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Fear and Trembling

Eulogy on Abraham

Summary Eulogy on Abraham

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.