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?”


[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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