Class Note for PHIL 336 at UMass
Class Note for PHIL 336 at UMass
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Date Created: 02/06/15
Excerpts from Fear and Trembling Part 2 All was lost when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and more terribly than if a son had never been given him The Lord had only mocked Abraham then Miraculously he had realized the unreasonable hopes of Abraham and now he wished to take away what be had given A foolish hope it had been but Abraham had not laughed when the promise had been made him Now all was lost the trusting hope of seventy years the briefjoy at the fulfillment ofhis hopes Who then is he that snatches away the old man39s staff who that demands that he himself shall break it in two Who is he that renders disconsolate the grey hair of old age who is he that demands that he himself shall do it Is there no pity for the venerable old man and none for the innocent child And yet was Abraham God39s chosen one and yet was it the Lord that tempted him And now all was to be lost I The glorious remembrance ofhim by a whole race the promise of Abraham39s seedall that was but a whim a passing fancy of the Lord which Abraham was now to destroy forever That glorious treasure as old as the faith in Abraham39s heart and many many years older than Isaac the fruit of Abraham39s life sanctified by prayers matured in struggles the blessing on the lips of Abraham this fruit was now to be plucked before the appointed time and to remain without significance for of what significance were it if Isaac was to be sacrificed That sad and yet blessed hour when Abraham was to take leave f rom all that was dear to him the hour when he would once more lift up his venerable head when his face would shine like the countenance of the Lord the hour when he would collect his whole soul for a blessing strong enough to render Isaac blessed all the days of his lifethat hour was not to come He was to say farewell to Isaac to be sure but in such wise that he himself was to remain behind death was to part them but in such wise that Isaac was to die The old man was not in happiness to lay his hand on Isaac39s head when the hour of death came but tired of life to lay violent hands on Isaac And it was God who tempted him Woe woe to the messenger who would have come before Abraham with such a command Who would have dared to be the messenger of such dread tidings But it was God that tempted Abraham But Abraham had faith and had faith for this life Indeed had his faith been but concerning the life to come then might he more easily have cast away all in order to hasten out of this world which was not his But Abraham had faith and doubted not but trusted that the improbable would come to pass If Abraham had doubted then would he have undertaken something else something great and noble for what could Abraham have undertaken but was great and noble He would have proceeded to Mount Moriah he would have cloven the wood and fired it and unsheathed his knife he would have cried out to God quotDespise not this sacrifice it is not indeed the best I have for what is an old man against a child foretold of God but it is the best I can give thee Let Isaac never know that he must find consolation in his youthquot He would have plunged the steel in his own breast And he would have been admired throughout the world and his name would not have been forgotten but it is one thing to be admired and another to be a lodestar which guides one troubled in mind But Abraham had faith He prayed not for mercy and that he might prevail upon the Lord it was only when just retribution was to be visited upon Sodom and Gomorrha that Abraham ventured to beseech Him for mercy Many a father there has been who thought that with his child he lost the dearest of all there was in the world for him yet assuredly no child ever was in that sense a pledge of God as was Isaac to Abraham Many a father there has been who lost his child but then it was God the unchangeable and inscrutable will of the Almighty and His hand which took it Not thus with Abraham For him was reserved a more severe trial and Isaac39s fate was put into Abraham39s hand together with the knife And there he stood the old man with his only hope Yet did he not doubt nor look anxiously to the left or right nor challenge Heaven with his prayers He knew it was God the Almighty who now put him to the test he knew it was the greatest sacrifice which could be demanded of him but he knew also that no sacrifice was too great which God demanded and he drew forth his knife Now the story of Abraham has the remarkable property of always being glorious in however limited a sense it is understood still here also the point is whether one means to labor and exert one39s self Now people do not care to labor and exert themselves but wish nevertheless to understand the story They extol Abraham but how By expressing the matter in the most general terms and saying quotthe great thing about him was that he loved God so ardently that he was willing to sacrifice to Him his most precious possessionquot That is very true but quotthe most precious possessionquot is an indefinite expression As one39s thoughts and one39s mouth run on one assumes in a very easy fashion the identity of Isaac and quotthe most precious possessionquot and meanwhile he who is meditating may smoke his pipe and his audience comfortably stretch out their legs If the rich youth whom Christ met on his way13had sold all his possessions and given all to the poor we would extol him as we extol all which is great aye would not understand even him without labor and yet would he never have become an Abraham notwithstanding his sacrificing the most precious possessions he had That which people generally forget in the story of Abraham is his fear and anxiety for as regards money one is not ethically responsible for it whereas for his son a father has the highest and most sacred responsibility However fear is a dreadful thing for timorous spirits so they omit it And yet they wish to speak ofAbraham So they keep on speaking and in the course of their speech the two terms Isaac and quotthe most precious thingquot are used alternately and everything is in the best order But now suppose that among the audience there was a man who suffered with sleeplessness and then the most terrible and profound the most tragic and at the same time the most comic misunderstanding is within the range of possibility That is suppose this man goes home and wishes to do as did Abraham for his son is his most precious possession If a certain preacher learned of this he would perhaps go to him he would gather up all his spiritual dignity and exclaim quot39Thou abominable creature thou scum of humanity what devil possessed thee to wish to murder sonquot And this preacher who had not felt any particular warmth nor perspired while speaking about Abraham this preacher would be astonished himself at the earnest wrath with which he poured forth his thunders against that poor wretch indeed he would rejoice over himself for never had he spoken with such power and unction and he would have said to his wife quotI am an orator the only thing I have lacked so far was the occasion Last Sunday when speaking about Abraham 1 did not feel thrilled in the leastquot Now if this same orator had just a bit of sense to spare I believe he would lose it if the sinner would reply in a quiet and dignified manner quotWhy it was on this very same matter you preached last Sundayquot But however could the preacher have entertained such thoughts Still such was the case and the preacher39s mistake was merely not knowing what he was talking about Ah would that some poet might see his way clear to prefer such a situation to the stuff and nonsense of which novels and comedies are full For the comic and the tragic here run parallel to infinity The sermon probably was ridiculous enough in itself but it became infinitely ridiculous through the very natural consequence it had Or suppose now the sinner was converted by this lecture without daring to raise any objection and this zealous divine now went home elated glad in the consciousness of being effective not only in the pulpit but chie y and with irresistible power as a spiritual guide inspiring his congregation on Sunday whilst on Monday he would place himself like a cherub with aming sword before the man who by his actions tried to give the lie to the old saying that quotthe course of the world follows not the priest39s wordquot If on the other hand the sinner were not convinced of his error his position would become tragic He would probably be executed or else sent to the lunatic asylum at any rate he would become a sufferer in this world but in another sense I should think that Abraham rendered him happy for he who labors he shall not perish Now how shall we explain the contradiction contained in that sermon Is it due to Abraham39s having the reputation of being a great man so that whatever he does is great but if another should undertake to do the same it is a sin a heinous sin If this be the case I prefer not to participate in such thoughtless laudations If faith cannot make it a sacred thing to wish to sacrifice one39s son then let the same judgment be visited on Abraham as on any other man And if we perchance lack the courage to drive our thoughts to the logical conclusion and to say that Abraham was a murderer then it were better to acquire that courage rather than to waste one39s time on undeserved encomiums The fact is the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he wanted to murder Isaac the religious that he wanted to sacrifice him But precisely in this contradiction is contained the fear which may well rob one of one39s sleep And yet Abraham were not Abraham without this fear Or again supposing Abraham did not do what is attributed to him ifhis action was an entirely different one based on conditions of those times then let us forget him for what is the use of calling to mind that past which can no longer become a present reality Or the speaker had perhaps forgotten the essential fact that Isaac was the son For if faith is eliminated having been reduced to a mere nothing then only the brutal fact remains that Abraham wanted to murder Isaac which is easy for everybody to imitate who has not the faith the faith that is which renders it most difficult for him On this height then stands Abraham The last stage he loses sight of is that of infinite resignation He does really proceed further he arrives at faith For all these caricatures of faith wretched lukewarm sloth which thinks quotOh there is no hurry it is not necessary to worry before the time comesquot and miserable hopefulness which says quotOne cannot know what will happen there might perhapsquot all these caricatures belong to the sordid view of life and have already fallen under the infinite scorn of infinite resignation Abraham I am not able to understand and in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him without being struck with wonder They who atter themselves that by merely considering the outcome of Abraham39s story they will necessarily arrive at faith only deceive themselves and wish to cheat God out of the first movement of faith it were tantamount to deriving worldly wisdom from the paradox But who knows one or the other of them may succeed in doing this for our times are not satisfied with faith and not even with the miracle of changing water into wine they quotgo right onquot changing wine into water Is it not preferable to remain satisfied with faith and is it not outrageous that every one wishes to quotgo right onquot If people in our times decline to be satisfied with love as is proclaimed from various sides where will we finally land In worldly shrewdness in mean calculation in paltriness and baseness in all that which renders man39s divine origin doubtful Were it not better to stand fast in the faith and better that he that standeth take heed lest he fall for the movement of faith must ever be made by virtue of the absurd but note well in such wise that one does not lose the things of this world but wholly and entirely regains them Infinite resignation is the last stage which goes before faith so that every one who has not made the movement of infinite resignation cannot have faith for only through absolute resignation do I become conscious of my eternal worth and only then can there arise the problem of again grasping hold of this world by virtue of faith We will now suppose the knight of faith in the same case He absolutely resigns the love which is the contents of his life he is reconciled to the pain but then the miraculous happens he makes one more movement strange beyond comparison consciously choosing the absurd for its own sake Now the absurd is not one of the categories which belong to the understanding proper It is not identical with the improbable the unforeseen the unexpected The very moment our knight resigned himself he made sure of the absolute impossibility in any human sense ofhis love This was the result reached by his re ections and he had sufficient energy to make them In a transcendent sense however by his very resignation the attainment of his end is not impossible but this very act of again taking possession of his love is at the same time a relinquishment of it Nevertheless this kind of possession is by no means an absurdity to the intellect for the intellect all the while continues to be right as it is aware that in the world of finalities in which reason rules his love was and is an impossibility The knight of faith realizes this fully as well Hence the only thing which can save him is recourse to the absurd and this recourse he has through his faith That is he clearly recognizes the impossibility and in the same moment he believes the absurd for if he imagined he had faith without at the same time recognizing with all the passion his soul is capable of that his love is impossible he would be merely deceiving himself and his testimony would be of no value since he had not arrived even at the stage of absolute resignation This last movement the paradoxical movement of faith I cannot make whether or no it be my duty although I desire nothing more ardently than to be able to make it It must be left to a person39s discretion whether he cares to make this confession and at any rate it is a matter between him and the Eternal Being who is the object ofhis faith whether an amicable adjustment can be affected But what every person can do is to make the movement of absolute resignation and I for my part would not hesitate to declare him a coward who imagines he cannot perform it It is a different matter with faith But what no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance or that it is an easy matter whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things But the story of Abraham is generally interpreted in a different way God39s mercy is praised which restored Isaac to him it was but a trial A trial This word may mean much or little and yet the whole of it passes off as quickly as the story is told one mounts a winged horse in the same instant one arrives on Mount Moriah and presto one sees the ram It is not remembered that Abraham only rode on an ass which travels but slowly that it was a three days39 journey for him and that he required some additional time to collect the firewood to bind Isaac and to whet his knife And yet one extols Abraham He who is to preach the sermon may sleep comfortably until a quarter of an hour before he is to preach it and the listener may comfortably sleep during the sermon for everything is made easy enough without much exertion either to preacher or listener But now suppose a man was present who suffered with sleeplessness and who went home and sat in a corner and re ected as follows quotThe whole lasted but a minute you need only wait a little while and then the ram will be shown and the trial will be overquot Now if the preacher should find him in this frame of mind I believe he would confront him in all his dignity and say to him quotWretch that thou art to let thy soul lapse into such folly miracles do not happen all life is a trialquot And as he proceeded he would grow more and more passionate and would become ever more satisfied with himself and whereas he had not noticed any congestion in his head whilst preaching about Abraham he now feels the veins on his forehead swell Yet who knows but he would stand aghast if the sinner should answer him in a quiet and dignified manner that it was precisely this about which he preached the Sunday before Let us then either waive the whole story of Abraharn or else learn to stand in awe of the enormous paradox which constitutes his significance for us so that we may learn to understand that our age like every age may rejoice if it has faith If the story of Abraham is not a mere nothing an illusion or if it is just used for show and as a pastime the mistake cannot by any means be in the sinner39s wishing to do likewise but it is necessary to find out how great was the deed which Abraham performed in order that the man may judge for himself whether he has the courage and the mission to do likewise The comical contradiction in the procedure of the preacher was his reduction of the story of Abraham to insignificance whereas he rebuked the other man for doing the very same thing But should we then cease to speak about Abraham I certainly think not But if I were to speak about him I would first of all describe the terrors ofhis trial To that end leechlike I would suck all the suffering and distress out of the anguish of a father in order to be able to describe what Abraham suffered whilst yet preserving his faith I would remind the hearer that the journey lasted three days and a goodly part of the fourth in fact these three and half days ought to become infinitely longer than the few thousand years which separate me from Abraham 1 would remind him as I think right that every person is still permitted to turn about before trying his strength on this formidable task in fact that he may return every instant in repentence Provided this is done I fear for nothing Nor do I fear to awaken great desire among people to attempt to emulate Abraham But to get out a cheap edition ofAbraham and yet forbid every one to do as he did that I call ridiculous
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