For my birthday, my wife gifted me Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard. The
book is an incredibly beautiful and poetic discourse on faith. While there is
a lot to discus from the book, I’d like to share one small insight.
First however, Kierkegaard makes use of the stories of Agamemnon and Abraham to illustrate the
differences between the “Tragic Hero” and the “Knight of Faith”, and I feel that I should
provide some background.
Agamemnon: Tragic Hero
When the Greeks were attempting to sail to Troy, they were not able to make the
journey, as they were vexed by the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon had incurred her
wrath and in order to appease her, the goddess required a sacrifice. The
sacrifice was that of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia.
Agamemnon, after much sorrow, relented and sacrificed Iphigenia. His armies were
able to pass over the seas in safety and continue the Trojan war.
Abraham: Knight of Faith
Abraham, along with Sarah, had been promised a son. In their old age God had blessed them
with Isaac. However, after many years, God came to Abraham, and commanded him to sacrifice
his son, the son of the promise.
Abraham obeyed. He climbed Mount Moriah, prepared the sacrifice. At the last
moment an Angel intervened. A ram was given in place, and though he had been
willing to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was able to keep him.
What makes them different
Kierkegaard talks about these two instances at length in Fear and Trembling.
What makes Abraham a paragon of faith, from which three major religions have been born,
whilst Agamemnon is reserved as a cautionary, and tragic tale? What, if anything makes them different?
Kierkegaard thinks that there is something different, and that it was Faith. He
argues that Agamemnon became the Tragic Hero, by becoming subsumed into the
“universal”. He had wronged the goddess. The many soldiers and sailors depended
on him to right the wrong in order to gain safe passage for their campaign.
Even though we disagree with the sacrifice, in an odd way, we can relate to
Agamemnon. He is tragically forced into making the choice to sacrifice his
daughter for the good of many, and to right the wrong he had done to the goddess. His
situation is relatable, to us all, and we can understand him.
Abraham on the other hand, gets no such benefit. He is ordered to sacrifice Isaac,
not to right a wrong, nor to benefit the nation. He is simply commanded to do it.
Abraham does not have the comfort of consoling himself with rationalizations.
From ethics, he gets no succor, as what he is going to do is the opposite of
what he should do as a father. Those around him cannot understand him, he is
absolutely alone. Even today we struggle to understand him, except that we know how
the story ends, a benefit not available to Abraham. However Abraham proceeded,
with faith, knowing that somehow he would be able to keep Isaac.
Whereas Agamemnon became subsumed into the universal ethic, Abraham, as an
individual rose above the universal and placed himself in “absolute relation to
the absolute” (emphasis original). Kierkegaard argues that herein lies the difference.
With Whom are we Relating?
Now, thank you for bearing with me thus far. I think enough has been set up to get to the
small point I want to make. I think Kierkegaard is right. In John 17:3, it is recorded
that the Lord said: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”
Now this could be a description of what it is to have eternal life, but I think of
it more as a commandment. We are commanded to know God. To cultivate a relationship with
The thing we ought to be wary of is interposing something between us and God. We should
seek to have a direct and individual relationship with God. How often do we replace our
relationship with God with merely our relationship with following a set of rules we
can understand. “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Abraham
showed that we can be obedient to the commandments of God, while still cultivating a
real and direct relationship with the Almighty, and in doing so he showed how miraculous
faith could be. To not do so is to tragically miss out on many blessings we could have had
by coming unto Him.