Kierkegaard’s Philosophy in “Fear and Trembling”

Thesis: Kierkegaard claims about absolute choice, which on being a realization of freedom, means a choice of not this or that, but self in the eternal meaning.

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In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard wrote: “If faith cannot make it a holy act to be willing to murder his son, then let the same judgment be passed on Abraham as on everyone else. If a person lacks the courage to think his thought all the way through and say that Abraham was a murderer, then it is certainly better to attain this courage than to waste time on unmerited eulogies. The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac-but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety, Abraham is not who he is” (pg. 30).

To Kierkegaard’s opinion, there are three basic types of existence, or three stages of human existence: aesthetic, ethical, and religious, and they go in such sequence so first two types as a matter of fact act as preliminary stages on a way to religious existence. The focus of the third, religious stage is an instant of the “leap of faith”, which opens the true sense of existence consisting in the absolute relation to God, i.e. paradoxical contact of time and eternal, that in its turn is the existential repetition of the absolute Paradox: existing (= temporal) and eternal when the God existed in an image of a person. Davenport et al. state: “in a sense, the Christian life is essentially natural, for although life can only be understood retrospectively, it has to be lived forwards. Either way, it is a matter of relating the temporal to the eternal, but whilst

“[t]he speculative principle is that I arrive at the eternal retrogressively… an existing individual can have a relationship to the eternal only as something perspective, as something in the future” (CUP 380);

hence the need to relate to the eternal through the repetition of the encounter with the eternal-in-time rather than through time itself, in the philosophical or historical investigation”1.

Emphasizing on the personal character of God-relation, Kierkegaard rejects the mediated communication with God, recognizing absolute inexpressiveness of experience of belief, acting in that way as a successor of that line in interpretation of Christianity, which goes from epistles of Apostle Paul, through the philosophy of Tertullian, Augustine, medieval mysticism and Pascal to well-known “Sola Fide” of Luther. Any existential experience finds, in Kierkegaard’s opinion, true sense and concerns to the sphere of true existence so far as it promotes comprehension by the person of the religious value of own individuality (as opposed to non-true existence, connected with the dispersion of subjectivity and hence, taking away from the God).

Special attention thus Kierkegaard pay to the fear connected with the experience of the person of own existence as life “face to face with death”2, and also to despair as to an initial point for the achievement of absolute. Existence, according to Kierkegaard, demands constant spiritual pressure and suffering (in particular at a religious stage). The basic existential concepts, called to describe non-cognizable and inconceivable in its secret existence, are not deduced consistently one of another, but mutually conditioned in such a manner that each concept already encloses all the others.

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The true existence has ethic-individual character. Thus an individual as the concrete according to Kierkegaard acts as a condition of realization of ethical as universal, i.e. has ethical (debt) not outside of self, but inside of self. The ethical essence of existence concentrates on the concept of choice. Kierkegaard claims about absolute choice, which is the realization of freedom, means a choice of not this or that, but self in the eternal meaning. “The notion of choice in Kierkegaard cannot be separated from his notion of ‘freedom’, for it is the freedom of the existing individual to make choices, together with the demand that he makes choices, which define the ‘paradoxical’ nature of ethical existence, that is, the continuous confrontation of the individual with alternative and exclusive possibilities of action”3.

Ethical existence has a set of quite steady, reliable correlations with the world. Reality challenges individuals, reality constantly rises before them as a train of tasks. Solving these tasks, an ethicist proceeds from moral continuity of own “self”. Any choice is an additional step in the construction of a personality. However, unlike an aesthete for whose own personality breaks up to a number of potential opportunities, an ethicist considers that realization of self is a task, which is quite realizable. We choose our own self quite freely, however, the concrete targets, which create a selection field, are put forward by circumstances of life. Kierkegaard claims:

“A person who aesthetically considers a whole range of life-tasks… is more likely to arrive at a multiplicity than an either/or, because here the factor of self-determination in the choice is not given an ethical emphasis, and because, if one does not choose absolutely, one chooses for that moment only and can, for that reason, choose something else the next instant. The ethical choice is therefore in a certain sense far easier, far simpler, but in another sense infinitely more difficult”4.

For Kierkegaard ethical existence as a whole is more worthy than an aesthetic one. Ethical existence is regarded as a state of maturity, responsibility, ability to make the riskiest and difficult decisions. Perhaps the only thing that it is necessary to leave at the previous stage is creativity, spontaneous impulse inducing us to art creativity.

But even consistently conducted ethical direction cannot relieve a person of despair. We can be as much as moral, we can persistently see to it that every instant of choice has been ethically colored, and however even the highest principles cannot relieve a person of fear of death, of comprehension of instability of own being. Nevertheless, individuals, who already have learned to choose resolutely, are already able to take the next step bringing them into the sphere of religion.

At the religious stage, the opportunity of overcoming despair appears connected with absolutely doubtful and absurd from the reasonable point of view acceptance of being of God. Kierkegaard quite realizes that the nature of Christian religiousness is all the way through paradoxical: human’s self only then recovers and may release from despair when it, by virtue of all of the same despair, begins to see self in God.


  1. Davenport, John J., Anthony Rudd, Alasdair C. MacIntyre, and Philip L. Quinn. Kierkegaard After MacIntyre Essays on Freedom, Narrative, and Virtue. Chicago: Open Court, 2001.
  2. In Fragments, Climacus confides that death is his lovely dancing partner, the partner, we might say, who gives him life. And in a story from Stages on LifeWay, a glance of recognition puts a walker face to face with death, which paradoxically starts him on toward life.
  3. Solomon, Robert C. From Rationalism to Existentialism; The Existentialists and Their Nineteenth-Century Backgrounds. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
  4. Kierkegaard, Søren, and V. Eremita. Either/or. A Fragment of Life. Garden City: [s.n.], 1959.
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