Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fear and Trembling

Johannes de Silentio - 1843

Positions his work contra the contemporary philosopher, who refuses to stop at faith, but, rather, seeks to go beyond it. Questions what it would even mean to go beyond faith, and compares this hubris to the modesty of Abraham and older thinkers, who thought a whole life barely long enough to attain faith. This book is decidedly not a philosophical work, and the writer is emphatically opposed to any system. “I throw myself down in deepest submission before every systematic ransacker.”

The narrator speaks here of a man who, as he grew older, became less and less capable of understanding Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and became possessed with the desire to witness the event. Four possible depictions of the event follow.

I: After traveling in silence for three days, Abraham reveals the point of the journey to Isaac. Isaac begs for his life, uncomprehending, and, at the last minute, Abraham pretends to be an idolator, so that Isaac would hate his father rather than lose faith in God.

II: They go to the mountain, Isaac is saved, but while Isaac flourishes, Abraham never forgets what God asked of him and remains altered for the rest of his life.

III: Abraham rides out alone and begs God’s forgiveness for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, while simultaneously being totally incapable of understanding why it should be a sin to sacrifice the best to God at his commandment.

IV: The pair rides out; just as he raises the knife, before seeing the animal to sacrifice instead, Abraham’s left hand trembles. Isaac loses faith.

Eulogy on Abraham
The poet rescues the hero from oblivion; it is he who creates the link between generations, and rescues humanity from the despair of total isolation. The greatness of the poet is commensurate with the greatness of his object. And all greatness is great in proportion to the object of love, expectancy, and struggle. Abraham is the greatest of all figures, by virtue o loving God, expecting the impossible, and struggling with God. While it is great to give up a desire, it is greater still to hold to it after giving it up. It is a wonder of faith that it preserved in Abraham and Sarah the youth and capacity to desire a child even in old age.

Preliminary Expectoration
This section tries to put the story of Abraham into perspective, by imagining our reaction if a contemporary, upon hearing it, were moved to sacrifice his own son. Our tendency to whitewash the story, to claim that Abraham was willing to sacrifice “the best,” obscures the horror and contradiction of the story. Faith called the act a sacrifice, while ethics would term it murder. So the question must be faced whether or not faith is higher than ethics, because, if not, Abraham was simply a murderer.

Johannes de Silentio claims to have no faith himself, but asserts that nonetheless it is higher than anything, particularly philosophy, and mocks the idea that Abraham is quite simple to comprehend, while Hegel is difficult.

So what is faith? To “lose one’s understanding by virtue of the finite and win it back again by the virtue of the finite.” Faith requires a double move; it requires that Abraham both believe that God required the sacrifice, while simultaneously believing that God could not demand such a thing from him. “The movement of faith must continually be made by virtue of the absurd, but yet in such a way, please note, that one does not lose the finite but gains it whole and intact” (37).

Knights of infinite resignation exist, who give everything up for the infinite. Infinite resignation is the last moment before faith, but though their steps are “light and bold,” but they are not true knights of faith. The knight of faith - provided he even exists - is completely unrecognizable, but is a perfect mixture of the infinite and finite. He is continually giving up everything and grasping everything again by virtue of the absurd. Everything he does is by virtue of the absurd (40). He looks like a tax collector, he is totally at home in the world, while living totally before God.

Problemata I: the teleological suspension of the ethical
In the world, we consider the ethical to be the universal, and the ethical task of the individual is is to annul the individual into the universal. Faith, however, claims that the individual is higher than the universal by means of the universal.

The text explains the uniqueness of Abraham by way of contrast to the tragic hero. The tragic hero is great because of moral virtue, while Abraham is great because of personal virtue. The tragic hero sacrifices everything for the ethical; Abraham was tempted by the ethical. While the tragic hero is justified by the result, Abraham never can be, because the result, the outward consequences, are irrelevant to faith. Moreover, unlike the tragic hero, Abraham cannot speak, because to speak means to engage in or express the ethical, and faith demands the teleological suspension of the ethical.

Problemata II: Is there an absolute duty to God?
Kierkegaard begins here with what I take to be a polemic again Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. He rejects the idea that religiosity can be reduced to the ethical. to claim that ever duty is a duty to God is to say that we have no specific duty to God. It’s to say that there is nothing incommensurable with human life; radical alterity never intrudes.

Whereas Hegel claims the outer is higher than the inner, the expressed higher than the latent, faith privileges the inner over the outer. The paradox of faith is that interiority is incommensurable with the external.

The man of faith, then, determines his relation to the universal (i.e. ethical) by reference to the absolute; the absolute does not determine his relation to the ethical. This is why the knight of faith cannot make himself understood. So absolute duty can lead to unethical action, but it cannot make Abraham stop loving. This is the difficulty of interpreting the sacrifice. By ethical terms, Abraham was going to commit murder, which is an act of hate. But in terms of faith, Abraham’s sacrifice was really a profound act of love. No one can see this interior state, though, which is what makes faith so terrifying. Abraham lacked the security of the tragic hero, who could give up his self for the universal.

Problemata III: Was it ethically defensible for Abraham to conceal his knowledge?
If Problemata II tried to explain Abraham’s action by way of contrast to the ethical figure, the tragic hero, Problemata III explains it in contrast to the aesthetic figure. Aesthetics has no room for renunciation. two lovers might perhaps renounce each other, but they would get each other back through coincidence. Ethics has no room for coincidence. Aesthetics demands hiddenness - in this case, that the lovers hide their passion - and rewards it. Ethics demands full disclosure and punishes hiddenness. Ethics demands the Agamemnon tell Iphigenia the truth. The aesthetic hero can speak, but will not; the ethical hero must speak; the man of faith cannot speak.

That Abraham did not tell his family of his deed proves it was not ethical. Even Abraham’s last response, that God will provide the lamb, is a form of speech which does not disclose anything. He speaks ironically. To say he knows nothing would be to lie, to say the truth would be impossible, thus, the only option is to speak without saying anything.

Each generation begins primitively. No generation, for example, learns to love from the previous one. Faith is like love, it is love. It is the highest passion, which we may never reach, much less go beyond.

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