After thirteen laborious days, I can finally cross another book off of my list. Soren Kierkegaard is one of those writers whom I have always intended to read at some point, but had never quite managed to tackle. Thanks to a fortuitous find at the Half Price Books Labor Day sale, that has changed. Fear and Trembling is Kierkegaard’s consideration of the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Despite its small size (only 150 pages), this book requires a tremendous amount of concentration and mental effort. That effort was definitely well worth it.
Fear and Trembling is divided into several sections. The first is a preface from Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de silentio. This is followed by an exordium and a Speech in Praise of Abraham. Finally, there is a section of Problemata in which Kierkegaard presents three major questions: Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?; Is there an absolute duty to God?; and Was it ethically defensible of Abraham to conceal his purpose from Sarah, from Eleazar, and from Isaac? The first half of the book, consisting mainly of the speech in praise of Abraham, is relatively straightforward and contains some wonderful examples of Kierkegaard’s literary talent. The meat of the book, however, lies in the Problemata. This is where the reading gets rather dense at times, and many sections require multiple reads to become intelligible. Kierkegaard is writing in a dialectical style based on Hegel’s philosophy, which means that he uses several terms in a very specialized manner. Once you clear that hurdle, the arguments become more clear and Kierkegaard’s genius becomes more dazzling.
Kierkegaard’s explanation of what it means to have faith, based on Abraham’s example, is truly remarkable. What many people take for granted as the first step necessary in becoming a believer of any religion, Kierkegaard identifies as an ultimate goal reached by precious few. What Abraham demonstrates is a willingness to go beyond the bounds of normal ethics due to a divine command that cannot be made understandable to any other person. In order to have faith, Abraham was forced to separate himself from and be placed in opposition to humanity and its moral code. What made Abraham’s act most remarkable was not merely his willingness to obey the command, but the absolute belief that somehow he would not lose Isaac despite sacrificing him. Kierkegaard makes it clear that Abraham did not think that he would not ultimately be made to sacrifice Isaac, but that despite killing his son, that son would somehow be restored to him. The willingness to believe that on the strength of the absurd is, according to Kierkegaard, the mark of faith.
This is not a book that can be summed up in one short blog post. It is laden with profundity to an incredible degree, and is not an easy read. It is, however, extremely rewarding. Rather than try to summarize further, I will simply say that any person interested in the nature of faith or the relationship between individual faith and universal morality needs to read this book.
The Current Count:
56 Read, 44 To Go