Fear & Trembling

Fear & Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard is one of my favourite books of all time. I first read it when I was seventeen, trying to decide what to do with my life, and have re-read it repeatedly over the years.

I read it again last week. As always, it was excellent. As always, I took a notebook with me and wrote down the bits that I thought were particularly interesting.

The book focuses on the Biblical story of Abraham journeying to Mount Moriah at God’s instruction to sacrifice his son Isaac: the son God gave him in order for the continuation of his line to be ensured. Kierkegaard (originally writing under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio) presents a treatment of this story, looking at the meaning of faith as implied by Abraham. He hones in on the idea of faith being separate from ethics, this latter being by definition “universal”, and faith being an action or belief that requires a movement beyond the universal, into the absolute.

I didn’t explain that well. Kierkegaard does it better. Anyway, the passages I found interesting this time round:

Certainly [Abraham] was surprised by the outcome, but by means of a double movement he had come back to his original position and therefore received Isaac more joyfully than the first time.

We see the notion of circularity pop up time and again in religion and in day to day life. Folk tales of yesteryear consistently bring up the idea of death and rebirth, usually moving with the seasons: autumn “killing off” the life that has been thriving throughout summer, the cold dead period of winter, and the joy of spring when new life is reborn. Countless religious rituals and social stories highlight the importance of this circularity.

The Abraham story is similar in many respects, taking the idea of a death and rebirth without Isaac actually being killed. Abraham’s faith that God would somehow resolve the situation did not stop him from feeling anguish that Isaac had to be sacrificed. And when his son was symbolically brought back to life by means of the replacement ram God provided so that the sacrifice was no longer needed, Abraham’s joy equalled that of the day when his son was first born.

The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which can be put from another point of view by saying that it applies at every moment.

I found this interesting. It’s on my list of things to think about further: can the ethical apply at every moment? I always seem to be the person who finds the exception to the rule in most situations (often I am the exception to the rule), and am intrigued at the thought of something that is universally applicable in the literal sense. Is that even possible, I wonder? Food for thought.

Faith… is this paradox, that interiority is higher than exteriority, or to recall again an expression we used above, that the odd number is higher than the even.

I’ll be honest: I mainly liked this because I have a slightly strange obsession with odd numbers. Kierkegaard harks back to Pythagoras’ belief that odd numbers are more ‘perfect’ than even ones. This makes me happy. Go figure.

Then faith’s paradox is this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual… determines his relation to the universal through his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute through his relation to the universal.

Faith is this paradox, and the single individual is quite unable to make himself intelligible to anyone.

The ethical is as such the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed.


Repentance is the highest ethical expression but for that very reason the most profound ethical self-contradiction.


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