Fear and Trembling is one of the most famous works by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It looks at how Abraham dealt with the realisation that he would have to sacrifice his son to please and what this means for those who wish to pursue faith.
Kierkegaard asserts that Abraham had a choice in the matter. He could have neglected to follow God’s advice, or he could go along with it.
During the three and half day journey to Moriah, Abraham will have resigned himself to the loss of his son. The argument Kierkegaard puts forward is that resignation must before you have faith.
The text is one that has a religious tint to it. Kierkegaard is plagued wit the notion that Abraham is considered the father of religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, yet he murdered his own son at the behest of God.
Does that not create a contradiction in following the doctrine of a God who purports to love all those on Earth without condition?
The text also wider implications beyond the religious argument. It’s an interesting text about a topic I had never given much thought to before. Kierkegaard is considered to be the father of the existentialism branch of philosophy.
While this may not the best introduction to that form of philosophy, it’s a book that will make you think.
Fear and Trembling summary
Takeaway 1 – Freedom consists of the choices you make in life
One of Kierkegaard’s arguments in Fear and Trembling is that everyone has a choice in life. This related to Abraham in how he had a choice to either sacrifice his son or go against God’s wishes.
Putting aside any religious argument about whether you believe in God or not, Kierkegaard’s premise is correct. We do have choices in life.
In fact, we decide what to do each day. From these choices, we derive freedom. It could be argued the better our choices, the more freedom we will have.
Certainly, if you make better financial decisions than others, you will have more freedom, in terms of not having to worry about money as much as other people. But more money also limits your freedom for fear of losing it.
In this regard, you could argue that freedom is a double-edged sword. Maybe, we have more freedom than we realise.
The majority of us are free to do and act as we wish. Our choices are not often constricted and even if they are, we still have the ability to choose to act or not.
Abraham made his choice to follow God without question. He did not question God, he did not weep, he resigned himself to his fate and carried out God’s command.
Is this an example of a choice leading to freedom or not? From our grounding in the 21st century, it would appear not.
Freedom is a result of exerting your choice to question and act upon your concerns. Abraham did not do this, so it’s hard to say he achieved any form of freedom through his actions.
Takeaway 2 – Passion cannot be learned
Kierkegaard concludes Fear and Trembling by arguing that faith requires passion. He was talking about organised religion when he made this assertion.
Today, however, this assertion could relate to sports or even politics. If you support a football team, as I do, then you’ll know what faith and passion feel like.
Each season you start with faith in your team that they will perform and deliver. This is backed up by passionate support of your team.
If you’ve ever been to a football match in England, you will see this passion on full display. My team, Liverpool, has some of the most passionate fans in the country. Watching a match at the ground is a visceral experience where like your part of something greater.
The delirium when Liverpool win is all-consuming, while the despair when they lose is overwhelming. Trying to explain this to someone who doesn’t follow football is like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a toddler.
Passion cannot be taught. It has to be felt to be understood. It’s one of those concepts where you know what it feels like, but it’s much harder to explain.
To experience passion you have to place your faith in something or someone. Once you do, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.
Takeaway 3 – Is faith rooted in paradox?
This is an interesting question and can be looked at from a religious angle and in regards to a sports team. With Abraham, the paradox is that he killed his son, yet is regarded as the father of Abrahamic religions.
Is there not a paradox in this? That a man who is essentially a murderer, revered as the founder of major religions? The answer is yes.
Kierkegaard’s argument is that most religions are rooted in paradoxes and you have to accept it as part of the faith or reject it and religion as a result.
This is also true of sports teams. We support them in the belief that they will perform well and brighten our mood, yet it’s often the case that the opposite happens.
They lose, underperform and leave us feeling miserable. The paradox is that we are willing to suffer these lows to experience the highs rather than abandon altogether in favour of a less stressful existence.
This is the paradox of faith. It promises s much, yet it often causes great pain and distress along the way.
What we have to ask ourselves when we place our faith in something is whether the pain is worth the reward. Is all the suffering worth it, when you reach heaven, or when your team wins the league?
- “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”
- “An old proverb pertaining to the outward and visible world says: ‘Only one who works gets bread.’ Oddly enough, the saying doesn’t apply in the world to which it most properly belongs, for the outward world is subject to the law of imperfection; there it happens time and again that one who gets bread is one who does not work, that one who sleeps gets it in greater abundance than one who labours.”
- “Temporality, finitude—this is what it is all about. I can resign everything by my own strength and find peace and rest in the pain; I can put up with everything—even if that dreadful demon, more horrifying than the skeletal one who terrifies me, even if madness held its fools costume before my eyes and I understood from its face that it was I who should put it on—I can still save my soul as long as my concern that my love of God conquer within me is greater than my concern that I achieve earthly happiness.”
Fear and Trembling review
This Fear and Trembling summary looked at one of Søren Kierkegaard’s most famous works. It’s an important text that calls on us to question our belief systems.
I enjoyed the ideas that Kierkegaard espoused in his book and they certainly made me think. However, his writing isn’t the easiest to get into.
This might be down to the gap in time between when he wrote Fear and Trembling and me reading it but I found it hard to get into at times.
It did require a lot of patience and determination to get through the book despite my appreciation of his ideas.
If you’re used to reading philosophy, Kierkegaard’s writing won’t be an issue. But, if like me, you have a background in another subject such as history, it may pose a few problems.
That said, this is still a great book and one that you should read. The arguments presented are useful and will make you think about the contradictions and paradoxes behind many of the beliefs we hold.
Who should read Fear and Trembling?
Anyone who has an interest in philosophy will enjoy this book. Particularly those who want to learn about the existential branch of philosophy.
The average reader may struggle with the book, but if you persevere, you’ll be intrigued by the arguments.
I wouldn’t say this is a good book to read for people looking for an introduction to philosophy. A better read might be Letters From a Stoic or The Symposium.