Fear and Trembling

by: Søren Kierkegaard

Problema III - Part 2

Finally, Johannes addresses the story of Faust. Faust, in Johannes' account, is a doubter, but is also sympathetic. He knows that his doubt, if spoken, would throw the world into chaos, and so he remains silent. Ethics condemns this silence, telling him that he should have spoken. However, Johannes suggests, this silence is authorized if the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. In this case, doubt becomes guilt, and Faust also finds himself in the paradox.

In case anyone doubts that silence is sometimes called for, Johannes refers to the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus recommends that fasters anoint their heads and wash their faces so that no one can see that they are fasting. Sometimes, clearly, one's personal life is incommensurable with reality, and in those cases it is necessary to deceive.

Commentary

Johannes' discussion of the demonic and of guilt brings us away from the straightforward distinctions between the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. This discussion is very rich but maddeningly difficult, and this commentary can do little more than attempt some clarification.

The merman and Sarah are in similar situations in that they are prevented by their guilt from realizing the universal in marriage. The merman planned to seduce Agnes, but after seeing the innocence in her eyes, he feels guilty at trying to deceive her. He cannot now marry her because he cannot disclose to her his former dishonest intentions: his guilt keeps him from marrying. Sarah cannot marry Tobias because she knows that he will be killed by the demon. She, too, feels guilt, but of a different kind. Her guilt comes from knowing that she is responsible for the deaths of her seven previous husbands and that she would also be responsible for Tobias' death.

In both cases, these characters' circumstances have isolated them from the universal, and placed them necessarily in the paradox of the single individual. One option open for them is the demonic. For the merman, this would be to make Agnes hate him so as to free her from her love for him. For Sarah, this would be to resent pity and to shut herself off from others. The demonic, it seems, expresses a rejection of the universal from which they have been isolated.

Johannes suggests that the highest the merman can aspire to is marriage with Agnes, but that this movement must be made by virtue of the absurd. It takes all the merman's power to make the movement of repentance, just as it takes all of Abraham's power to make the movement of resignation. The merman repents that he has seduced Agnes, and in his guilt he places himself above the universal. His ultimate goal, however, is to return to the universal, but he does not have the power to do this on his own. He must then rely on the absurd to take him from the isolation of repentance back into the universal and into marriage.