D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Second Period: Indirect Communication (1843-46)

Fear And Trembling

  • Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric
  • Frygt og Bæven: Dialectisk Lyrik
  • Johannes de Silentio
  • 1843
  • KW6, SKS4, SV3

This is a deeply personal work which exists semantically on two distinct planes. Ostensibly it is about the "teleological suspension of the ethical", that is, the suspension of the moral law for the sake of a higher law. Kierkegaard cites Genesis, where Abraham is commanded by God to kill his son Isaac. Although God must be obeyed, murder is immoral (it is not technically against the Mosaic law since it had not yet been delivered—but no matter, it is against our conscience). The ethical is thus suspended for a higher goal (telos).

On another level, this work is about his failed engagement to Regine Olsen. He is Abraham and she is Isaac, whom he must sacrifice, that is, divorce himself from, since he deems himself unfit for her—although some commentators reverse their roles. The personal aspect of Kierkegaard's writings is sometimes seen as a shortcoming. The fact that a work can exist on more than level is simply part of the author's genius.

As Either/Or is concerned with the esthetic and the ethical, Fear and Trembling is concerned with the ethical and the religious. Kierkegaard attempted to undermine uncritical repose in the ethical, but has sometimes been interpreted as paving the way to nihilism. It is not necessary, however, to take this position.

Kierkegaard begins with a quote from Hamann.

What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not (p. 3).

H. Hong provides background for this quote.

When the son of Tarquinius Superbus had craftily gotten Gabii in his power, he sent a messenger to his father asking what he should do with the city. Tarquinius, not trusting the messenger, gave no reply but took him into the garden, where with his cane he cut off the flowers of the tallest poppies. The son understood from this that he should eliminate the leading men of the city. See Valerius Maximus.... A similar story about Periander is found in Aristotle.... The epigraph is discussed by G. E. Lessing... (p. 339).

The manifest content of the act of cutting poppies, that is, the felling of one's enemies, is not of consequence here. Kierkegaard's emphasis would seem to be that an act can have an entirely different meaning for someone who is privy to special knowledge. The son understood because of his special relationship to his father. Similarly, the man of faith will see the same data that a regular man will see, but he will see something else there, because of his faith. To a "normal" person, Abraham attempts murder. Through the eyes of faith, he is obeying God. The father-son relationship is significant too.


In the preface the pseudonym Johannes informs the reader of his place as a writer.

The present author is by no means a philosopher. He has not understood the system, whether there is one, whether it is completed; it is already enough for his weak head to ponder what a prodigious head everyone must have these days when everyone has such a prodigious idea. Even if someone were able to transpose the whole content of faith into conceptual form, it does not follow that he has comprehended faith, comprehended how he entered into it or how it entered into him. The present author is by no means a philosopher. He is poetice et eleganter [poetically and with discrimination] a supplementary clerk who neither writes the system nor gives promises of the system, who neither exhausts himself on the system nor binds himself to the system. He writes because it is to him a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes (p. 7).

The "system" refers to Hegel's system of philosophy which sought to explain all phenomena and philosophy, including the religious. Kierkegaard thought such a task ridiculous as well as logically impossible, since the philosopher lives within the system he is seemingly evaluating from the outside. While Kierkegaard considered himself to be a poet, and indeed while Johannes avers he is no philosopher, elsewhere he says "I am not a poet, and I go at things only dialectically" (p. 90). The subtitle of the work is "Dialectical Lyric". Kierkegaard's pseudonym alternately claims to be a dialectician and a poet (writer of lyric). Johannes muses on the nature of the poet's task.

The poet or orator can do nothing that the hero does; he can only admire, love, and delight in him. Yet he, too, is happy—no less than that one is, for the hero is, so to speak, his better nature, with which he is enamored—yet happy that the other is not himself, that his love can be admiration. He is recollection's genius (p. 15).

As to the statement that it is pleasant "the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes", it is true that Kierkegaard's works did not sell well. Indeed they were published at his own expense. It was not until 1849 that a work of his, in this case Either/Or, appeared in a second edition.


The exordium consists of four different and fantastic versions of the story of Abraham's ascent to the mount to sacrifice his son. Each emphasizes an alternative viewpoint that illuminates the text. But first the exordium begins by telling how a man (probably Kierkegaard) heard the story of Abraham as a child, and how he often returned to this story as he grew to be a man.

That man was not a thinker. He did not feel any need to go beyond faith; he thought that it must be supremely glorious to be remembered as its father, an enviable destiny to possess it, even if no one knew it.

That man was not an exegetical scholar. He did not know Hebrew; if he had known Hebrew, he perhaps would easily have understood the story of Abraham (p. 9).

Note again that Johannes declines to be known as a scholar or thinker of any proportion. We must not, however, woodenly attribute Johannes' thoughts to Kierkegaard. While he claimed not to know Hebrew, Kierkegaard did, as has been determined from his personal library.

In the first version of the Genesis account, Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham speaks.

"Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think it is God's command, no it is my desire...." But Abraham said softly to himself, "Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me to be a monster than that he should lose faith in you" (p. 10f.).

Editors have seen here the relationship of Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, his once betrothed. In fact, when Kierkegaard soon determined his unsuitability as a husband, he got the notion to convince Regine that he was a scoundrel, lest she enter into such a relationship. By this interpretation, he considered himself to be Abraham and her to be Isaac. He needed to sever the relationship by painting himself with black strokes, all in order to preserve her.

In version two of the Genesis account, Abraham sacrifices the ram, and thus preserves Isaac.

From that day henceforth, Abraham was old; he could not forget that God had ordered him to do this. Isaac flourished as before, but Abraham's eyes were darkened, and he saw joy no more (p. 12).

In version three, Abraham goes alone, and throws himself on the ground, begging God to forgive him for having contemplated sacrificing Isaac, and for forgetting his ethical duty. In version four, Abraham cannot bring himself to slay Isaac, and they walk home together. Isaac loses faith because of this. The exordium closes with Johannes saying, "No one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him?" (p. 14)

At the end of each version of the Biblical account, Kierkegaard adds a short addendum about a child, presumably the child that Johannes was when he first heard the Genesis account. Here is the first addendum.

When the child is to be weaned, the mother blackens her breast. It would be hard to have the breast look inviting when the child must not have it. So the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother—she is still the same, her gaze is tender and loving as ever. How fortunate the one who did not need more terrible means to wean the child! (p. 11)

This would appear to guide the entire work. The child (the reader) needs to grow into the religious mindset capable of understanding the Genesis account. Just as Johannes is the child who first heard the story of Abraham, perhaps Kierkegaard himself is the mother who must blacken her breast, so that the reader can understand. For this task he will have to be a poet who speaks dialectically. Again, Kierkegaard may have the rejection of Regine Olsen in mind.

Eulogy on Abraham

Kierkegaard describes the faith of Abraham, the extreme nature of his willingness to follow God in the face of testing. Abraham was promised a son, but had to wait decades for the realization of that promise. Now God would command Abraham to sacrifice that very son. Yet Abraham believed in God.

All was lost! Seventy years of trusting expectancy, the brief joy over the fulfillment of faith.... Is there no sympathy for this venerable old man, none for the innocent child? And yet Abraham was God's chosen one, and it was the Lord who imposed the ordeal. Now everything would be lost!... But Abraham had faith and did not doubt; he believed the preposterous. If Abraham had doubted, then he would have done something else, something great and glorious, for how could Abraham do anything else but what is great and glorious! He would have gone to Mount Moriah, he would have split the firewood, drawn the knife. He would have cried out to God, "Reject not this sacrifice; it is not the best that I have, that I know very well, for what is an old man compared with the child of promise, but it is the best I can give you. Let Isaac never find this out so that he may take comfort in his youth." He would have thrust the knife into his own breast. He would have been admired in the world, and his name would never be forgotten; but it is one thing to be admired and another to become a guiding star that saves the anguished. (p. 20f.).

Hong points out that Kierkegaard emphasizes that Abraham waited 70 years for the child of promise, and that he was 100 years old. This means that Isaac, according to this reckoning, was 30 years old when he was to be sacrificed—the very age Kierkegaard was when he wrote this work.


The main body of the work is entitled Problemata, and is divided into four sections, a Preliminary Expectoration and Problema I-III. "Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?", "Is there an Absolute Duty to God?", and "Was it Ethically Defensible for Abraham to Conceal His Undertaking from Sarah, from Eliezer, and from Isaac?"

Preliminary Expectoration

Expectoration, as H. Hong notes, comes from the Latin ex + pectus, -oris, meaning "out of (or from) the breast (heart)". Kierkegaard presents the situation from both the ethical and religious viewpoints.

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is (p. 30).

Kierkegaard proffers his well-known "Knight of Faith" versus the "Knight of Infinite Resignation". Resignation is an act of the will, not helpless abdication. The Knight of Infinite Resignation is no coward. He is a man committed by a volitive act to perform some deed or adhere to some ethical code. The Knight of Faith is a man who is also brave, but in a different way. He adheres by faith to some impossible (absurd) telos [end, goal]. It is here in Fear and Trembling that Kierkegaard introduces his concept of "faith by virtue of the absurd". Abraham is not only a man of resignation (resolve), but is the father of faith, the supreme example of faith against the absurd. God had promised him a son. He had to wait decades for that son (Isaac) to be born in the face of Sarah's doubt. Then God commands Abraham to sacrifice this long-awaited son. Somehow, Abraham had the faith to obey God, knowing that God would deliver his son. In later works Kierkegaard would advance the concept of the paradoxical (Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript), and the dichotomy of faith versus offence (Practice In Christianity).

The knights of the infinite resignation are easily recognizable—their walk is light and bold. But they who carry the treasure of faith are likely to disappoint, for externally they have a striking resemblance to bourgeois philistinism, while infinite resignation, like faith, deeply disdains (p. 38).

Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.... Precisely because resignation is antecedent, faith is no esthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence (p. 46f.).

Johannes de Silentio does not, however, denigrate resignation. But as important as resignation is, faith is infinitely more important. It is entirely underrated. Faith is a precious and rare commodity. "The act of resignation does not require faith" (p. 48). Resignation is entirely an act of one's own volition. However, "By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac" (p. 49). Resignation, a volitive act of brave resolve, was the force behind Isaac's sacrifice. The act of faith was Abraham's full expectation that God would return Isaac to him intact.

In order to perceive the prodigious paradox of faith, a paradox that makes a murder into a holy and God-pleasing act, a paradox that gives Isaac back to Abraham again, which no thought can grasp, because faith begins precisely where thought stops—in order to perceive this, it is now my intention to draw out in the form of problemata the dialectical aspects implicit in the story of Abraham (p. 53).

However, Kierkegaard's pseudonym reminds us that he himself is no Knight of Faith.

I cannot make the movement of faith, I cannot shut my eyes and plunge confidently into the absurd.... Be it a duty or whatever, I cannot make the final movement, the paradoxical movement of faith, although there is nothing I wish more. (p. 34, 51).

Johannes Climacus makes a similar assertion in the Postscript (p. 617), that he has not reached the Religious stage.

Problema I: Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?

In Problema I Kierkegaard begins by stating that in Christianity the single individual is higher than the universal, which is the ethical, and is related directly to the absolute. The ethical applies to humanity as a whole; it is universal. However, man is related to the absolute (God) as a single individual and answerable to Him. Just as the absolute is above the universal (the ethical), so is the individual in relation to the absolute above the universal.

Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but superior—yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought. And yet faith is this paradox... (p. 55f.).

The individual is related to the absolute, in that a man such as Abraham, "the father of faith", is in relation with the deity by the paradox of faith, whereas the ethical, which is impersonal, is inferior to the individual. For Kierkegaard, the ethical is related to the future, in that it must be adhered to perpetually (see Repetition). In Fear and Trembling, he is concerned with the interaction of the single individual vis-à-vis the ethical and the religious. Concerning the ethical, Abraham's duty to Isaac is fatherly love. The individual is higher than this universal, and thus concerning the religious, man's duty is related to the absolute, that is, to God, who posited the ethical. From all of this Kierkegaard draws a startling conclusion: When God commanded Abraham to slay his son, the ethical actually became a temptation for him. Abraham could have yielded to the ethical without engaging his thought, will or his heart. But man cannot servilely obey the universal when the absolute contravenes it.

Kierkegaard compares the tragic hero, in this case Agamemnon, with Abraham.

The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is very obvious. The tragic hero is still within the ethical. He allows an expression of the ethical to have its telos [end, goal] in a higher expression of the ethical; he scales down the ethical relation between father and son or daughter and father to a feeling that has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of moral conduct. Here there can be no teleological suspension of the ethical itself.

Abraham's act is different. By his act he transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher telos outside it, in relation to which he suspended it.... It is not to save a nation, not to uphold the idea of a state that Abraham does it; it is not to appease the angry gods.... Therefore, while the tragic hero is great because of his moral virtue, Abraham is great because of a purely personal virtue (p. 59).

Agamemnon balances two ethical demands. The first is his duty to his country, for he needs to set sail. The second is his duty to his daughter. For Agamemnon, the capricious gods—who often display wanton and culpable behavior—have not commanded him to sacrifice his daughter, but have told him the only means of gaining favorable winds. He is free to decide as he chooses, though either choice will result in serious loss. The crux of the dilemma for Agamemnon lies in the ethical requirement for his crew (country) versus that for his daughter. He remains in the ethical. The Greek gods are capricious, and cannot be viewed as the final arbiters of law and behavior. Greek law is man-made (Draco, Solon, etc.). Therefore Agamemnon does not sin against his family. There is no real concept of sin in Greek culture. His behavior is merely objectionable.

Abraham, on the other hand, is on no ethical mission on behalf of his tribe. God simply approaches him to perform a seemingly unethical act. For Abraham it is the ethical (universal) versus the absolute (God), who is the one who gives the ethical. Jewish law (though not delivered until Moses) is entirely summed up in the person of God. The very giver of law may suspend the law.

So Agamemnon weighs ethical versus ethical. Abraham weighs ethical versus religious (absolute). Agamemnon has a pronouncement of the gods as to how to obtain what he wants. He may choose without punishment from the gods. Abraham simply has the choice of obedience or disobedience. He chooses to believe that the giver of the ethical will sustain him within the breach of the ethical.

Later in the work, Kierkegaard includes a footnote that clarifies this distinction.

The tragic hero assures himself that the ethical obligation is totally present in him by transforming it into a wish. Agamemnon, for example, can say: To me the proof that I am not violating my fatherly duty is that my duty is my one and only wish. Consequently we have wish and duty face to face with each other. Happy is the life in which they coincide, in which my wish is my duty and the reverse, and for most men the task in life is simply to adhere to their duty and to transform it by their enthusiasm into their wish. The tragic hero gives up his wish in order to fulfill this duty. For the knight of faith, wish and duty are also identical, but he is required to give up both. If he wants to relinquish by giving up his wish, he finds no rest, for it is indeed his duty. If he wants to adhere to his duty and to this wish, he does not become the knight of faith, for the absolute duty specifically demanded that he should give it up. The tragic hero found a higher expression of duty but not an absolute duty (p. 78).

Problema II: Is there an Absolute Duty to God?

In this section Kierkegaard further defines the universal, the absolute, and the paradoxical.

The ethical is the universal, and as such it is also the divine. Thus it is proper to say that every duty is essentially duty to God, but if no more can be said than this, then it is also said that I have actually no duty to God. The duty becomes duty by being traced back to God, but in the duty itself I do not enter into relation to God. For example, it is a duty to love one's neighbor. It is a duty by its being traced back to God, but in the duty I do not enter into relation to God, but to the neighbor I love. If in this connection I then say that it is my duty to love God, I am actually pronouncing only a tautology, inasmuch as "God" in a totally abstract sense is here understood as the divine—that is, the universal, that is, duty.... God [becomes] an impotent thought (p. 68).

This reminds one of the old dilemma as to whether something is wrong because it is wrong absolutely, or because God declares it wrong. If the former be true, then the moral law would appear to be higher than God, since it would be more fundamental. If the latter, one might posit that the moral law is not intrinsically right, but only provisionally so, that God might have decreed it otherwise. To my thinking, the only solution is that God's nature (from whence comes the law) is grounded in his being, so that this dilemma is non-existent. In other words, the dilemma presumes a chronology or evolution in deity. But questions of time are meaningless.

Kierkegaard's emphasis is that mankind needs the ethical, but needs more the relation to God who imparted the ethical code. The ethical is given to all men, and all must obey. However, that which is sublime and perfect, that is, God's holiness, cannot be accurately translated into a fixed code in a human language. Thus the ethical code applies to all since it is universal, but the one who gave it—the absolute, who possesses Law, who is holy and sinless—he relates himself to the individual (providing he has faith).

The paradox of faith, then, is this: that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual...determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the universal. The paradox may also be expressed in this way: that there is an absolute duty to God, for in this relationship of duty the individual relates himself as the single individual absolutely to the absolute. In this connection, to say that it is a duty to love God means something different from the above, for if this duty is absolute, then the ethical is reduced to the relative. From this it does not follow that the ethical is invalidated; rather, the ethical receives a completely different expression, a paradoxical expression....

If this is not the case, then faith has no place in existence, then faith is a spiritual trial and Abraham is lost, inasmuch as he gave in to it.

The paradox cannot be mediated, for it depends specifically on this: that the single individual is only the single individual. As soon as this single individual wants to express his absolute duty in the universal, becomes conscious of it in the universal, he recognizes that he is involved in a spiritual trial, and then, if he really does resist it, he will not fulfill the so-called absolute duty, and if he does not resist it, then he sins, even though his act realiter [in actuality] turns out to be what was his ethical duty....

The story of Abraham contains such a paradox. The ethical expression for his relation to Isaac is that the father must love the son. This ethical relation is reduced to the relative in contradistinction to the absolute relation to God (p. 70f.).

Problema III: Was it Ethically Defensible for Abraham to Conceal His Undertaking from Sarah, from Eliezer, and from Isaac?

The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and psychical, is the hidden. Thus his ethical task is to work himself out of his hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal. Every time he desires to remain in the hidden, he trespasses and is immersed in spiritual trial from which he can emerge only by disclosing himself (p. 82).

Throughout this work, Kierkegaard mentions the ordeal, testing, trying and temptation of Abraham. Of special note is the term used for spiritual trial [Danish, Anfægtelse]. Hong comments.

"Spiritual trial," in contrast to "temptation" and in relation to "test," is the struggle and the anguish involved in venturing out beyond one's assumed capacities or generally approved expectations (p. 343).

The term occurred earlier in Fear and Trembling (p. 31), where Kierkegaard remarks that without love Abraham's sacrifice would have been a spiritual trial. A journal entry from 1847 clarifies this term.

The difference between sin and spiritual trial (for the conditions in both can be deceptively similar) is that the temptation to sin is in accord with inclination, [the temptation] of spiritual trial [is] contrary to inclination. Therefore the opposite tactic must be employed. The person tempted by inclination to sin does well to shun the danger, but in relation to spiritual trial this is the very danger... (VIII 1 A 93).

Spiritual trial can also refer to being caught in the bondage of sin, in which the punishment for sin is the new sin. The theme of self-revelation and hiddenness runs through Kierkegaard's writings and lies behind his entire plan of pseudonymity. Abraham's hiddenness is related to the absolute as much as the attempt to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard relates this hiddenness to Aristotle's Poetics, where he addresses recognition, which requires a prior hiddenness. Hiddenness "is the tension-creating factor" (p. 83). In Ancient drama hiddenness and recognition are driven by destiny, as in Oedipus Rex. Recognition occurs in farce as well. Both esthetics and ethics require disclosure. "But ethics has no coincidence and no old servant at its disposal" (p. 87).

Esthetics demanded disclosure but aided itself with a coincidence; ethics demanded disclosure and found its fulfillment in the tragic hero (p. 87f.).

After examining ancient and modern literature for examples of hiddenness and recognition, Kierkegaard returns to Abraham.

Now we are face to face with the paradox. Either the single individual can stand in an absolute relation to the absolute, and consequently the ethical is not the highest, or Abraham is lost: he is neither a tragic hero nor an esthetic hero....

Abraham remains silent—but he cannot speak. Therein lies the distress and anxiety (p. 113).

The necessity for this silence is in part because a description of the act is not to be comprehended. Kierkegaard himself says that he does not understand Abraham. "I can only admire him" (p. 112).

Abraham cannot speak, because he says that which would explain everything (that is, so it is understandable): that it is an ordeal such that, please note, the ethical is the temptation (p. 115).

In the Epilogue Kierkegaard concludes the work on the theme of faith by saying "Faith is the highest passion in a person" (p. 122). As Kierkegaard's main criticism of his society is that men are passionless, his fear was that a static ethical requirement might not encourage us to a passion for God. Passion is required for the qualitative leap of faith toward God (the religious sphere). See Two Ages where Kierkegaard criticizes his age for reflection without passion.