Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Iphigenia vs. Abraham: Problematizing the Knight of Faith in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Iphigenia vs. Abraham: Problematizing the Knight of Faith in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

Article excerpt

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The story of the binding of Isaac, also known as the akedah (Genesis 221) has been subject to many important philosophical commentaries and discussions. One of these is Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, first published in 1843. In this work, Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio and provides an illustration of different ways of engaging ethically with life. Among these is the tragic hero, who succeeds in ethical ac- tion only when he is subject to the laws of the generality (be this the State or the Church). Another one is the knight of faith who, unlike the tragic hero, is able to behave morally only when opting for an authentic choice that is unexplainable to the generality because it betrays it. The paradigmatic case of the knight of faith, for Kierkegaard, is Abraham: he obeys God's command to perform the akedah on his son Isaac, thus betraying the societal law of loving one's children more than oneself. Making this decision, Abraham behaves appropriately towards God, yet he does not behave appropriately towards the generality; unable to explain this choice, he remains silent and misunderstood.

As Kierkegaard tells us, Abraham betrays the laws of the generality because he opens himself to the expectation of the impossible (for example, that Isaac's life would be spared, or that he would resurrect). This expectation of an impos- sible result is, in my view, partial. That is to say, it is the expectation of one among many impossible results, some of which would work against what Kierkegaard sees as Abraham's hopes. Expecting the impossible without qualification means to consider that the outcome of one's decision may be that everything of which one had previous experiences, and everything that one believed (for example, that God keeps promises), would turn out to be false. This is an outcome that Abraham is not prepared to consider; thus, his expectation of the impossible is qualified, and this seems to be seminal for his agreement to perform the akedah. His misapprehension of what the impossible without qualification entails may be propelled by an error in his intellectual habits, or (perhaps also in conjunction with the former) by communicable and understandable reasons for why he chose to perform the akedah.2 In any of these two scenarios, the role of the knight of faith fits Abraham much more closely than what Kierkegaard envisioned.

When comparing Abraham with the character of Iphigenia from Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis, it becomes apparent that she exhibits characteristics that allow her to fit the paradigm of someone that makes a leap of faith. Much like Abraham, she faces a difficult choice in which a murder ordered by a divinity is involved. Yet, unlike Abraham, Iphigenia has (and discloses) clear reasons for why she will concede to her self-sacrifice. These reasons, however, do not stem from previous encounters with the divinity; rather, they stem from her moral character. Most surprisingly, Iphigenia is able to sublimate her self-sacrifice into a joyous experi- ence. While she has no expectations of the impossible to occur (namely, her own salvation), she embraces her fate and expects to save Greece.

In this article I will explain why I believe that Abraham may not fit the role of the knight of faith as described by Kierkegaard, and how Iphigenia provides an attractive counterpoint to this paradigm. In order to account for the behavior of both Abraham and Iphigenia I will use Aristotle's notion of ... (habit or state) as appears in Nicomachean Ethics II.5. It is not my intention to enter into the debate of whether Kierkegaard's ethics compare to Aristotle's, or to virtue ethics in general.3 Rather, I wish to use Aristotle as a resource to illuminate the point that the ways in which we act are, if not caused, at the very least influenced by the habits we form when responding to feelings.

I thus begin my analysis with Kierkegaard's intentions for the work Fear and Trembling. …

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