April 22nd, 2012

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 12

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  1. Freedland, Jonathan — Bring Home the Revolution: The Case for a British Republic (245 pages)
  2. Kierkegaard, Søren — Fear and Trembling (150 pages)
Page count
2674

I don't think I've read any serious philosophy since I studied at Amherst, and I've had a hankering for it for a while. The idea of reading Kierkegaard appealed to me because his philosophy has a Christian slant to it — he's a Christian existentialist — how fitting that his surname means "church garden"! — and beyond that I was completely unfamiliar with him.

I have to admit that I struggled to understand Kierkegaard's arguments, but I think that by the end I achieved a reasonable grasp.

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard uses the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac at Moriah to examine the concept of faith. His concern seems to be that people take the idea of faith too lightly, that upon examination faith is an impossible proposition.

For example, Kierkegaard expresses dismay at the way Abraham's sacrifice is often treated in contemporary sermons, as if the idea of sacrificing one's only son were easy or something to be rewarded. Thus, Kierkegaard emphasizes the pain and anguish Abraham must have suffered. After waiting all those decades for Isaac to be born — Isaac, his only son, miracle son of his old age born to his barren wife and through whom God's promise of countless progeny would be fulfilled — Abraham is supposed to kill him? Not just offer him up for God to swoop down and take, but actually plunge the knife into him? He can't tell anyone what he is intending to do (for nobody would understand him) and he has to contemplate all of this during an arduous three-day walk to Mount Moriah, not knowing God will intervene at the last and offer a ram in Issac's place? The usual emphasis on the end of the story seems to Kierkegaard too facile, too dismissive of Abraham's ordeal and what it means for Abraham to have faith.

And Kierkegaard also objects to the common acceptance that Abraham's actions were good. After all, not knowing the outcome, Abraham's intentions cannot be construed in an ethical context as anything but murderous. If there were some greater universal good (or oracular proclamation) Abraham was satisfying, if any thing in society's eyes could justify Isaac's death, then the story of Abraham becomes merely the story of the tragic hero, no different from Agamemnon and Iphigenia. Only by acknowledging that Abraham's intention to kill Isaac is ethically and morally indefensible can Abraham be considered as acting on faith. So, Abraham is a murderer.

Which, of course, is not Abraham's legacy, because there is something above the universal (that is, above the ethical). Faith requires both a resignation to the universal (for example, that killing Isaac is ethically unjustifiable), and a conviction that one's action is correct. This, of course, is a contradiction, for how can an action be correct if it cannot be mediated by the universal. Therefore, there must be something above the universal, some singular absolute, so that the "knight of faith" places himself, the individual, not in relation to the universal but above the universal in absolute relation to the absolute. This is rationally and ethically absurd. Faith requires a movement which is intrinsically paradoxical. An act of faith requires that the ethical be suspended for a higher purpose, that the individual find mediation only in absolute relation to the absolute, and that the individual remain silent, for an explanation of the act cannot be comprehended.

Yeah, it's pretty heady stuff, but I found that Kierkegaard's sense of humour helped get me through. There were times I felt a dense fog descending on my mind as I grappled with all the subtle arguments or the idea that faith requires a movement that is a paradox — or the constant references to Hegel's arguments, of which I am wholly ignorant — and a witty or light-hearted remark would perk me up. And Kierkegaard doesn't come across as preachy or holier-than-thou. Just the opposite, in fact. He claims he cannot understand Abraham, only admire him, and admits that he has not been able to make that movement past the universal, that "leap of faith." And though no human passion is higher than faith, though one can reach nothing further than faith, if one only gets as far as the ethical one will still find that life has plenty of tasks, and as long as one loves these tasks honestly life won't be a waste.