Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard: A book review
Soren Kierkegaard was nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and Christian author.
In 1843, he wrote Fear and Trembling, an examination of the New Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. For those who don’t know, the story goes that Abraham and his wife Sarah were blessed to have their only child, a son, at the age of seventy. Abraham loved this son very much, and this love was compounded by the fact that he and his wife spent most of their lives thinking that they would never have the opportunity to raise a child. One day, God tests Abraham’s faith by telling him that he expects him to take Isaac up to Mount Moriah, kill him, and burn him as a sacrifice to God. Abraham doesn’t hesitate. He saddles up his donkeys, and makes the trip with Isaac and a couple of his hired hands at dawn the next morning. Once they reach the base of the mountain, Abraham and Isaac head up to the spot God intended and Abraham proceeds to tie up his son. Right when he pulls out the knife to do the deed, God stops him, ostensibly satisfied that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for the God that he believed in. So Abraham did not have to sacrifice his son after all.
Kierkegaard was in awe of Abraham and he wanted to examine what makes a man like that tick, so in the book, he compartmentalizes the different modes of human expression as he sees them. Thus, he puts people into three categories of expressing their humanity: aesthetic, ethical, and religious.
The aesthetic person is a shallow one. This person is most interested in being entertained. Boredom is the mortal enemy of the aesthetic-minded person. The person is self-centered, probably doesn’t have very much in the way of positive personal relationships (as these usually require some reciprocation, which the aesthetic-minded person would find difficult), and probably isn’t functioning with much of a moral code.
The ethical person is one who has adopted a moral code and follows it. This person follows the laws of the land and is, by all accounts, a better citizen than that of the aesthetic person, although he still doesn’t have the faith of Abraham.
The religious person has made a great leap, and is guided by faith. According to Kierkegaard, very few people will achieve this and we’re not talking about the kind of faith that leads a person to simply say that they have faith. This is the kind of faith that requires proof.
In Abraham’s case, he had such faith in what he believed in that he was willing to sacrifice that which was of ultimate importance to him because God told him to do so. Well, at least, that’s one way of looking at it, Kierkegaard argues. The religious expression of Abraham’s faith was that he was willing to sacrifice his only son for his belief in God (one could even argue, by extension, that he had faith that God would never make him go through with it).
But the ethical expression of what Abraham was going to do was that he was willing to murder his own son, and murder is wrong, as God Himself decreed.
It’s impossible for an ethically-minded person to imagine killing their own child. As Kierkegaard puts it, this creates a paradox. On the one hand, a person should do what God tells him to do and having that much faith in God makes Abraham’s faith stronger than that of most. But on the other hand, he was willing to murder his own son, and that’s really bad.
I wish I could relay that Kierkegaard solved the paradox, but that’s not really the point, and I’m not sure this is a paradox that’s going to be solved any time soon. Personally, I’d like to think that Abraham’s faith in God led him to do what God asked and that his faith also led him to believe that he would never have to actually go through with the sacrifice.
Unfortunately, Abraham was unavailable for comment.
Read the book if you are interested in philosophy, existentialism, and/or Christianity.