60 in 60: #36 – Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

Fear & Trembling
by Soren Kierkegaard (1813 to 1855)

Memorable Line
“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale. Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.”

The Skinny
Kierkegaard transformed philosophy with his conviction that we must all create our own nature; in this work he argues that a true understanding of God can only be attained by making a personal “leap of faith.”

Relevance? Argument?
Reading Kierkegaard is like being swept away in a strong river headed for an endless sea–except you can bail from the experience any time you want to just by closing the book.* It’s exhilarating on one level and terrifying on another. I read Kierkegaard in college, but I do not remember this level of lyricism–almost as if some other passion is driving the book beneath the surface, something that breaks through almost continually in the spaces between the words.

This aspect of the book caught me by complete surprise, and it quickly became clear that reading 150 pages of Kierkegaard in one day–and digesting it–would be the equivalent on the fiction side of doing a speed read of Proust or Joyce. It’s not so much that Kierkegaard uses a similar style in his work. Instead, it’s the passion, the thickness of it, and the weight.

So I decided to focus just on a small portion of the book–the first segment, which includes pieces titled “Fear and Trembling,” a preface, “Attunement,” and “Speech in Praise of Abraham.” Of these sections, “Speech in Praise of Abraham” had the most effect on me–I was quite simply stunned by the emotion emanating from the page. “Existentialist” to me has meant, in excerpts and from second-hand accounts, something dry and brittle and minimalist, not this outpouring from the heart; not this febrile, pulsing, living prose.

I have to quote this at length because it quite frankly blew my brain out the back of my skull when I first turned to it:

If there was no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond united [hu]mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of the birds in the forests, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked hungrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches–how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!

God, that’s beautiful, and yet maddening. Because Kierkegaard is describing a condition that is, to me at least, utterly comforting: to be part of a series of generations that rise up “like the leaves of the forest”** and “succeed” each other “as the songs of the birds in the forests.” What good Deist (with an eye on the Thoreau by my side) wouldn’t long for that kind of continuity? Says Sir Thomas Browne “…few have returned their bones farre lower than they might receive them; not affecting the graves of Giants, under hilly and heavy coverings, but content with lesse than their own depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, and the earth be light upon them…,” and even his coda returning to religion cannot compete with that image.

Nor, for a time, does it seem as if Kierkegaard can compete with the natural cycles of the world he has conjured up with such eloquence. “But for that reason it is not so [that everything is a thoughtless whim],” he continues. “God has created man and woman [and] so too he shaped the hero and the poet or speak-maker.” Yet such figures seem somehow small and lacking in grandeur next to the vastness of what Kierkegaard has already described.

A short soliloquy to the role of the hero follows, with a note that “Therefore no one who was great shall be forgotten” and then this interesting idea: “No! No one shall be forgotten who was great in the world; but everyone was great in his own way, and everyone in proportion to the greatness of what he loved.” The individual who loves himself becomes “great in himself.” The individual who loves others becomes “great through his devotion.” But the greatest of all are those who love God.

The reasoning here is perhaps not typical of what you’d hear in Sunday School. To Kierkegaard, greatness exists in proportion to “his expectancy.” Which is to say, a man who loves himself expects the possible and a man who loves others expects the eternal (community?), but by believing in God you are believing in the impossible–and the magnitude of that act makes you great.

What, then, would be the “magnitudinal expectancy” of believing in a world in which humankind becomes dust and wind, and “one generation succeeded the other as the songs of the birds in the forests”? Kierkegaard doesn’t say, but you can hear Browne mumbling an answer from below rich peat and moss. Wouldn’t a belief in the truth of one’s own ultimate dissolution–trusting in the world over oneself–be just as much a belief in the impossible?

The final if/then put forth by Kierkegaard concerns what a man strove against, whether himself, others, or God. And, as a more-or-less Deist, and someone who gets a sense of spirituality from both the natural world and the act of creation, I began to wonder whether Kierkegaard should have sub-divided out different types of the first kind of greatness. For example, does a person who offers themselves up to their work–to, for example writing or art or sculpture–really love themselves, expect the possible, and strive against him- or herself? I’m not sure that’s true. I’d suspect that person is actually having to give up a part of themselves, for one thing. So I’m not sure these categories don’t get muddied and warped and intertwined in ways that would be inconvenient for Kierkegaard’s main thrust.

That thrust has been aimed at reaching a point where he can offer up Abraham from the Bible as “greater than all,” “great with that power whose strength is powerlessness, great in that wisdom whose secret is folly, great in that hope whose outward form is insanity, great in that love which is hatred of self.”

What follows is a detailed discussion of Abraham’s relationship with his God, his son, and his wife, for he is deeply concerned about the ethical and moral dimensions of Abraham’s famous decision. These sections are impassioned and vibrant, and perhaps more compelling than anything I read in Revelations and the Book of Job as an argument for the power of the Bible.

At times Kierkegaard makes statements that inadvertently express why I have such a suspicion of the Christian Right’s attitude toward the world we have: “But Abraham had faith, and had faith for this life. Yes, had his faith only been for a future life it would indeed have been easier to cast everything aside in order to hasten out of this world to which he did not belong.” (Alas, the counter argument goes, there is no other world–only the invisible worlds inside each element of the world we have.)

At other times, Kierkegaard makes statements I love him for, like “[Abraham] believed the ridiculous” or “Thousands of years have slipped by since those days, but you need no late-coming lover to snatch your memory from the power of oblivion.”

I can be disappointed by Kierkegaard dismissing the import of the natural world and natural cycles with such ease and so quickly, but we are so within his vision looking out that he’s more or less rewiring your brain to his specifications as you read. You have to trust in his hyperbole because it seems well-earned, even as you can imagine Plato and Marcus Aurelius exchanging smiles and saying to Kierkegaard, “Come inside, friend, and let’s have a look at that thorn in your soul. But first, some wine, some good food, and some good company.”

Kierkegaard lies when he says, “I am not a poet, I only practice dialectics.” Sometimes in this series, a philosopher makes plain how desperately real their writings are–that the issues they wrestle with are a personal burden and a torment. Kierkegaard is one of those philosophers. Whereas in Browne this secret oozes up through the bog, through the ash that comes from flame, in Kierkegaard it’s as if he tore open his chest and tried to show you his heart.

* Alas, it is not so easy to jettison mild food poisoning; thus the delay in posting this entry.

** Leaves rising up is either a mistake on Kierkegaard’s part or a clever way of making the reader think “down” simultaneous with thinking “up”, since most of us think of leaves as falling.

There’s a secret wound in Kierkegaard that I can’t quite make out the shape of without reading more of his work.

Question for Readers
What do you think of when you hear the word “Existentialism”?

Next up, Henry David Thoreau’s Where I Lived, and What I Lived For


  1. Transfiguring Roar says

    That was a good review, Jeff. A better mix of exploring what the philosopher had to say and your opinions.

    Existentialism for me is the movement started by Sartre and his friends. When I think existentialism I think free will. I think ‘continental’ type philosophy. Trying to understand reality from the perspective of a ‘unifying’ theory. It makes me think of a bitterly cold wind in a frozen wasteland dotted with the brittle remnants of life.

    But then there’s Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Camus. None of them are existentialists as Sartre was (I tend to just clump them into the continental group of philosophers and leave it at that) and each leaves a very different impression. Take Camus for example. I think the hot, dry, unrelenting wasteland. He makes me think of the movie Mad Max 2…

  2. says

    Jeff, this is in one of your best 60-in-60 reviews yet!

    A few years ago, I heard Jimmy Carter say in a televised interview that Kierkegaard was his favorite “theologians.” I had always thought of Keirkegaard more as a philosopgher than a theologion, nevertheless, I began reading a collection of Kierkegaard’s works. I was pleasantly surprised by his use of alternate realities in a piece on Isaac and Abraham, but other than that, I lost interest and never finished the book. Now I want to go back and give Kierke another whirl.

  3. Transfiguring Roar says

    Sorry if my compliment seems thorny. (Man, I’ve been cranky for the past couple weeks… not feeling like my usual self…). What I meant was pretty much how Bill Ectric put it – this is definitely one of your best reviews so far. There just seems to be more passion in this one, and it felt focused and relaxed when I read it.

    I’ll be quiet now. ;)

  4. says

    Transfiguring: No worries, but I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on what constitutes a good one, because it’s going to vary by the book. The same approach I used here would not have worked for Browne. Nor would it have worked for Bacon. And for the Bacon I did a great deal of analysis and cross-cutting to modern relevance, and in the end worked in most of his other essays in the context of envy, which was a pretty decent feat for an afternoon. Some books don’t require or deserve passion in the context of having me as reader, either. Browne’s best quoted with little commentary, frankly. I was deeply moved by Browne, and in that context doing some kind of b.s. extra verbiage about it strikes me as not only presumptuous but deeply, deeply wrong.


  5. Transfiguring Roar says

    All good! :)

    In regards to reviewing each philosopher differently: fair point and makes sense! Similarly, I certainly don’t tackle different philosophers in the same way.

  6. says

    Existentialism seems to be the label put on philosopher’s who defy the regular pigeon-holing process. Where you can have people as different as Kierkegaard and Camus under the same roof.

    Much like you what Kierkegaard found dispair in I find freedom, beauty, and hope. Existentialism for me is the realization that humans are alone, we are the nly agents of change. With this realization comes a great deal of responsibilty but also the freedom to create.

  7. says

    Hey Jeff! Ive been haunting your blog for a while now but its been this book i was really waiting for! I’m really interested in Kierkegaard’s work and trying to research him and it was really great to read your reaction to this book. It was like one of those moments when you pass a kid something you yourself loved in childhood and it is fascinating to see how they react to it. There are two things I want to add that may help (or even make things worse!) the discussion.

    Firstly, in response to some of the above commentators; Kierkegaard really does play havoc with the philosophy/theology distinction. He isn’t just one or the other and manages (i think) to successfully evade any attempts to label him. He really has a lot to say that can be of benefit for religious and non-religious people, and philosophy and theology, and does it in such a powerful way its hard not to be swept along!

    And Jeff, this one is for you; One thing I wanted to draw your attention to is the name of the author of Fear and Trembling. on the cover its Soren Kierkegaard but inside the book is attributed to Johannes DeSilentio (Johannes, or John, the Silent). Its just another way that Kierkegaard loves to confuse the hell out of his reader and forces you to ask; is Kierkegaard really saying this or is Johannes?

    Great blog and great work, Sorry to hear that you will be taking a break but I look forward to seeing the rest!

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