. According to C. Stephen
"infinite movement of resignation" in giving up Isaac, and the
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Quotes 22
second movement is of faith. He is comforted in this second
must start from scratch and never gets beyond what the
movement, since he tells himself that Isaac's death will not
previous generation did.
happen, or if it does, somehow God will give him another
This human factor is passion. No generation has learned
Isaac "on the strength of the absurd."
from another how to love, and no generation gets beyond
The tragic hero's story has an end. For example, Iphigenia
love.
accepts her father's decision in an infinite movement of
The highest passion is faith, and here too each generation
resignation because his decision lies in the realm of the
begins and ends at the same place.
universal. But Abraham is not a tragic hero because he does
The task of faith "is always enough for a human lifetime."
not have this luxury.
The text asserts that faith is the highest passion, more than
If it had fallen to Agamemnon to carry out his daughter's
enough to occupy the span of a human life. Many people in
death sentence, it would not have been appropriate to say
a generation can get as far as faith, but none go beyond it.
any parting words, but in the case of an intellectual tragic
Johannes shares with the reader that he himself has far to
hero, some parting words may be in order, as was the case
go, although he does not wish to "get over it," as if faith was
when Socrates was forced by the state to carry out his own
somehow a disease to be cured or a problem to be solved.
execution.
Life is rich enough in tasks, even for one who doesn't get as
These analogies do not apply to Abraham, except in that
far as faith, and a person who honestly loves their tasks
when Isaac asks him where the sacrificial animal is, he must
won't have wasted their lives.
say something. He says, "My son, God will provide himself a
But for those who come to faith, they will find that faith is a
lamb for a burnt offering." In this statement the double
process, not a destination. Additionally, they can go no
movement of his soul is evident. He does not tell Isaac a lie,
further than faith.
but neither does he answer the question, "for he speaks in a
The idea of going further is old. Heraclitus famously said
foreign tongue."
that a person cannot wade in the same river twice, but one
His words show that he has made the infinite movement of
of his disciples, who went further, said, "one cannot do it
resignation, since he is ready to act, and at the same time,
even once." This statement reflects a Greek school of
his words reveal his faith in God. Johannes once again
philosophy that denied movement altogether, or the idea
reiterates that he cannot understand Abraham and lacks
that the senses reveal to the perceiver true knowledge of
the courage to speak in his way or act as he did. "But I do
the real world.
not at all say that what he did is inconsiderable on that
Thus Johannes concludes in the epilogue that there is
account," says Johannes, "since on the contrary it is the one
nowhere to go beyond faith.
and only marvel."
Abraham's achievement is considerable: he remains true to
his love of God and consequently needs neither tears nor
admiration. He even forgets his suffering completely; only
g Quotes
God remembers it: "God sees in secret and knows the
distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing."
In Johannes's view either "the single individual as a
"If an unfathomable, insatiable
particular stands in absolute relation to the absolute, or
emptiness lay hid beneath
Abraham is done for."
everything, what then would life be
Epilogue
but despair?"
— Johannes, Speech in Praise of Abraham
Summary
Johannes begins his praise of Abraham by noting that if only
emptiness lay beneath the manifestation of life, life would be
One generation learns from another but can never learn
nothing but despair for a human being because people need
"the genuinely human factor." In this realm every generation
meaning. A human being must know that there is some order
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Quotes 23
to existence and that a life counts in some way. Without such a
Faith is higher than an aesthetic emotion because it goes
belief a person falls into hopelessness and despair.
beyond the immediate of sensuality. Faith is not "the immediate
inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence." A person
But human beings are bound to one another in time and in
of faith first goes beyond desire in giving up what they
space. As God created man and woman, he also created the
want—to do so is the movement of resignation. But then they
hero and the poet—the first performs meaningful acts, and the
make a second movement in faith and believe their desire will
second sings the praises of the hero.
be satisfied in the here and now.
"Can one speak unreservedly of
"Abraham is done for and faith has
Abraham ... without risking that
never existed in the world, just
someone will go off the rails and
because it has always existed."
do likewise?"
— Johannes, Problema 1
— Johannes, Preamble from the Heart
Johannes proposes that if there is nothing higher than the
Johannes makes this statement in the context of asking
social ethics found in the universal, then Abraham is "done for"
whether it is possible to speak honestly about Abraham. If a
and faith has never existed. What he means is that Abraham is
person praises Abraham, who would have willingly killed his
then damned, and there is no such thing as faith, since the
son, won't that set a bad example for others who may think
meaning of the word as acted on by Abraham cannot possibly
they have license to commit an immoral act? Johannes thinks it
exist. However, this is neither what Kierkegaard nor Johannes
is possible to discuss Abraham by stressing his faith and his
believes. Both believe faith is higher than the universal.
love for Isaac and the appalling nature (in Abraham's as well as
the reader's) of the deed that God gave him to carry out.
"Faith finds its proper expression
"Philosophy cannot and should not
give us an account of faith."
in him whose life is ... so
paradoxical that it simply cannot
be thought."
— Johannes, Preamble from the Heart
— Johannes, Problema 1
Johannes makes this comment in the context of saying that
faith is not inferior to reasoning. Moreover, philosophy should
Faith can be seen at work in a paradoxical life—a life so
"understand itself" and know what it has to offer, but at the
paradoxical that it cannot be thought. A paradoxical life is one
same time it should not pretend that religion "is nothing." Thus,
lived through faith. The life of such a one cannot be
both faith and philosophy should be equally respected.
understood through thought. Faith is absurd and cannot be
rationalized. One cannot think about the paradox of faith. It
remains unintelligible to the person living inside the universal. A
"Faith is therefore no aesthetic
person of faith acts on the strength of the absurd. As a single
individuality, that person then rises above the universal.
emotion, but something far higher."
— Johannes, Preamble from the Heart
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"Abraham's story contains a
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
Symbols 24
teleological suspension of the
merman is a seducer who is overcome by the purity of an
ethical."
either leave her without explaining the reason for his
innocent. Thus he cannot continue to seduce her. He must
abandonment or else marry her and enter into the realm of the
— Johannes, Problema 1
universal. But he is much superior to the superficial person
who lives only in the realm of the aesthetic and the immediacy
of the senses.
Johannes means that in the Abraham story, the normal telos or
end purpose of the ethical, which is for a person to unite
The merman is initially demonic, living outside of the universal
themselves in the universal, no longer exists. Once Abraham
as a transgressor. But he has a higher understanding of life
steps outside the ethical by deciding to obey God's command,
and the possibility of redemption. He can become a knight of
he has suspended the ethical. Only by putting the will of God
infinite resignation and even a knight of faith.
above the will of the universal does Abraham become a knight
of faith.
"[Abraham] makes the infinite
"The step of [the] tragic hero goes
movement of resignation and gives
like a dance compared with the
up ... Isaac ... but then ... makes ...
slow ... progress of the knight of
the movement of faith."
faith."
— Johannes, Problema 2
— Johannes, Problema 3
Abraham as a knight of faith shows how a double movement
makes him what he is. First Abraham must become a knight of
In Johannes's view the knight of faith has a much tougher time
infinite resignation. He realizes he cannot have Isaac, the
than the tragic hero. While the tragic hero may have to
beloved child of his old age, because God has demanded his
sacrifice something much beloved for the good of the
sacrifice. But then he makes a second movement by taking a
universal—for example, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter,
leap of faith, believing Isaac will be restored to him. In taking
Iphigenia, to appease an angry god—the tragic hero is always
the leap of faith, he steps outside the universal and transcends
working within the realm of the universal. Agamemnon's
it.
actions can be understood and will not be condemned.
On the other hand, the knight of faith walks a solitary path and
is understood by no one. Oftentimes, the actions of the knight
of faith can appear monstrous to them.
l Symbols
"In a sense there dwells infinitely
The Knight of Infinite
more good in a demonic than in a
Resignation
superficial person."
— Johannes, Problema 3
The knight of infinite resignation symbolizes the person who
turns their back on the finite world in favor of the infinite. They
have risked everything on one burning desire. When the knight
Johannes here is discussing the actions of the merman. The
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does not get their desire, they resign themselves to their loss.
Fear and Trembling Study Guide
They do not push away the pain of the memory of the loss but
rather transcend it by turning the particularity of their desire
Glossary 25
m Glossary
into a desire for God or the infinite. The knight's longing
becomes entirely inward, and now their love cannot be
Absolute God or the divinity. In his use of the term "Absolute,"
snatched away from them. Either a man or a woman can be a
Kierkegaard is playing off (but not agreeing with) Hegel's term
knight of infinite resignation. While a tragic hero is not
"Absolute Mind," which is an undistorted, rational view of the
synonymous with a knight, the tragic hero often goes through
truth that can be reached only through the intellect.
the movement of infinite resignation in uniting with the
universal. Resignation is the first step on the path to becoming
absolute duty the duty to God, which may not be qualified nor
a knight of faith.
changed in any way. Abraham achieved this, which means that
in the realm of faith his relationship is not mediated in any way
by outside forces or societal ethics.
The Knight of Faith
absurd a break from rational laws. The absurd is an event that
cannot be rationally explained nor justified but rather
transcends human or intelligible (understandable) possibility.
The knight of faith symbolizes the person living in the highest
aesthetic sphere the first and lowest of the three "spheres" in
sphere of consciousness or the sphere of the religious. The
Kierkegaard's dialectical stages of existence. The aesthetic is
knight of faith looks like an ordinary person and is not easy to
a personal, sensory experience, which can range from
spot. The knight is similar to the person who lives in the
fulfillment of bodily desires or lusts to the deep appreciation of
aesthetic, in that they enjoy the finitude of the world. But this
art.
knight has made a double movement—first becoming a knight
of infinite resignation and then making the leap of faith into the
absurd, in which that person believes they will gain back all that
has been lost. Abraham is the knight of faith par excellence,
but in Kierkegaard's philosophy, even if the knight does not at
first get back what they have lost (as does Abraham), they
continue to believe that they will get it back.
dread anxiety or terror, from the Danish word "angst." Dread is
an amorphous fear that people feel, especially when they
become aware of their freedom to choose their own fate.
dialectic from Hegelian philosophy, the process by which a
thesis and antithesis (a thing or idea and its opposite) resolve
themselves into a synthesis. In Hegel's view history is a
continuous, dialectical movement, in which each synthesis
moves the world toward a better, ideal state.
The Butterfly and the
Caterpillar
ethical sphere the second of the three "spheres" in
Kierkegaard's dialectical stages of existence. The ethical is the
expression of the universal and includes actions that take
place in the public realm.
The narrator Johannes uses the symbolism of the butterfly and
the caterpillar to explain the knight of infinite resignation. The
knight who transmutes his or her suffering into something
higher than a particular desire sheds the body of a caterpillar
incommensurability the absence of a unit to measure two
different entities. Sometimes Kierkegaard employs the term to
mean two entities that are not strictly comparable—for
example, the love of God and everyday reality.
to become a butterfly. But unlike the caterpillar, the knight of
individual the single individual, as opposed to the universal. An
resignation remembers his earlier stage—the chrysalis stage.
individual expresses themselves either in the aesthetic sphere
The pain of being a caterpillar remains, and the knight uses the
(living for their pleasure) or in the religious sphere (living for
memory of pain to maintain the higher state of consciousness
God)—but not in the ethical sphere, where the individual melds
that is resignation.
into the universal, sacrificing what is personal.
leap of faith absurd movement into faith. A leap of faith is a
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Fear and Trembling Study Guide
personal choice to believe something that cannot be worked
out or understood with the rational mind.
mediation the process by which the dialectic resolves the
thesis and its opposite into a synthesis. Mediation takes place
in the realm of the rational, the ethical, and the universal, but
there is no mediation in the realm of faith and religion.
paradox a contradiction that upon closer inspection yields
truth. The religious paradox is that the individual is higher than
the universal, the finite is higher than the infinite, and a leap of
faith takes place when a person embraces the absurd.
particular the individual who rises above, or steps outside, the
universal. A person expressing the particular can be demonic,
as is the merman before he repents, or religious, like Abraham.
telos the final goal of any action. Kierkegaard maintains that
Hegel's telos of ethics is rightly suspended when a person of
faith steps outside the universal to fulfill an absolute duty to
God.
temptation the allure of what is wrong or forbidden.
Kierkegaard sometimes uses the word temptation as
synonymous with God's test of Abraham's faith.
universal the opposite of the individual. Whereas Hegel
believed the universal to be the highest good, Kierkegaard has
the knight of faith rise above the universal into the religious
sphere.
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Glossary 26
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