Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday is on Sunday, May 5. I’m reflecting on one quote from him per day until then.
Before there was Twitter, Kierkegaard was best known as the author of Fear and Trembling, a book that seems to defend Abraham’s decision to obey God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, the long-awaited son that God had promised him. This episode has for a long time been a flashpoint for debates about religion’s relationship to reason, morality, and violence. And Kierkegaard’s contribution to the debates has been huge. The fact that he seems to come down on the side of religion, and thus against reason and morality, has endeared him to few thinkers of a more rationalist and skeptical bent.
Much of what believers and skeptics alike have to say in these debates is simpleminded and cartoonish, but Fear and Trembling is not. It’s too easy just to say that it’s a masterpiece. One time when I was teaching it, a student said at the beginning of class that the writing was beautiful, but it was just so hard to understand. It hadn’t occurred to me before then that that was a big part of the point: the book itself is like the paradox that Kierkegaard wants the reader to confront. The paradox of thought willing its own downfall, or the paradox of a man who is both a murderer and a hero, attracts you to itself, but it also repels you.
Yesterday I asked if there was a way past the limits of thought. In this passage from Fear and Trembling (1843), Kierkegaard, writing under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, seems to think that there is. He can imagine going beyond the limits. The problem here is whether it’s possible to come back within the limits intact.
The dialectic of faith is the finest and most remarkable of all; it has an elevation of which I can certainly form a conception, but nothing more. I can make the great trampoline leap whereby I pass over into infinity; my spine is like a tightrope walker’s, twisted from my childhood. Thus it is easy for me to go one, two, three, and turn a somersault in existence, but the next movement I cannot make, for the miraculous I cannot perform but only be amazed by it. Indeed, if at the moment Abraham swung his leg over the ass’s back he had said to himself, “now Isaac is lost, I could just as well sacrifice him here at home as travel to Moriah,” then I do not need Abraham, whereas I now bow before his name seven times and before his deed seventy times.
Kierkegaard, who supposedly did have a curved spine, is impressed, certainly, by those who can leap beyond the finite, who can do the unthinkable. The real trick is in the landing. This, he cannot imagine carrying off.
Why is Abraham great? He was ready to kill his son at God’s command; this sounds despicable, not admirable. And in fact, Kierkegaard doesn’t think that Abraham’s obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac is what makes him great. If Abraham had just killed Isaac in his sleep (as Louis C.K. suggests he could have done in this TV-MA rated bit), then we would have to say, unequivocally, that he’s a monster. But as Kierkegaard repeats many times in Fear and Trembling, Abraham’s greatness was that he believed that he could obey God’s command and still, somehow, against all logic, keep Isaac. And, as the story goes, his belief was true.
Abraham collided with the paradox at the limits of human thought and ethics, but he did not fall backward into despair and murder. By embracing the contradiction at the heart of the paradox, his hope was fulfilled. God smiled upon Abraham’s obedience, and Isaac lived. It isn’t truly a happy ending–God is forever the God who demanded Isaac, Abraham the father who was ready to kill, and Isaac forever traumatized–but it is an ending unimaginable without a hope that goes beyond understanding.