Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Fear and TremblingFear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What strikes me is how little it would take to update Fear and Trembling, how relevant it remains. I say this not as someone who has made the movement of faith—by no means.  I remain just an aesthete. In fact, what has changed most since Kierkegaard’s time is the extent to which aesthetics—aesthetics alone, it seems—has absorbed his critique.

Most of what he refers to as “aesthetics” in his book we would call “entertainment.”  Granted, he even criticizes Shakespeare, but most of his examples of the aesthetic sound like what for us would be bad movies: “It is only aesthetics which irresponsibly thinks it can praise the power of love by letting the lost man be loved by an innocent girl and be saved thereby.”

If he could walk among us again, I suspect he’d find the aesthetes the only people he could stand, even if they, or we, remain largely confined to the sphere he called the demonic, by which I take him to refer to an absolute negativity. His persona Johannes de silentio writes,

He will spare himself no torment, for this is the deep contradiction in the demonic and in a sense there dwells infinitely more good in a demonic than in a superficial person.  […]  The demonic has that same property as the divine, that the individual can enter into an absolute relationship to it.  […] A demon knows how to torture powers out of even the weakest person, and in his way he can have the best intentions towards a human being.

Yes, that is the modern artist. Silentio is quick to warn us not to be misled by this superficial resemblance between the demonic and the divine, but that’s easier said than done, as he well knows.

So I could easily imagine Silentio‘s harsh judgments upon his age, which, as he says, “turns wine into water,” applying to our own. Here are just some passages I’ve marked, tagged to the present, occasionally mashed-up from different ends of the book to yield a complete thought.

Starting with the arts, we find our devotees of so-called “genre fiction,” followed by what is not encompassed by the affective monotony of what passes for genre today:

…aesthetics is a respectful and sentimental discipline which knows more ways of fixing things than any assistant house-manager.  […]  Only a clash of passion against passion provides a poetic collision, not this rummaging about in the particulars of the same passion.

Here we find our New Atheist, some Dawkins or McEwan type, the mechanical materialist reductionist:

…one of those scientific doubters who doubt for an hour every term at the lectern but can otherwise do anything, as indeed they do without the help of spirit or on its strength.

Here is what is not understood by the religious positivists or literalists of all creeds, always urging that their prescriptions, supposedly derived from “natural law,” be written into the actual legal code in a fit of category confusion:

Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for in that case it would be cancelled.  Faith is this paradox, and the single individual is quite unable to make himself intelligible to anyone.

And here we see our sociological determinists, referring every move anyone makes to a pre-established step in the dance of power (and I type out the last sentence of the quote as a gentle rebuke to the vulgate version of this determinism, now riding high on the internet under the almost unbelievably spurious name of “social justice”):

…for it is not what happens to me that makes me great, but what I do, and there is surely no one who thinks that anybody became great by winning the big lottery prize.  Even of a person born in humble circumstances I ask that he should not be so inhuman towards himself as to be unable to think of the king’s castle except at a distance and by dreaming of its grandeur indistinctly, wanting to exalt it and simultaneously destroying its grandeur by exalting it in such a debasing way.

And here is a riposte to the progressivists and presentists and technophiles among us, from the ever-ready laptop bombardiers to the educational reformers, who think a little mechanical improvement and a few contingent alterations in social mores have liquidated the need for humanistic study:

Yet in our time people are less concerned with making pure movements.  Suppose someone wanting to learn to dance said: ‘For hundreds of years now one generation after another has been learning dance steps, it’s high time I took advantage of this and began straight off with a set of quadrilles.’  One would surely laugh a little at him; but in the world of spirit such an attitude us considered utterly plausible.  What then is education?  I had thought it was the curriculum the individual ran through in order to catch up with himself; and anyone who does not want to go through this curriculum will be little helped by being born into the most enlightened age.  […]  However much one generation learns from another, it can never learn from its predecessor the genuinely human factor.  In this respect every generation begins afresh, has no other task than that of any previous generation, and comes no further, provided the latter hasn’t shirked its task and deceived itself.  This authentically human factor is passion…

And finally, who—I include myself first and foremost—couldn’t benefit from pondering this?:

The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which is honored under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity.  A person who wants only to be a witness confesses thereby that on one, not even the least, needs another person’s sympathy, or is to be put down so another can raise himself up.  But because what he himself won he did not win on the cheap, so neither does he sell it on the cheap; he is not so pitiable as to accept people’s admiration and pay for it with silent contempt; he knows that whatever is truly great is available equally for all.



  1. […] After Carson I read and reviewed Mikita Brottman’s excellect Thirteen Girls (see here) and essayed upon Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus (see here).  Inspired by Michael Clune, I read my first Thomas Bernhard, the wounding, haunting, and ultimately cheering Woodcutters, a ferocious monologue about all the missed alliances between art and life.  Coetzee brought me to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, another piercing monologue, a book I found all too relevant to the present (see here).  […]

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