Should one act like Abraham? This question lives behind Fear and Trembling, in which Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio explicates the problem of faith as depicted by Abraham’s actions. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: his only son, the best he has, and his one limb stretched towards eternity. Abraham silently takes his son to the top of Mount Moriah, ready to sacrifice him, before God commands him to give a ram up instead. He keeps his son in the end. Yet he was prepared to give everything up, to commit a murder which nobody could ever understand, all for a command from God which only he could hear. The deed he was to commit would prove nothing but “personal virtue”—that Abraham’s will was God’s will. But did Abraham choose to unite his will with God? Did he have to undergo the anguish of deciding to slaughter his only son? Did this command force him to make such a choice? In this essay, I argue that Abraham did not make a choice to sacrifice Isaac. His faith rests on the fact that his devotion to God lacks any choice. He never had to decide whether or not to sacrifice Isaac, because he knew that he would not give him up, that he never would have to—Isaac would return to Abraham’s arms regardless of whether or not he was sacrificed. Abraham’s act of faith is only a choice under an ethical framework—for Abraham himself, it was nothing; Abraham’s faith, too, exceeds choice; it cannot be chosen. We cannot ‘act’ like Abraham, because we do not have agency to be what Abraham is.
Abraham’s problem is the teleological suspension of the ethical. He is called to do something ethically unjustifiable to prove an absolute devotion to God: to kill his son, reasonless, to prove faith. Johannes defines the ethical by writing, “the ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times.” The ethical is the deed which anyone can do at any time—it is what is right, justified, and legible. Abraham’s relationship to his son is clear: “In ethical terms, Abraham’s relation to Isaac is quite simply this: the father shall love the son more than himself.” He ought to take care of his son before himself. His faith cannot precede his duty, ethically. Yet, to prove his devotion to God, he had to take on a different end than acting ethically. Johannes writes, “Abraham’s citation is different. By his act he transgressed the ethical altogether and had a higher τέλος outside it, in relation to which he suspended it.” To act with his relation to God as his end, Abraham had to suspend the ethical as his purpose by explicitly transgressing it. His task, and his problem, is to put his relationship to God over his duty to his son. This “purely personal,” selfish move, is ethically illegible—yet Abraham must do it.
When living under the framework of the ethical, one feels anxiety when called to transgress it. This anxiety unfolds as a hesitation which allows the ethical to overtake the transgression. Johannes begins his analysis of Abraham with the Exordium, in which he portrays four scenes in which Abraham dwells in the ethical during the sacrifice. He feels anxiety and ruins the slaughter by his hesitation. In the first, Johannes writes, “Abraham’s face epitomized fatherliness…He seized Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground, and said… ‘Do you think it is God’s command? No, it is my desire’…But Abraham said softly to himself, ‘Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me a monster than that he should lose faith in you.’” Johannes, caught up in his ethical fatherly relation, ruins the sacrifice because of his anxiety. He loses the sacrifice as a pure relation to God, instead making a legible excuse to his son so that his son maintains faith. The second situation is different: “Silently [Abraham] arranged the firewood and bound Isaac; silently he drew the knife—then he saw the ram that God had selected. This he sacrificed and went home. From that day henceforth, Abraham was old, he could not forget that God has ordered him to do this…[his] eyes were darkened, and he saw joy no more.” Abraham does not ruin the sacrifice by speaking. He ruins it because he cannot fathom a relationship with a God who tells him to transgress the ethical, causing him to loathe and fear God. The third situation depicts an Abraham who loathes himself: “He could not comprehend that it was a sin that he had been willing to sacrifice to God the best that he had…and if it was a sin, if he had not loved Isaac in this manner, he could not understand that it could be forgiven.” He cannot fathom a relationship with God, not because of God’s ethical imperfection, but because of his own—he cannot be forgiven, a forgiving he only cares for under his ethical mindset. In the fourth situation, Abraham hesitates during the slaughter: “When he turned away and drew the knife, Isaac saw that Abraham’s left hand was clenched in despair, that a shudder went through his whole body.” His hesitation, expressed in his clenched hand, causes Isaac to lose the faith—if his father doubts God when following his direct word, how could he ever follow God? In each of these situations, Abraham, concerned with the ethical, feels anxiety because of his ethical mindset. His anxiety ruins the direct relation.
Abraham, in reality, feels no anxiety, no doubt, and expresses no hesitation in sacrificing Isaac. Johannes writes:
And there he stood, the old man with his solitary hope. But he did not doubt, he did not look in anguish to the left and to the right, he did not challenge heaven with his prayers. He knew it was God the Almighty who was testing him; he knew it was the hardest sacrifice that could be demanded of him; but he knew also that no sacrifice is too severe when God demands it—and he drew the knife.
The Abraham who sacrificed Isaac in actuality felt no need to think about others, to concern himself with Isaac’s faith. He did not doubt God or his command, and he felt no tension between the ethical and God’s will, for the latter had absolute precedence. Because he had no ethical concerns, he had no doubt—so the sacrifice went well.
Abraham experiences no doubt or anxiety because he maintains that, despite the sacrifice of the best, he will have his son. He believes he will get his son back by virtue of the absurd. He has no reason to believe, but his dogmatic faith in God calls him to think he will return with him in this life. Johannes writes, “The absurd…was and continues to be an impossibility. The knight of faith realizes this just as clearly; consequently, he can be saved only by the absurd, and this he grasps by faith. Consequently, he acknowledges the impossibility, and in the very same moment he believes the absurd.” Abraham, as a knight of faith of sorts, recognizes that it is impossible for his son to return after he kills him. He grasps onto his belief through faith in the face of impossibility. Johannes writes, “it takes a paradoxical and humble courage to grasp the whole temporal realm now by virtue of the absurd, and this is the courage of faith. By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac.” By sticking to the impossible, through faith, Abraham continued to have Isaac—not merely that God gave him back, but that, in his faith, Abraham never loses Isaac. Isaac remains with Abraham as long as Abraham wills him back through the absurd, regardless of his death. Abraham’s willing for Isaac prevents him from doubting the command during the sacrifice.
This lack of doubt explicitly contradicts the ethical doubt when called upon for sacrifice, as the ethical individual will not maintain such faith in an absurd notion. The ethical is the universal—the universal cannot rest on a principle of negation, a principle which is no principle; the ethical cannot rest on the absurd. Abraham’s faith is absurd, thereby never making contact with the ethical. Johannes writes, “By virtue of the absurd to get everything, to get one’s desire totally and completely—that is over and beyond human powers, that is a marvel.” The universal human simply cannot will by virtue of the absurd in the way Abraham does. It is “beyond human powers;” that is, human faculties cannot bring about this will. Abraham possesses something—his faith in the absurd—we cannot, with human agency, attain.
Since Abraham feels no doubt, he experiences no choice regarding the sacrifice. Once commanded, he moved to do as he was told. There was no hesitation in the act. The lack of doubt which Abraham possesses affirms his faith—for if he doubted the command, he would have to do so because of ethical concerns. If faith were a choice for Abraham—that is, if Abraham had doubted and then chosen to sacrifice—he would not be faithful. He does not make a movement when called upon to sacrifice Isaac. The movement would be too late, and the sacrifice would be ruined. The sacrifice merely proves that Abraham lacks all doubt, through faith in the absurd, something which human powers cannot muster up. We cannot choose to be like Abraham, because if we are choosing, we have already failed to be like him.