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Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard
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Fear and Trembling (1843)

by Søren Kierkegaard

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I'm glad I read Hegel before this; it's not clear to me that Kierkegaard would be plausible, interesting or worthwhile before reading his incomprehensible predecessor. F&T, unlike Hegel, is fairly short, pursues a single idea in a consistent (consistently inconsistent?) manner, doesn't claim to have proved anything other than a disjunction (Abraham is meaningless or universal Sittlichkeit is not the highest moment of human history) and is quite readable. That's all for the good. The bad news is that if you don't care whether or not the story of Abraham is meaningless, you probably won't care about the argument in this book. I happen to care about it and think it's important. And there's an argument to be made that non Judaeo-Christo-Muslims in general should find it important: at some point, we do have to believe in some over-arching, bedrock x, even if that happens to be the impossibility of an over-arching, bedrock x. Either that belief is meaningless, or perfectly reflective rationality is not the highest moment of human history... well, I'm not convinced about that. Also, the third 'problema' is really long-winded and nowhere near as interesting as the earlier parts of the book. But whatever. It's short. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
What was it that made Abraham's "test" such a remarkable event? We are already aware of the great faith that Abraham exhibited through his trust in God's promise (before the birth of Isaac) that his seed would produce a great nation despite his advanced age and his wife's barrenness. His "test" wasn't in obeying God's order to sacrifice his beloved son, no matter how difficult or distasteful, nor was it in believing that God would not ask him to commit an "unethical" act such as murder, nor even in what must have been the agonous eternity of those three days riding on an ass with Isaac to the place of slaughter. The heroic aspect exhibited by Abraham on the slopes of Moriah, according to Kierkegaard, was that his faith transcended understanding and rose above the rational to enter into the "absurd." The paradox of God's request required Abraham to believe that God's promise of a future nation founded upon his seed (Isaac) would still exist untainted even while God demanded he offer that very seed in sacrifice; that God would give him the happiness of "having" his son while also taking him away, not in hoping that God would change his mind at the last minute. Kierkegaard imagines Abraham's anxiety as he raised the blade over his son and it was the overcoming of this "Fear and Trembling" that made Abraham a true hero and a "knight of faith."

"So either there is a paradox... or Abraham is done for."

I've read snippets of Kierkegaard over the years but this is the first complete work I've tackled. I'm glad I did. It's a thoughtful insight by a thoughtful man trying to make sense of the insensible. While I have separate issues with Kierkegaard's version of Christianity (Lutheranism), it's a pity to me the twisted turns that later men and women took with his ideas in the ensuing madness of atheistic existentialism and absurdism later exemplified by the likes of Camus and Sartre.
( )
  cjyurkanin | May 22, 2013 |
Over the Abyss

This book reminded me of a close call I had many years ago. It was on a sunny Saturday. I was cruising on the highway, enjoying the scenery, music playing in the background, and a gentle breeze in my face. All of a sudden, a spider started crawling across the steering wheel. I tried to gently wipe it off, but lost control of the wheel. My car swerved and flew off the edge of the highway! I remember vividly, at the very moment when the car went over the edge, I thought to myself, "Wonder how deep is this abyss I'm falling into."

Faith, the subject of this book, in a sense to me, is like stepping over the abyss and expecting to fly.

Many people are familiar with the painting by Michelangelo, "The Creation of Adam", in which the hand of Adam reaching out almost touching the outstretched finger of God. Imagine in your mind's eye that the right half of the painting is missing, i.e., if God were not in the picture, Adam would be staring and groping into the Abyss.

Contemplating Abraham's Faith

"By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, 'In Isaac your seed shall be called,' concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense." Hebrews 11:17-19

I've read the biblical story of Abraham in Genesis 22 many times, and memorized the definition of "faith" in Hebrews 11. I thought I understood Abraham, that he was a friend of God and the father of faith, the same faith that I possess, albeit to a much smaller measure.

Kierkegaard showed me how little I knew Abraham and the true nature of faith. Abraham sacrificing his beloved son Isaac to God, is not unlike throwing Isaac into the abyss. Was he a murderer, a madman or a saint? We understand and admire the tragic heroes, who sacrifice their own lives and their loved ones for a higher and just cause. But who would understand Abraham if he killed his own son for no apparent justifiable purpose? How could he even know what he was doing was right when the ethics of society plainly condemned murder?

Abraham Gave Up His All

If Abraham had not loved Isaac, sacrificing Isaac would have been a selfish act. But Isaac was his only son, one born in his old age by the promise of God. He loved Isaac more than his own life. All his passions, hopes and the future of the entire race were bound up in Isaac. To give him up was to give up all.

One can not understand Abraham unless he too has an all-consuming, undying passion in his own life, and is deprived of the object of his passion either of his own volition or by the circumstances.

Abraham Was Damned to Isolation

Kierkegaard proclaims, "Isn't it true that those who God blesses He damns in the same breath?" The Scripture confirms, "For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God", and vice versa.

Virgin Mary was blessed by God, and yet despised by the people, for she bore the Child miraculously; Abraham was a friend of God, and yet what he intended to do was condemned by society. He could not explain nor justify his apparently unethical action, for he believed the impossible, the absurd, and therefore was isolated from society.

There is no safety net, i.e., the support and sympathy of other people, underneath him as he stepped over the abyss. He could not fall back and take comfort in the strength of the multitude. He believed in God alone, in his own conviction of what God asked of him; He walked and bore his burden alone.

Abraham Was Elevated as an Individual Above Universal

"Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Not because of his philanthropic or heroic deeds, but because of his own faith. However, he would have been regarded as demon-possessed if he had killed Isaac. Therein lies the paradox.

Many individuals isolated themselves from and elevated themselves above the Universal, being led stray by demonic passions and pride, some thinking that "he offers God service", and they perished in the Abyss. Could he have been one of them?

It's unfathomable what is contained in these three words, "Abraham believed God". And yet paradoxically, it is also very simple, all he (and any of us) had to do was to take the step, the leap of faith.

Kierkegaard's Passion

Kierkegaard was known for his keen intellect, and I find his wit and pithy style very refreshing among philosophical writings. He gave a thorough, insightful analysis of Abraham, describing the doubt, the fear, the distress and the agony he must have gone through, and demonstrating how his faith is similar and yet different from all the other historical, mythical and fictional figures we're familiar with, such as Agamemnon, Socrates, Richard III and Faust.

Halfway through the book, however, it dawned on me that Kierkegaard was not only writing a philosophical or psychological treatise, but a love letter not addressed to the beloved. He could relate to Abraham and understand him in part, because he shared the same passion. He too dedicated himself to the love of God and gave up the love of his life, his fiance Regine. In describing the agonies of Abraham, he was also relating his own struggles with faith and sacrificed love.

Anyone with a spark of passion in his soul would see his own reflection in this book.
( )
  booksontrial | Jan 4, 2013 |
Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling is an analysis of the Biblical situation in which Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his long awaited son Isaac. Furthermore, he had already been promised by God that his descendents will populate the earth, and is too old to reasonably expect another. Abraham, obedient to God, takes his son up to the appointed mountain, and on the verge of committing the sacrifice is spared by God of his task, and a Ram appears which is sacrificed instead. Kierkegaard discusses the various reactions to the scenario that Abraham could have chosen, his possible thoughts, and then goes on to examine various implications of the story.
The main themes of the book are faith, ethics, “the universal”, paradox, and the absurd. Like some of his other books, he published it under a pseudonym. Though it is much shorter than either volume of his Either/Or, it is in places much more difficult to understand. It isn't obvious what he means by “the universal”, or “absolute”, though there seems to be some similarity to what Plotinus described as “the One”.
This book will probably not be as interesting to the general readership as Kierkegaard's Either/Or for several reasons. Firstly, it is not written in as entertaining a style, secondly, the subject matter is religious and not of quite a general philosophical interest, and thirdly, the book is just harder work.
Nevertheless, this book still deals with big questions, and Kierkegaard does have a good style and is an interesting author to read. ( )
  P_S_Patrick | Nov 19, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Søren Kierkegaardprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Evan, C. StephenEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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What Tarquin the Proud said in his garden with the poppy blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger. -- Hamann
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140444491, Paperback)


The perfect books for the true book lover, Penguin's Great Ideas series features twelve more groundbreaking works by some of history's most prodigious thinkers. Each volume is beautifully packaged with a unique type-driven design that highlights the bookmaker's art. Offering great literature in great packages at great prices, this series is ideal for those readers who want to explore and savor the Great Ideas that have shaped our world. Regarded as the father of Existentialism, Kierkegaard transformed philosophy with his conviction that we must all create our own nature; in this great work of religious anxiety, he argues that a true understanding of God can only be attained by making a personal "leap of faith."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:41 -0400)

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Editions: 0140444491, 0141023937

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