Monday, September 7, 2009

Book Review: Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

Abraham is the greatest, says Kierkegaard, and “the highest passion in a human being is faith”(Kierkegaard 144). This is wrong. Christ is greatest, and though faith, hope and love endure, “the greatest of these is love”(1 Corinthians 13:13). For this reason, I find Kierkegaard’s method in Fear and Trembling for building a Christian ethic utterly puzzling. Kierkegaard starts from the wrong place, taking signs that point towards Christ and love and making them the point. Fear and Trembling is an interesting book in many ways, but it certainly will not, as my friend promised, completely alter my understanding of morality.

I do not pretend that I fully understand Fear and Trembling. Much of what Kierkegaard has to say is put into Hegelian terms, and since I’ve never read Hegel this makes understanding difficult. I can gather from context the general terms of what is being said, but I ultimately feel like I’ve come away with an outline of what Kierkegaard said, and not the full depth of it. Furthermore, Kierkegaard also relies on Hegelian conclusions, and uses them as givens in his argument. Unfortunately, since I don’t know Hegel’s arguments, these premises are hardly givens to me. Like I said though, to my thinking he starts from the wrong place so thoroughly that his conclusions cannot help but miss the mark.

What I do understand of Kierkegaard I find immensely disturbing. The highest life, that of faith, is one of dread, horror and isolation. What is more, the Knight of Faith (as Kierkegaard calls him) must do whatever God asks of him without testing to see if it really is God asking, without seeking the wisdom of others, and without any reference at all to universal morality. The man of faith then, in Kierkegaard’s terms, is the monster my atheist friends think him to be.

I should say, however, that I am not completely disdainful of Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard starts the book with several retellings of the story of Abraham and Isaac, subtly altering the story in ways that thereby change the meaning. This part of the book is enjoyable, and he does the same with various stories and myths throughout the book.

Ultimately, any student of philosophy should read this book because it is of such massive importance historically. Kierkegaard in many ways fathered the existential movement, and he certainly gave birth to Christian existentialism. This was one of the reasons that I read the book, because as much as I disagree with existentialism, I find it intriguing. Also, I have a friend who is a firm Christian existentialist, and I’d really like to understand where his ideas come from. Thankfully, I think I’m one step closer to that point now.