Book Summaries Philosophy

Fear and Trembling Summary

Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who was a controversial figure, his work was unpopular during his lifetimes, and in no small part, this was due to his criticism of the Danish church for pushing a diluted form of Christianity and his rejection of widely accepted ideas.

Appreciation for his writing appeared with the birth of Existentialism, as he is considered the father of this philosophical tradition.

There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word, but how many did it render sleepless?

A peculiarity of Kierkegaard is that he writes with pseudonyms, and under the pseudonym ‘Johannes de Silencio’ (John the Silent), he provides a commentary on the story of Abraham from the Bible, a story that is highly regarded and accepted by all the monotheistic traditions.

In this story, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Abraham obeys the will of God, contrary to what society would consider rational, sane, or ethical. But Johannes contends that there is something beyond the rational, that is, higher than the rational and that is faith.

By faith Abraham emigrated from the land of his fathers
and became an alien in the promised land. He left one thing
behind, took one thing along: he left behind his worldly understanding, and he took along his faith.

The Hegelian Dialectic

To understand this, we need to refer to the Hegelian dialectic.

Hegel proposed that over time, philosophy moves closer to the truth, and it does so through a dialectical system – a thesis is presented, and then negated by an antithesis, and then a compromise is reached through a synthesis. This can be represented as a system of three interdependent parts (Abstract, negative, concrete) or (trial, error, experience).

Hegel stated that historical progress is not linear (modern society is superior to past societies in some but not all respects, there is wisdom at every stage), that the job of the historian was to locate this wisdom, and to apply it in the modern world where it is needed.

Progress is messy, we must move (often randomly) between two extremes to make progress. The compromise between these two extremes is a sign of evolution.

For example, a prudent society where sexuality is taboo represents one extreme while a society where sexuality is openly expressed and embraced is on the other extreme – the ideal would be the reconciliation of these extremes.

Now, to go back to Kierkegaard’s argument, the reconciliation of the doubt of Descartes and the faith of the religious person is reason – doubt and faith being two extremes.

But Kierkegaard rejected this idea and he uses the story of Abraham to demonstrate that faith comes from passion and can only be experienced by an individual – it cannot be learned abstractly or philosophically.

Beyond Reason

But Abraham had faith, and therefore he was young, for he
who always hopes for the best grows old and is deceived by
life, and he who is always prepared for the worst grows old
prematurely, but he who has faith—he preserves an eternal

Contrary to Hegel, who considers faith to be a lower function that should be replaced with reason, Kierkegaard argued that faith is beyond reason – he opposed universalism and granted primacy to the individual and not the collective.

There is a practical implication of favoring the universal -Hegel’s ideas were used to build Communism and Nazism.

Subjective Doubt

Another example of Hegelian dialectic is scientific progress, which is possible because people can refer to different points in the past where progress was made and to build on them, without having to go through this process from scratch. Hegel extrapolated from this truth, that doubt, and faith operate in the same way – that there was a moment in time when the doubting was performed (by Descartes) and that we have moved on from that point to something superior.

For Kierkegaard, the notion of discussing doubt in this way is nonsensical, because to understand what it is, you must experience it subjectively, and it is the same with faith. He criticizes the modern sentiment that asserts that doubt is the starting point (before one knows anything unlike Descartes) and that there is a need to move beyond faith, when one has not experienced faith.

Kierkegaard did not think that these steps could be skipped, and that is why the individual is granted more importance than the collective, because truths about doubt and faith can only be achieved by subjective experience and not collective understanding.

Universal Morality

The story of Abraham demonstrates how Abraham, the knight of faith, is misunderstood because he is not a champion of universal morality.

For Hegel, what is good is what is beneficial for all, and not what is good for the individual. In violating the ethical principle or what was universally good (to refuse to kill his son)., Abraham gave precedence to his faith in God, and in this sense demonstrates, how unlike the tragic hero, who resigns everything but is cherished by the community, the knight of faith resigns everything but is given everything back (gets his son back).

And yet, yet the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd.

Kierkegaard insists that faith comes from passion and the difference between the subjective experience of faith and the objective understanding of faith as a philosophical idea can be understood in the contrast between knowing with one’s mind vs knowing with one’s heart. The young person may acknowledge that he will die someday but this is knowledge of the mind, whereas the old person who is experiencing health difficulties knows about his mortality with his heart.

There is a key difference between cheap philosophizing and personal experience, and this is not something that can be reconciled with a rational system.

Fear and Trembling (Penguin Classics)Fear and Trembling Summary 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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