Walter Lowrie's classic, bestselling translation of Søren Kierkegaard's most important and popular books remains unmatched for its readability and literary quality. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death established Kierkegaard as the father of existentialism and have come to define his contribution to philosophy. Lowrie's translation, first published in 1941 and later revised, was the first in English, and it has introduced hundreds of thousands of readers to Kierkegaard's thought. Kierkegaard counted Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death among "the most perfect books I have written," and in them he introduces two terms--"the absurd" and "despair"--that have become key terms in modern thought. Fear and Trembling takes up the story of Abraham and Isaac to explore a faith that transcends the ethical, persists in the face of the absurd, and meets its reward in the return of all that the faithful one is willing to sacrifice, while The Sickness Unto Death examines the spiritual anxiety of despair.
Walter Lowrie's magnificent translation of these seminal works continues to provide an ideal introduction to Kierkegaard. And, as Gordon Marino argues in a new introduction, these books are as relevant as ever in today's age of anxiety.
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This book reminded me of a close call I had many years ago. It was on a sunny Saturday. I was cruising on the highway, enjoying the scenery, music playing in the background, and a gentle breeze in my face. All of a sudden, a spider started crawling across the steering wheel. I tried to gently wipe it off, but lost control of the wheel. My car swerved and flew off the edge of the highway! I remember vividly, at the very moment when the car went over the edge, I thought to myself, "Wonder how deep is this abyss I'm falling into."
Faith, the subject of this book, in a sense to me, is like stepping over the abyss and expecting to fly.
Many people are familiar with the painting by Michelangelo, "The Creation of Adam", in which the hand of Adam reaching out almost touching the outstretched finger of God. Imagine in your mind's eye that the right half of the painting is missing, i.e., if God were not in the picture, Adam would be staring and groping into the Abyss.
Contemplating Abraham's Faith
"By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, 'In Isaac your seed shall be called,' concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense." Hebrews 11:17-19
I've read the biblical story of Abraham in Genesis 22 many times, and memorized the definition of "faith" in Hebrews 11. I thought I understood Abraham, that he was a friend of God and the father of faith, the same faith that I possess, albeit to a much smaller measure.
Kierkegaard showed me how little I knew Abraham and the true nature of faith. Abraham sacrificing his beloved son Isaac to God, is not unlike throwing Isaac into the abyss. Was he a murderer, a madman or a saint? We understand and admire the tragic heroes, who sacrifice their own lives and their loved ones for a higher and just cause. But who would understand Abraham if he killed his own son for no apparent justifiable purpose? How could he even know what he was doing was right when the ethics of society plainly condemned murder?
Abraham Gave Up His All
If Abraham had not loved Isaac, sacrificing Isaac would have been a selfish act. But Isaac was his only son, one born in his old age by the promise of God. He loved Isaac more than his own life. All his passions, hopes and the future of the entire race were bound up in Isaac. To give him up was to give up all.
One can not understand Abraham unless he too has an all-consuming, undying passion in his own life, and is deprived of the object of his passion either of his own volition or by the circumstances.
Abraham Was Damned to Isolation
Kierkegaard proclaims, "Isn't it true that those who God blesses He damns in the same breath?" The Scripture confirms, "For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God", and vice versa.
Virgin Mary was blessed by God, and yet despised by the people, for she bore the Child miraculously; Abraham was a friend of God, and yet what he intended to do was condemned by society. He could not explain nor justify his apparently unethical action, for he believed the impossible, the absurd, and therefore was isolated from society.
There is no safety net, i.e., the support and sympathy of other people, underneath him as he stepped over the abyss. He could not fall back and take comfort in the strength of the multitude. He believed in God alone, in his own conviction of what God asked of him; He walked and bore his burden alone.
Abraham Was Elevated as an Individual Above Universal
"Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Not because of his philanthropic or heroic deeds, but because of his own faith. However, he would have been regarded as demon-possessed if he had killed Isaac. Therein lies the paradox.
Many individuals isolated themselves from and elevated themselves above the Universal, being led stray by demonic passions and pride, some thinking that "he offers God service", and they perished in the Abyss. Could he have been one of them?
It's unfathomable what is contained in these three words, "Abraham believed God". And yet paradoxically, it is also very simple, all he (and any of us) had to do was to take the step, the leap of faith.
Kierkegaard was known for his keen intellect, and I find his wit and pithy style very refreshing among philosophical writings. He gave a thorough, insightful analysis of Abraham, describing the doubt, the fear, the distress and the agony he must have gone through, and demonstrating how his faith is similar and yet different from all the other historical, mythical and fictional figures we're familiar with, such as Agamemnon, Socrates, Richard III and Faust.
Halfway through the book, however, it dawned on me that Kierkegaard was not only writing a philosophical or psychological treatise, but a love letter not addressed to the beloved. He could relate to Abraham and understand him in part, because he shared the same passion. He too dedicated himself to the love of God and gave up the love of his life, his fiance Regine. In describing the agonies of Abraham, he was also relating his own struggles with faith and sacrificed love.
Anyone with a spark of passion in his soul would see his own reflection in this book.