The Meaning of “Ethics” in Fear and Trembling


I belong to a really wonderful philosophy of religion reading group. We’re reading Eleanor Stump’s Wandering in Darkness. We just finished the chapter that looks at the story of Abraham and Isaac. Stump contrasts her interpretation of the story with Kierkegaard’s, famously put forward in Fear and Trembling. She acknowledges that she is not a Kierkegaard scholar, and that her interpretation of Fear and Trembling is not intended as a contribution to Kierkegaard scholarship, but explains that she’s using the story to “bring out the salient features of [her] differing interpretation.” Readers, she continues “should feel free to take the section of this chapter on Kierkegaard’s reading of the story as only a Kierkegaard-like interpretation” (p. 260).

Unfortunately, Stump’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t very “Kierkegaard-like.”

“[A]s I understand him,” writes Stump,

Kierkegaard takes Abraham to be caught in a dilemma; but he thinks that that dilemma is resoluble, because he supposes that God’s command produces a “teleological suspension of the ethical” for Abraham. The ethical prohibition against the killing of an innocent child is overridden by God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. That Abraham understands and accepts this feature of his situation is part of what makes him a hero of faith for Kierkegaard (pp. 260-261).

For Stump, on the other hand, there is no dilemma. “If we read the episode of the binding of Isaac,” she argues, 

in the context of the whole narrative of Abraham’s life, in which Abraham’s double-mindedness about God’s goodness is manifest, and especially if we see that episode against the backdrop of the expulsion of Ishmael, then it is clear that God is not pitting his authority against morality in asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, as Kierkegaard apparently supposed. … God’s demand for Isaac and the requirements of morality are on the same side in this story (p. 303).

“The faith that makes Abraham the father of faith,” she continues, “has its root in Abraham’s acceptance of the goodness of God, Abraham’s belief that God will keep his promises, and Abraham’s willingness to stake his heart’s desire on that belief” (p. 304).

That is, Stump argues that God has repeatedly shown Abraham that he is trustworthy hence ethics requires that Abraham accept God as trustworthy. That, according to Stump, is what ethics demands. There’s no dilemma, no conflict between the requirements of ethics and God’s command. What God commands is precisely what the moral law requires. 

Stump’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is not new. Many people have interpreted Fear and Trembling in the way Stump does. It is arguably difficult not to interpret it this way, given that Kierkegaard himself coined the phrase “teleological suspension of the ethical” (teleologisk Suspension af det Ethiske). Yet, there are ample clues in the work itself that Kierkegaard does not mean to suggest that God’s commands would ever conflict with genuine moral or ethical obligation.

But if Kierkegaard is not trying to argue that God’s command can potentially be in conflict with our ethical obligations and that when it is, our duty to God supersedes those obligations, what is he doing in Fear and Trembling? 

One doesn’t have to know a lot about Kierkegaard to take issue with Stump’s reading of Fear and Trembling. In fact, one only needs to have read the introductions to Alastair Hannay’s and Sylvia Walsh’s translations of the work to get a decent idea of what sort of “dilemma” it presents. 

“The opening pages of each of the three problemata,” explains Hannay 

all follow a uniform pattern. First the ethical is defined as the universal, then a consequence drawn from this, followed by the observation that to accept this consequence is to concede that Hegel’s account of the ethical is right. Thereupon our author claims that if Hegel’s account is indeed right, then Hegelians have no right to talk of faith or to give credit to Abraham as its father, for according to each of the consequences in question Abraham must stand morally (even criminally) condemned. The three consequences of defining the ethical as ‘the universal’ are: (i) that the individual’s moral performance must be judged by its underlying social intention; (ii) that there are no duties to God other than duties that are in the first instance to the universal; and (iii) that it is a moral requirement that one not conceal one’s moral projects or the reasons one has for failing to carry them through. In each of the problemata Abraham is shown to infringe the principle of the ethical as the universal by failing to conform to the consequence, or implicated requirement, in question. Abraham acts as though there were a superior measure of moral performance that made social intentions irrelevant; he supposes himself to have an absolute duty to God that overrides the ethical defined as the universal; and he cannot reveal his intention to the parties concerned. (p. 28)

“Hegel defined ethical life (Kierkegaard uses a Danish expression, ‘det Sædelige’, which is a direct translation of Hegel’s ‘das Sittliche’),” Hannay continues, 

as the identification of the individual with the totality of his social life. The basic idea behind an ethics of Sittlichkeit is that public morality, or the principles of social and political cohesion underlying any actual society, are expressions of universal human goals. If there is a human telos (goal) at all, that is where it finds expression. Thus in order to become moral the individual should conform to, and begin to want to act in accordance with, the principles of public morality that any State must be based on. ‘The State’, says Hegel, ‘in and by itself is the ethical whole.’ This is precisely the idea of the ethical as the universal which the problemata present as a hoop that Abraham must jump through in order to prove the morality of his action. Abraham consistently fails.

It isn’t merely, or even primarily, Hegel that Kierkegaard has in mind, I would argue, when he refers to “ethics in the sense of social convention.” It’s Hans Lassen Martensen, his former teacher and eventual Bishop of Copenhagen. “De Sædelige” is the title of the first section of the first volume of Martensen’s Den christelige Ethik (Christian Ethics). Sædelighed, which according to Martensen, has its foundation in the family unit, is the foundation of Christian ethics. Den christelige Ethik was not published until after Kierkegaard’s death, but Martensen was an ardent follower of Hegel from the beginning of his philosophical career and is repeatedly and mercilessly caricatured as such by Kierkegaard.

“The general thrust of Protestant liberal thought from Kant to Hegel,” observes C. Stephen Evans in his introduction to Sylvia Walsh’s translation of Fear and Trembling (Cambridge, 2006), 

has been to understand genuine religious faith in ethical terms. Kant himself had closely linked true religious faith to the ethical life: “Apart from a good life-conduct, anything which the human being supposes that he can to do to become well-pleasing to God is mere religious delusion and counterfeit service of God.” When Kantian ethics is converted by Hegel to Sittlichkeit then the equation of faith with the ethical sets the stage for the triumph of Christendom and the identification of religious faith with social conformism. (p. xxix)

“Kierkegaard thinks that genuine faith,” continues Evans, “requires an individual relation with God that is personally transformative.” According to Kierkegaard, argues Evans, faith in God “is not reducible to fulfilling one’s social roles.” Such faith serves as the basis, he observes, however, of a renewal of the self and of social institutions. 

Only ethics in this new, specifically religious sense really counts as ethics for Kierkegaard because only through a transformation of the individual is there any hope of that individual’s conforming his or her will to the substance of the moral law. Outside of Grace, guilt is too debilitating, to corruptive of the subjective determining ground of the will. 

Hannay’s own view is that Kierkegaard “envisages some alternative” to the Hegelian principle of morality whereby there is no genuine conflict between what ethics requires and what God commands. Not only that, Hannay goes so far as to assert that Johannes de silentio, the pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, envisages such an alternative. 

Evans doesn’t give Johannes de silentio so much credit as Hannay does, but they agree that the view of ethics that equates it with Sittlichkeit/Sædelighed was not one to which Kierkegaard himself subscribed. Such a view is amply supported by the repeated qualifications of “the ethical” in Fear and Trembling as “the universal,” and at least one completely unequivocal reference to “the ethical in the sense of social convention” (Det Ethiske i Betydning of det SædeligeSKS 4, p. 153/SV, 2nd ed. III, p. 123). Unfortunately, the allusion to Hegel is obscured in both the Hongs’ and, more surprisingly, Hannay’s own translation of the relevant passage. The Hongs have “[t]he ethical in the sense of the moral” (p. 59) and Hannay has “[t]he ethical in the sense of ethical life” (p. 88). 

That Kierkegaard envisages an alternative to the Hegelian view of ethics is widely recognized by scholars. Kierkegaard is a famous opponent of Hegel on this point, as well as on many others. Scholars are familiar with Kierkegaard’s hyphenated expression “ethical-religious.” Ethics cannot ultimately be separated from religion, according to Kierkegaard, in the manner that both Hegel and Martensen try to do. More particularly, ethics cannot be separated from Christianity, as is clear in, for example, Kierkegaard’s ethical treatise Works of Love. 

If there is a God, then there is a way that God wants his creatures to relate to him (or her or it). That is, if there is a God, then the proper relation to God is the individual’s telos and insofar as the proper relation to God is going to involve relating in a particular way to the rest of creation, then ethics is subsumed under religion which means there cannot be any conflict between ethical duty and religious duty. The two are the same. 

One doesn’t need to be a Kierkegaard scholar to appreciate this. Not only is the logic of the above identification of ethical and religious duty unassailable, Kierkegaard has left ample clues in Fear and Trembling to indicate that “the ethical” as it is presented there ought always to have quotation marks around it in that there is another higher ethics in the background, an ethics not unlike the one that Stump defends in her effort to provide an ethical justification for Abraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice his son. 

Except that Abraham isn’t actually willing to sacrifice his son, on Stump’s reading. His faith is that God won’t actually ask him to do it in the end. 

Stump’s reading of the Abraham story has some very compelling elements, including the creative and original use she makes of Abraham’s earlier effective sacrifice of Ishmael. I would argue, however, that if Abraham’s faith was simply that God’s goodness would mean that he would not, in the end, require the sacrifice of Isaac, then Abraham comes off not as the father of faith, but merely as a really nice guy, unwilling, as Rhett Butler observes of Melanie Hamilton, to think ill of anyone she loves.

More on Translation

Sachs' Republic coverAs I mentioned before, I’m doing a new translation of the portion of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. There are actually already three English translations of Works of Love, so it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a new translation is necessary. Arguably, the project is defensible simply because it is only a portion of the work, one designed to be easily transportable, unlike the work as a whole, which at over 500 pages in its most recent English translation is not easily transportable. There is another reason, however, for re-translating this portion of Works of Love, and indeed, even for re-translating the work in its entirety. This reason was brought home to me recently in an upper-level seminar I am teaching this term on Plato’s Republic.

I made an important discovery recently, thanks to a couple of my students, about a problem in several translations, including Bloom’s, of Plato’s Republic.. I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on the Republic this term and my students are just fantastic. We’re on Book VIII, where Socrates describes the inevitable dissolution of the aristocratic city on which the majority of the work focuses. The aristocratic city first gives way to a timocracy, or a city whose highest value is honor. The timocracy next gives way to an oligarchy, or a city that values material wealth above all else. Corresponding to each type of political regime is a personality type.

The oligarchical personality type appears to be just. He isn’t really just, though, according to Socrates. He needs to maintain a good reputation for the purposes of contractual relations, but he does this, according to Socrates, by

forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself. He holds them down not by persuading them that they had “better not” nor by taming them with argument, but by necessity and fear. (554c7-d).

One of my students, Atiq Rahman, remarked that it was strange Socrates would say that the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires with some “decent” part of himself, but that despite that, he wasn’t really just, but only appeared to be just. Atiq wanted to know what the Greek term was that was translated as “decent.”

I looked it up. The Greek expression Plato uses in the passage where Socrates talks about how the the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires “with some decent part of himself” is ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The relevant term is ἐπιεικεῖ. It means “fitting,” “meet,” or “suitable” according to Liddell-Scott. It’s related to ὲπιείκεια, which means “reasonableness,” or “fairness,” Paul Shorey’s translation of the Republic for the Loeb Classical Library, translates this passage as “he, by some better element in himself forcibly keeps down other evil desires dwelling within.”

Atiq was right, though, to point out that there was a problem with describing the part of the oligarchical man that holds down his bad desires as “decent.” Neither Bloom’s “decent part of himself” nor Shorey’s “better element in himself” coheres well with the point Socrates is making in the passage because the oligarchical man isn’t trying to be good. He isn’t genuinely virtuous, but only appears to be virtuous. He holds down his evil desires, according to Socrates, out of “fear,” not because he wants to be good, but because he is afraid that by giving in to those desires, he’ll get a bad reputation and no one will want to do business with him. It isn’t any “decent” part or “better element” of himself through which he restrains his evil desires.

It looks like Shorey was aware of the fact that it isn’t actually anything “decent” in the oligarchical man that holds down his “bad desires” because he has a note in which he writes that “ἐπιεικεῖ is here used generally, and not in its special sense of ‘sweet reasonableness’.”

It appears ἐπιεικεῖ is being used here in the purely prudential sense of “fitting.” That is, what holds down oligarchical man’s “bad desires” is whatever it is in him that is, in fact, capable of doing this. It isn’t some morally praiseworthy part of himself. So why have so many scholars chosen to translate it with English terms that have positive moral or ethical connotations? Such translations actually make the passage harder to understand.

Jowett, another student, Mark Sorrentino, pointed out “has enforced virtue,” where Bloom has “decent part of himself” and that is definitely better than either Bloom’s or Shorey’s translations. The best translation of this passage that I have found, however, is, I believe, Joe Sachs’. Sachs has “quasi-decent constraint over himself” for ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The qualification “quasi” is important because it makes clear, as none of the other translations does, that the constraint the oligarchical man exercises over himself only seems to be “decent.”

I haven’t used Sachs translation before, but I am going to consider using it the next time I teach the Republic. It may not be uniformly better than other translations, but it definitely seems deserving of a closer look.

As I said, it’s tempting to think that works that have already been translated many times probably don’t need to be translated anew. In fact, however, as I know from experience, no translation is ever perfect and given that language itself changes over time, it is a good idea to re-translate important works at regular intervals, just to make sure that the language of the translation is keeping up with contemporary usage.

Now back to my translation of the portion of Works of Love that concerns loving someone who had died. I’m excited about this project. I’m designing it with three audiences in mind. First and foremost, it will be a work for the bereaved, a small volume that can be carried easily and read for comfort by those who have lost someone they love.

Second, it will be aimed at people who are attempting to learn Danish. It will have the original Danish text and the English translation on facing pages and an abundance of notes that will explain the reasoning behind various translation decisions including when material has been interpolated in order to make the text read well in English. It will also include more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. In fact, all the English translations of Works of Love include more paragraph divisions than exist in the original because Kierkegaard had a habit of writing very long paragraphs. This translation, however, will have even more paragraph divisions than any of the other English translations. The reason for this is not simply stylistic. Dividing the text in this way into relatively small portions will help readers who are using it as a help to learning Danish in that they will find it much easier to locate particular passages in the original.

Finally, the work will be aimed at students of translation, which is to say at people who intend to become professional translators. Even if such people have no particular interest in Kierkegaard, they will find the notes explaining the rationale behind various translation decisions very instructive.

And given that we will all, inevitably, lose someone we love, they may find it instructive in another way as well.

Remembering the Dead

9d1af61698cd834326cd38729144efaa--mourning-jewelry-opalineI’m on sabbatical now. My plan had been to use this time to finish Fear and Dissembling, the book I have been working on for many years. I’d conceived that plan, however, before my father died, and since his death I’ve found it hard to get back to that project. I’ve actually found it hard to do anything constructive. I need to do something, though, to occupy my time until my powers of concentration have returned, something worthwhile, so I have hit upon a project that I have so far found very therapeutic. I am translating the chapter from Works of Love entitled “The Work of Love of Remembering the Dead.” My plan is to find a publisher for this little book so that it can be available as a comfort to people who have recently lost someone they love. It will be a very slim volume because the chapter is only ten pages or so long, so even with the original Danish text on facing pages, a translator’s introduction, a preface, and very wide margins, it should come in well under a hundred pages.

I think it should have very wide margins because wide margins make for a more attractive page. The volume I am envisioning will be small and thin and beautiful, something that the bereaved can carry around with them, like a breast-pocket New Testament; something they can find comfort in, not merely because of the words, but because of the beauty of the object itself. There is something comforting about beauty. People realize this at an instinctive level. That’s the reason, or at least part of the reason, for mourning jewelry. That’s also part of the reason, I believe, why there is so much work on the relation between aesthetics and religion.

I have pasted the first two pages of my translation below. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I favor what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation,” or translation that endeavors to preserve the sense of the original, or “source,” text but which tends to be freer than “literal” or “faithful” translation (see Peter Newmark, A Textbook of Translation). Hence I have taken a few liberties in the text below. The term “graveyard” (i.e., Kirkegaard) does not appear in the original. Where I have “go out to a graveyard,” in the second paragraph, the text actually reads “gaae ud til de Døde” ––i.e., “go out to the dead.” My husband thought, however, when I gave him the text to read, that this might be a little disorienting to the reader, so he suggested that for at least this first reference to “de Døde,” I substitute “graveyard” for “the dead.” That seemed to me a good suggestion, so I have taken it.

I have also added, at my husband’s suggestion, more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. The entire text below is only two long paragraphs in the original, and that is also, I fear, a little disorienting.

I used both the Swensons’ translation from 1946 and the older Hongs’ translation from 1962 as guides. The Swensons’ translation is, unsurprisingly, generally superior to the Hongs’, but even it is not without problems as I will explain in detail in the eventual “Translator’s Introduction.” For now, the only translation issue I want to draw your attention to, in addition to the aforementioned one, is my choice of “reduced circumstances” for Kierkegaard’s “indskrænke sig.” That, I hope you will agree, is a clear improvement on both the Hongs’ “cut back,” and even the Swensons’ “restrict itself.”

But read the text and judge for yourself.

When, for some reason or other, a person fears he will be unable to maintain a general grasp of something complicated and complex, he tries to make, or to acquire, a brief summarizing concept of the whole –– to help him maintain his grasp. Death, in this way, is the shortest summary of life, or life reduced to its shortest form. That’s why it has always been so important to those who reflect on the meaning of life, frequently to test what they have understood about it by means of this short summary. For no thinker has such a command of life as death has, that powerful thinker, who is able not merely to think through every illusion, but to grasp it in its parts and as a whole, to think it to nothingness.

If then, you become confused when you consider the many and various paths life can take, go out to a graveyard, there “where all paths meet” –– then the grasp becomes easy. If your head swims from constantly observing and hearing about life’s diversities, then go out to the dead; there you have control of the differences; there in “Muldets Frænder,” “the fellowship of mold,” there are no differences, only close kinship. That all human beings are blood relations, that is, of one blood, this consanguinity is often denied in life, but that they are of one mold, are related through mortality, cannot be denied.

Yes, go again out among the dead, so that you can, from there, get a view of life. This is what a sharpshooter does. He seeks a place where the enemy can’t hit him but from which he can hit the enemy, and where he can have the requisite calm for taking aim. Don’t choose the evening for your visit because the stillness of the evening, of an evening spent among the dead, is often not far from a certain exaltation of mood which strains and “fills one with restlessness,” creating new mysteries instead of solving the old ones.

No, go there early in the morning when the sun peeps between the branches, alternating light with shadow, when the beauty and friendliness of the sea, when the singing of the birds and the multitudinous life everywhere almost allows you to forget that you are among the dead. It will seem to you as if you have arrived in a foreign country, a place unfamiliar with the distinctions and confusion of life, a childlike place, consisting entirely of small families. Here is attained what is sought vainly in life: equality. Each family has a little plot of land for itself, of approximately equal size. Each has more or less the same “view.” The sun can easily shine equally over them all; no building rises so high that it cuts off the sun’s rays, or the nourishment of the rain, or the wind’s fresh breezes, or the songs of the birds, from a neighbor. No, here everyone is equal.

It happens sometimes in life that a family that has enjoyed wealth and abundance must accept reduced circumstances, but in death, everyone must accept reduced circumstances. There may be minor differences, perhaps six inches in the size of a plot, or that one family has a tree, which another inhabitant does not, on its plot. Why do you think there are these small differences? It is to remind you, by means of a profound jest, of how great the difference was. How loving death is! For it is certainly loving of death to use these small differences to remind us, through edifying humor, of just how great the difference was. Death does not say “there is absolutely no difference”; it says “you see there how great the difference was: six inches.”

If there were not these small differences, neither would death’s grasp be completely reliable. Life returns, in this way, in death, to childishness. Whether one owned a tree, a flower, a rock, made a great deal of difference in childhood. And the difference hinted at what later in life would appear on a very different scale. Now life is over and this little hint of a difference among the dead remains to soften, through humor, the memory of how things were.