Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

TAC Bookshelf: Fear and Trembling 2024

State of the Union: Anastasia Kaliabakos on Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
Screen Shot 2024-05-04 at 1.00.20 PM
Credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Anastasia Kaliabakos, TAC Editorial Fellow: Being a philosophy major in college allowed me the privilege of studying many different and interesting philosophers. Now, nearly a year has passed since my graduation, and I have found myself periodically returning to the work of just one of them: Søren Kierkegaard, the “father of existentialism.”

Since my introduction to him in the fall of my senior year, I have been completely fascinated. Born on May 5, 1813, Kierkegaard spent most of his life ruminating on ethics, love, religion, and the self in works like The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion, Either/Or, Repetition, and The Concept of Anxiety. My favorite of his books, and one which I recently reread for the second time, is Fear and Trembling


Published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling attempts to analyze one of the most famous stories in the Bible: Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. This story presents a conundrum to readers and believers. Abraham’s decision to kill his son is supposed to be seen as the correct one: he is doing God’s bidding despite the pain his actions will cause both himself and his son. But everyone knows that murder is a sin, so why would God ask something so terrible of Abraham in the first place?

Kierkegaard introduces the concept of the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” or the suspension of moral law for the sake of an unknown, higher law. In this story, although God must be obeyed, murder is still considered immoral. Thus, Abraham must decide whether to suspend the ethical for something higher that he is unaware of but has supposedly been promised.

Kierkegaard offers his well-known “Knight of Faith” versus the “Knight of Infinite Resignation” examples to help explain Abraham’s thought process. Kierkegaard says that “resignation” is an act of understanding one’s limitations. Therefore, the Knight of Infinite Resignation is not a coward: He is a man committed to a certain ethical code. The Knight of Faith is a man who is even more courageous. He adheres by faith to some absurd telos, or end goal, even if it seems impossible. 

It is in Fear and Trembling that Kierkegaard introduces his concept of exhibiting faith “by virtue of the absurd.” Essentially, he argues that Abraham is not only a man of resignation, but is the supreme example of following faith against the absurd. God had promised Abraham a son; he had to wait decades for that son (Isaac) to be born in the face of doubt. Then, God inexplicably commands Abraham to sacrifice the very fruit of his patience. Kierkegaard writes, “By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac.” Resignation, Abraham’s brave resolve, was the ultimate force behind Isaac’s sacrifice. The act of faith was Abraham’s “absurd” expectation that God would return Isaac to him even after death.

Kierkegaard concludes Fear and Trembling by saying, “Faith is the highest passion in a person.” Throughout his philosophical works, his main criticism of society was that men were growing increasingly passionless and less like Abraham and the Knight of Faith. 

Since the mid-1800s, when Kierkegaard died at the age of 42, we can see that he was right: Society has indeed lost much of its passion and most of its faith. Reading his work should therefore remind us to pursue the life of a Knight of Faith, always seeking something greater even in the face of the absurd.