The Meaning of “Ethics” in Fear and Trembling

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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.

Debunking the Kierkegaard Myths

kierkegaard2_360x450Kierkegaard kept voluminous journals. It’s reasonable to assume from that that his would be an easy biography to write. In fact, it is fairly easy to write a biography of Kierkegaard and quite a few have been written including David F. Swenson’s Something About Kierkegaard (Augsburg, 1941), Walter Lowrie’s A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1942), Johannes Hohlenberg’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Pantheon, 1954), Henning Fenger’s Kierkegaard, The Myths and their Origins (Yale, 1980), Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard: A Biography (Cambridge, 2001), Joakim Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005), Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan, 2016), and most recently, Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart (Allen Lane, 2019). What isn’t so easy is to write a biography that is genuinely revealing, that delves beneath the surface facts of Kierkegaard’s life and his own well-known observations on them to show something of the man behind the biographical myths.

All the existing biographies give essentially the same picture of Kierkegaard, a picture that has been cobbled together from Kierkegaard’s journals and accounts of some of his contemporaries. They present him as a somewhat reclusive, oddly attired, physically misshapen, passionately religious melancholic from a similarly passionately religious melancholic family. There is little question that the “passionately religious” qualification is correct. Kierkegaard came from a devoutly religious family whose spiritual roots were in the individualistic tradition of the Moravian Brethren, and they maintained their connection to this denomination even while enjoying membership in the official Danish Lutheran Church.

The picture of Kierkegaard as a melancholic loner who was the product of an unhappy childhood comes largely from his own observations about himself in his journals. Even Fenger and Garff, both of whom point out how careful Kierkegaard was at crafting the image of himself that he wanted to survive his death, give too much credence to what Kierkegaard writes about himself. Scattered among the many reminiscences of people who knew Kierkegaard are clues that suggest the narrator of the journals is unreliable.

Kierkegaard writes repeatedly that his childhood was unhappy. Observations of the Kierkegaard household, however, by visiting friends and acquaintances invariably describe it as warm and happy, presided over by loving parents who took conspicuous pride in their children’s abilities and accomplishments. See, for example, the reminiscences collected in the section entitled “Barndom og skoleår” (childhood and school years) in Erindringer om Søren Kierkegaard (memories of Søren Kierkegaard) (Reitzel, 1980).

Kierkegaard describes his father as profoundly melancholic. There is little evidence, however, to support that Michael Pedersen suffered from depression until very late in his life after his second wife, and the mother of his children, died and then his children began to die off, one by one, in early adulthood. Kierkegaard’s older brother, Peter Christian, gives a similar picture of the family, and it is well known that he struggled with depression himself. But again, there is little evidence that this was a serious problem until after he lost his mother and siblings to death and after he lost his first wife shortly after their marriage.

The death of a loved one naturally leads to depression and to lose one’s children is reportedly one of the worst kinds of losses. Peter Christian lived through the death of nearly all his siblings, as well as the death of his first wife, and added to the grief of those losses was the undoubtedly disturbing spectacle of his once strong father’s own struggles with grief. That both Kierkegaard’s father and his older brother suffered from depression later in their lives makes perfect sense. That in itself is not sufficient, however, to support that the family had any sort of congenital predisposition to depression, or that Kierkegaard’s childhood home had been characterized by it. My point is not to argue that the traditional picture of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood is necessarily wrong, but simply that there are reasons to doubt it.

Kierkegaard describes his father as authoritarian, yet it is well known, as a contemporary, Peter Munte Brun observes in Erindringer, that the elder Kierkegaard encouraged his children (his male children anyway) to debate with him on points of philosophy and theology. Michael Pedersen may well have been authoritarian in some respects, but most devoutly religious heads of households insist, if they are authoritarian, on conformity on intellectual matters and, in particular on points of theology. So if Michael Petersen was authoritarian, it was not in the traditional sense.

But if this negative view of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood home is inaccurate, why do we find it in Kierkegaard’s journals? There are two possible reasons. The first is that the Romantics tended, paradoxically, to have a positive view of melancholy—it was romantic. Kierkegaard was steeped in the Romantic worldview and appeared to enjoy thinking of himself as a romantic figure. Second, many of his accounts of his family and childhood that support this view were written after the family experienced the tragic losses referred to above, hence Kierkegaard’s later view of his family and this period of his life may well have been negatively affected by these losses in the same way that his brother’s likely was.

Part of The Corsair’s merciless caricaturing of Kierkegaard included depicting him as hunch-backed with trouser legs of two different lengths. Was Kierkegaard hunchbacked? Most accounts of contemporaries make no mention of this purported deformity and the medical records from Frederiks Hospital, where Kierkegaard breathed his last in 1855, include no reference to it. There are a few accounts of Kierkegaard from contemporaries that describe him as “slightly hunched” (Erindringer, 67-68), but that’s very different from saying he was hunch-backed. Strangely, even Fenger gives too much credence to the view that Kierkegaard was hunch-backed. There is actually no evidence, however, to suggest that Kierkegaard suffered from anything more than poor posture, or what is sometimes referred to as a “scholarly slouch.” Even that is largely conjecture given that the few references we have to this purported physical characteristic of Kierkegaard date from the period after he was portrayed this way in the caricatures published by The Corsair when people’s memories of Kierkegaard might well have been influenced by those caricatures.

Were Kierkegaard’s trouser legs of two different lengths? Anyone who knows anything about Kierkegaard and gives this idea a moment’s thought will realize that it’s extremely improbable Kierkegaard would ever have appeared in public in such poorly-tailored attire. Kierkegaard was a notorious flâneur whose excessive tailor bills were the bane of his father’s existence. This is likely the reason, in fact, that The Corsair chose to depict him as poorly attired. Nothing would have irked the vain Kierkegaard more than being presented as anything less than impeccably dressed.

I address the myth that Kierkegaard was reclusive in a publication that will appear shortly, so I won’t scoop myself by going into that issue here. Suffice it to say that it makes little sense to suppose that a well-known flâneur could also have been a recluse.

So there you have it. More support could be presented, of course, to challenge each of the prevailing myths about Kierkegaard that turn up in nearly every biography of him like so many bad pennies. Again, my point here is not to argue that there is no truth to these myths, but only to point out that there is reason to suppose that there is less truth than has traditionally been thought.

A Problem with Hannay’s Postscript

I have said before, and I will say again, that Alastair Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard for Penguin are superior to the Hongs’ translations for Princeton. I will probably do some posts comparing them again. That is not the purpose of the present post, however. I’m teaching a seminar on Kierkegaard now at Haverford College where we’re reading Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, and his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs. We’re using my translation of the Crumbs from Oxford and Hannay’s translation of the Postscript from Cambridge. In the course of my reading through this new translation of the Postscript, I have discovered a number of problems with it.

The most serious and most perplexing problem is Hannay’s systematically translating Kierkegaard’s Opvakt as “reborn.” Opvakt literally means “awakened.” It comes from the verb opvække, that, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to awake, rouse, excite, stir up.” An Opvækkelse is similarly defined by Ferrall-Repp as an “awakening.” Kierkegaard uses the expression en Opvakt to refer to a follower of the charismatic Danish priest Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (see the commentary to SKS).

One might be tempted to argue that while “awakened” is the most literal translation of Opvakt, it is awkward in English to refer to the members of a particular religious movement as “awakened.” Unfortunately, “reborn” isn’t much better if it is better at all. The idiomatic expression in English would be “born again.”

The more serious difficulty, however, with the translation of Opvakt as “reborn” is that it is misleading, so misleading, in fact, that it is likely to make readers dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard conclude that his thought is incoherent. Kierkegaard speaks in the following passage from the Philosophical Crumbs of a “rebirth” of the individual who receives the condition for understanding the truth from the god in time.

To the extent that the disciple was in error and now receives the truth as well as the condition for understanding it, a change takes place in him that is like the transition from not being to being. But this transition from not being to being is precisely that of birth [Fødselens]. He who exists already can hardly be born, and yet he is born. Let us call this transition rebirth [Gjenfødslen](96).

The expression for “rebirth” is Gjenfødslen. Gjenfødslen comes from adding the prefix Gjen (which comes from Igien, which means “again”) to Fødsel, which, according to Ferrall-Repp. is defined as “delivery, parturation, birth, nativity.”

This “rebirth” is an unqualifiedly positive thing. It is, indeed, precisely the temporal point of departure for a person’s “eternal consciousness” the possibility of which was posed as “the problem of the Crumbs.

Kierkegaard’s “Gjenfødslen” is a positive phenomenon, indeed, THE positive phenomenon. Kierkegaard has little respect, however, for the followers of Grundtvig, so his references to them as Opvakt are all pejorative.

What is the poor reader dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard to make of this? When he reads the Crumbs, he’ll find that “rebirth” is equivalent to an individual’s encounter with God in the person of Christ. When he proceeds, however, to the Postscript, he’ll read that “[t]he one who is reborn … is not relating to God” (381, emphasis added).

This isn’t the only misleading reference in Hannay’s translation to someone who is “reborn.” There is also a reference on page 383 to “the impudent assurance in the fact of God of the one reborn.” There’s another reference on page 424 to “the one who is reborn impertinently retain[ing] God.” When I did a search on “reborn” on my electronic copy of the book, I got 25 hits. Some of the pages, such as 429, have multiple references because Kierkegaard goes on at some length in those places about what is wrong with the followers Grundtvig –– except that the reader very likely won’t know that’s what Kierkegaard is doing, but will assume he’s critiquing the views he developed himself in the Philosophical Crumbs.

Kierkegaard is not critiquing his own earlier views, or worse, contradicting himself. “Rebirth” is a literal translation of Gjenfødslen. It is not, however, a literal translation of Opvakt, and given that Kierkegaard uses Opvakt only pejoratively and Gjenfødslen only positively, a translator needs to be careful to preserve that terminological distinction in order to avoid confusing the reader and perhaps compelling him to conclude that Kierkegaard just wasn’t all that rigorous a thinker.

I thought it was important to alert readers to this problem because people who read my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs will very likely be inclined to read Hannay’s translation of the Postscript since Hannay also translates Kierkegaard’s Smuler as “crumbs.”

Hannay got Smuler right, but he got Opvakt wrong.