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Fear and Trembling

Soren Kierkegaard

Overall Analysis and Themes

Overall Summary

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Reading Kierkegaard is at once an exhilarating and an exhausting experience. He has a poet's flair for metaphor and he never hesitates to give his writing a rhetorical flourish. But while his digressions, his extended analogies, and his constant repetition for rhetorical effect can be delightful, it makes for troublesome philosophy. It is difficult to follow any coherent line of thought or argument, and his writing contains only the bare bones of logical structure.

We would be doing Kierkegaard a disservice, however, to claim that his writing takes away from his philosophizing. Kierkegaard wages a one-man war against the Hegelianism that was prevalent in his day, and as such, he opposes the kind of logical thinking that can build up a great system, step by step. Kierkegaard's writing sides with the single individual in isolation from the system. As a result, his writing is necessarily distinctive and erratic.

While determining precisely what Kierkegaard is trying to do with Fear and Trembling is the subject of ongoing academic debates, we can safely say that his primary purpose is not just to praise Abraham. Rather, he uses Abraham to bring out a deeper point about the inadequacy of the Hegelian system and the importance attached to the radical freedom of the individual.

All three problemata address a question supposedly settled by Hegel, and come down in judgment against Hegel. Each problema begins by following Hegel in defining the ethical as universal, and drawing some premise for that claim. Johannes then shows how Abraham directly violates this Hegelian premise. He concludes that either Hegel is wrong or Abraham is lost. It is typical Kierkegaardian irony not to force his point of view, but to leave it to his readers to decide whether or not they agree with Hegel.

The main distinction that runs through the book is between the ethical and the religious. The ethical is associated with the universal, with the tragic hero, with the system, with infinite resignation, with mediation, with recollection, with the Absolute Mind, with understanding, with infinitude and with Hegel. Essentially, it is the idea that our highest aim as individuals is to annul our individuality and to find expression in the universal, acting never on our own behalf, but always on behalf of the greater good. The religious is associated with the single individual, with the knight of faith, with the leap of faith, with paradox, with the absurd, with repetition, with anxiety, with finitude, and with the double movement. Essentially, it is the idea that the single individual as single individual can enter into a private relationship with God that transcends the ethical.

Johannes asserts that the religious is higher than the ethical, and thereby asserts that there is something higher than the universal. Significantly, however, this "higher" is a paradox: it cannot find words, it cannot be understood, it exists "by virtue of the absurd." Johannes agrees with Hegel that the universal is the highest aspiration of human reason, but asserts that the human extends beyond the rational. Kierkegaard is far ahead of his time in suggesting that there is something fundamentally non-rational at the core of our humanity.

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