Fear and Trembling – Søren Kierkegaard

     Fear and Trembling is a work written by Søren Kierkegaard, under the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio.  Kierkegaard published most of his work under different pseudonyms, taking the dialectical form of Hegel and stretching it out over his oeuvre, so that one pseudonym in association with another will build or contradict to create the expression of an oeuvre that is greater than any single part. “Johannes De Silentio” as the pseudonym for this book is particularly interesting because silence occupies an important place in the text, “silence is the mutual understanding between the Deity and the individual” (162). This type of pseudonym-dialectics requires not only incredible scope and discipline, but evidence that Kierkegaard was writing in a awareness that had great duration, conscious of a point in the future when all of his work will hold itself together beyond him.

Biographical facts about Kierkegaard add to the reading of this masterwork, of which I’ll mention only one piece here; shortly before the writing of this text, Søren Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to Regina Olsen, even though his love for her was indiminishable. It seems to me, considering biographical and textual details, that what drove him to break the engagement was an intense awareness of his own spirit and relation to his infinite self alone before the eternal – this awareness created a great pressure inside of him to make manifest his deep silent purpose while in the temporal, alone before God. What marriage meant to Kierkegaard is unique to him and his particular context, but what is universal is his sacrifice. He felt on a path toward achieving faith through the particular. Breaking his engagement with Regina was an expression of his belief in his infinite self and an act in the trial of the eternal. But to cause such pain in the temporal because of a belief in the eternal, and to make a decision that considers only the self alone – to reach a point in the temporal in which there is no going back, and a with knowledge that no one else can understand – willing to die uncomprehended, moving only forward into the trial – this is living to discover Fear and Trembling.

“A purely human courage is required to renounce the whole of the temporal to gain the eternal” (98) It is in this way that the choices of action in the temporal are a trial. One must enter the temporal from the perspective of the eternal. The trial is a trial of temporal temptation that attempts to capture the individual by testing his ability to sustain his infinite self. It is up to the individual to discover the solitary path toward becoming a knight of faith, a way to reach the universal through the particular and live to create an infinite self. One must infinitely resign oneself to the eternal.

Faith can be reached only through passion. The paradox of faith is that one who has faith acts for the universal, but in acting for the universal must carry out particular tasks. The trial of an individual consists in his ability to act the particular in the universal, and not fall into the traps of the temporal order. Because the universal must be achieved through the particular, the particular becomes higher than the universal. The movement from universal to particular and particular to universal must repeat itself. The individual isolates himself by entering the particular from the universal.

“Faith is precisely this paradox, that the individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified over against it, is not subordinate but superior – yet in such a way, be it observed, that it is the particular individual who, after he has been subordinated as the particular to the universal, now through the universal becomes the individual who as the particular is superior to the universal, for the fact that the individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute.” (110)

From the perspective of the universal, the particular becomes absurd. The Myth of Sisyphus works as an excellent example of this infinite movement. Condemned to pushing the rock up the mountain day after day – Sisyphus becomes greater than the universal when he returns to push the rock again. In pushing he becomes the universal through a particular. In the decent, the willingness to re-enter the particular and push the rock again, Sisyphus is stronger than his rock and burden. Albert Camus explores this in his essay of the same title, The Myth of Sisyphus.

For Kierkegaard, using a pseudonym has the advantage of supplying a vehicle for the expression of concepts that can be placed at a position once removed from his immediate self and its particulars. The pseudonym in the case of Fear and Trembling functions as a voice that occupies the space between Kierkegaard and the universal. No longer rooted in the particulars of Søren Kierkegaard, the authorial voice can become an expression of something more far-reaching.

In reflection, the story of Abraham and Isaac is a universal mirror of his particular situation with Regina, the sacrifice requires faith. Johannes De Silentio tells his readers that although he can discuss the concept of faith in Abraham, he cannot imagine being in the position of Abraham. Perhaps Johnannes here is closer to occupying our position as readers of Kierkegaard than the position of Søren Kierkegaard, who now becomes our unimaginable Abraham through biographical details. Whatever one chooses to read or gather, the pseudonym has the ability to move in the gaps between author, reader, and the universal. Kierkegaard considered his life as much of an art as his writing, and in the gap between the biography and the writing there are many threads of connection. There is a self-reflexive moment in the text that addresses an awareness of the gap between author and text:

“He knows that it is beautiful and salutary to be the individual who translates himself into the universal, who edits as it were a pure and elegant version of himself, as free from errors as possible and which everyone can read. He knows that it is refreshing to become intelligible to oneself in the universal so that he understands it and so that every individual who understands him understands through him in turn the universal, and both rejoice in the security of the universal…But he knows also that higher than this there winds a solitary path, narrow and steep; he knows that it is terrible to be born outside the universal, to walk without meeting a single traveller…Humanly speaking, he is crazy and cannot make himself intelligible to anyone.” (143)

Faith becomes manifest in repetition. The oeuvre is what stands in relation to the silence of faith, as the manifestation of an individuals deep silent faith.  Faith is incomprehensible for anyone except the individual, and therefore can only be glimpsed by another in the oeuvre after it has reached an end. Faith is the ability to return to a task and carry oneself further through the task. Faith was known by the Greeks as “the divine madness”. It is very much like madness in the sense that it occupies an often-silent position difficult to identify on the interior of our awareness, and yet only existing on the interior of our awareness. In madness as in faith, an individual enters into an absolute relation to an absolute. The madman in relation to madness, the devoted in relation to faith. In both faith and madness there is a suspension of the ethical, the devoted must act according to faith outside of ethics, and the mad cannot be held accountable for their actions in relation to the law and social order. Each are capabilities of consciousness being filtered through an individual, bringing himself in relation to an absolute. Genius is the ability to control ones madness, or ones faith, in duration. To be in faith is to act passionately in repetition.


Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling ;. And, The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Translated by Walter Lowrie

About Michael Johnson

michaeljohnson.studio thewindandthestones.com viewfromaburrow.com


  1. John

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a completely different Illuminated Understanding of Reality via these related references on the meaning and significance of death and what death requires of us.

  2. John

    Plus related references on how to wake up from the trap, or our mind-forged-manacles

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