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Fear and Trembling

Soren Kierkegaard

Preliminary Expectoration - Part 2

Preliminary Expectoration - Part 1

Problema I

Summary

Johannes remarks that he has never met a knight of faith, but that he would not know such a man if he saw one. Outwardly, the knight of faith is just like everyone else: simple, philistine, and bourgeois, perhaps a shopkeeper, showing no sign of infinitude or sorrow. Because he has made the infinite leap of faith and regained the finite, he is able fully to delight in the finite pleasures of this world. Johannes compares the knight of faith to a ballet dancer who can make a leap and land on the ground all the while maintaining a particular posture. Most of us cling to the joys and passions of this world and don't bother even to involve ourselves in the dance. The "knight of infinite resignation," in contrast, makes the leap quite beautifully, but is a little awkward in landing since he has detached himself from the grounded world of sensory pleasure.

Johannes draws out the distinction between the slave of the finite, the knight of infinite resignation, and the knight of faith by means of a story. A man is in love with a princess, but their union is impossible. In such a case, the slave of the finite would scream, being unable to stand such a gulf between himself and his desires.

The knight of infinite resignation would never give up on his love. It is the substance of his life and so he allows it to fill him entirely. When he sees that his love will never be realized, he makes the movement of infinity, which requires passion, not reflection. He does not forget his love, since it would be a contradiction to forget the substance of one's life, and the knight of infinite resignation never contradicts.

Instead, he recollects his love. This recollection is precisely of the pain of denied fulfillment, but through resignation he is reconciled with this pain, with himself, with what Johannes calls the eternal consciousness: he expresses spiritually what is impossible for him in the finite world. She will remain the same to him no matter what she does--if she marries, if he never sees her again--since he keeps her alive to himself in recollection. The knight of infinite resignation is self-sufficient, and needs nothing outside himself in order to sustain him. If his princess keeps him also in recollection the two will remain spiritually true to one another for eternity. Johannes remarks that everyone is capable of recollection, but that it must be done with passion.

The knight of faith behaves similarly to the knight of infinite resignation in infinitely renouncing his love and reconciling himself to the pain. However, the knight of faith goes one step further and says: "Nevertheless I have faith that I will get her--that is, by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible." According to the understanding, this is impossible, and the knight of faith is resigned to that fact. But faith is beyond the understanding, and the knight has faith.

Unless resignation is antecedent, faith might be confused with the aesthetic. Infinite resignation takes strength, energy, courage, and spiritual freedom, but anyone can do it. One renounces the finite and temporal, thereby gaining eternal consciousness. The next movement beyond infinite resignation, by which one regains everything by virtue of the absurd, is incomprehensible. While the knight of infinite resignation renounces the finite to gain the infinite, the knight of faith regains the finite as well.

Commentary

The knight of infinite resignation is great in that he loves the princess with every fiber of his being, and yet he is content to let her go and reconcile himself with the pain. However, he doesn't let her go completely: Johannes points out that this would be a contradiction as it would involve letting go of what is most fundamental to his being. It is important that the knight of infinite resignation not contradict himself: he is the ultimate expression of the ethical and of the Hegelian system and is thus logically coherent. Contradiction and paradox are matters for the knight of faith.

The knight of infinite resignation preserves his love by means of recollection. That is, he keeps her alive in his memory, as fresh and as new as when they first met. The choice of "recollection" here is clearly meant to echo the Platonic Theory of Forms. Johannes suggests that the knight of infinite resignation sets up his love as an ideal Form, a guiding light to be followed but never totally attained. This recollected love can then lead him through life and improve him even if it is never realized.

Johannes refers to the "movement of infinity" or "infinite resignation" without expressing clearly what he means by "infinity." The ethical, which the knight of infinite resignation expresses, deals on the level of the universal. According to Hegel, living ethically involves suppressing one's individuality and acting for the greater good of everyone. By giving up one's individuality in favor of the universal, one becomes a part of the Absolute Mind, which expresses an infinite and absolute truth. The knight of infinite resignation participates in the universal by virtue of his resignation, and thus becomes a part of the infinite.

The knight of faith, as representative of the religious way of life, goes one step further. He makes the movement of infinite resignation and follows it with the leap of faith. This is the second step in the double movement of faith, the step that is beyond understanding or rational explanation. Because it is beyond reason, the leap of faith is beyond the Absolute Mind, and is thus beyond the universal. A leap of faith is a purely personal matter, connected with the single individual and with the individual's life on this earth. Thus, it is a movement of finitude, since it detaches itself from the universal and the infinite.

While the knight of infinite resignation experiences recollection, the knight of faith experiences repetition. He gives up his love, only to regain her again by virtue of the absurd. Repetition is this regaining of what one has given up, and in regaining it to appreciate it for the first time, fully and completely. Before, Abraham had Isaac, but their relationship was such that they could be separated by death or by distance or by time. By losing and then regaining Isaac, Abraham is able to see his son, and everything else on this earth, as a temporary gift from God. He is now connected to Isaac through God, and his love for Isaac expresses his love for God. Because his finite love for worldly things expresses his love for God, both are eternal and unbreakable.

This brief sketch of the tricky concept of repetition may help us to understand how Johannes can see a simple shopkeeper as a knight of faith. Outwardly, a knight of faith is no different from a normal person, since both the religious and the aesthetic are linked to the finite, the worldly, and the single individual. The distinction lies in the fact that the knight of faith delights in the sensory pleasures of this world because he sees them as gifts from God, and delights in them as gifts from God. The aesthete delights in sensory pleasures, but in a selfish way that does not relate to God.

We should also take note of the autobiographical turn of the example of the man in love with the princess. Kierkegaard's writing career began soon after he broke off his engagement to Regine Olsen, and much of his writing tried to explain this decision, both to himself and to her. He knew full well that she would read Fear and Trembling, and we might read the discussion of infinite resignation and recollection as a secret message to Regine. Johannes identifies himself with the knight of infinite resignation, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to read Kierkegaard himself as similarly disposed.

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