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Fear and Trembling

Soren Kierkegaard

Problema II

Problema I

Problema II, page 2

page 1 of 2

The second problema asks, "Is there an absolute duty to God?" Johannes again defines the ethical as universal, which he in turns associates with the divine and with duty to God. Every duty is a duty to God insofar as God is the divine is the universal. For instance, it may be my duty to love my neighbor, and this duty, as an ethical duty, is a duty to the universal and thus to God. However, Johannes notes, we have no direct relation to God through these duties, but only an indirect relation according to which our duties may be traced back to God.

Hegel suggests that the outer, or exteriority, is higher than the inner, as what is outer is publicly expressed, is universal. If this is so, Johannes suggests, Hegel is wrong to speak about faith and about Abraham as he does. Faith is that paradox that the inner is higher than the outer, that the single individual can relate absolutely to the absolute as a single individual. Though not invalidated, the ethical becomes relative, and the single individual's absolute duty is to God. This duty to God, as absolute, cannot be mediated and thus cannot be expressed in the universal: if it were expressible, it would not be faith but spiritual trial. The knight of faith cannot make himself understandable, not even to another knight of faith.

Johannes cites Luke 14:26 as teaching an absolute duty to God: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." The word "hate" is often softened in translation to "love less" or "count as nothing." Such a translation renders something terrible and vigorous into overblown nonsense about being less good to other people. In demanding absolute love, God does not ask that we stop loving our family. Abraham loves Isaac dearly, but the ethical expression of what he does at Mount Moriah is hatred.

Existing as the single individual is often considered easy, and for this reason the universal is identified as a more laudable goal. However, Johannes suggests, if one lives properly under one's own surveillance, if one speaks with "fear and trembling," one knows that existing as the single individual is the most terrible and the greatest existence there is. The knight of faith must know and value the universal, but must also know what it's like to be higher than the universal, to be alone and misunderstood. Abraham did not seem heroic to others; he seemed mad. In the end, however, the knight of faith can address God in the second person singular ("thou"), while the tragic hero can only use the third person.

The tragic hero's lot is not as difficult as the knight of faith's. The tragic hero can act, and then is finished, and can rest, knowing that he has successfully achieved the universal. The knight of faith is constantly being tested, and faced with the possibility of returning to the universal. The knight of faith is distinguished by having the passion to remain always in absolute isolation. Johannes concludes that either there is an absolute duty to God as he has explained it, or there isn't and Abraham is lost and Luke 14:26 is overblown nonsense.


The mainstream position in Kierkegaard's day (and in our own) that there is no absolute duty to God is most convincingly put forward by Kant. He argues that we can only be autonomous and responsible for our moral choices if we act not in obedience to some external law, but in accordance with laws that we freely will ourselves. I cannot rationally justify my actions by saying "God told me to," but only by saying that I acted of my own free will in accordance with a law that I should wish were universally applied. Kant, followed by Hegel, argues that all moral laws should be universal: for instance, it is never right to lie, regardless of the circumstances. Hence, Hegel identifies the ethical with the universal.

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