The Paradox Of Abraham’s Greatness By: Taylor Rodrigues Since the substance of Abraham’s life is an “enormous paradox” it surely follows

that Abraham’s greatness is a paradox (Kierkegaard p. 39). The goal of this paper is to argue that Abraham is the greatest because his greatness is a paradox. I will begin by explicating Johannes de Silentino’s account of Abraham and King Agamemnon. Then I will discredit some common misconceptions about greatness. Afterwards, I will introduce the paradox of Abraham’s greatness and interpret it to defend my thesis by comparing and contrasting Abraham, a knight of faith, to King Agamemnon, a tragic hero. Lastly, I will defend my interpretation from a potential objection that the docents would likely launch. Abraham’s story begins with a promise from God. Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have a child, and through that child he would become the father of nations (Kierkegaard p. 30). Seventy years passed from the initial promise and Abraham’s wife, “Sarah, became a laughingstock” because it was assumed that she had become infertile with her old age (Kierkegaard p. 31-32). But Abraham’s belief that God would fulfill his promise still did not waver. Eventually Abraham’s faith was rewarded: Abraham and Sarah conceived a son they named Isaac. However, their joy was cut short because God ordered Abraham to “take Isaac, thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon the mountain which I will show thee [sic]” (Kierkegaard p. 32). In spite of this command, Abraham still held faith that God would fulfill his original promise; he did not try to change God’s mind. Instead, he told no one of God’s command and took Isaac to make the three day journey to Mount Moriah. Once they arrived at the top of the Mountain, “[Abraham] cleft the wood, he bound Isaac, he lit the pyre and drew the knife” (Kierkegaard p. 33). But at the last moment an angel stopped Abraham and explained, “now I know that you fear God”

Rodrigues 2 (Gen. 22:12). Abraham recollected himself, saw a ram caught in the thicket, sacrificed it to God instead of Isaac, and then went home with Isaac. Silentino gives accounts of several tragic heroes. Because all our quite similar and for the purpose of brevity, I will focus on King Agamemnon. During the Trojan War, King Agamemnon’s fleet was struck by a plague and could not sail from Aulis because of the lack of wind. The seer Calchas told King Agamemnon that the Goddess Artemis was intentionally inflicting these misfortunes on King Agamemnon because he had offended Artemis. According to Calchas, Artemis wanted King Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to atone for King Agamemnon’s misdeeds. Eventually for the good of the nation and the war effort, King Agamemnon had Iphigenia sacrificed. Artemis was satisfied and King Agamemnon was able to sail out from Aulis and capture Troy. Now that I have summarized the stories of Abraham and King Agamemnon, I will explain what Silentino asserts greatness is not. It is important to understand what greatness is not so we are not distracted or led astray once we begin to investigate Abraham’s greatness. Silentino says, “it is of no use to have Abraham for one’s father, nor to have seventeen ancestors” (Kierkegaard p. 35). I interpret this to mean that no one is inherently great based on their birth. Noble birth or poor pedigree is irrelevant to one’s greatness. The attitude, “it counts enough to think the great—other work is not necessary” is equally foolish (Kierkegaard p. 35). Reminiscing about the heroes of antiquity or imagining yourself performing great feats does not make you great. Neither can you become great by emulating the naïve dancer who tries to coast on others’ past work and start with the French dances (great feats) (Kierkegaard p. 50). Lastly, Silentino is explicit that you cannot buy greatness: “even Judas who sold his master for thirty pieces of silver is not more despicable than the man who sells greatness” (Kierkegaard p. 63).

Rodrigues 3 Greatness should never be on a “regular clearance sale”—it should never be for sale (Kierkegaard p. 26). It cannot be stolen or transferred, and although one can use fraud to appear great, one cannot become great through fraud. Greatness is not something that comes easily and unexpectedly like winning the lottery or inheriting a large estate. By discussing what greatness is not, I have begun to create a fuzzy picture of what greatness is. I will start to defog this picture by comparing and contrasting Abraham to King Agamemnon. In short, the paradox of Abraham’s greatness is: Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of his love which is hatred of oneself (Kierkegaard p. 30). Abraham does not seem prima facie great; he does not even seem prima facie mediocre. By these four criteria King Agamemnon seems to be powerful, wise, hopeful and in love with his nation. He seems to be greater than Abraham. However, we would not do Abraham justice if we just stopped at the surface. Silentino emphasizes throughout “Fear and Trembling” that “only the man that works gets the bread” (Kierkegaard p. 35). In order to understand why Abraham is the greatest we must toil to unravel the paradox that is his greatness. Abraham is not prima facie great because our prima facie analysis is worldly. Our initial reactions (prima facie analysis) cannot help but be worldly because by default we are immersed in the world. We can only begin to understand Abraham’s greatness from the perspective of faith. By faith, Abraham has power by the strength of the absurd, divine wisdom, divine madness and unwavering love for God. He only appears to be impotent, foolish, ordinarily mad and to hate himself when he is viewed from a worldly perspective.

Rodrigues 4 Abraham appeared impotent because “he did not pray for himself with the hope of moving the Lord” or try to escape from God’s command (Kierkegaard p. 3). He submitted to God but his submission was an expression of power, not weakness. In face of the absurd, (every indication that God would not fulfill his promise) Abraham steadfastly believed God and trusted in his seemingly absurd master plan. Abraham had the strength to face God and Isaac directly and without outside help. He did not try to get a holy man to be an intermediary between him and God, and he did not try to make someone else sacrifice Isaac. He had the strength to face God alone and put aside his fear and trembling to fulfill the most frightening task he had ever been assigned. Abraham was so strong he did not ask for anyone’s sympathies nor did he need them. In contrast, King Agamemnon is strong in the finite. He had a difficult decision: either sacrifice his daughter for the war effort, or keep his daughter and let his fleet suffer Artemis’s wrath. It took a lot of strength to make the decision to sacrifice Iphigenia but unlike Abraham, he received outside help to ease his burden. King Agamemnon did not have to directly face his ethical dilemma. He was able to delegate the task of sacrificing his daughter, receive the sympathies of his people and communicate with Artemis though a mediator (Calchas). King Agamemnon was able to mediate his decision by letting “one expression of the ethical [duty to daughter] find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical [duty to nation]” (Kierkegaard p.60). Because he had the luxury of comparing his conflicting ethical duties he was able to recognize the latter superseded the former. Consequently, the greatness of King Agamemnon’s actions is diminished because he received external help. Abraham looked like a fool compared to King Agamemnon. To those without faith (or with weak faith), it looked like “the Lord was only making sport of Abraham. He made

Rodrigues 5 miraculously the preposterous [having a child at Abraham and Sarah’s age] actual and now in turn he would annihilate it [kill Isaac]” (Kierkegaard p. 32). The slaves of paltriness would have ridiculed Abraham for letting God make him into a sucker. They would have croaked, “Why risk holding out? Forget Sarah and beget an heir while you’re still fertile. How can you expect anyone to fulfill a promise after decades?” Abraham seems like a fool to the faithless because he was not a “cost-benefit calculator.” But he was better off than a human calculator because his faith gave him divine wisdom. By faith, Abraham knew that God delivers and through him all things are possible—even the absurd. Abraham would have appeared to be even more of a fool if Isaac really was sacrificed because the faithless do not understand that “God could [have] give[n] him a new Isaac” (Kierkegaard p. 42). Abraham was divinely wise, not foolish, for believing and following God. In contrary to Abraham, King Agamemnon appeared to make a wise decision. He weighed the costs and benefits of sacrificing and not sacrificing his daughter. Then, he wisely decided to “give up the certain [his daughter] for the still more certain [Artemis’s fulfillment of the agreement]” (Kierkegaard p. 61). King Agamemnon was reasonably certain Artemis would honour their verbal contract. King Agamemnon’s “sure bet” makes Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac look like a reckless gamble for “he who denies himself and sacrifices himself for duty gives up the finite [the certain] in order to grasp the infinite [the uncertain]” (Kierkegaard p. 61). The slaves of paltriness would be appalled that he appeared to give up Isaac, something he had for certain in the finite, for the hope of receiving Isaac and fathering nations. They do not understand that through divine wisdom, Abraham knew he would receive Isaac and his legacy before he gave up Isaac.

Rodrigues 6 I concede that Abraham was mad. “[He] believed and did not doubt, he believed the preposterous” (Kierkegaard p. 33). When the last moments were upon him and the knife glittered in his hand “he did not look anxiously to the right or to left” to find something to save him from his plight like any sane person would (Kierkegaard p. 34). Yet, Abraham’s madness is a virtue, not a vice. Abraham was influenced by divine madness, not the ordinary madness that afflicts the mentally ill. Ordinary madness is dangerous, irrational and unfruitful. Divine madness does not harm the recipient but it likely puts them near danger; it is not rational but “begins precisely there where thinking leaves off;” and inspires the recipient to greatness (Kierkegaard p. 55). Socrates says, “I might tell you of many other noble deeds which have sprung from inspired madness. And therefore, let no one frighten or flutter us by saying that the temperate friend is to be chosen rather than the inspired [because] the sane man disappears and is nowhere [to be found] when he enters into rivalry with the madman” (Plato p. 39). Let us remember that Abraham is a knight of faith and King Agamemnon is a tragic hero and a knight of infinite resignation. Abraham must have been divinely mad to have infinitely resigned Isaac and expected him back by virtue of the absurd. On the other hand, King Agamemnon resigned Iphigenia and had good hope that Artemis would stop interfering with his affairs. The good hope Agamemnon showed in Artemis is respectable and can be understood. Yet, Abraham is greater than King Agamemnon because it is more impressive to believe in a God that is showing you bad faith than to believe in one that shows you good faith. Similarly, it is more impressive to do something that makes you look ordinarily mad (trying to sacrifice Isaac) then doing something that does not make you look ordinarily mad (having Iphigenia sacrificed). The last aspect of Abraham’s paradox is his love which is hatred of himself. He appears to hate himself for trying to kill Isaac: the concentration of all his finite desires. Abraham loved

Rodrigues 7 Isaac more than anyone could love anything. He was his only child, his legacy. “The whole content of his life [consisted] in this love, and yet the situation is such that it is impossible for it to be realized, impossible for it to be translated from ideality to reality” (Kierkegaard p. 46). It would have been terrible if God had just snatched Isaac away from Abraham but it is even worse that he commanded Abraham to physically kill him. To a third party Abraham looked like he hated himself because he was going to inflict on himself the most terrible wound anyone could inflict upon him. But Abraham only looked like he hated himself because he loved God. Duty to God is greater than all—even parental duty to sons and daughters (Kierkegaard p. 66). Abraham loved God so much he followed his commands perfectly without resistance, hesitation or complaint. He was not early, he was not late. He fulfilled his duty precisely, thus proving his love of God. King Agamemnon also had a lot of love. He loved his nation and he loved his daughter. His love of his nation rightfully superseded his love of his daughter. However, he is not as great as Abraham because acting on the love of God is greater and more impressive than acting on the love of nation. Observers understand individuals acting based on the love of their nation. It is not nearly as easy to justify to outsiders that one is acting based on the love of God. It was not clear to outsiders whether Abraham was motivated by a love of God or sadomasochism. For without Abraham’s love of God, the sacrifice of Isaac would only be a murder. To summarize, from a worldly perspective Abraham appeared to be impotent, foolish, mad and to hate himself. In truth, he appeared impotent because his strength came from the absurd; he appeared foolish because he had divine wisdom; he appeared to be a common madman because he was blessed with divine madness; and he appeared to hate himself because he had unwavering love for God. Abraham is the greatest because he is somehow able to contain a

Rodrigues 8 synthesis of the worldly concepts and the spiritual concepts, and a synthesis of two opposing concepts is always greater than either set of concepts. King Agamemnon and the other tragic heroes were forced to overcome ethical dilemmas similar to Abraham’s. Nevertheless, their ethical dilemmas and their choices are sufficiently different insofar that they are still magnitudes of greatness away from Abraham. Despite my arguments, the docents would likely disagree with my analysis because “their life work is to judge the great, and to judge them according to the result” (Kierkegaard p. 62-63). They would object, “King Agamemnon is greater than Abraham because he produced a much greater result: he saved his nation and the war effort. While, at the beginning of Abraham’s trial he had Isaac, and at the end Abraham had Isaac.” I disagree that greatness should be judged by the result. The result is detached physically and temporally from the action. It is plausible that one may do a great deed or make a great discovery and never fully comprehend the result. Hence, greatness is what you do, not what you produce. What Abraham did was incredible regardless if the result had been different. Abraham’s faith was able to make a senseless brutal murder into a holy sacrifice, because faith is greatest and the hardest thing (Kierkegaard p. 54). The story of Abraham teaches us that “the whole of life is a trial” (Kierkegaard p. 54). Since we are constantly being tested, we must continually reaffirm our faith and strife. Because ultimately no worldly results matter, we should focus on acting greatly and virtuously and not bother trying to achieving great and virtuous results. Life is about striving and the highest form of striving, is striving with God.

Rodrigues 9 Works Cited Plato. Phaedrus, Apology, Crito and Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Stilwell, KS:, 2005. Print. Kierkegaard, Soren. Existentialism: Basic Writings. Ed. Charles B. Guignon and Derk Pereboom. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. N. pag. Print. The Holy Bible: New International Version. Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society, 1984. Print.

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