Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death

Being a learner can be a humiliating experience diminishing my sense
of self-worth, yet I starve for the learning experience. For me, teaching
is an even deeper plunge into self-consciousness, yet I feel useless if
I do not teach. Reading thousands of words each day tortures me with the
chaos of countless divergent, screaming voices, slowly killing me with
self-doubt, yet I choose to read. Writing destroys me in a surer, swifter,
more violent way, yet I write thousands of words day and night. My daughters,
in their intelligence, kindness, and determination, are my greatest source
of pride and success, yet in their infrequent displays ignorance, anger,
and resignation, they are my greatest source of shame and failure. Fully
reckoning with George Santayana observation, “By nature's kindly
disposition, most questions which it is beyond a man's power to answer
do not occur to him at all,” I nevertheless seek answers to unanswerable
questions. And I ask them again not because Voltaire said “Judge
a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Or because Thurber
said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the
answers.” I ask precisely because they're unanswerable, as if the
asking itself gives me in my utter futility some advantage for being,
as if standing in ignorance before what is not known is of greater importance
than standing in wisdom before what is.

Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death, two books
by Søren Kierkegaard, begin to offer a grasp of the paradox that
stands between us, in our alternately insightful and pathetic search for
a self-definition, and peace in the midst of a perpetually unsettled world
that we make for ourselves: the paradox that there is no understanding
the paradox. And from being in this inevitable contradiction, Kierkegaard,
the father of existentialism, says that we realize not peace but only
anguish. A peaceful, fulfilled life is not immanent, unless we find it
in the very turmoil of our greatest fears, our most painful inner struggles,
our endless frustrations. From here we find the fundamental precept existentialism:
we are thrust in this world doomed to be free, fully embodying the choices
we make and the reality we create for ourselves.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard examines our confrontation
with our existence through a meditation on Abraham’s duty before
God in sacrificing Isaac. (Most scholars agree that Abraham’s choice
between obeying and disobeying God actually masks Kierkegaard’s own
agonizing decision to reject his betrothed Regine Olsen for the struggles
of a writing career.) Problema III asks, “Was it ethically defensible
of Abraham to conceal his purpose from Sarah, Eleazar, and Isaac?”
The author describes an intense struggle between the aesthetic and the
ethical: "Aesthetics calls for concealment and rewards it. Ethics
calls for disclosure and punishes concealment."[1]

Most remarkable about Kierkegaard’s summation of this problem is
not that he offers a definitive answer to the question he poses (he does
not nor does he try to), but that he actually suggests a common ground
between aesthetics and ethics, a place from which we can view their ceaseless
battles over the human spirit: "Abraham is silent—but he cannot
speak, therein lies the distress and anguish. For if when I speak I cannot
make myself understood, I do not speak even if I keep talking without
stop day and night."[2]

After taking great pains to distinguish between the respectful sentimentality
of aesthetics and the incessant responsibility of ethics, Kierkegaard
reverts to a discussion of how the particular supersedes the universal
in Abraham's case. An earlier passage reverberates: "The single individual
as the particular is higher than the universal and as the particular stands
in an absolute relation to the absolute—or else faith has never existed
because it has existed always; or else Abraham is done for."[3]

The ultimate paradox in this discussion is Kierkegaard’s explanation
of faith. Consider the contrast between “Faith is therefore no aesthetic
emotion but something far higher, exactly because it presupposes resignation,
it is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence”[4]
and “The highest passion is faith.”[5] These
statements eternally bind aesthetics and ethics in a whirlwind encompassing
the mind, the heart, and the soul.

In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard focuses on despair, which
he sees as an unavoidable consequence of existing. This reckoning, he
writes, "is not discouraging, on the contrary it is uplifting, since
it views every man with regard to the highest demand that can be made
of him: to be spirit."[6]

Extending his description of faith in Fear and Trembling to an
even more solid ground, he observes: "The believer possesses the
ever-sure antidote to despair: possibility, since for God everything is
possible at every moment. This is the health of faith which resolves contradictions."[7]
and "the most crucial definition for the whole of Christianity [or
humanity—P.V.]: that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith."[8]
These are the moments that make both works illuminating for us in our
striving for faith and our confrontations with despair.

At times, however, Kierkegaard falls victim to his own religious zeal
with overbearing flights of fervor. He attempts to “go further,”
a term he often uses in both books, but does not succeed when disputing
Socrates’ position on sin. First, he displays a gratuitous arrogance
and an ungratefulness and intolerance for the very civilization that informed
his own philosophy and gave him a means of refuting Hegel’s impersonal
philosophy when he claims “Greek intellectuality was too fortunate,
too naïve, too aesthetic, too ironic, too—too sinful—to
be able to get it into its head that someone would knowingly refrain from
doing the good, or knowing what is right, knowingly do what is wrong."[9]
Second, after describing in too simplistic a manner Socrates’
definition of sin, he asks the question perhaps least troubling to many
a reflective thinker: “Wherein lies the defect?” [10]
He does so to promote his conviction that Christianity goes further in
its understanding of sin, but he overlooks or refuses to address the question
plaguing humanity since the beginning of its existence, a question that
we ask time and again as we read through Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kazantzakis,
Sartre, and other existentialists: “Can we ever reach consensus on
whether sin has been committed?”

Notes

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling,
trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 1985) 113.

[2] Ibid., P. 137.

[3] Ibid., p. 108.

[4] Ibid., p. 76.

[5] Ibid., p. 145.

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death,
trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 1989) 52.

[7] Ibid., p. 70.

[8] Ibid., p. 115.

[9] Ibid., p. 122.

[10] Ibid., p. 125.

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