In the world of the existentialist there are many questions that need answering. Why do we exist? What is right and what is wrong? Who decides what is right and what is wrong?
Throughout his life, existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard tried to answer these and many other perplexing questions. Kierkegaard was a devout Christian who felt that it should be the goal of all humans to become a Christian just as he had.
Human life in general does not really concern the existentialist, however the choices that the human makes throughout their life, do. The primary goal of the existentialist writer is to make all humans aware that they are living individuals who in their freedom make decisions and are responsible for them. (Oaklander 3) Numerous themes abound in the existentialists world that they deal with and discuss in their writings. Examples would be: primacy of the individual, critique of reason, inauthentic vs. authentic, the boundary situation, alienation, encounter with nothingness, dread, community, freedom and commitment.
In his works, Soren Kierkegaard attempted to answer the question of what exactly the goal of the human person was. His primary question was one of a religious nature. He believed that it was the goal of all persons to become close with God, accept him and become a Christian. Kierkegaards writings enable the individual to come to grips with his or her own subjectivity. (Oaklander 2)
Kierkegaard was one of the first existential thinkers to believe that truth is found only in ones own individual, not in psychological experience, science, philosophy or the sciences of the world. These things are just objects with no truth value. (Oaklander 2)
In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard deals with three of the eight afore mentioned themes of existentialism. He discusses the inauthentic versus the authentic and alienation. The primary focus of the text is the story of Abraham and Isaac. The story is also Kierkegaards explanation of why he called off his engagement to his long time love, Regine Olsen. It is said that upon figuring out what he truly wanted in life, which was to become a Christian, Kierkegaard realized that it was not possible to become one with God while trying to maintain a marriage. So, he broke off his engagement to Miss Olsen in order to achieve his priority of becoming a Christian.
According to Kierkegaard there are three stages of human existence. The most immature being the aesthetic stage. (Jansen 1) During this stage humans are dominated by their desires, be them physical, emotional or intellectual. The goal of these people is simply to gain pleasure however satisfaction is non-existent. This is when an existentialist would say that the person is living inauthentically, living without coming to terms with ones existence. Stage two shows people beginning to be overcome by a sense of right and wrong. Humans are now facing ethical situations.
Choices are often ambiguous, though, and sometimes people must choose between equally evil options, so those in the ethical stage remain as unfulfilled as those in the aesthetic stage. (Jansen 1)
By the end of this stage the ethical person becomes a person of morality and morality becomes their chief principle. The third and final stage of Kierkegaards stages of faith is the religious stage, which is primarily what Fear and Trembling deals with. It is in this stage that the move to an authentic level of being is made. These people however can be put into two groups. Group 1, are those bound by guilt, while Group 2 is made up of those who live in total response to God.
In Kierkegaards novel, Fear and Trembling, the story of Abraham and Isaac is used to illustrate not only the themes of alienation and the inauthentic vs. the authentic, but in some ways it tells the story of Kierkegaards life. Throughout the course of the text Abraham makes the move from stage to stage to stage encountering each of the two afore mentioned themes. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, all-starting with the birth of a son. Up to and during this point in his life it could be said that Abraham was an aesthetic. So, just as God had promised a son, Isaac, was born to Abraham and his wife Sarah. Abrahams life long wish had been granted and he was content. However, Abrahams happiness was short lived as God now commanded him to sacrifice his most prized possession, his son. This put Abraham in quite a position. On one hand was his son, how could he sacrifice his son? And on the other hand was God, his creator and provider. Abraham would never question his Lord. Abraham now had to make a decision, a choice, just as the existentialist writers speak of. Ironically, this event in the life of Abraham coincides with a major life choice Soren Kierkegaard had to make. Kierkegaard who had been engaged to his love, Regine Olsen, found himself pondering what it was that he wished to do with his life. His decision: to become a Christian. However as he looked deeper into his choice, Kierkegaard found that it was not possible to maintain a marriage and family and still attain his ultimate goal of becoming a Christian. So, just as Abraham chose to do Gods bidding and sacrifice his son, so did Kierkegaard by ending his engagement to Regine Olsen. At this point, both men could be found in the ethical stage of faith. Abraham struggles with the possible disobedience of Gods demands and the murder of his son. Not only would he be committing murder, Abraham would also be giving back in a sense his wish that God had so gratefully provided him with. What if Isaac didnt become the great ruler that Abraham had foreseen, what if it was his purpose to be sacrificed to God? In regards to Kierkegaards situation, what if he was never meant to be a Christian or a husband? If these things were not their destinies, then these men would only be disobeying God. Reluctantly, both men chose to do as they saw fit, which was ultimately Gods bidding. Once his decision had been made, Abraham entered the religious phase of his journey through faith. The final movement, a leap of faith, occurs when he believes in the virtue of the absurd, that his son will be spared. (Oaklander 22) A connection had now been made between Abraham, Isaac, and God and it is through this acceptance that Abraham moves from the inauthentic to the authentic. Just as it was stated before, Abraham made a life altering decision that means he no longer belongs to the realm of the inauthentic world. It is here that Abraham could also be put into the second group of believers, those that live in response to God. Again in the case of Kierkegaard he too makes a life altering decision, to pursue his Christian faith. In this case Abraham would have given up his individuality and become the universal, to do as others do. (Oaklander 23) Unfortunately, unlike Abraham who got his son back, Regine Olsen was never a part of Soren Kierkegaards life again.
The existential theme of alienation can also be found in Fear and Trembling. Through the testing of his faith, Abraham became very aware of himself as an individual and that he must exist alone. (Oaklander 25) He alienates himself by breaking the moral law and taking his son to be sacrificed. He also demonstrated his aloneness by not telling anyone even his wife what God had bid him to do.
Abraham did not seek immediate reconciliation with the totality from which he had fallen, but instead tried to establish domination over the surrounding world. (Taylor 38).
In a similar sense, Kierkegaard looked only to himself, not to anyone else, for the answer as to what to do. Abraham realized that by doing Gods bidding he would be a murderer and therefore did not go through with it. The resulting pain is in fact proof to Abraham that his choice although not what God asked of him was the right one.
By giving himself completely to God, Abraham, according to Kierkegaard, had achieved the goal of all humans: he had become a Christian. Soren Kierkegaard also gave himself completely to God through his work and teachings. Both of these men made the jump from the inauthentic to the authentic by living lives that were in total response to God.
Jansen, G.M.A. An Existential Approach to Theology.
Bruce Publishing Company: Milwaukee, WI. 1966.
Oaklander, Nathan L. Existential Philosophy: An
Introduction. Prentice Hall: Paramus. 1995
Taylor, Mark-Lloyd. Anthropology and Authority: Essays on
Soren Kierkegaard. Rodopi: Atlanta, GA. 2000.