The Poetic Secret of Fear and Trembling:
Some Suggested Ways to Avoid Faith

by Aron Wall

“Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
against the empty sky.

        —The Creation of Éa”

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin


Kierkegaard always writes to the reader. This fact may seem obvious but it is more true of Kierkegaard than of other authors. Kierkegaard is never simply concerned with presenting an idea, but with influencing his readers towards the good. To understand him therefore, the reader must not ask, “What is Kierkegaard saying?”, but rather, “What is Kierkegaard trying to do to me as a reader?”

The central purpose of Fear and Trembling is to get the reader to act. The purpose is not to provoke any sort of intellectual or emotional faith, but only the kind of faith which is expressed through deeds, since only this sort of faith leads to spiritual fruits. “[In the world of the spirit] it holds true that only the one who works gets bread, that only the one who was in anxiety finds rest, that only the one who descends into the lower world rescues the beloved, that only the one who draws the knife gets Isaac” (III 79 [1]). If someone is unwilling to work, they do not get any results. This central purpose is described in the epistle from which the title of the book was taken, which exhorts: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13 [2]). One must work to produce both the will and action of faith, with full respect to God who is the chief agent of the work.

Kierkegaard [3] details many kinds of heroic greatness in Fear and Trembling, distinguishing especially between “infinite resignation” and faith. Of the two, only faith requires action. People with infinite resignation may act in accordance with their resignation, but they must resign themselves before they act. “In the crucial moment Agamemnon, Jephthah, and Brutus heroically have overcome the agony, heroically have lost the beloved, and have only to complete the task externally” (III 108). The act of resignation is already completed before the actual sacrifice of the child. To have infinite resignation one does not have to perform any specific deed, but only make the psychological motion of submitting one's finite will to the infinite. If Agamemnon's daughter had been struck down by the gods just before he had sacrificed her, he would still be just as much a tragic hero, not because of the physical sacrifice but because of the nobility of his resignation. Kierkegaard tells us that if infinite resignation is performed properly, then no future disappointment can interfere its infinite nature (III 95). This means that whatever heroism is involved in infinite resignation does not come from the action itself, but from the prior resignation. The action is not necessary to infinite resignation, nor can it destroy infinite resignation. It follows that a person with infinite resignation only is not great because of action.

It is different with Abraham. Abraham is great because he acted: “He split the firewood, he bound Isaac, he lit the fire, he drew the knife” (III 74 [4]) It is this moment of action which is the critical moment for Abraham, when he might doubt and lose everything. “Who strengthened Abraham's arm, who braced up his right arm so that it did not sink down powerless! Anyone who looks on this scene is paralyzed. Who strengthened Abraham's soul lest everything had gone black for him and he see neither Isaac nor the ram!” (III 74). If Abraham had had infinite resignation but not faith, he would have already strengthened his own soul toward the loss of Isaac, so that the actual performance of the sacrifice would be merely external. On the three day journey to Mount Moriah there was plenty of time to resign himself properly, and so produce a psychological barrier against the pain of the loss. But he also had faith, that is, he also expected to get Isaac back “by virtue of the absurd” (III 87), he had to go on continually believing as he went through the physical actions of preparing the sacrifice, without ever succumbing to doubt. Therefore someone with faith does receive credit for their action, because for them the action is not merely external. “Everyone was great wholly in proportion to the magnitude of that with which he struggled” (III 16). Unlike infinite resignation, the movement of faith involves an essential struggle with action.


According to Kierkegaard, those who do not realize that faith essentially involves action are doomed to believe that it is something comparatively worthless and easily obtainable. Seeing that the world around him viewed faith as being an idea capable of being cheaply transferred, he writes ironically in order to mock this sort of easy “faith”. “Not only in the business world, but also in the world of ideas, our age stages ein wirklicher Ausverkauf [a real sale]. Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question whether there is finally anyone who will make a bid” (III 57). This devalued “faith” is the reason why philosophy vainly supposed one might go beyond faith. Praising the age with Socratic irony, Kierkegaard writes that:
In our age, everyone is unwilling to stop with faith but goes further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where they are going, whereas it is a sign of urbanity and culture for me to assume that everyone has faith, since otherwise it would certainly be odd to speak of going further. It was different in those ancient days. Faith was then a task for a whole lifetime. (III 59)
Kierkegaard's problem with the age [5] is that it did not view faith as being something that people had to work to attain. “There is a knowledge that presumptuously wants to introduce into the world of spirit the same law of indifference under which the external world sighs. It believes that it is enough to know what is great—no other work is required” (III 80). Because faith is viewed as being merely a matter of acquiring knowledge, it can simply be inherited from a past age. Real faith, on the contrary, can never be acquired from another individual. “In this respect, each generation begins primitively, has no task other than what each previous individual had, nor did it advance further” (III 166). Faith that is regarded as being intellectually transmittable becomes nothing more than the ticket needed to get on the train of modern philosophy. This view of faith is why the age cannot understand Abraham. “It perhaps rarely happens that anyone is paralyzed or blinded [by Abraham's deed], and still more rarely does anyone tell what happened as it deserves to be told.” Why? Because, “We know it all—it was only an ordeal” (III 74). Since we, unlike Abraham, know how the story turns out in the end, we do not experience Abraham's anxiety, and thus do not realize the difficulty of faith. With the anxiety left out, the story becomes for us a matter of knowledge rather than experience. Paradoxically, viewing faith as if it were only knowledge prevents one from understanding it.


Kierkegaard might have chosen to communicate the need for action to the reader directly. But those who do not want to act on faith will deliberately focus on other, irrelevant aspects of the message rather than the crucial aspect—which is to put the message into practice. As James says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:22-23 [6]). James had to write this because of the common tendency of individuals not to apply spiritual instruction to their lives. Kierkegaard knew that if he wrote a book plainly denouncing the world's misunderstanding of faith, then it would very likely suffer the same fate. His readers might claim to “accept” the teaching, even while blindly ignoring its application to their own lives. The world rejects an idea most strongly not by condemning it, but by accepting it as something other than what it is. Kierkegaard acknowledges this tendency, not by directly condemning it, but by ironically pretending to support it.

How would the reader avoid realizing that spiritual teaching must be applied to his life? One way is to consider the exhortation from a purely intellectual and esthetic point of view, thus reducing it to the meaningless kind of “faith” which it already possesses. To show up this tendency, Kierkegaard considers the possibility that someone “will become unbalanced and do the same thing” Abraham did, by murdering his own son (III 82). For pages Kierkegaard discusses the formidable danger that perhaps the publication of Fear and Trembling might possibly lead to murder! Of course, the reader does not need Kierkegaard to tell him that it is extremely improbable that anyone will take a philosophical scripture lesson seriously enough to commit murder on its account. But Kierkegaard considers the possibility as if it were a very real one before dismissing it with a curt statement: “I certainly believe that I dare to speak of [faith] without danger in our day, which is scarcely prodigal in faith” (III 83). Considering the tendency of the world to insulate itself from the unbalancing influences of ideas by refusing to take action on them, Kierkegaard need not worry about what might otherwise be the very real risk of human sacrifice. It is almost as if Kierkegaard were addressing himself to some other world, a world of unbalanced individuals who could be expected to “remember what they looked like” after looking at themselves in the mirror, who might, if they were willing to murder for an idea, take the even more provocative and dangerous step of treating an exhortation to faith as if it had some degree of practical relevance for their lives. Then suddenly Kierkegaard remembers what the real world is like and concludes that there is certainly no danger of anything like that happening.

Another strategy for avoiding dealing with real faith is to minimize its claims to such a mildness that one can delude oneself into believing that one is already accomplishing them. As an example of a claim that many might wish to minimize, Kierkegaard considers the seldom heard passage from Luke 14:26 : “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” [7] Kierkegaard condemns the exegetes who attempt to water down such passages and avoid the paradox by explaining the meaning of μισειν [to hate], as “to love less” (III 121). He then again uses irony to blast this strategy for failing to come to terms with the text:

The words are terrible, but I daresay they can be understood without the necessary consequence that the one who has understood them has the courage to do what is understood. One ought to be sufficiently honest, however, to admit what it says, to admit that it is great even though one himself lacks the courage to do it. Anyone who acts thus will not exclude himself from participation in this beautiful story. (III 121-122)
Kierkegaard essentially says, “I understand that you are deathly afraid that if you properly understand this sort of passage, you will be obliged to act on it and do something unpleasant. That is why you do not want to understand it. But really, why not get over this fear of understanding the text? After all, you can always understand it and then not choose not to have the courage to act on it. Then you can have the best of both worlds, possessing both understanding and cowardice.” If the reader wishes only to appreciate faith in the form of a beautiful story, Kierkegaard helps him to appreciate the beautiful story in a way which will preserve its greatness without any danger that it might accidentally make the reader great too.

A third technique is to turn away from the implications of an unwanted exhortation by focusing attention on its author. This is a natural result of focusing on faith as an idea rather than as an action. If faith is considered as an action to be performed, then it is the reader who is responsible. But if faith is instead considered as an idea to be transmitted, then it is the author who is responsible. To show this transition, Kierkegaard uses the example of the preacher who, when he preaches on Abraham being willing to sacrifice his “best”, is shocked when a member of his congregation decides that he too will sacrifice his “best”, i.e. his son. The preacher has only been concerned with presenting an idea. It did not enter his mind that someone might actually choose to act on the story. So it is only when confronted with the potential action that he is stirred with passion. If his passion succeeds in preventing the other man's action, then “he would say to himself and his wife—I am an orator—what was lacking was the occasion. When I spoke about Abraham on Sunday I did not feel gripped at all” (III 81). The sermon becomes not the performance of a deed, but a stage performance. Similarly, Kierkegaard's reader is in danger of considering the primary focus to be the author, subordinating the point which the author makes. “Having spoken thus, having stirred the readers to an awareness of the dialectical struggled of faith and its gigantic passion, then I would not become guilty of an error on the part of the listeners, so they would think, `He has faith to such a degree that all we have to do is hang onto his coattails' ” (III 84). Guarding against this possibility, he makes every effort to indicate that the reader should not be thinking about Kierkegaard as an author, or about faith as an abstract concept, but rather about themselves as agents.


So Kierkegaard is very much aware of way the world diverts attention from the main issue of faith. He knew that if he simply wrote down an exhortation towards action directly, it would not produce his intended effect. As it is written:
Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
        be ever seeing, but never perceiving.
Make the heart of this people calloused;
        make their ears dull
        and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
        hear with their ears,
        understand with their hearts,
        and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)
Therefore, Kierkegaard chooses to speak to the people in parables, i.e. through the construction of a narrative which relates to the message directly rather than indirectly. This is the role of the pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio.

Johannes de Silentio protects the reader from understanding faith merely in terms of the author of the work, by explicitly denying that he has faith at all. “By no means do I have faith,” he admits (III 84). While this certainly does not lead the reader to cease paying attention to the authorial voice (in fact it makes it more noticeable), it does separate the author from the subject so that the reader is not in danger of confusing the two. Then the concept of faith presented by de Silentio is rendered more shocking by the disconnect between the author and his subject. Kierkegaard explains the general principle thus: “Once when the price of spices in Holland fell, the merchants had a few cargoes sunk into the sea in order to jack up the price. This was an excusable, perhaps even necessary, deception. Do we need something similar in the world of the spirit?” (III 166). De Silentio is the cargo sunk into the sea; by not having faith he increases the value of faith in the eyes of the reader. Unlike the world, however, he has the honesty to admit it. “As for me, I do not lack the courage to think a complete thought. Up to now I have feared none, and if I should encounter such a one, I hope that I will at least have the honesty to say: this thought makes me afraid, it shocks me, and therefore I will not think it” (III 82). If, like the world, de Silentio were too cowardly to think uncomfortable thoughts, he would at least have the honesty to admit it. With this show of de Silentio's superiority over the world, Kierkegaard hopes to shame the reader if he should attempt to minimize the role of faith to make it more comfortable.

So of the three strategies (discussed in the previous section) for failing to come to terms with faith, de Silentio prevents two of them: the focus on authorship and the minimization of faith. He does not directly prevent the first strategy, of considering the faith described as an interesting idea to be received as such, rather than as a demand to change one's life. Kierkegaard's attack on this idea also involves de Silentio, not directly but ironically. As Kierkegaard explains it:

From the total point of view of my whole work as an author, the esthetic writing is a deception, and herein is the deeper significance of the pseudonymity....What, then, does it mean “to deceive”? It means that one does not begin directly with what one wishes to communicate but begins by taking the other's delusion at face value. Thus one does not begin in this way: I am a Christian, you are not a Christian—but this way: You are a Christian, I am not a Christian. Or one does not begin in this way: It is Christianity that I am proclaiming, and you are living in purely esthetic categories. No, one begins this way: let us talk about the esthetic. The deception consists in one's speaking this way precisely in order to arrive at the religious. (The Point of View XIII 540-541 [8])
So Kierkegaard writes for a religious purpose, but Johannes de Silentio writes for an esthetic purpose. The religious purpose is emulate Abraham's faith, but the esthetic purpose is to appreciate Abraham's faith. Kierkegaard writes for an “esthetically voluptuous” age (III 132), an age which is interested in faith only as if it were an interesting concept. By using de Silentio, who writes for an esthetic purpose, Kierkegaard thus ironically assumes for a moment, a la Socrates, the very position he wishes to refute.

This contrast between Kierkegaard's true purpose and de Silentio's ostensible purpose becomes very vivid when he [9] ends a paragraph concluding that “faith is not the esthetic, or else faith has never existed because it has always existed” (III 130), and begins the next by deciding that “It would be best at this point to consider the whole question purely esthetically and to that end enter into an esthetic inquiry” (III 131). After concluding that faith is not esthetic, de Silentio immediately assumes that since the readers are so esthetic, they will of course wish to drop the subject of faith in favor of an esthetic analysis. He goes on to introduce the esthetic category of “the interesting”,

a category that especially now—since the age lives in discrimine rerum [at a turning point in history]—has become very important, for it is actually the category of the turning point. Therefore one should not, as sometimes happens after one has been personally enamored of it pro virili [with all one's might], disdain that category because it grew away from one, but neither should a person be all too greedy for it, for one thing is sure, to become interesting, to have an interesting life, is not a handicraft task but a momentous privilege, which, like every other privilege in the world of spirit, is purchased only in severe pain. Thus Socrates was the most interesting man who ever lived, his life the most interesting life ever led, but this existence was alloted to him by the god, and inasmuch as he himself had to acquire it, he was not a stranger to pain. (III 131)
This passage drips with sarcasm. In the light of what has gone before, showing that faith is far above the merely esthetic in its qualities, this excessive praise of an esthetic category should strike one as being demeaning, a rather blown out of proportion consolation prize for not having faith. This interpretation is further supported by the claim that “the category of the turning point” must be especially important because of its alignment with the nature of the age, an age which has already been thoroughly condemned for undervaluing the passionate movements of the soul for fake substitutes. If anything more needs to be added, the reference to Socrates as the fulfillment merely of the “interesting” must strike a sophisticated reader of Plato as not really being an adequate word to describe the primary virtue of the father of philosophical irony. Kierkegaard is highlighting the absurdity of the age's merely esthetic attempt to appreciate faith. His statement that this category borders on the ethical (III 131), merely shows that the age cannot even really appreciate the ethical except in esthetic terms.

Although the esthetic reader is apparently being accommodated in his esthetic preferences, in fact the reader is warned away from this trust in the esthetic. “One or two predicates can betray a whole world” (III 131). The predicate that betrays the world is the esthetic, because it convinces the world that real faith is unnecessary. The end result of this esthetic view is later made clear: the Agnes of the legend, who demands the interesting, has no innocence to protect her, and so is liable to be seduced by the merman and drowned (III 143). Luring readers in with the aid of the pseudonym, Kierkegaard intends to dash their view of faith against the rocks.


De Silentio, as the author of an esthetic work, has the poetic task of magnifying his subject—Abraham and his faith—through a judicious and artistic arrangement. He does this by constructing a pseudo-Hegelian hierarchy of a “series of configurations which consciousness goes through” (Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraph 78) in its progression towards faith. The difference is that unlike Hegel, who uses mediation to explain the progression through the series, de Silentio uses passion:
Every movement of infinity is carried out through passion, and no reflection can produce a movement. This is the continual leap in existence which explains the movement, whereas mediation is a chimera, which in Hegel is supposed to explain everything, and which is also the only thing he has never tried to explain. (III 93 footnote)
In order to ironically attack the Hegelian philosophical system, Kierkegaard “[takes] the other's delusion at face value” (Point of View XII 541). The delusion in this case is the respect given to the system. Therefore, de Silentio claims that although he has the greatest respect for the system, he cannot comprehend it and must stick to a lower, poetic task. Accordingly, he tells us that:
The present author is by no means a philosopher. He has not understood the system, whether there is one, whether it is completed; it is already enough for his weak head to ponder what a prodigious head everyone must have these days when everyone has such a prodigious idea....The present author is by no means a philosopher. He is poetice et eleganter [in a poetic and refined way] a supplementary clerk who neither writes the system nor gives promises of the system, who neither exhausts himself on the system nor binds himself to the system. (III 59)
Yet in view of Kierkegaard's ironic style, the more he insists that his work has nothing to do with the system, the more we can be certain that it is actually intended to critique the system. Despite his disclaimer, Fear and Trembling contains a system of its own, one constructed to be superficially similar in some respects to the Hegelian system, but with faith at the culmination of the series, rather than being relegated to somewhere in the middle [10]. Since the age has “crossed out passion in order to serve science” (III 59), he attacks science (in the Hegelian sense) with a new system based on passion.

The main feature of de Silentio's pseudo-system is a threefold ranking of kinds of greatness: those who have not attained infinite resignation, those who have resignation but not faith, and those with faith. This threefold division is revealed in certain triads of greatness described in the Eulogy. “One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became the greatest of all” (III 69). The first has ordinary greatness, the second the infinite, and the third has faith because he expects the finite by virtue of the absurd. Again, “He who struggled with the world [to get the possible] became great by conquering the world, and he who struggled with himself [to resign his desire] became great by conquering himself, but he who struggled with God [to obtain the finite through faith] became the greatest of all (III 69). One more: “There was one who relied upon himself and gained everything [self-reliantly seeking it as a form of possible greatness]; there was one who in the security of his strength [of resignation] sacrificed everything [for the sake of the infinite]; but the one who believed God [faith] was the greatest of all” (III 69).

All three of these varieties of greatness are acknowledged by de Silentio [11] as being genuinely great, i.e. there is a fourth tier consisting of those who do not desire to be great, the “slaves of the finite, the frogs in the swamp of life, [who] scream: That kind of love is foolishness; the rich brewer's widow is just as good and solid a match [as the princess]” (III 92). Similarly, in order to account for all the layers of merit given by de Silentio, one must include those who attempt to get up to the level of infinite resignation, but do not perform this movement properly, thus remaining stuck between two kinds of greatness. “In infinite resignation there is peace and rest and comfort in the pain, that is, when the movement is made normatively. I could easily write a whole book if I were to expound the various misunderstandings, the awkward positions, the botched up movements I have encountered in just my own little experience” (III 96) [12]. So all told, one might identify five distinct strata or stages, the last of which is faith.

The poetic purpose of this hierarchy is to exalt faith by means of an a fortiori technique whereby certain passions which are less than faith are nevertheless admired as great, thus indicating that faith must be even more profound and wonderful. For instance, de Silentio shows how faith is exalted above the esthetic by means of an example of one who is great by expecting the possible, as compared with those higher on the scale of greatness:

Precisely because resignation is antecedent, faith is no esthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence. If, for example, a young girl still remains convinced that her desire will be fulfilled, this assurance is by no means the assurance of faith, even though she has been brought up by Christian parents and perhaps has had confirmation instruction from the pastor for a whole year. She is convinced in all her childlike naiveté and innocence, and this assurance ennobles her nature and gives her a supernatural magnitude so that like a thaumaturge she can invoke the finite powers of existence and bring the very stones to tears....but there is one thing that cannot be learned from her—how to make movements—for her assurance does not dare, in the pain of resignation, to look the impossibility in the eye. (III 97)
Johannes de Silentio's poetic device makes it clear what faith is not, and so allows faith to contrast with these lower forms of greatness in order to bring out the true colors of faith. At the same time, he fulfills Kierkegaard's purposes by getting in yet another ironic stab at those who believe that they are Christians, and yet think of faith only in esthetic terms.

Similarly, the difficulty in moving from the next-to-last rung to faith is poetically enhanced by de Silentio's confessions of inability. “I can presumably describe the movements of faith, but I cannot make them” (III 88). It would be possible to go on for pages describing all the contrasts which de Silentio makes between what he is (the knight of infinite resignation), and what he describes (the knight of faith). Every time de Silentio does this, he glorifies faith in comparison to himself.

This “jack[ing] up the price of faith” by contrasting it with lower states which are not faith is the direct poetic purpose of de Silentio. If the reader is content to take de Silentio's work at face value, then the effect will be to make faith seem unattainably great. This effect may nonetheless encourage certain sorts of readers to strive to advance along de Silentio's described path through passion further towards faith. “I would begin by showing what a devout and God-fearing man Abraham was....Next, I would describe how Abraham loved Isaac....If it were done properly, the result would be that some of the fathers would by no means demand to hear more but for the time being would be pleased if they actually succeeded in loving as Abraham loved” (III 83). If someone reads Fear and Trembling and has this attitude, then Kierkegaard would no doubt be satisfied, considering that he would then have inspired that person to humbly set about producing something good by means of action. But if one of his readers should happen to suffer from “sleeplessness” (III 80), then that reader might well be disturbed by all the barriers that de Silentio constructs to separate him from faith. He will wonder if he too must be impotent with respect to faith, considering de Silentio's difficulties. Such a reader is in a position to understand Kierkegaard's underlying message, which goes beyond de Silentio's poetic system for the greater appreciation of faith.


When de Silentio describes himself as a poetic and elegant clerk (III 59) in the Preface, the reader is naturally prepared to identify de Silentio with the poet (or orator), as so vividly portrayed in the opening of the Eulogy on Abraham: Just as God created man and woman, so he created the hero and the poet or orator. The poet or orator can do nothing that the hero does; he can only admire, love, and delight in him. Yet he too is happy—no less than that one is, for the hero is, so to speak, his better nature, with which he is enamored—yet happy that the other is not himself, that his love can be admiration....If he remains true to his love in this way, if he contends night and day against the craftiness of oblivion, which wants to trick him out of his hero, then he has fulfilled his task, then he is gathered together with the hero, who has loved him faithfully, for the poet is, so to speak, the hero's better nature, powerless, to be sure, just as a memory is, but also transfigured just as a memory is. Therefore no one who was great will be forgotten, and even though it takes time, even though a cloud of misunderstanding takes away the hero, his lover will nevertheless come, and the longer the passage of time, the more faithfully he adheres to him. (III 69) The poet and the hero need one another, each being the other's “better nature”. Like the man and the woman, their happiness is in the other, since the hero's deed is saved from oblivion without the poet, and the poet vicariously participates in the great deed of the hero. Given the context, the reader is led to identify the poet with de Silentio and the hero with Abraham. Abraham is covered over with a “cloud of misunderstanding” by those who seek to go beyond faith. But de Silentio, who loves and admires Abraham, presents Abraham to the world in his full glory, as the poet presents the hero. And just as the poet can do nothing that the hero does, so de Silentio can do nothing which Abraham does, since he does not have faith. Let us then tentatively equate de Silentio with the poet, and Abraham with the hero, and see what conclusions can be drawn from that. Then it will become clear whether Johannes de Silentio can really be regarded as being the poet of faith.

Despite the nobility of the poet as portrayed above, the rest of Fear and Trembling contains several shockingly negative depictions of the poet (or orator). The preacher announces “I am an orator” (III 81). He rejects faith as an action, and thus can only appreciate “faith” in esthetic terms. “The poet can do nothing that the hero does.” In other words, the poet of faith, since he attempts to describe faith esthetically, cannot be the man of faith. “He who will not work does not get bread but is deceived just as the gods deceived Orpheus with an ethereal phantom instead of the beloved, deceived him because he was soft, not boldly brave, deceived him because he was a zither player and not a man” (III 79). Orpheus received a phantom of the beloved because he was a poet. Instructed that he must not turn around and look at her, he does not receive her because he does not have faith. He disobeys the injunction because he is a “zither player”, that is, a poet. An even more sinister insinuation is made against the poet when de Silentio thanks Shakespeare,

you who can say everything, everything, everything just as it is—and yet, why did you never articulate this torment [of anxiety over Abraham]. Did you perhaps reserve it for yourself, like the beloved's name that one cannot bear to have the world utter, for with his little secret that he cannot divulge the poet buys this power of the word to tell everybody else's dark secrets. A poet is not an apostle; he drives out devils only by the power of the devil. (III 111 [13]).
This passage suggests that the poet, far from being innocent, must tap into the “demonic paradox” by which the single individual is higher than the universal, in an evil sense—that is, esthetically (III 144-146). If the main “poet” of Fear and Trembling is Johannes de Silentio, then all these other poets must be interpreted as elucidating his role, and are thus projections or representations of de Silentio. De Silentio appears at first to be refreshingly honest and humble in his confession that he lacks faith, but these passages suggest that underneath this appearance of humility is a rather horrible secret.


Why does de Silentio's esthetic role as the poet of faith prevent him from having faith? As the poet of faith, filled with infinite resignation, he does not appreciate real faith but an idealized and poeticized faith. The former is faith in the limited conditions of humanity, while the latter is a grand conception of faith, which cannot be found in real people. Even in his desire for faith, de Silentio desires not the finite, but the infinite. Thus he paradoxically desires an infinite return to the finite, which is impossible. “I honestly confess that in my experience I have not met a single authentic instance [of faith], although I do not therefore deny that every second person may be such an instance” (III 89). De Silentio here claims that he has never seen a Christian who actually has faith. Although he has a romanticized sense of the ordinariness of the man of faith, which allows him to admit (as the infinite) that anyone might have faith, he cannot recognize (and this is the finite), that anyone he sees does have faith.

This tendency can be seen is his description of the man who has faith: “they who carry the treasure of faith are likely to disappoint, for externally they have a striking resemblance to bourgeois philistinism” (III 89). Then, despite the fact that he “looks just like a tax-collector” (III 89), whatever that means, he is actually revealed as having in all his behavior a peculiar mixture of continual expectation and magnanimity concealed in an intense mundaneness (III 90-91). The main thing to keep in mind about this description is that Johannes de Silentio is describing someone he has never met, and never expects to meet—a figment of his imagination, amazingly detailed. Thus any real “man of faith” he encounters is likely to disappoint him. The man he describes is remarkable not only for his faith but for the ease with which he possesses faith. His complete absence of genius, frustration, or angst does not allow for the expression of his character in any real person. This knight of faith would hardly be more exceptional if he were a real knight desiring a real princess.

De Silentio condemns the world for doing the very thing he does. “In our day people go further and explain more than what they themselves have understood” (III 136 footnote). What has de Silentio been doing but carefully explaining to his readers what faith is, when by his own confession he has neither seen nor experienced it? Again, “anything that can be great only at a distance, that someone wants to make great with empty and hollow phrases—is destroyed by that very person” (III 114). But de Silentio can only appreciate faith from a distance. He cannot see it in himself, nor in any other person he meets, but only in a distant figure like Abraham or in an idealized person like the “tax-collector”.

Paradoxically, in order to actually have faith it is necessary not to respect it too much. In other words, it is necessary to obey. The one who obeys knows that however great faith may be, “no sacrifice is too severe when God demands it” (III 74). If God commands faith, then faith is small enough to be possible. When faith is viewed as an enormously difficult task, it obscures the fact that the content of faith is nothing more than following God's orders. Jesus discouraged this sort of grand notion concerning faith. He had said:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says `I repent', forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, `Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, `Prepare my supper, get yourself ready, and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, `we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' ” (Luke 17:3-10).

The apostles were, like Abraham, given an injunction that seemed to be beyond their capacity to bear. Shying away from the real test (involving obedience), they made it into a question of acquiring a supernatural ability (conveniently excusing them from the performance of the duty). Jesus rebukes them by pointing out that they do not need an amazing quantity of faith to perform the “miracle” of forgiveness. All the apostles need is the “mustard seed” quantity of faith which views God's orders as being obligatory, and hence possible, and they will have the power to perform whatever miracles are needed for their task. Then Jesus compares the situation to that of a servant in order to clarify that the essential issue lies not in the greatness of the task but in their obedience to the task. In Kierkegaard's words, “there is an absolute duty to God” (Problema II).


Consequently the true reader of Fear and Trembling is to reject Johannes de Silentio in favor of the true message of the book: that faith, in order to be real, must involve action rather than esthetics. Kierkegaard warns us that the pseudonym must be rejected in favor of the secret meaning with his epigram: “What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not.” [14] Tarquinius' son had infiltrated his father's enemies, the Gabii, as a supposed friend. He then sent a messenger to his father to ask him what to do next. His father, not trusting the messenger, did not say a word. Instead he went into the garden and whacked off the heads of the poppies. The messenger, thinking that he had refused to answer the question, reported what his father had done. But the son realized that the father wanted him to kill the leaders of the Gabii. [15]

Now the father is Kierkegaard, the messenger is Johannes de Silentio, and the son is the true reader of Fear and Trembling. The point of the story is not that the messenger was too stupid to understand the message. Rather, the messenger failed because he was looking for a message, while the son understood because he was looking to act. As it is written: "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak for myself” (John 7:17 KJV). Johannes de Silentio cannot understand Abraham because he will not act; instead he attempts to understand him esthetically and fails.

Thus de Silentio does not succeed at being the poet of faith, since he cannot understand his subject. “Abraham I cannot understand; in a certain sense I can do nothing but be amazed” (III 88). Although the poet is “no less happy than [the hero is]” (III 68), de Silentio's “joy is not the joy of faith, and in comparison with that, it is unhappy” (III 85). Kierkegaard sets up the reader to think that de Silentio is Abraham's poet, ironically assuming the world's premise that faith can be appreciated on esthetic terms. But then he plants more and more clues that this esthetic approach is doomed to fail, until at last near the end of the book he has de Silentio admit it straight out: “I am not a poet” (III 138). De Silentio never comes to terms with this problem. Instead it is left to the reader to determine from his own example that an esthetic treatment of faith cannot succeed. “These movements and positions presumably may still become subjects for esthetic treatment, but to what extent faith and the whole life of faith can be that I leave undecided here” (III 136 footnote). By de Silentio's omission, Kierkegaard hopes to alert the reader to this fundamental issue.


The reason for de Silentio's failure as a poet is that Abraham is more than a hero. “I think myself into the hero; I cannot think myself into Abraham” (III 85). Since the poet and the hero are made for one another, anyone who transcends the status of the hero cannot be understood by any poet.

Why is Abraham more than a hero? The reason is that by virtue of his faith, he can no longer communicate his suffering and blessedness to others. “Abraham cannot be mediated; in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me” (III 110). Speaking, which is oratory, must use the language of the universal, and therefore cannot portray anything higher than the infinite. Abraham, on the other hand, has faith, whose essence is action. If Abraham were to attempt to communicate his faith, he would have to construct a message. But faith cannot be understood if it is only understood as a message. It is therefore impossible for him to communicate his faith. Hence he does not disclose himself to any poet.

Contrast this with the tragic hero. “The tragic hero, who is the favorite of ethics is the purely human; him I can understand, and all his undertakings are out in the open. If I go further, I always run into the paradox, the divine and the demonic, for silence is both. Silence is the demon's trap...but silence is also divinity's mutual understanding with the individual” (III 135-136). We have already encountered the demonic silence in Johannes de Silentio's poetic secret (hence his name). But Abraham has the divine paradox of faith, so his silence is of a different order. Whereas the demonic secret is deliberately withheld, the divine secret cannot be expressed, because it is too great. “Abraham remains silent—but he cannot speak....Even though I go on talking night and day without interruption, if I cannot make myself understood, then I am not speaking” (III 159).

To illustrate this incommunicability of faith further, Kierkegaard uses the example of “that favored woman, the mother of God, the Virgin Mary.” She was indeed favored, but the “anxiety, distress and paradox” was that she could not communicate this favor to the world. “[The angel] was not a meddlesome spirit who went to the other young maidens in Israel and said: Do not scorn Mary, the extraordinary is happening to her. The angel went only to Mary, and no one could understand her” (III 114). If she had been great in the heroic sense, then the other maidens would have been able to vicariously appreciate her deed. “Most blessed of women be Jael” (Judges 5:24), who struck down the oppressor of Israel with a tent peg. Her deed becomes commemorated in song, but to the appearance of the world Mary was an adulteress. It is a testimony to her greatness that she did not need to be commended by the world. “She needs worldly admiration as little as Abraham needs tears, for she was no heroine and he was no hero, but both of them became greater than these, not by being exempted in any way from the distress and the anxiety and the paradox, but became greater by means of these” (III 115). Faith requires acting out against the admiration of the world.

Does this mean that there is no poetry of faith? Not so. The attacks Kierkegaard makes on poetry are directed at the attempt to receive faith without action, by esthetic means. They condemn Johannes de Silentio. But de Silentio does not even succeed in being a poet. It is not he but Abraham who is the true poet of faith. “It is commonly supposed that what faith produces is no work of art, that it is a course and boorish piece of work...but it is far from being that. The dialectic of faith is the finest and most extraordinary of all” (III 87). Faith is a work of art, but this work is expressed through deeds, not words. The poetry is incarnated into Abraham's life, in his actions. This is why, unlike the ordinary hero, he has “no need for a late lover to snatch [his] memory from the power of oblivion” (III 23). The poetry is already present in his actions without the need for another person to come along later. Abraham “speaks a divine language, he speaks in tongues” (III 160). The divine language is incomprehensible to anyone who is not willing to act, because it is action. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do....Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his deeds were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (James 2:18, 21-22). Abraham expressed his faith with his deeds, which is the proper vehicle for its expression. The reason why Johannes de Silentio cannot have faith is that he lacks the language in which it is expressed.

``Here again it is apparent that one can perhaps understand Abraham, but only in the way one understands the paradox. I, for my part, perhaps can understand Abraham, but I also realize that I do not have the courage to speak in this way, no more than I have the courage to act as Abraham did [emphasis mine]; but by no means do I therefore say that the act is of little importance, since, on the contrary, it is the one and only marvel.'' (III 165) Using this divine language, Abraham is the true poet, the true hero, and the true philosopher. For true philosophy is not just a systematic game, but learning how to die. [16]


What is irony?
A final word by Abraham has been preserved, and insofar as I can understand the paradox, I can also understand Abraham's total presence in that word. First and foremost, he does not say anything, and in that form he says what he has to say. His response to Isaac is in the form of irony, for it is always irony when I say something and still do not say anything. (III 164)
Abraham cannot communicate with Isaac, so he says something, but what he says has no meaning, except if by means of irony it somehow manages to produce faith. In the silence of faith, Kierkegaard must communicate. But since he cannot communicate the substance of faith he has no choice but to speak ironically, through the person of Johannes de Silentio, whose name also expresses the divine silence. Similarly, Kierkegaard says nothing; it is up to the reader to enact his true meaning. This is why Kierkegaard deceives the reader:
Direct communication presupposes that the recipient's ability to receive is entirely in order, but here that is not the case—indeed, here a delusion is an obstacle. That means that a corrosive must first be used, but this corrosive is the negative, but the negative in connection with communicating is precisely to deceive. (Point of View XIII 541)
The negative with regard to communication is also silence. Silence is the corrosive by which Kierkegaard reduces de Silentio, and with him the reader's esthetic of faith, to nothing. This silence has the sole purpose of allowing the reader to hear and understand the voice of God:
It is only in this silence that a person receives the ability to understand and to act. It is precisely this silence we need if God's word is to gain a little power over people....The first thing, the unconditional condition for anything to be done, consequently the very first thing that must be done is: create silence, bring about silence, God's word cannot be heard! (For Self-Examination XII 334)
If the reader chooses to interpret Fear and Trembling in an esthetic sense then its entire purpose is lost. Only if the reader rejects the book and the world and seeks to obey the Word of God has the message been understood. It is a very difficult message to understand, not because it is complicated but because it is simple—too simple for the world to accept.

“The knight of faith is assigned solely to himself; he feels the pain of being unable to make himself understandable to others, but he has no vain desire to instruct others....[He] is a witness, never the teacher” (III 128). Kierkegaard suffers the pain of being unable to communicate with the readers, but knows that he cannot make himself understood by them without changing his message, the gospel. Out of the silence he weaves his poetry, but like Shakespeare he cannot reveal “his little secret”, by which he “buys this power of the word to tell everybody else's dark secrets” (III 111). This little secret is nothing else or other than that true faith is revealed in obedience.

Have I then revealed the secret meaning of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling? I have not. All I have expressed, all I can express, are words and ideas. The secret of faith cannot be communicated. Therefore, I have not communicated it, but it remains in the silence for anyone who will listen to it.


Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervon, Grand Rapids, MN 1973.
_______, King James Version, Oxford University Press 1611.
Hong, Howard V. & Hong, Edna H., Fear and Trembling by Johannes de Silentio, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1983.
_______. For Self-Examination by Søren Kierkegaard, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1990.
_______. The Point of View by Søren Kierkegaard, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1998.
Le Guin, Ursula, A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Dell, New York, NY 1968.
Miller, A. V., Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, New York, NY 1977.
Plato, Phaedo,
de Sélincourt, Aubrey, The Early History of Rome by Livy, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, NY 1960.


[1] All Kierkegaard quotations not otherwise marked are from Fear and Trembling.
[2] All Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version, except where otherwise noted.
[3] For now I ignore the role of his pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, which will become critical to the argument beginning in Part IV.
[4] See Genesis 22:3, 9-10
[5] By “the age”, I mean the world as it was at the time of Kierkegaard. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine whether or not our current age also succumbs to the same sort of failure.
[6] For an analysis of this passage in Kierkegaard's own name, which directly rather than ironically advises the reader to orient themselves towards action, see the first chapter of For Self-Examination, “What is Required”.
[7] As quoted by Kierkegaard at III 120-121 in the Hong & Hong translation.
[8] From The Point of View, in which Kierkegaard discusses the nature of his works as a whole.
[9] Which he? Both of him.
[10] What role exactly faith plays in Hegel's sequence is beyond the scope of this essay, since the current section is not intended as an analysis of Hegel except insofar as he is one of the dramatis personae of Kierkegaard's book. In Fear and Trembling his primary significance is as a representative of those who presume by means of philosophy to go beyond faith (III 59).
[11] But not by Kierkegaard since, as discussed above, Kierkegaard's technique is ironic flattery. Kierkegaard wishes only to magnify faith, understood as involving action.
[12] In my first semester paper, “Seven Abrahams”, I argued that the Abrahams in the Exordium possess this kind of non-normative infinite resignation, which has the property that it often mistakes itself for faith, the sort of “faith” that Job's friends possess.
[13] See Mark 3:13-30
[14] Of Johann Georg Hamann
[15] Livy, The Early History of Rome, 1.54
[16] Plato's Phaedo, 64a

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