Johannes opens his eulogy with the suggestion that life would be little more than despair if it were meaningless, if generation followed generation with no sign of change or progress. Because life is not meaningless, Johannes suggests, God has created the hero and the poet. The poet is "recollection's genius," who attaches to the hero and immortalizes him. No one who is great will ever be forgotten, as a poet will eventually come for every hero.
Everyone, Johannes elaborates, is great, and everyone will be remembered by the degree to which they loved, to which they expected, and to which they struggled. One man may become great by virtue of himself by loving himself, by expecting the possible, and by struggling with the world. Another may become great by loving other men, by expecting the eternal, and by struggling with himself. But the greatest of all becomes great by loving God, by expecting the impossible, and by struggling with God. Abraham was the greatest of all precisely because of his faith in God.
Johannes recapitulates the story of Abraham in order to highlight his greatness. Abraham left his home for an unknown land at God's bidding, but he didn't lament his fate as Ovid did when he was banished from Rome. God promised Abraham a son who would carry on his line and make him father to a nation. Time passed, Abraham became old, and soon it became impossible for Abraham to have children. Still, Abraham never lost faith in God. He would have been great to relinquish his desire happily and accept his fate, but Abraham was greater still in not giving up on his desire at all.
Finally, against all possibility, God blessed Abraham with a son in Isaac. But then God mocked Abraham by demanding Isaac in sacrifice, by taking away the posterity he had promised Abraham. Still, Abraham had faith in God. Johannes points out that this faith of Abraham's was not just faith for the next life: Abraham had been promised and expected a great name and a great family on this earth and so his hopes were firmly planted in this life. Otherwise, death might have been an outlet for Abraham. Johannes points out that Abraham also never doubted: if he had doubted, he might have offered himself in sacrifice instead, earning himself eternal admiration, but ceasing to be "a guiding star that saves the anguished."
When God spoke to Abraham and commanded him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham simply said, "Here I am." He didn't beg or tremble, nor did he even go reluctantly: Abraham left cheerfully for Mount Moriah without saying a word to anyone. After all, who could understand him?
Many fathers have lost children, but no case has been like this. First of all, Isaac was not just a son, but was the impossible son of a man who had been promised as many successors as there were grains of sand on the beaches and stars in the sky. Second, Abraham was not just losing Isaac, but was being told to do the killing himself.
Johannes concludes by remarking that Abraham is in no way short of poets to immortalize him, as he is greater than all other heroes. Johannes begs Abraham's forgiveness if he has been unable to speak his praises well enough.
Roughly speaking, we find in Kierkegaard's thought a distinction between three ways of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic is the life of felt experience, ranging from lust to a sublime appreciation of art. At whatever level of refinement, the aesthetic life is the life of the single individual living out his or her own experience. The ethical life transcends the personal, and is based instead in what Hegel calls the "Absolute Mind." This life sees as its highest interest the common good of all people, and abandons individual pleasures or desires in favor of the universal. The religious life, like the aesthetic, works on the level of the single individual; but here, the individual is in a direct relationship with God. Because the religious life is a personal matter, it cannot be explained or justified on an ethical level.
We find in this eulogy a constant effort to draw out these distinctions, particularly between the ethical and the religious. The examples at the beginning of the ways in which one can be great through loving, expecting, and struggling, represent the aesthetic life, the ethical life, and the religious life respectively.
Johannes repeatedly discusses what Abraham might have done had he exemplified the ethical life. Like Ovid, he might have written beautiful poetry lamenting the loss of his home. Abraham might also have given up on his hope for Isaac when God demanded his sacrifice, or have offered himself in sacrifice instead. These possible acts are all admirable, and might be considered heroic. The point is that all three are expressions of the ethical life. Each possibility demands admirable fortitude and resignation, a complete surrender of oneself to one's fate. However, Abraham is a religious man, and these expressions of the ethical are not suited to him. Instead, he remains silent, maintains hope, and follows God's command to the letter.
Not just in the eulogy, but throughout Fear and Trembling, the religious life is presented in a series of contrasts with the ethical. This is largely because, as we shall see, there is no adequate verbal expression for the religious. All we can properly say about the religious is what it is not. Thus, the best that Johannes can say about the religious is that it is not the ethical, but that it is something higher and better. He describes Abraham's deeds and at each point explains what Abraham might have done if he were a perfect exemplar of the ethical life. He then points out that Abraham did not behave that way, and that if he did, he would certainly be admired in posterity, but he would not hold the position he does as the father of faith.
We might touch briefly on Johannes' discussion of the poet and hero. At the beginning of the eulogy, he remarks that life would be desperate if it were meaningless, and devoid of any change or progress. He suggests that the poet and hero overcome this possibility of despair, as the poet preserves the memory of the hero through recollection. The term "recollection" is important in Plato, and Johannes uses it in direct allusion to the Theory of Forms. According to Plato, everything that is good on earth is good only through its participation in the eternal, invisible, and unchanging Form of Good. This and other Forms exist on a higher plane of reality than sensed experience, but it is only through participation in these Forms that sensed experience has any shape or order. Though we may not be conscious of it, we all have immortal souls that are intimate with these Forms and know to strive for the Form of Good. Our goal in life is to recollect these Forms that we learnt in past lives and to apply our knowledge of them to approach nearer to the Good.
The Theory of Forms and recollection are Plato's answer to the question of how we make progress in this world. Hegelian philosophy provides another answer-- mediation--whereby two contrary concepts resolve themselves into an intermediary synthesis. In Repetition, Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author Constantin Constantius dismisses mediation and recollection as representative of the aesthetic and ethical lives respectively. That book tries to elucidate a third notion, repetition, which represents the religious life.
Johannes' eulogy is written largely in contrast with the ethical because he perceives his role as that of the Greek poet who recollects his hero. Abraham, however, is not the hero of the ethical sphere. Instead, he is the hero of the religious sphere who progresses according to repetition. The concept of repetition and its relevance to Abraham will be clarified some more in later commentary.