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Compare the story of God's request to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac with the story of Agamemnon and Iphigeneia. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard claims that Agamemnon, by contrast with Abraham, “stays within the ethical,” by which he means that Agamemnon did something terrible to avoid something he thought of as worse, whereas Abraham intended to do something terrible just because he believed God told him to, thus giving up on the ethical. In this way, Kierkegaard argues, the tragic hero like Agamemnon, very much unlike Abraham, “gives up what is certain for what is still more certain.” What does Kierkegaard have in mind here, and is he right? Does this exonerate Agamemnon – for Kierkegaard? For you? Does this exonerate Abraham – for Kierkegaard? For you?
In Fear and Trembling the story of God’s final test1 or tempting2 of Abraham and that of Abraham’s dilemma are used as an example of the Knight of Faith and of the tragic hero (in some ways the Knight of Resignation) respectively. The situations the two men come to are not the same nor are many aspects of the two stories 3, however they are similar enough and well suited enough to illustrate what for Kierkegaard is the profundity of faith and difference in the heights which man can achieve4. Both men either have to make a sacrifice of their innocent and beloved child or be faced with what comes from ignoring the will of a god. Both do all that is necessary and resolve themselves to the
Tanakh Gen. 22 KJV Gen. 22 3 Now for more dissimilarities. Abraham receives the order through direct commune with God, while Agamemnon finds out his task by the interpretation of an omen by Chalcis. Abraham is the darling of God while Agamemnon has reason to fear Artemis’ ill-favor as well as that of the furies and while he is fighting defending in a way what Zeus holds dear he through his father’s treatment of Thyestes might expect to incur the same wrath for the same inhospitality. 4 “No! no one shall be forgotten who was great in this world; but everyone was great in his own way, and everyone in proportion to the greatness of what he loved. For he who loved himself became great in himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he who loved God became greater than all…. everyone became great in proportion to his expectancy. One became great through expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became greater than all…. but everyone was great in proportion to the magnitude of what he strove with…he who strove with God was greater than all…there was he who conquered everything by his own strength, and he who conquered God by his powerlessness…but greater than all was the one who believed in God.” [F and T p50]
sacrifice. An angel of God stays Abraham’s hand while Agamemnon is allowed to follow through on what he has resolved to do5. Agamemnon is given a choice while Abraham is given a test. That Agamemnon is given a choice between two (ethical) evils one of which may easily be taken as the greater (desertion, behavior unbefitting his station and command, the ruin not only of the alliance but of his people as well as the resulting wrath of Zeus (the king of the gods) for not defending the rights of hospitality) and one as the lesser (transgressing the human and moral prohibitions against human sacrifice and his duty as a father),6 for Kierkegaard allows him to operate solely within the realm of the ethical – the universal. Abraham however must go beyond the ethical (and commit an evil – the sacrifice of Isaac) to maintain his relationship with the absolute (God). Abraham must make the act of infinite resignation7 and then he must make the movement of faith. He must relinquish his claim on Isaac as well as that it is he who must be the one to sacrifice Isaac (while not loving Isaac any less or harboring anything approaching resentment for what he is called to do for “the unblemished condition of the one offered does not detract from, but rather commends, the act” 8 and in a way Abraham is sacrificing himself as well). He acts with resignation but also has faith “on the strength
Euripides in his account has Artemis replace Iphigeneia with a deer at the crucial moment Even the chorus as they bemoan and blame Agamemnon for his lack of feeling does not find that he choose wrongly. 7 “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith; for only in infinite resignation does my eternal validity become transparent to me, and only then can there be talk of grasping existence on the strength of faith.” [ P75 F and T] 8 [Tanakh Gen commentary 22.3]
of the absurd” that God will not really take Isaac from him and so does receive him back rejoicing.9 Kierkegaard is by no means excusing Agamemnon to condemn Abraham. Agamemnon is given two ethically bad choices – each which would bring him to violate some aspect of his duty to the universal (as the telos of ethics lies within itself, the relationship is to the Universal- to which one should subjugate oneself) 10. He has no choice which is not ethical (even ethically bad choices are never the less ethical) and the only means of judging which is the right one lies within which would lead him to better serve his duty to the Universal – which would cause less harm and has its telos higher in the higher expression of the ethical11. He chouses correctly, so far as Kierkegaard can tell, and therefore leads an ethical life12. By making the necessary movement of resignation (of his claims as man and father that would forbid him from sacrificing Iphigeneia) he makes the less harmful, less ethically wrong, action and becomes the tragic hero. We may pity and praise him – furthermore we may understand him – both in his plight and his choice.
“all along he had faith, he believed that God would not demand Isaac of him, while still he was willing to offer him if that was indeed what was demanded. He believed on the strength of the absurd, for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed absurd that God who demanded this of him should in the next instant withdraw the demand.” [p65 F and T] 10 “seen as an immediate, no more than sensate and psychic, being, the single individual is the particular that has its telos in the universal, and the individual’s ethical task is always to express himself in this, to abrogate his particularity so as to become the universal.” [p83 F and T] 11 “ The tragic hero enters into no private relationship with God, but the ethical is the divine and therefore the paradox in the divine can be mediated in the universal.” [p89 F and T] 12 What Apollo says in Aeschylus’ Eumenides “ he made good bargains, for the most part”(Eum. 631-2) would support this.
Abraham we cannot understand for his plight is paradox13 – his actions paradoxical (Kierkegaard goes so far as to say we may not understand much less pity him). Abraham oversteps the Universal, goes beyond the ethical, that he may serve the Absolute14. All ethical actions find their purpose and end, their telos, in the Universal – but God is higher – God is the telos beyond the ethical. This is why Abraham must act on the “strength of the absurd” for it is “beyond all human calculation” beyond our ethical and human understanding that he may exist as he is15. He fully, infinitely, resigns himself, to – not only lose Isaac but also do away with Isaac himself according to God’s will and at the same time that this Will will give him Isaac anew. He must give up eternally – infinitely what is most precious, most beloved – must do this gladly16 - and all the while have faith that God will not take Isaac, and all the promise that lies within him, away. This second movement is not “is not the same as the improbable, the unexpected, the unforeseen”17 it is absurd – it is impossible in the finite (ethical and Universal) world that
“Abraham represents faith, and that faith finds its proper expression in him whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought. He acts on the strength of the absurd; for it is precisely the absurd that as the single individual he is higher than the universal.” [ p85 F and T] “How he got into it is just as inexplicable as how he stayed in it.” [p95 F and T] 14 “Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified before the latter, not as subordinate but superior, though in such a way, be it noted, that it is the single individual who, who having been subordinate to the universal as the particular, now by means of the universal becomes that individual who, as the particular, stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation occurs precisely by virtue of the universal; it is and remains in all eternity a paradox, inaccessible to thought. and yet faith is this paradox.” [p85 F and T] 15 “ Then how did Abraham exist? He had faith. That is the paradox that keeps him at the extremity and which he cannot make clear to anyone else, for the paradox is that he puts himself as the single individual in a absolute relation to the absolute. Is he justified? His justification is, once again, the paradox; for if he is the paradox it is not by virtue of being anything universal, but of being the particular.” [ p90 F and T] 16 In the manner which “hineni” implies (“The term indicates readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instructions” [Tanakh commentary on the Akedah Gen. 22.1]). 17 “ The absurd…is not the same as the improbable, the unexpected, the unforeseen. The moment the knight (of faith) resigned he was convinced of the impossibility, humanly speaking; that was a conclusion of the understanding, and he had energy enough to think it. In an infinite sense, however, it was possible, through renouncing it [as a finite possibility]; but then accepting that [possibility] is at the same time to have given it up, yet for the understanding there is no absurdity in possessing it, for it is only in the finite world that understanding rules and there it was and remains an impossibility. On this the knight of faith is just as clear: all that can save him is the absurd; and this he grasps by faith. Accordingly he admits the impossibility and at the same time believes the absurd; for were he to suppose that he had faith without recognizing the impossibility with all the passion of his soul and heart, he would be deceiving himself, and his testimony
he should receive Isaac. The possibility remains in the infinite, yes, but Abraham believes he will have Isaac in the finite world18. Abraham commits what is a sin (the intended murder of a son) and in this he also sins by making himself (the individual, the particular) higher than the Universal, but he does so to bring himself into a relationship with the Absolute – God. The paradox is this faith that allows him to overstep the right (ethically speaking) thing to do. He breaks with the ethical on the strength of the absurd- which not only gives him the hope in lost hope, power in powerlessness, but also the knowledge that this break is right. We who are not knights of faith cannot understand the paradox or Abraham’s actions.19 We are left in awe - in fear and in trembling at this absolute. If there is no faith, if the strength of the absurd is mere delusion, then Abraham is no more than a murderer. For we would have dethroned God, ousted him from the Absolute and placed him on the level of the universal and any action for God would have its telos in the ethical, it can have nothing higher, the absolute will have been exploded.
would carry weight nowhere, since he would not even have come as far as infinite resignation.” [p75-76 F and T] 18 “For the movement of faith must be made continually on the strength of the absurd, though in such a way, be it noted, that one does not lose finitude but gains if all of a piece.” [p67 F and T] “His faith was not that he should be happy sometime in the hereafter, but that he should find blessed happiness here in this world. God could give him a new Isaac; bring the sacrificial offer back to life. He belived on the strength of the absurd, for all human calculation had long since been suspended.” [p65 F and T] 19 “ I can see then that it requires strength and energy and freedom of spirit to make the infinite movement of resignation; I can also see that it can be done. The next step dumbfounds me, my brain reels; for having made the movement of resignation, now on the strength of the absurd to get everything, to get one’s desire, whole, in full, that requires more-than-human powers, it is a marvel.” [p76 F and T]
Agamemnon is exonerated, forgiven his action in the ethical.20 Abraham is exonerated in the divine, in his faith in God21. In this way Agamemnon becomes a tragic yet heroic figure while Abraham becomes the father of faith. On faith22 he acted, on faith we in the Universal must forgive him23. This is what I believe Kierkegaard to mean. Kierkegaard, as I said before, did use the stories of Abraham and Agamemnon as examples. In Abraham’s case this fits perfectly with Kierkegaard’s system, if we keep in mind certain factors and Kierkegaard’s own development24. In Agamemnon’s case some tailoring of my understanding is required for it to fit. I must now repossess these omissions to see whether Kierkegaard’s treatment of Agamemnon exonerates him25. The nature of the divine is not the same is paramount. The very nature of the resignment is different. In Abraham’s case it is subjugating oneself utterly to God, in Agamemnon’s it is resolving oneself to fate. Agamemnon could not have practically done otherwise26. Abraham could have, there is no “or I shall smite you”, he would though have altered his relation to God and that of those who came after him.
“ Resignation does not require faith, for what I win in resignation is my eternal consciousness, and that is a purely philosophical movement, which I venture upon when necessary, and which I can discipline myself into doing, for every time something finite out-distances me I starve myself until I make the movement; for my eternal consciousness is my love of God, and for me that is higher than anything. Resignation does not require faith, but it requires faith to get the slightest more than my eternal consciousness, for that [more] is the paradox.” [p77 F and T] 21 “ it takes a paradoxical and humble courage then to grasp the whole of temporality on the strength of the absurd, and that courage is the courage of faith. Through faith Abraham did not renounce his claim on Isaac, through his faith he received Isaac.” [ p77 F and T] 22 In the absurd, in the Absolute – in God. 23 “Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that in which all human life is united is passion, and faith is a passion” [ p95 F and T] 24 The religion of which he partakes. 25 I understand that the purpose of F and T was not to explain Agamemnon but that he is used as an illustration of a stage in the development of the Knight of faith. 26 As we are to understand him – we must not “make up” alternatives outside those of the accounts we are given. We can have no such understanding.
Ethics also relies on the nature of the divinity concerned. For the Greeks, ethics, duty is not one with the gods. Certain duties and rights (of ethics) have different defenders but the gods do not have all one mind – they, like man, judge relatively. They are not the givers of morality; they like man, are in touch with it. This is not to say that Agamemnon did not feel poignantly the wrong and the betrayal which he was to committing against Iphigeneia. Nor is this to say that the ethical is one with God in Abraham’s case. If it were so then there would be no testing of Abraham’s obedience but instead one of his acknowledging that God is ethical (not just acts but is) that anything God asks him to do contrary to ethics is a temptation. He would then be wrong in the utmost to act as he did. The paradox to me is that God can be this “All”, that he can at once be ethics and yet the giver of and decider of ethics, that he is higher and is everything altogether at the same time. The nature of sacrifice is another difference. For the Greeks it is giving due homage to the gods27. For the religions that sprang from the Torah it is proving a will of obedience- homage yes but not simple piety, it is realizing the utmost is God. The anthropological explanations behind the ritual of sacrifice (which relate the sacrifice of animals to an acknowledgement of the possibility of human sacrifice and slaughter28) I find do not have the footing in the religions of this god (God) that they do in the religion
I am putting aside the Socratic discussions of this piety because I do not believe those to be the ones that Agamemnon or others could have been operating under. 28 “The ceremony of animal sacrifice, from which Greek tragedy, in Burkert’s view, derives its name, expressed the awe and fear felt by this human community towards its own murderess possibilities…by ritually acting out the killing of an animal, not a human victim, and by surrounding even this killing with a ceremony indicative of the killers’ innocence and their respect for life, the sacrificer's…distance themselves from, and at the same time acknowledge, the possibilities for human slaughter that reside in human nature.” (The Fragility of Goodness, p37) – and furthermore that Isaac takes part in the preparations “It is like a person who carries his cross on his own shoulder” (Gen. Rab. 56.3). One could view it as that while Iphigeneia is a willing victim - Isaac is a willing sacrifice (“…a willing participant in his own sacrifice – the prototype, that is of the Jewish martyr.” [Tanakh p46 22.7])
of the Greeks – or at least ought not once we have made the movements necessary to be “of” this god. Agamemnon’s sacrifice (in addition to its animal/cannibal tones Nussbaum and Burkert discuss) in particular is not meant to be an expression of his giving up the best and most dear (in the sense that Isaac is – though Iphigeneia is by no means the worst he can give) it is rather an expression of appeasing a god’s whims. Artemis wants Iphigeneia,29 so it is she who is sacrificed30. To my mind this “exoneration” of Agamemnon comes too cheaply (and therefore at least partially forgives Clytemnestra’s retaliation). Here I am speaking in reference to his resolve that took the horror and remorse from what he was doing away31. If he had received the instruction from the God of the Torah I can understand this “right choice makes righteous action” for which it would be a temptation and nullify the act of infinite resignation to feel ill about (given Kierkegaard’s terms). Agamemnon was acting in accordance with the wishes of a Greek god, not even the supreme Greek god, whose wishes and wills often conflict with the other gods. He acts under a god with human qualities and far from the omnipotent, omniscient God who will have no other gods - God the absolute. It would not have been a temptation or nullification then for Agamemnon to treat his daughter as a human while still sacrificing her, nor would it have been remiss for him to feel pity for what he must choose to do32. This is not to say he should have bewailed his fateful decision or struggled against it anymore than he did. Rather that while knowing and resigning himself to the “right choice” and acting in accordance with
Or one such as her it is unclear. A better expression of the magnitude of sacrifice that Abraham was asked would have been for Artemis to call for Orestes. Iphigeneia, Agamemnon will lose through marriage anyway. Orestes is the carrier of his line, heir to, keeper, defender of, and promise of Agamemnon’s house. 31 Aeschylus’ Agamemnon lines 215-225 and 800 32 Aeschylus lines 225-245
his decision he ought to have felt his decision, while the lesser, was still an evil, which he must take upon himself. In a few places this feeling seems to show in Euripides’ account but never at the crucial moment or in the way it must – that is after he has resolved but without affecting that resolve. This does not apply to Abraham’s case for upon making the act of infinite resignation he also makes the act of infinite faith. This faith in the absurd would not come about if he were to think that God would direct his actions to evil and leave it at that. How Abraham is to feel after the sacrifice (of Isaac) is a moot point, through his action he gets Isaac a second time and the promise that lies “concealed as it were in Isaac's loins” becomes a covenant between God and his chosen people to whom Abraham is the “father of faith” – all this would only be cause for rejoicing.33
Bibliography Aeschylus. Aeschylus I The Oresteia. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. The U of Chicago Press, 1953. Aeschylus. Aeschylus II Agamemnon. Translated by Herbert Weir Smyth. Harvard University Press. Loeb Classical Library, 1926, reprint 1999. Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling. Translated by Alastair Hannay. Penguin Classics, 1985. Nussbaum. The Fragility of Goodness, Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1986 reprint 2001. The Jewish Study Bible, Tanakh Translation. Oxford University Press, 2004 King James Bible. Oxford University Press, 1984 D. Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling – found at http://www.sorenkierkegaard.org/kw6a.htm Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis (ed. E. P. Coleridge) from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu Lippman Bodoff. The real test of the Akedah: blind obedience versus moral choice.
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