THR Web Features   /   February 3, 2022

An Unlikely Meditation on Modern Happiness

Rereading Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”

Ryan Kemp

( The Sacrifice of Isaac. Wellcome Collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

In his preface to Fear and Trembling (1843), Søren Kierkegaard (writing under the pseudonym, Johannes de silentio) says he hopes no one will read his book. Further, he predicts his wish will be granted because of the reading proclivities of his contemporaries, whose one requirement of a book is that it can be consumed during the afternoon nap.

With this new (and beautifully rendered) translation of Fear and Trembling by Bruce Kirmmse, professor emeritus of history at Connecticut College, W.W. Norton & Company is hoping to entice, if not new readers, then at least new purchasers of Kierkegaard’s classic retelling of the biblical narrative of Abraham and Isaac. Continued fascination with the work (interest that Norton believes justifies this, the sixth, English translation) is both predictable and somewhat surprising.

On the one hand, Fear and Trembling is a literary masterpiece. It showcases Kierkegaard at the height of his rhetorical powers. He paints Abraham’s trial in such vivid color that the reader feels anew the real tragedy of his ordeal. In addition to the poetic force of his writing, Kierkegaard is a subtle philosopher, a supreme ironist, evident in the way he deftly teases out the implications of Abraham’s status as the “father of faith.” He argues that if Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac is truly praiseworthy—as each of the great Abrahamic religions assumes—then faith involves a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” The person of faith must be prepared to put the commands of God above the demands of ethics.

This last point is what makes contemporary interest in Fear and Trembling so surprising. It’s not just that Kierkegaard paints a stark picture of what Christian faith demands; it’s the fact that he cares to discuss the topic at all. One can scarcely imagine a subject less interesting to the contemporary reader (at least the sort who would think to pick up a work of nineteenth-century Danish philosophy) than a serious, often abstruse, discussion of the meaning of faith.

So why do modern readers keep returning to this bizarre little book?

One possible answer is that Fear and Trembling is as much a meditation on happiness as it is on faith. Kierkegaard claims that while he loves God, and even has the courage to obey his commands, he doubts that he can both be a Christian and a full participant in the world. He admits that his relationship to God is decidedly not one of faith, but rather what he calls “infinite resignation”: He refuses to trust that loving God, and all that this entails, leaves any room for enjoying life, including the small pleasures of marriage or the consolations of friendship. In contrast, what makes Abraham so remarkable is that though he believes God demands the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham trusts that God will nevertheless restore him. Thus, the boldest claim of Fear and Trembling is that faith, far from tempting a person toward worldly resignation, actually draws a person into a more gratifying relationship with it. Only the person of faith is positioned to truly embrace this life.

To understand why Kierkegaard thinks this is true, we need to appreciate how Abraham’s case functions as an analogy (a comparison Kierkegaard explicitly makes in a later work, For Self-Examination). Whereas Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son for the sake of God, Christians are asked to sacrifice their own happiness (“die to self”) for the sake of their neighbors. Like Abraham’s sacrifice, the Christian’s commitment to neighborly love is extreme and unmeasured; in the eyes of the world, it is not simply foolish but perverse, bordering on self-abuse (“taking up one’s cross” and so forth). Despite embracing Christ’s command to sacrifice everything, the Christian remains simultaneously committed to Christ’s promise of blessedness in the here and now. However, unlike Abraham, the Christian receives no guarantees about the nature of this blessedness. This is not a prosperity gospel, according to which faithfulness is rewarded with material affluence, social success, or other particular goods. Faith looks for blessedness amid worldly loss.

In his recent and acclaimed book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, philosopher and literary critic Martin Hägglund challenges the details of Kierkegaard’s account head-on. He argues that while Fear and Trembling makes the single strongest case for the compatibility of religious faith and meaningful engagement with the world, the case ultimately fails. Because the person of faith values a transcendent being (i.e., God) more than any object in the actual world, he or she must ultimately adopt a resigned attitude to this life. This stoic poise, grounded in the thought that God is the only true object of ultimate concern, is—Hägglund thinks—evidence of faith’s detachment. By contrast, those people who are not plagued with otherworldly distractions are able to muster an enduring and wholehearted interest in this life and the people and things that populate it. So they, and not people of religious faith, are best disposed to engage meaningfully and happily with the world. Put succinctly, Isaac would have been much better off the son of the village atheist.

Hägglund’s interaction with Kierkegaard is significant not just as a reminder that Fear and Trembling continues to elicit respect from thoughtful atheists, agnostics, and even those religious thinkers with less exacting notions of faith. It also invites us to reconsider Kierkegaard’s insistence that the person of religious faith is most likely to experience earthly happiness. When we look more closely at the details of this particular claim, we find that it is significantly more subtle, not to mention profound, than Hägglund gives it credit for.  

Though Fear and Trembling could be read primarily as a comparison of two religious attitudes (what earlier we called “resignation” and “faith”), it also explores an outlook that Kierkegaard calls “ethical.” An ethical person, though by no means crudely egoistic, approaches life with specific ideas of what she is owed if she plays by life’s rules. Those rules are largely moral: If I respect you, you owe me respect in return. Many of these rules receive, if only implicitly, a cosmic emphasis when a person regards right conduct as having earned her a life free of pain and hardship, at least of the most traumatic kind. When the universe breaks the rules (a cancer diagnosis, car accident, or failed relationships), bitterness and resentment are justified. This is why one will often say of a particularly good person who is also dealt a bad hand, “He deserved better!” The fact that the language of “desert” recommends itself in these moments suggests that many of us move through life in this mode of ownership. Since most of us at least tacitly acknowledge that the universe doesn’t really respect these rules of ownership, we also carry around a constant low-level anxiety that the things we love can be robbed at any moment.

Now, Kierkegaard contrasts this with faith. Imagine a person who acknowledges that all of the attachments that the ethical person regards as objects of ownership are anything but. To the contrary, God insists that one’s personal happiness must be absolutely sacrificed for the sake of one’s neighbor. The particular goods that fill one’s life are not owed in any strong sense; they are gifts. What the ethical person sees as objects of ownership, the person of faith gives up to God in order to receive again as objects of grace. Not only does this transformed disposition liberate one’s loves from a kind of domineering co-dependence, it frees one to enjoy those same objects in a different way. Kierkegaard supposes, credibly it seems, that the ethical person’s tacitly precarious sense of ownership actually diminishes her ability to engage wholeheartedly with the goods of the world. This means, against Hägglund, that the person best positioned to love and enjoy life is precisely the one who has made peace with its loss. In the language of Fear and Trembling, Abraham can’t really love Isaac until he is prepared to give him up.

In his depiction of faith, Kierkegaard proposes something that initially seems outlandish: that the ability to love the world and experience joy within it requires one to first love something that transcends it: that the move from a focus on earthly happiness to God is, against all expectations, the surest path to a kind of deep and stable joy. But, lest this sound too attractive, too crudely transactional, Kierkegaard is quick to warn against a kind of prudential move that his account may seem to encourage. Unlike, say, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who famously invites the unbeliever to engage in a calculated gamble for eternal happiness, Kierkegaard does not think that one can reason oneself, even prudentially, into faith. The kind of self-sacrifice that Christian love demands is so severe that the uninitiated will be unable to see prospectively how the Christian path leads to anything close to what they mean by happiness. By contrast, the kind of happiness that Pascal invites his readers into seems to be unproblematically continuous with the kind they are already invested in. They need no help to see why they should take the bet.

Well, then, why—on Kierkegaard’s view—would anyone choose a life of faith? Because a life that exists solely in the ownership mode is one of despair, a spiritual sickness that finally becomes so acute a person begins to consider, even if one can’t yet comprehend, a religious solution. This is where Fear and Trembling’s story about happiness pushes the contemporary reader to consider its story about faith. What if the two are inseparable?

Returning now to that cheekily ironic line from the preface where the reader is all but invited to stay away, we can begin to appreciate the motivation for Kierkegaard’s challenge. Fear and Trembling is not a work for the casual reader. In its pages Kierkegaard depicts a manner of living that will strike most people—even the apparently religious—as ludicrous. The only reader bound to take him seriously is one who has tried and failed to discover happiness through life’s more traditional channels. For that person—someone whom Kierkegaard sometimes calls “that single individual”—Abraham’s example looms as a confounding if enticingly beautiful invitation.