Fear and Trembling, by Søren Kierkegaard

With modern philosophy filled to choking with materialism and epistemology it’s almost startling to pick up a book that wants to confront ideas like faith, existence, and ethics.

Kierkegaard wrote this book under a pseudonym (Johannes de Silentio or John of the Silence) as he did with many of his books. The title is taken from a line in Philippians 2:12 “… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

To analyse this anxiety of faith, Kierkegaard uses several stories to work through his ideas. First and foremost is the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Was Abraham simply a murderer or what Kierkegaard will call later in the book a “knight of faith”? Was he ethical in not telling anyone about the goal of the four-day trip? He gathered animals, wood, a knife, and headed out with Isaac to the wilderness without telling Isaac or wife Sarah anything about the purpose of the trip. Was it unethical or was a certain level of blindness necessary?

He takes the idea further with the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia. Here’s a similar story to Abraham and Isaac. Agamemnon wants to sail his armies to Troy to begin the Trojan war but the winds have been still. He has offended the goddess Artemis who commands him to sacrifice Iphigenia. Agamemnon coaxes his daughter to the island of Aulis, telling her that she will be going there to marry Achilles. In some versions (the one Kierkegaard uses) Agamemnon hands the sacrificial knife to another warrior who kills her. In other versions Artemis steps in and rescues Iphigenia, not unlike the Abraham story. Again, a person of determined faith keeping his planned actions internalized until the moment of action.

It’s not always easy reading, especially in a bad translation. Ludwig Wittgenstein, not an uncomplicated thinker, read it in German and said it was beyond him at times. Still, Kierkegaard, after Immanuel Kant, ranks as one of the most influential philosophers of that era between 1750 and 1850. His works influenced several 20th century schools of philosophy, most notably the existentialists. The book is fairly brief and there are several helpful guides on the internet and in book form. The books tend to be pricey and you can get as much guidance without going too deep into the woods on Wikipedia. The book linked here is $0.99 in the Kindle version and less than $5 in the paperback. A good translation.