Oxymoronically, silence speaks volumes for Soren Kierkegaard. His literary corpus demonstrates that, in matters relating to humanity’s relationship with a seemingly unknowable God, the language and modes of thinking of this world are insufficient for understanding our Creator. God’s incomprehensibility subdues humanity into a forced silence, leading it towards a faith that is a paradox.
Writing under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, aptly translated to “John of Silence,” Kierkegaard identifies silence as a central theme in his 1843 work, Fear and Trembling. It is as much an existential examination of the human condition as it is a meditation on Abraham’s individual actions in Genesis 22. Further, he examines three character typologies — the slave of the finite, the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith — each corresponding, respectively, to the aesthetic, ethical and religious modes of being. The question — can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical? — is the focal point of the book, to which he offers an affirmative answer and sets the reader up for a serious reckoning of a deeply examined, paradoxical faith throughout.
For to be faithful, according to Kierkegaard, is to be silent — divorced from the linguistic trappings of a sinful world, to be relationally and cognitively isolated from others. The knight of faith, he describes, “is always absolute isolation; the spurious knight is sectarian. This is an attempt to jump off the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a bargain price” (my italics). This isolation/sectarian juxtaposition begs for a serious examination of what constitutes real Christian faith as opposed to the “cheap” grace he viewed as problematic within his own Danish church.
Thus, the aim of this paper is twofold: (1) to contrast the sectarian and isolated knight typologies through a rigorous analysis of Agamemnon’s and Abraham’s actions, and (2) to position the isolated, particularized and finite-inhabiting knight of faith in relation to the Unknowable God as expounded in another one of Kierkegaard’s works, Philosophical Fragments. Ultimately, Kierkegaard’s anti-Hegelian posture and his embrace of faith “by virtue of the absurd” demonstrate how the insufficiency of human language and cognitive processes for understanding and arriving at truth make the knight of faith truly, existentially lonely. Standing on one’s own in relation to the absolute God, faith becomes silence, although silence does not always become faith. That is, perhaps fittingly so, just as paradoxical as the faith that Abraham extolled yet is just as emblematic of Kierkegaard’s conceptualization of the faithful follower of Christ and the unknowability of God throughout his other works.
To Be or Not to Be Silent: Agamemnon and Abraham
Cultural folklore is replete with heroes — both real and fictional — who selflessly undergo trials and suffering for a greater, noble cause. Each is immortalized as a tragic hero who, according to Kierkegaard, “expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it.” Agamemnon is introduced as the quintessential ethical knight; alas, the knight of infinite resignation that sacrifices all that he holds dear for the common good, the universal. He loves his daughter, Iphigenia, with the intense love that a father feels for his offspring. But Agamemnon’s paternal love, his desire to protect and spare his daughter at all costs, is not enough to dissuade him from sacrificing her for the triumph of his people during wartime; his love for the universal (peace, prosperity and his people) trumps that of the particular (his individual relationship to his daughter), which compels him to reconsider to whom his ethical duty lies.
Thus, he begrudgingly gives up his daughter to save his kingdom in the movement of infinite resignation “which did to be sure deny him the fulfillment of his love, yet reconciled him again by the eternal consciousness of its validity in the form of eternity, which no reality can take from him.” His sacrifice merited a reward; his courageousness elicited accolades if not sympathy from others. Therefore, the knight of infinite resignation is not alone even after losing what he loved most. No, he is surrounded and motivated by people, for his very sacrificial act is a byproduct of the numerous ethical obligations inherent in social communities and entangled human relationships. Without the company of others, the universal not only ceases to be a relational construct, but ceases to exist at all. “The universal may in a certain sense help the tragic hero attain this [consciousness],” writes Kierkegaard, pointing out the victory of Agamemnon’s sacrifice, “but the knight of faith is left all to himself. The hero does the deed and finds repose in the universal, the knight of faith is kept in constant tension.”
Abraham does not have the luxury of emotional repose nor the heart-warming validation from others that what he did was for the best. In the prelude, Kierkegaard explores four alternative scenarios for how Abraham could have responded to God’s command for him to sacrifice Isaac. He could have spared the life of his beloved son, could have sacrificed him hesitatingly and bitterly, could have tested God.
All these scenarios, while not ideal, are understandable if not somewhat justifiable to the human observer. They make sense and can be rationalized. But Abraham chose the unexplainable route, one by which his actions are unjustifiable from an ethical viewpoint, tantamount to murder. He loved Isaac just as much as Agamemnon loved Iphigenia (perhaps even more so) yet his actions could not elicit anyone’s sympathy. He remains silent throughout his journey up Mount Moriah, knowing very well that his faith could never be understood by anyone other than God just as he could never understand why God would ask him to do such a thing. That is the essence of the knight of faith’s isolation, Kierkegaard continues:
He knows also that higher than this [the universal] there winds a solitary path, narrow and steep; he knows that it is terrible to be born outside the universal, to walk without meeting a single traveller. He knows very well where he is and how he is related to men. Humanly speaking, he is crazy and cannot make himself intelligible to anyone.
His relationship with God is a private one, his actions forevermore misunderstood by outsiders. While Agamemnon, who inhabits an ethical realm that “requires revelation,” tells Iphigenia what is about to occur (and she accepts her fate without their relationship being affected), Abraham remains in silence, in perpetual “concealment” that is not of his own choosing. He believes by virtue of the absurd that he will get Isaac back in this lifetime, not in an abstract out-of-this-world sense. This is real “courageous” faith, Kierkegaard states: making the movement of infinite resignation followed by the leap of faith that is, simply put, absurd. Faith is thus the historical point of departure away from the ethical and into the religious, the key differentiator between the knight of infinite resignation who possesses no faith that he will be recompensed for this sacrifice in the present, but in the eternal, and the knight of faith who believes against all odds that he will see his son again. He does not know how, when, or why it will happen, making his sacrificial actions all the more unfathomable and incommunicable to others; he just knows that it will.
But what if Abraham had spoken and told either Isaac or Sarah of his intentions? It would have made no difference; they would have still been offended, and “though he himself understood all the tongues of the world, though his loved ones also understood them, he nevertheless cannot speak…for he cannot utter the word which explains all (that is, not so that it is intelligible).” Unlike the slave of the finite, that aesthetic hero who chooses silence or revelation depending on the context, Abraham is forced into it by nature of his faith; it is not a choice or “free act,” but a condition. It is “not an aesthetic emotion but something far higher.” Vocal or silent, he is beyond human comprehension, rendering any sort of revelation ineffective. Silence is thereby not a matter of muttering words or communicating gestures to others. It is, at the most fundamental level, about faith — a true follower of Christ, such as Abraham was, one cannot understand and that is what makes faith the ultimate paradox. “For me the love of God is… incommensurable with the whole of reality… for he who loves God without faith reflects upon himself, he who loves God believingly reflects upon God.” Abraham received a message from God and did not consult with his wife or his son. With his sight set on God, he simply, unwaveringly obeyed.
The Ultimate Paradox: Faith as Silence
This work does not stand alone in its exaltation of faithful silence. In Philosophical Fragments (1844), Kierkegaard fully explains the paradox, that which Abraham found himself in, as “the paradoxical passion of the understanding” that is “continually colliding with this unknown.” Faith is that passion that goes beyond knowledge (while not always rejecting it), a tension between the aesthetic/ethical and the religious. Undergirding this premise is Kierkegaard’s understanding of God and what he views as the limits between man and the divine — mainly, that sinful man could never fully know God, whose human son Jesus Christ was sinless, therefore he is the greatest unknown.
Like in Fear and Trembling, here Kierkegaard pushes against Hegel’s systematic approach to faith; that it can be reasoned through, rationalized and fully understood. All false! Kierkegaard seems to say in the most non-normative way possible, for “faith cannot be distilled from even the finest detail.” Further, he questions this engrained Hegelianism that positions the ethical as the highest order of being:
How should the Reason be able to understand what is absolutely different from itself? If this is not immediately evident, it will become clearer in the light of the consequences; for if the God is absolutely unlike man, then man is absolutely unlike the God; but how could the Reason be expected to understand this?
The knight of infinite resignation can use speech to appeal to the universal, but the knight of faith only knows silence and cannot articulate God nor his actions in relation to God beyond an individual level — not Abraham, not Mary, not anyone. Because “faith is itself a wonder, and everything that is true of the paradox is also true of faith,” the knight of faith’s silence can thus be extended to and explained by the paradox that requires one to be comfortable with not knowing, with not being able to understand why Abraham would ever sacrifice Isaac. It invites offense, surely, instead of understanding and “the more deeply the expression of offense is couched in passion (acting or suffering), the more manifest is the extent to which the offense is indebted to the paradox.” To be faithful is to be silent and to be silent by way of being misunderstood invites offense.
The Kierkegaardian conceptualization of loneliness is not tethered to the human understanding of lonely as simple physical isolation. No, a rebellious teenager who complains about being misunderstood by his or her peers — by way of acting and dressing differently or even having different aesthetic tastes — does not meet the criteria for becoming a true knight of faith, for even the loners depicted in the media today have at least one person, one friend that is able to sympathize with, if not at least understand the essence of his or her loneliness. It is not fully existential.
Abraham, however, is physically surrounded by his family and yet is lonely because his faithfulness is, like God in Godself, the greatest paradox, the greatest unknown; incapable of being translated or understood in any human capacity. That is why, and Kierkegaard reflects on this himself, a close examination of Genesis 22 should invite offense to non-believers who do not understand how faith can transform an unethical act like murder into a sanctioned act of heroism, an example for how the truly faithful live out their lives. The knight of faith, unlike the heroes of the ethical and aesthetical, is existentially lonely, forever in communion with God in a private world that is not open to outsiders.
This essay has been readapted from an original essay written by the author for a Princeton University course.
Buber, Martin. “On the Suspension of the Ethical,” Eclipse of God: Studies in the Relation Between Religion and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death, trans. by Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.
Philosophical Fragments/ Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard’s Writings, VII, Vol. 7, trans. and eds. Edna H. Hong and Howard V. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.