Taking on the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio and taking up the theme of the binding of Isaac, Søren Kierkegaard intensely examines what it might mean to “serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). After four retellings of Abraham’s journey up Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, the work turns to a rigorous examination of three theologico-philiosophical problemata.

This riveting “dialectical lyric” is an inquiry into the ultimacy of faith, the limits of rationality, and their implications for understanding the good life. Fear and Trembling prompts the reader to confront what is at stake in the leap from finitude to transcendence in light of some of the biggest challenges of modern culture and politics.

Image: Abraham’s Sacrifice, 1655

 

Matthew Dinan on Kierkegaard and Leveling in a Reflective Age

Faculty

Matthew Dinan

Matthew Dinan is an Associate Professor in the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He does research on Ancient Greek, Christian, and 19th and 20th Century Political Philosophy.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

Topics:

  • Faith & Modern Philosophy 
  • The Akeda 
  • Fear and Trembling as “dialectical lyric”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Fear and Trembling is a “dialectical lyric by Johannes de Silentio,” or “John of Silence.” What does a “dialectical lyric” seem to be? Who is Johannes de Silentio? What does he tell us about himself in these opening sections
  2. How does Silentio interpret Descartes? Are you persuaded?
  3. In “Tuning Up,” Silentio tells a story about a man who, as a child, heard the “beautiful story” of the Akeda. What is this man’s interest in the story? What is Silentio’s interest in this exegete? What kind of an exegete is Silentio himself?
  4. What do the four retellings of the Binding of Isaac have in common? How do they differ?
  5. Silentio emphasizes that Abraham “believed and believed for this life.” Why does he emphasize this element of his faith? What else does Silentio admire about Abraham?

Readings:

Topics:

  • Hegel’s Political Thought
  • Infinite Resignation
  • The “leap of faith”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Silentio mean when he remarks that “in the world of spirit” it is true that “only the one who works gets the bread” and “only the one who draws the knife gets Isaac?” How does Hegel’s philosophy attempt to change this? 
  2. Why does Silentio focus on Abraham’s putative “anxiety?” 
  3. What does Silentio mean when he juxtaposes the “ethical” meaning of the Abraham story with its “religious” meaning? Why should the difference between these “make a person sleepless?” 
  4. Does it matter that Silentio “by no means” has faith? What sorts of things does Silentio tell us about God in the Preliminary Outpouring? 
  5. Why, specifically, is “going beyond Hegel” a “miracle?” 
  6. What is the difference between a tragic hero and the knight of faith? Why does Silentio dwell on this distinction so often in Fear and Trembling? 
  7. What is infinite resignation? How does it differ from the “movements of faith?” Is there anything surprising or confusing to you about Silentio’s description of faith? How can Silentio describe an experience of faith that he does not share? 

Readings:

Topics:

  • Historicism
  • Tragedy
  • Hegel’s Ethics

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? What would this mean? Are there any others you can imagine? What does this mean for Silentio? For Kant? For Hegel? 
  2. When Silentio argues that if the single individual is not higher than the ethical universal then “faith has never existed because it has always existed,” what does he mean? 
  3. What does it mean to “judge according to the outcome?” Why is this a problem for human greatness? Why is Silentio so bothered by Hegel’s “world historical individuals?”  

Readings:

Topics:

  • Duty—to God, and to human beings
  • Silentio & Kantian Ethics 
  • Individualism & Faith 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What becomes of “the ethical” if there is an absolute duty to God? Is there room for ethics if it is not absolute? 
  2. Silentio writes: “If faith is nothing beyond what philosophy passes it off to be, then Socrates has already gone further, much further, instead of the converse…” What does he mean by this?
  3. How does the inwardness of faith differ from other types of inwardness, according to Silentio? Does Silentio’s presentation of faith make it unhelpfully “subjective?” 
  4. How does tragedy differ from faith, according to Silentio? Why is Silentio so preoccupied with comparing Abraham with tragedy? Is there not something that is instead comic about faith? 
  5. Does Silentio overstate the individualistic character of faith? Is it true that there can be no “partnership” in the task of faith? Why or why not? 

Readings:

Topics:

  • The Crisis of Modernity 
  • Irony & Silence 
  • Silentio’s intentions in writing Fear and Trembling—and Kierkegaard’s 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is there “no justified concealment” or silence in the Hegelian philosophy? Is this true for other types of philosophy, too? 
  2. What does Socrates seem to have in common with Abraham? Why is Silentio so interested in Socrates during the third problem? How does Socrates relate to religious faith? Why is irony so important in problem three? 
  3. What role do the poetic personages of problem three play in the argument of this problem? Does the story of Agnes and the Merman in particular introduce any new complications to Silentio’s investigation? 
  4. How does doubt relate to faith in the third problem? 
  5. Why precisely can Abraham not speak? How does his silence relate to the pseudonym “Silentio?” To the book’s epigram, from Hamann? 
  6. What is Silentio’s critique of the post-modern age in problem three and the epilogue? How is faith a potential solution to the problem(s) he diagnoses? Is there a role for philosophy? 
  7. What do you make of the image of the Dutch spice merchants in the Epilogue? What does it suggest about Silentio’s decision to write about faith? 
  8. Does Silentio succeed in his goals in writing Fear and Trembling? Why or why not? What seems to be Kierkegaard’s intention in creating this pseudonym to write this book? 

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