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Fear and Trembling

Soren Kierkegaard

Problema III - Part 1

Problema II

Problema III - Part 2

Summary

The third problema asks "Was it ethically defensible for Abraham to conceal his undertaking from Sarah, from Eliezer, and from Isaac?" Johannes opens by defining the ethical as universal, and infers from this point that it is disclosed. By contrast, the single individual is hidden. Unlike Greek tragedy, which is blind, and thus unaware of its hiddenness, modern drama has become reflective and sees itself. Hiddenness is no longer a result of the hero's ignorance, but is rather the hero's free act.

Johannes relates a number of stories in order to bring out this distinction between the disclosed, which he associates with the ethical, and the hidden, which he associates with the aesthetic and the religious. The first story tells of a man and woman who are in love, but the woman is being married off to another man, so they keep their love a secret. This hiddenness is a free act, making them responsible to aesthetics, which demands this hiddenness, but also rewards it by coincidentally working things out for them. Ethics, on the other hand, has no room for coincidence. It demands disclosure and is offended that they should take responsibility for a secret.

Johannes next refers to Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, which tells how Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. On the one hand, aesthetics demands his silence since it would be unseemly for him to seek comfort in sharing his sorrow, but on the other hand, it demands disclosure so that he may endure the spiritual trial of seeing his daughter weep at the news. Aesthetics provides an outlet in having an old servant tell Iphigenia that she is to be sacrificed. Ethics, on the other hand, demands disclosure because, as a tragic hero, Agamemnon is wedded to the universal and keeps nothing hidden.

The tragic hero and the ethical are thoroughly human. Johannes recalls the story of Amor and Psyche, where Amor impregnated Psyche, and Psyche was told that if she kept her pregnancy a secret her child would be divine, but if she disclosed it her child would be human. Disclosure and the tragic hero are both human phenomena. Hiddenness is the realm of the demonic and the divine.

Aristotle's Poetics tells the story of a bridegroom who consults the Oracle at Delphi, and is told that he will suffer a calamity that originates in his marriage. According to Johannes, the man has three options. First, he could remain silent and marry the girl, but then he would be implicating her in his own disaster by making her partially responsible for the disaster. Second, he could remain silent and not marry the girl, a choice that aesthetics would sanction, but which would be an offense to the girl and to the reality of her love. Third, he could speak up, a choice that ethics would sanction, as he would value disclosure over trying to conceal his fate out of concern for the girl.

We can go no further than the tragic hero found in the third option since the prophecy is not a private matter between the bridegroom and the god: if he speaks, he will be understood. If he remains silent, it is only because he wants to have an absolute relation to the universal as a single individual. Had the prophecy been a private affair, he couldn't speak because he wouldn't be understood. As a result, the knight of faith finds inner peace, but the aesthetic hero is constantly disturbed by the demands of the ethical.

Commentary

The notion that the ethical is the universal is the disclosed and the aesthetic is the single individual is the hidden originates in Hegelian philosophy of language, which can be explained as follows. We learn language in a public environment from other people and we use language to express thoughts to other people. Thus, language is a purely public phenomenon. It can only be used to express experiences that we share, which we can understand in common. If I want to tell you of an experience I've had and you haven't, I must do so by comparing it to other experiences you might understand. For instance, I might say that reading Kierkegaard is like being forcefully tied to a chair and then being made to watch a fireworks display. You may have not read Kierkegaard, but you might have been tied to a chair and you might have seen a fireworks display, so this use of language might bring you closer to understanding an experience you yourself haven't had. Language is thus related to the universal, since it is useful only insofar as it concerns itself with experiences we can share.

Since the ethical and the universal are associated, it is natural that the disclosed should also be associated with the ethical. Since the aesthetic deals with the private experiences of the single individual, it similarly makes sense that it should be hidden: language cannot penetrate these private experiences. Johannes' examples all deal with instances in which people are faced with the decision either to speak and cause great dismay, or to keep their unhappy knowledge a secret. The aesthetic sides with secrecy, the ethical with disclosure.

The motivation in each case for the aesthetic hero is to protect those he cares about: the bridegroom will cause his future wife great dismay if he tells her that their marriage will be his undoing. The aesthetic hero takes the responsibility for the unhappy knowledge fully upon himself, so as not to burden anyone else with it. In doing so, he isolates himself as a single individual, and is thus isolated from the ethical. He is doing what he thinks is right, but he is acting privately as a single individual, and is thus trying to enter, as a single individual, into a relation with the absolute.

The ethical, or tragic, hero is motivated instead by the desire to be totally open about everything. The possibility is ever present that the aesthetic hero is really taking on the burden of secrecy to protect or comfort himself. This is not true for the tragic hero, since he keeps nothing secret. In surrendering entirely to the universal, the tragic hero also surrenders the pretension that, as an individual, he can save or protect anyone by his silence.

In each example, Johannes presents us with a choice according to which the hero would define himself either as an aesthetic hero or a tragic hero. A central theme in Kierkegaard's thought (which proved to be tremendously influential on existentialism) is the idea that one is fully responsible for one's decisions, and that certain decisions are fundamentally definitional of the kind of person one is.

The tension for the aesthetic hero is that he is always free to speak up. His secrecy violates the demands of the ethical, and if he were to explain himself, he could easily be understood. He remains hidden by choice, not by necessity. In this way, the aesthetic hero is distinguished from the knight of faith, who has no choice but to remain hidden. The knight of faith cannot speak because he cannot be understood (this will be explained in more detail in the sections to come). Both the aesthetic and the religious deal with the single individual in isolation from the universal, but the aesthetic deals with the single individual who isolates himself in an attempt to relate to the ethical as a single individual, whereas the religious deals with the single individual whose faith brings him above the ethical.

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