Monday, January 6, 2014

Kierkegaard: Abraham's Paradox

Abraham chooses faith over morality

Kierkegaard is finding a paradox in faith while adhering to morality – the ethical – as dramatized by the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac at the command of God.  Here is a translation from Fear and Trembling different from the one we have been using.

Now the story of Abraham contains such a teleological [purposeful] suspension of the ethical… Abraham’s relation to Isaac, ethically speaking, is quite simply expressed by saying that a father shall love his son more dearly than himself.  Yet within its own compass the ethical has various gradations.  Let us see whether in this story there is to be found any higher expression for the ethical such as would ethically explain his conduct, ethically justify him is suspending the ethical obligation toward his son, without in this search going beyond the teleology of the ethical.

This is fairly easy to follow.  You will find it far more concise than the same material provided in the translation we have used so far. 

The story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical

Now the two accounts differ in that the quote above uses an ellipsis to let us know the editor is leaving out material.  What is omitted detracts from the storyline but is necessary to fully appreciate Kierkegaard’s thinking.  Here is the omitted material.

There is no dearth of keen minds and careful scholars who have found analogies to it.  What their wisdom amounts to is the beautiful proposition that basically everything is the same.  If one looks more closely, I doubt very much that anyone in the whole wide world will find one single analogy, except for a later one, which proves nothing if it is certain that Abraham represents faith and that it is manifested normatively in him, whose life not only is the most paradoxical that can be thought but is also so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought.  He acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely the absurd that he as the single individual [can we substitute here something like a ‘particular person’] is higher than the universal.    This paradox cannot be mediated, for as soon as Abraham begins to do so, he has to confess that he was in a spiritual trial, and if that is the case, he will never sacrifice Isaac, or if he did sacrifice Isaac, then in repentance he must come back to the universal [I presume here that universal refers to moral standards that are as absolute as the ten commandments Moses brought down from the mountaintop – for example:  Thou shall not kill].  He gets Isaac back again by virtue of the absurd.  Therefore, Abraham is at no time a tragic hero but is something entirely different, either a murderer or a man of faith.  Abraham does not have the middle term that saves the tragic hero.  This is why I can understand a tragic hero but cannot understand Abraham, even though in a certain sense I admire him more than all others.

There is a lot of material here worth further consideration but let me, for now, continue with the quotation in contrast to the one presented in my initial paragraph and provided by a different translator, or at least, a different editor.

In ethical terms, Abraham’s relation to Isaac is quite simply this:  the father shall love the son more than himself.  But within its own confines the ethical has various gradations.  We shall see whether this story contains any higher expression for the ethical that can ethically explain his behavior, can ethically justify his suspending the ethical obligation to the son, but without moving beyond the teleology of the ethical.

On comparison there appear to be only minor variations in translation – the first attempting to read more like the recounting of a story.  The big difference is in the intent of the editor.  The editor of the first entry treats much of Kierkegaard’s rationalizations as asides that get in the way of the story’s flow and would probably be cause for an impatient reader to put down the book.  Different people have different purposes for picking up a book on philosophy.  There is nothing wrong with that.

What is more interesting to me is that I have struggled with understanding Kierkegaard’s meaning until this relating of Abraham’s dilemma.  Until now I have been fumbling with unfamiliar terms and thoughts relayed as difficult and vague abstractions.  I couldn’t find a point.  Now I have a biblical story.  I have something concrete.  Here is Abraham, a pious father who deeply loves his son.  He lives a moral life based on God’s commandments – ethical in this context referring to social morality, at the least, and probably an all-encompassing moral standard.  Morality is absolute and has no relation to anything external to it.  You can’t modify the rules of cosmic standards no matter the reason.  That is certainly Abraham’s thinking.  Suddenly, Abraham hears the voice of God.  Abraham you are to sacrifice your beloved son as a demonstration of your strength of faith in me.  This is clearly a greater act of faith to Abraham than Noah dealing with the ridicule of his neighbors for building a huge boat in the middle of the desert.  Noah will be rewarded with the saving of his life and his family’s.  Abraham will always have to deal with the memory of killing his cherished son. 

As Kierkegaard say, Abraham is faith.  He will break with Godly morality in order to render himself on the altar of faith.  Kierkegaard asks, “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?”  Does faith have a higher purpose than morality?  Having to decide this as just one particular person can truly lead to absurd behavior and results.  This story brings to focus the fundamental paradox in Kierkegaard’s problem.  One simple story has gone a long way towards reducing my confusion.  Can you imagine Jesus being remembered today if he hadn't spoken in parables? 

We aren't done with Kierkegaard.  I like puzzling over this paradox.  It can so easily branch into other fertile areas.

No comments:

Post a Comment